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.

A friend in need

I deliberately constrain my writing here to the subjects of mountaineering and (occasionally but relatedly) climate change. However, I think this deserves making an exception.

I met Shannon this past fall, and found her to be a talented and highly-motivated trail runner, a strong scrambler, and a pleasant and positive partner in the hills. Apart from some long outings in the Sierra, we did a couple of tough routes that were on my bucket list (White Mountain’s west ridge and Badwater to Telescope), and even explored the deserts I normally avoid. When I learned that she had only been to the tourist part of Mexico, and that flights between Las Vegas and Mexico City were ridiculously cheap, it seemed natural to head down there to climb and see some of the good, non-tourist parts. Tickets were bought, and plans were made.

The week before we were to leave, she texted me that her son was experiencing abdominal pain that could potentially be appendicitis. Since that is not serious if treated quickly, I hoped that he could have an appendectomy and recover before our trip. Unfortunately, rather than a swollen or burst appendix, the doctors at the local hospital found a large mass. They promptly sent him down to the UCLA children’s hospital, where tests determined that it was Burkitt’s Lymphoma, a rare and aggressive cancer. While modern survival rates are high, treatment still requires chemotherapy using (among other things) Methotrexate, a drug developed in the 1940s and ’50s with horrible side effects. So while I was in Mexico running up and down volcanoes, Shannon was in a hospital watching her son suffer; both remain there today.

Her friends have set up a donation page, both to offset the substantial cost of care, and to help fund research into improving treatment of this rare and terrible disease. If you can, please consider contributing to a worthy family and a worthy cause.

Iztaccihuatl (Pies y Pecho)

Izta from Pies

Iztaccíhuatl is Mexico’s third-highest volcano, and the second-highest that can be legally climbed, as Popocatépetl has long been closed for being too active. Translated from Nahuatl and Spanish, the title is literally “White woman (feet and bust),” and the mountain does indeed look like a woman lying on her back when viewed from the east or west. Her bust is the highpoint, her head and feet are legitimately separate peaks, and her belly and knees are minor bumps on the standard climb from below her feet to her chest.

Los Pies

I had hoped to climb Tlalocatépetl on my way over from Malinche, but confusion about the trailhead location and problems turning around on the divided highway spoiled that plan, so I kept on driving to Amecameca, then up the magnificent and windy road to Paso de Cortes, between Iztaccíhuatl and Popocatépetl. I paid the $3.50 entry fee at the visitor center, then crept along the dusty road to the La Joya trailhead, arriving late in the morning. I wasn’t feeling especially energetic, so I decided to take a short, slow hike up Los Pies, which would be new to me and, at 15,387′, would give me some acclimatization benefit.

Trail toward Izta

I ate some junk food, then took off slowly up the trail, passing various hikers headed in both directions, and a group of Red Cross members possibly patrolling the popular area. I left the main trail near a saddle where the trail crosses from the south/east to the north/west side of Izta’s crest, finding occasional old boot-prints and cairns on the slope leading to Los Pies’ summit knob. I was feeling slow, but was cheered up by a couple stretches of seemingly mandatory class 3-4 climbing getting through rock bands. This was the most technical climbing I had found on this trip, slightly more difficult than the crux on Pico de Agila, and it even required some route-finding.

Los Pies’ summit knob

I eventually emerged on the ridge west of the summit knob, from which I could see the trail toward El Pecho below and to the north. The summit knob itself looked serious, defended by sheer cliff bands of questionable rock on all sides. However, tackling one problem at a time, it proved no harder than class 3. I started to the left, climbing near the crest, then crossed to the right, traversing a sandy slope below the main cliffs. Here I found a ramp trending back left, where moderate scrambling led back to the crest and to a couple old pitons and a dubious hand-line. After a brief wrong turn, I crossed back to the left near the hand line, traversed a bit, and was soon at the summit.

Los Pies summit plaque

I found no register or cross, but there was a plaque cemented to the summit rock that made no more sense to me even after running it through Google Translate. There also seemed to be an easier way down a loose chute on the other side of the summit knob. I hung out for awhile, looking for people descending Izta to one side, watching Popo puff on the other and listening to its deep rumbling, then retraced my steps off the summit knob.

I thought it looked easier to drop north and join the standard trail on the main peak, but I was wrong. What looked like nice scree-skiing was a shallow and slippery layer with hard-pack underneath, with occasional patches of Izta’s evil mud. After numerous slips, I reached flatter ground and picked up the trail at the saddle northwest of Los Pies. With plenty of daylight left, I took my time on the trail down, passing (the same?) Red Cross group, this time playing around with ropes and gear next to the trail.

