Red Line Traverse — Backcountry Skiing Trip Report


Post by WildSnow.com blogger | May 10, 2017      

Jed Porter

If skiing is good, more skiing is better. If skiing is fun, skiing one mountain after the other, for miles and miles and week after week is more fun. In late April and early May of this year, I skied, mainly solo, California’s “Red Line Traverse.”

How best to ski the seemingly limitless terrain of California’s High Sierra in the spring of a fat year? Get high, stay high, and never stop moving. Looking south from Mount Powell or 'Point John.' 13,364 feet. 4/28/2017.

How best to ski the seemingly limitless terrain of California’s High Sierra in the spring of a fat year? Get high, stay high, and never stop moving. Looking south from Mount Powell or ‘Point John.’ 13,364 feet. 4/28/2017.

The Red Line Traverse has near-mythical status. There are as many definitions of the route as there are discussions of the line. Even the original protagonists were vague, seemingly intentional in their evasive descriptions. No matter, as the consensus seems to be that a traverse in the Red Line spirit would involve tons of skiing, on peaks, cirques, couloirs, and chutes along the crest of the highest portion of the Sierra Nevada.

What we know is that Tom Carter, Chris Cox, and Allan Bard, with a cast of others from one season and trip to the next, connected the peaks above Lone Pine to those above Mammoth Lakes. Carter and Bard, in the November 1983 issue of Powder magazine, map out the line with the poetry of vision rather than the prose of prescription.

“The initial idea for our ski was inspired by the notion that we could string together dozens of exciting ski descents like so many pearls… we crossed nearly fifty passes and climbed more than twenty peaks, rarely dropping below 11,000 feet… This was the land of full-certified, high-speed traverses and ultimate fall-line skiing on perfect snow.”

Looking ahead. Always looking ahead. A perpetual motion ski tour like this is an exercise in route-finding-as-sight-seeing.

Looking ahead. Always looking ahead. A perpetual motion ski tour like this is an exercise in route-finding-as-sight-seeing.

Red Line Traverse was the most physically demanding effort I have ever undertaken. The numbers (16 days, 125 miles, 79,100 vertical feet) tell part of the story. I had the company of two friends to the middle of day 2, one of them continuing on to the middle of day 4. I also have the moral support of spouse, friends, and family, and the material support of a handful of sponsors. But most of the trip was largely solo, taking just two resupplies, and camping out the entire way adds body to the description of the effort. Accumulated effort, altitude, and snow-sleeping further drained.

Day 2, April 19, 2017. My 38th birthday, incidentally. Ian McEleney points out our route down the NW Face of Mount Whitney. He, Sam Fletcher, and myself skied that before Sam took off over Whitney/Russell Col. Ian and I continued on that afternoon using Mount Russell as a pass, in the spirit of those that went first.

Day 2, April 19, 2017. My 38th birthday, incidentally. Ian McEleney points out our route down the NW Face of Mount Whitney. He, Sam Fletcher, and myself skied that before Sam took off over Whitney/Russell Col. Ian and I continued on that afternoon using Mount Russell as a pass, in the spirit of those that went first.

What, now that I’ve been there, is the route, exactly?

First, in general terms. I stuck close to the crest of the Sierra. The highest peaks of the range divide the watershed of the Pacific from that of the Great Basin. This ridgeline also divides California counties, as well as National Parks from National Forests. On maps, these boundaries, for the most part, are marked with a red line; hence the name.

I skied the best and rowdiest lines I could. I skied most peaks and routes up one side and down the other, moving forward. Bard and company specifically mention skiing the NW face of Mount Whitney and “Mount Russell used as a pass.” So I did those things. Photos in magazines and the ads of their sponsors from the time show them skiing the N couloir of Mount Humphreys and a couloir into the Palisade Glacier. I skied those too. They say they skied at least 20 peaks. I did 25, for good measure. I left the crest only when it meant better skiing. And, once, when leaving the crest by a little over a mile meant I could skip sketchy free-solo rock climbing, I steered even further from the Red Line.

