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Touring California's Eastern Sierra

Taking your mom to the volcano is easier than it sounds. We've got a story—and video—of a backcountry tour (with my mom!) with Sierra Mountain Guides near Mammoth.
posted: 01/26/2010
Bernard Rosow in California

The summit smells like rotten eggs, but only if the wind blows just right. The view takes in the eastern slope of California’s Sierra Nevada, a spiky horizon drenched in sunlight. The top, which we reach after two and a half hours of skinning, is 10,220-foot Punta Bardini, a peak in California’s Mammoth Lakes area named after legendary local guide Allan Bard, who died in 1997.

I’ve come to the eastern Sierra for two days of ski touring with—of all people—my 59-year-old mother. Mom had never skied in the backcountry until two days ago, when we skinned out-of-bounds at Alpine Meadows to test her rental AT gear. She’d never put on skins or used a beacon in her life. That’s why we’ve hired Howie Schwartz, an IFMGA-certified guide and the co-owner of Sierra Mountain Guides, who knows this terrain like Sacagawea knew the West. But Mom is still nervous. About avalanches. About volcanoes. About her hat blowing off. About the lack of large coffee mugs at our motel.

As we survey the view from the summit, Howie informs us that nearby Mammoth Mountain is an active lava dome, the source of the sulfuric egg stink. “If the Mammoth volcano erupted, this whole caldera below us could explode,” says Howie. “I don’t expect it to happen anytime soon, but one geologist I’ve spoken to said it could happen in the next couple hundred years, which is like seconds in geologic time.”

The mere mention of the erupting caldera causes Mom to worry, but only for a moment. She’s too busy celebrating her successful summit bid. “We climbed 3,000 feet!” she squeals. “Yay for me! Is it time for lunch?” On the descent, the snow has a spongy texture to it, like angel food cake, because it’s a freak 42-degree day in February. Still, Howie finds us some soft, creamy patches of powder shaded in the trees and we rip turns to the valley floor.

Howie designs custom trips around his clients’ experience and the snow and weather conditions. So the next day, when high winds and elevated avalanche danger limit our options, he takes us to the little ski area of June Mountain to ski out the gates and into what Howie promises is some of the best lift-accessed backcountry terrain in the country.
Riding the lifts to the top of June, he points out a dozen 5,000-foot ski descents in all directions. We exit the gates and skin a couple short laps on a neighboring ridge. For the final run of the trip, we summit Dream Bowl, a broad concavity that starts out steep and mellows to a gentle 30 degrees. At the bottom, Mom seems delighted (that we’re done) and relieved (that it was an eruption-free ski trip). “I’m pretty impressed with myself,” she says. “Now, can we go drink some chardonnay?” 

Lodge: Stay in either town, Mammoth or June Lake. June’s Lake Front Cabins rents one- and two-bedroom cabins with basic kitchens, wi-fi, and scenic lake views (from $80; lakefrontcabins.net).
Food: Start at The Breakfast Club in Mammoth for a toasted egg-and-cheese sandwich. You’ll have to pack your own lunch, so grab groceries at the Vons in Mammoth. For dinner, try the Sierra BBQ Kobe Burger with apple-wood-smoked bacon at June Lake’s Double Eagle Resort.
Max Elevation: 13,000 feet
Max Vertical Drop: 5,000 feet
Average Daily Vertical: 4,500 feet
Price: $750 for one person, $1,000 for two, and $350 per person for groups of three to five. Prices don’t include food or lodging, but hotel discounts are available.
Info: sierramtnguides.com

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