Dana Plateau

Down second chute, across to Kidney

The Dana Plateau is an odd feature of the Sierra just south of Tioga Pass. Its north and east sides are a steep alternation of pillars and gullies, including the popular climb the Third Pillar of Dana. To the southwest, it is cut off from the landmark Mount Dana by a shallow glacial valley. On top, it is a broad talus plateau gently rising to a minor highpoint at its southeast end, before dropping to the Kidney Lake cirque at the head of Gibbs Canyon. When filled with snow, the gullies on its east and southeast sides are popular ski descents, the most popular being Coke Chute on the east, and Kidney Chute on the southeast.

Dawn on Mono Lake

With highs in the Owens Valley in the 80s, I had escaped to the area between Mammoth and Yosemite, where the base of the peaks is a few thousand feet higher. The summits are also a bit lower, but there is still 5-6 thousand feet of relief, much of it skiable. While I had climbed the Dana Couloir, I had never visited the Plateau, so I found a tour online starting below the Tioga Pass road, ascending Coke Chute, dropping down Kidney Chute to Kidney Lake, then traversing back around to the start. I hoped that, with an early start, the southeast-facing Kidney Chute would be just about ripe when I hit it mid-morning.

Pillars of Dana

This was a weekend, so while mine was the only car when I parked, I was not surprised to have company when I woke. The “V bowl” had been easy to spot on the drive in, but it was convenient to have a conga line of headlamps to aim for on my predawn skin. I crossed the convenient bridge, then wandered through the woods to the base of the bowl, where regular avalanches had cleared the slope. I found a zigzag skin track to follow, and was grateful for it as the snow was surprisingly hard despite the warm forecast. I had to boot a short choke near the top, but eventually emerged on the “Dana Pre-Plateau,” a flat area below the main pillars.

Skiers in Coke Chute

Ahead, I saw the group who had started earlier making their way up what I presumed was Coke Chute. It seemed like the obvious way to reach the plateau, but I was glad to have them to follow, as to me it looked nothing like a Coke bottle or anything related to cocaine, other than being white. I skinned for awhile, then put on crampons around where I caught the stragglers. I was not feeling overly sociable, but did spend some time talking to the man in charge of the expedition. He clearly knew Sierra skiing better than I did, and had also been to South America to ski, so we had plenty to discuss. I took off when he waited for the others, cramponing up the surprisingly steep exit to the left.

Scramble to highpoint

The Plateau was badly wind-scoured, and I had to walk over some bare rocks before weaving my way through wind-moguls toward the upper right corner. Someone had added “Dana Plateau Highpoint” to Peakbagger, so I had a tempting red dot to turn green. It was early for skiing, so I also thought about continuing to Dana, then skiing back down its south face. However the final ridge to the red dot involved some exposed third class, which was tricky enough in ski boots even without my skis on my back. I dropped my pack, scrambled to the highpoint, then returned to find a reasonable platform to drop down the east-facing slope into Kidney Chute. The initial descent had warmed to perfection, and I even found some old ski tracks. The main chute had more tracks, but was still a bit firmer than ideal. Still, I managed to find some good skiing on the warmer right side, eventually coasting into the cirque above the lake.

Kidney Lake and second chute

Having skipped Dana, I had lots of time for my second alternate plan, a north-facing chute across the lake leading to another red dot near Mount Gibbs. I returned to crampons and started up, finding the snow hard and still shaded. I have a decent sense for when various aspects will soften enough for fun skiing, but have yet to perfect my timing, often arriving too early. I hoped at least the upper bowl would have softened, but found that it was still a wintry mixture of chalk and windboard. I jogged right, then back left, and emerged maybe a hundred yards from the summit.

Cathedral Range and Tuolomne

I tried to take as much time as I could on top to let the snow soften, taking in the views of the Ritter and Cathedral Ranges and Tuolomne Meadows, but eventually got impatient. The snow was therefore harder than ideal in the upper bowl and chute, though it was just about perfect on the north-facing slope above the lake. It quickly turned to patches of bottomless slush on the traverse back around the base of the Dana Plateau, where I had to skin for awhile to regain elevation. It might have been better to reclimb Kidney Chute and descend Coke Chute, but I did not think of it at the time. Instead I dropped down a pleasant bowl south of the V bowl, angling left through the trees as the slush got deeper. With a final bit of survival skiing, I returned to the base of the V, then followed tracks to the bridge. Another group had just returned from skiing the chute right of the Third Pillar, and we talked briefly before they inexplicably went off to bathe in the stream. There may have been a heat wave, but I do not know how warm it would have to be for me to want to jump into a creek with multiple feet of snow on either side.

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