Laurel (Mendenhall Couloir)

Laurel from parking

California’s Sierra Nevada have probably the deepest snowpack in my lifetime, looking either backward or forward, with twice the modern average in the northern and central parts, and closer to thrice average in the southern part near Mount Whitney. One of my main North American goals for 2023 is therefore to ski it. While there is certainly winter skiing to be had, the Sierra come into their own in the spring, when the snowpack is settled and the days are long. The ski resort at Mammoth Mountain is already promising to be open through July, and there will be quality backcountry skiing through May, the terrain shifting up, west, and north as the snow melts.

Driving toward Vegas

I drove into a hellish windstorm west of the Grand Canyon, sleeping on a side road southeast of Hoover Dam. The next day I continued through Las Vegas, which was its usual depressing self, and on to Pahrump, which is Vegas without the casinos or money. After availing myself of the last Walmart and normal-priced gas for a long time, I continued across Death Valley. The park was packed with tourists, with Zabriskie Point absolutely mobbed on a weekday, so I felt no urge to stop other than to pee. Finally coming around the south side of the Inyos, I was blown away by how much snow remained on south-facing slopes, even lower down. Gullies that are hellish bushwhacks in summer all looked like enticing ski lines.

Cerro Gordo road

Tired of driving and with plenty of daylight, I decided to ride the road up to Cerro Gordo. The ghost town was recently bought by an oddball who wanted to live in it year-round, and is open weekdays as a sort of museum, so the road is kept in good shape. It is steep, however, gaining around 4500 feet in under eight miles. In other words, it is almost perfect terrain for my bike. I started out at a moderate effort, then stepped on the gas from a mix of necessity and habit. While the road averages just over a 10% grade, which is entirely manageable with my gearing, it is not consistent, with some stretches probably closer to 20%, which strains my lowest gear. This is probably my biggest gripe with my bike: its SRAM Apex 1×11 drivetrain has an 11-42 in back and a 34 in front, which I find disappointing on both the low and high end. I suppose this is a necessary tradeoff with a one-by: smaller cogs have more resistance, and a larger range creates awkward spacing between gears.

More Cerro Gordo

It had been windy driving across Death Valley, and my friends said it was windy in the Sierra, but by some accident the road up to Cerro Gordo was mostly pleasant, and I was able to ride up bare-handed with arm warmers and tights. A handful of four-wheelers were coming down, and they all gave me a fist-pump or thumbs-up as we passed, cheering me and encouraging me on. One straightaway higher up was too steep to pedal, but jogging while pushing my bike was probably not too slow. I continued through the town and stopped at the pass, where a much worse road descends to the Saline Valley side, to put on my rain jacket and ski gloves. Another worse road continues north along the Inyo crest, and would make for an interesting longer ride, but it was too snowy now, and I did not have the time. I put on as much speed as I dared on the descent, but I am a timid bike-handler, so it was quite the brake-warmer.

Taboose slide debris

I met Kim in the evening below the Taboose trailhead, then we drove up in her car the next morning. Taboose used to be reachable in a passenger car if you did not care about it much, and I drove to it in an Element as recently as last year, but the road has deteriorated since. We saw a woman in an Outback at the trailhead, hilariously pretending we couldn’t see her as she changed in her car, but she must have taken quite some time to drive the last couple of miles. We only had to walk about a mile with our skis before reaching continuous snow. The valley experienced some enormous wet slides, so there was a mass of ice-balls and debris to navigate, then a smooth slide path. The snow was still wintry on most aspects, so we opted to climb one of the south-facing slopes to Cardinal’s east ridge. I was able to skin much of the way up, but had to switch to booting near the top of the broad chute, and this became a bit precarious at times without crampons. Between the top of the chute and the ridge, an east-facing plateau was covered in wind sculptures that promised unpleasant skiing.

Split Mountain

Once we finally topped out, we were treated to a view of Split Mountain from an uncommon southeast angle. The Split and Saint Jean couloirs were just visible, as was the lower part of the standard route, which should be snow-covered through the end of summer. We also had a clear view of the south slope, which John had skied early this year, but which I had not noticed before, as it is hidden from the peak by the lower, southern summit. We transitioned, then skied some not-great snow back across the plateau, where I treated the wind formations like natural moguls. Below, the sun had cooked the southeast-facing gully to a pleasant state, and I carved fast turns down to where the trail would be. From there, we dodged avalanche debris as best we could back to where we had started skiing. Unlike in Colorado, where the snow would gradually transition to mud, the Sierra’s granite sand dries quickly, so I was able to step directly from skis to dry land. From there, it was a short but awkward walk to the car.

