I had one final break between May snowstorms (!) to do some Sierra skiing, so I was thinking of going big and doing something crazy. However, I ran into Dan, and he convinced me to head back up to South Lake and explore another drainage, the Treasure Lakes valley between Mounts Johnson and Goode. I slept in comfortable temperatures near the Buttermilks, then drove up to frigid South Lake early in the morning. I took longer than I should have to prepare myself for the cold, finally starting skinning around 7:15.
Someone getting an earlier start had bravely skinned across the lake and not fallen in, so I followed his tracks through about 6″ of fresh and surprisingly light powder. The track on the other side of the lake was less than ideal, bobbing and weaving around cliffs in the woods instead of following one of the inlet streams, but it eventually led into the open area above the lake. I left the beaten path where it seemed to head toward Thompson, arduously breaking trail up toward Treasure Lakes. The well-worn track from two days earlier had been completely obliterated by the fresh snow.
The terrain was mostly uphill, but there were enough flat sections that I knew the return would be slow. I saw potential lines facing all directions, but thanks to my late start, I dismissed the east-facing ones, which had already been baking for hours on a calm, sunny day. I eventually chose a northwest-facing slope on “Trapezoid Peak,” a minor summit on the ridge between Johnson and Goode that I had not yet climbed. Based on the map on my phone, it looked like I would get about 1300 vertical feet of skiing out of the line — not huge, but not bad either.
The slope started out fairly gentle, steepening to about 45 degrees toward the top. There was 8-12″ of fresh snow on the slope, already starting to become heavy from the sun and warming temperatures. The fresh snow had not bonded to an underlying hard layer in some places, and while it didn’t slide, it did make skinning a bit annoying. I switchbacked up the lower half, booted for a bit, then skinned the rest when the angle eased and the postholing got worse.
I eventually reached a saddle about 80′ below the summit, from which I could look down to where the Bishop Pass trail passes near Saddlerock Lake. The final climb to the summit looked painful, but I was so close… I put my skis on my pack, and booted thrashed, and dug my way toward the summit, kicking through to the old snow, and digging for rocks to get an occasional solid stance. I booted to within about 30 feet of the summit, then was forced to put my skis back on to avoid thigh-deep postholing.
The summit rocks had been scoured dry, so I took off my skis, found a good seat, and ate a late lunch while admiring views of the Palisades, the Black Divide, and more distant peaks including Goddard and Humphreys. The wind eventually picked up intermittently, chilling me and coating me with spindrift. I waited for a break, then quickly transitioned to downhill mode.
I had noticed a narrow chute leading to the summit on the way up, and found its entrance after a bit of searching. A few careful turns later, I was on the main slope I had ascended, making fun, swooping turns toward the uppermost Treasure Lake. I got in a few more turns lower down, but there was a lot of poling and shuffling to get through the flat sections in increasingly-sticky snow. I was regularly whacking my skis with my pole to keep the bases clean, and on one whack, the bottom part of my pole flew off to one side of the ski track. I thought for a moment that the bottom section had come out, but quickly realized that the pole had broken. Ugh. I picked up the piece, then cautiously one-poled my way back down to the lake, and around through the South Lake Glacier to the parking lot, where I deposited the pole pieces in the dumpster. Perhaps it was a sign that ski season is over for me for the time being…
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.
In the summer, Bloody Mountain is a slag-heap like many of its neighbors, build mostly of loose red talus. However, the couloir dropping north from its summit is a popular spring ski descent. It was a bit steeper than the other descents I have done this winter, but not unreasonably so. While there is a road leading almost to the base of the couloir, most people will start down in the desert. A high-clearance 4WD can make it a bit farther, but will usually be stopped by snowbanks well before the end of the road. My car is more capable than a sedan, but I rolled in late and didn’t want to risk backing back down a dirt track, so I pulled into the first flat-ish pulloff to sleep.
The Bloody Couloir is reasonably steep and shaded, so I planned to bring an ice axe and real crampons, which meant I had packed the big pack (Mammut Ice 45) the night before. As I lashed on my skis using the side compression straps, one of them broke at the attachment point, which does not look easy to repair. (It is worth noting that one of the ice tool holders broke in exactly the same way many years ago; hopefully they have a better design now.) I hate to get rid of a pack that has served me so well for 10 years, so I will probably keep it for awhile, but it can no longer carry skis.
