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On Skiing the Redline Traverse

On Skiing the Redline Traverse

Skiers Jenna Kane and Greg Cunningham became part of the select few who’ve skied the so-called Redline Traverse, a multi-week winter odyssey across the highest peaks of the southern Sierra. Their new film tells that story.

The numbers tell the story in part: 19 days, 145 miles, over 80,000 vertical feet, five peaks above 14,000 feet, 10 summits at slightly lower elevations, 28 rowdy ski lines. Last May, skiers Jenna Kane, a mountain guide and trail builder, and Greg Cunningham, a Kirkwood ski patroller and avalanche forecaster, completed a self-supported mission on a fabled route known as the Redline Traverse, which follows the crest of the southern end of California’s Sierra Nevada range, including the highest point in the Lower 48, 14,505-foot Mount Whitney.

A short film about their mission, called “The Redline Traverse” and made by Steve Seime, debuted this fall and appeared at the Backcountry Film Festival and the Tahoe Adventure Film Festival.  Now available to watch online. “This route had that mystical force that pulls you in. I can’t really explain it, but we just jumped on the bus,” Kane says. “The film is about sharing that force that runs through all of us.”

The Redline route was originally established by a group of skiers in the 1980s, including Tom Carter, Chris Cox, and Allan Bard, who completed it over the course of two seasons in 1982 and 1983 and described it as crossing 20 peaks between Mount Langley, just south of Mount Whitney, and Mammoth, rarely dropping below 11,000 feet in elevation. Carter and Bard wrote about their journey in a November 1983 issue of Powder Magazine, which Kane and Cunningham dug up as part of their research exactly 40 years later. “We aspired to ski the very crest of the Sierra, and by ski we meant to ski up and off some of the finest, highest, and most difficult faces in the range,” the article reads.

The Powder story was vague in specifics—the route itself was described but not defined, leaving enough room for interpretation that aspiring traversers would have to forge their own path. It portrayed the route as following the very crest of the Sierra, on the spine between its western and eastern watersheds. “Hidden beneath the cartographer’s transparent red line is a mind-boggling array of the Sierra’s most magnificent peaks,” it read. The name, Redline, came from that idea.

“The Redline Traverse is something you hear about in passing from old timers, but few people actually understood what it was,” Cunningham says. “The way the original party had promoted it and laid it out was this idea, not necessarily a route.” The concept was to go up one side of the mountain and down the other, so you’re continuously traveling northward; which exact peaks to cross purposefully weren't specified.

In 2017, skier and guide Jediah Porter completed the Redline Traverse solo, writing a trip report for WildSnow that again painted a portrait of his journey but intentionally didn’t offer too much in the way of direction. “The Redline Traverse has near-mythical status. There are as many definitions of the route as there are discussions of the line,” Porter wrote. “I skied most peaks and routes up one side and down the other, moving forward.”

So, when the Sierra had a massive season in the winter of 2023—receiving over 300 percent of average annual snowfall—Kane and Cunningham decided it was the year to try the route they’d heard described in such legendary proportions. This was not the duo’s first foray in overnight high Sierra traverses—in 2021, they completed a full west-to-east traverse of the southern Sierra Nevada range. “Greg and I have worked out the challenges of multi-day, high-alpine winter travel,” Kane says. “Based on having a plentiful snowpack, we knew this was the right time to try for the Redline.”

They researched the route as best they could, using guidebooks, topo maps, Google Earth, and limited beta from Porter. “There’s only so much research you can do ahead of time,” Kane says. “You never know what’s going to happen until you’re standing in that spot.” Sure, there were roadblocks, like the peak that was so scoured on one side, they had to climb down or the line that required a mile detour down the ridge to avoid thousand-foot cliffs. “At first, we’d get to the top of a line and just cross our fingers that we could ski down the other side,” says Cunningham.

When it was all over, after 19 nights amongst the some of the most rugged peaks in the Sierra, Kane and Cunningham skied unceremoniously out to their truck, parked at the trailhead to Lake Mary in the town of Mammoth Lakes. There was no fanfare; just a mostly empty parking lot. They asked a stranger to take a picture of them to mark the moment. “The girl said, ‘Oh, did you just come from Lake Mary?’” Kane recalls with a laugh. “We had just done this massive thing, but as far as she knew, we were just two people in a parking lot.”

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