Home > Trip Reports > Sierra Traverse - Kearsarge to Big Pine

Sierra Traverse - Kearsarge to Big Pine

US elsewhere
Posted by erin.kinney on 5/13/24 10:55am

Four-Day Sierra Traverse: Kearsarge to Big Pine


Kyle and I had two weeks to spend skiing in the Sierra. I was stoked to spend a few days on the other side of the crest doing a ski traverse. Kyle has spent 25+ days traversing the Sierra, including a three-week Redline traverse in 2019. I was excited to learn from Kyle and experience the magic of the Sierra that keep him coming back. 

While planning our trip we wanted to include the Dragon, a line that Kyle has been eying since 2019 but didn’t have time to ski on that trip. We decided to start at Kearsarge and ski to Big Pine. This would let us ski the Dragon and give us some time to ski a couple of other objectives along the way.  

Two days before we left a storm rolled in. We were unsure how much snow the storm would drop and how quickly it would transition back to corn. The day after the storm we went out to ski University Peak. We found that the storm had deposited more snow than anticipated with up to 8 inches in some spots. This made trail-breaking and booting tough. And all the corn was gone! After some type 2 fun, we skied the north side of University and it was nice pow. However, we were worried that the new snow would affect our traverse plans and make the travel and skiing less than ideal. 

We took a rest day the next day to pack and prepare for our trip. While at lunch we overheard some other skiers talking about their day. Kyle struck up a conversation with them and we learned that the snow had already settled in most places and the corn was ripe for harvest. This helped calm our nerves to an extent as we were worried about skiing hot pow for four days. 

Day 1

The morning of the first day we parked Kyle’s truck at Glacier Creek Lodge and got a ride from Lone Pine Kurt to the Kearsarge trailhead. “Well… here we are”, we thought after we were dropped off with our packs and skis. We H framed our skis and started walking in trail runners up to Kearsarge Pass. Luckily, we didn’t have to carry our skis for too long, and after about 25 minutes of hiking we were able to transition to skinning. 


Kyle admiring an ancient Bristlecone on our way to Kearsarge Pass


We skinned up to Kearsarge Pass and I was pleasantly surprised that it didn’t feel too bad. Guess the day tours and Diamox had been doing something to help me acclimatize. We crossed over Kearsarge Pass and traversed over to Rixford Pass where we got our first ski descent with overnight packs, in powder! From there we skinned to the base of Dragon Peak and got eyes on the Dragon Couloir. 


Skinning towards the base of Dragon with pow turns down Rixford Pass in the background


Start of the booter at the base of Dragon Peak


Dragon Peak is a beautiful, jagged peak with the north facing couloir splitting it down the middle. The couloir doglegs halfway down so we only had eyes on the lower part and the apron. We unloaded everything we didn’t need from our packs to ski the Dragon and started booting up the couloir. As we ascended, we noticed that the snow was pretty variable and towards the top there was a thick crust and ice under about a foot of powder. As the couloir increased in steepness the wallowing commenced. Eventually, we were able to overcome the wallow and top out. 


Top of the Dragon Couloir, looking over at Black Mountain


Kyle went first, noting that even though it was powder the icy crust underneath required you to be on your edges. He worked his way down to a safe spot and I followed. The line had a bit of a double fall line making turns even more challenging. As we worked our way down the snow transitioned to firmer more edgeable snow. We party skied from the apron back down to our overnight gear. Exhausted but stoked we had tamed the Dragon, we set up camp at the end of Dragon Lake. 


Kyle taming the Dragon



Looking back at Dragon Peak from camp


Day 2

Our plan for day two was to either go over Dragon Pass or Black Diamond Pass to ski Mary Austin. A descent that John Dittli had recommended to us. However, both passes looked burned up and would be more scrambling and shenanigans than we wanted to do with overnight packs on. We opted to continue north along the JMT before heading East towards Baxter Col. Mary Austin would have to be saved for a future trip. After a big first day, it was nice to start the day with a gradual ski descent/traverse and enjoy the scenery. When we reached our turn up towards Baxter Lake we transitioned to booting as the snow was still very firm. After a few hundred feet the slope mellowed out and we put our skis back on. As we skinned up the valley we observed and marked on our maps several lines that would be cool to come back for one day. 


Morning skin up the valley, lots of beautiful big trees


Stunning views

We stopped for a break on a rock slab near Baxter Lake to make water, eat, and dry out skins and boots. An interesting thing we experienced in the Sierra is you’ll be skinning along and sweating buckets but as soon as you stop on a rock slab you’ll be reaching for a puffy. The air temps aren’t actually that high but the solar radiation sure heats you up. After a relaxing slab hang we headed up the hot south-facing slope to Baxter Col. We dropped down the north side and enjoyed a long corn run below Acrodectes Peak. Satisfied with our day, we found a slab above Woods Lake to spend the night on. 


Top of Baxter Col with Mary Austin the the background


Rock slab camp


Day 3

Day three of the traverse was our biggest day and my favorite day. We left our slab and headed towards Colosseum Col around 8:30 am. We had a nice gradual ascent and dropped down the other side of the col. The snow was playful morning corn mixed with some firm spots but manageable with overnight packs on. Kyle got a little too excited about the morning corn and accidentally went off a rock drop. His heavy pack didn’t allow him to recover and crash. He was okay but reeled it in after that. We traversed as far as we could before transitioning back to skins and rejoining the JMT. We headed towards Pinchot Pass, admiring the big bowls of corn that surrounded us, taking our time so that we could time corn o’clock down Pinchot Pass.


