by Jediah Porter
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.
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.
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).
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.
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 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.
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, www.kenetzel.com.