Category Archives: California


The ski slope

Where Mount Wood is the skinning man’s Mammoth-adjacent ski area, Kid Mountain is the equivalent down the grade. Lying just across Big Pine Creek from the Glacier Lodge road, it offers about 4000 feet of moderate north-facing skiing in several wide gullies. Like its neighbor “Big Kid” to the west, it is a miserable sand slog in the summer, which is why I had not yet done it. I had been saving it for an easy day, but ended up doing it on a day when I was well-rested and in the area. To make it a full outing and hopefully allow the north-facing slopes to soften, I went up the north side, then down and back up the southeast side that drains into Little Pine Creek.

The big slide

It was cold and I was in no hurry, so I slept down in the valley and drove up in the morning. There were a couple of other cars in the lot, but it looked like I would have the hill to myself. A county worker drove up to start the road grader as I started walking from the winter trailhead, but then got back into his truck and left the machine running. I hiked the road to the big slide bridging Big Pine Creek, then put on skins to cross the mass of avalanche debris below the main ski chute. The massive wet slide destroyed a number of trees, and left enough compacted snow to likely bridge the creek until summer.

Looking up Little Pine Creek

The snow on the face was ominously icy and textured, but I thought little of it as I skinned and then cramponed up the slope, since it would be hours before I had to ski back down. I reached the crest slightly east of the summit, and wove my way through a few exposed rock outcrops to the highpoint. I appreciated the view of the “real” Palisades for awhile, partly obscured by Kid’s higher neighbor to the west, then clicked in and went in search of good snow to the southeast. I was amazed and disappointed to find more of the same “rumble strip” snow as on the north face, and cut back and forth trying to find a softer aspect. I only found better skiing a couple thousand feet down, where the face turns into an east-facing gully at the head of Little Pine Creek. I made some fun turns, then stopped on a promontory between two creek branches, put on my skins, and headed back the way I had come.

Lots of this

I took a slightly different line on the way up, skipping the summit and cresting the shoulder just east of the main descent gully. Unfortunately the snow on the ridge was still to hard and cold, as was that on the way down, even on the slightly east-facing side of the gully. I practiced leaning into my boot and aggressively carving my turns to hold an edge and limit chattering, which was exhausting and not particularly fun, but probably helped my form. Only toward the bottom, where I found a more easterly slope, did the snow soften to corn. I slid back to the road, put my skis on my pack, and started clomping back to the car. Partway there, I was passed by a Jeep, and realized that the county had opened the road while I was gone. Part of me was annoyed to have mistimed this outing by a day, but now I knew that, with a shorter approach, I could go deeper in the Palisades in the future.

Dana Plateau

Down second chute, across to Kidney

The Dana Plateau is an odd feature of the Sierra just south of Tioga Pass. Its north and east sides are a steep alternation of pillars and gullies, including the popular climb the Third Pillar of Dana. To the southwest, it is cut off from the landmark Mount Dana by a shallow glacial valley. On top, it is a broad talus plateau gently rising to a minor highpoint at its southeast end, before dropping to the Kidney Lake cirque at the head of Gibbs Canyon. When filled with snow, the gullies on its east and southeast sides are popular ski descents, the most popular being Coke Chute on the east, and Kidney Chute on the southeast.

Dawn on Mono Lake

With highs in the Owens Valley in the 80s, I had escaped to the area between Mammoth and Yosemite, where the base of the peaks is a few thousand feet higher. The summits are also a bit lower, but there is still 5-6 thousand feet of relief, much of it skiable. While I had climbed the Dana Couloir, I had never visited the Plateau, so I found a tour online starting below the Tioga Pass road, ascending Coke Chute, dropping down Kidney Chute to Kidney Lake, then traversing back around to the start. I hoped that, with an early start, the southeast-facing Kidney Chute would be just about ripe when I hit it mid-morning.

Pillars of Dana

This was a weekend, so while mine was the only car when I parked, I was not surprised to have company when I woke. The “V bowl” had been easy to spot on the drive in, but it was convenient to have a conga line of headlamps to aim for on my predawn skin. I crossed the convenient bridge, then wandered through the woods to the base of the bowl, where regular avalanches had cleared the slope. I found a zigzag skin track to follow, and was grateful for it as the snow was surprisingly hard despite the warm forecast. I had to boot a short choke near the top, but eventually emerged on the “Dana Pre-Plateau,” a flat area below the main pillars.

Skiers in Coke Chute

Ahead, I saw the group who had started earlier making their way up what I presumed was Coke Chute. It seemed like the obvious way to reach the plateau, but I was glad to have them to follow, as to me it looked nothing like a Coke bottle or anything related to cocaine, other than being white. I skinned for awhile, then put on crampons around where I caught the stragglers. I was not feeling overly sociable, but did spend some time talking to the man in charge of the expedition. He clearly knew Sierra skiing better than I did, and had also been to South America to ski, so we had plenty to discuss. I took off when he waited for the others, cramponing up the surprisingly steep exit to the left.

