California has received an enormous amount of snow this season and it’s starting to warm up a little which means spring skiing is in full swing! I’ve been meaning to get into backcountry skiing this season so when my friend Erica invited me to ski up Charlton Peak I jumped at the chance.
Specs: 11.5 mi | +/- 4000 ft
Difficulty: 2000-foot gully, 30-35 deg slope angle
Route: Begin at the South Fork trailhead. Follow the trail to South Fork Meadows, then south to the east ridge. Skin up the ridge to the summit and then enjoy the long descent through Main Gully to the South Fork Meadows. Follow the trail back!
Permits & Regulations: Permits are required for both overnight trips and day hikes in the San Gorgonio Wilderness; visit the San Gorgonio Wilderness Association to reserve one. Additionally, you’ll need a pass (Adventure Pass or Interagency Pass) to park at the trailhead. As always, practice the leave no trace principles!
Resources: I like the Tom Harrison map for this area. Check SoCalSnow.org for current (updated weekly) snow conditions. Other websites like AllTrails and the San Gorgonio Wilderness Association forum may provide additional up-to-date reports from hikers. The National Forest page for the South Fork trailhead also supplies a wealth of information.
Introduction to Ski Touring
9 Apr 2023 | 11.5 mi | +/- 4000 ft | View on Map
Erica and I arrive at the trailhead around 6:30 AM. There are already several cars in the lot and more pull in while we’re packing up our gear. We chat with a group of five skiers that are planning to ski the same route as us – the main gully on Charlton Peak. We leave the parking lot at the same time as them (shortly after 7 AM) but Erica and I are a little faster and pass them with a “see you up there!”
The first mile and a half is too dry for skinning, so we’re clomping along in our ski boots with our skis tied in an A-frame onto our packs. The walking is a bit tedious in the stiff boots but the they’re more comfortable than I expected them to be. We find consistent snow just above Horse Meadows and stop to put on our skis. The sun is already beating down, so we put on sunscreen too.
Besides the incredibly hot sun, I really enjoy skinning across the gentle slopes to South Fork Meadows. Gliding across the snow is so much more enjoyable than walking and the skis barely even sink in. On one east-facing aspect we hear (and see) large slabs of snow collapsing beneath our feet so we head for less risky slopes. We try to stay high on the south side of the creek but eventually descend back to the official trail just below South Fork Meadows.
We skin across the meadow to a shaded log and sit down for a short snack and sunscreen break at 9:40. Two other skiers are doing the same on the other side of the meadow and we can hear the group of five making their way up the canyon as well. After a short rest we begin the main push of the day: climbing from 8400 to 10,800 feet along the east ridge of Charlton Peak. The two skiers from across the meadow catch up and pass us pretty quickly; they’re reportedly off to ski a line on Mount Jepson.
We follow a pretty direct route up the ridge, opting for a slow, steep, steady climb rather than switchbacks. As we climb higher and the air grows warmer, the snow begins clumping up on the ski skins and we slip a few times. I’m slowing down a bit too; I haven’t exerted myself at altitude in several months!
Up on top of the ridge the slope eases up a little and we get a great view of San Gorgonio, southern California’s tallest peak, and Mount Jepson. We reach the summit of Charlton Peak (a new one for me!) at about 11:35 and then descend a short distance on skins to the top of the main gully. It’s fairly steep (30 degrees is steeper than it sounds) but wide with few obstacles.
Erica and I stop at the top of the gully to remove the skins and prepare for downhill skiing. Once we’re all buckled up, Erica leads the way, skiing the chute in several-hundred foot pitches. I follow behind her and have a blast, particularly at the top of the chute where the snow is a little firmer. The lower we go, the softer and stickier the snow becomes. By the time we reach the gentle slopes above South Fork Meadows, the snow has softened to sticky “mashed potatoes” and is pretty difficult to turn in. Even so, I’m much happier skiing down than trudging along in boots!
Back in the meadow, around 12:30, we pause for a lunch break and peer up at the main gully. We spot a couple of skiers descending, probably from the group of five we met this morning. After applying more sunscreen and guzzling down some water, we begin the long trek back to the trailhead. We stick to skiing without skins, which is a mixed blessing. There are a lot of flat stretches that require awkward shuffling and pole-pushing, but there are also a fair number of gradual downhill slopes that go much more quickly on skis than on skins.
We’re able to ski all the way back to Horse Meadows, arriving at the edge of the snow line at about 13:30. Erica and I book it back to the trailhead, passing five or six other skiers and split boarders on the trail; it’s a popular day to be out! We’re at the car by 14:10 and I sigh with relief as I free my feet from the sweaty, stiff ski boots.
I’m really pleased with how well my first-ever ski tour has gone! I could have worn better clothing for the hot, sunny conditions, but overall I’m happy with my gear and I had a ton of fun. Hopefully this is just the first of many backcountry skiing adventures.