Category Archives: California

Silver

Silver from near Divide


There are many Silver Peaks; this one is an unremarkable and relatively inaccessible summit in the middle of the Sierra southwest of Mammoth Lakes. The standard approach seems to be from the west, starting at Lake Thomas Edison, but it is only slightly farther to approach from the east. Since I was already in Mammoth for other reasons, I approached from there, via Duck Pass and an unfamiliar section of the JMT. Thanks to a crossing of the low Cascade Valley, and a wrong-trail issue, this involved about 35 miles and just over 9000 feet of elevation gain. I knew this going in, but was still surprised at how tough the day felt.

Tiger lilies!

I got a comfortable night’s sleep in the woods outside Mammoth, and a lazy start near Lake Mary a bit after 6:00. Setting the day’s theme of losing to the trail maze, I soon realized I was on the wrong trail, paralleling Duck Pass a quarter mile to the right. Course corrected, I hiked the maddeningly flat switchbacks to the pass, then took off jogging around large and scenic Duck Lake. The PCT/JMT traverses above the Cascade Valley here, so there were a few tents near the lake’s outlet, and I began seeing a steady stream of through-hikers as I jogged the traverse to Purple Lake, which is not at all purple.

Back toward Red Slate and home

While the PCT continues above the valley, I needed to be on the other side, so I left it to drop about 1500 feet to Fish Creek, then slowly gain it back on the other side, on a trail following Minnow Creek. Fish Creek was more of a river, and the flat valley bottom was swarming with mosquitoes and black flies after the wet winter. I found a usable but precarious log-jam about 100 yards downstream, and slowly struggled across while alternately grabbing branches for balance and swatting the hordes of mosquitoes.

Olive Lake

Other than drawing a GPX track to download the relevant maps the day before, I had not paid much attention to the route, so I passed a signed turnoff to “Iva Bell” (hot springs, it turns out, not a dome) without much attention, lost in my angry music and dark thoughts. The mosquitoes remained relentless as I passed though Jackson Meadow, swarming me when I stopped to wring out my sock after slipping at a stream crossing. At a signed turnoff to Olive Lake, I pulled out my map, and realized that I had traveled quite a ways up the wrong valley. As usual, my first response was to curse at having made a long day even longer through stupidity and inattention; fortunately I had the valley to myself. Looking briefly at the map, the best plan seemed to be to take the trail to Olive Lake, then traverse west somehow to Silver.

Anne and Peter Pande Lakes

Other than the mosquitoes, which attacked again as I got more water at Olive Lake, the valley was pleasant and easy. I eyed the terrain as I climbed toward the Silver Divide, and thought it looked easiest to gain the right-hand ridge just below the Divide. Once on the ridge, I saw that it would be faster to descend a bit and traverse the high bench at the head of Long Canyon, rather than following the ridge. There was still a lot of snow hanging around on the northeast slope, but it was soft enough at midday to cross without much trouble. I dropped down to about 10,800′, then regained the ridge at the final saddle before Silver to climb its southeast ridge.

North to Ritter, Banner, and Mammoth Mountain

Reaching the summit after some unremarkable class 2 scrambling, I was pleased to find an old Doug Mantle register from his first trip through the SPS list, and surprised to be the first visitor this year. It was about 12:30, and I had told Renee I would meet her back in Mammoth by “mid-afternoon.” That clearly was not happening, but if I followed the correct trails and jogged, I could at least be slightly less late. I ate my last food, took a few photos, and started for home.

Beetlebug Lake

Getting down to Beetlebug Lake was tricky, as it is surrounded by steep walls and nasty brush. I dropped to the small unnamed tarns, then traversed above the brush to the left until, via some slab shenanigans, I dropped to the lake near its outlet. The Long Canyon trail was surprisingly faint, and I found and lost it several times on my way back to the “Iva Bell” junction. I mercilessly shortcut the trail down to Fish Creek, then decided to ford it instead of using the logjam. This was probably faster, but I made the mistake of keeping my pants on, soaking them in the thigh-deep “crux” of the crossing. It was a hot day, though, and the water was not too cold, so I did not mind as much as I normally would.

