Goddard divide

Goddard from turnaround

[A few other outings have been temporarily skipped, because this one is more interesting. — ed.]

Mount Goddard is a landmark in the middle of the Sierra, a black pyramid rising well above its neighbors west of Muir Pass, which separates deep Le Conte Canyon from the Evolution Lakes. Lying well west of the Sierra Crest, it is moderately difficult to reach from any trailhead; the most common approaches start at North Lake and Lake Sabrina. I had first climbed it in 2010, going out via Sabrina Basin and Haeckel Col, and back over Huxley, Warlow, and Fiske, then down Wallace Col. I was looking for one more deep Sierra outing to end my ski season, and Goddard would take me to a region I seldom visit.

Drained Sabrina

Though the road was well-plowed past the Sabrina campground to the first bridge, it was still frustratingly gated at Aspendell, so I had to start my day with a couple miles’ road walk. Unlike the last time, mine was the only car in the large parking pullout when I pulled in the evening before, and I was again by myself as I readied my pack by headlamp at 4:00 AM. I did not feel like I would save much time biking the road, or spare my feet significant abuse starting off in trail runners, so I clomped up the road in ski boots, walking until the plowing gave out, then skinning the last bit of road to the Sabrina trailhead.

Midnight Lake

The Sabrina Basin approach is tedious even in the summer, with little parking at the trailhead, a long hike along the reservoir, and much rolling terrain on lousy packer-built trails. It is worse on skis, where the terrain is rarely conducive to efficient skinning on the approach, or fast gliding on the return, and I found it even worse than I remembered. They had drained the reservoir in anticipation of massive snowmelt, so instead of a smooth surface to skin across, the empty basin was a mess of dirt and broken ice. It was also late in the season, so the traverse along the summer trail was melted out. Once I struggled past the lake, I found that the woods were too steep for skinning, but the snow was still punchy and melted out in places. I ended up booting most of the way to Blue Lake, where the flat terrain begins.

Haeckel Col

After struggling for so long to cover so little ground, I almost gave up, sitting on my pack in the sun to consider my options. I could try skiing a line on the north side of Powell, but that was not inspiring. Reaching Haeckel Col required an annoying side-hill and more rolling skinning, but I ultimately decided to continue that way and see how I felt. I made my meandering way to Midnight Lake, then skinned across and booted up a couloir to join the summer route to the col. Were I to return this way, this short couloir would be the last good skiing before an hour or two of reversing the misery I had just endured. That fact set my mind to considering other options, and by the time I reached Haeckel Col, I had decided to return via Lamarck Col and North Lake, which conveniently shared a “trailhead” with the road closed at Aspendell.

Far side of Haeckel Col

I found some old bootprints and ski tracks on the other side of the col, but I remembered the route being slightly non-obvious in the summer, and now it was more complicated. The snow had begun exfoliating from the slabs below the notch, which are split by a maze of small cliff-bands. I cut way right, then all the way back, finally side-slipping my way down a semi-scoured chute between rock bulges. Though the snow is still deep west of the crest, it is obviously past its prime, and passages like this are becoming trickier as they melt out. Below the headwall, I slid and made some turns toward the John Muir Trail, enjoying the relatively soft and smooth snow, a marked contrast to the textured ice I had dealt with a few weeks earlier.

Goddard Divide, Goddard at right

Reaching the JMT, I could have turned down Evolution Valley toward the Darwin Bench, but the scenery gave me new energy. Thanks to with my early start, it was still well before midday despite the time wasted escaping Sabrina, so while I had no idea how long it would take to return via Lamarck Col, I figured I had time to do more. I picked out a minor peak with a skiable face in the direction of Muir Pass, and set out skinning in its direction, but soon my ambition soared and I decided to go for Goddard. It would be a long outing that would leave me unable to do anything decent the next day, but it would be awhile before I returned to this area on skis.

