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Backcountry ski and snowboard gear, camping

May 23-27, 2002

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Hereís my version of the Kuna Crest trip.  Rich has given his elsewhere; I just thought different perspectives on the same trip might be interesting. Mine is perhaps a bit more personal, written as much to preserve my own memories as to tell you what itís like out there.  Please note that some of the place names are different in my version. Also, none of us has any delusions of skiing these chutes for the first time; the names are just an informal way of describing where we were and what we did.

The first thing I want you to know is that this trip has enabled me to enter a state of extreme serenity and bliss. I have come to understand that this state is unexplainable through words or pictures. It is a place I can only go through gliding, dancing, and bending my knee through some sweet buttered corn in the High Sierra. Hey, itís better than smoking cigarettes.  

The Kuna Crest: Where the Corn is Sweet and the Turning is Easy

Thursday evening, May 23rd. Driving east across the Central Valley, the sun low in the sky behind, the enormity of the California sky opens up around me. It brings a feeling of freedom as I start to envision a long weekend of skiing the Kuna Crest in the High Sierra. I am to meet Sam and Rich, new friends from telemarktips.com, and hook up with Greg, another buddy I skied with for the first time last weekend. I look forward to celebrating my 47th, 48th, 49th, and 50th  ski days of the season, numbers I will not likely exceed in the near future. I hope for a fitting celebration of this incredible season.

Driving up through the foothills of oak savanna: oldies station on the radio, the low sun turning the dry grass into waving fields of orange, tombstones of metamorphic rock marking the rise of the Sierra. The warmth of day settles into the coolness of evening. Rolling Stones and Motown blast as a nearly full moon rises in front of me. Feeling free I drive fast through empty roads winding through oaks. Yes, it was going to be a good weekend. Up into the chaparral, the small towns that surround Yosemite start to appear. Their neon signs beckoning tourists interrupt the cool night sky. Into Yosemite, the pines appear. I stop at Wawona for the night to camp and visit with my cousin from NYC, who is on vacation RVing through California. They own a small ski shop in Forest Hills. ďSo, are you going to spend a few days with us?Ē she asks.

ďNo, Iím meeting some buddies tomorrow to go skiing,Ē I reply. This 50 day season has taken some sacrifices some members of my family may not understand.

Friday, May 24th. Up the next day for a leisurely morning in the sunshine we take pictures of the two cousins for our 101-year-old grandmother. Then Iím off for Tioga Pass, which opens today at noon from the west. I meet Sam at Tioga Pass. Tall, easy-going, confident, and competent are my first impressions. We get our stuff together at the trailhead and head off about 2:15, walking upstream to find a snow bridge over the Dana Fork of the Tuolumne River. We talk for a while about skiing as we hike up the trail. I come to understand one thing: Sam is a better skier than me. Arriving at our lovely campsite, Sam schools me further on proper Megamid site preparation.

The couscous is nearly ready as dusk announces the arrival of a nearly full moon. Weíre about to eat when what do we hear but a shout from somebody nearing camp. Itís Rich, the famous Steeleman of t-tips trip reports and panoramas! I feel like Iíve known him for a long time. I canít tell you how cool it is to be hanging out in the wilderness and have a buddy walk up to your camp. One more bag of couscous into the pot and soon weíre sharing a warm meal. Turns out Rich left the Bay Area at about 1:30, only 45 minutes before Sam and I started our hike. And here he is, sharing dinner with us. Rug-ged Steeleman, Rug-ged! (thanks Kara).

Saturday, May 25th. The sun hits our tent by six am. Weíre up and skinning up to the lip to Helen Lake not much later. We climb over Helenís Lip and see Helenís Bowl for the first time. After some discussion of where to go, we head to the northeast facing Helenís Pass. After some steep booting we top out to gorgeous views from the Cathedral Range to Ritter and Banner, with Lyell and its glaciers crowning the center of the view. We climb a nearby ridge to enjoy the view and eat some lunch. Sitting on a high cliff with some of the most famous Yosemite peaks spread out before us. We are enchanted and enthralled.

