While the Sierra may have an historic snowpack, the change of season is taking its inevitable toll on skiing in many ways. The warmer nights mean less of a refreeze, with snow turning to slush sooner after the sun hits it. That sun, now rising higher and staying longer in the sky, is hitting more north-facing slopes, and baking everything for more hours. The sun is also gradually turning the surface into ripples and suncups, which are still usually small enough to plow through once they soften, but will eventually become icy and impassable like the Andes’ penitentes. All of this means one has to carefully choose when and where to ski, something I am still remarkably bad at doing. Figuring north-facing snow would be least cooked and get sun relatively late, I looked through my to-do list and came up with the powerplant chute near Lee Vining. This line rises around 4000 feet from the Poole Power Plant road below Tioga Pass to the Dana Plateau. I had already been to the plateau via its east side, but had not skied neighboring Mount Dana, so I figured I could combine the two in a short, steep day. I had been meaning to do something with Andy for awhile, and he gamely agreed to come all the way up to Lee Vining at dawn to join me. After hanging out at the Mobile Mart until dark, I drove up the power plant road to its end, passing a herd of hashtag-vanlife camped where I had started last time. Thankful to be avoiding that unpleasantness (and the much worse skiing conditions in the V-bowl), I parked in a quiet pullout just before the power plant, readied my pack, and dozed off listening to the nearby raging river. Andy was right on time the next morning, pulling in on his touring bike with snowboard mount, and we headed off through the woods at dawn. We both had skins, but never ended up needing them, as the snow in the woods was supportive, and the slope steepened almost immediately. We booted up the first part, though crampons might have been wise, as we learned when cresting the final bulge onto the flat middle part of the line. The snow here was still shaded, and therefore hard enough to continue walking to the headwall, where only one obvious line was clearly in. This time we sensibly went straight to crampons. There were a couple of old bootpacks and corresponding ski tracks, but I mostly broke trail. The snow was treacherously icy in places, but softening in the sun on the right side. I had an easier time of it in my plastic ski boots than Andy did in his squishy snowboard ones, but it was still steep enough near the top that I paused to get out my ice axe for the first time this Spring. The snow was stable, but a fall probably would have taken me back to the bottom. Emerging on the lower end of the Dana Plateau, I was unsurprised to find the path mostly scoured off. More walking ensued over a mixture of rocks, sand, and wind-beaten snow. I was hoping to find a chute leading off the northwest side to upper Glacier Canyon, but had no such luck, and had to stumble down some loose talus to the nearest snow-tongue. This allowed a bit of sliding, but it was soon time to continue walking. The Dana Couloir is the classic ski line, but a northeast-facing line to the right of the peak looked like it would be in better shape, assuming the cornice on top cooperated. I therefore headed for that, booting up in steep switchbacks and, with my characteristic overconfidence, assuming that I could figure out the cornice when I reached it. I became less confident as I neared the top. There looked like there might be a break on the left that would require some precarious stemming and a mantle, but I hoped that the wind would have created a smooth roll on the right, as it apparently had for other notches in the ridge. This fortunately proved to be true, albeit barely, and I was able to hug the right wall, mantle onto an exposed rock shelf, then climb steep but firm snow to the crest. I was not eager to reverse this on skis, and the cornice itself looked a bit high to jump and land on a steep slope. When Andy joined me, he looked at it and seemed to have the same opinion, leaving us committed to the classic line. We booted up a strip of wind-board along the ridge, reaching the mostly-bare summit with no further difficulties. The initial south-facing ridge skied remarkably poorly, but the southeast slope to the head of the couloir was pleasantly soft. I knew the couloir would be shaded, but hoped that it would still hold a bit of winter snow. Unfortunately I had no such luck: while I could see ski tracks from an afternoon descent, the whole thing was desperately hard and scrape-y. The skiing was neither treacherous nor fun, and I imagine the snowboarding was worse. The snow was somewhat better on the coast back down the valley, but too wind-textured to be pleasant. We hiked back more or less the way we came down, taking a slightly more pleasant line through the talus. Fortunately I was recording a track, because the Dana Plateau is vast and featureless, with little indication where the couloirs top out. Walking back across, we ran into another snowboarder-skier pair, who had climbed up Coke Chute on the east side as I had the last time. They seemed unsure where they were headed, so I encouraged them to hike over to Dana, as the couloir might cook into better shape by the time they summited. These were the only people we saw in the mountains, making me wonder what happened to the rest of the hashtag-vanlife, who did not look like fisher-folk. Reaching the top of the powerplant chute, we found the snow to be just about ripe. A previous skier had side-stepped the steep entry, but after an experimental glide across the slope, I felt comfortable making tight turns right off, then gradually opening up as the snow softened and the slope eased off lower down. The snow on the intermediate plateau was textured enough to be tiring, but softer than that in Glacier Canyon, and therefore reasonably fast. The second drop to the road was becoming grabby toward the bottom, but still skied fairly well, and I was able to glide to within a few feet of the road and a couple hundred yards of the pullout, where there were still no other people. Andy made his cool moto-assisted exit, while I drove slowly down the dirt road and out to services at the Mobile Mart. The gaggle of vans was if anything larger when I passed back through the V-bowl parking area, with plenty of skiers hanging out and drying their things. I was glad to have skied that side almost three weeks earlier, when the snow was doubtless smoother and reached the car.
On This Day
- Nothing has ever happened on this day. Ever.