Category Archives: Skiing

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.


Mono Lake and Dana Plateau from summit

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.

Mono Lake from top of chute

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.

Topping out on chute

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.

Dana Plateau

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 hope this goes

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.

Cornice and summit

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.

Tuolomne and Cathedral Range

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.

Steep entry

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.


The line, slightly melted

Mount Lewis is an easily-overlooked peak between Wood and Gibbs along the June Lake Loop. As it is in the northern Sierra and not on the SPS list, I had not thought about it until this spring, when I noticed that it had both 1000 feet of prominence and an appealing southeast ski line. I had tried it once, giving up thanks to too much wind, not enough energy, and a miserable approach following the Parker Lake road and trail. With the snow rapidly disappearing and other business up north, I returned armed with knowledge of a better approach option.

Sunrise on Wood

I drove a bit farther up the Parker Lake road to sleep, and started hiking around first light. The road had been badly washed out only a hundred yards past where I stopped, so further snowmelt will not shorten the approach. Following a track from Strava, I left the road to skin up some sheltered snow on the north-facing side of the next gully south. It was almost too melted out to be useful, but it got me to the base of Wood’s north face, and promised a painless return. I switched to downhill mode to skitter down to just above Parker Lake, then switched back to skinning across the valley bottom and up the lower chute.

Upper headwall

Unfortunately the recent hot weather had melted things out too much for it to be a continuous ski anymore, but it had also cooked the avalanche debris down to a smoother and more supportive state. I put my skis on my back to cross some brush and choss, then booted up the lower headwall. Where the slope began to ease off, I switched back to skinning, making a few tenuous switchbacks before cruising the lower-angle terrain to the upper headwall. An ancient glacier left rotten cliffs on Lewis’ east face, but a southeast-facing slope at the north end curves around almost to the summit. I stopped to switch to boots again, then made my laborious way up and left toward the top. I saw some old ski tracks, and was grateful for a fairly recent boot-pack higher up, leading through the rapidly-softening upper face.

Parker Lake from summit

The summit was an unremarkable series of three rubble piles at the upper end of a slope connecting to Gibbs via a plateau to the west. I admired Gibbs and Dana to the north, Wood to the south, Koip’s gentle northeast face, and the Yosemite high country in the distance to the northwest. The register contained a few familiar names, mostly on summer outings combining this peak with Gibbs and other neighbors, and a handful of skiers. I lazed as long as I dared, then clicked in, mindful of the rapidly-softening upper face.

Road closed

The ski was surprisingly pleasant for so late in the year, with almost-too-soft snow on top, and softening runnels in the middle. The lower part was soft and becoming grabby, but not too bad. I hiked through the short brushy section, carefully skied through more brush and rocks, then got up as much speed as I could to glide across the no doubt rapidly-eroding snow bridge over the creek. I had originally planned to combine this southeast-facing line with the Z-couloir on Wood’s north face, but it was already hot and I was tired. The skin back out of the Parker Lake drainage was a grim mashed-potato slog, but it was worth it, as I was able to glide and skate to within less than a half-mile of the car. There were a few others out skiing who-knows-what, and occasional four-wheelers came by throughout the afternoon, only to get turned around almost immediately by the washout, but I had a mostly quiet and pleasant afternoon and evening. There is still a lot of snow in the Sierra, but it is rapidly deteriorating with the higher sun and warmer nights. As the snowpack transitions to suncups, timing and route selection are becoming more challenging.

Lost World Peak

Looks like a good ski

Lost World Peak is an unremarkable, unofficially-named bump between Valentine and Laurel Lakes near Mammoth. It came to my attention because it features a northwest-facing ski line which would turn to slush more slowly in the longer, warmer days, and sits next to several other peaks with short lines facing north and east. The facts that someone had put it on Peakbagger and it had been on the 2021 Sierra Challenge added marginally to its appeal, but it was mostly interesting because it was nearby. I had hoped to ski lines on several peaks in the Valentine Lake area, but ended up only doing two, Lost World and unnamed 11,784′ across the way.

Begin the ski

I slept across the way, then drove over to the Sherwin Creek Road in the morning, letting some impatient folks in a big truck with Jackson plates pass on their way to ski the Bloody Couloir. I parked near where the road was made impassable by snow, then walked another mile or so in ski boots before putting on skis to skin up the weird road/trail dead-ending between Sherwin and Laurel Creeks. Eventually leaving the road, I followed the path of least resistance and some old snowmobile tracks up to and past the wilderness boundary sign and into the proper drainage. I somehow trapped myself too high on the east side, and was forced to transition to downhill mode to slide into the bottom of the drainage on the icy snow, then put my skins back on to reach the lake.

Duck Pass and Ritter Range

Mildly frustrated, I skinned across Valentine Lake a bit, then continued up through more woods toward 11,784’s east face, which looked like a good moderate ski. I skinned up a ways, then booted straight up the lower part, passing an old bootpack along the way. I crossed through some bare krummholtz and rocks, which appeared unavoidable, then continued hiking to reach the summit, one of several rockpiles of similar height. The forecast west wind was already building, so I only briefly looked at the Duck Pass area and Ritter Range on the other side before transitioning and skiing back the way I had come, with two short stretches of good turns separated by a short rock-hop.

Bloody Couloir

Rather than continuing around to the northwest side of Lost World that I planned to ski, I coasted as far as I could, then booted straight up another couloir on the west face. This started out with some annoying class 2-3 rock, then became snow almost firm enough to require crampons. I saw some old ski tracks, but the line was too melted out, and in any case would lead me farther from home. Reaching the top, I dropped my skis to tag the summit, which has an excellent view of the Bloody Couloir. While I did not see my impatient friends, I think I saw their tracks.

Second ski line

I returned to my skis, then traversed around the east side of the peak on thin snow to enter the bowl I wanted to descend. The line had mostly turned to good corn, and I enjoyed a fast ski down to near treeline. From there I made a high traverse back toward my entry, dodging tree wells and branches through ever-softer snow. It was a struggle at times, but I managed to slide all the way to where I had begun skinning in the morning. I walked back to the car, made myself a snack and coffee, and hung out for the rest of the afternoon, before driving north in search of more warm-weather skiing.

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.

Ritter, Banner, Carson Bowl

Skinning across Thousand Island Lake

While the Sierra are known for their white or golden granite, the Ritter Range is made of a much older black metamorphic rock. The granite is generally solid and therefore draws climbers from around the world, but the Ritter rock is fractured and frequently frightening. I first climbed Ritter in 2010, via the route John Muir memorably described when writing about his first ascent of the peak:

Ritter from Banner

The tried dangers beneath seemed even greater than that of the cliff in front; therefore, after scanning its face again and again, I began to scale it, picking my holds with intense caution. After gaining a point about halfway to the top, I was suddenly brought to a dead stop, with arms outspread, clinging close to the face of the rock, unable to move hand or foot either up or down. My doom appeared fixed. I must fall. There would be a moment of bewilderment, and then a lifeless rumble down the one general precipice to the glacier below.

When this final danger flashed upon me, I became nerve-shaken for the first time since setting foot on the mountains, and my mind seemed to fill with a stifling smoke. But this terrible eclipse lasted only a moment, when life blazed forth again with preternatural clearness. I seemed suddenly to become possessed of a new sense. The other self, bygone experiences, Instinct, or Guardian Angel, — call it what you will, — came forward and assumed control. Then my trembling muscles became firm again, every rift and flaw in the rock was seen as through a microscope, and my limbs moved with a positiveness and precision with which I seemed to have nothing at all to do. Had I been borne aloft upon wings, my deliverance could not have been more complete.

I have since climbed most of the Minarets that form the southern part of the range, and with a few exceptions have been struck by their variable and unpredictable rock quality.

Mount Ritter itself is also a classic ski by its southeast glacier, normally approached from Mammoth Mountain via the road to Agnew Meadows. It can be done this way in a long day, but is notoriously unpleasant thanks to the frequently-boggy Meadows and a long road-slog back over Minaret Summit at the end of the day. So when John mentioned an alternative approach from June Lake, I was intrigued. Not only could I check a long-sought goal off my to-do list, but I might actually have fun doing so. Better still, John was willing to do it for a third time and, in classic style, wanted to add on Banner and Carson to fill out the day.

Dawn on Banner

With the stars thus aligned, we set off from the Fern Lake trailhead slightly after 3:00 AM. The Rush Creek trail is never useful: in the summer it is faster to walk up the cograil, while in the snow one can climb straight up left of the creek below Carson Peak. We hiked through the woods for a few minutes, then found the end of a slide path and put on crampons, efficiently gaining elevation while avoiding small cliffs by headlamp. We were looking for a low-angle route above Agnew Lake leading toward Agnew Pass, and found it without much difficulty. Unfortunately part of the west-facing traverse had been wind-blasted, exposing loose and shockingly unstable talus. Traversing this at night in ski boots was unpleasant, and the sound of the slope above me shifting when I stepped on some rocks was disconcerting. Fortunately this stretch was relatively short, and by the end of headlamp time we were skinning through rolling terrain toward the outlet of Thousand Island Lake.

San Joaquin poking through

From near Agnew Pass, we glided generally downhill toward the upper San Joaquin River, which was just beginning to poke out between deep snowbanks in a few places. We reached the lake just as the sun hit us, too late for perfect alpenglow photos of Banner’s impressive north face, but still appreciated the awesome scenery and deep snowpack as we skinned across the lake. We made a few transitions crossing Garnet and Whitebark Passes, finding some strenuous booting up the latter, then made our first good turns past the invisible Nydiver Lakes to Ritter’s base.

Pre-installed bootpack

By now the east-facing snow had been cooking for awhile, but fortunately there was a fresh skin-track and bootpack from the day before. A group of three skiers had apparently come in from Mammoth and suffered mightily, excavating a knee-deep trench up the first steep headwall. We gratefully took advantage of their work, sweating our way up to the flatter section where the pieces of glacier supposedly reside. We continued following the fresh skin-track up the far-left chute, taking off our skis to cross some final rocks to the upper face. Here we rested and admired the view; while the Minarets look like a single steep, rotten mass from this angle, Point 12,821′ and the pinnacles extending south of Ritter are striking. Farther south and down we could see Shadow, Ediza, and Cecile Lakes, all still solid white under snow.

Skinning upper face

We continued following the skin-track up the lower-angle upper face, eventually emerging on the summit ridge east of the peak. At last we could see Ritter’s precipitous north face, and the southwest chute we planned to ski on Banner, which looked in fine condition. We booted the final few feet to the summit, then set down our packs for an extended break. The peaks to the west around Foerster Peak were solid white, being on the leading edge of this snowiest section of the range, and we could see far down the San Joaquin and out to the west. We had vaguely contemplated skiing the north face directly to the Ritter-Banner saddle, and it seemed like there might be a line heading northwest, then booting back over a ridge, but I was not up for that level of steep and consequential skiing on hard snow, so we clicked in and returned the way we had come. With 3000 feet of elevation to lose on a variety of aspects, the skiing was variable, with heavy snow on the upper face, good corn in the east connecting chute and on the shaded side of the glacier, and deep sloughing glop lower down. A couple of skiers were just about to start up the lower headwall as we skied down it, but they wisely thought better of that after watching the small wet slides we kicked off.

Back at Ritter-Banner saddle

Sliding as far toward Banner as we could, we put skins back on for the long, hot, sheltered climb back to the Ritter-Banner saddle. I anticipated this being grim, but it felt surprisingly painless, perhaps because I was distracted by the scenery and company. The final climb through the choke next to Banner got a bit sketchy, with non-supportive slush over a hard crust, and I had to make a precarious transition to skis near the top to get enough support not to slide back from whence I came. From below, we confirmed that the north line on Ritter would go, but it looked less fun than what we had skied. From the saddle, we booted across some terribly slick talus to reach the southwest couloir. This was frustrating, as it would have been easy and mindless wearing running shoes in the summer. We must have looked like newborn colts stumbling across it in ski boots, and John took a solid fall, though he suffered no permanent damage.

Good turns on Banner

Once past the rubble, it was a straightforward boot to just below the summit, where we stashed our skis for a bit of boot-scrambling to the summit block. I was disappointed not to find the 2010 register from my first climb, but I signed the new one, and took an identical photo of Ritter’s north face, albeit with much more snow. Looking the other way, I could see all the way to Carson Peak and the head of Rush Creek, the white expanse of Thousand Island Lake, and the two thousand rugged feet of Banner’s steep north face. By now the sun had cooked the southwest-facing chute, so the ski down was soft but not yet sticky. Unlike John’s previous two times, the constriction at the base of the chute was filled in, presenting little difficulty.

Banner and San Joaquin

We continued northwest to Lake Catherine, finding good skiing beneath Banner’s north face, then had a gloppy skate across the lake to North Glacier Pass. The south side of the pass was scoured mostly bare, but the slope on the other side was buried, and we had a fast ski back to Thousand Island Lake, in my case marred by a wipeout when I caught an edge on the somewhat grabby snow. Though it was strenuous to skate back across the lake, it was much faster than skinning, and avoided a transition before descending the upper San Joaquin back west.

Carson Bowl view

Finally switching to skins, we roughly followed the summer trail back to Agnew Pass, gaining a long ridge and plateau leading back toward Carson Peak. We were over twelve hours into the day, and I was beginning to feel worn down, with tired legs, sore feet, and a probably-burnt nose. There was one final battle with krummholtz and scree beyond the pass, as the southwest side of the ridge had been melted and scoured. This part began to feel endless, and a final descent and 300-foot climb to the head of the Carson Bowl had us both retreating into our own heads.

Devil’s Slide

The view from the head of the bowl, however, instantly cheered us up. June Lake is at the southern end of an odd valley with exits at both ends, wrapping around Reversed Peak. From this vantage, it looks almost like a photo taken with a fisheye lens, and the afternoon light on the lakes, with Mono Lake in the distance, gave the terrain more definition and warm colors. The bowl had just gone back into the shade, and the slightly-refrozen snow made for fine skiing. The traverse around right to the head of Devil’s Slide was slightly obnoxious, but we were both blown away by the perfect corn in the 1500-foot gully. From the top of the bowl to the avalanche debris at the base was twenty minutes of the day’s best skiing. I hardly even noticed my fatigue or the subsequent minor swamp-thrash back to the trailhead. We savored the day for awhile, then John took off to drive back to the Bay Area, while I happily crawled into my car for the evening.


Hilgard and Gabb

Mount Gabb is a fairly remote peak near Lake Italy in the middle of the Sierra south of Bear Creek Spire. It is uninteresting in the classic Sierra way, an alternation of blocky fins and loose gullies with no particularly easy or difficult route to its summit. The obvious summer route, which I had done on a backpack in 2013, slogs up one of the gullies from Lake Italy. Casting about for other remote regions of the Sierra to visit, I thought about the view of Hilgard and Gabb from Feather, and decided upon Lake Italy. I initially though to reach it from Pine Creek via Italy Pass, but upon hearing that the Rock Creek road was (finally!) open to the sno-park, I chose to come in from there via the Hourglass Couloir instead. This route is slightly longer, but starts higher, and the five miles of road to the summer trailhead are usually semi-groomed and fast.

Progress is slow

I drove up to the road closure the evening before, noted that I was supposed to have a sno-park permit before May 31, and neglected to buy one. I detest these sorts of nickel-and-dime fees for unspecified services: am I paying for the road to get plowed? Bribing the plow-driver not to bury my car? Buying insurance against being trapped by fresh snow? In any case, the rule does not seem to be enforced, and like the despicable “National Forest Adventure Pass” in southern California, it seems questionably legal. I had a cold but quiet night, woke to a dusting of fresh snow, and started comfortably after first light.

Summer trailhead

The challenging plowing had progressed only slightly since my last visit, with a stretch beyond the gate widened to two lanes and extended another few hundred yards. It is difficult work, with a grader cutting the snow down so a blower can remove the final few feet, and several avalanches had buried the road in a mix of ice-balls and trees, further complicating the task. The avalanches and partly-finished plowing made skinning challenging, but much of the upper road was fast and efficient. Reaching the summer trailhead, I found only the tops of the dumpster and vault toilet visible, and the trailhead sign completely buried. I followed an old skin-track along the summer trail, then left it to cross the lakes and follow their connecting stream up the valley. The Rock Creek valley is remarkably flat, making for a fast, easy skin up, but a challenging glide and skate down.