The climb back to Purple Lake was a grind, but the traverse back to Duck Pass went quickly. The JMT hordes were out in full force, replacing the mosquitoes at this higher elevation. I texted Renee from Duck Pass, then descended at a credible jog. I thought I would be fit after my time in Peru, but in all those weeks carrying heavy packs and moving slowly in boots, I had neglected my running fitness. Clearly a tuneup is in order.

Trapezoid

Fine turns


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.

Skinning across South Lake

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.

Unnamed peak near Treasure Lakes

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.

Slog, slog, slog

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.

Goode and Palisades

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.

Le Conte Canyon

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…

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.

Bloody Couloir

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.

Tom (SE chute)

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.

Basin Mountain (E bowl)

Basin from car


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.

Skinning toward 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.

Upper basin from shoulder

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.

Upper basin with skier for scale

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.

Those are mine!

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.

Buck Mountain (SE chute)

Skinning toward Buck


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.

Skinning toward Clyde

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.

Lower gully

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.

Climbing toward lower gully

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.

Sill and North Palisade from Buck

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.

Palisade Crest

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.

Yours Truly stylin’ it (Dan’s photo)

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.

Wheeler Crest

Northern crest with chute


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.

Southern crest with Mayfield Couloir

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.

Skinning away from White

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.

Lower chute

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

Summit from top-out

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′.

Ready to drop in

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.

Various eastside skiing

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 chutes


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)

Hourglass


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

Esha Peak


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

12,000′ above Elderberry


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.

Badwater to Whitney (L2H route, 53h09)

I come from the other side of that


With only 88 miles separating Badwater and Mount Whitney, the lowest and highest points in the contiguous United States, it is only natural for people to want to travel from one to the other. The most popular way to do this is the Badwater 135 running race, which follows the highway and is held in July to maximize misery. However, there is also a mostly off-highway route between the two points called “Lowest to Highest” (L2H), which stitches together a mixture of dirt roads, trails, and cross-country travel to connect the two points in a similar distance and in a much more interesting way.

I had met a member of a group trying to set a Fastest Known Time (FKT) for this route on my recent Badwater to Telescope adventure. The group seemed unlikely to succeed, but it turns out that they persevered, completing the route in 3 days, 8 hours. I do not normally enjoy deserts, backpacking, or non-peak-focused activities. However, I am both curious and competitive, and with a little help from a friend (ahem), the seed was planted in my mind. Thus, in the last dry Sierra weather before winter, I found myself driving back out to Badwater on Saturday, with side-trips to leave water at Cerro Gordo and on the Saline Valley and Wildrose Canyon Roads.

First period of consciousness

Starting out (second time…)

Having learned my lesson from last time, I took a side-trip to the Natural Bridge parking lot to sleep, then woke up at 2:30 AM to drive down to Badwater. I started hiking on schedule at 3:00 AM, choosing a constellation to orient myself on the featureless salt flat after the moon had set. Feeling paranoid a mile or more out, I stopped to check my pack, and realized that I had left my phone charging cord in the car. Since I did not know the route, this simply would not do. Cursing my stupidity, I meandered back to the car, retrieved the cord, and started “for real” around 4:30. Bonus miles!

Badwater from Panamint crest

Heading just right of Orion’s belt, I plotted a fairly straight and direct course across the flats at night, reaching the Westside Road before sunrise. My pack was uncomfortably heavy with food, but I managed to jog a bit of this road before hiking the endless Hanaupah Canyon Road toward the spring. The “illegal activities” seemed not to have poisoned the water for the previous group, so I drank some and filled up with a full 3 liters before zig-zagging up the faint trail to the east ridge. I felt good on the familiar climb, reaching the Telescope trail about 7h30 from the car.