Radical Mexican bike design

It was only mid-afternoon, and I was bored, so I made the long drive back to Amecameca for some street tacos, which cost about $1 each and contained generous helpings of chorizo and cecina. Many of the region’s eateries advertised their cecina, and I was eager to try it, having enjoyed it in Leon. However, this “cecina” was a different thing entirely, more like thinly-sliced, salty roast beef. It was good in its own way, but I preferred the Spanish version. After ingesting real food, I drove back up the pass to sleep near the trailhead and turn my meal into red blood cells.

El Pecho

For my last Mexican climb, I wanted to try to set an FKT for Izta’s standard route. The climb gains just over 4000 feet, and I thought I could go faster than Joe Gray’s 2h11 ascent despite the altitude and somewhat indirect route. I had my doubts when I woke up, sore from 5 days sleeping in a tiny rental car, with my cough and headache worse than they had been the whole trip. I sat in the car for awhile, drinking cold instant coffee and eating bland crackers, then finally drove over to the trailhead and got ready. I started my watch and jogged down the trail, and almost gave up when my left glute and hamstring complained. But suffering up hills is what I do; instinct took over, and I got to work.

Crossing the first saddle before Los Pies, I was surprised to run into the Mexican Army. There must have been at least 50 guys in combat gear, most carrying assault rifles, some carrying regimental banners, hiking steadily up the loose climb. The ones in back noticed me and shouted to their companions, who stood aside for me to run through along the short downhill-to-flat section. I reverted to hiking as soon as the trail turned uphill, and slowly plodded past the rest. I was impressed by their progress carrying all that gear; one guy even had a gallon water jug strapped to the top of his pack.

Ayoloco Glacier

I saw no one at the hut, and only a few other people on the rest of the familiar route. I stuck to the rocks on the grind above the hut, and tried to run the flat and downhill sections along the undulating ridge. It was cold up high for a change, with a brutal west wind driving me to put on my hat and windbreaker, and to shelter my left eyeball. I sketched my way down onto the Ayoloco Glacier, passing two guys in crampons, then jogged by some people on the flat section before grinding out the final ridge climb to the summit.

South from north summit

Izta’s highpoint may have been its summit icefield many years ago, but it is much diminished, and is now an icy depression surrounded by three similarly-high points. I reached the south one first, where most people stop, then cut straight across the ice plain to climb the north one via its east ridge. This one had a couple of crosses, but both had geological markers, and the south summit looked higher from the north. ¿Quien sabe? Pleased to have made the south summit in about 2h02, and the north one in 2h08, I decided I was done with speed for the day.

Conquering Mexican Army

My plan had been to continue to La Cabeza, Izta’s northern distinct subpeak. However, I was sick of the cold wind, and it looked tricky from where I stood, so I moseyed on back the way I came. The Mexican Army had occupied the territory surrounding the hut, setting up brightly colored and very un-army-like tents. It seemed like they had plenty of time left to summit, but they were going to wait for la mañana. I made my way through camp, trying to be friendly and not get too close to any guns, then put on a bit of speed on the descent toward Los Pies. I stopped once to talk to a fellow American, then cruised back to the car.

I drove to the visitor center to rinse the volcanic dust off my feet and legs, then found a Starbucks to kill a few hours before driving to the airport. Using the Starbucks WiFi, I learned that I was far from the FKT, a blazingly fast 1h40 or so set (once again) by Santiago Carsolio. Oh, well… Luckily I left myself plenty of time to return the car, because it took me several circles and wrong turns to find the hole-in-the-wall car lot. I handed in the keys, got back my deposit, then began the 2-day transit nightmare home. It hadn’t been the Mexico trip I had planned, but non-tourist Mexico is still an awesome place.

Orizaba (3h18), Malinche

Orizaba from trailhead

At 18,491′, Pico de Orizaba is Mexico’s highest volcano, and the third-highest peak in North America. Gringos seem drawn to its north side, where the standard route leads from a hut at the end of a 4WD road, to the small and shrinking Jamapa Glacier, and on to the summit. However, like many Mexicans, I prefer its south side, where there is no hut, no glacier, and no need for an expensive 4WD taxi. Having done this route in 2016, I was familiar with the best ascent and descent paths, and wanted to see how fast I could do it. I was done playing around; it was suffering time.