Scramble to highpoint

The Plateau was badly wind-scoured, and I had to walk over some bare rocks before weaving my way through wind-moguls toward the upper right corner. Someone had added “Dana Plateau Highpoint” to Peakbagger, so I had a tempting red dot to turn green. It was early for skiing, so I also thought about continuing to Dana, then skiing back down its south face. However the final ridge to the red dot involved some exposed third class, which was tricky enough in ski boots even without my skis on my back. I dropped my pack, scrambled to the highpoint, then returned to find a reasonable platform to drop down the east-facing slope into Kidney Chute. The initial descent had warmed to perfection, and I even found some old ski tracks. The main chute had more tracks, but was still a bit firmer than ideal. Still, I managed to find some good skiing on the warmer right side, eventually coasting into the cirque above the lake.

Kidney Lake and second chute

Having skipped Dana, I had lots of time for my second alternate plan, a north-facing chute across the lake leading to another red dot near Mount Gibbs. I returned to crampons and started up, finding the snow hard and still shaded. I have a decent sense for when various aspects will soften enough for fun skiing, but have yet to perfect my timing, often arriving too early. I hoped at least the upper bowl would have softened, but found that it was still a wintry mixture of chalk and windboard. I jogged right, then back left, and emerged maybe a hundred yards from the summit.

Cathedral Range and Tuolomne

I tried to take as much time as I could on top to let the snow soften, taking in the views of the Ritter and Cathedral Ranges and Tuolomne Meadows, but eventually got impatient. The snow was therefore harder than ideal in the upper bowl and chute, though it was just about perfect on the north-facing slope above the lake. It quickly turned to patches of bottomless slush on the traverse back around the base of the Dana Plateau, where I had to skin for awhile to regain elevation. It might have been better to reclimb Kidney Chute and descend Coke Chute, but I did not think of it at the time. Instead I dropped down a pleasant bowl south of the V bowl, angling left through the trees as the slush got deeper. With a final bit of survival skiing, I returned to the base of the V, then followed tracks to the bridge. Another group had just returned from skiing the chute right of the Third Pillar, and we talked briefly before they inexplicably went off to bathe in the stream. There may have been a heat wave, but I do not know how warm it would have to be for me to want to jump into a creek with multiple feet of snow on either side.


Labeled summit pano

A single ski day at Mammoth Mountain now costs $210; a day at June Mountain, its smaller neighbor to the north, costs $190. Even skinning up Mammoth will set you back $80. Those of us among the 99 percent with a bit of energy therefore head farther north to Mount Wood, the people’s ski resort, where a day of skiing costs about $2 in peanut butter sandwiches. Wood boasts about 5000 feet of skin-served vertical directly off the June Lake Road, with a number of runs of varying difficulty on its east face. Skiing Wood will not give you the same bragging rights as skiing Red Slate or Laurel, but it is actually fun enough to do more than once.

Carson from the skin track

I drove into the June Lake Loop road relatively late and found that, consistent with the CalTrans website, the road was gated three miles past the “town.” I was worried about being forbidden from sleeping at the gate — as the number of people doing that here has grown, so has the prevalence of “no camping” signs — but there were already two other cars with skiers obviously bedding down, so I pulled off the highway, prepared my pack, and set my alarm for “early” to catch the east-facing line in good condition. I ended up starting out before the others, walking about a mile of road before putting on my boots and skis to skin directly from the trailhead just past the mobile home park. The snow was fairly crusty, and there was some slide debris to navigate, but I managed to make it quite a ways up before switching to boots, and was pleased to find supportive snow.

Wood bowls

I continued up and northwest toward the plain between Wood and Grant Benchmark, eventually spotting the main bootpack in one of Wood’s bowls. The steps were sometimes uneven and usually too small, so I had fun finding rhythms of skipping steps on the way up. The climb did not look long from below, but it gains about 1800 feet to the ridge, so it took me awhile. Where the bowl was interrupted by some wind-scoured talus, the bootpack headed left to join the south ridge below the summit. I continued booting up, dropping my skis at the end of the snow to cross some rocks to the tip of the south ridge. Wood’s actual summit lay farther west along a wind-scoured plateau, and I had already visited it during the Sierra Challenge many years ago, so I did not bother walking over to touch it again. I did, however, realize that I wanted to ski a softer and steeper chute directly down the east side, so I had to walk back and fetch my skis.

Ritter Range

I clicked in right on the crest, then made some tentative turns into the upper bowl to test out the snow. The top was still a bit too firm, but the snow became pleasant lower down as the chute narrowed. Unfortunately this line was close to melting out in the middle, with one pinch between rocks only a bit over a ski-length wide, but most of it was enjoyable, and I reached the bottom with plenty of time and energy for another lap. Another pair of skiers was just switching from skins to boots at the base of the stairs, but I slid in ahead of them, not bothering with crampons on the well-established tread. This time I skied from where the bootpack reaches the south ridge, finding the snow still not quite ready on top, but perfect lower down where I passed the others. The lower 3000 feet were almost pure fun on moderate slopes, with the corn only becoming sticky and thin in the final few hundred feet.

Mono Lake

The road had been closed when I left, but there were non-official cars on it when I returned, and I immediately realized that my timing had been off by a day. The loop road was open, and people were parking along the shoulder to take pictures of mostly-frozen Silver Lake. I thought about switching back to my running shoes, then decided to just clomp back to the car in boots. Partway, I caught up to a friendly guy out for a walk, who struck up a conversation. He was a salesman from near San Diego, who regularly came up to the Eastern Sierra, and was impressed by this year’s record snowpack. Things were going normally until the conversation took an abrupt turn into the religious ditch. I tried to gently steer it back on course, with no success, but he was friendly and well-meaning. We all have our obsessions. At least he was much easier to listen to than the naked right-wing conspiracy theorist at the hot springs. Who knew that circumcision was the first step in the Jews’ plan to turn us all transgendered?

Red Slate couloir

Entire line – traverse and chute

Red Slate Mountain’s north couloir is one of the Sierra’s classic ski lines, and a moderate Fall ice climb as well. I had climbed the couloir many years ago after another big winter, and stared at it from other nearby summits, most recently Laurel Mountain. With temperatures soaring ten degrees above normal in the coming days, I wanted to ski it before its long approach melted out more, so I drove up to Convict Lake again and readied my pack and gear. There was a large, shiny truck parked in the lot, and I pulled in at a respectable distance to give it and its owner some space. (Trailhead parking and urinal use follow similar spacing rules.) The lake, which I had easily skied across two weeks earlier, was still mostly covered with ice, but that was blue and slushy, and there was enough open water at the near side for boats to be floating at the dock. Spring fishing is serious business in the Sierra: it is why the roads get plowed in April, and why businesses put out banners advertising beer and insects.

First view of Red Slate

As usual, I was unsure when to start the next morning: on the one hand, it is around eight miles to the base of the couloir, and the snow would be badly slushy by early afternoon; on the other, the couloir itself is north-facing, and would either hold wintry snow, or need late-morning sun to soften; on the third, the scary traditional entry traverses the east face above cliffs, and so would receive sun all morning. I ended up getting going around 5:00, and my neighbor, who was ready around the same time, asked to join me for the ski in. I was nonplussed, being a hermit used to the company of like-minded people, but figured “why not,” and enjoyed the company walking around the dry north side of the lake. Alex turned out be a ski guide who had traveled widely, including to South America in their Spring to ski around Bariloche and elsewhere, so we had plenty in common to talk about. I later found out that he is an accomplished skier with a nascent blog, which I will be mining for ski ideas around Tahoe and elsewhere.

Pinner looking manky

The snow started toward the far end of the lake, where I switched to ski boots and began skinning. I briefly spoke to a group of four who planned to ski the Pinner Couloir on Laurel, and wished them luck. Alex had gone ahead, but I soon caught him, as he was carrying a huge overnight pack, and together we struggled through some more bare ground and avalanche debris, then started skiing in earnest near Laurel’s base. I left him in the woods beyond, as I wanted to be skiing at a decent hour, while he had a whole day to travel half the distance. I glanced at the Pinner Couloir as I passed, and was glad not to be skiing it, as it was a mix of ice and avalanche debris.

Top of chute

I had only been this way in the summer, when a never-to-be-repaired bridge can make for a challenging stream crossing, but the valley was still deeply filled in, so it was instead an easy skin to Lake Dorothy. Beyond, I followed an old skin track up toward Lake Wit-So-Nah-Pah, staying on the ridge above it through the awkwardly rolling terrain, then crossing a bit of Constance Lake before climbing to the base of the couloir. There was a bergschrund opening up at its base, as is the case with so many Sierra couloirs this season, but it was well-bridged on the left. The snow was still far too firm to make for pleasant skiing, but I hoped it would soften during my long climb to the summit. I put on crampons, then followed bits of old boot-pack up the broad slope. I am only one of the wave of backcountry skiers flooding the Eastern Sierra this Spring (I feel like such a tourist — sorry!), so many of the guidebook lines are well-used or skied out.

West side exit

Finally reaching the top of the main couloir, I peered onto the east face, and my stomach sank. The traverse to reach the couloir is probably no steeper than parts of some couloirs I have skied this Spring, but it ends in cliffs, and is split by several sharp snow-ridges. Its surface had warmed to slush, and while it did not slough when I poked at it, I was not eager to traverse across it. Still, I wanted to reach the summit one way or another. I had already climbed well above the right-hand exit to the west face, so I stuffed my poles between my pack and back, and scrambled across the crumbly rock above it. This was probably every bit as treacherous as skiing the east face in its own way, as a broken foothold would have sent me down the couloir with no chance of stopping, but chossineering is my game, and I am confident moving cautiously in crampons on bad rock and snow. Once on the west face, I crossed a mixture of snow and rubble, then cramponed up a low-angle snowfield to the summit plateau.

Silver Peak

Red Slate stands well above its surroundings, offering fine views of the Ritter Range, Silver Divide, and the peaks around Rock Creek. It also apparently has south-facing ski lines down its south side toward McGee Pass and Fish Creek. They were probably about right to ski now, and a delay would only improve the couloir, but I was not feeling the energy to drop down and climb back up. I walked out to the east, as others had done, to check out the east face. I saw recent ski tracks on it, and the entry did not look too bad, but I was feeling more timid than ambitious. I wasted time on the summit until I became impatient, then walked back down the west side to the couloir entry to begin skiing.

Convict melting out

The first part was steep, narrow, and fairly scraped off, and I timidly side-slipped it before making turns into the main chute. This would probably have skied better later in the day, when it had received as much sun as possible to soften its scraped-off surface, but it was still a decent ski on its left, sunnier side. I traversed right to cross the bergschrund, then back left and high to maintain momentum for the rolling traverse to Dorothy Lake. The east-facing slopes down in the woods had already turned to nasty slush, but fortunately the lake itself was supportive as I skated across. I enjoyed the best conditions of the day on my way back down the valley, passing a couple of people skinning up late to do… something. I tried traversing high on the south side of Convict Lake, following a ski track across several slide paths and eventually running out of elevation shortly before the snowed-in road. From there it was several ski transitions and some strenuous skating to the car.