Only a few minutes from the car, I noticed some motion in the distance. Stopping to check it out, I saw a massive herd of 40-50 deer slowly crossing the road. Deer are wary creatures, so I tried to get close by the best mixture of jittery high telephoto and scared deer. They definitely noticed me, but fortunately quite a few of them seemed to feel safe once they had crossed the road and climbed up the hillside a bit. The road switchbacking out of the desert was definitely slower with skis and boots on my back, but I still managed to out-walk a 4WD Sprinter inching up the jeep road. If I had a car like that, I wouldn’t abuse it like that to save a 10-minute walk, but I was surprisd at the enormous Sprinter’s off-roading abilities
The long hike up Laurel Canyon on the road to the lower prospect was almost pleasant, since I had plenty of podcasts, as well as a steady view of my intended couloir. I had scouted the spring route up to Laurel Lakes, which follows the streambed rather than traversing above it on the road, and would have taken it again if I intended to boot the couloir. However, with no crampons or axe, I needed a new plan. I remembered a trip report from someone who had gone up the summer route, a class 2 talus-hop from the col between Laurel and Bloody. Sure, I would be carrying skis and boots on my back on a long ridge of mixed scree and snow, but what other choice did I have?
Unfortunately, I first had to get back up to the road leading to Laurel Lakes. I should have retraced my steps, but that part of the road looked like it was still covered in angled, frozen snow. Instead, I had the genius idea to follow what looked on the topo like low-angled slopes, returning me to the road near the trail where I planned to leave it. My shortcut turned out to be a mix of thrashing through willows and aspens with skis and boots on my back, kicking steps in old snow with worn-out running shoes, and telling myself that I could totally self arrest with a ski pole. Why running shoes instead of ski boots? I knew that I would be dealing with mixed scree and snow higher up, and I much prefer running shoes on snow to ski boots on scree.
I eventually reached the road and, side-hilling along it for awhile, then took the trail to the col, which was already bare in many places. Always eager to take a shortcut, I decided to climb a closer spur ridge rather than following the partly-snowy trail all the way to the pass. This shortcut worked better than the last, with patches of good step-kicking snow providing a break from the underlying loose scree. Looking back while catching my breath, I saw (presumably) the Sprinter crew skinning up the big snowfield west of my ridge. They were making good time, but I had a solid lead, and only saw them occasionally in the distance for the rest of the day.
The skiers were still making steady progress when I finally reached the ridge junction. This section is discouragingly long, but doesn’t gain too much elevation, and in summer, there is a decent use trail compacting the scree. The trail I found was sometimes useful, but often became an “anti-trail,” a narrow path buried by hard, angled snow. I mostly ignored it, taking what looked like the best line on solid-ish rock and wind-beaten snow.
Reaching the summit, I was pleased to see that the register canister was completely exposed, its contents dry. There was even a nice rock seat nearby where I could peruse it while eating Grocery Outlet bargain lean salami ($4.99 for 2 lbs.), my new favorite non-carb trail food. It was warm out, but I thought it might be a good ideea to give the upper, steepest part of the couloir a bit more time to soften, so I hung out for 30 minutes or so, finally leaving around noon. At least for now, you can ski right from the summit.
The top of the couloir looked intimidatingly steep from above, with a blind rollover a short ways down, but I had been checking it out on the way up, and had chosen the safest-looking path through the rocks below this bulge. I played around with different aspects within the couloir, but no single line skied well all the time, and I nearly ate it when I hit an unexpected patch of windboard. A better skier could probably plow right through, but I did quite a bit of survival skiing: side-slip for awhile, make one or two jump-turns, then stop to plan my next moves.
The middle part was easier, but unpleasant, with lots of wet slide debris (i.e. ice-and-snow-balls) of varied hardness. I moved a bit faster on this, but little I did was elegant. It looked like most of the debris fell from the couloir’s sides, and while I was sometimes accompanied by a few friendly snowballs, I never set off a slide. Once through the debris, I finally reached more predictable snow, and was able to make a few good turns.
Unfortunately there does not seem to be a way to glide past the lakes, especially in warm, grabby afternoon snow, so there was shuffling, double-poling, cursing, and a short carry through a bare section. I skied down to the creek junction where I had set out on my first “shortcut” in the morning, then decided that I would rather posthole to the road than ski through the maze of aspens and pines near the creek. Looking back from somewhere on the road, I could just make out the other party and their tracks as they negotiated the couloir.
Mount Tom is huge, with chutes and canyons descending from its long summit ridge in all directions. I had already been up Elderberry Canyon, probably the most popular ski line on Tom, and partway up the East Chute (“Dingleberry Canyon”). This time I came up the steeper Southeast Chute and face, a line leading directly to the summit from the desert nearly 7000 feet below. Unfortunately conditions were poor, with blasting wind and sometimes dubious snow. This led to indecision, and ultimately forced me to turn around near 12,800′, still 600′ shy of the summit.
I got another early start from slightly higher on the Buttermilk road, this time remembering my poles. I followed the road until the sagebrush was snowy enough to be skiable, then took off straight for the mouth of the Horton Lakes drainage. I eventually rejoined the road, and followed it to the Sonny Boy Mine cabin. From there, an undulating bench continues around to the mouth of the southeast chute, which is guarded by an old lateral moraine. Earlier in the season, it would be better to approach across the desert and into the lower end of the moraine, but it would now require too much bushwhacking.
I carefully booted down the moraine and a short distance up the chute, then put my skis back on to skin up the messy old avalanche snow. As the chute turned north and opened up around 9500′, the wind picked up from the north.
