Saturday, May 8, 2010

East Side Sierras - Spring Skiing with Jeff, Tim, and Tucker

(Slide show runs automatically,, but if you wish to slow it down or study and individual photos just click on the center of the image and look for slide controls...)

All season we had been talking about and preparing for this week long ski bonanza on the east side of the Sierras. Here, the plowed and melted roads often end right at the beginning of the ski ascents and the peaks rise from a base of 7,000 up to and over 12,500 feet. We were camping out every night, albeit from the comfort of the camper (for our meals and social time) and each to his own vehicle for sleeping. Our days started early, getting on the skiis by 7:00am and getting off the steep pitches by 1:30 at the latest when the sun would invariably soften and weaken the snowpack to the point that wet slides would be easily triggered. As it was, we saw evidence of previous natural wet slides on many adjoining slopes.

We climbed and skied White peak and Dunderberg peak from the Virgina Lakes trailhead, (getting great views into Lundy Canyon from both), attempted Gilbert peak south face, and completed Mt. Hurd from the South Lake trailhead, and summited Carson Peak from the Fern Creek trailhead in the June Lake region. On all of these routes (except Carson Peak) we could ski or bootpaxck the entire approach on snow and could ski all the way down to the car.. For Carson Peak, we needed to hike in partially melted woods for about 20 minutes before hitting reliable snow.

While attempting Gilbert Peak, we picked a bad exposure and found ourselves struggling waist deep in bottomless wet snow high up on the south face. Rather than push ahead up and across some very steep slopes, we opted for safety and skied down from that stopping point - but needed to traverse some thinly covered rock bands on the way down. As expected, they were not great skiing and sloughed off snow as we crossed. Go for the north couloirs instead - or get an earlier start if you pick this peak this time of year.

Some remarkable memories from the trip were the incredible good humor of everyone, despite the hard work of the ascents. It seemed our pace adjusted almost magically as one or the other of us got tired. But in all cases we stuck together for comradery and safety.

There was that amazing icy traverse on a very steep and exposed slope on the way up Carson Peak. Jeff kicked very secure steps as the leader, carefully evaluating if the snow was going to stick or slide. Then Tim and I followed across (Tim, with no axe or whippet - just balanced on his toes with his gloved fingertips gingerly touching the ice slope level with his face). I followed last, and was a little stuck until Jeff reminded me to rely on my whippet (spiked ski pole handle) for hand balance. With that suggestion, I gingerly completed the five or six foot maneuvers to get across the void.

On the first day Jeff and I summited White peak and thought we had a great ski down from the top, until Tucker (who had skied Dunderberg peak across the valley at almost the same time) tried to reeducate us on what good corn snow really was. By the time we tried Dunderberg the following day to make a true comparison, some other skiers had already found the stash and had laid tracks all over the place. We'll never really know if Tucker was right.

Or how about the time Jeff used his monster jacked-up truck with oversized tires to evaluate a possible camping spot off the road and got stuck up the axles in soft deteriorating snow. We piled rocks under the wheels and pushed and rocked and got the thing out, but then it was making this god awful noise like a pinion on the universal joint was grinding off with each rotation of the tire. A tow truck lap down to Mammoth revealed just a bent tab on the gas tank rubbing on the drive shaft, so within a few hours Jeff was able to join us on the mountain again. Next time we'll send Tim and the all wheel drive mini-van in to scope out our camping sites first.

Then, there was the incredible and sustained grade A corn snow all the way down from the summit of Carson, culminating in a long "half-pipe" comfortably wide couloir dropping us at the tree line not far from the car.

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