Feather couloir


The Royce Lakes are four large bodies of water on a bench below the line of Merriam, Royce, and Feather Peaks, deep up Pine Creek off the trail to Pine Creek Pass. They are accessed by one of the Sierra’s most pleasant cross-country routes, the gentle granite slabs leading to Royce Col, passing between “Spire Peak” and Treasure Benchmark, two spires with interesting summit blocks. I had already climbed all the area’s peaks, and even returned to climb Feather’s couloir as a Fall ice climb after a big winter, but the couloir is also a classic ski line, and I was in the area. (This fall will be a good time to climb the Sierra’s increasingly rare alpine ice. Lines like the Feather, Dade, Red Slate, and North Couloirs will likely be névé, and harder ones like the lines on Mendel may be actual ice, where they are often dry in modern times. Sharpen your tools, and get them while you can!)

Long sidehill

I woke at the Pine Creek pack station to find four other cars parked nearby, probably headed for the nearby Tungstar Bowls. I stupidly tried to follow the trail for awhile, which involved stream crossings, undergrowth, downed trees, and general slow going. I eventually emerged onto the open north-facing slopes above, and carefully skinned up the hard snow to the old road that is the Pine Creek trail. I soon realized that skinning was the wrong way to approach the long, steep sidehill, and switched to crampons, which worked much better on the supportive snow. I cramponed all the way to where the trail re-enters the woods, then resumed skinning on the gentler climb to Lower Pine Lake.

Royce Col in the distancde

The trail goes around the lake’s north side, then takes an odd path through the woods, marred by giant steps poorly constructed by the local packers, but I had the luxury of skipping all that, skinning directly across the buried lake, then following a mostly-open ridge past Upper Pine Lake and Honeymoon Lake. From there I continued up-valley along a stream, buried under six or eight feet of snow, then up the broad slope to the col, which promised excellent high-speed skiing on the return. Once through the col, I skirted the third Royce Lake, then angled for the north side of Feather, where the couloir hides. Along the way I noted that Royce has a number of good lines on its east side, one wrapping around to the north.

Seven Gables

After more increasingly-desperate skinning, I switched to boots and headed up the couloir. The snow was a mix of solid but edge-able crust and wind-packed powder, promising decent but not amazing skiing. I found bits of an old boot-pack, but this couloir is far enough from the trailhead not to see much traffic. I left my skis and such at the top of the couloir, then awkwardly scrambled a bit of easy third class to the summit ridge, where I walked the hard snow to the summit. I found a relatively new PVC register canister placed by the ubiquitous Jonathan, in which he mused that the previous register may have been lost in the many deep cracks around the summit. It was relatively windless, so I spent some time sitting around, taking pictures and checking out ski lines on the surrounding peaks. Gemini and Hilgard both had some great-looking skiing, but are unfortunately a bit too far in to be a reasonable day.

Time to launch

I returned to my skis, put them in “fun mode,” and launched down the couloir. I found the crust mostly edge-able and not chattery, and the hardened powder downright fun, as I cut loose a torrent of chunks that I paused from time to time to let pass. Right near the exit I even found a few turns of genuine powder — the high north-facing snow had not yet transitioned to Spring. I tried to maintain speed and elevation going back through the lakes, but had an arduous skate on the small rise back to Royce Col. The other side was every bit as fun as I had imagined, as I made huge, swooping, high-speed turns down toward the woods. I stayed high and right past the Pine Lakes, finding the old tracks of another skier with the same idea. I continued staying high above the trailhead, dropping down only when I was almost straight above the pack station. While this landed me in some nasty avalanche debris at the very end, it was far more pleasant than following the trail, and would also serve as a better route up the next day.

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