Advice requested - Ski trip to Benson Hut
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Simon Weiss
(SimonGtr) - MLife

Locale: Bay Area
Advice requested - Ski trip to Benson Hut on 01/05/2012 14:58:53 MST Print View

I'm trying to plan a 3 person, 2-3 night back country ski trip involving ~1 night in a hut and ~1-2 nights in the snow. I've done something similar with Ostrander Ski Hut in Yosemite, but want to try something new.

It sounds like Benson Ski Hut in the Tahoe area is available for the dates we want. (Possibly New Bradley Ski Hut as well, but less convenient dates). I do NOT have avalanche training, and want to avoid steep slopes in general - as the Ostrander trails typically allows.

Has anyone here been to Benson Ski Hut, and have recommendations for skiing/traveling around that area? Does it seem pretty doable to string together a 3 night trip while avoiding steep (avalanche prone) slopes?

Thanks!
Simon

Bob Gross
(--B.G.--) - F

Locale: Silicon Valley
Re: Advice requested - Ski trip to Benson Hut on 01/05/2012 15:49:35 MST Print View

Let's see. Yes, there are distinct avalanche zones along that route. Skiers have died. Make sure that you have wide climbing skins with good adhesive. The weather tends to be fairly bad up there, and you just can't afford to be fooling around with skins that don't stick right.

First, I will assume that you are starting near Lake Mary on Old US 40, the Old Donner Pass Road. I make that assumption, because there isn't any good place to park at all. We used to get there early in the morning, whip out about three snow shovels, and dig a car-size hole in the nearest snow drift, making sure to get the tires off the pavement. You ski across Lake Mary and continue southbound across the low contours of Judah Ridge, and just barely avoid the downhill ski runs (go higher). That heads you up to the first steep slope that connects Judah Ridge with the saddle toward Mount Lincoln. Contouring that slope is one of the first nasty areas. That gets you to the saddle. Continue as if you are heading up Mount Lincoln, except that you stay just outside the downhill ski area. If the east face of Mount Lincoln has any deep snow, that is the the big nasty area. It slides routinely. Instead, stay off the steep area and continue directly to the Mount Lincoln summit where the ski lift empties and there are downhill skiers around. If you attempt to leave the roped off summit, the ski patrollers might hassle you. Instead, if you stay outside the roped off area, you are not their responsibility and you should be good. If they do hassle you, you just tell them that you have a reservation for Benson Hut, point south, and then go.

You follow the Sierra Crest south for several miles, always staying within 100 yards of the actual crest. There used to be a series of wooden trail markers on trees all along there, and each marker listed the bearing and distance to the next marker. There is often a cornice along the actual crest, which is why you don't want to get too far that way to the left. Plus, if you get too far down into the trees to the right, it is harder. Just follow the crest out until it starts to rise toward Anderson Peak. Benson Hut sits just below timberline on the north side of the peak, and it has a great view to the east. This year, it appears that the snow won't be too deep, so you ought to be able to find the hut, and its outhouse is just west of it near the trees. The bunks are downstairs, and there is flat floor space in the attic.

It is normal to enter by the attic window, climb down into the hut, open the front door, and then shovel your way out.

From the hut, the logical direction to go is south toward New Bradley Hut, and that's a problem. There are three route possibilities. One is to try to cut directly across the east face of Anderson Peak. I've done that, and I don't recommend that because of avalanches. The second is to cut all the way around the west side of Anderson Peak. I've done that, and I don't recommend that if the wind is blowing. That west slope slides also. The third way is to ski and climb up the narrow chute on the north side to the Anderson Peak summit. It's a lot of work, but we have found it to be more predictable. From Anderson Peak, you can continue to follow the crest south toward Tinker Knob. From there, you have to decide whether to cut southeast toward New Bradley Hut, or to continue south toward Squaw Valley.

We used to do this a lot as a three-day trip. One day got us to the hut. The second day, we would ski to the hill overlooking Squaw Valley, eat lunch, and then ski all the way back to Benson Hut. Then the third day, we would head back out to Lake Mary to the cars. We did this trip a couple of times when the weather was so bad that they had closed Mount Lincoln for downhill skiers.

MORE: Coldstream Canyon is somewhat northeast of Benson Hut. Supposedly there is a route through there to the hut which can be used in bad weather. I've skied into the canyon far enough to see up to Anderson Peak, but it looked nasty to try to work up the east face of the Sierra Crest. At the hut, there is a map which shows the canyon route for escape purposes.

--B.G.--

Edited by --B.G.-- on 01/05/2012 16:09:07 MST.

