Cold Smoke on Mt. Gibbs, High Sierra

Post by blogger | January 9, 2013      

by Jediah Porter


The author heading up Mount Gibbs. Steep, technical skinning but none of that uncivilized spiky metal-work so characteristic of non-winter ski mountaineering.

The east side of the Sierra Nevada range is going off this season! We had an early, heavy “base-maker” and subsequent feet of cold powder. Our circa-solstice weeks have been relatively windless and overcast, with a healthy blend of storm-size (not too big, not too small) and storm return-period (refreshers just often enough). We hate to rub it in to thirsty Colorado, but we’ve got it pretty darn good over here in California!

The standard MO for early season Sierra powder skiing is to seek the shady trees, and there is nothing wrong with that. When it’s good, eastside old growth is a special experience.


Even when the snow is 'all-time' in Sierra trees, one need only do so much shaded shredding. Chris R. finds his opening.

However, Ken and I had had enough. We were ready for something big and alpine. We were ready for sun on our backs and color in our faces and photos. Conditions seemed conducive and hazards seemed manageable. Our legs could have been better prepared, but that’s hardly an excuse. We found the energy and went big.


Looking ahead... the author approaches the east face of Mount Gibbs. Lee Vining, CA. We eventually skied the tallest line, right off the top. January 3, 2013.


...looking back. Ken escaping the pogonip. The Shoshone word, pogonip, very well may have originated here in Mono Basin, and it is now used 'round the world to describe the ice fog phenomenon. To skiers it means high pressure and good weather for big-mountain sending!

With winter snow coverage descending through the low-altitude sage country, Mount Gibbs is protected by over 3 miles of low-angle approach. Modern AT gear sped the slog (or in Ken’s case, heavy metal telemark equipment and athleticism to spare).


The fog remained all day. Rumor has it that Mono Lake and the town of Lee Vining can have up to three weeks at a time of their own version of winter 'cold smoke.' So much for sunny California!

Coverage was not ideal, but we skied lightly (both up and down) when it seemed to matter. Neither of us did too much damage, which left us feeling at the end as though we’d gotten away with something. Probably just a lucky break.


Summit sastrugi, el sol, and spray.

As if you haven’t put it together yet, Ken Etzel takes real purty pictures. I shamelessly spray his work all over the internet, attaching myself to the sails of real talent. I weigh my socks and leave the tongues of my TLT 5s at home. Ken carries the big SLR and skis on tele gear. Ken skis fast and I get picked on by the ski-movie crowd for my “guide turns.”


Ken in deep. Which is more endangered? Sierra Nevada bighorn, or the ski mountaineering tele turn?


The author dropping further and further.


Ken sparring with Kermit's shadow. Ken beautifully captures athletes in exceptional landscapes. I capture exceptional athletes in awkward poses.


It's a long way to the sage.

Ken and I both chase adventure big and small in the High Sierra. However, together we’ve only shared big days. It’s the kind of partnership that can work that way. Whether it’s a big ridge traverse or a committing mid-winter ski peak, we work well together. We may never boulder together or share a lift-chair, but we’ll certainly continue to find the time to go big. Just as each individual has his or her own style, each partnership takes its own shape.

The main east face of Mount Gibbs drops from a false summit. The true high-point of Mount Gibbs sits a mile and 200 feet higher to the southwest. We didn’t mess around with the true summit. Nor do 99% of skiers. The inhospitable plateau separating Gibbs and “Skier’s Gibbs” is the home of a small and especially hardy band of the endangered Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep. This particular band is unique among their brethren. While most Sierra bighorn descend to escape the deepest snow and coldest temperatures in winter, this small herd remains on the windswept ridges through the entire winter.


Shredding wind-textured, faceted pow over zero base. Go fast, think light, channel your inner Coloradan!

We lingered at the summit only as long as necessary, and dropped back toward the car. What good is a big open face if one can’t ski it in anemic winter sun? We glided to the car in the early afternoon, feeling stoked and a bit smug with our ski bases intact. Git some!

WildSnow guest blogger Jed Porter is a full-time, year-round mountain guide in Bishop, California. He wouldn’t say no to a turns-all-year schedule, but he sure enjoys the variety of mountain adventure that life the High Sierra provides. More of Ken Etzel’s photography can be found at here on his website,


9 Responses to “Cold Smoke on Mt. Gibbs, High Sierra”

  1. Pieter January 9th, 2013 4:55 pm


    Gibbs sure was looking beautiful last week driving out of Lee Vining.

    These photos really capture the grandeur of the east side of California. Some of those angles looking out from Gibbs with the White Mountains, Glass Mountain range, Benton Range, Mono Craters and surrounding areas reveal just how profoundly beautiful that area is.

    I was out in Adobe Valley last week, near Pizona, and from there, you can see Gibbs and Dana. The panoramas are out of this world.

    Thanks for this.

  2. brian h January 10th, 2013 6:37 pm

    Great T.R. I wanna go. I’m a little bummed that being a Colorado skier is now shorthand for “accustomed to crappy snow conditions”. Dear Ullr; save us…

  3. Rob Coppolillo January 10th, 2013 9:43 pm

    Atta boy, Jed! Keep getting the goods!

  4. Warren January 30th, 2013 10:25 am

    I’m new to the site and really enjoying it! I’m also new to backcountry skiing and want to get out a little more. I’m curious if u have any suggestions for some nice long tours maybe farther south in the lone pine or bishop are (I’m coming from southern California), hopefully for this weekend (feb 1-2). I’d be interested in getting back in the sierra’s to see some great alpine views but again would be more touring style as my fitness is there but my downhill ability is lacking… thanks

  5. Jed January 30th, 2013 11:40 am

    Warren (and all),
    Thanks for the kind words! Snow coverage near Bishop and south is pretty thin right now. I skied one day above Bishop, and would hardly recommend it. However, anything Rock Creek and north is in fine shape. Touring back through the Little Lakes Valley of Rock Creek is amazing mellow alpine terrain. Another slightly steeper option is to ski to Duck Pass in the Mammoth Lakes Basin. I’m happy to answer any other questions…

  6. Mario December 9th, 2013 11:14 pm

    Hi Jed,
    Interesting account and looks like great fun. I waswondering about some of the stats of your trip. How far and how long did it take to go from your car to the high point? How much elevation did you cover? How many runs did you do? Thanks very much.
    Do you have any upcoming plans for similar trips?
    Regards, Mario

  7. Jed December 10th, 2013 2:07 am

    Hello Mario,
    This particular tour covered almost 7000 vertical feet and about 5 miles each way. It all took us 7 hours and if was one big up and one big down. As for future adventures like this, I’ll be back at it as soon as snow coverage allows. There’s just enough snow here in the Sierra now for our most mellow ski tours right now, but as they say “we’ll get ours”. Think snow!

  8. Mario February 6th, 2014 10:22 pm

    Hi Jed, are you planning any trips over the next couple of weekends?

  9. Jed February 7th, 2014 10:12 am

    Hello again Mario,
    I am making the ultimate sacrifice for the snow starved Sierra ski community. My next few weeks are full of planned alpine climbing endeavors. Sure enough, this means there is snow in the forecast. Skiing should only get better. Which is good, because it hasn’t been great…
    Thanks for checking in,

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