Objective: Hiram Peak North and Northeast Face via Highland Lakes Road
When: December 4, 2021
Vertical: 1200 feet of skiable snow
Snow Surfaces: Facets, Breakable Crust, Melt Freeze
Author: Sarah Newsome
It’s rare to get to Mt Hiram with such ease in December. With Highland Lake Road open and mostly clear of snow, we were able to drive to Tryon Meadow in a Honda Element. A lifted truck might get you another 3/4 mile to Highland Lake. We walked a few hundred feet to snow and started skinning.
We skinned mostly over snow, with short burnt-out sections, taking our skis off to walk to the SE side of Highland Lake. We were able to skin from the SE side of Highland Lake to about 9400 ft, then had to put our skis on our back to climb the rocky ridgeline to the summit. A classic, scoured and rocky Sierra ridgeline, the east ridge provided an option to boot up without having to transition to and from skins on our second lap.
The turns on the Northeast aspect of Hiram Peak were a mix of cold facets and a deteriorating breakable crust. The crust wasn’t enough to turn us away from taking another lap after we finished our first and Hiram Peak received enough snow in the first few storms in October of this year that coverage was good.
Even with soft, faceted snow, the snowpack was deep enough to prevent most encounters with rocks. I didn’t hit a rock on my first run and got away with a light “love tap” on the second.
Blackbird Mountain Guides Evan Haines and Mark Speicher eyeing the Ebbetts Pass backcountry near the top of their line on Hiram Peak.
As expected, the snow was variable. We saw sun affected surfaces, breakable and supportable crust, wind effect and facets. Below 9000ft the snow was more spring-like: supportable, melt-freeze snow with scattered dirt patches that were mostly avoidable.
The biggest hazard of the day was a weak breakable crust. Faceting was in the process of breaking this crust down and it was weak enough that it was manageable to ski. The true north side was faceted but much shallower and rockier. Truly early season adventure skiing!
While the conditions were by no means “all-time”, Hiram Peak was certainly a worthwhile adventure. The skiing was better than expected, and better than the majority of the Sierra right now. Easy access and decent turns made this a great objective. It was fun to use this season’s meager early-season snowpack to our advantage to score some fun backcountry skiing and explore a peak that’s usually much more difficult to reach!
As low pressure moves into California this week, the backcountry will see loading on the weak, persistent facets that made the skiing good. This could lead to long lasting avalanche problems and should be considered a red flag for skiing high, north facing terrain with significant new snow on it. Avoid consequential terrain where this faceting exists with new snow on top until there is evidence that it can support the new load.