Split (south face)

North summit from south

Split Mountain, formerly South Palisade is the southernmost fourteener in the Palisades, named for its twin summits and the long couloir that splits them. While I had been to its higher northern summit a number of times, I had never visited the southern one, so I was doubly interested when I read about John skiing the peak’s south face from that point. I had been hoping to ski the line at some point this Spring, but the difficulty of approaching it made me hesitate. The normal Red Lake trailhead is even more difficult to reach than normal, with the definitely-legal McMurray Meadows Road badly damaged by runoff, and the probably-not-legal but much easier road from Tinemaha Campground somewhat more blocked off than before. Another alternative approach comes from the Taboose Pass road, but involves about five miles on an even worse road. Biking that with skis on my back would probably take most of an hour from where my car can reach, adding significantly to an already-long day, so when John said he was interested in skiing it again, and had a friend with a truck to drive the road, I jumped at the chance.

Skinning up lower drainage

I slept at a pullout near the end of where I could drive the Taboose road, then met the others around 3:30 the next morning, when we all piled into Jason’s Tacoma for the final trailhead drive. The main road is bad enough, and things became much worse once we turned off onto the side road. The sandy soil would have been a problem on a bike, while the main obstacles for a car were the large embedded rocks and narrow passages between woody desert brush. John had to jump out and spot frequently, and the truck’s silly rigid mudflaps took several hits, but we eventually made it to the end of the road, with much less effort and slightly less time than it would have taken to ride. (The driving was made more challenging by the fact that the modern Tacoma, following the trend of ever-angrier-looking trucks, has a huge grill and decorative air scoop, blocking the driver’s view of the road.)

Entering Cardinal cirque

Fortunately John had done the approach before, and led us on an efficient path across the desert, staying low until we entered the Red Lake drainage. We stayed on the south side of the creek until we encountered continuous snow, then put on skis at the end of headlamp time. Surprisingly, we had seen a cluster of headlamps ahead on the other side, from a group probably skiing the Saint Jean Couloir above Red Lake. We skinned up the main drainage for awhile, then turned left at a fork heading into the cirque between Split and Cardinal Mountains. I had never been this way, as there is no trail and the valley is likely choked with manzanita, but travel was easy on the consolidated snow. The area around Split is notable for its varied and colorful rock, with a black cap on top of the typical Sierra granite, and various intrusions of red and orange as well. As usual with colorful Sierra rock, the non-granite is terrible choss, but it did make for great scenery as we skinned up the valley over endless moraines.

Booting with Cardinal behind

As the south face route finally came into view, we saw that it was close to melting out, with a small exposed rock band halfway up that we would have to work around to the west. We put our skis on our backs at the base, and began booting up the final 2500 feet to the summit. Sam, younger and more energetic than Yours Truly, took step-stomping duty at first, moving at a steady pace and creating a consistent boot-pack. We found bits of an old pack here and there to follow, but it was frequently either too buried or melted out to use. Jason, feeling the effects of altitude, began lagging, while the sun was rapidly softening the south-facing slope, so the rest of us decided to climb as quickly as possible and catch him on the way down. I eventually took over boot-packing duties higher up, climbing some in a runnel, then exiting right for a final steep bit of climbing to the lower right-hand summit and finally traversing to the south peak.

Arrow, Ruskin, Vennacher Needle

Looking toward the north summit, we could see some old tracks from parties skiing the separating Split Couloir, which requires a rappel at the best of times and is no longer in condition. To the west, Upper Basin was absolutely buried in snow, as was the line of peaks between Mount Ruskin and Vennacher Needle. This part of the High Sierra is relatively narrow, so from our perch on the crest we could see down the deep South Fork of the Kings toward its exit at the west side of the range. It was a panorama worth enjoying, but we had to move before the snow deteriorated further.

Lower on south face

Sam started down first, traversing right before dropping down one of several shallow chutes to the main south face. The snow was not ideal, with patches of slush over ice-hard crust, but still generally good enough to offer fun skiing. We picked our way down the face, hunting for the best skiing, picking up Jason partway down. It was only around noon, so Sam wanted to ski another northeast-facing line on Cardinal, while the rest of us were less enthusiastic. He took off across the rolling bowl between the two peaks, while the rest of us carved down the valley through excellent corn.

Booting bonus couloir

Jason, recovering from mild altitude sickness, was emphatically done for the day, but John spotted another line on Cardinal’s east ridge, and I was easily persuaded into a bit of extracurricular skiing. We skinned toward the base of three chutes on the ridge, crossing paths with another skier slowly making his way up-valley. To our surprise, he had walked all the way from the mud-pit on McMurray Meadows Road, some five miles from the normal trailhead, an effort that had cost him too much time and energy to ski much higher. We skinned and booted up the lowest, leftmost couloir, then John characteristically decided to climb higher to ski down the middle one. The couloir, and the north-facing side of the valley below it, were in perfect Spring condition, and we spontaneously shouted in glee as we arced down the remained of the drainage.

The snow turned to bottomless slush on east-facing slopes toward the bottom, and the skiing turned to a careful meander between rocks, sagebrush, and willows. Eventually we switched back to walking, finding bits of an old roadbed to ease the hike back to Jason’s truck. The drive back to our cars in daylight was only slightly faster than the drive in at night, with a similar amount of spotting, creeping, and scraping. Finally reaching the pullout, we found that each of us had a hand-signed nastygram from LADWP, which owns the land and valuable water rights, informing us that we were not allowed to camp, and that our presence had been made known to the local sheriff. There were no signs, I had previously camped here without incident, and the other had not even parked overnight. I crumpled my note and shoved it in my trash bag, a token of arbitrary laws inconsistently enforced.

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