Tom (west face)

Kyle topping out

Mount Tom is the star of the Bishop skyline, standing east of the crest and rising 9500 uninterrupted feet from town. It is a giant slag-heap, and therefore both home to much abandoned mining infrastructure, and an unpleasant summer scree-slog. However, when covered in snow it becomes a skier’s paradise, with big ski lines in almost every direction. The most popular lines are on its east side: from north to south, Elderberry, “Dingleberry,” and the southeast chute, all drop 6000 feet or more from the summit ridge to the desert. However there are also chutes descending 3500 feet south to Horton Lakes, 6000 feet north to Pine Creek, and 5000 feet west to Gable Creek. The last is often wind-blasted and unusable, but I had eyed it from the Gable Lakes area some years ago, and this is a year to ski rare lines. With the warmer temperatures forcing ever-earlier starts for east-facing skiing, when Kyle invited me to join him in skiing the west side of Tom, I jumped at the chance.

Kyle inspecting Wheeler Crest

We all piled into Logan’s Subaru for the drive down from Mammoth, heading up Pine Creek and parking just short of the summer trailhead. The summer Gable Lakes trail climbs high above the narrow valley, and is a challenging and treacherous side-hill in snow, but Kyle had scouted the direct approach up the bottom of Gable Creek, and much to my surprise it was still mostly filled with avalanche debris, with essentially no willow-thrashing. We hiked up an old road for a bit, side-hilled on a trace of trail, and began booting up the nastiest mix of snowballs, dirt, rocks, and dissected trees I have seen in awhile. Somewhat to my surprise, we saw another party ahead, but never figured out where they ended up skiing.

Looking down constriction

Not having looked carefully at the map, I trusted the others to know which chute to take to reach Tom. The correct line began improbably with a narrow chute that pinched down to a barely-passable constriction with a partial crack that would soon melt out. We booted through this, unsure it would go until the last second, and hoped it would soften enough by the time we returned on the descent. Above, the terrain opened to a broad bowl, and we took a break at the base to admire the colorful rock across the valley and the old mining tram towers above us. The sun finally hit us as we skinned through the bowl, then angled left into the first main chute leading toward Tom’s long north-south summit ridge. After weeks of baking on east- and south-facing lines, I was enjoying the low, late sun on the west face. The snow was still hard enough to crampon up without sinking in, but promised to soften with a few hours’ solar input.

End of the line

The snow deteriorated toward the top, being thinner and more wind-sculpted, but by staying left we managed to get to within about 300 feet of the summit before stashing our skis. From there, I cramponed up scraps of snow and skittered across rocks, while the others followed the unpleasant talus in boots, finding bits of the summer use trail. Only a couple minutes after reaching the summit, we were surprised to see a party of three hiking the long ridge all the way south from Elderberry. I was impressed by their perseverance: when I skied that canyon a few years ago, I topped out on the ridge, took one look at the mile of obnoxious talus, and decided I had had enough. Two of the crew had left their skis at the top of the canyon, but the other had optimistically hiked his to the summit. They shared a cigarette (retro!), and we talked for a bit. The guy with skis was probably close to my age, and had traveled and skied widely; I would have enjoyed learning more, but they had to get going before their east-facing line deteriorated further.

Good times in the bowl

We, on the other hand, could descend at our leisure. Picking our way back down the rocks, we clicked in and slip-skied down the upper few hundred feet. Below, the snow was just ripening into corn, and we enjoyed sweeping turns down the chute and bowl to above the constriction. I am used to skiing alone, so it felt strange keeping track of four other people around me, but not unpleasant. We paused above the constriction to go through one by one, with Kyle upping the challenge by going through backward. The narrow chute below had cooked too much, but the lower north-facing avy snow was still excellent and fast until the debris got too thick. We picked our way down the ever-dirtier snow until we decided we did not hate our skis, then put them on our backs for the remainder of the hike. The other party had somehow boldly plowed through the debris, sliding right through rocks, dirt, and pine boughs. Perhaps it was their last run of the year, and they were planning to throw away their skis afterwards. We returned to the car shortly after noon, happy to have taken advantage of this year to ski this difficult-to-time line.

2 responses to “Tom (west face)

  1. Laura G says:

    Do you suppose the West face is still skiable (looking for a trip in a few days)? Or prob huge sun cups etc?

    1. drdirtbag says:

      I’m pretty sure that line is gone, or at least the lower pinch and upper face.

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