FKT Sierra High Route (Skiers) May 25, 2023
17 Hours, 18 minutes – Sheppard’s Pass Trail Head to Wolverton
Telemark Crossing in a single push
My good friend Dave and I arrived at the trail head the evening before the departure. The plan was to get a good night’s rest, wake up and scout the creek crossing and then get to bed early and depart somewhere between 10pm and 11pm the next day. Dave was dropping me off and continuing his own adventures as this was a solo attempt for me. The next morning, we scouted the creek to find it was raging. Neither of the normal two crossing spots would work. We spent 3.5 hours building a way across with moving large boulders and rolling logs into place. It wasn’t perfect, but so long as the river didn’t come up more, it would be doable.
That evening I geared up, ate some pasta for dinner and laid down staring at the sky playing the route in my head over and over until it was time to get up and get moving. I had my first “real” cup of coffee in 10 days and took a picture next to trail head sign and started my clock.
The creek had come up a bit and jumping across the makeshift bridges and island had me a bit nervous. Consequences of a fall here would be bad as your ski boots and gear, not to mention your body would most certainly get swept downstream. Fortunately, both crossing went smoothly with only getting slightly wet in the process.
The first 2k climb was a mix of trail and snow that was too rotten to boot pack, but not consistent enough to skin. It is my least favorite climb on the route, and it was no different that night. The only bonus is that the parts you could hike on the trail, went rather efficiently.
Once on top of this first climb I descended the south facing slopes to Mahogany Flats. No surprise, but this was completely dry and snow free. The snow wasn’t consistent enough to skin until Anvil camp and from that point on I remained on skis until the Wolverton Parking lot.
The night was cool, had slight breeze and was very dark. The approach to Sheppard’s pass from here meandered around boulder fields until the pitch was too steep to skin. I dawned on the crampons and made my way up to the top. As I climbed up, I was thinking about how nice it was going to be to ski all the way to the Kern River. Last year, I ended up running this entire section because of the lack of snow, so when got to the top and looked out as far as my headlamp would shine and saw endless scree and boulders, my hopes were crushed. If I am honest, I was a bit angry. Don’t get me wrong there were some snow sections, but the first half to ¾ of a mile was skis on, skis off, skis on, skis off. Painful at best.
Fortunately, I eventually got to where it was consistent enough to ski. The snow was sun cupped and runnels fanned out like strawberry fields everywhere. I fell three times going super slow as my skis would sink down in the sun cups and get locked in. The uneven snow made for the decent down to the Kern taxing and my quads were on fire, but I was more than happy to be sliding down instead of running.
The Kern was flowing strong and by now the first light of the day had reached the Milestone ridge line. I refilled my bottles and bladder with water and started to make my way up the Milestone drainage. This was the coldest part of the trip. I had every layer on and my bladder hose had frozen. It wasn’t long before the sun got high enough that things changed to being darn right hot. Being a Sierra native, this is something you come to know…if the sun is out, plan on it being hot!
The climb up Milestone was uneventful and I probably could have just boot packed the last 100-200 feet, but being solo I decided it was safer to put the crampons on just in case a section became firmer. Milestone is a special place for me. I have had some epic ski laps in the bowl, I’ve hunkered down at the pass during a whiteout storm where the winds were 70 to 100 mph waiting for my group to catch up, I’ve eaten lunch here plenty of times with amazing friends and on this day, I was doing my first solo crossing.
I descended the bowl and hooked the corner towards No Name Pass. The snow coverage was phenomenal, all be it sun cupped. The day was getting hotter and the snow more and more rotten in the top few inches. For the first time ever, I had to boot pack No Name Pass. I’ve always been able to skin the pass, but with the extra snow this year and the current conditions, it simply wasn’t possible. The boot pack kicked my butt sliding down a little bit with each step.
The next pass was a long traverse down and then up over into Triple Divide. A spectacular section of the Sierra with dark rock and contrasting white snow. I’ve spent a lot of years in the Sierra Skiing the backcountry and I’ve never seen as many slides, debris fields, cornices, and bergschrunds as on this trip. Almost every aspect had something.
The descent off Triple Divide was easier than most years with the extra snow, however the buttress you ski around near Glacier Lake had a huge rockslide blocking your ability to carry speed around the corner and slingshoting you towards Coppermine pass.
Coppermine looked interesting from a distance, as there was a shadow line across the ridge indicating a cornice. As I skinned towards it my mind searched for what to do if it wasn’t passible. Fortunately, when I got the base of it, there was an 8-foot-wide section where the cornice had broken leaving a nice gap to boot pack up and over. Another bullet dodged…
From here I could smell the barn. I knew I was getting out in a reasonable amount of time and despite my lack of sleep and the long day up to this point, I was starting to feel a bit more energized. The snow on the western side of the Sierra was significantly better in terms of sun cups and runnels, so the long traverse to Finn Pass and Lonely Lake took very little time and effort. Like Coppermine, Finn also had a cornice, and it also had a section that had broken off and left a nice window to climb up and through.
More debris fields on the next traverse and before I knew it, I was in the Tablelands, Pear Lake, Heather, and up the last climb to the Hump.
Last year, we only skied part way down the hump before hitting dirt and having to run with skis to finish. This year, I skied to the parking lot. This section is always a bit of a gauntlet and was no different on this day. Large broken limbs, rocks, sticks, pine needles for days and section where I know there was snow, but it was so covered by other things, you couldn’t see a shred of white. Nonetheless I stayed on skis, finished the route in 17 Hours and 18 minutes. Almost 2.5 hours faster than the previous FKT.
This FKT will be broken again, but not likely by another 46-year-old Telemark Skier. My prediction is it will be a young buck in their twenties on some ultra-light weight AT setup that is 1/3 the weight of Tele gear and significantly better range of motion in there boots. And I’ll be cheering them on as it’s an amazing route and meant to be enjoyed by all forms of travel and all ages, young and old guys like me.
Just a quick shout out to a few people behind the scenes that supported me through this effort emotionally and with logistics. My wife for being the light that gets me home. Mike for the words of wisdom, pickups, and the unconditional support. Dave for the drop off and Creek Crossing construction. Nathaniel for being the point person on my tracking in case something went south. Steve, wish it could have worked out to have you by my side, we’ll get the next one. And to countless others who contributed. It takes a tribe…