Up Tuber Canyon

After following the trail past Bennett Peak, the route heads cross-country into Tuber Canyon. The initial drop is moderately obnoxious, but the canyon floor has an open, sandy streambed that makes for quick travel. I was feeling good enough to jog quite a bit of it, sipping away at my water as I made the endless, winding descent to the Panamint Valley. Though I saw no burros, they had left plenty of manure and faint trails, which I followed as the wash became littered with rocks and brush lower down. Closer to the canyon’s mouth, these game trails turned into a human trail and then a jeep road.

Moonrise over Telescope

I hiked and jogged the jeep road past some burned-out old cars and other junk, finishing my water shortly before meeting the Wildrose Canyon Road. I hiked up to my water cache, drank a liter, then put three more in my pack along with the crushed plastic jug. Absorbed in my preparations, I was surprised to look up and find a woman with an overnight pack hiking down the road. When I greeted her, she replied and immediately asked if I was doing Lowest to Highest. I spoke for a few minutes to this desert native, finding out that she was doing a loop up Tuber Canyon and down Wildrose, then we took off in opposite directions.

The GPS map came in handy here, as the route leaves the paved Wildrose road to follow a nearly-invisible old jeep road northwest across the Panamint Valley. I jogged the descents and hiked the flats as the sun set over the Argus Range across the valley. I took out my headlamp near full dark, but found that the moon was bright enough to make it unnecessary. I glanced occasionally at the map on my phone, following the line as it turned left across the Panamint salt flat. This was probably my favorite part of the journey. Unlike the Badwater flat, with its sharp and uneven surface, the Panamint flat is almost entirely smooth, so I could fast-walk across it while admiring the starry skyline, and watching the sparse headlamps of the cars passing silently on the roads to the west and north.

I had been feeling fine to this point, or perhaps my mind was elsewhere going across the salt flat, but I began to feel the miles while plying the dirt roads toward highway 190. There were the expected knee and shoulder aches, but also some unfamiliar ones in my Achilles tendons and the backs of my knees. I finally reached route 190, then turned left to walk quickly up the pavement toward Panamint Springs, only turning my headlamp on to warn approaching cars.

I reached the “resort,” checked to find that their WiFi was password-protected, then sat down on a rock outside to have a sandwich and think. My original plan had been to put in 70 miles the first day, sleeping at my Saline Valley Road cache at 1:00-2:00 AM. While I was not falling asleep on my feet, my various aches and pains were becoming unpleasant, and there was substantial cross-country travel ahead. Thinking quickly, I decided instead to sleep at China Garden Spring. This would mean covering only about 57 miles the first day, and therefore almost certainly a second sleep in the Owens Valley, but I could not think of a better option.

I hiked more paved road past Panamint, then turned left onto the well-graded dirt road to the Darwin Falls trailhead. I was not loving life at this point, and eyed various flat-looking spots off to the side of the road. However, it was still relatively early, and I told myself that it made more sense to camp near water. The canyon started out broad and sandy, but narrowed as the stream surfaced and I approached the falls. Soon there were no flat spots to camp, and I soaked my feet on one of the stream crossings. I followed a faint cairned route around the falls to the left, making several unnecessary detours to overlook points and finding a bit of easy class 3 scrambling, with cactus to discourage mistakes. I desperately wanted the day to end, so when around 10:00 I found a flat-ish spot sheltered from the wind in some bushes, I threw down my pad and bag, set my alarm for 5:00, and devoured a pepperoni. It took awhile for my fatigue to drown out the pain in my left knee and ankle, but I eventually fell asleep sometime before 11:00.

Second period of consciousness

Let the tedium begin


There were no pleasant bailout options from my first camp, so I feared waking up to find myself feeling the pain and stiffness of serious damage. Fortunately, my body seemed to have recovered overnight. Still, I lay in my bag for awhile after my alarm, dreading the night-time cross-country travel, and only got started at the end of headlamp time around 6:00. Barely 100 yards from camp, I stumbled onto a dirt road coming from who-knows-where, which I followed to China Garden Spring. I expected something obvious like Hanaupah Springs, but saw only a run-down shack and tire tracks. Perhaps the spring was somewhere up-canyon, but it was cool enough that I thought I could manage the 12 miles to my Saline Valley cache on the liter I had left.

