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The Big Kuna -- Ski Mountaineering in Yosemite Nat'l Park, May 2002

Memorial Day 2002.  For what was then going to be my last ski trip of the season, I joined some new friends for a trip to the Yosemite high country.  Beginning at Tioga Pass, we eschewed the crowded roadside attractions and instead headed south along the Kuna Crest, establishing a base camp beneath its many chutes and bowls.  With full moon nights, clear Sierra days and good company, the Big Kuna was one of the best trips of the season.


A Meeting of TTipsters:

This was yet another trip cobbled together from the discussion boards of telemarktips.com.  I had been trading Tahoe and Eastside trip reports with Fred Hochstaedter ("Sierra Fred") for much of the season, and we both thought that it was about time we hooked up for some skiing.  Fred sent me a map of the Kuna Crest area south of Tioga Pass and asked if I wanted to tag along.  "Um, let me think about that for a nanosecond -- I'm in!"

Fred skied in early Friday afternoon with Sam ("Stony Wall") and set up a perfect base camp near Spillway Lake, on the sunny side of the Kuna Crest.  I had to work Friday, but was able to cut out early.  Using all of my Yosemite shortcuts, I made record time up to the Mono Pass trailhead.   Taking advantage of the long spring days, I hit the trail at around 6pm.

The trip got off to a dubious start when I fell into the Tuolumne River.  Fortunately, this was the Dana Fork of the Tuolumne, so it was small enough to merely drench me, not kill me.  Across the river, I skied/hiked up the broad valley of Parker Pass Creek, ogling the snow-filled chutes and bowls all around me.  A beautiful crimson sunset to the west was exceeded in magnificence by the spectacular (nearly) full moon rising in the east.  I skied into camp shortly after 8:30pm, just as Fred and Sam were starting dinner.  Perfect.

The next morning, we headed south to explore the bowl above Helen Lake.  Under cloudless skies, we skinned, then booted, up to the saddle above Helen Lake.  A jaw-dropping view across Lyell Canyon to the Cathedral Range greeted us upon our arrival atop the Kuna Crest.  Not content with just any view, we scrambled over talus and snow to the SW point of the Kuna Crest, where we had an airplane view of the Mammoth area, Ritter & Banner, Lyell & Maclure, and the rest of southwest Yosemite.

Hiking back over to the top of the bowl, we dropped in for a nice run to the lake.  Chunky snow at the top of the bowl very quickly gave way to buttery corn the rest of the way down.  Pausing briefly to admire our tracks, we traversed above the lake to our next objective -- the beautiful 1,700' north-facing chute rising directly above Helen Lake.  After a long bootpack up the chute, we reached the crest of the ridge leading NW from Kuna Peak.

Although he broke trail for me the entire way up the chute (thanks), Sam politely offered me first tracks.  I dropped in.  The top of the chute was pretty steep (a little over 40 degrees), and loaded with some heavy stuff still in the consolidating phase.  After about ten jump turns, I hit the corn.  Yum.  Sam and Fred followed, and we hooted and hollered all the way down to Helen Lake.  From there, we still had another 500 feet of vertical down to our campsite at Spillway Lake.  Sam and I had been eyeing the aesthetic chute directly above the lake, but were too tired to hike up to its entrance.  We made a pact to ski it tomorrow.

Back at camp, we were joined by Greg, Fred's buddy from the Monterey area who skied in that afternoon.  We ate dinner and traded stories over sips of my new favorite whiskey -- Gentleman Jack.  The full moon rose over Parker Pass, obviating the need for headlamps.  With a great day behind us, sleep came easy.

We woke to another perfect Sierra day (ho hum...) and lounged in the warm sun debating our ski options for the day.  After paying our respects to the Big Kuna, we agreed on a plan to ski directly west and above our camp to the peaks above Bingaman Lake.  During our climb of the Helen Lake chute the previous day, I had spied a steep but skiable couloir dropping off the peak above Bingaman Lake.  Skinning up into the cirque below the peak, the couloir looked absolutely vertical. 

Rich:  "Wow, that looks really f@#king steep!"

Sam:  "Yeah, I guess we really have no choice but to ski it"

Thus did Sam and I decide to climb up to the top of the peak (Point 12,170' on the topo) and drop the couloir.  Fred and Greg opted instead for the perfect corn run dropping down from the neighboring Point 12,090'.  They also set up to shoot some video of Sam and I in the couloir. 

From the top, the views were simply spectacular.  All of Yosemite, it seemed, lay beneath us.  One could also pick out peaks from the Silver Divide south of Mammoth, all the way north to Tower Peak and Sonora Pass.  Approaching the top of the couloir, we carefully peeked over the edge.  "HOLY SH*T IS THAT STEEP!"  We measured 41 degrees at the "mellow" entrance to the couloir, before it bulged and really got serious.  I dropped in first, doing a ski cut across the top to release the top 3-4 inches of heavier slushy corn.  It worked perfectly.  The mountain began to hiss with a wet oozing sound as the surface layer slowly slid down the couloir.  After we felt it was safe, I dropped in.  The pucker factor was definitely high for the first few turns.  I sideslipped between a narrow gap in the rocks and then let it rip.  Blissful turns on a solid layer of perfect Sierra corn put a mega-smile on my face.

Sam followed suit, ripping up the couloir and making perfect tele turns all the way down almost to Bingaman Lake.  We traversed back over towards Fred and Greg, and then together skied the beautiful, gentle slopes back down to camp.

A quick lunch was followed by another skin back up to Helen Lake.  This time, our objective was the absolutely perfect looking chutes that drop from the ridge above Helen Lake right down to our camp at Spillway Lake.   From Helen Lake, we bushwacked up the bare ridgeline to the top of the chutes.  Fred and Greg started the festivities by dropping the east chute.  "IT'S PURRRRRFECT," was Greg's shout just as we lost sight of him down the chute.  Fred followed, making nice turns all the way down to the lake.  Sam and I climbed a little bit higher to access the west chute.  Sam led the way while I captured his turns on video.  Nice turns down to Fred and Greg, who had set up a perch on a bare spot just above Spillway Lake. 

I lingered at the top of the chute for awhile, knowing that this would be my last run of the season, and wanting the moment to last.  Finally, I dropped in.  "OH MY GOD!", the snow was perfect and the turns effortless.  I made short radius turns, then big carver turns, then mixed it up a bit.  My legs were on autopilot, detached from the rest of my body as my skis chewed up the vertical down towards my waiting friends.  Skiing over to them, I could not wipe the shit-eating grin off my face -- it was that good.

On the edge of Spillway Lake, Sam and I said our goodbyes to Fred and Greg.  We headed back to camp to pack up and ski out to the Tioga Road.  Fred and Greg skinned back up the ridge to do it all over again.  Despite a few more epic creek crossings, Sam and I made it back to the cars in one piece by about 6pm. 

"The Big Kuna" -- an incredible trip all around.  Thanks to Fred, Sam and Greg for sharing the good times.

Click on the link below to see the photos, videos and other factoids from the trip.  The videos are on the last page.

Click to see the photos & videos


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