Black (east couloir)

Couloir comes into view

Way back in the early days of both “Doctor” and “Dirtbag,” before the blog was even a vague idea, I ventured north of Onion Valley to climb Mount Mary Austin and Black Mountain in a loop, descending via a memorable glissade down Black’s east couloir. This early summer outing was somewhat of a grind, but the couloir has stuck in my mind since, and this spring seemed like a perfect opportunity to ski it. The peak lies above the Parker Lakes, in the next valley north of Sardine Canyon, with the easiest access via the road I had used the previous day.

Sometimes the day starts like this

Mindful of the previous day’s quickly-deteriorating snow, Kim and I started early around 4:45 AM, crossing the familiar slide debris by headlamp, then proceeding past Sardine Canyon by daylight. We mostly followed the road, then shortcut a few switchbacks up a steep, mostly-frozen snow-slope that was treacherous work for me without ski crampons. Beyond that, we traversed into the canyon and past a healthy collection of mining debris including a water tank, a motor and centrifuge (for separating ore, I think), and an old tractor, almost completely buried by snow. There had been some massive wet slides in the canyon the previous month, leaving walls of snow close to ten feet high along their meandering paths.

Looking down at big slide

The Parker Lakes drainage is similar to Sardine Canyon in being broad and rolling, but features a couple of small groves of foxtail pines midway up. With a similar forecast to the day before, we had expected to be racing against softening snow, but a cold breeze kept it solid and icy, making me intermittently grateful for my borrowed ski crampons. A ski crampon is a sort of cleat that attaches to the front binding and sticks down below the ski on either side. It digs into the snow when you step down, and slides when you lift your heel, allowing you to traverse steep, icy slopes that would otherwise require booting and therefore sometimes postholing. Unfortunately crampons grab less when you engage your heel risers for steeper terrain, where they are most useful, and more without risers, completely eliminating glide on the flats. I am fairly adept at sketchy skinning, and therefore have mixed feelings about the crampons.

Parker Lakes cirque

It was cold enough in the wind that we stopped in the meager shelter of a foxtail pine to eat and, in theory, let the snow soften, and I began wondering if we would be skiing chattery crust on the descent. There appear to be lines into Parker Lakes on both the south and east sides of Black, and to reach the latter, you climb a short headwall north of the first lake, which is not obvious on the topo map. We put on the ski crampons for that, then slowly shuffled across another rolling flat to the base of the couloir, where we skinned and switchbacked until it became steep enough to boot.

Down drainage from upper couloir

The snow in the sheltered east-facing couloir was finally starting to soften, promising good turns in another hour or so once we finally made it to the top. The angle gradually increased as it narrowed, becoming steep enough above a sort of randkluft to make me almost wish I had brought my ice axe. The upper part was somewhat variable, but generally had enough soft snow covering it to promise decent skiing, usually on the southern side. At the top, I could see the cornice that I remembered jumping off in self-arrest position back in 2009. This proved a tricky obstacle to overcome with skis, but I eventually managed work my way up the right side, get my left foot up high, and beached-whale onto its flat top in a notch just below the summit. Kim, being shorter, had a bit more trouble, but managed eventually.

Great Western Divide and Brewer

We dropped our skis and packs to scramble the final bit of class 2-3 rock to the summit, where the register ammo box was sitting dry in its cave. Though on the SPS list, Black is a long and unpleasant hike from any direction, and therefore sees few ascents. I was pleased to see that the register still went back past my previous ascent, and amused that I claimed to be from Santa Monica at the time. Black is enough higher and farther west than neighboring Dragon Jaw to have much better views in all directions. In particular, we had unobstructed views of the Great Western Divide and Mount Brewer to the south and west, and the Palisades to the north. Split Mountain’s south face looked particularly appealing, still holding plenty of snow despite the heat wave.

About to drop in

Once back at our skis, it was time to decide how to deal with the cornice. I opted to simply jump off and scrub my speed before making turns. The snow had softened almost perfectly, making it easy to link turns despite the moderately steep angle. Below the randkluft, the slope eased and opened up, and I could make big, swooping turns at high speed. Some carefully-chosen lines and more good turns down the headwall led to the lakes, where I managed to traverse high to keep gliding. The snow began to deteriorate below, becoming exhausting glop well before exiting the canyon. By traversing high, we managed to continue skiing all the way to Sardine Canyon, shearing off some fun, slow-motion wet slides on the final snowfield. The traverse back to pavement was a slow mix of skinning and walking, the glop even worse than the day before after not refreezing overnight. There were a few more cars at the road-head than before, including a couple of hashtag-vanlife, but there is plenty of terrain accessible from Onion Valley, none of it famous enough to draw a real crowd.

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