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Tioga & Sonora Pilgrimage, May 2002

On Mothers Day weekend of 2002, I jumped in my car and headed for one of my favorite places on this planet -- Tioga Pass.  I skied up to the Conness Lakes and climbed North Peak.  The slopes of the peak and the bowls below the Conness glacier offered superb skiing.  On the way home, I hit the roadside attractions at Sonora Pass.


Tioga Pass:

I left work Friday afternoon and battled the traffic out to LiveNoMore and the Altamont Pass.  From there it was relatively smooth sailing through the central valley, where I was greeted by a nice roadside CalTrans sign proclaiming: "SONORA PASS OPEN".  Picked up a pizza in Sonora (leftover slices make for a good lunch on the trail) and drove over the pass in the dark.  Snow squalls turned to an actual dump as I neared the top of the pass.  Driving slowly, and dodging deer, rabbits and other various mountain varmints pleased at the advent of spring, I made it down to Lee Vining in one piece.  I drove up Highway 120, back into the clouds and snow, and pulled over at the Yosemite park entrance.  Curling up in the back of my car, I drifted into sleep.

The next morning at 5:30am, the temperature was a balmy 21 degrees and it was still snowing lightly.  I drove down to the Saddlebag Lake road, ate a bagel and packed my gear.  At around 6:30, I set off.  Originally, I had planned a loop trip up to the Conness Lakes, then up North Peak and down the other side of the crest into Yosemite.  I would return by skiing over the crest between Mount Conness and White Mountain, and back down Lee Vining Creek to the car.  Almost immediately, however, I could tell this wasn't going to happen.  Coming off of a week and a half of inactivity due to a nasty cold/flu bug, I was wheezing already on the relatively gentle grade up to Saddlebag Lake.  So I start thinking about simply setting up camp at one of the Conness Lakes and climbing North Peak and Conness from there. 

After a bushwack across Lee Vining creek, I made it up to the dam across Saddlebag Lake.  The snow had abated by now.  The views back to Mt. Dana were incredible, as the storm clouds were breaking up into blue sky.  The lake was frozen solid, so I skated out to the middle of the lake and then headed up towards the cirque between Conness and North Peak.  I made it to the upper Conness Lake, where I dropped my overnight gear and headed up the south slopes of North Peak with a lighter load.  The route steepened considerably (to about 35-40 degrees), making skinning futile.  I donned my crampons and kicked steps straight up the face.   I still wasn't feeling great, and my breathing was labored.  I resorted to talking to myself to encourage further progress -- "100 more steps before resting" quickly turned to, "c'mon, just 25 steps before you can rest."

I finally did make it to the summit of North Peak and was rewarded with a 360 degree panorama of Northern Yosemite.  The views from the top of North Peak are tough to beat -- from Banner and Ritter in the south, all the way up north to Sonora Pass and beyond.  I snapped a few photos, peered down the summit couloir, and made my way back down.  I was planning on skiing the SE face direct, but my pace up the mountain was so slow that I felt it was too late for safe avy conditions.  Also, I was still hoping to get over to Conness, and the SE face would put me too low and require a lot of climbing to get back up into the cirque.

I skied further west and dropped down the more gentle but still quite steep south slopes to the upper Conness Lake.  The corn was superb!  At this point (around 2:30pm), I knew that Conness wasn't going to happen.  As if to underscore this fact, a decent-sized point release avy came off of the rocks on the SE face of North Peak, sending a bunch of snow down in an oozing mess.   Hmmmmm, good thing I didn't ski over there near those nice warm rocks.

Looking for more adventure, but hoping to avoid the sunbaked south faces, I skinned back up and headed for the toe of the shaded Conness Glacier.  At the bottom of the Y-couloir, I skiied the nice north-facing bowl back to my camp.  Again, perfect corn.

Back at camp, feeling dehydrated and hungry, I fired up the stove and made some soup and melted some snow.  It was now about 4pm and I had a decision to make -- stay here and freeze my ass off, or pack up and head out.  Knowing that I had to be back in the Bay Area for Mothers' Day dinner the next day, and not relishing the thought of a night in the cold while still feeling crappy, I chose the latter option. 

After a nice dinner at the Tioga Gas Mart (trust me, none other than the New York Times called this a "shockingly gourmet oasis"), I drove up to the base of Sonora Pass and passed out in the back of the car.  The next morning, I woke early and skied some of the roadside attractions from the top of the pass, including the central couloir of the "mini-Round Top" peak just above the pass.

Here's a map of my route up North Peak from Tioga Pass.

Click on the link below to see the photos.

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