The route turned cross-country again, winding up a scenic, easy wash before popping out onto the seemingly endless and slightly uphill plain of loose volcanic garbage that is the Darwin Plateau. I longingly eyed the road to my north as I slogged past the Joshua Trees, trying to take the most efficient line around hills and washes. The folks at nearby China Lake seemed unusually busy, as I frequently heard the sound of military jets overhead. Once, a straight-winged jet looking a bit like an X-1 passed low near a hill behind me, then peeked out again ahead. I don’t know why it was flying, but it did cheer me up.

So much of this…

I eventually reached the highway, crossing 30 feet of pavement to the well-graded Saline Valley Road. This was how I would spend much of the day, efficiently grinding out mind-numbing miles north on a smooth dirt road. Reaching my water cache, I used about three liters, dumped out the rest, and added the crushed jug to my collection. There were Joshua Trees, occasional cars, and another low-flying jet — modern this time — but I mostly just focused maintaining an efficient 4 MPH walk and turned my brain off for this part. I recognized the steep side of Pleasant Point, and it looked unpleasantly far away. I cheered myself up by reminding myself that this was the easiest way to grind out the day’s 50-60 miles.

Evening Owens Valley

Fortunately I had not paid much attention to the map, because it turns out that after climbing to over 6000′, the route loses most of the elevation gained since the highway before turning to climb 3500′ to Cerro Gordo. Making the best of this discouraging development, I jogged what I could of the descent, then put on some Ministry to get myself in the mood for the climb. While the west road to Cerro Gordo is drivable in a passenger car, the east road is nasty, requiring clearance, 4 wheel drive, and some amount of driving skill to get around rocks and up the loose gravel wash.

Inyo mine trail

I reached my Cerro Gordo cache with water to spare, and regretfully poured out half, figuring that it would be cool hiking north along the Inyo crest, and that I would grab more water in Lone Pine. The sun reflected off the various ponds that were once Owens Lake, and the silhouette of Mount Whitney beckoned in the late afternoon light. The traverse north from Cerro Gordo (east and just north of Keeler) to Long John Canyon (just north of Lone Pine) is long, but I was feeling surprisingly good, jogging the flat “Salt Tram Road.” Where the road drops north of Cerro Gordo, an old but mostly runnable trail cuts straight across, passing an old metal shack and mine, saving some major elevation loss and gain.

Sierra sunset

My energy gradually faded as night set in and the road rolled north along the Inyo crest. The high clouds I had seen over the Sierra had spread east, dimming the moon enough to require my headlamp, and making jogging more difficult. It was cool enough for gloves, but not unpleasant, with only a slight wind crossing the range.

Once again I was lucky to have a map, because the “trail” descending to Long John Canyon and the Black Warrior Mine barely exists. I followed where it should be, finding enough cairns and trail-bed higher up to mostly stay on the route, and open cross-country travel when I lost it. Farther down, things deteriorated into ugliness. The trail and wash merge around 7400′, and things are mostly easy. However, a spring around 5900′ makes the wash unusably brushy, and the trail supposedly leaves the bottom around 6900′ feet to get around that and some more upstream nastiness. There may be some sort of trail here, but all could find were occasional cairns hinting that I was probably doing it wrong. It was Inyo bush-whacking at its worst, side-hilling on loose sand and scree through spiny, woody brush and cactus, with the menace of chossy cliffs looming below. I eventually bashed, chossed, and cursed my way to the creek-bed, dumped out my shoes, and hiked to the still-used part of the jeep road.

I was too sore and tired to jog the road quickly at night, but I could shuffle along faster than a walk, and was pissed off enough that I thought I might be able to continue straight on to Whitney and get it over with. I made slightly better speed on the smoother dirt roads of the flat, and was feeling unnaturally lively right until I ran into a sharp inversion on the valley floor. In just a few steps, I went from almost t-shirt weather to cold, aching hands. My will to finish drained away, and I only wanted to get through Lone Pine and sleep.

