Red Slate couloir

Entire line – traverse and chute

Red Slate Mountain’s north couloir is one of the Sierra’s classic ski lines, and a moderate Fall ice climb as well. I had climbed the couloir many years ago after another big winter, and stared at it from other nearby summits, most recently Laurel Mountain. With temperatures soaring ten degrees above normal in the coming days, I wanted to ski it before its long approach melted out more, so I drove up to Convict Lake again and readied my pack and gear. There was a large, shiny truck parked in the lot, and I pulled in at a respectable distance to give it and its owner some space. (Trailhead parking and urinal use follow similar spacing rules.) The lake, which I had easily skied across two weeks earlier, was still mostly covered with ice, but that was blue and slushy, and there was enough open water at the near side for boats to be floating at the dock. Spring fishing is serious business in the Sierra: it is why the roads get plowed in April, and why businesses put out banners advertising beer and insects.

First view of Red Slate

As usual, I was unsure when to start the next morning: on the one hand, it is around eight miles to the base of the couloir, and the snow would be badly slushy by early afternoon; on the other, the couloir itself is north-facing, and would either hold wintry snow, or need late-morning sun to soften; on the third, the scary traditional entry traverses the east face above cliffs, and so would receive sun all morning. I ended up getting going around 5:00, and my neighbor, who was ready around the same time, asked to join me for the ski in. I was nonplussed, being a hermit used to the company of like-minded people, but figured “why not,” and enjoyed the company walking around the dry north side of the lake. Alex turned out be a ski guide who had traveled widely, including to South America in their Spring to ski around Bariloche and elsewhere, so we had plenty in common to talk about. I later found out that he is an accomplished skier with a nascent blog, which I will be mining for ski ideas around Tahoe and elsewhere.

Pinner looking manky

The snow started toward the far end of the lake, where I switched to ski boots and began skinning. I briefly spoke to a group of four who planned to ski the Pinner Couloir on Laurel, and wished them luck. Alex had gone ahead, but I soon caught him, as he was carrying a huge overnight pack, and together we struggled through some more bare ground and avalanche debris, then started skiing in earnest near Laurel’s base. I left him in the woods beyond, as I wanted to be skiing at a decent hour, while he had a whole day to travel half the distance. I glanced at the Pinner Couloir as I passed, and was glad not to be skiing it, as it was a mix of ice and avalanche debris.

Top of chute

I had only been this way in the summer, when a never-to-be-repaired bridge can make for a challenging stream crossing, but the valley was still deeply filled in, so it was instead an easy skin to Lake Dorothy. Beyond, I followed an old skin track up toward Lake Wit-So-Nah-Pah, staying on the ridge above it through the awkwardly rolling terrain, then crossing a bit of Constance Lake before climbing to the base of the couloir. There was a bergschrund opening up at its base, as is the case with so many Sierra couloirs this season, but it was well-bridged on the left. The snow was still far too firm to make for pleasant skiing, but I hoped it would soften during my long climb to the summit. I put on crampons, then followed bits of old boot-pack up the broad slope. I am only one of the wave of backcountry skiers flooding the Eastern Sierra this Spring (I feel like such a tourist — sorry!), so many of the guidebook lines are well-used or skied out.

West side exit

Finally reaching the top of the main couloir, I peered onto the east face, and my stomach sank. The traverse to reach the couloir is probably no steeper than parts of some couloirs I have skied this Spring, but it ends in cliffs, and is split by several sharp snow-ridges. Its surface had warmed to slush, and while it did not slough when I poked at it, I was not eager to traverse across it. Still, I wanted to reach the summit one way or another. I had already climbed well above the right-hand exit to the west face, so I stuffed my poles between my pack and back, and scrambled across the crumbly rock above it. This was probably every bit as treacherous as skiing the east face in its own way, as a broken foothold would have sent me down the couloir with no chance of stopping, but chossineering is my game, and I am confident moving cautiously in crampons on bad rock and snow. Once on the west face, I crossed a mixture of snow and rubble, then cramponed up a low-angle snowfield to the summit plateau.

Silver Peak

Red Slate stands well above its surroundings, offering fine views of the Ritter Range, Silver Divide, and the peaks around Rock Creek. It also apparently has south-facing ski lines down its south side toward McGee Pass and Fish Creek. They were probably about right to ski now, and a delay would only improve the couloir, but I was not feeling the energy to drop down and climb back up. I walked out to the east, as others had done, to check out the east face. I saw recent ski tracks on it, and the entry did not look too bad, but I was feeling more timid than ambitious. I wasted time on the summit until I became impatient, then walked back down the west side to the couloir entry to begin skiing.

Convict melting out

The first part was steep, narrow, and fairly scraped off, and I timidly side-slipped it before making turns into the main chute. This would probably have skied better later in the day, when it had received as much sun as possible to soften its scraped-off surface, but it was still a decent ski on its left, sunnier side. I traversed right to cross the bergschrund, then back left and high to maintain momentum for the rolling traverse to Dorothy Lake. The east-facing slopes down in the woods had already turned to nasty slush, but fortunately the lake itself was supportive as I skated across. I enjoyed the best conditions of the day on my way back down the valley, passing a couple of people skinning up late to do… something. I tried traversing high on the south side of Convict Lake, following a ski track across several slide paths and eventually running out of elevation shortly before the snowed-in road. From there it was several ski transitions and some strenuous skating to the car.

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