Sitting at the eastern edge of the range, Basin Mountain and Mount Tom are the two most striking peaks seen from Bishop. Mount Tom has several long ski lines, of which I have done a couple, and I planned to do another, the southeast couloir. However, that line shares a trailhead with Basin’s well-known and much more striking east bowl. Partly because it was tempting and closer, and partly because I hiked over a mile from the car before realizing I had forgotten my poles, I scrapped my plans and headed for Basin.
I skinned up the road for awhile, then left it to continue through the sagebrush toward an orange thing near a large boulder that turned out to be someone’s tent. Despite its being sunny and pleasant, I saw no one outside the tent or skinning up the slope above. The previous day’s snow up high may have fallen as rain below, because the snow still had a slick, rock-hard crust. I carefully skinned up for a bit, wishing I had ski crampons, booted until I began postholing, then cautiously and strenuously followed the old skin track for awhile.
I eventually reached a shoulder between the lower slopes and the basin that gives the peak its name. Some previous skiers had skied a shorter line north of the shoulder, but the snow still needed time to soften, and I was here for the basin, so I side-slipped over to the south, then continued along the now-fainter track. The previous morning had been snowy, and the afternoon violently windy, so there was a mixture of powder and wind-board in the sheltered northeast-facing bowl.
The enormous scale of the terrain hides the fact that the upper bowl is 2000 feet high, so it seemed to take forever to cross the lower flat section and climb the headwall. I managed to skin partway up, but had to return to booting as the slope got steeper and more wind-packed. The bowl tops out at the base of a rock wall below the summit, so rather than follow it, I decided to explore a southeast-facing branch to see if I could reach the summit.
The snow abruptly turned nasty, with various soft stuff over an old rock-hard crust. I booted and wallowed up a ways, but after backsliding a couple of times, decided that continuing might be not just frustrating but unwise. I stomped out a platform, switched to downhill mode, and had a snack, then did a trial ski cut to see what would happen. Not too surprisingly, I managed to set off a small slide, though it wasn’t very deep. I found some more solid snow on the south-facing part of the chute, and carefully made my way down to the main basin.
I had seen someone following my track below, and met him again as he put his skis on his pack to boot up the final half of the upper basin. I stopped to chat for a minute, then did some thuggish skiing on variable snow back to the saddle. Below the saddle, the east-facing crust had softened nicely, and I managed to hit 30 MPH making super-G turns on the lower slope — not particularly fast, but still fun, and not bad for the conditions. I dodged sagebrush on the flats until I found the road, then coasted back to within 10 feet of my car around 12:30. There were another half-dozen vehicles parked by then, and I passed a few skiers, but only me and that one other guy seem to have made it up high.
It’s spring in the Sierra, and some of the big east-side ski lines are coming into prime condition. Of the roughly 10,000 feet of elevation between the Owens Valley and the highest peaks, 5000 feet or more is skiable in many places, often with minimal desert hiking carrying skis. With clear skies and a higher sun, the snow refreezes overnight, and softens up enough on south- and east-facing slopes to be pleasantly skiable by noon or 1:00 PM.
Buck Mountain, and its neighbor Alice, are unattractive sand-piles east of the much more dramatic Palisades. I had climbed both for the Sierra Challenge, and not particularly enjoyed doing so. Both mountains are much improved by snow, however, with Buck’s southeast face and gully offering just over 4000 feet of moderate skiing. With the Glacier Lodge road currently closed about 1.5 miles short of the summer trailhead, there is a bit of an approach, but nothing obscene, and it was still mostly snow-covered from the small parking area.
Dan and Kim had camped at the trailhead, so they probably got more sleep than I did, waking in the dark to drive down from north of Bishop. After the usually gear wrangling, we were skinning up the road on a chilly morning a bit before 7:00. This was my first time using Dan’s old boots and backup skis. The boots in particular are much lighter than my current gear, and while this made skinning easier, I was curious how they would perform going downhill.
We eventually reached the summer trailhead, and had to remove our skis for one short stretch of south-facing trail passing the cabins. Beyond, we followed an old skin track up across the bridge, then into the open South Fork of Big Pine Creek. High clouds and a breeze kept temperatures cool, and we were concerned as we skinned west that the snow would not soften enough to be fun.
Just past the summer stream crossing, where the trail begins to climb the headwall toward Willow Lake, we finally saw the start of our route. After waiting awhile for it to warm up, and almost giving up, the clouds looked like they might be blowing over, and we fortunately decided to go ahead. The snow was still solid on the way up, and as the slope steepened, Dan and Kim put on their ski crampons. Not having such esoteric gear, I carefully skinned as best I could, then put my skis on my pack to boot up a couple of the steeper sections.