Disgusting hut and Sierra Negra

I woke to clear skies and calm winds, and waited around the trailhead until about 8:30 to give the air up high a chance to warm up. By the time I started, it was t-shirt weather at the parking area. I jogged some flatter stretches of the 4WD road toward the bright orange and disgusting hut, but mostly hiked, taking the use trail shortcutting the switchbacks where I could. I had a lot of climbing to do, and was still not acclimatized enough to do much uphill running at this altitude.

I passed a group standing around a couple of burly trucks near the large boulder where people seem to camp, then gave the outhouse a wide berth as I passed the hut. I stopped for a minute once safely out of smelling range to eat a bar, then continued along one of several use trails, aiming for the talus rib to the left of the chute leading from the summit. This route avoids loose volcanic sand for most of the climb, and the stable talus is actually fairly pleasant.

I tried to keep a steady pace, but had to stop occasionally near the top of the rib, eating my second bar during one panting break. I passed two American-looking guys moving slowly, and a group of three locals, including a woman dressed sensibly in sweat pants. Despite the entire route being visibly snow-free from the trailhead, the Americans were carrying ice axes. After bringing one and not needing it in 2016, I had sensibly left mine at home.

The talus rib unfortunately ends short of the summit, and the rest of the climb is a mixture of miserable sand and treacherous hard-pack. A large group above me kicked down occasional rocks, which I easily dodged as I caught and passed them. I trended a bit right onto the hard-pack, climbed just left of the plane wreck, then regained the trail near the crater rim, just below the summit. I topped out in 2h29 and a few seconds, and was pleased with my time.

What a poser…

Since I was going for a round-trip time, I was still on the clock, but I hung out for a few minutes on the pleasantly non-windy summit to try to talk with a group of three, put on my windbreaker (I had been climbing in just an overshirt), and pose for a few photos for my friend’s son. Then I waved goodbye and bombed down the sand to the right of the ascent route. I nailed the descent, bombing down sand right of the rib, crossing, then continuing down more awesome sand and scree to just above the hut, losing over 3000 feet in under 30 minutes.

Sand collection

I stopped above the hut to empty a half-cup of sand from each shoe, then jogged/ran the route back to the trailhead. I passed some groups hiking up to the hut, and a couple of trucks bouncing down the road, then smiled as the guard raised the gate for me to run up the short hill to the sign. 3h18 round-trip was a good time for me, but I have no doubt that some fast Mexican like Santiago Carsolio could do it in under 3 hours, or perhaps already has.


Sunset on Malinche

With lots of daylight left and nothing else to do, I drove over to La Malinche, a lower volcano between Orizaba and Iztaccíhuatl. Carsolio had put up an insane time on it that I knew I could not beat, but I thought I might as well at least watch the sunset from its summit. There were plenty of people picnicking at the trailhead, and crowds of Mexicans and even a few Americans descending, but I was the only person moving uphill so late in the day. I tried to keep up a decent pace, but I was tired from the morning’s effort, and did not feel like pushing myself too hard.

Malinche shadow and Orizaba

It was cold and windy on the north ridge and on the summit, so I did not loiter long, but I did pause to enjoy the volcano shadow stretching out east toward Orizaba. I tried beat the darkness on the way down, hurrying a bit more, but dusk does not last long so close to the equator. I finished at a pathetic pace, descending the rough trail through the woods using my cell phone as a flashlight.

Popo again

The quesadilla place looked like it was closed, but they reopened just for me, so I quickly enjoyed a chicken quesadilla as they washed the plastic lawn chairs, then drove down the road to a pullout to sleep. I was just washing my legs when a police caravan rolled slowly by, then stopped. Oh, shit, here we go… However, it turned out my dread was misplaced. An officer in a bullet-proof vest approached, but instead of giving me a hard time, he simply asked where I was from, then told me that it wasn’t safe to camp here, and that I should sleep back near the restaurant. It didn’t feel any sketchier than the places I had slept the last few nights, but I did as he said, and passed an uninterrupted night back at the trailhead. Mexico is awesome.

Cofre de Perote, Sierra Negra

Cofre from approach

Cofre de Perote is a maybe-14er volcano near the town of Perote, north of Orizaba. It earns its name for its large square summit block, high and vertical on all sides, which likely made it Mexico’s most technical volcano before someone blasted concrete steps in the side and littered the top with antennas. It is a long drive east and around Mexico City from Toluca, so it was getting late by the time I realized that I should have gotten gas at one of the many Pemex stations along the toll route. It was even later by the time I tracked down a random station on a side road, so I went only a short way up the road toward El Conejo before finding another dirt side-road on which to camp. This one even had an old fire ring, making me feel more like I was respecting local customs.

