After three days of clipping bolts in the Owens River Gorge, our fingertips needed a rest... Skiing sounded like a nice alternative! We had been contemplating Elderberry Canyon on the north side of Mt Tom from our campsite for the last couple of days and decided to give it a shot. The backcountry skiing guidebook to the Sierra says "Elderberry simply is the best ski descent anywhere in the range". After you've done it, it is not hard to believe.

The canyon drops from a glacial moraine just below Mt Tom's summit (13,652 ft), and is plainly visible from US395 near Bishop, CA. The descent faces North-East and receives a fair amount of sun starting early morning, which softens the snow nicely by mid-day. The trailhead sits at the end of an old dirt road, at about 6200 ft. The canyon proper and reliable snow cover start 500 ft above the trailhead. From there on, the slope is remarkably constant (20 to 35 degrees, approximately) and wide open. We were not after a summit, and had not started too early (7:30AM from the trailhead). We climbed for about 4 and 1/2 hours and made it to the moraine, at about 11,100 ft, where we took the skins off to have a quick lunch then descend. For those looking for a longer descent, it is possible to climb and then ski some of the steep gullies (I estimate 45 degrees) leading from the moraine to the North Ridge. The summit can be reached from there by following the sharp ridge (which is not skiable). As it is probably another 2 1/2 to 3 hours from the moraine to the summit, an early start (5AM or earlier at the trailhead) would be advisable if one hopes to still find good snow conditions on the descent.

This place is obviously a major death trap in unstable snow conditions, since the canyon is bordered on both sides by steep gullies that funnel into it. When we climbed it, however, the snowpack was amazingly stable (certainly compared to anything I've ever seen in Colorado; we dug a quick pit to check it out).

Early morning there was a 2" thick frozen crust. Timing our descent just right (we started down around 12:30PM), we had fantastic snow conditions, with good powder on the more northerly aspects, and slightly heavier snow near the bottom of the canyon, but no crust. We were lucky enough to find an almost totally untracked line all the way down. An amazing descent! Definitely highly recommended.

Elderberry Canyon, Mt. Tom, CA Sierra

March 8, 2003 - Randonnee/backcountry Ski, 5000 ft, North-East facing
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Mt Tom, as seen from our camp. Elderberry is the obvious Canyon dropping from the summit.
 
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We carried our skis for the first 1000ft or so, as we approached the mouth of the canyon.
 
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Putting the skins on.
 
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And 4000 ft to go...
 
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Great views to the Owens Valley.
 
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Taking a break.
 
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And up again...
 
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Taking the skins off and ready for 4000 ft of fun.
 
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Panoramic view along the way.
 
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Looking North along the East Side of the Sierra.
 
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Yeeehaaa!!!
 
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Nice turns!
(high res. images are about 300KB)