SEQUOIA NATIONAL PARK — We’ve trudged through deep powder, braved icy slopes and weathered rain, wind and snow in an annual quest to reach a ski cabin in the wilderness of Sequoia National Park for the past 13 years. We always had skis on our feet — until this year.
The fourth year of the devastating drought that has dried up wells, forced mandatory rationing and jeopardized California crops has also put a burden on backcountry skiers in search of their snowy fix.
So it was that seven friends hit a dusty trail in hiking shoes Sunday, toting good food, tolerable wine and hefty skis and boots strapped to our backpacks, on a hopeful quest for a few good runs.
Snow lovers who win the November lottery for a bunk at the Pear Lake Ski Hut dream for months of the winter wonderland that lies 6 miles up a tough trail. Even in spring, you can expect to arc turns in the open bowls beneath dramatic ridges, cirques and peaks of the Sierra Nevada, a Spanish term for snow-covered mountain range.
A year ago, we skied from our cars to the hut in fresh snow. Then it dumped for two more days, and we hooted as we shot through the trees in knee-deep powder toward the Marble Fork of the Kaweah River.
This year, we hoofed through a forest carpeted in brown to reach a view of exposed gray granite in the alpine zone. Ski wear was out of the question in the hot sun. Three in our party wore shorts, and one was in a skirt.
It’s never an easy trek in the thinner air above 7,000 feet, but the unwieldy 60-pound packs, with ski tips soaring 3 feet overhead, occasionally snagging branches, added a challenge.
Hikers, usually rare, were abundant and warned us there wasn’t much snow ahead. Thanks, but we didn’t need to hear it a dozen times.
After huffing up 2,000 feet in the first 4miles, the trail lurched downhill to Heather Lake. A sometimes treacherous descent on skis was now a welcome respite from the relentless climb.
Ice we usually cross as a shortcut was melted along the edge of the lake, forcing us to clamber over two little hills and wind around the shore.
Snow was still hanging on in places around 9,000 feet above sea level, but it was too patchy and icy for skis and too soft to trust with your full weight.
We moved slowly, trying not to slip and stepping gingerly to avoid the dreaded posthole — the unexpected plunge through the crusty snow. It didn’t help. We all broke through several times, sometimes sinking crotch-deep and needing help to get out.
It was nearly sunset when we finally reached the cabin, a rustic, granite-and-timber structure built by the Civilian Conservation Corps that opened to skiers in 1941 and serves as a summer ranger station.
The next morning, after a good meal and a good rest, we optimistically buckled on our skis and searched for a route to higher ground and better snow.
Several times we were thwarted and had to take off our skis — first, to cross a rushing creek and then to scramble awkwardly in ski boots hundreds of feet up a steep, rocky incline.
When we crested the ridge around noon, somewhere around 10,000 feet, we were finally looking at a sea of white on the north side of a peak known as Winter Alta.
The sun had softened the snow. It was perfect for spring skiing.