Mt. Tom 13,652’
Elevation change – 7500’
In Mid-March of 2003 I skied from the summit of Mt. Tom with Scott Shield and John Crus. It was Scott’s 30th birthday. We are all the same age. 20 years later I’m sitting at home creating this website post and I feel quite a bit older and broken. Back then I had zero injuries outside of maybe fingers and a sprained ankle. I’ve had many surgeries, ailments, nerve and tendon issues, crutches, and couch time since then – mostly in the last 10 years. But I am just as psyched on backcountry skiing today. I would like to thank my sponsor ADVIL for staying by my side through thick and thin. And although Scott and I loved tele back then, I’m sure glad I have fat and lightweight AT skis now.
We were never the super daring type to ski big mountains in prime powder conditions. We had responsibilities to family and businesses. We were (and still are) mostly just into the adventure of finding summits and getting back to the truck before the snow wet slides or re-freezes. If we got a few good turns in, we were happy. We knew we needed to go to Mt. Tom early in the season, but not too late. The choke down low below Elderberry Canyon needs to be snow covered for easy passage. Otherwise, there is just too much thrashing. The Elderberry canyon route up Mt. Tom has a low elevation, low angle, east exposure start. New snow might reach out into the valley after a storm, and then melt back to the base of the mountain in a few days. January is usually too early, and April is too late. If you live right there, maybe you go get it right after a huge storm in February or March. We would play it safe and go ski these big peaks a few days after new snowfall and accept the breakable sun crust or hardened snow from east wind.
When you see the professional skiers nailing the pow on a big peak like this with avalanche terrain above them, they are getting to the TOP of the mountain near dawn. THAT is impressive and takes determination, and usually route knowledge from a local or AMGA guide. Their media images need to be money shots in the best conditions and sunlight. Additionally, it is just safer to climb in the coldest hours, which are at night. I never got there, but I re-learned over and over; you never regret starting earlier. It hurts but always pays off. The crux is pulling away from work and family while on a short leash. We drive hours to get in position to ski a mountain with no daylight to observe the conditions or route layout. We fake sleeping for a few hours and pick a start time that gives us visibility when we leave established trails. And we move as fast as the group can move. 1000’ an hour is pretty easy. Try for 1500’ or more per hour. Expect to slow down in high elevation thin air, and on challenging steep or rocky terrain.
We didn’t find good snow on this day, but we were super psyched. It was the biggest climb we had done outside of Mt. Shasta. John handed me a sip of his Red bull at the top. I’ll never forget how good that tasted. We skied off the summit without great snow coverage or visibility of a good line, but we knew the snow would go through the headwall. We were staring at it all morning. We felt around for the path through on skis, hitting a few rocks here and there in the thin coverage. Wind must strip the snow off this upper headwall soon after it snows. I’m sure we made more than a few good turns; I can’t remember. Feeling the strong sense of relief and accomplishment with your friends at the truck after a big day in the mountains is the reward. These big days in the backcountry are never forgotten. Who remembers a ski area day? I can remember all of my backcountry days on rock, trail, and skis so vividly. Duh, you all know I’m a geek, I document and post it all. I remember who I was with, how I felt, and how the mountain terrain affected me in many ways. I tuck the photos away that night and move on to planning the next one. Over time I stumble into the photos or a conversation about the that day and re-live it for a minute or two.
Enough blabbering. Get the guidebooks, read more online, talk to a guide or a local hardman or hard woman in Bishop, and go ski Mt. Tom. It’s the biggest thing they got there. You stared at it in awe every time you drove from Mammoth to Bishop. In fact, I bet you have pulled over on the side of hwy 395 at the overlook for Mt. Tom and wondered if anyone skis that thing. Yup, now it’s your turn. Mt. Tom stands alone proud and is not part of the Sierra Crest. There are routes to ski on the North and South Side as well, but you’ll probably ski the classic Elderberry canyon and hopefully from the Summit. If you can’t get up there fast enough, skip the multi-hour walk along the ridge up there and just drop back into your skiing while the snow is good.