The “founders” purposely kept their description vague, empowering future suitors to spend “day after day, hour after hour, on our knees fondling the topo maps.” I’ll do the same, honoring the perspective of Todd Eastman from the BackcountryTalk forum. “I imagine Allan would be most stoked by a party employing the spirit of the Red Line rather than the exact route Always remember, an act of creativity like route finding in a natural setting can be deeply satisfying, even when following a generalized route. Don’t forget the whimsy and fun of adventuring as conditions allow.”

Paiute Pass camp, at sunrise. 4/30/2017. Selfie.

Paiute Pass camp, at sunrise. 4/30/2017. Selfie.

That being said, it could well be time to demystify the Red Line, letting the next generation of skiers step past this into bigger and rowdier creative interpretations of the Range of Light.

If you want to know exactly what I skied, I’m glad to share that individually. After all, like Lou says in his book, WildSnow, about California’s traditionally reticent skiers, “One would hope they will share their treasures, to give us our legends.”

The 'line,' as mapped out after the fact.

The ‘line,’ as mapped out after the fact.

You can’t ski the Sierra in a big year without lusting after the famous steep couloirs. In looking back through my journal, I count 25 proper ski lines. Most of them were steep, most were rock-walled, and most had excellent snow. All were north facing, all held wintry snow (until the very end. The Bloody Couloir was a corn run for my final ski descent). Only once did I climb what I skied. Every other ski run was done “top down” with the overnight pack, an “ever forward” mantra, and an educated guess as to conditions and route-finding.

Gear I used is listed here.

An obscure couloir on an amazing, prominent ski peak on day 5. Narrow, steep, with wind-scalloped powder snow and completely invisible from any road or trail.

An obscure couloir on an amazing, prominent ski peak on day 5. Narrow, steep, with wind-scalloped powder snow and completely invisible from any road or trail.

I aimed to ski at least one “proper” ski line and to summit a peak every day. Only one day did I fail to summit a peak. But I was indeed able to ski real, worthy terrain every day. Some climbs were “for real,” with steep and firm snow mixed with classic Sierra rock scrambling. I spent a ton of time in steep terrain, up and down.

Overall, this was an athletic endeavor. At times the terrain was serious, but I was always minutes from flat ground and hours from dry desert. Athletically and technically this traverse was harder than all the Alaskan, Canadian, European, Greenlandic, and South American expeditions I’ve been on.

From an objective hazard, logistical, and commitment stand point, however, the Red Line of the Sierra is pretty casual. I’ve joked that, in rock climbing, bouldering is reputed to be low commitment but I argue that one has to be more committed in that venue than in serious alpine climbing. On an alpine climb, one must start a route, and muster appropriate motivation, only once a week or so. Bouldering one must start the route maybe tens of times a day.

Sierra enchainments (like this one, and alpine traverses I’ve done) don’t have the commitment factor of routes in the “Greater Ranges”. However, the terrain is similarly draining, and the opportunity to bail is almost ever present. One’s mind is constantly faced with the easy out. There is great liberty and confidence borne of repeatedly finding the motivation to keep going, even when there is an easy out. We test different parts of ourselves with different sorts of mountain endeavors. Low commitment enchainments like the Red Line truly ensure that one actually enjoys the here and now, as the opportunity for a different scene is ever present.

Solo skiing isn’t really that photogenic. That being said, the light and magic of the High Sierra make up for that. When the snow and scene is like this, it is hard to pass up an opportunity for an action shot. Action selfies are a skill all their own.

Solo skiing isn’t really that photogenic. That being said, the light and magic of the High Sierra make up for that. When the snow and scene is like this, it is hard to pass up an opportunity for an action shot. Action selfies are a skill all their own.

“This day and age” it is the fall-line ski runs that catch our attention. Couloirs and steep faces captivate the attention of our ski mountaineering community. One of the directives of the Red Line’s original activists was to “red line the fun meter”. In other words, seek the most enjoyable, laugh-worthy experiences in the sliding world.

Call me a curmudgeon, but steep, often-firm, wilderness skiing with an overnight pack and lightweight ski gear isn’t in my definition of fun. It is satisfying and thrilling and I build huge portions of my life around it, but I don’t find myself spontaneously laughing out loud. It is the long glides that are the Type-1 fun, “giggle pow” of multi-day ski mountaineering. To launch from a high saddle or turn onto the debris fan of a splitter couloir and glide for miles just above the flat lakes and lumpy moraines, covering literally tens of miles an hour is pure bliss. On Sierra “wind board” and corn, whether frozen or softened, the glide ratio of a mid-weight rider is pushing 10:1. Need to cover a mile? All you need is a line gently crossing the contours for 600 feet or so. Firm snow, a careful plan, and some edge angulation gets you, literally, a long way.