Back to the pass, we begin our descent. Sam rips it up on a steep section, making a mess with lots of snowballs rolling from his turns on the steep slope. Yes, my prediction is confirmed: Sam is a better skier than I. So I traverse out to a gentler section and start turning down the slope. The snow is a bit heavy, but forgiving. I can do it. Corn prevails lower down as we make quick turns in the sunshine. We regroup down near the lake.




What to do now? Itís afternoon so we head over to the northwest facing side of the bowl. Up we stomp a long aesthetic line of snow that reaches all the way to the ridge just to the east of some serrated teeth along the ridge. So I call it Helenís Tongue. We skin and boot all the way to the top. I sometimes climb the rocks and talus, Sam and Rich booting through the snow. We reach the top. It is steep at the top. We eat lunch #2 gazing at the sharp ridge leading to Kuna Peak. Sadly, itís too late to bag the peak.

Because Helenís Tongue is so steep at the top, I request that I can go 2nd so Iíll have one person above me and one person below me as I ski the chute. I decide that Iíll sideslip the first steep part. I get out on the steep part. The snow is heavy. It is steep. I sideslip and traverse some more, shopping for a turn. Suddenly Iím on some icy hard snow. I start to slip. Iím gripped. My hands clutch my poles, forcing them into the snow as my edges slip. My edges grab. I keep my cool. I inch back towards the softer snow. Once there I have to make a turn. I visualize the perfect jump turn. Sam is getting cold above me. I hop. I hope. I land it. I immediately traverse over to the central band of rocks and take my skis off, strap them to my pack and climb down 40 feet on the rocks to a mellower slope. My skis back on I negotiate some defensive turns down to the waiting guys. Well, that was out of my comfort zone.


As we ski on down Helenís Tongue, the snow gets better and better as we start caressing it with easy turns that flow with the moment. Yahoo! It is pure pleasure at this point. So beware of Helenís Tongue; although it can be soft and velvety down low, it can be fiery at the tip. For me, the run was a success because on this steep slope I was able to keep my cool, get my skis off, climb down, get them back on, and ski down, all without completely losing my cool in a sketchy situation. Sam and Rich, of course, skied the whole thing perfectly.

Back in camp weíre preparing dinner and hear another whoop and holler. This time it is my buddy Greg from the Monterey area. Another buddy walking up in the wilderness. Nice!

Saturday, May 26th. Starting the morning with Richís PopTarts, weíre ready to go again. This time weíre skinning up to the east-facing slopes above the Kuna Bench. Where to ski? So many choices. We ski to a high point on the bench where we have a good view of all the choices. We are overwhelmed with the moment. The mountains. The sky. The beauty. The open slopes waiting to be skied. The blank canvases waiting to be painted. On bended knee we raise our poles to the deities of the Church of the Open Slopes (hereís to you Allan Bard) and howl our appreciation.

Once again we climb up to the Kuna Crest and enjoy the spectacular views. The boys pick out the steepest, gnarliest chute around. After Helenís tongue-lashing the day before, I opt to ski the Open Slopes of Kuna with Greg. Sam and Rich climb farther up along the ridge to plunge into the Big Kuna, while Greg and I hike the ridge to enjoy the views. We agree to meet at the bottom where I will film them skiing the Big Kuna. As Greg and I drop in, nice corn greets us as we drop down and paint the Open Slopes of Kuna with some even tracks.


Back to Sam and Rich, after cutting the slope to clear soft wet snow, they both ski the Big Kuna in fine style, with me trying my best to faithfully record it all on video. All smiles as we regroup on the Kuna Bench. We proceed to ski joyously together down the easy slopes back to camp for lunch.

What to do next? Itís obvious. Hit the couloirs just above the lake. So up and over Helenís Lip we go, then climbing the ridge to the top of the couloirs. I agree to go take a look at them. We get to the top of Spillway Chute East. Sam and Greg go out to check it out. I walk cautiously out to see what theyíre seeing. Iím less than comfortable without my skis and a bulging slope below. Sam is measuring the slope.

Greg: ďHow steep is it?Ē

Sam: ď40 degrees.Ē

I turn around to walk back. ďNo, come back and take a look at this, Fred. Itís not that bad,Ē Greg beckons. I walk back. I look. It doesnít look that bad. I think I can do it.

