Sonora Pass offers summertime backcountry skiing a short drive down US 395
There was a Lake Tahoe takeover of Sonora Pass this past weekend.
Just like some birds fly south for the winter, backcountry skiers and snowboarders from Tahoe travel south in the spring and summer.
When the snowline creeps up the mountains in the basin, it’s time to head for higher ground and the journey to taller Sierra Nevada peaks is about two hours south on U.S. 395.
I wasn’t the only Tahoe resident to make the trip last weekend.
I ran into five people and four were from the basin.
I camped Friday night next to a couple from the South Shore. Eugene said he and “his girl” were headed to Leavitt Peak in the morning.
The next day, after I finished hiking and skiing Sonora Peak, I picked up a hitchhiker from Incline Village, who was carrying skis and wearing ski boots and just finished skiing Leavitt. His partner also was from Tahoe.
“Everybody from Tahoe comes here now,” my new Incline friend said while I drove him to pick up his car at the summit.
The person I met not from Tahoe wasn’t there to ski or ride, but to retrieve a memory card from a camera he placed five miles deep in the wilderness a couple of years ago. He’s a bow hunter and was monitoring the mountain lion population he says has grown while deer are in decline.
My snowboarding buddy Austen is a Sonora native, about 90 minutes away, and was like an outsider even though he was in his home county of Tuolumne.
We had originally planned for an evening ascent but that fell through and as we drank beer into the night we came up with a brilliant idea — a pre-alpine start the next morning under a mostly full moon.
I crawled out of my tent at 2:30 a.m., he got out of his car and we stared at each other for a minute, and we both said “nope,” let’s do it in the morning.
The Sonora Pass summit, on U.S. 108, sits at 9,624 feet and the surrounding peaks are just off the road and reach about 11,500 feet, including Sonora Peak, and there remains much snow from winter.
In perspective, Heavenly Mountain Resort at its highest point is 10,067 feet, the highest in the Tahoe Basin.
Sonora Pass is a popular destination from when the pass opens in May or June (hopefully not earlier) until it closes in (hopefully) October or November.
The Pacific Crest Trail runs right along the ridgeline.
The hike to the Sonora Peak summit is relatively easy, about two miles with an elevation gain of about 1,800 feet.
But when you put boots and skis on your feet and take a more direct line up one of the gullies, yikes, it was a lung burner for me.
My partner was patient with me as I stopped countless times to suck air after taking 20 to 30 steps.
I’m still fighting back from an Achilles tear and my right leg is not yet what it used to be. Hopefully it’s still improving, but it’s hard to tell. Staying positive with a bum leg is my biggest challenge.
Our trip up was 1.5 miles long and we gained 1,500 feet according to the AllTrails app, short of the summit but at the top of the snow line.
The view south was spectacular, snowy mountains for as far as the eye could see.
We had lunch, a really dry PB&J I couldn’t quite choke down, and stared at the world.
We pointed out endless lines and descents we wanted to try out.
We thought about Tioga Pass, which provides more access to even higher Sierra peaks, at that should be opening anytime.
We also fantasized about the terrain that would be accessible with just one chairlift from pass to peak. But then the hordes would come and that fantasy turned into a nightmare.
But the hike easily was worth every gasp for air and ounce of sweat.
We toured up what we skied down and knew that the large-sized suncups, a golf club-like divot in snow but larger, would be soft and we would plow right through without issue.
We skied all the way out to the highway and back to our car.
The round trip was about 4 hours.
We went back to camp and I found a nice place along a raging Stanislaus River to dunk my leg in the icy water. I didn’t dunk it for long for fear my leg would freeze solid, snap off and float down the river.