Darwin and Lamarck, sort of

Traverse to Darwin

My recent outing to Twin Peak near Mather Pass made me realize that it was easier than I thought to get deep into the Sierra on skis in a single day. With that in mind, I thought of places I hadn’t visited recently that might offer interesting ski routes, and eventually settled on Lamarck Col and Darwin Bench out of Aspendell. Not only could I see and ski some cool terrain associated with good memories, but I could save myself $1120 and three miserable nights in a tent on snow. I stocked up on supplies, then drove up to Aspendell to camp at the large skier parking pullout just past town.

End of plowing

I started at a civilized hour the next morning, walking the road in ski boots for a few hundred yards, then hopping up on the bank to skin the rest. The county’s feeble plowing efforts ended partway to the Lake Sabrina junction, showing there were still several feet of snow covering this north-facing road. I turned toward North Lake, crossed the bridge, then skinned through a couple of switchbacks before having to walk some south-facing sections that had melted bare. Fortunately there was a decent skin track for the remainder, because the side-hill would have been tricky and tiring on hard morning snow. I continued on deep snow to the Piute Pass campground, where the trailhead sign was well-buried, then crossed the creek on a snow bridge and headed vaguely up the summer trail toward Lamarck and Grassy Lakes. Rather than looping over Piute Pass and Alpine Col, I chose the more direct route over Lamarck Col, figuring that would give me more time to ski Darwin.

Piute trailhead sign

The normal route to Lamarck Col follows the trail past Lower Lamarck Lake and turns left on a use trail, but I had heard somewhere that it is easier and more direct in winter to head straight up from Grassy Lake. I therefore wandered in that general direction, ending up too high, then side-hilled through forest into the drainage that leads to the upper part of Lamarck Col. Once in the bottom of the valley, it was easy going to rejoin the summer trail where it enters the long sand-flat leading to the pass. The snow was hard and textured, and I hoped it would soften by my afternoon return, but the cold and wind were not encouraging.

Lamarck Col

Nearing the col, I was surprised to find a fresh skin-track switchbacking to the next notch to its right. I was grateful for the tracks, as there was enough heavy fresh powder to make breaking trail significantly more work. I enjoyed my first view of the Evolution ridge and Darwin Bench from the top, then ducked out of the wind to have a snack, take off my skins, and put on a layer before stumbling down wind-scoured boulders on the other side to put on my skis. Curiously but encouragingly, I saw a boot-pack leading up the lower part of my intended line, promising even less work in the future.

Darwin tracked out

I descended some hard and rough snow, then made a high traverse left, hoping to hit the valley as high as possible. My line unfortunately gave out at a rock buttress, but it looked like I could boot uphill a bit and continue wrapping around. Unfortunately I clumsily let a ski get away while transitioning, and it took off downhill, rocketing over a short cliff-band before disappearing from sight. With the high traverse no longer an option, I strapped the other ski to my pack, carefully downclimbed around the cliff, and was pleased to see that my ski had come to rest undamaged only a short distance below. I carefully attached both skis to my feet, then looked up to see that there were three fresh tracks on Darwin. Someone else had chosen to ski my line!

View from swale

Somewhat miffed, I followed their outward tracks down to the valley, then switched to skins to climb back out the other side. The party ahead of me turned out to be one skier and two split-boarders. The skier stopped to talk, and revealed that they had not topped out. He also asked if I knew anything about the north couloir on Lamarck, which I had been contemplating as a bonus line if I had time and energy after Darwin. What are the odds that someone would snake my whole day?! I told him truthfully that I didn’t know much about it, thanked him for the boot-pack, and he continued on his way.

I followed their upward tracks as best I could, but they were partly demolished by their run down, and already filling in with wind-blown powder. The snow was an unpredictable mix of heavy powder and wind-board, promising a mix of fun and surprise on the descent. The booting started out easy, but got heavier and deeper as I progressed, with a layer of heavy fresh snow on top of a hard old crust. Occasionally the steps would collapse as the older snow slid off the old surface, and while I never managed to trigger a slide, this did make me slightly uneasy. I had thought of continuing up the right branch of the couloir to the summit plateau, but my laziness aligned with the unbonded fresh snow and giant cornices hanging above, and I instead followed the existing boot-pack to a notch in Darwin’s northeast ridge.

Sabrina Basin and Palisades

I found a comfortable swale in the snow, where I dumped my pack and skis before peering around the other side. This may be the summer route, as I found (and bootied) a rappel anchor, but it is definitely not the winter one, as it would involve a steep snow traverse and some awkward scrambling on large blocks. Sabrina Basin lay utterly buried below, with Agassiz and the Palisades beyond. I sat on a large flat rock for awhile, then returned to my skis and prepared to descend. The skiing was less fun than I had anticipated, probably because I am unused to powder and was never very proficient at it, but I made some decent smooth turns in the upper chute, then more cautious ones lower down where the wind-board began. I followed the others’ tracks across a basin and up a small rise, then down the valley to the base of Lamarck Col.

View down Darwin Bench

Skinning back up toward the col, I decided that I had plenty of time and energy to try Lamarck’s north couloir. I followed a broad snow-face left of the col, booting the upper section before clumsily walking across Lamarck’s summit plateau to its northern lowpoint. Looking down my intended route, I could see a few skittering tracks from the other party, and some wind-exposed rocks. It might have been better lower down, but it did not look like a particularly fun ski, and I hoped I would find better snow conditions by returning down Lamarck’s east face and retracing my route.

Col and Darwin from Lamarck

I clomped over to the east side — ski boots make even the easiest talus-hop awkward and perilous — clicked in, and made an exploratory turn on the face. While the snow was not the corn I had hoped for, it was at least reasonably soft and consistent. I made some more wide turns, then contoured right and high to maintain momentum around the first flat. The snow below was consistently wretched, a wind-sculpted rumble strip that had not softened on this unseasonably cold day, even after hours in the sun. I retraced my route with cautious turns, searching back and forth for a more pleasant aspect, and eventually found good skiing around where the summer and winter routes diverge.

Humphreys, Emerson, Piute Crags

My route on the way up had been less than ideal, so I chose instead to stay high and right above Grassy Lake, then follow its outflow stream toward the road beyond North Lake. This worked well at first, and I even found some old tracks, but the stream was surprisingly low-angle, and I had to pole and skate through the trees. Rather than dropping to the road with the creek, I chose to continue my high traverse to the end of the valley. This cost me a bit of side-stepping, but yielded a fast exit on good snow to the south-facing part of the road. It may be possible to drop directly to Aspendell and cross the stream, but I played it safe and took the road around, despite the poling and walking that entailed. I was rewarded with an easy, fast glide along the partly-plowed road to the parking lot. I wanted to make the most of my drive up here by spending another day skiing nearby, but nothing interesting would ski well with the next day’s continued cold and stronger winds, so I ultimately retreated to the valley to wait for better conditions.

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