Palisades (L-shaped snowfield and Clyde couloir)

Others climbing couloir

Mentally dead from the early morning and long day on Split Mountain, I drove back up to Glacier Lodge to pack and sleep, planning to figure out something to do in the South Fork the next morning. Sam turned out to have chosen the same trailhead, but with much more definite and ambitious plans. I made noncommittal noises about joining him, then fell asleep early. I was ready to go at 5:00 the next morning, but missed him by a few minutes, and only saw him in the distance as I skinned up to Willow Lake. I had noticed someone behind me earlier, who turned out to be John, headed up on his first visit to this excellent corner of the Sierra. I had settled on skinning up to South Fork Pass and looping over Balcony Peak, but he had other ideas, and soon convinced me to head in the other direction, toward the couloir between Norman Clyde and Mount Williams, its neighbor to the north.

Terrain below Jepson

In classic John fashion, he subsequently convinced me to head over to Gayley notch and, once there, to climb the L-shaped snowfield that forms the lower part of the route up Mount Sill. The route to the notch is probably brushy and rocky in summer, but was mostly easy when covered in snow. We skinned up a valley heading west below Contact Pass until we left the trees, then made our way through the rolling terrain below the sheer east side of the Palisades between Palisade Crest and Sill. There was one stretch of precarious side-hilling, but it was otherwise mellow, and looked like a fun ski on the return south.

Palisades from Apex Peak

We sweated our way up to the notch, where we were hit by a chill wind, then continued booting up the snowfield. The snow was a mixture of crust and chalk, promising interesting skiing on the return. From the notch, I noted that the crux of the route up Sill, a traverse leading to the west ridge, looked exposed but not particularly difficult with the snow, possibly offering single-day access to the bowl between Polemonium and Sill. Dropping our skis, we took a brief jaunt over to “Apex Peak,” a minor bump offering a superb view of the northern Palisades and the Palisade Glacier. While the glacier itself was absolutely buried, the chutes leading into it looked unpleasantly hard, the U-notch had a fairly serious bergschrund. I was glad not to be with Sam and his friend, who hoped to ski these chutes later in the day.

Short hike to Apex

Returning to our skis, we made some fun turns down the snowfield, then turned right into the short couloirs leading down from the saddle. I chose a closer, steeper one, while John took one farther down that was probably more fun. We had expected perfect corn on the generally east-facing rollers back toward the Clyde Glacier, but the snow was variable, mixing excellent skiing with patches of unripe crust. I was worried about cliffing out on the final decent to the moraine, but the mini-cliffs proved easy to avoid. In a bit of accidental good timing, we arrived just as Jason was headed out, and the irrepressible John soon convinced him to head up the Clyde couloir.

View through the notch

The snow in the north-facing valley of the Clyde Glacier had been an annoying breakable crust over an ice-hard surface when I visited Scimitar Pass, and it had not improved much in the subsequent week. We skinned until that became precarious, then switched to booting, taking advantage of another of Sam’s excellent boot-packs. I was increasingly grateful for the step as I got higher into the couloir, as the upper part was filled with genuine powder, and the pack became more of a winter-style trench. I slowly ground my way up the long couloir and, with a final awkward high-step, wallowed into the notch to wait for the others. I had expected the wind to whip through this narrow gap, as it had when I climbed Williams in the summer some years ago, but it was somehow sheltered and fairly pleasant. The walls of the other side perfectly framed a view of Palisade Basin, Observation Peak, and the Kings in the distance.


The others joined me, and we hung out for a bit before contemplating the ski down. They seemed over-concerned about the lip at the top, so I offered to go first, thinking that I would launch off and style it. In my haste and arrogance, though, I failed to lock my boots into ski mode, so as soon as I hit the surface below, I pitched forward and fell. The couloir was steep, but fortunately filled with heavy powder, so instead of anything serious happening, I merely engaged in a couple hundred feet of slow-motion flailing before I got my skis below me and came to a stop. I locked my boots, wiped off my sunglasses, and proceeded with a bit more caution, making tight turns and sliding to one side to rest out of the others’ debris as they followed.

Fun skiing on Clyde Glacier moraines

I took the wrong line higher up on the glacier below, but eventually found good corn, and sped down the valley to the base of Buck Mountain in sweeping, playful turns. The snow was turning to sticky slush here, making for a strenuous skate across Willow Lake, and had fully deteriorated below the South Fork headwall. I struggled not to get sucked into the isothermal morass on the way down to the valley bottom, then stayed as high as possible before dropping down through the summer cabins to the road. The first 3/4 of a mile from the winter closure had been plowed, and other parts higher up were rapidly melting out. We transitioned on and off skis a few times, then gave up and walked the rest of the way to the cars. Jason had to return to SoCal that evening, a drive I remembered well from my early Sierra days, while John and I had time to hang out awhile. He was, of course, thinking of things to ski the next day, but I needed some time away from ski boots and high-altitude snow-amplified sun.