Improved ridge

I continued uphill in the morning, driving through the increasingly rural towns of Los Pescados and El Conejo, then on up into the Perote park, a sort of poor man’s version of the Malinche one to its west. I became increasingly concerned for my poor little rental car as I bounced up the lousy cobbled road toward the antenna installation, so I parked at the first marked parking spots and walked the rest of the way to the unoccupied hut and sort-of trailhead. Instead of following the road, I found what looked like a built-up downhill mountain bike track, with drop-offs and banked turns.

Summit uglification project

I returned to the road for a bit and then, following a track I downloaded from Peakbagger, took a faint trail that climbs the ridge directly toward the towered summit. Though it looked like a mere use trail, it was at one point official enough to merit concrete steps and handrails on one narrow section. This trail rejoined the road just below the ugly, decaying infrastructure littering the summit area. I passed some dilapidated concrete buildings, climbed the stairs, and awkwardly greeted a trio of antenna workers as I tagged the summit. The peak has another, almost equally high south summit, also accessible by road, and I got about halfway there before deciding I did not care. I returned to the trail, retraced my steps to the car, and drove back through the towns, having to stop a couple of times to allow herds of sheep to flow around the car.

Sierra Negra telescope

As expected, the outing took a short half-day, leaving me time to drive south through Ciudad Serdan, then around east and up the familiar road through Atzitzintla and Texmalaquila to the saddle between Orizaba and Sierra Negra. My rental car made easier work of this dirt-and-cobble road, and I reached the 13,200-foot saddle between the two peaks by mid-afternoon. From there, I hiked the road to the large millimeter telescope and observatory that houses the Orizaba webcam.

Sunset on Orizaba

I peered through the fence around the dish and summit for a minute, but no one came out to challenge or greet me, so I stood on the highest reachable rocks to take some photos of a partly-cloudy Orizaba, then hiked and jogged the road back to my car. To my surprise, there was a pickup with a pop-up camper at the trailhead, a rare sight in Mexico. I guessed it meant gringos, and I was right — Montana gringos at that. I felt weird camping next to them in one of the nice wooded spots, so I drove a few hundred yards away to sleep in an inferior place on the open plain. Hopefully hiking to 14,000′, then to 15,000′, then sleeping at 13,000′ would acclimatize me for the next day.

Tour de Toluca

Toluca and Laguna del Sol

I had five climbing days between flights into and out of Mexico City, and needed to improvise something worthwhile: a mixture of FKT attempts and new peaks. Rolling out of Mexico City late at night in a tiny rental car, I decided to do a bit of acclimatization on nearby Nevada de Toluca. Though I had tagged the highest peak a couple of winters ago, my companions on that trip were not interested in the lesser peaks. Now by myself, I could sleep somewhere high on the mountain, then take my time traversing around the crater rim from Nevado de Toluca to Pico de Aguila, then tag Pico de Humboldt before returning to the trailhead. Tired and following lousy Apple Maps directions, I drove through Raices and straight past the turnoff to Toluca, continuing on a Mexican backroad for awhile before catching my mistake. It was near midnight, so I retraced my route until I spotted a quiet-looking dirt side-road, drove a short distance from the pavement, and figured out how to sleep in a tiny rental.

Burn shit

Not wanting to get in trouble with a farmer, I woke early the next morning, drove back toward Raices, and easily found the well-signed turnoff to Nevado de Toluca. After the crazy crowds we had experienced last time, I was surprised to be one of only a few cars at the trailhead. Coming from 5000 feet, and recovering from a couple days of public transit hell, I was painfully slow climbing the trail from the parking lot to the saddle below Humboldt. I followed the familiar route down into the crater, past Laguna de la Luna, and up Toluca’s east ridge. It seems to be “burn shit” season in Mexico, so in addition to the usual haze from Mexico City, there was a solid layer of smoke over the countryside from various fires, including one not too far from where I had slept.

Aguila from Toluca

The ridge from Toluca to Aguila supposedly requires scrambling, and sees much less traffic than the normal route I had followed so far. However, I found it to mostly be a class 2 walk, with occasional cairns and bits of trail pointing the way. Only the final climb to Aguila’s summit seemed to require the use of hands for a bit of fun class 3 scrambling. I looked around at the views for a minute, then descended the other side, passing a guy resting on his way up. It was mostly easy going back to the Humboldt saddle, and slippery dirt and talus to its summit. I was of course painfully slow on the climb, but I reminded myself that this was a short acclimatization day. To that end, I sat around on the 14,698′ summit for awhile before returning to the still-quiet parking lot.

