Hiking, camping and fishing are probably the top three reasons people flock to the border of Yosemite National Park when the Saddlebag Lake Resort opens for business each summer. Located off Tioga Pass on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada, Saddlebag Lake is a gorgeous destination, home to a wealth of exceptional outdoor activities. Skiers and riders are also quick to make a visit when the road to the lake and resort opens. The backcountry ski opportunities accessible from Saddlebag Lake include access to White Mountain, Mt. Conness and North Peak. All three of these peaks are gems, and currently all three are boasting exceptional summer ski conditions.
One of the novelties that comes with hitting the Saddlebag Lake Resort right when it opens is you can take a boat taxi across the lake. It costs $7 one-way, or $11 round-trip, and while it only saves you three miles of dirt on the approach and hike home, how often do you get a chance to be ferried by boat to hit up some summer skiing?
Usually, you’ll be loaded up with fisherman, hikers, and maybe a few overnight backpackers that will all be interested in why you’re bringing skis on the boat. However, but the time you reach the end of the lake and everyone starts to see the ribbons of snow falling off the north side of Mt. Conness your mission will make a lot more sense.
If you’re planning on skiing the North Peak couloirs be sure to bring crampons and at least one ice axe if you plan on climbing your line. From the end of the lake you can make the approach by either climbing up the southeast face to be able and look down into the couloirs, or you can approach from the north and gain a view from the base of North Peak to see what you’re getting into. There are three couloirs that split the north face of North Peak. The middle line usually doesn’t go, the looker’s right line is the North Couloir that is closest to the summit and skis at about 45+degrees, and the looker’s left line is a tad shorter, steeper, and showcases brilliant granite walls.
I’ve approached these couloirs from both directions. The southeast side is pretty easy and straightforward, but what you loose by going this way is being able to eye these steep descents before you commit. Climbing them gives you good beta on how the snow is holding up as sunlight is blocked from these lines for most of the year until late spring. They also turn into classic ice climbs in the late summer/fall and with their steep pitches it’s nice to get a feel for what you’ll be skiing by climbing them first.
For this season the run-outs of both lines, including the snow that connects the southeast face to the top of the couloirs is pretty melted out. Nonetheless, the snow in the couloirs were great by about 2 p.m. If anything the snow consistency was still a little firmer than soft, but was totally biteable, smooth, and lacked prominent runnels that often show up in the summer months. Since my crew and I took the backside approach on this adventure skiing was done cautiously as a few scattered rocks and small patches of ice were easy to negotiate, but not having climbed up the lines first, it was paramount to ensure there wasn’t anything bigger, bluer, or rockier waiting down below. All in all, a couple of classic splitter couloirs that are waiting for hopefully many more tracks before all is said and done in this zone for the 2011-2012 ski season.
The north face couloirs of North Peak are committing, and while there are some steep descents falling off the north side of Mt. Conness, there are several options here if you’re looking for more of a leisurely summer ski day that doesn’t involve crampons or an ice axe. While I did have the fortune of using the water taxi this past week to access North Peak, I went back to ski off Mt. Conness using my bike the following day. The trail that skirts Saddlebag Lake is actually a pretty fun mountain bike loop, and beyond just hiking it or taking the water taxi, using the trail is a great option to access the ski objectives at the end of the lake.
The snow is incredibly smooth back in this area right now as the sun-cups are mostly limited to the flat slopes on run-outs. This is a great zone to yo-yo laps since there’s so many diverse chutes, bowls, and panels to shred, and the views gained from the east ridge are spectacular. You might even want to go off to ski something in the next drainage over on White Mountain once you get to the top of the ridge.
I choose to hit up the skinny chute just right of center for my first lap after a fun mountain bike ride from the parking lot. It was a fun line that held a truly perfect surface of smooth summer corn snow. Every turn was worthy until the snow disappeared at the bottom.
After that lap it was easy to head back up and traverse over to another skinny chute that drops right back to the Saddlebag Lake trail, close to where I stashed my bike, which was a great way to cap an awesome day of summer snow sliding in the High Sierra.
All that was left to do was drive back down Tioga Pass Road to the Whoa Nellie Deli for some gourmet grub, head off to a nearby hot-spring, and watch the sun set over the mountains. People often ski well into the summer and fall in the Saddlebag Lake area, but if you’re looking for a mellow day in beautiful mountain country anytime soon, and want to get a couple of turns in while you’re at it, this is a zone that will for surely keep you entertained in the now, and will certainly keep you coming back for more in the future.