On a gorgeous spring day I meet Tim Robinson, one of High Sierra Snowcat and Yurt’s owners, at an unassuming pullout near the intersection of Virginia Lakes Road and the still-snow-covered Dunderberg Meadow Road. “Welcome to Virginia Lakes,” he says, “I’m warming up the snowcat, we’ll take it over to Dunderberg Yurt and ski tour from there.” Off the beaten track about midway between the towns of Bridgeport and Lee Vining, Calif., a thick spring snowpack blankets the high country. We load our gear into the Pisten Bully Edge snowcat and cruise a couple miles to the yurt situated at around 9,700 feet on the northeast flank of 12,374 foot Dunderberg Peak.
“We’re not a snowcat skiing operation,” explains Robinson, “we provide snowcat-assisted guided backcountry skiing with comfortable yurt lodging.” In winter, Virginia Lakes Road is not maintained, and the cats are used to shuttle people and gear five-plus miles to and from the yurts and for the occasional bump to access specific touring objectives. “It’s about the human-powered experience,” explains Robinson. “The snowcats just make it easier.”
We arrive at the yurt and head inside. The new 18-foot Weather Port yurt sleeps six guests and is equipped with a pellet stove, a Goal Zero solar power system, a small kitchen, and an enclosed toilet nearby. It’s rustic but spacious and impeccably clean, with a lofted sleeping area and insulated walls, a far cry from the cramped confines of a tent or the back of my pickup truck where I typically find myself camping in winter. Nestled just below tree line, the yurt is protected from the brunt of the weather while also providing immediate access to the wealth of diverse terrain in the area.
“It’s funny how it all came about,” says Robinson as we prepare for our ski tour, “One day I got an e-mail with no text, it was just a picture of a Thiokol snowcat on a trailer, then I noticed it was parked at Mike’s house.” Such were the humble beginnings of High Sierra Snowcat and Yurt, California’s only snowcat-assisted backcountry skiing and yurt operation. Mike is Mike Deacon, High Sierra’s co-owner and sender of the then-cryptic email. Robinson and Deacon had been longtime friends, connecting over whitewater paddling and paragliding adventures throughout the western U.S. Deacon’s acquisition of the snowcat, however, was the beginning of a new adventure.
“The following year we did our proof of concept,” says Robinson. “We spent the winter of 2011–'12 skiing with friends and using the snowcat to access the terrain in the Virginia Lakes area.” The operation opened the following winter, is now in its sixth year, and has expanded to two snowcats and two yurts, Dunderberg and Virginia Lakes.
Read more: Backcountry Bliss
We step outside the yurt, click into our skis, and start making our way up the mountain. Conditions are classic California—sunny, stable, and picture perfect. Robinson takes us up Dunderberg Peak, the centerpiece of High Sierra’s 9,000-plus-acre guiding area, and points out some of his favorite ski zones along the way. “We have terrain for all abilities, weather, and snow conditions,” says Robinson. “On stormy days we can do shorter laps in the trees closer to the yurts, but we also have the peak objectives and big descents this area is known for.”
We reach the summit of Dunderberg Peak and take in the expansive 360-degree views. Robinson points out the Virginia Lakes Yurt far below, the towering snowcapped mountains of Yosemite National Park in the distance, and the high desert and Mono Lake just to the east. “No matter how many times I see this view it never gets old,” he says. The snow has ripened into a velvety blanket of the legendary spring corn the Sierra is known for. I let out hoots of joy as I link 2,500 vertical feet of turns to the bottom, perhaps the best run of spring. Back at the yurt we exchange high fives and agree: Runs like that never get old either.
High Sierra Snowcat Trip Planning
- Getting there: Virginia Lakes Road is located at the top of Conway Summit on US 395 between the small towns of Lee Vining and Bridgeport, Calif., approximately 45 minutes north of Mammoth Lakes and 2.5 hours south of Reno. The closest airport is little Mammoth-Yosemite, but you’ll find more flights into Fresno or Reno.
- Cost: Rates are $295 per person, per day with a group minimum of four people and maximum of six. A two-night/three-day stay is recommended and includes yurt lodging, snowcat, guiding, and all meals.
- Info: highsierrasnowcat.com