Tableland & Winter Alta Snowshoe

The Tableland is a broad granite plateau in Sequoia National Park along the Kings-Kaweah Divide. While not flat like a table, the topography is relatively gradual and the terrain is almost entirely granite slabs so the name is fitting. Access is from the west side at the Wolverton trailhead and the Lakes Trail. Wolverton is a relatively short and straightforward drive from the SF Bay Area and the Lakes Trail is efficient at getting one up into the alpine (relative to many westside approaches) while passing by some very pretty scenery including Pear Lake and Aster Lake. Once above treeline, it’s a beautiful walk along miles of user-friendly granite slabs to more rugged and remote parts of the Great Western Divide to the east. The open terrain and granite slabs facilitate easy cross country travel. In the winter when everything is snow covered it’s arguably even more efficient! Along with the amazing views, these factors make the Tableland one of my favorite spots in the Sierra and I have visited many times over the years in all seasons.

What makes the Tableland so special is the dramatic 360 degree vistas taking in much of the High Sierra. On a clear day one can pick out familiar features including the Palisades, Mount Ritter and Banner Peak far to the north, and Mount Goddard rising above the Evolution area peaks. Closer at hand is a sweeping view of the Great Western Divide from its northern terminus at Mount Farquhar and North Guard all the way down to Farwell Gap (the end of the rugged portion of the Great Western Divide). In particular, the area around Hamilton Lakes and Kaweah Gap is particularly striking with numerous domes and jagged crags. The Kaweahs rise behind the Great Western Divide adding another layer of ruggedness. One of the best views of the Tableland and surrounding terrain is from Alta Peak. In summer a trail leads from Wolverton to Panther Gap and on to Alta Peak’s summit. However, in the winter the preferred summit is the higher Winter Alta (peak 11,328) which is accessed from the Pear Lake hut vicinity.  The Pear Lake ski hut is a popular ski and snowshoe destination and skiers enjoy the slopes above the hut all the way to Winter Alta. The hut is open to the public during the winter, but reservations are required via a lottery system. If you can’t snag a place at the hut, the winter route to Pear Lake cuts off all the switchbacks and comes in at only 5 miles each way (10 miles roundtrip). After a fairly steep climb up to “The Hump” the Lakes Trail drops into the basin and traverses by Heather Lake. At this point one is presented with options: either stay high and traverse to Aster Lake and Emerald Lake or drop down lower and traverse directly to Pear Lake Hut. The former is much more scenic as the Aster Lake area is very pretty but the latter is quicker and avoids the sidehilling often encountered on the route around Aster Lake. The Pear Lake Hut is not at Pear Lake itself but about a half mile downstream. If heading for Winter Alta, one can either ascend slopes directly above the hut or continue up to Pear Lake before taking relatively steep slopes up to the ridge. Winter Alta is certainly a dramatic destination because it is not until one reaches very close to the top that most of the Great Western Divide is revealed. Beyond Winter Alta most of the winter visitors are skiers doing the Winter Sierra High Route from Shepherds Pass to Wolverton, although the established Skiers High Route goes to Table Meadows and follows the headwaters of the Marble Fork Kaweah River instead of the traverse to Moose Lake Winter Alta (which is far more scenic). I’d like to do the full Winter High Route someday, but it’s certainly a long car shuttle to organize!  I have made three snowshoe visits to Winter Alta. On my first snowshoe out of Wolverton in 2011 I just visited Winter Alta as an out-and-back. On the second trip in 2013, I continued on to a snowbound Moose Lake and crossed the lake on snowshoes. Moose Lake is a large alpine lake with a grand view of the Great Western Divide. It’s among my favorite Sierra lakes and to walk across it was surreal. Unfortunately, the drought happened and winter conditions never came together for a couple years to repeat that trip until this historic snow season. It was time to visit again and adventure beyond Moose Lake. This year I trekked across the Tableland to the east end of the Tableland rim and crossed Moose Lake on the way back. I had initially hoped to reach the summit of Big Bird but found that I needed crampons and ice axe to ascend the final hundred feet of the very icy ridge (and more importantly, for the descent!). For most of the day I had been plowing through 6-8 inches of unconsolidated snow that had recently fallen over a base that was only partially consolidated (so snowshoes were essential) but that same storm also came with strong winds and the snow off exposed ridges leaving a sheet of ice. Without snow Big Bird is a very straightforward talus hop, but with icy conditions a fall on either side of the ridge would be serious (particularly on the east side with sheer cliffs of several hundred feet topped with 50+ ft cornices). After resolving to come better prepared next time, I traversed to Pterodactyl Pass where I enjoyed a similar view, albeit at a slightly lower elevation and with ample room to sit down and eat lunch. After a long break I ascended a high point north of Big Bird for excellent views down to Big Bird Lake, Glacier Ridge, and Mount Brewer. Next time with an earlier start I’d like to snowshoe farther along the Winter Sierra High Route to Horn Col and Copper Mine Peak. This is a route I’m very familiar with during the summer but it would be awesome to see the tremendous view from Copper Mine Peak in winter.