Split (south face)

North summit from south

Split Mountain, formerly South Palisade is the southernmost fourteener in the Palisades, named for its twin summits and the long couloir that splits them. While I had been to its higher northern summit a number of times, I had never visited the southern one, so I was doubly interested when I read about John skiing the peak’s south face from that point. I had been hoping to ski the line at some point this Spring, but the difficulty of approaching it made me hesitate. The normal Red Lake trailhead is even more difficult to reach than normal, with the definitely-legal McMurray Meadows Road badly damaged by runoff, and the probably-not-legal but much easier road from Tinemaha Campground somewhat more blocked off than before. Another alternative approach comes from the Taboose Pass road, but involves about five miles on an even worse road. Biking that with skis on my back would probably take most of an hour from where my car can reach, adding significantly to an already-long day, so when John said he was interested in skiing it again, and had a friend with a truck to drive the road, I jumped at the chance.

Skinning up lower drainage

I slept at a pullout near the end of where I could drive the Taboose road, then met the others around 3:30 the next morning, when we all piled into Jason’s Tacoma for the final trailhead drive. The main road is bad enough, and things became much worse once we turned off onto the side road. The sandy soil would have been a problem on a bike, while the main obstacles for a car were the large embedded rocks and narrow passages between woody desert brush. John had to jump out and spot frequently, and the truck’s silly rigid mudflaps took several hits, but we eventually made it to the end of the road, with much less effort and slightly less time than it would have taken to ride. (The driving was made more challenging by the fact that the modern Tacoma, following the trend of ever-angrier-looking trucks, has a huge grill and decorative air scoop, blocking the driver’s view of the road.)

Entering Cardinal cirque

Fortunately John had done the approach before, and led us on an efficient path across the desert, staying low until we entered the Red Lake drainage. We stayed on the south side of the creek until we encountered continuous snow, then put on skis at the end of headlamp time. Surprisingly, we had seen a cluster of headlamps ahead on the other side, from a group probably skiing the Saint Jean Couloir above Red Lake. We skinned up the main drainage for awhile, then turned left at a fork heading into the cirque between Split and Cardinal Mountains. I had never been this way, as there is no trail and the valley is likely choked with manzanita, but travel was easy on the consolidated snow. The area around Split is notable for its varied and colorful rock, with a black cap on top of the typical Sierra granite, and various intrusions of red and orange as well. As usual with colorful Sierra rock, the non-granite is terrible choss, but it did make for great scenery as we skinned up the valley over endless moraines.

Booting with Cardinal behind

As the south face route finally came into view, we saw that it was close to melting out, with a small exposed rock band halfway up that we would have to work around to the west. We put our skis on our backs at the base, and began booting up the final 2500 feet to the summit. Sam, younger and more energetic than Yours Truly, took step-stomping duty at first, moving at a steady pace and creating a consistent boot-pack. We found bits of an old pack here and there to follow, but it was frequently either too buried or melted out to use. Jason, feeling the effects of altitude, began lagging, while the sun was rapidly softening the south-facing slope, so the rest of us decided to climb as quickly as possible and catch him on the way down. I eventually took over boot-packing duties higher up, climbing some in a runnel, then exiting right for a final steep bit of climbing to the lower right-hand summit and finally traversing to the south peak.

Arrow, Ruskin, Vennacher Needle

Looking toward the north summit, we could see some old tracks from parties skiing the separating Split Couloir, which requires a rappel at the best of times and is no longer in condition. To the west, Upper Basin was absolutely buried in snow, as was the line of peaks between Mount Ruskin and Vennacher Needle. This part of the High Sierra is relatively narrow, so from our perch on the crest we could see down the deep South Fork of the Kings toward its exit at the west side of the range. It was a panorama worth enjoying, but we had to move before the snow deteriorated further.

Lower on south face

Sam started down first, traversing right before dropping down one of several shallow chutes to the main south face. The snow was not ideal, with patches of slush over ice-hard crust, but still generally good enough to offer fun skiing. We picked our way down the face, hunting for the best skiing, picking up Jason partway down. It was only around noon, so Sam wanted to ski another northeast-facing line on Cardinal, while the rest of us were less enthusiastic. He took off across the rolling bowl between the two peaks, while the rest of us carved down the valley through excellent corn.

Booting bonus couloir

Jason, recovering from mild altitude sickness, was emphatically done for the day, but John spotted another line on Cardinal’s east ridge, and I was easily persuaded into a bit of extracurricular skiing. We skinned toward the base of three chutes on the ridge, crossing paths with another skier slowly making his way up-valley. To our surprise, he had walked all the way from the mud-pit on McMurray Meadows Road, some five miles from the normal trailhead, an effort that had cost him too much time and energy to ski much higher. We skinned and booted up the lowest, leftmost couloir, then John characteristically decided to climb higher to ski down the middle one. The couloir, and the north-facing side of the valley below it, were in perfect Spring condition, and we spontaneously shouted in glee as we arced down the remained of the drainage.

The snow turned to bottomless slush on east-facing slopes toward the bottom, and the skiing turned to a careful meander between rocks, sagebrush, and willows. Eventually we switched back to walking, finding bits of an old roadbed to ease the hike back to Jason’s truck. The drive back to our cars in daylight was only slightly faster than the drive in at night, with a similar amount of spotting, creeping, and scraping. Finally reaching the pullout, we found that each of us had a hand-signed nastygram from LADWP, which owns the land and valuable water rights, informing us that we were not allowed to camp, and that our presence had been made known to the local sheriff. There were no signs, I had previously camped here without incident, and the other had not even parked overnight. I crumpled my note and shoved it in my trash bag, a token of arbitrary laws inconsistently enforced.

