After our day in the Palisades, Lane, Nick, and I were going to give Giant Steps on Williamson a go. Obviously, this isn’t a Giant Steps trip report…
After spending a day driving up to the North Fork Bairs Trailhead, we talked with a group that had skied it that day and they didn’t have the best conditions to report. Deep sastrugi and windboard, followed by a ‘biblical’ exit (that’s bad). We didn’t feel very stoked to smoke ourselves with an epic of a day to ski bad snow when there were plenty of other good options to explore.
We made a late night pivot to explore University Peak out of Onion Valley. The road wasn’t accessible all the way to the trailhead, with a number of avy paths that had deposited large debris across the road. We’d have to walk the road for a mile or two, but it seemed like a low entry cost.
We kept our alarm clocks set for 4 AM and made the drive over to Onion Valley from North Fork Bairs. We were able to drive to the furthest north switchback on the Onion Valley road before snow made the road impassable. We started in trail runners and hiked our skis a mile up the road before transitioning to skins.
We weren’t quite sure of our ‘gameplan’ other than we wanted to check out the E Face and N Face of University Peak. How we achieved that, we weren’t quite sure. Looking at the map, we thought we might be able to connect the E Face to the N Face from the top of the E Face…but we’d have to scope that out. Either way, the E Face would quickly cook in the sun, so we’d head there first. We followed the low angle valley up to the base of the E Face and made quick time in the firm morning sun.
The ‘East Face’ confused us a bit; looking up at the ‘east face proper’, we couldn’t spot a simple line through a myriad of rocks. There was an eastern shoulder that was fall-line and simple…maybe that was what the guidebook was referring to? Looking at the map, the top of this ‘eastern shoulder’ didn’t seem simple to connect to the N Face…our plans might get trickier.
We looked at the map and agreed that we should still climb up to the top of this ‘eastern shoulder’ and ski it at least. We could scope the sneak-over to the N Face, which probably wouldn’t go. There was definitely a way to move over onto the south face of University, which could take us to the summit and northern shoulder of University where we knew we could access the N Face.
At the top of the eastern shoulder we peered over onto the northern slopes of University. It looked very complex; there seemed to be some snow ramps that led upwards, but it didn’t look the most promising. We thought ‘maybe?’ there was a way through, but no guarantees. Our plan of traversing around to the south face was getting more and more appealing.
We dropped the E Face in good corn and agreed to continue over to the S Face. It seemed like a great way to follow the corn-cycle all day long.
We’d be on a baking south face in the heat of the day, which would be a warm and exhausting climb, but there were low angle slopes we could stick to in order to remain out of harms way. We climbed up one of the small chutes that connects the eastern flanks of the mountain with the southern slopes.
Once we connected to the south face, we were treated to a beautiful chute that dropped 2,000′ to the valley bottom. We were excited! Views out to the western edge of the Sierra were just a cherry on top.
We traversed the broad south face for a few hundred feet towards the west, where more and more rocks began to appear. Initially, we were considering skiing the south face from the summit, but after the western slopes seemed less and less continuous we opted to ski back to the main chute that we had crossed on our way up.
CORN! We skied great corn to valley bottom on this southern chute, with awesome positioning above the southern Sierra. The pitch was 35-40 and smooth, which made for really fun turns.
At the valley bottom, we transitioned to skins and began to move towards the SW flank of University. We spotted another chute that appeared to lead to the upper slopes of the mountain and we began to climb it. The snow was warming quickly, which made booting tough so an endless series of kick turns ensued. It was a hot climb with little wind…we were baking in the Sierra heat.
At the top of the chute we gained the broad, low-angle slopes of the upper south face. Near the top we took our skis off and scrambled over some dry patches to the NW shoulder of University. Based on the topo, it didn’t appear that the N Face would go from the summit, but did appear to go from this NW shoulder just a few hundred feet below the summit.
From the NW shoulder, we peered over at the N Face. It went beautifully from where we were staged. Looking over at the eastern shoulder where we were earlier in the day…it DEFINITELY didn’t go. HA! There were a number of rock slabs and cliff-outs that we would have experienced. A good call in hindsight to wrap around to the south face. Additionally, the N Face definitely didn’t go from the summit; this NW shoulder where we were was the only way onto the N Face.
The N Face was nice, warm chalk. Great for steep skiing. The N Face is consistently steep around 40 degrees near the top, then mellowing to 35 degrees near the bottom. It’s a lovely run that dumps you straight back into the Kearsarge drainage.
After a great route around the mountain, it was time to head back to the cars. While there was plenty of more terrain to ski, it was late in the day and we wanted to optimize skiing corn back to the road as opposed to isothermal mush. We quickly skied back to the Onion Valley trailhead on smooth corn. We had to push/skate a little bit on the flat section in Onion Valley, but quickly enough we were back at the road and retrieved our shoes. A very Type 1 day with little BS!
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