What made this year’s visit to the Tableland so special was the immense, historic snowpack present in the high county. It’s estimated that the high country above 10,000 feet was over 200% of average. Parts of the Tableland looked more like a scene from the arctic than the Sierra with all land features buried in many feet of snow. The snow was so deep over Moose Lake that it had formed snow dunes over the shallower east end of the lake and Alta Peak was like a nunatak rising out of the snowbound plateau.

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Winter Alta & Moose Lake Snowshoe

I had a great memories of a climb of Winter Alta in 2011 so I was excited to come back and this time I ventured further to remote Moose Lake (see route on Strava here).  The view from Winter Alta is simply outstanding. Overlooking Moose Lake and the Great Western Divide, it seems as if the entire range is at your feet.  At around 10,500 feet in elevation, Moose Lake is one of the largest high alpine lakes in the region. Nestled in a shallow bench, the lake is well above tree line which provides an unobstructed view of a large portion of the Great Western Divide and Black Kaweah.  The panorama of Moose Lake and all the peaks in the background is one of the greatest in all of the High Sierra. Complete photo album here.

This area is accessed via the Pear Lake ski hut and a marked winter trail from Wolverton.  The path from Wolverton to the ski hut is challenging for a snowshoe hike with lots of elevation gain but well worth the efforts. The slopes near the hut are fairly popular with backcountry skiers, but I found few tracks beyond a couple hundred feet above the hut and no tracks beyond Winter Alta.  Prior to summiting Winter Alta, I decided to continue further along the Tablelands to Moose Lake. The lake is about 850 feet below 11,328 foot Winter Alta which apparently deters most people from visiting. The snow conditions on this day oscillated between a stable crust and deep powder, but overall not bad for efficient progress. I made my way down some moderately sleep slopes and soon found myself walking across the tundra that is a frozen Moose Lake. I crossed the lake at its center and my poles hit a solid ice platform about a foot and half underneath the top of the powder. From the far end of the lake, I admired the view down the Middle Fork of the Kaweah River, the Kaweah Gap area, and the line of peaks that stretched as far as the eye could see.

I recrossed the lake at a different point and headed up for the summit of Winter Alta taking many photos and video clips along the way. Calm conditions on the summit provided an incentive to stick around and enjoy the scenery for a bit. Once I packed up, the descent went fast and I decided to come down through Pear Lake. After some moderately steep (but soft) slopes, I was on top of frozen Pear Lake, which is located in a rugged granite cirque beneath the Alta Peak massif.  After some more photography and video, I headed down the slopes to the Pear Lake ski hut and started my return to Wolverton.  This proved to be another fantastic snowshoe outing in Sequoia National Park!  I look forward to coming back and exploring further along the Tablelands in the winter, perhaps all the way to Big Bird Peak for views down to Big Bird lake and closer views of the Great Western Divide.