Dragon Jaw

Black, with Clarence King behind

And the ski goes on…

Sunrise on Middle Palisade and Norman Clyde

Dan was in the valley for the weekend, so I wanted to get out on something with him. Glacier Lodge road is apparently plowed partway all winter, and offers skis-from-the-car access to many quality lines. I had skied the south side of Buck Mountain with him and Kim during the last good winter some years ago, and we tentatively planned to do it again. While not “extreme,” it offers several thousand feet of quality skiing from a summit with up-close views of the dramatic Palisade Crest from Balcony to Sill. We started up the summer trail, crossed the bridge, then immediately left it to skin up the bottom of the valley. At the gully leading to the saddle between Alice and Buck, we spotted a line on Buck’s southeast face that looked interesting and changed our plans to explore that instead.

Starting up side-gully

The skin up the initial gully started easy, then got steep and hard enough that I had to switch to booting toward the top. Deep tracks from the previous day suggested that the snow would be sloppy by afternoon, even in the more compact beds of the old wet slides. After the initial climb, a broad valley continues rising north to the high saddle between the peaks. However we turned west, booting up a steeper chute toward a face visible from the parking lot. The snow was mostly well-behaved, but I noticed a hard layer below perhaps six inches of softer surface snow, suggesting that there was some risk of slides later in the day. Dan was coming from a low-elevation desk, so he suffered mightily but gamely on the ascent.

Our line late in the day

We eventually topped out at the start of a long, rocky southeast ridge leading to the true summit, and decided that was enough for the day. The snow was warming, and Dan had to get home. The skiing down to the lower gully was mostly good, and while I managed to set off some minor sloughs while traversing partway down, things mostly stayed in place. Unfortunately the snow in the Alice-Buck gully had turned to sticky glop, making for a slow and thigh-destroying descent. We skipped the bridge, instead trying to glide down the south side of the valley to the campground and summer homes, then crossing the road bridge there. For those interested in skiing the north face of Kid Mountain, the creek is well-bridged by slide debris lower down. From the road bridge, it was a long but mostly swift skate and pole back to the cars. While I could not quite touch my car with my skis on, I could at least whack it with a pole, a treat in a range known for hiking miles through sand and brush with skis on one’s back.

Traverse to Sardine Canyon

Kim and I had plans to ski the east couloir of Bradley the next day, but some headlamp hiking in ski boots convinced us that the approach sucked more than we could handle. Perhaps that was for the best, as we noticed on the way out that a wet slide has filled our intended line with fresh ice-balls. Looking desperately for something else to do with the day, we settled on touring up Sardine Canyon, the next valley north of Onion Valley. The road was “closed” at Seven Pines, but drivable almost to where the old dirt road takes off toward Sardine Canyon around 7000 feet. As we were getting ready, a proudly and loudly local old crusty passed us with telemark skis on his pack, headed the same way we were.

Skinning up Sardine

While we skinned almost from the car, the initial traverse was somewhat obnoxious, with a few large slides crossing the road and south-facing slopes melted to dirt and requiring several transitions between skinning and walking. We passed the local on the traverse, and never figured out where he decided to ski. Once in Sardine Canyon, the snow was continuous and deep; we skinned up the south side for awhile, then dropped into the deep and avalanche-filled central gully before wandering up the long valley hunting softer snow and gentler grades. The valley is broad and rolling, promising interesting moderate skiing with good snow conditions, with chutes from both sides well-filled-in.

University, with Keith and others behind

Below the tiny and often-dry Sardine Lake, we encountered some serious wind-affected snow forming the flat-topped natural equivalent of moguls. Above and below this, however, the snow was mostly smooth. At the head of the valley, we contoured up the left side of Dragon Jaw, finding the south-facing snow soft enough to skin all the way to the summit boulders. I scrambled onto the highest, failed to find a register, and returned to a sheltered spot to sit and admire the view. Dragon Jaw is just high enough to see around neighboring Dragon into Rae Lakes Basin, as well as south to Williamson and Whitney, and north and west to Gardiner, Goat, and Arrow. However its higher neighbors Dragon and Black obscure views to the southwest and north.

Wind moguls

Returning to our skis, we traversed as high as possible to Dragon Jaw’s east face then carved big, fast turns down the smooth snow to the buried lake. From there the snow quality steadily deteriorated: the “wind moguls” were actually fun, as was some of the upper canyon, but our late start meant that we had to fight thousands of feet of increasingly sticky glop. Some hard poling, left-legged skating, and walking got us back to pavement without skinning, where we passed another guy headed up mid-afternoon. I have no idea where he thought he could actually glide, but I am hardly expert in such things. I was feeling the effects of three days of early mornings and normal evenings, so after laying my boots, skins, and socks out to dry on the car, I promptly passed out for an hour before cooking dinner, repacking, and once again setting my alarm for “way too early.”

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