Leavitt Peak

After our hike of Banner Peak Chris and I had discussed possibly visiting Leavitt Peak near the top of Sonora Pass. Tuesday morning I was still feeling pretty tired and certainly wasn’t feeling the 90 minute drive to the trailhead. Chris also got a late start but ended up hiking the peak solo and reported back to me that the Y Couloir on the peak’s north face was still skiable so I headed up a day later and camped near the summit. I got a leisurely start around 9 am, heading out on the PCT with skis on my back and big hopes for some late season turns.

Sonora Pass is only 300 ft shorter than Tioga, just as spectacular and not nearly as crowded!

Chris had told me that there wasn’t much snow on the trail until the summit ridge and that, where the trail was still snowbound, it was well packed by the PCT hikers. Despite starting at a sign which indicated the start of the PCT, I must have lost the trail immediately following a lesser used trail as I was soon on steep loose terrain with lots of snow. I looked at the map and saw that the PCT was quite circuitous here, making a large arc before finally gaining the ridge, and I decided instead to climb directly to the ridge and follow it to the summit. The peak looked nearby and I was up for some steep cross country climbing.

Loose volcanic rock litters the ridge.

I passed what appeared to be a middle school aged field trip and one of the kids wished me “good luck!” I chuckled and said “thanks,” although I wasn’t expecting to need any luck on this trip. As I passed, I heard one of the kids say that they should stick around to watch me ski down — I’d better pay attention to my form if I was going to be putting on a show! The climb to the ridge was loose, but soon I was atop it and found a use trail which made for easy going.

Pioneering hikers make the snow crossings easier.

As I approached the peak, I was a bit confused where the Y Couloir was, wondering if perhaps it was on the east aspect. I wasn’t feeling strong enough to ski down the other side and boot back up before returning to the car, so I scoped out lines on the north face.

Stanislaus and Sonora Peaks rise up across the highway.

As I arrived at the saddle below the peak and looked for a route the summit I marveled at the pace I had set. I didn’t feel like I had been going especially fast, but it couldn’t have been much more than an hour and I remembered that it was about a 2,000ft climb. It seemed like only 300 ft to the summit and I would indeed make great time! I found a use trail heading toward the peak but my eyes followed the PCT along the ridge for a moment and I instantly realized I had been mistaken! Several miles distant, I spotted a peak with a remarkable Y-shaped couloir running down its face and I checked my map to confirm that this was in fact Leavitt Peak!

Leavitt Peak appears, still three miles off.

Suddenly the map made a lot more sense to me, and I stopped to scope out the couloir. All spring I had read reports (and heard firsthand) that a large cornice blocked the entrance to the couloir. I could see with my bare eyes that the cornice was still there, but with my telephoto lens I could see that the cornice appeared to disappear along the left side of the entrance — my plans were still on!

An unmistakeable Y of snow adorns the Leavitt Peak’s north face.

The PCT ran fairly level along the ridgeline and Leavitt Peak stood tall on the horizon as I slowly drew closer, anticipation for the descent growing.

A large volcanic ridge extends westward from the summit.

Eventually the trail crossed to the east side of the ridge and began a traverse along the east flank of the peak. The snowpack was still quite solid and I was grateful for the pioneering PCTers who packed it down a long the route! Although the route was indirect, the terrain was very severe and would have made a more direct route very technical.

The PCT winds its way around Leavitt peak, crossing several snowfields.

I started encountering PCT hikers mostly in groups of two and many of them made comment about my skis. I advertised that I was hoping to ski the couloir and that if they happened to look back at the right time they might be able to watch! I wasn’t sure that I would make it to the summit in time though.

Leavitt Peak’s east ridge features beautiful buttes and arches.

I gained a saddle along Leavitt’s east ridge and was awestruck by the view! Volcanic buttes, lava tubes, and conglomerate arches decorated the ridgeline. Half a dozen icy lakes lay in the basin below me. Tower Peak dominated the horizon. Far beyond it to its left I spied Mts Lyell and Maclure. Still further beyond those, I recognized Mt Ritter and Banner Peak!

The sierra crest sprawls out to the south.

I stopped to enjoy the view and chatted with a solo PCTer for a few minutes before continuing along the trail. The next ridge looked gentle and free of any complicating features, so when I reached it, I struck upwards off the trail toward the summit.

Leavitt Peak rises above a large snow filled bowl on its southeastern face.

The ridge was barren except for the occasional crop of Sky Pilot. Neon lichens and deep red rock decorated the landscape as well.

Sky Pilots grow in impossibly barren conditions.

I made a short detour to the south before approaching the summit to have a look down into that canyon and was astounded to see a large lake surrounded by lush meadows. That canyon must be deep indeed for spring to already have arrived while all the mountains around were still coated in a deep layer of snow!

Lush meadows surround Kennedy Lake 3,000 ft below Leavitt Peak.

I arrived at the summit at noon and, before stopping to enjoy lunch, headed directly over to the top of the couloir to see if the route would go. As I had spotted there was about 10 feet of cornice-free snow along the right side and I decided it would be skiable! The cornice itself was only about 10 feet tall in the middle. Were I not alone I might consider jumping off of it!

The last remains of a once massive cornice top the skier’s left entrance to the Y Couloir.

I left my skis, boots, and poles at the top of the couloir and headed back to the highpoint to look for a register but could find none. Just as I sat down for a snack, a small, oddly shaped plane flew overhead. Perhaps it was surveying the snowpack?

A plane flies low overhead; Tower Peak beyond, flanked by Banner Peak and Mt Ritter on the left and Mts Lyell, Maclure, and Florence on the right.

In all directions nearby wonderful volcanic formations rose up, sometimes with larger granite features extending out from below them. The views south were impressive but I was even more entranced by the views north. Round Top was surprisingly close, and to its north I spotted Jacks and Dicks Peaks, Mt Tallac, and even Jakes Peak! Mt Rose was also visible far east of the Sierra Crest.

After enjoying the summit for a while, I headed back toward the couloir and put on my skis. The skiing was steep and enjoyable. I didn’t find any corn, but the snow was soft and stable.

Steep couloirs make for fun summer skiing!

As I exited the couloir, I made a hard right to try to get as close to the PCT as possible, but the combination of large suncups and embedded rocks made for difficult skiing. Linking turns was difficult because I never knew when the next suncup might be five feet deep or have a rock in the bottom of it!

A small vibrant lake collects meltwater below the Y Couloir.

I made a traverse toward the trail, but traversing the suncups was also difficult so I eventually made my way to a patch of rock where I took off my skis and continued in my boots. An eternity later I arrived at a use trail I’d spotted which connected to the PCT and took off my boots and wet ski socks to put on my (mostly dry) hiking socks and trailrunners.

I make my way back to the PCT after a miserable hour of wading through the suncups.

Soon I was back on the PCT and cruising toward Sonora Pass. I arrived back at the peak which I’d original thought was Leavitt and debated whether to ski down or hike back along the route I’d taken up. The snow didn’t look too suncupped here so I opted to boot up and ski most of the way to the car.

Even when the snow looks horrible its hard to pass up a ski descent!

As it turns out, the first part of the descent wasn’t bad, but soon the suncups returned with a vengeance and I was once again survival skiing. I rejoined the PCT a quarter mile from the pass and hiked the rest of the way to the truck. Not a bad day of skiing for mid July!

Snow Discussion

Snow Observations

  • Snowline starting at 9,500 ft
  • Aspect and angle dependent
  • Large suncups, 1 – 3 ft deep

GPS Data

Elevation Gain: 2,900

Total distance: 8.25 mi

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