Feather couloir


The Royce Lakes are four large bodies of water on a bench below the line of Merriam, Royce, and Feather Peaks, deep up Pine Creek off the trail to Pine Creek Pass. They are accessed by one of the Sierra’s most pleasant cross-country routes, the gentle granite slabs leading to Royce Col, passing between “Spire Peak” and Treasure Benchmark, two spires with interesting summit blocks. I had already climbed all the area’s peaks, and even returned to climb Feather’s couloir as a Fall ice climb after a big winter, but the couloir is also a classic ski line, and I was in the area. (This fall will be a good time to climb the Sierra’s increasingly rare alpine ice. Lines like the Feather, Dade, Red Slate, and North Couloirs will likely be névé, and harder ones like the lines on Mendel may be actual ice, where they are often dry in modern times. Sharpen your tools, and get them while you can!)

Long sidehill

I woke at the Pine Creek pack station to find four other cars parked nearby, probably headed for the nearby Tungstar Bowls. I stupidly tried to follow the trail for awhile, which involved stream crossings, undergrowth, downed trees, and general slow going. I eventually emerged onto the open north-facing slopes above, and carefully skinned up the hard snow to the old road that is the Pine Creek trail. I soon realized that skinning was the wrong way to approach the long, steep sidehill, and switched to crampons, which worked much better on the supportive snow. I cramponed all the way to where the trail re-enters the woods, then resumed skinning on the gentler climb to Lower Pine Lake.

Royce Col in the distancde

The trail goes around the lake’s north side, then takes an odd path through the woods, marred by giant steps poorly constructed by the local packers, but I had the luxury of skipping all that, skinning directly across the buried lake, then following a mostly-open ridge past Upper Pine Lake and Honeymoon Lake. From there I continued up-valley along a stream, buried under six or eight feet of snow, then up the broad slope to the col, which promised excellent high-speed skiing on the return. Once through the col, I skirted the third Royce Lake, then angled for the north side of Feather, where the couloir hides. Along the way I noted that Royce has a number of good lines on its east side, one wrapping around to the north.

Seven Gables

After more increasingly-desperate skinning, I switched to boots and headed up the couloir. The snow was a mix of solid but edge-able crust and wind-packed powder, promising decent but not amazing skiing. I found bits of an old boot-pack, but this couloir is far enough from the trailhead not to see much traffic. I left my skis and such at the top of the couloir, then awkwardly scrambled a bit of easy third class to the summit ridge, where I walked the hard snow to the summit. I found a relatively new PVC register canister placed by the ubiquitous Jonathan, in which he mused that the previous register may have been lost in the many deep cracks around the summit. It was relatively windless, so I spent some time sitting around, taking pictures and checking out ski lines on the surrounding peaks. Gemini and Hilgard both had some great-looking skiing, but are unfortunately a bit too far in to be a reasonable day.

Time to launch

I returned to my skis, put them in “fun mode,” and launched down the couloir. I found the crust mostly edge-able and not chattery, and the hardened powder downright fun, as I cut loose a torrent of chunks that I paused from time to time to let pass. Right near the exit I even found a few turns of genuine powder — the high north-facing snow had not yet transitioned to Spring. I tried to maintain speed and elevation going back through the lakes, but had an arduous skate on the small rise back to Royce Col. The other side was every bit as fun as I had imagined, as I made huge, swooping, high-speed turns down toward the woods. I stayed high and right past the Pine Lakes, finding the old tracks of another skier with the same idea. I continued staying high above the trailhead, dropping down only when I was almost straight above the pack station. While this landed me in some nasty avalanche debris at the very end, it was far more pleasant than following the trail, and would also serve as a better route up the next day.

Scheelite Chute

Lower Scheelite debris

Scheelite Chute is a 6000-foot southeast-facing line in Pine Creek, a couloir and face rising from some old mining ruins to near the summit of Adamson Point. It is famously warm, so with cool temperatures and strong west winds forecast, it seemed like one of the best skiing options for the day. Kim and I had done it before, only to be turned around by softening snow below the final chute, so perhaps this time we could top out. We were not the only ones who had the idea to ski Scheelite: there were two other groups of three and another man by himself on the line. It was large enough not feel crowded to me, but Kim is more accustomed to the quiet parts of the Sierra, and did not appreciate the traffic.

Massive pinwheel

We started out picking our way around sagebrush, then over mountains of avalanche debris from the massive slides unleashed by the solar faces above, then funneled between the sheer granite cliffs of what, in summer, is a popular climbing area. The snow smoothed and the skinning improved above the pinch, and we switchbacked our way up the bowl, ignoring branches and slowly reeling in one group of three. As the slope steepened again, we switched to booting near the largest snow pinwheel I have ever seen, over ten feet in diameter. The previous warm days had unleashed wet slides, littering much of the chute with fresh debris and promising some tiresome skiing. We could see John and his friends ahead, just entering the final left-trending chute.