Above the initial chute, we found a good skin-track switchbacking up the open slope, which made it possible for me to carefully skin up to the shoulder, then around to the final south-facing slope. While Kim waited for Dan, I continued up the track toward the summit ridge. I stashed my skis in a sheltered spot, then followed a boot-track to the true summit, where I found the register in good shape and completely exposed. It was unfortunately too new to include the Sierra Challenge, but I saw some familiar names, and it was warm and calm enough to hang out on the summit, have a snack, and admire the Palisades in all their snow-bound glory.
By the time I returned to my skis and figured out how to switch Dan’s boots to downhill mode, Kim and Dan had reached my sheltered spot. It was getting late — around 1:00 PM — so rather than continuing to the summit for a clear view of North Palisade, they briefly looked over into the North Fork, then prepared to descend. I was worried about some plastic poking me in Dan’s boots, but as is often the case with ski boots, once you start going downhill, either they sort themselves out or you stop noticing the pain.
After a couple turns of hard crust, the snow became pleasant on the upper face, and I descended in swooping GS turns. The snow below the shoulder was similarly pleasant, except for a shaded part of the lower gully that had already refrozen, and I got up some serious speed on the final runout into the South Fork. I wish I knew my top speed, but unfortunately I was not recording the ski.
Rather than following the summer trail, we stayed on the south side of the creek, following some ski tracks that eventually deposited us among the surprisingly large cluster of cabins. I debated putting skins back on for the slightly-downhill road back to the car, but eventually decided not to: the skins had left nasty glue on the bases on the way up, and it was downhill… So, much strenuous skating and double-poling later, I finally returned to the car, and was home again by late afternoon.
One incongruous bit of good fortune lately has been the snow cover lingering well down into the Owens Valley, kept alive by fresh showers and cold temperatures. This has made it possible for me to put on skis less than a mile from my winter abode. There is not a whole lot of skiable terrain nearby, but there are numerous chutes all along Wheeler Crest, a long ridge between Pine and Rock Creeks west of the Sherman Grade, where Highway 395 climbs from the Owens Valley to the higher plateau south of Mammoth Lakes.
I had tried the Mayfield Couloir on the southern end, finding too little snow and too many exposed willows. However, the couloirs farther north, west of Swall Meadows, seemed to have better coverage. I first tried on a storm day, skinning up the powerline road southwest of Swall, then blindly following a couloir to around 8500′, where the cold and wind convinced me to turn back. I found some decent powder on the way down, but it was tricky skiing without being able to see surface features and obstacles. The route clearly had potential, though, so I returned the next day to try to finish it.
The forecast predicted calm, sunny conditions, so I got a fairly early start around 7:00 AM despite its only being around 20 degrees out. Like the day before, I hiked around a mile from the house with skis and boots on my back, then switched as quickly as possible with rapidly-numbing fingers before skinning up the powerline road. Beyond the road closure, I found it much easier to pick a line to the couloir’s entrance now that I could actually see things more than a couple hundred yards away.
I made better time to my previous highpoint, finding my tracks from the day before mostly filled in but still faintly visible. Above, there are numerous branching chutes. I tried to pick the broadest ones with the fewest trees, aiming a bit south of Wheeler Crest’s summit. As the chutes steepened and narrowed, I was forced to make more switchbacking turns, which were slow and laborious in the heavy Sierra powder. I eventually got tired of the turns, but I sunk in knee-deep without skis, so I tried to make longer traverses across the lightly-treed slopes. This approach was probably a bit faster than staying in one of the narrow chutes, but was still a grind, often sinking
I eventually traversed north to the northeast ridge of Point 11,485′, where I found pleasantly wind-packed snow and easier travel. I neared the point around 1:00 PM, and was tempted to skip Wheeler Crest’s summit, which still looked far away. Telling myself that there was still plenty of daylight and I needed the exercise, I skinned on, finding much easier travel near the wind-scoured crest. The final 50′ to the summit was mostly bare rock, though the register (if any) was buried enough that I did not bother to look. I took a few quick photos, checked out the views of upper Rock Creek to the west, Tom, Humphreys and the Palisades to the south, and the White Mountains across the way, then locked in my heels to ski back toward the chutes dropping from 11,485′.
I tried to build up some speed going through the saddle, but still had to do some miserable slow-motion struggling to get back to the ridge. It might have been faster to put my skins back on, but I am very slow at transitions. While cornices had formed elsewhere on the ridge, there was just an initial steep slope on the chute I chose. The upper slopes were covered in wind-crust hard enough that I did not sink in. Unfortunately, the crust became less predictable lower down, and I managed to tip slowly and embarrassingly downhill several times when I unexpectedly broke through and lost my balance. Finally, just above the previous day’s highpoint, I found more consistent powder, and enjoyed some nice turns down to the desert brush. I picked up the powerline road, glided just past where I had put on my skis in the morning, then hiked back home.
While I have not been getting out as much as planned this winter, it has still been slightly more interesting than usual. Here are brief descriptions of a few backcountry ski outings.