Correct col (l) and Hourglass (r)

I crossed Long Lake, then climbed more consistently through the Treasure Lakes toward the Hourglass Couloir. I found a fair amount of fresh powder in the couloir, allowing me to skin quite a ways up in switchbacks before putting my skis on my pack to boot the final section. I skinned around the large bowl in the saddle, then scouted the serrated ridge between Dade and Pipsqueak Spire for the way down the other side. I did not remember any difficulties when passing the other way on my summer backpack, but found the steep southern side challenging in ski boots on snowy rock. I skinned back and forth a bit, then dropped my pack to scout, finding a usable downclimb to the summer route near the lowpoint.

Abbot and Dade from Gabb

I made a few careful turns on the south side of the col, which was somewhat scoured and not at all powdery, then made a long traverse toward Gabbot Pass. Looking across the valley, I noted some fresh ski tracks leading down from near Italy Pass and up toward the saddle between Bear Creek and Pipsqueak Spires, which I belatedly realized was the “correct” route between Rock Creek and Lake Italy. I slid as far as I could, then put skins back on to make a long traverse past Gabbot Pass to the right-hand chute of Gabb. I started booting up the chute, but it was steeper than I had expected, with a hard layer underneath the fresh snow, and I eventually had to make a precarious transition to crampons. The upper chute was steep, but entirely manageable with spikes on my feet, and I reached the top without much trouble. I was surprised to find an old boot-pack coming from the southeast, and followed it for awhile before stashing my skis to clamber over the rocks to the summit.

Gabb after slide

The Mills-Abbot-Dade crest was impressively sheer, while Bear Creek Spire looked less impressive from its sloping west side. I saw that the col between it and Pipsqueak was gentler than the one I had taken, but also higher and farther away, and decided to return the way I had come. First, though, I had to get down the east side of Gabb, which had been baking in the sun all morning. I slid down the ridge a bit, determined that my ascent route was the best option, and made a few experimental turns. There was the expected wet slough, but nothing too concerning, so I continued making turns down the chute. Partway down, I looked left and noticed that I had started a decent-sized avalanche that was overtaking me, and had to take evasive maneuvers, straight-lining to gain some speed and get ahead of it, then turning sharply right to let it pass, starting another small side and awkwardly sitting down in the process. I waited for things to settle, then continued down the now cleaner slope and followed my traversing path back toward home.

Hourglass tracks

I skinned up to the base of the col, then carefully booted to the top, finding a cairn marking the correct summer route. From there it was a slow traverse around the bowl, then fun turns in heavy powder down the Hourglass. The fresh snow was getting sticky lower down, and I had trouble maintaining crucial momentum to get over the small rises heading down the valley. Even riding my tails through the grabby snow, I had to herringbone and sidestep to get through several places. Fortunately the lakes were firmer, so I was able to skate strenuously but quickly across them. The road down from the summer trailhead was quick and painless until I reached the grader. From there to the car, however, it was a choice between carefully picking my way through churned-up snowbanks on skis, and tediously clomping down the road in boots. The 23-mile outing took exactly ten hours, another useful datapoint in my quest to learn what is reasonably in a day on skis.

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.

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.

Twin Peak

Palisades from fishing pond

With more confidence and daylight, and the Glacier Lodge road plowed all the way to the summer trailhead, I could expand the radius of my ambition deeper into the Sierra. I had been thinking of making a loop through the Palisades via Southfork and Scimitar Passes, which would take me to their spectacular and remote “back side.” Then I realized that Southfork Pass, an impassible horror of hard-packed dirt during most summers, would be an efficient way to reach “Twin Peak” just east of Mather Pass, was one of the handful of Sierra 13ers I had yet to climb. I had tried to reach it a couple of times from Red Lake, but given up on that long slog for lack of time or energy.

Clouds on Middle Palisade

I drove up to the trailhead from the valley again, and met a few more skiers milling around as I started. Though it was still skis on from the parking lot, the route through the summer homes was becoming trickier as flattened bushes and broken awnings emerged from the snow. I skinned the familiar route up to Willow Lake, then turned left in the general direction of Southfork Pass. The tops of the peaks were obscured by clouds while it was clear above, demonstrating the typically sharp rain-shadow of the Sierra Crest.

Palisades and Willow Lake

The terrain is somewhat complex, with several ancient glacial valleys forming steep-sided basins sometimes separated by the fins of former nunataks. Southfork lies at the head of the easternmost basin, but the most natural path climbs to Brainerd Lake, then up a headwall and past a couple of small unnamed lakes. I had to boot the headwall, and briefly take off my skis to cross a rock rib back to the east, but was mostly able to skin the terrain. Clouds swirled around the forked pass as I approached, but it was not cold or windy enough to be unpleasant.

