As the affordability and access to backcountry ski gear improves, more and more skiers and snowboarders are taking their hobbies off piste—but it’s important to remember that, even in a winter wonderland, the dangers of venturing away from civilization are very real.
It’s recommended that those wishing to ski in the Eastern Sierra backcountry make use of the excellent avalanche advisories and advice offered by the Eastern Sierra Avalanche Center, a nonprofit organization run by local backcountry enthusiasts. ESAC (pronounced “esack”) employs two avalanche advisors, as well as compiles snow observations from a host of independent observers, and issues avalanche advisories 7 days per week with a “bottom line” to give skiers a quick-and-dirty assessment of dangers. Note that these advisories are recommendations only, and are no substitute for backcountry skiers knowing how to assess snow conditions themselves (if you really want to dial it in, invest in an AIARE Avalanche Course, given by Sierra Mountain Guides on the Eastside).
That said, there are a lot of fun and relatively low-commitment spots to get away from the crowds and “earn your turns,” as they say.
The Sherwins are probably the most well-known and easily accessed backcountry drop-ins out of Mammoth. You can hike up to the top of the Sherwins from an access point beside Twin Lakes (park on Lake Mary Road just at the gate closure) and ski down—you’ll end up in Sherwin Meadow and have to ski out, easier for skiers than snowboarders and best if you shuttle a car to that destination. You can also access the Sherwins by skinning up from the Borrow Pit (near the propane farm on Sherwin Creek Road) and from Mill City (just before the Old Mammoth Road closure).
The Negatives are another great day trip made pretty easy if you have a Mammoth or June Mountain Pass. Just cruise the lift to the top of J7 and descend past the ski area boundary, then pick your line and skin to the top of the Negatives. Once you ski down, you can skin back up to the ski area or descend into the Peterson Tract and hitchhike back to your car (or shuttle cars).
The best resource for backcountry skiers is the incomparable “Backcountry Skiing California’s Eastern Sierra,” which centers on Mammoth Lakes but spans options up and down Highway 395 (Nate Greenberg, the president of ESAC, is one of the authors of the book). Also, if you’re not from around here, be sure to get beta from the locals on what’s filled in—or plan to bring your rock skis.
Sarah Rea is a freelance dirtbag-turned-journalist who has been living in the Sierra on and off for twenty years, with eight spent in Yosemite National Park and five in Mammoth Lakes. She likes dogs, rocks, good food and jumping into cold water.