We put our skis on. Greg drops in first. ďItís puuurrffecct!!Ē he yells as he disappears from view. I shove off as the other guys head further up the ridge to ski Spillway Chute West. It is perfect. The corn is just right. I trust the snow. I link some turns just above some steep rocks. The corn is sweet and the turning is easy. Itís wonderful. We turn without thinking all the way down to the lake, just in time to watch the other guys come down the steeper Spillway Chute West.

Rich skis over to us perched on a dry spot above the lake. His grin reaches from ear to ear. Completely satiated, he says, ďI can go home now.Ē And so we split up. Rich and Sam back to camp and down the trail, leaving Greg and I the rest of the afternoon and the next day.

So what do we do now? Back to camp to lounge the rest of the day? Heck no! Up into Helenís Lip one more time and then high onto the ridge that forms the western boundary of Helenís Bowl. On the other side we find a sweet little north-facing gully that provides a nice, mellow day-ending ride back to camp. The perfect way to end the day. A hearty meal of sausages sends us off to bed with full bellies.

Sunday, May 27th. My Day 50 starts cold and cloudy. Ice forms on pots of water as we carry them from the water source to the camp. We lounge in camp waiting for the morning to warm and the snow to soften. Suddenly, the clouds break and the morning warms quickly. Weíre off.

Back up to the Kuna Bench to a wide, north-facing slope with a lateral moraine projecting directly away from it. It is beautiful and had caught the attention of the whole group the day before. It is worthy of a Day 50 Slope. We use the moraine as a low angle ramp to get to the steep part of the slope. It has all the ingredients of an alpine environment with a frozen ice blue lake trapped by the moraine to the west. But when we get to the steep part the snow is too hard to comfortably climb. So we go for a 350í warm up run down the gully on the eastern side. Itís perfect for me. Steep enough to be fun, but not so steep to have to think.


Back up the moraine to the steep part of the slope. It is soft now in the warm sun. Greg kicks some nice steps up to the pass. Topping out on the pass, we are in a sublime environment. Big granite boulders in flawlessly chaotic shapes scattered about the plateau. ďWhich one do I want for my dinner table?Ē Greg asks rhetorically. Mt Lyell directly south of us with its glistening glacier is nicely framed by the U-shaped pass. Mt Dana to the north in exactly the other direction. Mono Lake can be seen over Mono Pass. Mt Conness to the northwest. It seems all the signature peaks and features of the eastern Yosemite region are framed by this surreal landscape. We call it ďDay 50 Pass.Ē


And down we go. Greg goes first, shouting with joy as he disappears from view. I follow. Yet again, the corn is perfect. Soft buttery bliss. The slope steepens. I make a turn. Thatís easy. Another one. I can do this. Smooth links. Back and forth. Up and down. Iím in my rhythm. Linking turns one after another down the slope. I notice Greg had fallen and slid a ways. But heís back up now and still smiling. It doesnít shake me. Down to the moraine with shouts of joy. And then on down to the frozen ice blue lake. Effortlessly now gliding through the corn. As easy as it is to write these words. Coming from the heart, the turns spread the snow like butter melting on corn. Ecstasy.

Stopping at the lake to photograph the tracks and savor the moment. In a granite ampitheater with a blue lake of ice. Bright wide open slopes with beautiful white turns dropping straight down to the lake. I emblaze the scene in my mind because I know that photographs will not capture it. A physical high overtakes me. Day 50. And what a Day 50 it is.

After easy skiing back down to camp, we pack our stuff and head back out to the road. The stream crossing is easier than expected in our skivvies with our bare feet in the shells of our boots. Charging back to the trucks, nothing can bring us down. Driving back to the coast, the music sounds better, the views look better, the classic views of Half Dome and El Capitan still take my breath away. The big trees are a refreshing change from the tundra of the last few days. The low sun on the oak savanna reminds me of home. I am home. Not even a horrific traffic jam over Pacheco Pass daunts me. It is all good. I have entered a state of serenity and bliss that refuses to leave. It cannot be explained. These words and pictures do it no justice.

-Fred Hochstaedter

 May 28, 2002


(all text & images (c) 2002 Fred Hochstaedter)

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