It took longer that I expected to reach 395, and from there to enter Lone Pine. There were still a few places open when I arrived a bit after 10:00, but I had no money, so the town held neither food nor warmth for me. I thought about trying to climb to the Alabama Hills and out of the inversion, but gave up a short distance up the Whitney Portal Road. I found a flat spot in the brush around 11:00, threw down my bag and pad, set my alarm for 3:00, and ate my remaining pepperoni curled inside my bag with the face-hole nearly closed before nodding off huddled against the cold east wind.

Third period of consciousness

Whitney at last


My will was good when I woke at 3:00, and after taking the time to text my ride and look at the weather, I put on all my clothes, stashed my sleeping gear and empty water jugs, and started hiking up the Portal road around 3:25. The soreness faded somewhat as I climbed the silent road to Lone Pine campground, and I was pleased with my progress. I had been too cold to get more water at the Lone Pine park the night before, so stopped in the still-open campground to refill. Unfortunately the water had been turned off, but at least the vault toilet was open, so I could lighten my load without digging a hole.

Portal crags

I plied the sandy lower National Recreation Trail, then traversed into the canyon on easier ground to a stream crossing. Looking at my map, I realize that this water came from Meysan Lakes, and was therefore probably less fecal than the stuff flowing next to the main Whitney trail. I grabbed a liter, happy not to have to wait until the North Fork, then continued my climb to the Portal. I saw fewer than a dozen cars, and no other hikers as I walked through the picnic area to the old Whitney trail.

Ice blocking slab route

It felt no colder here than in the valley, and the sun rose gloriously on the Portal crags, Whitney, and its needles as I climbed to Lower Boy Scout Lake. I had never been up the Mountaineers’ Route this late in the season, so I wasted some time trying the efficient slab route to Upper Boy Scout Lake and getting shut down by ice before taking the other route up the scree and through the willows.

Me, hut, and Kaweahs

There was a single tent at the lake, and another near Iceberg Lake, where I saw a couple just starting up the chute. I felt like I had no power, stopping frequently to lean on a rock, gasp, and let the lactic acid drain from my legs, but I was pleasantly surprised to still leave the humans in the dust. It was unpleasantly cold in the shady chute, spurring me to stop as little as possible as I passed another hiker on my way to the notch. I hugged the right-hand side on the final north-facing climb, trying to reach the sun as soon as possible. The final, sunny walk across the summit plateau actually felt pleasant. I stopped long enough to take a summit shot, celebrate my time, and send a few texts, but soon grew cold in the breeze, taking a minor detour to sign the summit log before limping slowly down the Mountaineers’ Route to the Portal.

Gear, nutrition, and planning

A warrior must eat


I borrowed a 35-liter climbing pack, to which I attached an old chalk bag and a binocular case as stash pockets for food. I carried a full-length foam pad and my ancient “20 degree” down bag to sleep. I wore my usual summer hiking setup, which was just warm enough to get up and down Mount Whitney.

For food, I followed my usual rule of thumb for such things, packing 100 calories per mile, 13,000 in this case. I relied on 2-3 lbs of body fat to take care of hills and my base metabolic rate. Most of the calories were easily digestible carbs: 12 Clif bars (6 caffeinated, 6 non-), 12 peanut butter sandwiches, 12 packs of pop-tarts, 2 bags of Chex mix. The rest were two pepperoni sausages, which I ate before sleep each night. This worked out perfectly, as I finished my last bar before starting the Mountaineers’ Route chute on Whitney.

Since I do not enjoy worrying about water, I cached a gallon at each of Wildrose Canyon Road, Saline Valley Road, and Cerro Gordo. I originally planned to do the route in two segments: a 70-mile grunt to my water cache on Saline Valley Road, then a death march to Whitney, separated by a short night’s sleep. However, the difficult terrain and unexpected suffering on the first leg forced me to alter this plan. I instead rested for 8 hours after 57 miles, just past Darwin Falls, then again for 4 after 115, just beyond Lone Pine. While I believe the route could be done with just one rest in under 48 hours, doing so is beyond my current abilities.