Wild Ice

Backcountry ice skating in the High Sierra
By Leonie Sherman

Brent Taylor leans into a turn on a frozen lake in Dusy Basin, with Isosceles Peak in the background. Photo: John Dittli

Brent Taylor leans into a turn on a frozen lake in Dusy Basin, with Isosceles Peak in the background. Photo: John Dittli

You can’t carve a tele turn in the first three inches of powder that fall in the High Sierra, and that thin white blanket makes backpacking a grim affair. Climbers flee to the Buttermilk or the Gorge. Skiers haunt the bars and pray for
snow. Backpackers relive the glory days of August and patiently await the return of the light.

But two East side hard-men and a small but dedicated cadre of enthusiasts eagerly anticipate that lost shoulder season. Before the first major storm and after a few weeks of plummeting mercury is prime back-country ice skating season.

“About 20 years ago, I was working in Mammoth at the Tamarack Ski Center, and it just would not snow,” John Dittli explains. “But all those lakes above Mammoth were freezing solid. Well, hockey skaters just started converging on these lakes and forming impromptu teams and tournaments. For a High Sierra fanatic like myself, it was the logical next step to start fantasizing about all my favorite back-country lake basins.”

The fantasy didn’t fully mature until Steve White moved to the East Side five years later. White quickly realized the potential of skating the alpine lakes of the High Sierra. “I’ll never make it as a world class mountaineer, but this is something I can do. There is no history of this sport. When you go out and skate on one of these high lakes, you can be pretty sure you’re the first person ever to do it.”

Now Dittli and White are like peanut butter and chocolate, Yoko and John, Mallory and Irvine. “For most of the year, we’re not even in contact,” Dittli says. “and then we have this super tight intense partnership for as long as the ice lasts.”

They started with front-country lakes, then moved into side-country — remote, but with road access. Eventually they graduated to multi-day back-country trips. For the past decade they’ve been steadily ticking off their favorite summer spots, skating on close to a hundred High Sierra lakes. Though they’ve hit most of the classics — Rae Lakes, Cathedral Lake, Thousand Island Lake, Evolution Lake, Royce Lakes, Tulainyo Lake, Palisade Lakes — they’re not even close to satisfied.

“It’s the most amazing thing up there,” White gushes. “I mean, we’re talking world class ice, hard and smooth as glass, not some bumpy rough crud. And the sensation, it’s like flying, this effortless gliding movement. I don’t know why more people aren’t doing this.”

Few people are lucky enough to view Banner and Ritter from the ice. Photo: Steve White

Few people are lucky enough to view Banner and Ritter from the ice. Photo: Steve White

I can think of a few reasons. For starters, it’s crazy dangerous. When I plunged through the ice on my first attempt at side-country ice skating, warm dry shoes were only 100 yards away. If I had fallen further than knee deep and my nearest change of boots was 15 miles away, that might have ruined my day.

For another, Steve White and John Dittli are both incredibly skilled back-country travelers with inhuman amounts of strength and stamina. They hike in bitter cold conditions, often on snowshoes, during some of the shortest days of the year. Most of us can’t make it to Evolution Lake from the trail-head on a summer day, never mind getting there with a few hours to spare in the dark of December.

Brent Taylor checks the ice depth with an ice screw. Photo: Jeff Griffiths

Brent Taylor checks the ice depth with an ice screw. Photo: Jeff Griffiths

Finally, like all California ice sports, the season is short and unpredictable. “You have to be willing to just drop everything and go for it when the conditions arise,” White explains. “It can be hard on my marriage.”

Sooner or later, every high lake is going to freeze. A few days after that, if temperatures remain below freezing at night and no major wind kicks up, the ice will be thick enough to skate on. You have to be in the right place at the right time, which requires an intimate knowledge of the terrain. The ideal skating lake is ephemeral, ever elusive, shifting with elevation, weather and conditions.

Of course, once the snow falls, it’s all over. Sure, there are deeper lakes, bigger lakes, lower lakes, where conditions will become perfect after the high lakes are buried. But we all know what that first big dump of snow means: ski season has arrived.

Matthes Crest looms above Cathedral Lakes as Rob and Laura Pilewski enjoy ice-skating in northern Yosemite. Alpine ice-skating allows visitors to experience places with which they are deeply familiar from a whole different perspective. Photo: John Dittli

Matthes Crest looms above Cathedral Lakes as Rob and Laura Pilewski enjoy ice-skating in northern Yosemite. Alpine ice-skating allows visitors to experience places with which they are deeply familiar from a whole different perspective. Photo: John Dittli

Gazing down over Tulainyo Lake, at 12,800 feet, the highest navigable lake in the U.S. To bag this pristine lake, Dittli and White had to climb over six thousand vertical feet, much of it off trail, and cross a class three pass. Photo: John Dittli

