Twin Peak

Palisades from fishing pond

With more confidence and daylight, and the Glacier Lodge road plowed all the way to the summer trailhead, I could expand the radius of my ambition deeper into the Sierra. I had been thinking of making a loop through the Palisades via Southfork and Scimitar Passes, which would take me to their spectacular and remote “back side.” Then I realized that Southfork Pass, an impassible horror of hard-packed dirt during most summers, would be an efficient way to reach “Twin Peak” just east of Mather Pass, was one of the handful of Sierra 13ers I had yet to climb. I had tried to reach it a couple of times from Red Lake, but given up on that long slog for lack of time or energy.

Clouds on Middle Palisade

I drove up to the trailhead from the valley again, and met a few more skiers milling around as I started. Though it was still skis on from the parking lot, the route through the summer homes was becoming trickier as flattened bushes and broken awnings emerged from the snow. I skinned the familiar route up to Willow Lake, then turned left in the general direction of Southfork Pass. The tops of the peaks were obscured by clouds while it was clear above, demonstrating the typically sharp rain-shadow of the Sierra Crest.

Palisades and Willow Lake

The terrain is somewhat complex, with several ancient glacial valleys forming steep-sided basins sometimes separated by the fins of former nunataks. Southfork lies at the head of the easternmost basin, but the most natural path climbs to Brainerd Lake, then up a headwall and past a couple of small unnamed lakes. I had to boot the headwall, and briefly take off my skis to cross a rock rib back to the east, but was mostly able to skin the terrain. Clouds swirled around the forked pass as I approached, but it was not cold or windy enough to be unpleasant.

Approaching Southfork

There are two chutes leading to the crest at the head of the valley, and I chose the one to the left, which I think is the “official” pass. I skinned as far as I could to the right of the chute, then cramponed the rest of the way. The north-facing slope was covered in heavy and somewhat wind-packed fresh snow poorly bonded a hard layer, and the upper snow would sometimes slide off in small slabs. There was not enough to cause problems on the way up, but I noted it as a possible nuisance for the return.

Palisade Lakes

Looking over the Sierra crest, I saw that the peaks on the other side were mostly cut off by clouds, from Bolton Brown to the south, around to the unnamed peaks on the other side of the Palisade Lakes. I awkwardly walked down some rubble carrying my skis, then clicked in to awkwardly slide toward Mather Pass. The snow was too cold to soften, with a bit of powder over spiky old crust, and the flat light made it treacherous to go fast, as it was hard to see changes in texture or even significant rolls. I tried to maintain elevation as best I could, aiming to come in high around Point 12,834′ and skip the pass.

Mather Pass from Twin

Rather than trying to slide or skin across a hard west-facing slope, I put my skis on my back and cramponed around the point, then kept walking across the plateau toward my peak. A GPS track I had downloaded suggested heading up Twin’s east face, but I saw a nice north-facing couloir leading more directly toward the summit plateau. I found some nice, stable powder as I climbed the chute, promising at least a bit of fun skiing. The summit plateau was as icy and textured as I expected, but at least that made for easy walking as I continued to the summit. The tops of the peaks were still mostly in the clouds, but I got occasional views of Ruskin and Vennacher Needle, and of Split’s badly scoured north face.

Ski tracks

I had taken less time than expected to reach the summit, so I thought about more adventurous routes home. Twin’s east face looked like a decent ski, and from the base I could climb over Bolton Brown and ski down its gentle northeast bowl. However that would mean missing the powder chute I had just climbed, so I opted to retrace my route with a slight deviation over the saddle between Bolton Brown and 12,834′. The summit plateau was a wretched, chattery ski, but the chute was as fun as I had hoped for someone like me with little practice powder skiing. I made a series of fairly uniform s-turns for the benefit of photos looking back from across the bowl.

Returning to Southfork

I just manage to climb the south side of the next saddle without crampons, and was relieve to find that the other side, which had been in the clouds when I crossed Southfork Pass, did not cliff out. However it had rolls and variable snow, making it tricky in the flat light, and I managed to eat it when I hit an unseen ice-ball. I wiped off my sunglasses as best I could, then continued more cautiously, contouring high and right toward Southfork Pass. I considered another extracurricular trip over the unnamed pass south of the Thumb, down to Birch Lake, then back over between Kid and Big Kid, but dismissed it as too much effort for the sake of mediocre skiing.

Looking back from Southfork

Finally returning to Southfork Pass in the afternoon, I was surprised to see two skiers making their way up the valley just below its base. I made cautious turns down the couloir, making sure that they were out of the direct line of fire as I sent some minor sloughs their way. I slowed near a sort of bergschrund partway down the slope, then slid by to its west and stopped by one of the skiers. They were headed over the pass for a few days and still deciding what to ski; I told them what I had found, and suggested they come out over Scimitar Pass.

I took off down the powder slope, making fun turns until I reached the open valley, where the spiky ice resumed. I chattered my way down-valley, staying high and right for variety. Partway down, I decided it might be fun to ski the headwall taken by the summer trail rather than the familiar gully below Willow Lake. This required some skating and side-stepping, but was well worth it, as I found my first genuinely fun corn skiing of the day on the lower east-facing slope, and was able to make huge, sweeping turns into the valley. I sped down toward the summer homes, carefully picked my way through the trees, then walked from the bridge back to my car. There were a few more cars in the lot, whose owners returned as I ate and relaxed, but it was hardly crowded. I thought about various things I could ski from the same trailhead the next day, but nothing inspired me enough to stay, so I headed back to town to get online, then out to the desert to sleep and prepare for what I mistakenly thought would be an easier objective on the morrow.

2 responses to “Twin Peak

  1. Rich says:

    hey there. good bumping into you out there on the north side of southfork pass. we ended up getting snowed on pretty good that night and kept it mellow the next day; I toured up to Mather and ended up skiing up to the same peak(s) you did. winds didn’t cooperate and skiing for the next couple days above 9500-10K was teeth chattering despite emergence of the sun. nice views though.

    1. drdirtbag says:

      Hey, good to hear from you! I thought of you when I looked south from Round Mountain the next day and saw the Palisades getting dumped on. I’m glad you managed to have some fun despite the weather. The sheer amount of snow up there is incredible, but conditions can be challenging.

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