Sun on Laurel

After a day spent climbing to avoid a windy but mostly dry front crossing the range, I made the long drive up toward Mammoth. I decided that, so long as there, I might as well tick of the Mendenhall Couloir or Northeast Gully on Laurel. In the summer it is a great scramble on an otherwise chossy peak, earning its place in my Forty Classic Scrambles of North America and other similar lists, a fun half-day outing up the gully and down the peak’s northeast flank. In winter it is a classic (intermediate?) ski line done in reverse: up the flank, then down the couloir.

Sunrise on Red Slate

John had done it recently and reported excellent conditions, with an early start and a finish around 9:30. Timing is important, as the couloir can be icy too early and catch dangerous rockfall too late. There were too many variables for me to do more than guess when I should start: I would probably be a bit faster, the day was somewhat warmer, there had been a bit of snow overnight, there might be lingering clouds… I semi-arbitrarily set my alarm for 4:00, intending to start skinning at 5:00, but my actual start time was dictated by the fact that I mis-set my alarm, noticing the error only when I woke up naturally at 4:20. I therefore started sometime around 5:30, still well before first light, but the setting near-full moon meant that I could skin across the frozen lake without my headlamp. This being a weekend close to Mammoth, there were of course other skiers out, so I worried about getting bombed by those ahead of or behind me.

Sunrise over Whites

I left the lake and followed a skin/ski track for awhile, then took off up what looked like the summer descent gully toward some headlamps higher up. I was able to skin much of the way, but it eventually became too steep without ski crampons, so I switched to crampon-ing up with my skis on my pack. This sucked at first, with the classic upside-down crust-over-dust meaning that I stochastically punched through up to calf-deep. The snow eventually hardened, and I caught up to a group of three at the ridge. We muttered a few words at each other, but they seemed to feel little friendlier than I did finding others on “their” line. They took off while I transitioned back to skinning, but I soon caught and passed them for good.

Laurel from saddle

The route takes the long way north around a bowl, eventually crossing the saddle north of the summit. This was badly scoured, with a good deal of bare ground and nasty wind sculptures everywhere. I saw one more skier ahead of me, hiking across the talus to reach a solid snowfield leading to the summit. I chose instead to skin up and through the sculpted snow to the left and pick up the summer trail, as that would involve fewer transitions. I eventually found the trail, and put my skis on my pack once again to hike up with my poles. I have always felt that trekking poles are a bad idea, and this experience reinforced that belief: while they sometimes helped me balance with skis on my back, they more often got caught between rocks.

Red Slate Mountain

I had the summit to myself, with the sun and a slight east breeze just barely making me put on my puffy jacket. The surrounding peaks and lines were utterly buried, including the Red Slate Couloir, which I hope to ski, and the Bloody Couloir, which I did some years ago. The Glass Mountains still held lots of snow, as did the plain north and east of frozen Crowley Lake. Ritter, Banner, and the Minarets beckoned in the distance to the northwest, a project for much later. It was still probably a bit too early to ski the couloir, but I did not feel like waiting around, so I switched into “sliding mode” and headed down.

Down from top of couloir

I started down the left side, avoiding the cornice at the top, and found a few inches of heavy, fresh powder from the night before. I carved some fun, arcing turns in the upper bowl, which is a miserable scree-slog in the summer. As the gully narrowed and steepened, the fresh snow became a bit more obnoxious, forming a slab a few inches thick that sheared off from the hard layer beneath. I periodically pulled to one side to let the pieces slide by, then continued on my way. The crux of the descent is a constriction with an ice bulge on its left side. I did not have the courage to charge straight through, and instead side-slipped it bit by bit, dislodging the fresh snow before sliding by the ice on the left side. Below, things returned to skiable but less pleasant conditions, as greater and lesser wet slides had left ice-balls in the couloir. I dodged them as best I could, but the surface had not softened, and this was exhausting, chattery skiing. I passed a guy climbing the couloir with crampons and ice axe, going against the grain, and hoped he did not get bombarded by the other two groups coming after me.

Steep-ish slope

The snow did not improve much in the apron, where I traversed out high to the left to preserved my momentum back toward the car. I had to dodge and weave through the forest a bit, but made it partway around the lake, then skated the rest to reach the car a bit before 9:00 AM. Whether because I had started too early, conditions were wrong, or I am not a good enough skier, the “ultra classic” line was not actually much fun to ski. I enjoy speed and the centripetal force of carving turns, and the Mendenhall Couloir offered little of either. Some of my favorite Sierra skis have been Buck Mountain, Mount Tom’s Elderberry and Dingleberry Canyons, and Basin Mountain’s basin, all of which feature wide-open slopes perfect for high-speed super-G turns. While I am glad to have skied the Laurel gully, I will look elsewhere for a good time.

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