Round Mountain

This is absurd

Round Mountain is not especially round. Nor is it sharp, high, steep, or unusual in any of the ways a mountain can be distinctive. However it was the only Sierra peak with at least 1000 feet of prominence anywhere near Big Pine that I had yet to climb, and it has a prominent couloir on its southeast side that had been drawing my attention. I had tried to hike the peak in the summer this way before, taking the Shannon Canyon road to an old mine, but the terrain above the end of the road the worst kind of Sierra desert trash, a heap of sand and loose rubble infested with woody plants. Now all of that would be buried in snow, so I figured it would be an easy morning outing for a resupply day.

How wet is my valley?

I drove the decaying but paved County Road back from the Keough’s, turned on the Shannon Canyon road, then almost immediately backed off when it became too rocky for my low-clearance vehicle. I parked off the pavement, put my skis and boots on my pack, and set off walking from just above 4000 feet, barely off the desert floor. With plenty of places in the Sierra to ski from the car, I had sworn I would not stupidly walk through the desert with skis on my back, but the lure of an obscure line and a P1K overcame my sensible resolution. The road soon deteriorated enough to turn back a Subaru, then became rutted enough to keep out all but UTVs, and I felt less bad about having a wussy car. Still, it was a long dry walk, and though it was unseasonably cool, I worried about the snow cooking in the couloir above.

Welcome to the canyon

I did not know what to expect where the road enters the narrow canyon. In summer, it crosses a small creek a few times, and has some wet patches near seeps, but is still recognizably a road, but now the road and creek had become one. I did not want to soak my feet or remove my semi-compression ski socks, so I gingerly picked my way across the stream using my poles to balance on tiny rocks, thrashed through brush, and skirted the stream on loose dirt. Determined to stay dry as possible, I spent a lot of time side-hilling, scrambling over boulders and through brush, made awkward by the skis and boots on my back. Soon I was far enough in that turning around without skiing from the summit was not an option. When I had to follow or cross the stream, I would balance with my poles and step on the least-submerged rocks to minimize my soaking, but my feet still became solidly wet. The willows along the stream were bent down, either from the winter snow or out of spite, and at times I had to back through them to keep my ski tips from catching. Just before the lowest mine, the canyon splits, and I followed the ridge between the two forks to reach the road above thrashing territory.

Base of avy debris

Ahead I could see the tip of the avalanche debris, still a ways farther up, but thankfully below the end of the road. I hiked up the road to the snow, then continued up the snow a bit in running shoes before deciding to try skinning. I set my wet running shoes on a rock, let my feet dry off for a minute, then shoved them still damp into my ski boots. I skinned for awhile, but the slide debris was uneven and steep enough to make traction difficult, and firm enough to support me, so I put the skis back on my back and continued hiking in my boots. There was plenty of evidence of tree carnage in the debris, but thankfully few rocks, so while skiing this lower part would be tricky, at least it would not be too hard on my skis.

Palisades from summit

There are a number of branching couloirs above the road’s end, all of which were filled with snow and looked inviting, but I had a peak to climb, so I kept bearing right at junctions, slowly making my way up to where the slope broadens out into a bowl below the peak’s south ridge. The snow was perfect for booting, with just enough soft surface to kick steps without crampons, but supportive enough not to posthole, promising good skiing for a change. I topped out at a break in the ridge’s cornice, then walked along the broad crest to the summit. The high Sierra peaks in all directions, from the Palisades to the south around to Mount Tom and Wheeler Crest to the northwest, were mostly covered in clouds, but my little bump was in the sun, as was the high Coyote Flat nearby to the west. I finished the rest of my food on top, enjoying the views until the wind chilled me, then clicked in just feet from the summit.

Skis off at 6500′

The traverse back across the upper face to just above my gully was a bit icy, but the snow soon turned to excellent corn, and I made a long chain of enjoyable turns back toward the desert. The lower third or so was avalanche debris, and therefore progressively trickier, but I stayed on the right (north) side to avoid it as long as possible, then dodged pine branches and the occasional rock until continuous snow gave out. Looking at my phone, I was amazed to find that I had skied all the way to 6500 feet, netting me 5300 feet of skiing for 7800 feet of labor. Sweet! I switched back into trail runners and, almost whistling to myself, began the hike down.

Typical road/stream

My feet were already damp, and I was headed to warmer heights, so I decided to avoid the side-hilling, desert-thrashing nonsense and simply follow the road/creek back. The water was cold, but rarely more than shin-deep, and with my poles, it was not difficult to balance in the stream. I hate getting wet, but have hardened myself to accept it when necessary, and was undismayed by the 3/4 mile of walking in water. Backing carefully through willows to minimize ski-snagging while standing in a stream was aggravating, but tolerable. The desert hike was tedious, but I had listening material, and was buoyed by a satisfying day out. I drove back to the Keough’s where, despite there being a half-dozen cars, I had a hot, deep pool to myself to wash and soak. Though I have become steadily disenchanted with the Owens Valley over the years, sometimes it still reminds me what it can offer at its best.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *