Spring in the Eastern Sierras

Backcountry Magazine has given significant attention to the Eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains in recent months — with multiple articles focused on or set in the range that includes some of the tallest peaks in the lower 48. But around the same time Backcountry Editorial Director Adam Howard was setting the stage for the magazine’s coverage with a trip to Cali last spring, the Cold Smoke Crew was deep in the throes of their own California Dream.

Last April, Cold Smoke owner Kyle Jones and longtime friends and accomplished Colorado skiers Elliot Halverson and Brian Calcatera headed to the Eastern Sierras for big lines and big times.

“Last year was kind of a banner year, and that’s where the idea came from,” said Jones of a winter the likes of which the Sierra had not experienced in at least 35 years.

The Eastern Sierras are the remote east side of California’s Sierra Nevada range — divided from the easily accessible west part of range by tall and snowy mountain passes closed for six months of the year.

The Cold Smoke Crew rolled out of Colorado around April 1 and rolled into Bishop within two days, spending the next week and a half camping in remote spots to better access towering peaks they planned to ski.

“Going and skiing Whitney was kind of the main goal, which we ended up not doing,” Jones said.

The Colorado crew had been skiing big lines in the Centennial State, Canada and Alaska for years, but the Eastern Sierra required a whole new level of commitment.

“This was on a whole new level, some of the wildest creek crossings,” said Jones. “We’d hike in the dark for miles just to get to these peaks they were so big and took so long to climb.”

Arrival was followed by driving up canyons and using binoculars to scout thousands of square miles of terrain — and coming to the realization that one person could not ski all that they were seeing in a lifetime. The typical day entailed rising from the sack at 3 a.m., drinking some coffee and throwing a little food in the pack to eat on the road.

But while the goal of dropping in around noon hadn’t changed compared to back home, the approaches were twice as long — or longer.

“We were so exhausted after the first day,” Jones said. “We had a really good ski down Esha Peak all the way to our camp spot and went and sat in some hot springs that afternoon.”

Wind and inclement weather in coming days sent the crew further south in search of solace, leading up to the group’s big objective for the trip — thinking that they were still building toward skiing Whitney, the highest summit in the lower 48 and an 8,000-foot descent.

However, on the route toward the Whitney Portal they became dissuaded by the number of people approaching Whitney. And, they found Lone Pine.

“You’re driving out of the town of Lone Pine, going up to the Whitney Portal, and there is just this amazing ski coming down the peak — a true shot,” Jones said.

The more the crew looked into it, the more they liked the idea of pursuing Lone Pine. It required hiking over dirt and sand for three hours just to get to snow, with cliffs rising on both sides of the canyon — all for a ski descent of more than 6,000 feet.

“It was by far one of the most incredible mountaineering routes I’d done,” Jones said of Lone Pine. “We got to the top, opened the log and determined we were among the 20 or so people to ski that thing in the last 20 years. To me, that was way more rewarding than Whitney.”