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Sagebrush Survival Skiing in the Toiyabes

This is just going to be a brief post, about some struggles that were very real. The type of struggles that typically only happen to privileged people, with access to gear and vehicles, who live in snowy places. So pardon any perceived whininess in the following story, which is about some #firstworldproblems and about some #sagebrushshredding .

Location/Snow Report:

Toiyabe Range, Specifically Big Creek Canyon

Snow depth 6 inches to 2 feet. Lots of exposed sagebrush and other vegetation. Substantial surface hoar forming in wind-protected areas, with higher elevations extremely wind affected. Skiing was limited to roads/low angle grassy slopes or areas that had significant wind deposition. Conditions were a mix of chattery windbuff, chalk, cream, breakable windcrust, and sagebrush tip-knockers.


The Toiyabes are one of central/Western Nevada's greatest ranges (see that nice looking photo on the home page?!). When driving East on highway 50, they loom up as the first really tall series of mountains. Bunker Hill dominates the northern part of the range (at 11,474 ft. and the highpoint of Lander County it's definitely more than a hill), while Arc Dome soars above the southern Toiyabes to a height of 11,788 -the highest in the range.

The Toiyabes as seen from the West near highway 50. December 16th, 2018. This range always seems snowier from a distance.

I had been seeing snow in the range for a couple months while driving past, so I thought that maybe it was time for some exploration! We'd skied in the Toiyabes before, but had experienced access difficulties when approaching from an obscure place on the East. This time we hoped to use Big Creek Canyon for access -which has road that reaches all the way up to the crest of the Range, and drops over to the East side. We hoped to drive the road as far as snow would allow, and then skin from there.

Big Creek Road.

We drove as far as my truck could make it -which was pretty far - and then started our hike. Conditions looked ok, and it was clear that we would find skiing somewhere. Although where was unclear. But, as we skinned higher we realized that the snow was a lot thinner than we'd hoped.

Heading up the Road

Still, Big Creek Canyon is an awesome place, with a lot of skiing potential. We took in the scenery, planned out future lines, and tried to not get blown away by the wind -which seemed to increase the further up canyon we travelled.

Scoping zones in the upper canyon.

As we walked, we discussed our options. Skiing the road was certainly a possibility, maybe the best. The other options mostly consisted of wind-deposited zones, and we eventually decided to head up to the top of a north facing slope on a ridge. The line didn't look super inspiring, but it was at least snow covered. We knew we'd come out for the adventure and not the skiing. So with that in our minds we pushed on.

Wheres the snow?? Its up there on that windlip!

As we got higher the sagebrush became more covered, and wind picked up. It became clear that the snow conditions on our line were horrible. Chalky, bumpy, firm, variable, punchy, windbuff, windfuck, windcream-ish, meh, shitty, shitfuck, tough, chattery, and occasionally bulletproof. Did I mention it was variable?! Oh yeah...and did I mention it was thin?

But for some reason we switched to bootpacking an kept going. This is a privilege of the first-world, being able to willingly and intentionally put yourself into miserable situations just for the fun and adventure. No one was making us do this, but our own determination and pride was too strong to turn around. Some people call it hell. Other people call it type-2 fun. I call it getting blown around on a cold windy ridge, smashing toes kicking steps in firm snow, and questioning everything you are doing.

Me: "Hey there, dealing with the wind and snow is hard. Want to know what else is hard? heheh"

Theresa (or maybe I) mentioned something about training for Denali (or the Grand Teton, or Everest, or something equally scary and big). A little bit of wind and shitfuck snow is par for the course on bigger peaks -so we thought we could suffer another 30 minutes of uphill. I thought about a quote from one of my ski-mountaineering heroes Ptor Spricenieks: "One does not become a better skier by skiing powder snow only". Determined, we pushed on to the top of the snowfield

Theresa "I can't wait to trim some sage" O'Halloran was still smiling somehow.

After dropping in, I fully realized our true folly. It was easily the worst conditions all year, and my 124mm underfoot bentchetlers were not ideal. The skis rocker chattered and vibrated underfoot as I turned, making my sore toes scream. I noticed Theresa also appeared to be survival skiing, and her smile was inverted. As we got down lower the snow condition improved, although things also became more thin. We ended up in a gully filled with sage, and rock, and some creamy hop turns. Then more bushes and punch crust. Yep, total survial skiing!

Mellow road turns...not just for Dads and Hippies

Finally we got back to the road, where I had never been so happy to see low angle cream. We made some powder-8s down a wider section, and laughed about how that had been the best skiing all day! Probably should have lapped it. Then we cruised back to the truck under a majestic sunset. Just enough fun at the end, to make us forget about all the misery.

I'll be back for sure. It seems like Big Creek Canyon is a great place to access the range, and has loads of good skiing potential. Just have to wait for some snow and the right conditions.

The North face of Bunker Hill looking thin but alluring for future turns.

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