Dispatches: The High Sierra E-Motorcycle Backcountry Ski Trip

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Shaken awake at 4 a.m., the trees groaned above me. I rolled over, only to be greeted with a gust of wind and a face full of dirt. Still completely dark, a storm had rolled in overnight and was already raging at 60 mph, even in our protected campsite. Stuffing my face back in my sleeping bag, I pretended to fall asleep, hoping the gods would look favorably on the gesture. Our objective for the day was using an electric motorcycle fleet to access a backcountry skiing and splitboarding descent of Bloody Couloir, a steep line pinched between two rock walls (and one of the more challenging descents in the fabled Sierra Nevada). We knew that conditions needed to be right or it would be a fool’s errand.

The night before, we fell asleep optimistic. I’d even pre-packed my snacks, climbing skins, and crampons, hoping for an early start. But Mother Nature had other ideas.

When first light hit the peaks above us a few hours later, the entire group was up, making coffee and talking through options. I helped a few others collect the gloves, gear, and helmets that the wind had haphazardly thrown into the woods while we slept. I laughed to myself, thinking, ‘you play the hand you’re dealt.’ Every good trip has that moment when you realize you’re not in control at all.

moto to ski camp
Andy Cochrane

We had ridden the motos up Laurel Lakes road—which, calling it a road, is a misnomer. It is a trail at best, with patches of snow, loose rock, and sharp switchbacks with steep cliffs. Instead of going all the way up to the snow line, we’d cowboy camped in a valley before the last big climb, laying out a tarp and sleeping bags, and leaving a few miles of riding for the morning.

Our plan was to get up early, drive up to the snow, skin across the valley, bootpack up the couloir, and, in theory, top out as the snow turned to corn. In reality, wind this strong would slow us down, make skiing more challenging, and keep the frozen layer from ever flipping to corn. It was an easy decision—we all agreed to retreat. I finished my coffee and looked up at the iconic line, promising to come back.

Just our second morning of a weeklong adventure and we’d already thrown out the plan. So be it; I’m not a huge fan of strict itineraries anyway. Our next step was obvious: getting safely down Laurel Lakes road to the basin below, and close enough to a shop to get one of the bikes fixed.

Two days earlier, the group had met in Mammoth, CA, to run through the route, snow conditions, buy food for the trip, and do a group gear shakedown. Our goal was to link four big ski lines in the Sierra using only motorcycles to access them. But there’s a twist: Not wanting to use fossil fuels, we partnered with Zero Motorcycles, which makes electric motos that are billed as adventure ready.

Each of us would ride a DSRBFs, an ADV (dual-sport) bike that can go 0 to 60 in under three seconds. According to Zero’s website, they have a range of 150 miles and can be charged in two hours. We were skeptical of these numbers, but wanted to see for ourselves. This trip would be rugged and grueling, spanning an entire mountain range on a series of technical dirt roads—a perfect way to test the bikes.

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Zero moto fix
Andy Cochrane

Lesson No. 1: Eventually, the house always wins.

Conventional wisdom would have said this was a bad idea from the start. Unfamiliar bikes, a mix of new ski partners, and a terrible snow year added up to low likelihood of success. I’d love to tell you that we beat the odds and came out unscathed, but I’m not going to lie. We ran into issues our first day and that was just the start of the chaos. Broken belts, dead batteries, and charging infrastructure gave us trouble.

Snapping one of the drive belts and forgetting to bring the right size wrench, we tucked our tails and drove back to town, in search of the right tools for the job. The fix was quick—10 to 15 minutes, tops—when we had the right socket in hand. Noticing a little wear and tear on the broken belt, we figured out the issue wasn’t the belt itself, but rather the tuning (not quite tight enough to being with). Fixing the issue on all the motos, we had fewer mechanical issues going forward.

moto-to-ski
Andy Cochrane

Despite the initial curveball, the motos proved to have a huge upside: almost endless power and still maneuverable, despite being on the heavier side of adventure bikes. At first, I was a little hesitant about the idea of no sound and no gears. But in less than a day, I came to love the peacefulness of the bike in the woods and on the highway with no noise. We were able to hold a normal conversation at 30 or 40 mph, without yelling. That made the riding much more fun and easier to communicate as a group.

The largest issue of the trip—one that we faced again and again—was charging the bikes. Lithium batteries don’t fare as well in the cold. And while running them wide open is damn fun, it comes at a price in battery life. We found that they had 80-100 miles of juice, depending on how hard we were riding. This would have been workable, but charging infrastructure is lagging behind EV technology. We stopped at five different superchargers over the week and only one had the right plug for the bikes. Tesla now has a proprietary outlet, which really cripples the development of the EV market. More than once, we had to tow a bike a dozen or more miles to a different charger, wasting time and creating a large hassle.

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Andy Cochrane
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Lesson No. 2: Safety is sexy.

For any big adventure, the best way to mitigate risk is to control variables. For example, when weather or snow conditions don’t line up, we’d either ski a mellow line that wasn’t steep enough to slide, or didn’t ski at all. I do my best to apply this philosophy to every part of a trip, still trying to have fun while keeping people safe. Sometimes it’s challenging to negotiate group dynamics, but in this case we all saw the value in using gear that would protect us when we inevitably made mistakes.

ski touring sierra
Andy Cochrane

Unlike most of my winter, skiing wasn’t the only area with risk and consequence. Riding motos deep into the Sierra on rarely used roads presented its own challenges. Despite a bevy of experience, we still had a few crashes and laydowns as we learned how the bikes handled, and pushed them to their limits. Electric motorcycles have infinite torque off the line, which we quickly learned needs to be respected.

testing the zero torque
Andy Cochrane

Of course, we assumed the learning curve would take time to scale. We all geared up with armor from REV’IT!, including gloves, pants, jackets, and boots, which saved us a lot of scrapes and probably a few broken bones, too. I honestly can’t say enough good things about their protective gear—quite frankly, I’ll never wear anything else after watching it take a beating day after day, and show almost no wear and tear. While some brands say they field-test their products, REV’IT! walks the walk.

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Lesson No. 3: Plans are arbitrary, people make or break the adventure.

After fixing our second broken belt and waiting out a three-day storm, we hit the ground, skiing Dunderberg Peak and the Dana Plateau on back-to-back missions. Finally feeling like things were breaking in our favor, we debated how to best use the last few days of our trip. Even on the northern end of the Sierra, snow was melting fast, retreating up to 10,000 feet. North-facing slopes were still holding a decent amount, but we had to be selective.

eastern sierra ski touring
Andy Cochrane

The Dana Plateau was the perfect area for the moto-to-ski trip, especially on a low snow year. Driving up Tioga Pass toward the east entrance to Yosemite, we stopped a mile short of the gate and parked the motos out of the way of the plows. This allowed us to find fresh power, while avoiding the more popular spots in the area. Despite some of the best conditions of the trip, we didn’t see another group all day.

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We finished the trip on a high, skiing steep lines near Bridgeport, Lee Vining and Mammoth. At some point in the last day, however, we realized the summits weren’t what made the trip great. The mountains will always be there. The biggest lesson of the trip was the importance of good friends. When the motos ran out of battery and the wind shut down our ski plans, we’d make a big fire, drink beer, and laugh about it. And when we found hero snow on a bluebird day and got to party ski together, we laughed about it.

backcountry snowboarding
Andy Cochrane

The purpose of any adventure isn’t to check boxes, brag about summits, or build a resume. It’s to create relationships that last. Walking away from this moto-to-ski adventure, I gained a new collection of brothers.

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