Backcountry ice skating in the High Sierra
By Leonie Sherman • Photos by John Dittli and Steve White
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.”
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.
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.
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.