Morgan and high mine

Continuing up the steepening slope, we had our doubts about this outing, as the ice-balls and mini-sastrugi were not softening. While Kim paused at the base of the final chute, I cramponed up a bit, finding hard snow, a runnel, and side-slip tracks on one side. It looked somewhere between unsafe and unfun to ski, and Kim was having none of that, but I wanted to reach the top enough to put up with some unpleasantness. I motored on up the fresh bootpack (thanks, Sam!), and caught up with John’s group of three just after they topped out. It was comfortable in the lee of the ridge, but cold as soon as one stepped into the open. We spent a few minutes admiring the view over the other side of Bear Creek Spire and its neighbors, marveled at the old mine perched just below the ridge near 13,000 feet, then retreated to have a snack. Adamson Point was only a ten-minute scramble away, but I had already visited this minor bump, and lacked motivation to return.

Bowl and lower choke

I dropped in first, boldly linking turns on the wide top until I was out of sight, then descending via a cowardly mixture of jump-turns and side-slipping. The runnel was narrow enough to cross with a bit of momentum, but only barely. The solitary skier we had seen earlier was still booting up the couloir, but by staying on the opposite side of the trough I was able to avoid pelting him with debris. Fortunately the others held back, sparing me fire from above, until I was out into the bowl. The skiing there was at least open and somewhat faster, but still chunky and difficult, and I frequently stopped to rest my inexplicably dead legs. I dodged left around the worst of the avalanche debris, then found some good skiing above the final piles of avy debris. The valley bottom was melting rapidly, and I had to walk more of the sagebrush than I had in the morning on my way back to the car.

There are multiple directions to tour out of Pine Creek, but I noticed that one of my skis’ bases had started to delaminate, perhaps after a bad encounter with an ice-ball. I drove down to the highway to get cell service and figure out what to do about that — I had planned to buy new(er) skis at the end of this season, but not right away. There are some shops in Bishop and Mammoth, but their selection and prices are questionable. As I was about to head into town, I noticed John parked nearby, and went over to say “hi.” I mentioned my problem, and he promptly offered to loan me the spare pair of skis he was carrying with him! Rearmed, I drove back to the end of the road to try another direction that would hopefully prove more pleasant, and less damaging to equipment.

Scimitar Pass

Palisade Crest beckons

Back in the last ice age, Big Pine Creek was home to an enormous glacier, whose lateral moraines are obvious from the summits of the Palisades or from the air, extending into the Owens Valley toward the town of Big Pine. Farther up, the glacier was fed by two main branches lying in what are now the creek’s North and South Forks, where its current remnants cower in northeast-facing cirques. These form the Palisade Glacier on the north, and Norman Clyde and Middle Palisade Glaciers on the south. The North Fork has a trail that sees quite a bit of traffic, including some of the Sierra’s despicable, ubiquitous, anachronistic pack horses, likely because it contains a number of large glacial lakes for fishing. The South Fork is home to Middle Palisade, one of the Sierra’s fourteen-thousand-foot peaks, so the trail to Brainerd Lake and beyond is also somewhat popular. However the branch leading to the Clyde Glacier has no trail, and is not an approach to any popular peak, so it is seldom visited. At its head lies Scimitar Pass, an improbable talus-ramp leading over the Palisade crest to more trail-less and seldom-visited terrain between Barrett and Palisade Lakes.

Summer cabin

I did not have a good idea for a peak to ski after Big Kid, but wanted to get out in the good conditions, so I decided to tour up the South Fork to see it snowed in. There were patches of pavement showing on the road between the winter and summer trailheads, but I could still skin from the car. This being a weekend, there were quite a few other cars at the trailhead, ranging from the bland blobs that are the convergence of a station wagon and an SUV (e.g. the Subaru Crosstrek), to trucks and a few compacts. I started relatively late, so Buck and Split were already illuminated by the time I left the lot. The north chutes on Kid Mountain were not quite ready to ski, but they held plenty of snow, and the massive bridge of avalanche snow over Big Pine Creek was deep enough to keep access easy for a long time. The summer homes near the trailhead were slowly melting out, revealing downed phone lines and broken awnings from the hard winter.

Approaching Willow Lake

I skinned up the left side of the valley, then crossed to climb the creekbed to Willow Lake. This required some desperate sidehill skinning on the firm snow, and a bit of boot-packing in the constriction below the lake. In the summer Willow “Lake” is really more of a marsh with a stream running through it, and that stream was just starting to peek out through deep banks of snow. I followed an old skin track toward Contact Pass, which connects the North and South Forks between Buck and Temple Crag, then left them to head up the branch toward Scimitar Pass, west of Norman Clyde’s long Firebird Ridge. Palisade Crest dominates the skyline, a series of small, sharp spires that, unlike most ridges in the Sierra, are sheer on both sides.

Southeast to Big Kid

The snow was hard lower in this shaded valley, and turned to chalk over a hard crust as I climbed over the moraine. This was more challenging skinning, and promised mediocre skiing on the return, but I had come this way for the views. Two steep couloirs lead to the crest above the glacier, on either side of the unofficially-named “Williams Peak,” and I thought of skiing one of them, but lacked the ambition. Instead I traversed up and right, directly below Palisade Crest, keeping a respectful distance lest some of the lingering snow, that had been baking all morning, decide to drop on me. The traverse to the pass was uneven, with huge wind-sculpted ridges and valleys of snow, where did my best to contour.