Gazing down over Tulainyo Lake, at 12,800 feet, the highest navigable lake in the U.S. To bag this pristine lake, Dittli and White had to climb over six thousand vertical feet, much of it off trail, and cross a class three pass. Photo: John Dittli

 

Ice formations along the edge of Tulainyo Lake.”The beauty and wierdness of these ice formations is hard to describe,” White says. “Studying this whole new medium is one of the things that makes alpine ice-skating so much fun.” Photo: John Dittli

Ice formations along the edge of Tulainyo Lake.”The beauty and wierdness of these ice formations is hard to describe,” White says. “Studying this whole new medium is one of the things that makes alpine ice-skating so much fun.” Photo: John Dittli

 

Banner and Ritter beckon from the far end of Thousand Island Lake. The immense quiet of the frozen landscape is disturbed by constant creaking and groaning as the ice shifts and expands. “The lakes, they sing,” Dittli explains. “It sounds sort of like recordings of whales I’ve heard, just this deep throbbing.” Photo: John Dittli

Banner and Ritter beckon from the far end of Thousand Island Lake. The immense quiet of the frozen landscape is disturbed by constant creaking and groaning as the ice shifts and expands. “The lakes, they sing,” Dittli explains. “It sounds sort of like recordings of whales I’ve heard, just this deep
throbbing.” Photo: John Dittli

White grew up in the Adirondacks and came from a family of wild ice skaters. “We all used to skate on Lake George when I was little. I remember seeing moving pictures of my grandfather skating from the early 1900s!” Now White carries on the family tradition with a twist, flying over smooth surfaces many miles from the nearest road. Photo: Jeff Griffiths

White grew up in the Adirondacks and came from a family of wild ice skaters. “We all used to skate on Lake George when I was little. I remember seeing moving pictures of my grandfather skating from the early 1900s!” Now White carries on the family tradition with a twist, flying over smooth surfaces many miles from the nearest road. Photo: Jeff Griffiths

 

Fin Dome is prominent from Rae Lakes, where Dittli and White enjoyed some of the finest skating of their lives. “That was a hard hike in, over two high passes, often on snowshoes,” White explains. “But once we got there it was all worth it. Smooth, hard, completely black ice. Wow.” Photo: Steve White

Fin Dome is prominent from Rae Lakes, where Dittli and White enjoyed some of the finest skating of their lives. “That was a hard hike in, over two high passes, often on snowshoes,” White explains. “But once we got there it was all worth it. Smooth, hard, completely black ice. Wow.” Photo: Steve White

———————————————————————————————————————————

Alpine Skating Safety

Taking a pair of blades to a frozen lake deep in the back-country is an inherently dangerous activity. But you can remove a lot of the risk with some common sense and basic safety precautions.

“Falling in is usually not that big of a deal,” insists Steve White, who has seen about half a dozen people take the plunge in all his years of skating. “Most people don’t even use their ice claws to get out.”

Ice claws are basically handle-sized dowels with nails sticking out which snap together for ease of transport. When you’re ice-skating you should always have a pair around your neck. They look like over-sized ice picks, which is essentially how you use them: if you fall in, you yank them apart, reach as far onto solid ice as possible, dig in your claws and pull.

Once you extricate yourself from icy water, you’re going to be dripping wet and freezing cold. Whenever ice-skating, you need a full change of dry clothing close at hand.

In Sweden, where skating tours on frozen canals are popular, people carry their clothing in a dry bag on their backs, which serves as a flotation device should they fall through the ice. Leaving spare clothing on shore is the common practice in the High Sierra.

Finally, don’t skate on ice unless you know it’s thick enough. This poses an obvious conundrum, but just creep out from a solid edge with an ice screw and take a quick measurement before strapping on your skates. Four inches will support a pick-up truck; two inches is marginal and you should wait for more ice to form. Ice depth varies around the edges and at outlets and inlets.

— Leonie Sherman

Leonie Sherman specializes in mild mountaineering and misadventure. She has rambled, kayaked, climbed and skied from Southeast Alaska to Southeast Asia, and now devotes 5 months a year to exploring the wonders of the High Sierra.

Facebook Comments

2 Comments

  1. Elizabeth

    I am searching for a lake/pond that is accessible for ice skating when frozen.

    Back in Europe, it was pretty easy to find places for ice skating. When I did something similar here (Washington DC metro area) I got ordered off of the ice.
    I saw the posted pictures and I am jealous of the opportunities for wilderness ice skating in the backcountry places in NY,

    Would anybody know if in my area (even two hours drive radius) there is ice skating possibility out in the wild?

    Thanks,
    Elizabeth

    Reply
  2. Jimmy

    I’m a Nordic Skater from back East and live in Tahoe. I want to find other Nordic Skaters
    To go with.

    Jimmy
    407-417-7311

    Reply

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

X
- Enter Your Location -
- or -