Sugarbowl to Squaw Ski Traverse

Last week my friend Tim reached out to me and Ondine to see if we’d want to to a ski tour from Sugarbowl Resort to Squaw Valley Resort… uhhhh YES!

Tim and I have done a few climbing trips to Wyoming but this was our first ski tour together. This is a route he’d done a handful of times in the past but had eluded the two of us for the last couple years since I moved to Tahoe. The traverse more or less follows the Pacific Crest Trail along a ridge from the summit of Sugarbowl to Tinker Knob where it drops into a deep valley, only to ascend back out and drop down into the Shirley Lake area of Squaw Valley.

Saturday, April 14
Distance: 14.9 miles
Duration: 10 hours, 55 minutes, and 37 seconds
Average Speed: 1.4 mph
Minimum Elevation: 6204 feet
Maximum Elevation: 8811 feet
Total climb: 4845 feet
Total descent: 5682 feet

The goal is to leave a car a Squaw, then drive to Sugarbowl, ski the whole traverse, and be able to take the lift from Shirley Lake (before it closes at 4:30) to the top of Squaw and ski back down to the car. Ha, so much for that – this was a really long day!

Ondine and I carpooled up to Squaw where we met Tim. Then we all got in my car and headed to Sugarbowl. At Sugarbowl we picked up “backcountry Up-and-Out” passes from the “special tickets” office (we’re so special!) and headed to our one-way lift ride.

From here, I’ll mostly let the pictures do the talking since this was such a long trip and I’m lazy.

My first lift-served back backcountry trip

At the top, we scoped out the ridge line, ducked the ropes (legally!) and headed off on our adventure!

The ridge leading to Squaw

We started down the backside of Sugarbowl at 10:30 on a perfect bluebird day.

A perfect day to be out!
Tim leading the way along the ridge
Tim and Ondine traversing below the ridge line
What a group!
Bear prints along the ridge!

We finally stopped for lunch at 12:45 at the Sierra Club’s Benson Hut just below Mt. Anderson to the North.

Lunch at the Benson Hut just below Mt. Anderson

Climbing Mt. Anderson ended up being the technical crux of the trip. The snow was much firmer than Tim had anticipated making it hard to walk up the peak in ski boots. Luckily, since Ondine and I didn’t know what to expect on the trip we brought some help in the form of crampons. I had full-size climbing crampons for my boots and Ondine had some that clipped into the front of her Alpine Touring boots. Tim, however, didn’t bring any. Having done this traverse a number of times he’d never encountered conditions this firm and didn’t think he’d need them.

Firm snow on Mt. Anderson

With my full-size crampons I had no trouble going up. Ondine, with front points only, had a harder time – having to go straight up using her ice axe. Tim opted to ascend the face along the rock band where he could get better purchase in the wind eroded snow and have something to hold onto if needed.

Ondine climbing the steeps on Mt. Anderson

It took 30 minutes but we were all on the top by 2:00pm.

Ondine tops out Mt. Anderson
Tim makes it to the top of Mt. Anderson

From the top of Mt. Anderson the route continues along the ridge to Tinker Knob.

Crossing the ridge from Mt. Anderson to Tinker Knob

We made it onto the flanks of Tinker Knob at about 10 minutes past 3:00pm. At this point we were pretty sure we weren’t going to be taking that lift ride up from Shirley Lake.

Crossing a dry patch at Tinker Knob

After reaching Tinker Knob, the route heads down into a deep valley before ascending back up to the final ridge above Shirley Lake. We opted to follow the traversing line of the PCT (left side of image below) but realized later that we would have been better off just skiing right down into the valley to save precious time.

Looking into the valley below Tinker Knob
Boot-packing the traverse below Tinker Knob

After a brief rest/snack break at about 3:40pm I found some snow that would lead all the way into the valley. I took my skins off for the descent while Ondine and Tom opted to leave them on.

Crossing a meadow into the valley

By the time we reached the trees at the upper part of the valley it was already 4:30pm and we were starting to worry about running out of daylight.

Coming through the trees in the valley
An avalanche across the valley (dead center in the photo)

From here, we had to drop even deeper into the valley through a maze of rocks and small cliffs. I scooted ahead to scout for possible lines that would make it down to the valley floor and found one without too much trouble. We just had to climb over about 10 feet of class 3 rocks to get to it.

Negotiating some rocks to get to a good line
Heading down to the valley floor

We reached the bottom of the valley at 5:00pm. After crossing a few streams with thin snow bridges we headed back up what was to be the second-to-last ascent before dropping into Squaw.

Ascending the second to last hill
Heading through the woods toward Shirley Lake

After spending about 45 minutes skinning through the woods – periodically checking Ondine’s GPS since we no longer had a high vantage point – we camp upon a steep ridge that we hadn’t expected to have to climb. Based on our maps and what we’d seen earlier, we knew (hoped??) that Shirley Lake should be just on the other side. We had to contour around a small valley before heading up the to the ridge crest. I got to the top of the ridge at 6:20pm and shouted back to Tim and Ondine that I’d found the promised land!

View looking down at Shirley Lake from the final ridge

The ski down into Shirley Lake was fun. It was interesting terrain with decent snow. We picked our way down, trying to keep right to arrive at the bottom of the lifts. We finally saw some signs marking the ski area boundary and knew we’d made it!

We arrived at the bottom of the lifts at 7:00pm, so much for that 4:30 lift ride!

Finally made it to Shirley Lake!

Skinning back up the groomers (most decidedly no long groomed after a long, warm day) was by far the most exhausting part of the day. As the sun was setting, the choppy, tracked out snow was starting to freeze. This made it very difficult to get a good grip with our skins. I Found myself sliding back downhill on more than one occasion.

Skinning up from Shirley Lake as the sun sets

We got to the top of the lift, ready to ski all the way back to the parking lot at the base of Squaw, at 8:00pm. After stopping to take off our skins, put on our headlamps, and chat with a (slightly surprised) groomer operator, we started on our way down the icy slopes as it got dark.

Skiing down Squaw with headlamps

We reached the base at 8:42pm, tired, but feeling very happy to have had such an awesome day with no real problems other than speed/daylight.

We got to the Squaw base after 8:30pm!

This was an awesome trip. I’m super grateful to Tim for showing us this route. I’m already thinking about trying do it during the winter (versus spring) next year!

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