South Lake skiing

After getting shut down two days in a row on Red Slate Mountain, first by a mechanical failure and then by weather, I took advantage of a break between May snowstorms to sneak in a couple days’ skiing out of South Lake. The road is plowed all the way to the lake at 9500′, opening up a lot of terrain that is difficult to access during the winter and early spring, when the road is gated miles from the summer trailhead. The 6″ or so of fresh, heavy powder made for pleasant skiing on the way down, but brutal boot-packing on the way up.

It seemed like it might be cold up at the trailhead, so I slept down in the desert before the first day, where temperatures were pleasant and I had cell service. I got a reasonably early start, though a couple of other parties were ahead of me. This was fortunate, because one of the parties knew the best route from the trailhead to the base of Ski Mountaineers Peak, my goal for the day. Had I been forced to break trail and find the route myself, the trenching and inevitable route-finding errors in the cliffy terrain above the lake would have been wretched.

The first trick was to navigate the South Lake Glacier, a rim of broken ice that forms when they lower the level of the lake, causing the thick surface ice along the edge to crack as the center ice drops. I followed the boot-track through the crevasse maze, then along a stream and through some cliffs to open terrain leading toward Ski Mountaineers and Thompson. The track continued toward the latter, so I abandoned my original plan to see what the Thompson chutes might hold.

I saw a skier ahead of me checking out the western Thompson couloir, and skied a bit farther to see for myself. I didn’t like what I saw, so I returned to the eastern couloir, which is lower-angle and did not have a cornice. The other skier apparently didn’t like what she saw, either, and returned to the base of the couloirs. I switchbacked up increasingly steep snow toward my couloir, hoping I could find some solid boot-packing to reach the ridge. However, whenever I tentatively stepped off my skis, I sunk at least knee-deep. I eventually gave up on the frustrating endeavor, and made some fun turns back to the valley, intending to ski Ski Mountaineers Peak instead.

I spoke to the woman I had seen ahead of me, who told me that her partner had booted up the western couloir (with a huge cornice — yikes!). She decided to use my skin track to take a lap, while I skinned and scrambled through some rocks to reach Ski Mountaineers’ gentle east face. Looking back, I saw that her partner had dropped into the middle chute, triggered an avalanche partway down, then absolutely flew down the lower part, making huge turns where I had made cautious, small ones.

Ski Mountaineers’ east face had been baking in the sun all morning, and while the lower part was reasonably wind-packed, the top was horrible heavy powder. It felt too steep to skin, so I agonizingly booted final slope to the summit ridge, where I stashed my skis to scramble to the summit. The register, if it still exists, was buried, but I still hung out for awhile, enjoying the impressive views of the Palisades to one side, and Sabrina Basin and Darwin to the other.

The descent went well enough until I decided to stop following skin track and take a more direct line toward South Lake. I soon found myself in a maze of small cliffs, and had to side-step, shuffle, and throw my skis down a small step and downclimb at one point to get back on-route. Thanks in part to these shenanigans, I did not make it back to the lot until late afternoon. Not wanting to waste gas driving 40 miles back and forth to Bishop, I settled in to read for awhile, then prepared for a cold night.

The next morning, I stayed curled up in my sleeping bag until around 6:30, then got a lazy start after 7:00. I headed up the trail toward Bishop Pass, but found a long stretch of bare dirt, and decided instead to check out the open bowls west of Mount Gilbert. Starting out on the previous day’s skin track, I took a branch to the south, following a slightly fainter path from the day before. The chute west of Gilbert looked like a fun ski, so I eventually left the skin track to sidehill around the head of the basin.

I found a boot-pack in the chute, which gave me some hope, but things soon turned grim. I persevered despite knee-deep postholing, but after the third time I managed to stomp out a waist-high wall in front of me, I gave up on the wallow and headed down. I found good skiing in the upper and lower bowls, separated by some tricky crust in the middle, and returned to the car just after noon. This was earlier than I had planned, but probably for the best, since the wind was already picking up ahead of the next storm system. Winter is not yet done with the Sierra.

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