Complete line from the road

Birch Mountain is a high peak on the eastern edge of the Sierra near Big Pine, between Birch and Tinemaha Creeks. In the summer, it is a slog from most directions, or an easy traverse from neighboring Ed Lane, which I did during the 2011 Sierra Challenge. In the winter, it is one of the longest ski lines in the range, dropping from the 13,600-foot summit to the McMurray Meadows Road around 6500 feet. With this year’s record snowpack, it was (barely) possible in mid-April to ski from the summit to within 100 yards of the road, with only one short hike around 12,400′ across a wind-scoured boulder-field on the summit slope.

Sunrise on Tinemaha

We repeated the hike around the mud-pit in the dark, taking a side-road after McMurray Meadows around the near side of another meadow/bog, which eventually led to the top of a brushy ridge. As usual, Kim was walking slightly faster than my comfortable pace despite her shorter legs, and I struggled to keep pace. A short hike along the ridge got us to a snow tongue, where we began skinning in the predawn. Though the forecast was the same as the previous day’s, it felt noticeably colder, and I stayed in my hoodie and heavy gloves even after the sun hit us. The lower part of Birch is a series of gently rolling foothills, and I sought out the lowest-angle climb through them to get enough grip with my skins on the hard, crunchy snow. Up to a certain angle, this snow sticks like Velcro and I can go straight up, but once it gets steeper I need to switchback at a much lower angle, making for a longer climb. I had decided not to bring ski crampons, finding them more trouble than they are worth, and annoyingly clanky besides. Kim wore hers, and so could handle steeper slopes, but was lagging and feeling off.

Inverse bootpack

Past the foothills, the route climbs a broad gully, then ascends the shoulder to its left, via a clearly-visible boot-pack and skin track. Two couloirs feeding into the gully looked like good ski lines, though Birch can be skied in many ways, the most popular being to make it a continuous line by descending the upper southeast face and wrapping around the shoulder to the ascent gully. We stopped to put on crampons at the base of the ridge, then followed the old tracks to the edge of the upper face. The bootpack was quite old, and the hardened and indented steps had been excavated by wind and sun to form upraised platforms. I tried to use them for awhile, but found it easier to French-step up the slope in steep zig-zags.

Summit plateau

The eastern edge of the summit plateau was scoured bare, so I had to pick my way through two strips of talus separated by a band of snow, which remained icy and supportive. Though it looks close due to the concave slope, the summit is a long 1600 vertical feet from where one reaches the plateau. It was convenient that the snow here remained firm enough to boot up in crampons, but not encouraging for ski conditions. I slowly ground up to a saddle between two equal-looking talus piles, then dropped my pack to see which was the summit. Though the survey marker is to the left, the one on the right is clearly higher and contains the register. Like nearby Tinemaha, Birch does not see a lot of traffic, and I easily found my entry from 2011. The summit has great views of the Palisades and Split to either side, but the view west is largely blocked by the high ridge between Prater and the Thumb. Still, one can see through a gap to the peaks around Dumbbell Basin and, beyond, the forests of the Sierra’s western slope near the Tehipite Valley.

Palisades from Birch

It was cold in the wind, and comfortable but not hot out of it, and the snow was taking its time softening. After looking through the register, we spent most of an hour on the summit, waiting for the snow to soften and trying to catch up on sleep. Finally around 1:00 we got bored and returned to our skis. The textured surface of the upper face was still crunchy, but soft enough to offer decent turns, though the intermittent wind-board was unpleasant and chattery. We spoke to one guy still booting up with an annoying Bluetooth speaker, then passed another near the rock band. Kim opted to descend the way we had climbed, while I sought out the lefthand couloir I had spied on the way up. I had hoped that this enclosed, east-facing chute would have warmed and softened, but the snow was hard and scrapey until the apron below.

Nice S-turns

The snow on the broad lower bowl, and through the foothills, had softened nicely, but not yet turned to sticky glop, and provided miles of fun, swooping, easy turns. I aimed for our ascent ridge, occasionally following other skiers’ tracks to avoid getting funneled into the wrong gully. Rather than following the ridge to the point where we had put on skis in the morning, I dropped into the creekbed to its left below a major willow thicket. This could easily have turned into a horrible thrash through bogs and willows, but whenever things looked grim, there was always a way out. I was smiling and laughing as I ducked and dodged through the brush, crossing and recrossing the small stream, and riding up the banks on the turns. After a final slow traverse on a north-facing slope, I reached the end of the snow in some sagebrush no more than 100 yards from the road. With about 7100 feet of skiing broken only by 5-10 minutes of talus-walking, I felt like I had made the most of Birch Mountain.

Road from end of snow

Kim left after we hiked back to the cars, but I remained another day to ski another line before facing the tricky, tedious drive out. We had passed three cars parked just before the mud bug, none having attempted to cross it. They were wise, as I found out later in the afternoon, when I heard someone say “excuse me” outside my car. I emerged to find a young Indian man who had driven into the bog, made it nearly to the other side, and become stuck. I went over his options: hire an expensive tow from Bishop, or wait for other skiers to arrive and hope someone had a long enough tow strap. I was sympathetic, but there was nothing I could do, and he seemed prepared to spend the night. Note to readers: McMurray Meadows Road is impassable much beyond the Birch Lake turnoff, so don’t even try.

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