It’s not all steep and rowdy. When it isn’t, it’s fast and flowy gliding.

It’s not all steep and rowdy. When it isn’t, it’s fast and flowy gliding.

I hit snags. Of the world’s major mountain regions, California has relatively excellent weather. My time window was blessedly free of any “atmospheric rivers,” but the minor poor weather nagged a little. Day one, for instance, was forecast to bring “less than one inch of accumulation”. We skied Whitney and Russell in almost a foot of powder. I got blown to the ground a handful of times at Taboose Pass, battling clouds and spitting graupel mixed with rain for 3 hours and 600 vertical feet of action and then 20 hours in a hastily scraped snow hole. The final pass of day ten took me onto the west side. A fully clear day segued to complete, unyielding white out that lasted until first light the next day. By the final two days the freezing line was creeping up into five digit altitudes.

Spring Sierra skiing is largely done in good weather. Nonetheless, there are occasional fits of more alpine conditions. This particular morning, an all night whiteout in gentle winds resulted in some riming.

Spring Sierra skiing is largely done in good weather. Nonetheless, there are occasional fits of more alpine conditions. This particular morning, an all night whiteout in gentle winds resulted in some riming.

What do I have to “claim”, if anything? The web is full of chatter about the Red Line traverse. Guidebooks and magazines mention it. Its “unrepeated” status seems pretty certain. The original crew did at least some of the route in what is still a record-setting snow year. They had coverage that might not have been replicated until this season. Others certainly claim traverses of the Red Line. Sierra ski historians reference “unrecorded” completions, done under the radar.

Even my own effort could be completely different than the original. For instance, the original Red Line is reported variously as “Whitney to Mammoth” and “Langley to Mammoth” (the latter is just a little bit longer). I skied Whitney to Mammoth.

The original traverse was done by a rotating cast, over at least two seasons. One repeat since then skipped at least some of the major ski lines we know Bard and company did, and came out of the mountains for a few days of r and r. The activists of one rumored repeat did so in 2016, a year in which some of the major ski lines weren’t filled in. I haven’t heard back from them about what exactly they did.

In the end, for the history books (and, remember, WildSnow was first a history book…), this stuff kind of matters. For the individual effort, though, it doesn’t.

To be sure, the allure of doing something first is powerful. However, anyone that’s been out for days and weeks on big missions knows that that allure is tiny motivation, if any. It is hard work, stunning landscapes, and profound, transformative adventure that keeps a body going. I have done more research on the history of the Red Line in the week since finishing than I did in the years prior. The idea that I could be first was strong, but the actual fact of the matter wasn’t important.

Little is as satisfying, frightening, draining, and mystifying as being a tiny human, all alone in a huge mountain wilderness for weeks at a time.

Little is as satisfying, frightening, draining, and mystifying as being a tiny human, all alone in a huge mountain wilderness for weeks at a time.

Overall, the Red Line was a grand ski adventure. Like the experience of the visionaries, it is one of the coolest things I have ever done and is something I have wanted to do for a long, long time. I hope that others can follow suit, and only raise the bar further. There is more to ski, and room to improve the style, considerably.

Bio. Wildsnow guest blogger Jed Porter is a full-time, year-round American Mountain Guide and is slowly putting down roots in Idaho’s Teton Valley. He skis, climbs, and eats. He’s happy to do the same with you, through Exum Mountain Guides, his own company, and a host of local partners around the continent and world.

Comments

33 Responses to “Red Line Traverse — Backcountry Skiing Trip Report”

  1. Matt Kinney May 10th, 2017 10:36 am

    Excellent trip report and good on you Jed.

  2. wtofd May 10th, 2017 11:05 am

    Brilliant.

  3. Rod Georgiu May 10th, 2017 11:33 am

    Incredible.

    Motivation for me to do parts of it, week at a time, before I turn 70.

  4. Trevor May 10th, 2017 11:53 am

    Awesome trip! Congrats on completing the traverse!

