Bottom of the line

While not the highest peak in its area, Tinemaha sticks out east into the Owens Valley, rising some 6000 unobstructed feet from the desert plain. I had climbed it in May many years ago from Red Lake, on a trip that also included Split’s Saint Jean Couloir and an unexpected snowstorm. It is an unremarkable talus-hop from the lake, and a tedious traverse from the ridge between Prater and Split, but was reputed to be one of the region’s best ski descents. With the low-elevation snow rapidly melting in the spring sun, I wanted to get on the big peaks with low starts before they required too much desert-walking.

Sunrise on the line

I remembered the McMurray Meadows Road being one of the Owens Valley’s better dirt access roads, but the record-setting winter has caused all sorts of damage. On a ride the previous day up Black Canyon, I found that the last mile of that road had become a dry creek-bed. I started toward McMurray Meadows well after dark, and found numerous runnels and washouts that made for tricky driving in my low-clearance car. I had to get out and inspect one of the washouts and move several rocks, and spun my tires desperately to maintain momentum in a couple places, but made it to just before the turnoff to the Birch Lake trailhead, where I was stopped by a runnel too wide and deep for me to cross. A high-clearance vehicle with good tires can make it another mile or so, but the road is blocked by a tire-sucking mud bog before the actual Meadows. Beyond there, a deep runnel makes the road impassable to normal vehicles before Fuller Creek. This means that Red Lake trailhead now has no legal access route for most people, and that skiing Tinemaha requires a few miles of road-walking.

The morning thrash

Kim and I did not know about the mud bog when we set out around 4:30, but soon became acquainted with it, and after a brief but exciting encounter, decided to park before it and start hiking by headlamp. In any case, the road was currently blocked by a snowbank only a quarter-mile farther up. We crossed Fuller Creek, then turned right on a seldom-used road leading to the north side of Tinemaha Creek. From the end of this road, we found a faint trail paralleling the creek, then a convenient log to cross its main branch. Unfortunately, reaching the base of the peak required some heinous thrashing through spiny brush and downed and burned trees. It only cost us perhaps half an hour, but put a damper on our enthusiasm.

Approaching the top

We skinned up a snow apron past the debris from yet another giant wet slide, then followed the slide path into the main couloir on Tinemaha’s east face. The snow had refrozen well overnight, so we soon switched to crampons and French-stepped up, only occasionally breaking through the surface. The face looks like a confusing mess of pinnacles and gullies, but it is usually straightforward to follow the main branch. However even in good conditions, booting up over 4000 feet takes time. With the sun reflecting off the snow and no wind, it soon went from cold to hot, though not as oppressive as on previous outings during a recent heat wave. The snow remained firm until only a few hundred feet below the top, where it softened to six-inch-deep but supportive slush.

Split from top

I topped out just left of the summit rockpile to a magnificent view of Split Mountain. The Saint Jean Couloir was obscured by its right wall, but I had a clear view of the Split Couloir separating the mountain’s two summits, a proud line that is rarely in condition. It looked like it might have held continuous snow earlier this year, and was still continuous and perhaps skiable except one rock step most of the way down. The bowl southwest of Tinemaha had slid, with an avalanche crown extending almost all the way around, and an enormous pile of snow at its base that I imagine will remain through the summer. It would be worth a visit for anyone climbing Split via its standard route, whose obnoxious talus will be largely covered in pleasant snow.

Birds in formation

The summit register was dry, showed relatively little traffic, and went back more than far enough to include my previous summit. With only a light breeze, we waited awhile to let the snow soften, but I am not good at hanging out. The upper couloir offered good turns on pleasant corn, but once among the rock pinnacles, the snow was still to hard, with a mixture of windboard and chattery crust. I hunted around for a softer aspect, and found some better snow on the left lower down, but it was inconsistent, and I wiped out when I hit an unexpected ice-ball. The wipeout was unpleasant, but forced me to take a pause, during which I spied some geese or cranes flying in formation below me, headed north for the summer. I skied some chastened turns to where the couloir turns right and widens, then found a couple thousand feet of perfect corn on which to open up fast, swooping turns. While not particularly steep, this was probably the day’s best skiing.

Rather than cross Tinemaha Creek where we had in the morning, we continued down a snow-filled gully on its south side to around 6600 feet, then crossed on a log just below with minimal thrashing. Oddly, it was much windier in the valley than on the summit, and almost felt colder. We walked the few miles of road into a headwind, wondering about the haze from the south that had filled the valley all day. The cool temperatures would help me catch up on my sleep with a nap, hopefully allowing my aging body to recover for another early start.

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