Charybdis and Scylla

I skinned up to the low saddle between the JMT and Davis Lakes, then followed the broad ridge south toward the Goddard Divide. There were two ways to reach Goddard: a north-facing couloir leading directly to the southeast slope, and a traverse along the south side of the divide. The couloir was still connected, but looked thin and possibly unpleasant, so I opted for the slightly longer but gentler traverse. Looking at my topo, it seemed I could cut the corner reaching the traverse, so I headed right where my ridge joined the divide, skinning across a cirque and booting up the headwall. This turned out to be quite a bit steeper and harder than I anticipated, and I wasted time kicking steps in the hard crust, and carefully edging my way along exposed rocks. By the time I reached the crest, my drive had been diminished, and Goddard was still over a mile away.

Evolution Crest

Looking for some sort of consolation prize, I booted up the ridge to the next highpoint, which for some reason someone had added to Peakbagger, and decided that was enough. The summit of Goddard looked to be another hour away, and while the southeast face looked like good skiing, I had nearly the same view from my lower perch, recalling pleasant memories of earlier summer outings. Across the Davis Lakes to the north, Mount McGee reminded me of a failed one-handed and successful two-handed attempt. To the southwest were the Le Conte and White Divides, home of remote peaks including Reinstein and Tunemah, which I had visited on a wild backpack loop. To the southeast lay Ionian Basin, with Charybdis and Scylla guarding the entrance to Enchanted Gorge, from which I had emerged on that same backpack. Charybdis itself reminded me of an early Sierra Challenge, when I had climbed it along with Black Giant via Echo Col. And of course to the east lay the whole Evolution Crest, which I had traversed in a day after scouting it piecemeal over several years.

Lake/creek emerging

I did not have much time to linger, though, as home was far away. Switching to ski mode, I dropped down the south side of the divide a bit, then traversed as high as I could to the easier col I probably should have taken on the way out. From there I made a long descending traverse, skated across the northern lobe of Wanda Lake, then traversed again down Evolution Valley, skating across Sapphire Lake and descending more before giving up and switching to skins at Evolution Lake. I had been skimping on water all day, so when I saw several clear rivulets pouring down from the Evolution Crest, I stopped by one to drink my remaining liter and refill. Then I began the climb up to Darwin Bench, first gradually, then in steep switchbacks well south of the summer use trail.

Lamarck Col

I remembered coming this way after the Evolution Traverse, and felt similarly triumphant despite not having accomplished anything of note. I was thinking back to the remote central Sierra basins I had just seen, and forward to an enjoyable ski down the other side of Lamarck Col. The lakes were showing turquoise in places, but still solid enough to cross, making the Bench much more pleasant than in the summer, when a faint use trail winds through tedious talus. I found a well-used but faded skin-track up the col, and followed it as my energy faded and the wind picked up. Behind me thunderstorms were building over the western Sierra, and I could see wind-blasted clouds on the eastern side of the crest, but the storms stayed at bay.

Emerson, Piute Crags, White

Pausing on the other side of Lamarck Col, I put on another layer, but my hands had already gotten unpleasantly cold carrying my skis up the final scraps of rocky trail and removing my skins. I stayed high and right to keep coasting on the initial descent, and just managed to keep my skis on and thread through a few emerging bands of rocks. The snow was wind-sculpted and suncupped like last time, but much softer, so while I was not able to go terribly fast, the skiing was still fun. I threaded my way through the woods to Grassy Lake, then followed the right side of its outflow stream to within a few hundred feet of the North Lake Road.

The rest was ordinary suffering. I thrashed through some brush to reach the partly-melted road, then skated and poled through endless mushy suncups to where the road turns right in its long traverse above Bishop Creek. I had hoped to drop directly to Aspendell here, but that had melted out, so I followed the road, mostly walking to the junction, then slowly sliding down the uphill side to within a few hundred yards of the gate. I passed a guy out walking his dog, who weirdly pointed at me, normally said “hi,” but did not seem to want to talk. That was fine by me, as I was happy, spent, and not feeling a need for company. I pulled my shriveled and battered feet out of my boots and soaked socks — fourteen hours in ski boots take their toll — and drove to a quiet spot to sleep.

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