McGee Mountain (east couloir)
McGee Mountain, a peak west of the southern end of Crowley Lake, has numerous couloirs on its east and south faces. This one lies above the old rope tow for a ski area that predated Mammoth Mountain. The snow lower down was thin, but I was itching to get out, so I parked at the historic marker for the old lift, and started skinning up some defunct road toward the couloir’s base. While this was not the most direct route, it avoided the sagebrush that the thin snow failed to cover.
Beyond the end of the road, I continued switchbacking up the hill left of the couloir, occasionally crunching through brush. I eventually moved to the gully below where it narrows, removing my skis to kick steps and wallow through the choke-point. A bit above, I was able to put my skis back on and switchback to the top, eventually exiting via the melting-out right-hand side.
The northwest-facing plateau above was badly wind-scoured, and I carefully picked my way through rocks and grass on the long, gentle climb to McGee’s summit. I took some photos, sent some texts (once again, I had no signal at the trailhead, but a clear one at the summit), then transitioned to “fun mode” to carefully dodge obstacles on my way back to the couloir. Unfortunately I overshot the top, and had to shoulder my skis and hike back up the ridge before dropping in.
I had not been on skis in awhile, but I quickly remembered how to turn in the upper bowl, and was having fun by the time I reached the choke-point. I got in some decent turns below, then exited to the slope I had ascended. Things gradually got uglier lower down, as I was forced to dodge sagebrush and turn gently to avoid carving through the thinning snow. I finally returned to the car via a slow, thigh-burning snowplow down the road.
Mount Dade (Hourglass Couloir)
With the Upper Rock Creek Road gated at the winter closure, anything at the back of Little Lakes Valley is a long trek. The snowmobile-groomed road to Rock Creek Resort helps, but the distance still keeps most people away, leaving more snow for me. The high trailhead and packed snow also help in the dry early season, when other approaches would require hiking.
I got a semi-early start, skinning happily up the smooth road, then continuing along a single snowmobile track to the Mosquito Flat trailhead. I was happy to find a ski track beyond, probably left by whomever had driven the snowmobile. The lakes were still not quite trustworthy, so I followed the skin track that skirted them, more or less along the summer trail. Beyond Long Lake, I followed the drainage up toward Treasure Lakes, where there is a decent use trail in the summer.
The Hourglass Couloir was obvious between Mount Dade and Point 13,268′. I had descended it in dry conditions on a backpack several years ago, finding loose and wretched scree. This time I was doing things right: it was full of snow, and I had skis.
I skinned up as far as I could on the slope below, then began booting the steeper part. This was mostly okay, but the steeper part was a bit intimidating with neither crampons nor ice axe, and with ungainly skis on my back. I was able to get just enough purchase with a sharp ski-boot kick, but if I had stumbled or been blown over by the wind, I probably would have slid helplessly and slowly back down to the bottom.
Topping out at the saddle, I saw that the slope to Dade’s summit had been mostly scoured down to the talus, and decided this was far enough for the day. I dropped my pack, hiked around for a bit, then switched to “fun mode” for the descent. There had been no recent snow, so the couloir skied a bit like a groomed run, with just enough soft surface snow over the wind crust to make confident turns. Taking a bit of care to build momentum for the flats, I managed to glide all the way to the flatter wooded section just above Long Lake. From there, I skinned to just below the summer trailhead, then slid down the road to the car. The whole thing was 19 miles and about 6h45 — a good day.
Esha Creek is a side-stream of McGee Creek that is ignored during the summer, but becomes a popular ski in the winter. It had been on my radar since a friend mentioned it, and I finally got around to skiing it before a major storm turned everything to avalanches. While the snow was a bit thin — it had been awhile since the last significant storm — there was enough coverage to make it a fun run from near 12,200′ down to McGee Creek at 7800′.
The road up McGee Creek had been packed by snowmobiles and partly wrecked by snowshoers and hikers, so it was easy going up toward the old northern lateral moraine. The road curves around its lower end, but I saw a skin track cutting the corner and decided to follow that. It turned out to be a bad idea, as the track trailed off on McGee’s melted-out south-facing slope above the corrals. I took off my skis, boot-skied down some scree, then carefully slid back down to the road with my heels free and skins on, dodging sagebrush.
Back on track, I regained the skin track I knew would be there. It led to a sketchy iced-over log crossing McGee Creek; fortunately ski boots are waterproof, so I could step in the creek without fear. Beyond, I followed the skin track up Esha Creek. It became too steep to follow in a couple of places — perhaps its creators had ski crampons — and I had to kick steps in the hard crust. There were a couple bands of bare talus in the bottom of the drainage, avoided to the west.
I passed the frozen lake just below 10,600′, then booted up toward the various couloirs on “Esha Peak’s” face. I would not have known which one was correct, but fortunately I could follow the boot-pack from two days earlier. Slowly, painfully, I dragged myself up the couloir, finally sketching my way up a steep headwall to the peak’s northeast ridge. I dropped my skis and pack, and hiked to the summit to take in views of Red Slate, Baldwin, White Fang, and McGee.