Mad skillz

I needed to generate more red blood cells before trying to do anything fast, so I picked out some peaks on the other side of Mexico City and began the long drive east. Starting off with one plan, I plowed right into the chaos of non-freeway Mexican traffic, including a bit of gonzo street performance. As soon as a light turned red, two guys painted silver ran out in front of traffic with step-ladders, climbed up them, and started juggling flaming torches. Impressed but frustrated by my slow progress, I changed plans and eventually reached the toll road around the city, which was both faster and less interesting.

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)


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 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.


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.

2018 in review

I came into 2018 adrift, with no grand goal to drive me and structure my season. I had finished my project to dayhike the lower 48, and while I have much more to explore in Canada, especially the Coast Range, the options were either inaccessible (Waddington) or unexciting (lots of driving and bushwhacking north of Whistler). Fortunately, the idea of traveling to Europe and the Alps presented itself, and while it was not cheap, it was not as expensive as I feared. This, along with some fitness tourism to Ecuador (thanks, Ted, for sharing the fruits of your mad frequent flier skills!) and ski trip to Canada in May (hi, Bob!), made the year a welcome departure from my usual routine. This novelty revived my love for the mountains, making this one of my best seasons in a long time, on par with 2012 and 2014.

It took some time to recover from the magnitude and intensity of my trip to the Alps, but I was surprised at the end of the season at how much I enjoyed some more mundane outings in the Eastern Sierra. To the extent that I have a home, it is northern New Mexico, but my mountaineering roots lie in the Sierra. Having drifted away from and lost interest in them over the past few years, I was surprised at how much I appreciated returning to a familiar, friendly range in an extended Fall season. As much as I enjoy exploring new terrain and pushing my limits, rambling through my sort-of backyard has its own charm.

If the season produced one major disappointment, it is that I have ended back where I started. Though I have different trails to run and peaks to look at this winter, my situation has changed little from a year ago. I have a few ideas for next summer, but no clear direction of progress or area of the map to fill in. I trust that I will be able to put something together by next Spring, as I did this year, but it will take more reflection and consideration than before, some of which I hope to write about in the future. I suppose that’s what the long winter nights are for…

Anyways, on to the summary.


When Ted offered to buy me a ticket to Ecuador with frequent-flier points, I jumped at the opportunity to visit a place I never expected to see. Though the trip involved some peak-bagging, it felt more like tourism much of the time. Despite not accomplishing all of my objectives, I left glad to have visited, and possibly a slightly broader-minded citizen of the world.

  • Cotopaxi: At 19,347′, Cotopaxi was a new altitude record for me. It almost didn’t happen, as the park officials seemed to make up arbitrary rules aimed at increasing the amount of money flowing from our pockets to theirs, but I managed to sneak through. The lack of a clear summit view was disappointing, but hardly surprising on a trip where it rained almost every day. We had also planned to climb 20,561′ Chimborazo, but our tight timeframe and some third world nonsense in the form of armed park guards and arbitrary closing times shut us down.
  • Galapagos: Though I preferred my time in the cheaper and less tourist-infested areas north of Quito, it was worth paying American prices and dealing with gueros to visit these unique islands. We passed through too quickly to see more than a fraction of their distinctive flora and fauna, but I was happy to swim with fearless iguanas and watch tortoise sex.

Skiing in Canada

Columbia from the Icefield

With lift tickets far out of my price range these days, I had forgotten how much I loved to ski growing up. I finally acquired a pair of AT skis last year (thanks, Scott! (the man, not the brand)), so this spring I headed up to the Canadian Rockies to put them to use. I ended being a week or two late for the best skiing, but it was still great by my south-of-the-border standards.

  • Columbia: The Columbia Icefield is the largest ice cube south of Alaska, and I was fortunate to make two trips to it in just a few days. The first, a trip to Snow Dome with Bob and his friend Matt, gave me the confidence to return for a solo mission to Mount Columbia, on the northern end of the icefield. While I was pleased with my time, I was far off the FKT set by some members of the Canadian national randonée ski team.
  • Hector: Had I visited just a bit earlier, I could have skied 5000′ from summit to car. However, I still got in 3000′ of vertical, flying down a wide-open glacier at ludicrous speeds.

