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Why Jenna Kane Decided to Traverse the Sierra Nevada

This spring, skier and mountain guide Jenna Kane set off on an ambitious mission to ski traverse the Sierra’s Great Western Divide, an uncharted route that brought a host of challenges.

Jenna Kane and her partner, Greg Cunningham, had an idea: attempt a full west-to-east traverse of the southern Sierra Nevada range, in winter conditions, along the Great Western Divide, one of the longest continuous string of mountains that crosses the Sierra and also spurs the headwaters of the Kern, Kings, and Kaweah rivers. The route, which would cross the most rugged part of the range from Mineral King in the southwest to Onion Valley on the eastern side, would take them an estimated seven days to ski tour some 50 miles and climb around 24,000 vertical feet.

“The route stood out to us because of the aesthetics on the map,” Jenna says. “Our friend and legendary Sierra mountain man Doug Robinson describes this area as the most rugged part of the 400-mile Sierra Nevada range. When he told us he didn’t think anyone had followed a route like this, we knew we had to do it. There was definitely a vortex effect pulling us toward this route.”

They hoped to ski a big, remote peak each day of their trip, conditions permitting. Never mind that there was very little relevant information about skiing in this zone. Before the trip, Jenna wrote in an email, “We’re acutely aware of the lean snowpack in the southern Sierra, but we’re hopeful that if we stay high and west for most of the trip, there will be enough for enjoyable travel and skiing. We just hope to put ourselves in a place each afternoon or morning to see what looks good.”

We then enjoyed a beautiful evening beneath a huge cathedral of Sierra granite with an incredible sunset.”

She trained and prepared for the trip by meticulously researching their route and being on skis at least six days a week, often logging 20-mile days and skiing in technical terrain. “My partner and I spent hours poring over maps and satellite imagery, Googling obscure peaks we wanted to ski, and reading trip reports, most of which were pretty old,” Jenna says. “We knew that there would be some unknowns. We gathered a lot of information by word of mouth as well—talking to people who had done the Sierra High Route or other Sierra traverses in low snow years helped us out quite a bit.”

Jenna was built for this kind of mission. She was born and raised in Mt. Shasta City, on the northern edge of California and below the flanks of the town’s eponymous, mystical volcano. “I remember getting crystals as tips when I worked at a coffee shop in high school and seeing a dozen people naked at the river was 100 percent normal,” she says about her upbringing.

 

Spending time in the mountains with good company is always worth it...

Spending time in the mountains with good company is always worth it...

After getting a degree in philosophy from Oregon’s Portland State University, she eventually returned to her hometown of Shasta. “I can definitely attest to the pull of the mountain. I lived away for about a decade after graduating high school, and then realized what a gem this place is,” she says. “The mystic energy is real, and thousands of people come from all over the world to experience it.”

She now works as a ski patroller at Shasta Ski Park and a mountain guide for Shasta Mountain Guides. (That’s not all she does: Jenna is a seamstress, a mountain bike racer, a coach for the Mt. Shasta High School ski and snowboard team, and a dedicated trail builder with Shasta-based Trail Labs Co. Needless to say, she’s multi-talented.)

In late April, Jenna and Greg successfully completed the traverse. “We were mainly able to stick to the route, but we found ourselves making on-the-fly changes due to the expected lack of snow coverage,” she says. “The travel was challenging enough that we were just happy to finish.”

On the trip, they encountered a wide range of snow conditions: “Everything from corn, to frozen penitentes, windboard, and even a little powder here and there,” she says. “We had to work pretty hard to connect snow patches on south sides of passes we needed to cross. There were some low moments where we'd reach a top of a pass and look north to see bare rock. Nonetheless, we got super lucky on the majority of the north sides of these passes and were able to ski smooth snow.”

On day six of the traverse, the duo got their reward for a hard effort.

On day six of the traverse, the duo got their reward for a hard effort.

When conditions got bad, Jenna says she had to remind herself that their goal was not just to ski rad lines but also to traverse an iconic mountain range. “Doing so in a bad year made it feel like even more of an accomplishment. Honestly, spending time in the mountains with good company is always worth it, and despite the challenge I don’t regret a single moment,” she says.

On day six of the traverse, the duo got their reward for a hard effort. They’d spent the two previous days with bad weather and tough travel, meaning they were stuck in a tent for more than 12 hours each day. But on day six, the weather lifted. “We eventually reached our pass without too much difficulty, and once on top, we looked across at a couloir that we had been reading about and seeing pictures of for months,” Jenna says. “We set up camp and skied it and even got lucky with a little soft snow. We then enjoyed a beautiful evening beneath a huge cathedral of Sierra granite with an incredible sunset.”

What she wore: “The Siren Bib was a perfect choice for the trip,” Jenna says. “When it was warm, I felt like they were light and cool enough with the big side vents to be super comfortable. Also, the material held up extremely well when doing some unexpected rock climbing up dry, south-facing passes.”


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