David Olsen
(oware)

Locale: Steptoe Butte
Re: Advice requested - Ski trip to Benson Hut on 01/05/2012 16:06:02 MST Print View

It is a nice trip from either direction. It can be wild weather with 100+ winds on the ridge, but much more likely blue bird days. The avalanche hazards tend to be in pockets, so route finding is very important. I wouldn't go without training and gear for avalanche.
Slides have happened on even the most stable of days because of all the different
places snow wind loads and the different aspects transitioning at different rates. Peter Grub has less hazard, tho some have died traveling there from avalanche or from getting lost. In either case, being able to navigate in thick weather is key. A GPS makes this much easier. The Bradley Hut south of Benson is up a ski able road and is much less exposed, as is the Ludlow hut.

Bob Gross
(--B.G.--) - F

Locale: Silicon Valley
Re: Re: Advice requested - Ski trip to Benson Hut on 01/05/2012 16:12:30 MST Print View

What David just said is very true. New Bradley Hut is on an unplowed jeep road, so you know it never gets impossibly steep.

Probably nobody remembers Old Bradley Hut, which was on the other side of Squaw Peak, between Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows. Now, _there_ were the avalanche paths.

--B.G.--

Simon Weiss
(SimonGtr) - MLife

Locale: Bay Area
Sounding a bit complicated - would likely bring a GPS on 01/06/2012 14:34:21 MST Print View

Bob - as always you are full of useful information. Thank you!

Benson hut sounds a good bit more challenging than some of the alternatives, which may explain why it has better availability. Have you ever skied to Bradley Hut from Benson Hut?

You wrote: "There used to be a series of wooden trail markers on trees all along there, and each marker listed the bearing and distance to the next marker." Do you mean that there are no longer markers? At that they may still be there, but you haven't seen them for a while?

Otherwise, how difficult is it to follow the crest? In the summer, I like to go off trail with a map and a compass, but I think perhaps for a trip like this I'd add a GPS of some kind.

I expect I'll recommend 3-pin bindings with wide, metal edged skis (something I used to cut a trail to Ostrander). I've used Alpine Touring setups in the past, but since we're trying to stay off steep stuff, might as well go with 3-pin to save weight.

David - thanks for the advice. Will see about using Ludlow or Bradley instead. planning to get some real avalanche training (rather than just my book reading) for next year. Either way, will likely borrow or rent a GPS to use.

Bob Gross
(--B.G.--) - F

Locale: Silicon Valley
Re: Sounding a bit complicated - would likely bring a GPS on 01/06/2012 16:51:27 MST Print View

"Benson hut sounds a good bit more challenging than some of the alternatives, which may explain why it has better availability. Have you ever skied to Bradley Hut from Benson Hut?"

No, I haven't, but some of my friends have. The trip to Benson Hut was about the most challenging route that I skied in the 1980's.

"You wrote: "There used to be a series of wooden trail markers on trees all along there, and each marker listed the bearing and distance to the next marker." Do you mean that there are no longer markers? At that they may still be there, but you haven't seen them for a while?"

If you go way back to the 1970's, that was thought to be a pretty evil route to follow, especially if the weather is bad. It's right along the Sierra Crest, and when the wind blows, it can make crust over the whole route. My ski group always had an annual trip there, and for four years they couldn't make it. It was either weather or a broken leg or the group got lost or whatever. I hiked in on bare ground for the first time in 1979, just to make sure that I knew where things were. The first time that I led there on skis was about 1982, and by that time, the markers were visible. Over the next ten years, some of the markers gradually disappeared. After another ten years, I had the route wired in my head so that I didn't even bother to look for the markers.

"Otherwise, how difficult is it to follow the crest? In the summer, I like to go off trail with a map and a compass, but I think perhaps for a trip like this I'd add a GPS of some kind."

Yes, study the topo map in advance, and set up your route with waypoints. When you get to the field, try to go based on what your logic suggests, but you have the GPS waypoints to back that up. I've been up there in blizzard conditions, and you can't even follow the ski tracks of the person who is 20 seconds in front of you. In fact, one time it was my group that could not follow me in front. You want to visually follow the crest all along, but pick your ski route to take advantage of the terrain. The best route might diverge from the crest by 100 yards.

"I expect I'll recommend 3-pin bindings with wide, metal edged skis (something I used to cut a trail to Ostrander). I've used Alpine Touring setups in the past, but since we're trying to stay off steep stuff, might as well go with 3-pin to save weight."

I've never skied on anything except for 3-pins, so I am biased.

"Either way, will likely borrow or rent a GPS to use."

Borrowing or renting a GPS receiver is questionable. You really need to practice a lot with one before you are competent to rely on it in a place like Benson Hut. Also, that is a good place to use avalanche transceivers. It is absolutely mandatory to have at least one or two shovels along.

--B.G.--