Clarence King and Gardiner Basin

For many years now we have been out exploring the ski touring potential of the Sierra Nevada and developing new routes. This journey into the Clarence King and Gardiner Basin area is one of the best we have recently found. It is more than just a ski tour and combines some great ski mountaineering up some of the Sierra’s finest peaks deep in the heart of the range.


We highly recommend that you spend at least one night at moderate altitude (higher than 8,000 feet) just prior to the trip. Spending a night or two in Mammoth or camped at the trailhead campground would do the trick.

SMC does not rent ski equipment, but we work with Mammoth Mountaineering (760-934-4191) to get you set up on the correct equipment. MMS has a very wide range of rental equipment that is probably the best you will find anywhere in California. All gear is current state of the art, well tuned and rental fees are deductible if you buy a set up from them. (We highly recommend renting before you buy so as to find what suits you best, since a full setup is pretty pricey). We can coordinate the rental and suggest that if you can you arrive Mammoth the night before and get fully set up since boot fitting can take some time.

Return to Backcountry Spring Tours

We start from the Onion Valley trailhead and head up and over Kearsarge Pass just as we start our favorite variation on the High Route. But then we turn right and contour around towards Glenn Pass on the John Muir Trail. The pass is steep on the north side but gives way to a great run down towards Rae Lakes. A small pass takes us into the Sixty Lakes Basin and yet another pass drops us into Gardiner Basin where we will set up our camp for a couple of days. From here we can climb and ski from the summit of Mount Cotter. Climb towards Mt Gardiner, leave our skis near the summit and continue along the exposed knife-edge to the top. The initial descent is steep, but faces south and we hope and expect great Sierra corn snow for the run home.

If we are into peak bagging Mount Clarence King is the high point of the area and the summit block involves some very tricky climbing that is best accomplished by throwing a rope over the top.

While doing this we generally wonder how Bolton Brown achieved this, solo no less, in 1896. Guess they were pretty good back then and we have not gotten a lot better.

Once we have ticked off as many ascents as we can we start the journey home.

We retrace our steps part way above Rae Lakes before taking a small un-named col behind the Painted Lady skirting Dragon Lake. Above this is Dragon Pass the most difficult pass on our tour and it that will take us sometime to negotiate it’s 4th class loose rock. Fortunately the east side is a great ski run back down to the vehicles at Onion Valley.

5500 feet of ascent and 2200 descent to basecamp. 2800 feet of ascent and 5000 feet of descent back to road head.

Program Prerequisites:

You need advanced ski skills for this tour.

You should be able to ski advanced ski area runs confidently and be proficient at kick turns, traversing on 40 degree slopes, side slipping and parallel or telemark turns all while carrying a pack of about 40 pounds. Prior winter camping and mountaineering skills are required. You will be traveling up to eight miles a day and gaining up to 3500 feet a day so an excellent level of aerobic fitness is required.

Program Inclusions:

We do not include accommodation in the pricing but can make local suggestions for you.

Please Read before you go

We feel the following information is essential... (links open as PDF in new window)

  1. Details and itinerary
    Equipment list
  2. SMC Cancellation Policy
  3. Suggestions on preparation - get the most out of your trip!
  4. Tips on physical training for your trip
  5. LNT - Let's work together to protect our precious mountain environment.

PDF Maps:

Clarence King and Gardiner Basin map

Rental Equipment:

Need to rent equipment for your trip? We can help.