Returning to my skis, I carefully side-stepped down the headwall, then made a couple of cautious turns to check out the couloir. It proved less scary than expected, with enough soft snow to make for good skiing. I paused a couple of times to catch my breath, including once above the 25-foot constriction that I thought would be the crux, but which turned out not to be that bad. I had to build some momentum to cross the flat by the lake, so I went straight down the last couple hundred vertical feet. I reached barely-stable speeds across some old avalanche debris, but managed to carry enough momentum to carry me across the other side. The crust was still rock-hard, and my edges often chattered as I carved turns. It reminded me of my ski racing days as a kid, except for my being out of shape and having to pause and gasp from time to time. Still, I reached McGee Creek about 30 minutes from the summit. After crossing the creek, another 30-minute glide got me back to the car.
Elderberry Canyon is a classic Eastern Sierra ski descent. Starting from down in the desert where you have to park your car — probably around 5500′ — the wannabe skier follows an old road and trail to the Lambert Mine at almost 11,000′. From there, numerous couloirs ascend to Mount Tom’s north ridge between 11,800′ and 12,800′. Trying to sneak in a final ski ahead of a round of avalanches, I caught it in non-ideal conditions, with skiable snow starting at 7100′. Still, by climbing to the ridge at 12,000′, I managed to find 4900′ of enjoyable if crusty skiing.
For the first time since last summer, I started out with my skis and boots on my pack, hiking the old mine road, which no longer seems drivable past around 5800′. I reached Elderberry Canyon at 6400′, and briefly explored a road continuing south before returning to find the near-invisible trail up next to the creek. After a bit more confusing near a constriction, I crossed the creek where it turns south around 7000′, bashing through some willows and picking my way through nasty wild roses.
I finally put my skis on at 7100′, skinning carefully up hard crust and around bits of old avalanche debris. The valley narrows somewhat, then widens and flattens as it turns slightly east around 9600′. I continued over rolling terrain, eventually ending up west of where the Lambert Mine is shown on the map. The weather was still decent, with thin high clouds and little wind, so I chose a broad chute and booted west to Tom’s north ridge around 12,000′.
The summit was another 1600′ and 1 mile climb away over mostly-bare talus, so I spent a few minutes admiring Pine Creek and Bear Creek Spire, then locked in my heels and headed down. Above the mine, I found some powder mixed with breakable crust. The best skiing was from the mine down to 9600′, solid snow with a smooth, soft surface friendly to sweeping, carving turns. Things were crustier and a bit trickier below, but still fun and skiable back to 7100′. From there, it was a moderate hike to the car, shortcutting the road through sagebrush and sand. I was surprised to find another skier parked next to me, who got a later start and turned around lower. Satisfied, I drove home and waited for more snow to arrive.
I thought it would probably be good to give my seldom-used ski muscles a rest after Columbia, so I drove south to Lake Louise to play tourist for a day. I even treated myself to some Montreal Smoked Meat, which is a bit like pastrami without the pepper coating, and only seems to be sold in Canada. Since I prefer “fitness tourism,” I looked around for an easy peak, and settled on Mount Fairview, a 1000-meter trail climb from Lake Louise. The lake was still slightly frozen, and the trail was snow-covered from the beginning, but Canadian tourists are a hardy lot, so there was a good boot-pack most of the way to the saddle between Fairview and Saddleback.
Near the end of the bootpack, I met a half-dozen college kids, including a couple girls in short-shorts, debating whether to continue. I made some encouraging noises, but I don’t think they went much farther, which was probably for the best. The last half-mile or so to the saddle was fairly wretched, with stretches of crotch-deep postholing through slush. I tried a direct line toward the peak, failed, then continued up the bottom of the depression farther toward the saddle, where the snow was slightly more consolidated. Fortunately, there was a bare rib leading from the saddle nearly to the summit — I would not have had the energy or patience for another 1500 vertical feet of wallowing.
The view is actually better than “fair,” with Lake Louise below, and greater peaks to the south, west, and north: Temple, some of the Ten Peaks including Deltaform, Sheol, Lefroy, and Victoria. Having nothing better to do, I sat in a sheltered spot on the summit for awhile, then returned the way I had come. The snow was even worse than on the way up, sometimes even too soft for a sitting glissade, but at least it was downhill. I passed another group of kids, these at least all wearing long pants, and encouraged them to try for the summit before skating down the icy trail through the woods to the teeming hordes of tourists by the chateau.
What a difference a week makes. When I first tried Hector seven days ago, there was (awful) snow almost right from the road, and I was almost completely dysfunctional with the flu. Today, I was able to hike the first 600 meters or so (to above the waterfall) in trail runners, and finished a bit after noon. The previous night looked like the last cold night for awhile, and I was just about done with the area, so I figured I might as well stick around an extra day to finish Hector. It is one of the Canadian Rockies’ 11,000-foot peaks, an ultra-prominence peak, and best done as a ski, so it would have been lame of me to leave it un-bagged while I was in the area.
