Every season in the Sierra has its perks and challenges. Routes in the summer are mostly predetermined by the usual trails or above treeline scrambling. In the winter there is something truly magical about exploring. The routes are only determined by the level of your imagination and comfort level. The normal modes of travel include ski mountaineering, splitboarding, and snowshoes. When the weather goes through enough freeze/thaw cycles like what we are experiencing right now, it produces a crust that is supportable to run on with Kahtoola Microspikes. It is an unbelievably freeing type of running.
Running from Squaw Valley to Sugarbowl is a very popular and epic route along the Pacific Crest Trail. It is a route I’ve done a dozen times and still remains one of my favorite trail sections in the area. Doing it in the winter has been on my mind for years. I’ve heard stories from Chris McGovern that he has skate skied that section in the springtime. My skate skiing skills are not quite up to that. I’ve heard other friends doing it on Backcountry skis but hear it is a lot of flat traveling and not a lot of fun descents. So, running it in microspikes has been on my list for a while.
On February 15th I met local Truckee mountain athlete Robert Schwartz at Sugarbowl Ski Resort at 7am. We left a car there and drove over to Squaw Valley to begin our adventure. I recommended we travel south to north to make our climbs on the more frozen southerly-facing slopes and to make descending easier on any northerly-facing powder pockets.
At 7:30 we ran through the Village at Squaw Valley completely out of place in running clothes and Salomon hydration packs. We strapped on our microspikes and headed up the not yet opened groomers. We passed by many snow grooming machines, ski patrol and lift operators that luckily just waved to us and never questioned what we were up to.
The first of many summits we checked off was the Escarpment. The wind was bone-chilling and the sky was cloud covered which was actually beneficial as it kept the snow firm all day to limit the occasional post-holing. Next, we summited Granite Chief Peak and descended down the ridgeline over to Billy’s Peak. We encountered some knee-deep powder on the north/east facing ridge descent over to Billy’s. As soon as we got back over to a south facing and sun-exposed slope, we were back on firm snow to run on.
The mapped out plan was to simply follow the ridgeline of all the peaks over to Anderson but we soon came to a cliff on the north side of Bill’s Peak. A quick decision was made to drop down the west side over where the PCT lies and we side hill traveled over to Tinkers Knob.
We were beginning to get fatigued near Tinkers Knob and were just half way. We actually talked about skipping Tinker’s as we have both summited it many times. Of course, there is some sickness with mountain athletes and getting so close to a summit and not getting it felt very wrong. Our mountaineering chromosomes were twitching, so we made a quick summit and were thankful we did.
After Tinker’s Knob it was way easier running on top of the ski skin tracks. Anderson Peak was the next summit which was easy from the south face. To shorten the trip we took a gamble and dropped down the very icy and steep north face. If the steep face and ice weren’t bad enough, the wind-blown powder on top of it made for a very sketchy and slow walk down. Once we made it to the ski hut below, we looked back and decided coming down that was a terrible idea and we should have just followed the PCT route around it.
A mile or so north of the hut we passed the first people we would see on the trip. They were on backcountry skis and traveling from Sugarbowl to Squaw. The well-packed path from there from the dozens of snowshoes and skis that have traveled that section made running easy and fast again.
Arriving at our last planned summit of Mt Lincoln at Sugarbowl Ski Resort, some skiers were standing at the lift and were videotaping us running up the mountain from the backside. They were quite intrigued and asked a bunch of questions. I asked Robert how he wanted to return as we could run downhill to our car, or, if he was masochistic enough, we could just go summit Mt Judah. Of course, he grinned and pointed to the next summit.
From that last extra summit, I told Robert that I am at 6850ft of elevation gain and it would be pretty epic to just summit Donner Peak since we were so close. One last summit of Donner Peak and we both got over 7100 ft of gain and summited every mountain that we ran by on our route.
The last mile was down the groomed run on Sugarbowl and back to our car. Huge smiles on our face as we gave a very enthusiastic high five. 17 miles with 7100ft of gain in five hours. We were exhausted and smiling ear to ear. So pumped that we summited Escarpment, Granite Chief Peak, Billy’s Peak, Tinker’s Knob, Anderson Peak, Mt Lincoln, Mt Judah, and Donner Peak.