The Schell Creek Range is a classic example of the hidden-in-plain-sight beauty found throughout Nevada's vast interior. Perhaps you have made the pilgrimage to Terminal Cancer in the Ruby Mountains, or maybe you didn’t even know Nevada had mountains worth skiing at all. Either way, this is a great place to start for someone looking to explore a little further out in this stunning landscape.
Given the remote and often arduous nature of Great Basin skiing, the North Face of North Schell feels like a real gimme. The range stretches over 130 miles south to north, and at its highest point you find North Schell Peak. A labyrinth of hanging faces and steep chutes, North Schell offers up a little bit of everything. Especially when viewed from the north and east, this summit is dramatic. Enjoy this descent as an out-and-back mission, or let your mind wander, and go for a traverse of the main ridge from South Schell northwards…options abound!
There are a few obvious lines on the north face of North Schell Peak, but this description focuses on the longest, and arguably most aesthetic of them all. Pretty rare to be able to descend directly from a range high point summit, but that is exactly what you get to do. Depending on your approach (more on that below), you can get eyes on the face before dropping so you know where to make your moves. Enter the broadest portion of the hanging face just skier’s left off the summit. Revel in your airy turns before cutting skier’s right into a couloir. If you approach from the west, just beware that the upper face ends in a series of cliffs and rocks. The skiing is not particularly steep, but a fall here could be unpleasant. Pick your way through the chute, and then open up the throttle on the wide expanse below. Soak in the grandeur of the Great Basin from 11,883' and enjoy the ride.
You have two options for approaching North Schell Peak, and which one you choose really just depends on where you are driving from and personal preference. The west approach is roughly 4 miles and 3,400' of gain. The east approach is roughly 5.5 miles and 5,700'. The east approach can offer a better skiers egress, the west approach might get you on snow faster on the way up.
From the west you can drive up towards Timber Creek Campground as far as snow allows, and then follow the North Fork Timber Creek trail as it winds north and eventually east to the summit. Given the prevailing southwest winds I would not expect to find reliably skiable snow on North Schell Peak's broad southwest face.
From the east, the approach taken by the author, drive the old mining/ranch roads from Spring Valley as far towards the Bassett Creek drainage as possible, and then set off up the old path that follows the waterway. When you reach approximately 8,700' in elevation, leave the creek and head south-southwest along the ridge that leads to Point 11,716. As you leave the trees and gain the upper ridge you should have a commanding view of the north face. Also, to your looker's right you will probably get excited by the sight of the long north gully off of Point 11,716 (almost 2,500' of skiing). Pick your line down North Schell Peak, and then work your way back up for a bonus run down into Bassett Creek.
Just be sure to cut right at the bottom of the upper face! Otherwise, prepare for some hiking down low, and enjoy a uniquely Great Basin tour.
The Schell Creeks are one of several central Nevadan ranges that receive good snow almost every year. As is always the case with desert skiing, keeping an eye on the weather and snow maps is key to determine the best balance of coverage and approach length/mud hiking. My recommendation? Wait for a solid base, and head out when a light (only a few inches or so) and cold winter storm rolls through. Those few inches can make for phenomenal conditions up high, and the cold temps can keep the dirt roads frozen and safely drivable down low. Plus, winter car camping in the Great Basin is a special treat. Get that fire ripping, immerse yourself in immense solitude, and stare up at crystal clear starry skies.