I got a semi-alpine start around 6:20, finding two other cars parked in the small pullout across from Hector Creek. It took me a few minutes to adjust to my new dimensions with both skis and boots on my back, but I was soon making steady progress up the good use trail toward the waterfall without getting stuck on trees. Below the waterfall, I climbed a cone of avalanche snow, then a little third class cliff. After a few more minutes of trail, I reached nearly-continuous snow in the hanging valley around 2200 meters. I skinned up the lousy snow, then stumbled across 50 yards of rocks to reach the continuous snow to the summit.
The snow below the Hector Glacier was steep enough to require some boot-packing, but fortunately it was early enough for it not to have turned awful. Above, it was low-angle enough for efficient skinning. Rounding the corner, I finally got a glimpse of the well-hidden summit, and spotted a team of four on the upper glacier. They had taken a line well to the left, but it looked like most skiers followed a lower-angle line to the right. At the base of the glacier, I passed their four pairs of snowshoes, their tails stuck in the snow next to a red-flagged wand.
There were scattered clouds wandering slowly eastward, and as I reached the upper glacier, one of them parked on Hector. I wasn’t about to get lost — I had a map and GPS, and there were old tracks — but it was a bit annoying to climb with no visibility, and would be downright unpleasant to ski down in those conditions. I plodded on, eventually finding the party of four’s boot-pack, though I neither heard nor saw them descending.
I stashed my skis and poles below the summit knob, then took on the final 100 feet of rock, ice, and snow with my axe and no crampons. I had them in my pack, but it would have taken time to adjust them to my ski boots, and this made the climb a bit more of a fair fight. I finally spotted the group of four descending the snow above the lower rock step. They turned out to be three novices and (probably) a guide, roped together and moving slowly. It seems like they had been going at a leisurely pace all day, since they had started around 3:30. I booted past them, then climbed a final 6-foot rock step to the summit, becoming slightly more comfortable climbing in plastic boots.
The summit was better than I expected: a narrow ridge above the clouds, with a register and some dry sitting rocks. I spent some time looking down to Hector Lake and willing the clouds to depart the Hector Glacier, then carefully downclimbed to my skis. The group ahead of me had maybe a 10-minute lead, and I had to ski carefully up high while in the clouds, but most of the glacier was clear, and I soon flew by them, briefly hitting 50 MPH on a steep section with a good runout. I briefly screwed up below the glacier, heading too far right and having to hike some rocks to correct my error, and the snow was absolute garbage below 2400 meters. Still, Hector is an awesome ski, and would have been even better a month ago, when I could have skied all the way to the car, a vertical mile below. Canadians are so spoiled…
Mount Columbia is the second-highest peak in the Canadian Rockies, and the highest of 11 11,000-foot peaks that ring the Columbia Icefield. Unlike Mount Robson, whose 10,000-foot south face is visible from the highway, Columbia is a shy mountain, seen only from parts of the Icefield and its surrounding peaks. Therefore most people never see it. The standard route climbs the Athabasca Glacier to the southeast side of the Icefield, then makes a mostly-flat traverse to Columbia at its far west side. Depending upon the exact route chosen, it is about 25-26 miles round-trip.
I had been hanging around the Glacier Discovery Center enough that people were starting to recognize me — never a good thing — but the weather and my cough finally both cooperated, so I could finally tag my peak and leave. The result was painful, as I am not used to long ski tours, but ranks among my favorite days in the mountains. In addition to some incredible and unique scenery, this outing and my other two trips up to the Icefield helped dispel my irrational fear of the Athabasca Glacier approach and the Icefield itself. It’s serious terrain, but as is often the case, it can be managed with caution and mountain sense instead of gear and partners.
I had a quiet night in the Sunwapta Lake parking area until a few minutes before my 4:15 alarm, when two trucks pulled in to either side of me. They proved to contain two parties headed across the Icefield, a pair headed for the Twins, and a group of four headed for I-don’t-know-where. I consumed my cup of sadness and started just after the first group, shortly before 5:00, catching them as they put on their skis at the toe of the glacier. Figuring that I wouldn’t be carrying my skis much, I took my new daypack, which has enough room for gear plus stash pockets for food.
I slightly gapped the pair headed for the Twins on the way up the familiar Athabasca Glacier, topping out in around two hours. They had been making good time, but disappeared somewhere in the middle, perhaps taking the long detour left instead of going under Snow Dome’s seracs. I, of course, took my chances on the direct route, and saw no ice fall in the hour or so that I could see the seracs. Judging by the debris, I might get hit if something big came loose, but it would bounce and roll first, cutting its momentum and giving me a chance to dodge. Plus, the detour looks way sketchier, as it parallels a number of crevasse fields.