The Alps

Finsteraarhorn from Lauteraarhorn

There is a reason that mountaineering was born in the Alps, and is often called “alpinism”: I cannot think of another range that combines more dramatic terrain with easier access. First, there is the incredible relief. From valleys lying between 1500′ and 5000′, the highest peaks rise above 13,000′; Mont Blanc rises 12,300′ from Chamonix in just 6.5 miles. Second, the Alps hold glaciers larger than any in North America outside of Alaska or far northern Canada. The largest, the Grosser Aletsch Glacier, is still 2500′ deep at its thickest point; the highest, the Bossons Glacier on Mont Blanc, descends from near the peak’s 15,781′ summit to just 4500′. Sadly, these glaciers are rapidly disappearing, having lost 1/40 of their mass this year alone. Visit while you can.

  • Mont Blanc: While most people start their Mont Blanc climb with a cograil or tram ride, I eschewed such costly things and walked from my car in Chamonix. I followed the Grand Mulets route, which ascends the Bossons Glacier to join the standard Gouter Ridge route just before the summit. This choice offered solitude for much of the climb, at the cost of manageable but non-trivial crevasse risk. Rather than descending through decaying snow, I traversed several sub-peaks over to the Aiguille du Midi, where I took the tram down, getting off at the midway station to avoid paying the exorbitant fee. (The woman at the upper station looked a bit confused when I said I had hiked up…)
  • Matterhorn: As part of my effort to minimize time spent in costly Zermatt, I chose to climb the Matterhorn from the town of Cervino on the Italian side. This meant ascending the somewhat more challenging Lion Ridge rather than the standard Hornli, and scaling all manner of sketchy ropes and ladders. Between those and the crowds of other climbers, this felt like my craziest climb in the Alps. It also would likely have been my favorite, had I not witnessed my first, and hopefully last, fatal climbing fall.
  • Dolomites: I almost skipped the Dolomites, since they are lower and less glaciated than the western Alps, and more suited to rock climbers. I am glad I made the drive, though, at least as much for the history as for the climbing. Growing up in the States, my education about World War I focused mostly on the northern war between France and Germany. I was completely unaware of the White War, a brutal, heroic, and pointless conflict in which the Austrians and Italians waged trench warfare year-round in the high Alps of Sudtirol (South Tyrol).
  • Bernese Alps: While it does not contain the Alps’ highest peaks, the Bernese Oberland holds their largest glaciers, and therefore most fully expresses the Alps’ character. Unlike elsewhere in the range, there are few lifts, making the approaches to most high peaks long and arduous. Of the 14 and 1/2 hours I spent climbing the Finsteraarhorn, about nine were on glaciers.

Late-season Sierra

Picket Guard (r) from Wallace Creek

With the High Sierra remaining snow-free through late November, I had more time than expected to run around the range. While the nights were too long and cold for my normal late-season backpacking, conditions were perfect for some long runs. I was pleasantly surprised to find that, despite spending most of the summer doing few long days and almost no running, I was able to adapt to doing 30-40-miles quickly and without injury.

  • Picket Guard: I had sworn not to do this remote peak, hidden between the rugged Kaweahs and the deep Kern Valley, but curiosity got the better of me. Unlike others who have day-hiked it from Shepherd Pass or Mineral King, I chose a shorter, pleasant, and familiar cross-country route from Whitney Portal via Wallace Creek. Thanks to the shorter route and my unusually high energy, it took only 13h20, a long but reasonable day.
  • Badwater to Whitney: The 135-mile Badwater Marathon, following the road from the lowest point in the United States to the trailhead for the highest, holds little interest for me. However, when I heard of this similar-length route avoiding most paved roads, it took only a week for me to somehow convince myself to fast-pack it. While I am not sure I would repeat the experience, it did have some transcendent moments, like walking across the smooth Panamint salt flat in the moonlight.
  • Miscellaneous speed: As usual when I find myself with good fitness and near hills, I end up trying to establish some Fastest Known Times (FKTs). While I am far from the fastest guy out there, I do enjoy putting up times on interesting routes to encourage others to come along and beat them. Two fun routes I did this fall are Laurel’s northeast gully, an incredibly fun low-fifth-class scramble, and White Mountain’s west ridge, a 9000-foot cross-country grunt from the valley floor to the highest peak on the east side of the Owens Valley. Hopefully neither of my times will remain the fastest known for more than a year.