Heading towards Pinchot Pass with Colosseum Mtn and Mount Cedric Wright in the background


At the top of the pass, we were greeted with another stunning Sierra view, peaks and valleys for as far as you could see. This had become one of my favorite things about traversing, getting up to a new vantage point, and seeing what view was waiting for you as well as looking back at where we had come from. 


View from Pinchot Pass


We dropped down Pinchot Pass for the longest corn run of our trip, 2000’ to the Kings River. Being down in the valley by the river felt like a whole different world than the alpine we had been in for the past couple of days. The air felt thick at 10k and we took a nice break to refill water and dry our skins before the long walk out of the valley. The walk from the valley back into the alpine was long and gradual. It was also a highlight of the trip for me, I was in the flow state. During this section, I was filled with gratitude. A year prior I had been recovering from ACL surgery and barely able to walk. At the beginning of the ski season, I thought I would be skiing groomers all year. But here I was, on day three of a ski traverse, at altitude, with a heavy pack, and my body felt as strong as it had all season. It finally felt like I had overcome my injury. I was thankful for my friends and ski partners for being patient with me over the season and continuing to believe in me. Kyle likes to remind me of how much different of a skier I am now than our first tour of the year in January. More than anything on this part of the trip, I was grateful to be in the mountains, doing what I love, and sharing that experience with Kyle. 


Skinning along the Kings River


This euphoria quickly came to an end as we entered a south-facing, breezeless, solar oven. There are times in the Sierra when you feel like you are getting cooked and every sweat gland is working overtime. We took a break under the last tree that we could see for a while and discussed our options. It was about 3 pm and our goal was to get to Palisade Lakes. The options were to go over Mather Pass which would be the easiest but least interesting skiing, Twin Peaks which was more interesting skiing but Kyle had done before, or Mount Bolton Brown to a line that we had spotted on the map but had no beta for. We also discussed finding a spot to camp as we had already covered quite a bit of distance. However, going over Mather or Twin Peaks that afternoon made the most sense as they would be corn now and firm in the morning. Bolton Brown was north-facing so it didn’t matter as much when we did it. After getting something to eat and drink and cooling down a bit we decided that we would keep going towards Twin Peaks and Bolton Brown. We could make a final decision as we got closer. So off we went, this time with pocket music on to keep the vibes high. A little while later, Kyle looked back at me and said, “I’m feeling Bolton Brown good, how are you feeling?”. “Let’s go for it!” I replied. So we started the final 2000’ climb for the day. 


Climbing up to Bolton Brown


We reached the col on Bolton Brown around 5 pm and finally got eyes on what we were going to ski, well we couldn’t see much as it was a blind rollover. We transitioned and slowly made our way over the roll to see what waited for us on the other side. It was a beautiful position but felt a little spicy for 5 pm after a long day with overnight packs. Luckily the snow was soft powder. As we crested the rollover, we were greeted with a 40-degree couloir and a 1000’ descent down to the lake below, the best descent of the trip. 


Kyle skiing the roll over on Bolton Brown


Apron of Bolton Brown, feeling comfy skiing with an overnight pack by now


Kyle ripping Bolton Brown


Feeling fulfilled but also thirsty and hungry, we skied towards Palisade Lakes to find a camp spot. When we found a good spot above the lakes, I started melting water as Kyle set up the tent. We both were feeling worked from the day. We ate dinner on a slab and enjoyed our last night in the backcountry. By the time we got in the tent, we were both feeling exhausted. I could tell that my metabolism was working overtime as I was putting out lots of heat and my heart rate was higher than normal. My calorie hole was catching up to me. We chatted about the day and Kyle asked me, as he had been every day, what was my favorite and least favorite part of the day. My least favorite was easy, feeling like I was cooking in the solar oven. My favorite part was more difficult, I reflected on our long walk and felt proud of how far I had come with my knee, but also how good Bolton Brown had been. We discussed our options for our exit in the morning and finally got some sleep. 


Day 4

We woke up feeling worked from the day before. As the sun came up, we waited for it to hit our tent before we really got moving. We planned to take a look at Norman Clyde with hopes of climbing up the backside and skiing the north couloir into the Palisades. As we rounded the corner and got eyes on the south side it was clear that it would be a lot of faffing to get up there, it was pretty burned up and would require some scrambling. 


Backside of Norman Clyde 


Plan B was to go up Chimney Pass and traverse over to Scimitar Pass. As we started up to Chimney Pass we found ourselves in another hot, south-facing solar oven. I could tell that I didn’t have many beans that day. Once we got to the transition point to start up towards Scimitar Pass I was really moving slow. Kyle set a booter and I slowly followed, feeling worked and bonky. Eventually, we got to Simitar Pass and transitioned for our final descent of the trip. A 3000’ corn run through the Palisades. It was a great run to finish with. As we got to the end of the snow we transitioned to hiking and made our way down the trail back to the truck where Lone Pine Kurt had picked us up 4 days before. 


Bonking with a view


Final corn run of the trip


Desert walk exit





The Sierra are a special place. I am so thankful to Kyle for showing me the magic of the range and why he keeps coming back for more. I am already looking forward to getting back someday. This was my first overnight ski traverse and certainly won’t be my last. Traveling efficiently through the mountains on skis, sleeping on slabs, skiing with heavy packs, going days without seeing other people, and experiencing amazing views were the highlight of my ski season. The day after we exited, we were already back to looking at maps and brainstorming future trips. 

Outstanding report.  Thank you!

Some fine country and fantastic looking snow. Thanks for sharing 

Whoa, thank you so much for this report! This is an inspiration for me! We happened to be in the same general area the next day after the big cold storm. We went towards Lamarck col from below North Lake and it was a cold windy winter day. Glad that you didn’t ski through hot pow! 

Reply to this TR

2024-05-13 17:55:31