The light clouds were breaking up, and I finally got direct sun a bit after 8:00, stopping to put on my hat and sunscreen. With no fog obscuring my view, navigation was simple: head more or less straight on from the top of the glacier, then turn slightly right as you see Castleguard. When Columbia starts emerging, aim at or a bit left of its summit to hit the highpoint of the trench. This part can be a grind, skinning across slightly-undulating, nearly-flat terrain with only distant landmarks. Getting around Snow Dome takes forever. However, the views of Bryce, Castleguard, and the Icefield lit by the sun breaking through patchy clouds kept my mind occupied, and the snow was in near-perfect condition.
I actually overshot the highpoint of the Trench a bit, and had to backtrack slightly before switching to ski mode to dive in. I tried to gather some momentum, but ground to a stop before making any progress up the other side. From there, it was an interminable skin up the nearly-flat ice peninsula leading to Columbia’s base. The scale of the place makes itself felt on this stretch: the summit pyramid looks small, but is actually almost 2000 feet high, while the almost-flat approach above the Trench is nearly three miles long.
Columbia’s east face had been baking all morning, so despite the cooler night, it was starting to become posthole country. Fortunately, it looked like a couple groups had summited in the last few days, and their boot-packs were still relatively firm. Unfortunately, they seem to have been very tall, because the steps were placed awkwardly far apart. Based on a trip report I had read, I had anticipated stashing my skis and booting both up and down. However, I saw ski tracks on the face, and it is both broad and not too steep (about 45 degrees), so I decided that it should be skied. To my delight, I found that my new daypack can carry skis cross-wise using some external straps, though I doubt that is their intended purpose. Lacking a serious waist-belt, the pack is not super-comfortable while carrying heavy skis, but… good enough.
Unfortunately, I basically imploded on the 1500-foot boot-pack to the top. This being May, I had packed fewer calories than the math suggested, so perhaps rationing contributed. More likely, I was just worn out after doing more skiing than I have done in years, perhaps decades. I made my pathetic way up the face, cheered by the view of the Twins to my right, and the prospect of skiing down this thing.
Following the herd’s tracks left of a 30-foot summit cornice, I sketched across a bit of shallow snow over ice, then popped through the short part of the cornice to emerge on the summit plateau. I could not have asked for better conditions: it was calm, clear in all directions, and probably right around freezing. I spread my windbreaker on the snow, rooted around my unused crampons to dig out my down parka, and sat down to admire the views. Far to the east, I could make out the head of the Athabasca Glacier in the distance, between Andromeda and Snow Dome. Next door to the north rose the South Twin, presenting its fearsome 6000-foot south face. Directly to the east, the Columbia Glacier falls in double ice-falls from the Trench to the headwaters of the Athabasca River. Unknown mountains stretched to the horizon in all directions: the Rockies to the north, south, and east, and the Selkirks barely poking above the cloud deck to the west.
After a sandwich and a brief summit nap, I switched to ski mode, then pitched over the edge onto the east face. My quads were tired from the climb, and the snow was heavy, so I had to stop every dozen turns to recover. Still, going down made up for the horrid slog on the way up. The snow was starting to soften, and the flatness of the plateau back to the Trench made itself felt. Though it was not worth switching to skins, I was forced to do some exhausting skating to get through one stretch. Things improved once the plateau started dropping to the Trench, and after a screw-up where I drifted too far left and ended up on the edge of a huge crevasse, I righted myself, and managed to hit 43 MPH in a tuck down the final slope.
Now it was time for the slog. I ate my last granola bar, then began skinning up the other side. I followed an old track for awhile, then switched to navigating by landmark, aiming for the left-hand skyline of an unnamed peak southwest of the Athabasca Glacier. This long traverse is a trade-off between elevation gain on the direct line nearer Snow Dome, and distance on a slightly longer and lower route farther south. The snow was starting to soften, and I was out of water; the day was becoming distinctly less fun.
At last, I reached a point where I could switch to ski mode for the rest of the way home. After a fast, easy descent to the head of the glacier, I took the current line skier’s left of its head, which is now a crevassed disaster, then linked turns down the headwall. The snow was getting sticky, so I couldn’t match the previous outing’s speed, but I still made good time all the way to the lower, flat part of the glacier. Unfortunately it was mid-afternoon, and the snow had been baked to a wretched, sticky state; even following the morning’s skin track, I had to constantly double-pole to keep moving. The final stretch was even slower, as I stumbled across the moraine with my skis over my shoulder, crossed the rope barrier right next to the “you will fall in a crevasse and die” sign, then clomped through the tourist hordes to reach my car.
Despite the slow finish, I was surprised to make it to the car faster than I had expected — just under 11 hours. As I have established before, I am usually 10-20% off what an elite athlete can do, even at things I should be good at like uphill running. I was therefore very satisfied to be less than 20% off the 9h18 FKT for Columbia, set by members of the Canadian national ski mountaineering team. Ill-timed illness has kept me from doing as much skiing as I had hoped while in the Great White North, but what I have done has been high quality. Hopefully we’ll have a decent winter wherever I end up in the States next winter.