  5. Jed Porter May 10th, 2017 12:37 pm

    Thanks all! If you have any aspirations of skiing in the High Sierra, and have any flexibility in scheduling for the next month or so, this is the time to ski California! The coverage is simply amazing. Get there! Matt, you and I met at Thompson Pass a few years back. You teased us for visiting from “South America”.

  6. Sam May 10th, 2017 12:44 pm

    Friggin’ cool! Thanks for sharing. Best thing I’ve read on Wildsnow for awhile. Not saying the content has been down, this is just above and beyond.

  7. See May 10th, 2017 2:49 pm

    Great post. This season has been amazing. Just when it looks like winter is over, we get another storm. Congratulations on an impressive achievement.

  8. Rick Brugger May 10th, 2017 4:32 pm

    just wanted to point out…Bard, Cox, and Carter were on skinny skis (Karhu Comp) with leather boots (Asolo Extreme)…we are talking technique over technology, and these guys were pushing the envelope, for years

  9. Scott Nelson May 10th, 2017 5:25 pm

    Great TR. Somewhat off topic, but does anyone know how South Lake Tahoe is, if you live or lived there, as a home base for BC Sierra skiing?

    Lou- Sorry…if this a hijack, delete it and I’ll start a new thread…..

    But I’m curious about S. Lake Tahoe living….

  10. Jed Porter May 10th, 2017 6:32 pm

    Rick, it’s been suggested that the gear is a main reason the route wasn’t repeated sooner. It wasn’t long after the original Red Line effort that gear “improved” in downhill support. The costs in touring efficiency likely dampened the enthusiasm of at least some potential suitors. It wasn’t until the last few years that I found crappy enough equipment to make it all work. Rando race equipment is today’s answer to the telemark turn and Nordic equipment of the ’80s.

  11. Michael May 10th, 2017 7:24 pm

    Amazing! What a bad ass trip! Thanks for the report and the motivation. Good to see CA getting so much lovin’ this season.

  12. Alexei Spoonde May 10th, 2017 7:33 pm

    Styled! in scope of feat, penmanship of advenature and preserving the sprit of discovery for those who follow. Bravo! Was a dream line and remains so due to attentive lack of detail. Sincere thank you

  13. Charley White May 10th, 2017 9:37 pm

    A great inspiration, Jed, many thanks. Not for my aspirations, which are a bit to the side, but for, well, everything you say and did!

  14. Louie 3 May 10th, 2017 11:00 pm

    Wow! This is really incredible!

  15. Todd Eastman May 11th, 2017 12:37 am

    Jed,

    Sounds like an amazing journey. Great write up. Enjoy your next adventure!

  16. RichMeyer May 11th, 2017 10:04 am

    Well done, very well done….

  17. Jed Porter May 11th, 2017 10:30 am

    Todd, did you know Bardini? Thanks for your publicly posted interpretation of Allan’s visions.

  18. Scott Allen May 11th, 2017 11:00 am

    Jed,
    That is some serious fun! Hats off to you for making the dream real….
    Any words about assessing avy danger in solo ski mountaineering?
    Is spring consolidation quite predictable at this time of year in the Sierra?

  19. Jed Porter May 11th, 2017 11:49 am

    Scott,
    Assessing avalanche hazard in solo ski mountaineering isn’t any different than in a group setting. Responding to one’s assessment can be different, of course. One still ponders likelihood, consequences, exposure, and uncertainty. You take that, mix it with your own weighting of risks and rewards, and decide what to do. Indeed, I had a very friendly chunk of time. The trip started with snowfall and then wind. That required consideration of timing; I dragged my feet as much as my motivation allowed, letting the storm and wind instabilities work themselves out. We skied the NW face of Whitney about 15 hours after the snowfall stopped, for instance. Aggressive, for sure. But calculated. The rest of the time was pretty good. Cold nights, minimal snow available for wind transport. I raced warm temperatures over passes and through traps a time or two, and was awful thankful to be done as the first major warm-up of the spring started. All this said, I took risks. I was most at risk of slide-for-life on firm and steep snow. Certainly there were wet snow avalanche problems at times. In all cases, the consequences were elevated by my solo status. In my benefit was terrain familiarity (in a general sense… most of what I skied was new to me, but Sierra terrain patterns are second nature), speed (I could have, when needed, 5k of skiing done by late morning), and the decisive decision-making of the lone wolf. I didn’t have a buddy to help in an emergency and to contribute his or her observations and opinions. All that provide a window into my brain? It’s a risky endeavor. However, and this isn’t popular, especially among parents, I feel the risks are part of the experience. I certainly wouldn’t feel compelled like I do if the experience were sanitized. I’ll go a step further and say that anyone who denies that the risks of mountain travel aren’t a crucial part of their experience is delusional.

