A Dome Too Far (Sentinel Dome)

3-5 Mar 2000 - by Harlan Suits

Trip members: Harlan Suits, Roy Lambertson, Chris Kerr, John Langbein, Karen Davis.

Sometimes when you put maps side to side, you see ski destinations that you would otherwise miss. Sentinel Dome, for example--not the well-known formation near Yosemite Valley but the remote overlook of King's Canyon in the southern Sierra.

To reach the Sentinel, we planned to ski north from Lodgepole about 15 miles through hilly, forested terrain. On the eve of the trip, we knew the going would be hard: storms had dropped lots of new snow and our two best trailbreakers had dropped out. There was also a "chance of showers" after the first day.

Friday morning we drove up through the drizzly lowland clouds into brilliant sunshine and a redwood wonderland draped with snow. "Up here 'chance of showers' usually means 10 inches of snow," said the ranger at Lodgepole before we embarked. I chalked up her warning to Park Service conservatism. At that time we had already lost an hour due to construction delays on the road.

Memo to self: inspect ski equipment before each trip. At the trailhead I noticed one of my skis' metal edges was broken with two cracks extending up toward the top of the ski. Would the ski last the trip? I would have to risk it, and be prepared to remount my binding if the ski snapped in two.

Our slow start became slower. We had trouble finding the bridge over the river under the deep mantle of snow. At first we chose the wrong direction to search--downstream instead of upstream. After crossing, we lost the trail on the other side, skinning laboriously up through steep, hummocky forest before we found it again. Dimly I remembered making both of these routefinding errors on my last visit to this area many years ago!

On the trail, snowshoe tracks provided welcome relief from trailbreaking. But we found the trailmakers only 1-1/2 miles from the trailhead, just stirring from their tent. From this point the trail turns north and is difficult to follow when under snow; it is unmarked and the trees are often not dense enough to indicate a trail corridor. We soon lost the trail and tramped a serpentine course through the interlocking tree wells of closely spaced trees.

It was high time for a trailbreaking god to surge forward and push the pace, I thought. Our party included several trailbreaking heroes of yesteryear, but we seemed to have lost our spark. Age, injury, raising families--many excuses came to mind but were best left unsaid.

The one aid to navigating by compass was that the route went due north or at times magnetic north. We stumbled on a trail corridor and made better time. But soon the warm, sunny weather created a devious side effect: melting snow soaked our ski bottoms and climbing skins, and the powder underneath stuck to our skis like glue. Meanwhile, big snow bombs melted off the trees, leaving craters beneath. We skied on slowly but unscathed.

Near Cahoon Pass we glimpsed cloud-filled valleys to the south through the trees and Kettle Peak to the north. We were on route. After plodding through woods all day, our reward was a lovely ridgetop campsite just south of JO Pass, with a cloud carpet below and a beautiful sunset brewing above. We had skied 7 miles in about 7 hours.

The evening was uneventful until John sniffed in the direction of our tent and exclaimed, "something's burning!" In fact, my tent group conducted two combustion experiments that evening. First, I determined that supergaitors do indeed burn when they drape against the stove burner--but without flame. Later, Roy discovered that foil food pouches, rather than insulate the stove from the snow, burn with a hot, tenacious flame, even when tossed out onto the snow.

After a windy night our layover day dawned fair. From camp, the ski to sentinel Dome appeared to be more than 8 miles each way. Success seemed unlikely with the current snow conditions (breakable crust overlaying powder), but we headed out to see what we could see--and ski what we could ski. We cruised along at first, then the crust melted and we had sticky snow again. We skirted Kettle Peak, descending a steep 500-foot slope of heavy powder from its western shoulder. A sea of clouds still covered the Central Valley to the west. To the east, the snowy giants of the Great Western Divide came into view. To the north, Mitchell Peak (10,000 ft+) was the tallest thing in sight--a worthy goal for the day's outing.

Our slow progress put even this objective in doubt, however. At 2:00 we were at the base, with an 800-foot climb remaining. Roy and I were tired, but summit fever befuddled our higher brain functions. We plodded upward, knowing we would not return to camp until after dark. The others turned back.

The slog was worth it. At 3:00 we approached the summit and a grand snowy panorama spread in all directions, spanning two-thirds of the horizon: to the north the wall of King's Canyon, including Spanish Mountain and the Monarch Divide; to the east the Great Western Divide; to the southeast, Mt. Silliman and environs. The forested ridge to Sentinel Dome undulated further north, descending gradually toward the great chasm. It looked like a long haul, and it was hard to imagine that it provided a better view.

The descent was challenging. Breakable crust that had softened somewhat during the day was refreezing. Then the long, zombie plod home. Night fell as we ascended Kettle's west ridge. We arrived back at the tents at 7:45, the deep ski tracks a foolproof aid to navigation. Our tentmate, Chris, had food waiting for us, bless her heart.

The next morning, dry snow slithered off our nylon tent fly. It was snowing. We had been planning to ski Kettle Peak--so tantalizingly close--before we skied out. Now there was no point, and my sore muscles celebrated the respite. Still, we had to ski out several miles of difficult terrain in the storm--hopefully before the snow filled in our tracks.

We packed up and headed down. The powder was now about 6 inches deep. Better than nothing, but not deep enough to negate the breakable crust underneath. All of us took falls on the steeper, heavily forested slopes, but we made steady progress. The wind and temperature of the storm were not excessive, and we were able to follow our tracks the whole way, saving time otherwise spent stopping, consulting map and compass, and scratching one's head.

As during our approach, snow bombs fell from the trees, but these were powder bombs that created mini-whiteouts. Damp, we reached the cars at 1:45. The snow level extended down to 4000 feet, creating a wonderland of white-etched scrub pine and chapparal on the drive down to the Kaweah River. The ranger was right: "chance of showers"in Sequoiah does mean about 10 inches of new snow.


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