Approaching Southfork

There are two chutes leading to the crest at the head of the valley, and I chose the one to the left, which I think is the “official” pass. I skinned as far as I could to the right of the chute, then cramponed the rest of the way. The north-facing slope was covered in heavy and somewhat wind-packed fresh snow poorly bonded a hard layer, and the upper snow would sometimes slide off in small slabs. There was not enough to cause problems on the way up, but I noted it as a possible nuisance for the return.

Palisade Lakes

Looking over the Sierra crest, I saw that the peaks on the other side were mostly cut off by clouds, from Bolton Brown to the south, around to the unnamed peaks on the other side of the Palisade Lakes. I awkwardly walked down some rubble carrying my skis, then clicked in to awkwardly slide toward Mather Pass. The snow was too cold to soften, with a bit of powder over spiky old crust, and the flat light made it treacherous to go fast, as it was hard to see changes in texture or even significant rolls. I tried to maintain elevation as best I could, aiming to come in high around Point 12,834′ and skip the pass.

Mather Pass from Twin

Rather than trying to slide or skin across a hard west-facing slope, I put my skis on my back and cramponed around the point, then kept walking across the plateau toward my peak. A GPS track I had downloaded suggested heading up Twin’s east face, but I saw a nice north-facing couloir leading more directly toward the summit plateau. I found some nice, stable powder as I climbed the chute, promising at least a bit of fun skiing. The summit plateau was as icy and textured as I expected, but at least that made for easy walking as I continued to the summit. The tops of the peaks were still mostly in the clouds, but I got occasional views of Ruskin and Vennacher Needle, and of Split’s badly scoured north face.

Ski tracks

I had taken less time than expected to reach the summit, so I thought about more adventurous routes home. Twin’s east face looked like a decent ski, and from the base I could climb over Bolton Brown and ski down its gentle northeast bowl. However that would mean missing the powder chute I had just climbed, so I opted to retrace my route with a slight deviation over the saddle between Bolton Brown and 12,834′. The summit plateau was a wretched, chattery ski, but the chute was as fun as I had hoped for someone like me with little practice powder skiing. I made a series of fairly uniform s-turns for the benefit of photos looking back from across the bowl.

Returning to Southfork

I just manage to climb the south side of the next saddle without crampons, and was relieve to find that the other side, which had been in the clouds when I crossed Southfork Pass, did not cliff out. However it had rolls and variable snow, making it tricky in the flat light, and I managed to eat it when I hit an unseen ice-ball. I wiped off my sunglasses as best I could, then continued more cautiously, contouring high and right toward Southfork Pass. I considered another extracurricular trip over the unnamed pass south of the Thumb, down to Birch Lake, then back over between Kid and Big Kid, but dismissed it as too much effort for the sake of mediocre skiing.

Looking back from Southfork

Finally returning to Southfork Pass in the afternoon, I was surprised to see two skiers making their way up the valley just below its base. I made cautious turns down the couloir, making sure that they were out of the direct line of fire as I sent some minor sloughs their way. I slowed near a sort of bergschrund partway down the slope, then slid by to its west and stopped by one of the skiers. They were headed over the pass for a few days and still deciding what to ski; I told them what I had found, and suggested they come out over Scimitar Pass.

I took off down the powder slope, making fun turns until I reached the open valley, where the spiky ice resumed. I chattered my way down-valley, staying high and right for variety. Partway down, I decided it might be fun to ski the headwall taken by the summer trail rather than the familiar gully below Willow Lake. This required some skating and side-stepping, but was well worth it, as I found my first genuinely fun corn skiing of the day on the lower east-facing slope, and was able to make huge, sweeping turns into the valley. I sped down toward the summer homes, carefully picked my way through the trees, then walked from the bridge back to my car. There were a few more cars in the lot, whose owners returned as I ate and relaxed, but it was hardly crowded. I thought about various things I could ski from the same trailhead the next day, but nothing inspired me enough to stay, so I headed back to town to get online, then out to the desert to sleep and prepare for what I mistakenly thought would be an easier objective on the morrow.