  20. Mike Bromberg May 11th, 2017 8:04 pm

    Great read and great adventure!

  21. Hugh Driscoll May 11th, 2017 9:28 pm

    super kick-ass

  22. Todd Eastman May 11th, 2017 10:38 pm

    Jed,

    I knew Bardini through working at the Trapp Family Lodge in Vermont. He had worked there just before I arrived but the energy and tales of him and the other “Californians” lived large with tales of pranks and outright craziness that gave us lots of room to operate. He showed up the winter following the Redline with Chris Cox working as honorary instructors. Fun was had! Bardini exhibited excellent style and humor while skiing the thickest eastern jungle and all involved in these adventures shared skiing styles and idea as was normal of those years. As a climber, I understood the elements of the climbing culture he brought to the ski game; ideas about style and inspiration usually not found among the skiers of the era. The balance of talent, focus, and whimsy Bardini exuded was amazing. Some great lessons were learned…

  23. Lou Dawson 2 May 12th, 2017 1:58 pm

    Thanks for stopping by Todd! Lou

  24. Coop May 12th, 2017 2:42 pm

    Jed,

    Awesome work! Quite inspiring, Way to follow through with a dream and make it a reality.

  25. brian burke May 12th, 2017 4:15 pm

    this is great. awesome trip, words, photos. more please!

  26. Lou Dawson 2 May 12th, 2017 7:00 pm

    Indeed, more from Jed!

  27. Allan May 13th, 2017 7:54 am

    What an amazing repeat of the Redline Traverse, Jediah’s timing was excellent.

    I also knew Allan through our association with Karhu. I was with him briefly at the OR demo the winter before his accident. he was a funny and fun hog of a guy constantly maxing the fun meter.

    Bardini must be smiling down on this effort and the style in which it was done in! Kudos to you Jed Porter!

  28. Jed Porter May 13th, 2017 5:38 pm

    Thanks again, all. I wish I had more awesome pictures. Solo travel doesn’t lend itself to excellent photography. I love hearing the accounts of those that know and knew the original team!

  29. Doug cripplecreekbc May 14th, 2017 8:48 am

    Hey Jed. Great post! We are out visiting from Carbondale and it was cool to see your entry on top of Bloody right after reading this. Congratulations, what an amazing range!

  30. Lee Frees May 14th, 2017 10:47 am

    WOW
    I worked with Alan For three seasons Skiing the sierras along the redline and spent many nights in tents entertained and enlightened by his endless stories filled with laughter. My youngest son is named after him as Alan was not only a great friend but one of the greatest spirits I’ve known on this planet.
    Jed, You nailed the spirit and Idea of the redline dead center as I remember Alan laying it out. When I asked him the route Alan said it was ever changing and was to be the highest ski line possible along the east side of the eastern sierra. He said the beauty was that the route and style of doing it would change from person to person and in that had a life of it’s own. Ive skied my own version many times over the years, sections at a time with many different folks and at times solo. I can say with a solid perspective that Alan would be proud of you in this and I myself am humbled with joy in my heart reading about your trip
    Thank you for sharing your great adventure of “the red line”

  31. Jed Porter May 14th, 2017 3:41 pm

    Wow, Lee! Thanks for checking in. This post event “debrief” is proving almost as meaningful as the trip itself. Again, so great to hear from those connected so intimately to the Sierra!

  32. byates1 May 15th, 2017 3:28 am

    tying in the history, of og giants

    solo, with a nod to the past and to the future

    the force is strong with you!!

    a jedi!

  33. Lightranger May 16th, 2017 2:24 am

    Excellent work, Jed. Sounds like the adventure of a lifetime.

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