Desperate. That is how I would describe skiing the other day in the Sierra Buttes.
Normally skiing in the tail-end of summer is not too bad, in fact I have skied excellent smooth corn in August, but this year it was definitely a little more desperate. First of all, it was challenging figuring out just where to ski as all the “normal” local snowfields I knew of had already melted out. But still hopeful, I chose my late summer standby, the Sierra Buttes. I have skied there many times in August, September, even October, as there are a few snowfields that hang out there year-round. And second of all, with a particularly remote, north facing snowfield in mind, I knew it would be rather desperate getting to it. Furthermore, after the rather dismal winter we just had and the warm summer we are in, I wasn’t confident there would be any snow anywhere close.
Regardless, I loaded the skis and boots in the truck and drove out Hwy 89 North; always a nice drive. I sat in road construction traffic three different times, and finally made the turn off to Gold Lakes Road. Once there, the Sierra Buttes loom directly in front of you, somewhat menacing, like a dark, secret castle. I still could not see the snowfield I was hoping to ski, but two smaller hanging snowfields on the mountain’s east flank assured me it would be there since it rests in a north facing col.
The Sierra Buttes always impress me with their sharp turrets of volcanic rock, steep scree slopes, and huge vertical relief- on a great snow year you could ski from the top, at 8,587ft, to Sierra City and get over 4000ft of vertical! In fact, driving up the road to Packer Saddle, I kinda felt like I was in a small, remote area of the French Alps-a steep winding road, cool summer temps, and tons of mountain bikers getting juiced up for their iconic descent into Downieville.
After the pavement ended, I left all the sporty SUVs and bikers behind, drove a little further and parked at a small trailhead and gate. From there I hiked up to the trail to the fire lookout on top of the tallest Butte. (I can’t imagine being in a lightening or wind storm while perched in that hanging albatross. On one side it overhangs a huge drop straight to the scree pile below. But steel cables hold it all together so it should be ok… Yikes!) Usually from this high point you can see Mt. Lassen and Mt. Shasta to the North, but today, and for the past many days, they have been obscured by wildfire smoke near Quincy, CA., and in Lassen National Park.
I ate a snack and then walked out a north ridge, peering over the edge, pleading for my snowfield to be there. It was! Way down below me. The crux of this particular ski is just getting to the snow- an airy, 5th class scramble down loose, polished rock, to a steep ramp, and finally onto a scree pile which tapers into the snowfield.
When I got to it, the snow looked and felt OK. It was a bit sun-cupped but soft enough to get an edge in. The current window of sun on this north face is only about two hours long so I quickly put on my boots and skis and angled into some lumpy korn turns. Having not been on skis for a month, the first lap of 25 + turns felt a bit awkward. So, I did another lap and felt much better. It is skiing in August after all, so why not make the most of it!
After a long pause to take in the beautiful scene; the craggy Buttes above me, the turn etched snowfield at my feet, the deep blue Sardine Lakes far below, and the Gold Lakes Road fading into the soft greens and browns of the distance, I scrambled up to the ridge above the trail. From here, I retraced my steps and made it back to Sierraville in time for an early dinner at Los Dos Hermanos, the Mexican Restaurant there. Yum.