The call of back-country ice skating

Steve White skates in Granite Park in the John Muir Wilderness. | John Dittli

Imagine effortlessly ice skating across a crystal-clear lake of pure glass. The air is cool on your exposed face as you glide by a backdrop of granite peaks and stark blue sky. Now imagine hiking 20 miles to get there. Would you do it?

Pennsylvania native Steve White was skating on Mill Pond in Bishop 30 years ago during a cold, droughty winter when he was struck by a crazy idea.

“How the ice talks, how it looks, how it behaves — it’s just magical. I’m a back-country powder junky and I like a good ice day as much as a good powder day. You go home with a feeling that you really touched Mother Earth.”  –John Rossetto

“The light bulb went off in my head,” says the wily White. “I’ve skied through the High Sierra. I know the lakes freeze. There must a time when they freeze before the snow falls.”

White had grown up skating frozen ponds in the Adirondacks and Poconos. He called up his adventure buddy and photographer John Dittli. What started out as a couple of diehard back-country skiers killing time until the snows came is now one of the greatest and most graceful of frontiers in extreme sports.

For safety tips and to check ice conditions, visit https://bit.ly/2ZGwOmk.

For one of their first objectives, Dittli and White set out for Tulainyo Lake beneath Mount Russell on the Inyo and Tulare county line. At 12,800 feet, it’s the highest body of water in the Sierra Nevada.

“Nobody knew anything about it,” says White. “It was crazy. I since found out there are a few people who made forays. They were doing it in a dry winter because they couldn’t ski. It’s a reason to go out in November with easy hiking to these beautifully frozen lakes. It’s another level of magic. It’s another level of beauty. It’s a gift from nature. Nature has frozen a lake and someone is here to take advantage of it.”

Karey Todd is all smiles on the crystal clear ice at Stony Ridge Lake. | John Rossetto

Not for the faint of heart
Keep in mind this activity is not without its obvious hazards. For starters, you’re skating on untested ice at high altitudes miles from your car and possibly much farther from definitive medical care — that is if you make it out of the water alive. Almost every experienced back-country skater goes in at one point or another. It’s recommended to carry rescue picks, a throw rope and extra dry, warm clothes to go along with the rest of your typical back-country survival kit. An ice-climbing screw can be used to test the thickness of the ice. Amazingly enough, one can skate safely at as thin as 2 inches in the correct conditions.

White has fallen through twice. One time he hopped right out like it was nothing. (Many alpine lakes are actually quite shallow, especially around the edges.) The next time on Evolution Lake 15 miles from the trailhead, he wasn’t quite so lucky.

“As I fell forward on my chest, the ice held,” he says. “I didn’t get submerged but I cracked a few ribs. I knew the ice was getting thin and I wanted to know how far I could go. I’m wiser now. There is a perception of risk. It’s an adrenaline rush. You know that it’s 4 inches thick, but you can see the bottom whizzing by. It’s the horror of falling through. We all have that.”

In addition to long, dark silent hikes, part of the peculiar delight of back-country ice skating is just how unpredictable it can be to find the proper lake at the ideal time. Oftentimes committed seekers will plan a trip that passes by several lakes at various elevations and aspects in hopes of finding the perfect conditions.

“It’s like Papa Bear, Mama Bear and Baby Bear,” says White. “You never know until you get there, but sometimes one will be just right. Part of the fun of the sport is you really have to pay attention to it. You almost have to be obsessed.”

Together, Dittli and White have skated countless hidden, sublime lakes in iconic destinations throughout the High Sierra such as the Kuna Crest, Rae Lakes along the John Muir Trail and beneath the shadow of Mount Whitney.

“Steve and I have always been really secretive of the lakes we skate,” says Dittli. “We’re coming from a background of wanting to preserve a place. You don’t want crowds of people showing up at a lake because of the impacts that can happen in a fragile environment. We joke to ourselves that we never imagined that back-country ice skating would ever get popular. But I said the same thing about back-country skiing in the 8os and how wrong was I?”

Peter Underwood explores the ice falls alongside Angora Lake. | John Rossetto

Back-country skating in Tahoe
With warmer weather and lower elevations in Lake Tahoe, finding the appropriate conditions for ice skating can be even more elusive. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t folks who don’t try.

John Rossetto and Peter Underwood have been exploring the skating of alpine lakes in our region for years. They’ve had success in Desolation Wilderness where they skated a plethora of obscure corners including Azure, Half Moon, Heather and Susie lakes to name a few. Others have reported good conditions at Frog Pond and Summit Lake high on Donner Summit. Last season, people skated on Emerald Bay for one day.

“It’s a fine edge you are going after here with safety and the fun of it,” says Rossetto. “How the ice talks, how it looks, how it behaves — it’s just magical. I’m a back-country powder junky and I like a good ice day as much as a good powder day. You go home with a feeling that you really touched Mother Earth.”

And sometimes, if you’re really lucky, the ice speaks. One Christmas night Rossetto was camping with his wife on Gilmore Lake in Desolation Wilderness when the enchanted ice quakes began.

“You have to hear it,” he says. “People say it sounds like everything from whale noises to an original Star Trek photon torpedo. The tone is hard to describe. It’s truly otherworldly.”



ICE SKATING SPOTS
Always check conditions before going onto the ice.

Coldstream Canyon, Truckee
Boca and Prosser reservoirs, Truckee
Donner Lake, Truckee
Sawmill Pond, South Lake Tahoe
Caples Lake, Kirkwood
Lake Davis, Beckwourth
Indian Creek Reservoir, Markleeville