Final Scimitar ramp

The snow softened as I neared the final ramp to the pass, and I was surprised and pleased to find a relatively recent boot-pack. The ramp catches morning sun, and had softened to a pleasantly skiable texture. I booted up to the top in just my shirt, then put on all my clothes against the west wind to admire the views. I had thought of tagging the easy nearby summit of Jepson, but the other side of the crest was scoured bare or badly wind-sculpted, so I was content to stop at the pass. From there I could see down into Palisade Creek and the Middle Fork of the Kings River, a valley leading out the west side of the range. Across it, the familiar peaks of the Devils Crags and Black Divide were buried in white. To the north, the bowl between Polemonium and Sill looked like a good ski, though difficult to reach in a day.

Dusy Basin and Black Divide

Satisfied with what I had done so far, I put my skis and boots in “fun mode” and had some good turns down the pass’s headwall. I waffled for a bit, then decided to shortcut my route up by cutting more directly toward the moraines. I knew there were small, awkward cliffs here, and nearly trapped myself, but managed to worm my way through to the valley bottom. From there the skiing improved, and I had good turns to the junction with the Contact Pass route, the traversed high to keep momentum over Willow Lake. The south-facing snow below was softening, but not yet total glop, so I made more fun, fast progress back toward the summer trailhead, then double-poled and skated my way to the car. This was my fourth consecutive day of skiing, totaling almost 29,000 feet of climbing and probably 25,000 of sliding, and my feet were tired of living in ski boots. As much as the snow beckoned, it was time for a break.

Big Kid

Palisade panorama from Big Kid

“Big Kid” is the unofficial name of a 13er on the ridge between Kid Mountain and The Thumb on the south side of Big Pine Creek. It was on the Sierra Challenge back when I regularly participated, but I skipped it in favor of other peaks in the area, and others reported it to be an unpleasant pile of sand and scree. However these characteristics make it a good ski mountain when its moderate slopes are buried in snow. The easiest summer approach is via Glacier Lodge, but the peak can also be climbed from Birch Creek to the south. Since I was already parked on the McMurray Meadows Road, and since south- and east-facing snow was likely to ski better, I approached from there.

Birch, Thumb, Big Kid

It was a weekend, so a herd of Subarus had invaded my quiet campsite overnight. After waiting an hour on the summit for the snow to soften the day before, I had planned to get a late start, but the contents of said Subarus were moving early, flapping their meat and clattering their sticks, so I was awake in the dark. I killed time taking care of chores and reading, but still became impatient and started hiking before 6:00. The signed Birch Lakes trailhead road is badly runneled near the beginning, making it impassable to anything but motorcycles and quads. I hiked up the road, hopping the trench several times, and soon caught up to a group of four with their skis strapped oddly high on their packs, apparently planning to camp farther up. They followed me for awhile after I passed them, then headed toward the lakes farther south than I did. I hiked up a ridge, eventually putting on skis to skin up and into the broad gully where the summer trail is located.

Ed Lane with couloir

The gully was mostly moderate-angle, and I rarely had to switchback. It eventually ended on a shoulder of Kid Mountain, where I had some strenuous sidehill skinning to get around a bowl and into the valley east of Big Kid. A solo skier was transitioning in the middle of the slope just above the traverse, and I saw two more on the other side, apparently headed for Birch Lakes and perhaps the Thumb. I had plenty of time to study the surrounding peaks on my long, easy skin. The north couloir of Birch, a known hard line with a rappel in the middle, looked filled in but was not interesting to me, since I don’t consider dangling from a rope with skis on your feet to be “skiing.” I also eyed a couloir on the northeast side of Ed Lane Peak which, unlike the north side of Birch, looked continuous, but seemed intimidatingly steep. The day’s mellow terrain had me musing about trying something more ambitious in the area.

The Thumb

With the help of my map, I picked out the highpoint of Big Kid’s summit ridge, and skinned to the base of the broad couloir to its left before switching to crampons. The snow, with its variably-breakable crust, promised an annoying ski. I made slow but steady progress up the couloir, topping out just south of the summit. I walked awkwardly across the mix of rocks and wind-crust on the ridge, then left my skis and stuff on the highest bit of snow to tag the summit. Unsurprisingly, as it is not on any normal list, and not even officially named, Big Kid sees few ascents. I added my name to the list in a small glass jar, then sat to enjoy the spectacular view. The Thumb is a talus-pile on its normal south side, a very difficult-looking ridge from Big Kid, and probably made of bad rock, but it is a magnificent peak from this angle, and feels like it deserves more attention. Middle Palisade and Norman Clyde were impressive as always, though I noticed runnels on the former’s east face, making the difficult ski line extra treacherous.

End of ski

I eventually gave up waiting and transitioned, suffering some chattery, tiring windboard, then skittering along the lower-angle valley while dodging the sharp wind-sculpted features. The snow finally began to soften as I came out onto a southeast-facing ridge, and was just about perfect in the long, gentle gully. I made long, sweeping turns into the desert, playing with my angulation and generally having a fun, easy time. I picked a less-than-ideal path through the sagebrush, and had to take my skis off slightly higher than I could have, but there was still only minor postholing on my way to dry ground, then the familiar walk back to the car. I debated staying another day to try the line on Ed Lane, playing with the slope angle shading tool on CalTopo, but decided it looked steeper and more uncertain than I wanted to try. Perhaps I’ll come back, or some other adventurous skier will give it a try.