|View from the top of Wood: worth the effort|
Weekends can be a number of things: complete duds, magical two [three?!] days, start out great and end in a disaster, start inauspiciously and be a total silver lining, and anything in between. With unseasonably cold temperature gracing the Sierra and greater snowfall than the entirety of the previous season, it was time to get back and enjoy the white blanket covering the range…well, the northern part anyway. How the weekend would turn out was up for debate.
|Love! We didn't hit the dew point, that means no surface hoar: Double your booyah.|
“Stay Rock Creek or north” was the welcome beta. The other prerequisite was minimal driving – it had been a busy and travel-weary holiday season, and just getting over the seasonal crud and illnesses meant I was interested in staying close to home for a two-day stay-cation. Original itinerary to chum the waters was to cross two mountain ski tours off my list: Mt. Wood and Red Slate are prominent peaks in the area – Wood’s east face dominates a five mile stretch of 395 south of Lee Vining and as soon as you get above 10k feet between June Lake and Rock Creek, Red Slate sticks out as the highest peak around. Problem with both is their approaches to ski quality vert are non-trivial…at least by Sierra standards, so I was flexible. Ski partners were either all busy, or not interested...it wasn’t looking good.
|-18F at the trailhead? within 30 min it felt like +18C|
Time passed and two Tahoe buddies were primed on the itinerary, and one taker in Mammoth for at least Mt. Wood meant I was set for a great weekend enjoying the cold temps, the dry, stable snow, and the uninhibited, relentless California sunshine with grand company.
|Why Mono, you're looking as beautiful as ever|
Friday, 20:00: “Garth’s flight is cancelled, bussing in from Sacramento” and 20:50 “I gotta bail on tomorrow.” Gosh, plans just took a turn for the worse...I decided I would solo Wood and like Bloody a few weeks back, withdraw if conditions were anything but safe and straightforward. Sunday? Who knows?
|Look closely, and you can see Garth|
Saturday, 0600: “Leaving Tahoe in 15…we’re headed for Wood.” Excitement of returned camaraderie in the backcountry was back. A later start was warranted…well, I wanted to sleep in, so a leisurely wakeup, prep and drive put me skinning in the -18F temps next to Silver Lake by 0830. Within minutes, the wind died and I was on a pure SE facing pitch: -18 seemed more like 80F with the merciless sun and my black garments and I felt my progress slow.
|The Sierra to the south sure look delicious|
With greater elevation brought the cool breeze and before I knew it, Garth and Scott were visible behind. Oddly, the distance between stayed constant, and at the entry of the final ascending couloir, they waited for me to turn around due to what looked like poor ascending conditions. The inconsistent snowpack, a delightful combination of 3-6” wind slab, 3’ of unconsolidated sugar, bulletproof slabs and breakable crust summed to a psychologically taxing boot pack, but no matter, the summit ridgeline was in sight.
|Not a single bad turn on the entire face|
The time splits were maxed: I was standing on the summit, staring with mouth ajar at the full east face while Scott and Garth stayed at the adjacent bowl ½ mile back. We would descend different routes – not a problem as we all enjoyed over 2k vert of cold smoke. Yes, these cold temps and their accompanying snow and wind meant the top layer on the leeward faces was light, fluffy, deep and surprisingly stable. The group was reunited at the base of the peak proper, and we gang-skied the 3k’ low angle terrain and took turns taking pictures all the way back to the road. Back to the cars with daylight to spare, followed by hot-tubbing, cold brews and homemade pizza.
|Getting this guy to laugh never gets old |
Being the first tour of the year for all of us, Garth coming from sea level and Scott voluntarily lugging around 15 extra pounds of camera gear, Wood left us a bit drained. The thought of hauling all the way back to Red Slate to a potentially wind-slabbed, steep and no-fall couloir didn’t sound appealing, especially since one year prior the long approach was rewarded with the most dangerous avy pit I’ve ever dug with 7’ crowns surrounding the lower Red Slate basin. Esha was the new objective for Sunday, provided the road was open at least a part of the way.
|Plan B: Not Boehners, not the morning-after pill, but yes, a morning-after cure to lethargy: sweating out the demons while booting to the summit of McGee|
Alpine start not needed, but upon arriving at the McGee Creek road, we found it full of snow within 200m of 395. In a moment of weakness, we all succumb to the lack of gumption to skin 3 miles one way on a low-angle road that – given a couple days of warmer temps – would be dry and passable by car.
In hindsight, I sound really lazy. But staring at us from the parked car were a couple of tasty looking chutes that at least looked full. “Look, there’s a pair of guys already headed up, let’s change the itinerary and get quality vert from the car.” McGee Mountain it was. Dan set a blistering skin track for us, but given the slabby nature of the snow, we were only able to utilize ~ 1/3 of it, preferring to set our own path up the gut of the main chute. We topped out and explored the plateau and a better descent while Scotty dealt with skin problems.
|Is that a ski skin, or a bath mat? G3, you suck.|
Next came the unexpected fun of probing around a new place. I had been to the top of the main McGee chute before, but due to 50+ mph winds, I blitzed down the beautiful corn and basked in the leeward sunshine instead of poking around on top. This time, with two good buddies, we dined, wined, and topped out on the true summit, affording gorgeous views of McGee Creek, Esha Canyon and the Convict area.
Sure we looked at Esha’s northern chutes and wondered what might have been had we sucked it up and skinned the road, but we were over it, happily snapping our SLR shutters and cracking jokes in the subzero temps whilst surrounded by an unexpected, gorgeous winter Sierra panorama.
|Scotty, after peering into McGee Canyon, decided topping out was worth it|
The temps hastened our descent, and before we knew it, we were standing above what looked to be great snow in the next chute north of what we ascended. Sure enough, it was. Save a little wind slab half way down, only one rock was nicked the entire descent to the car. Not exactly waste deep 10%, but not a death crust and slab like what we saw on the skin up. Just a great, non-stressful straight-from-the-car ski day with the guys.
|G-man enjoyed the view too|
So what started out as a potential lonely solo mission on the weekend ended up as two great days touring with friends and finding great snow. You never know what’s in store in the backcountry, and oft times, you have to push through: hateful boot-packs, heinous slab and crust, poor weather…whatever. Bring a positive attitude, good people, ample gumption and it’s going to be good time, or at least something to laugh about over beers later.
|Getting from the summit to the car didn't suck|
Call me crazy, but it was delightful to have such crisp winter air in the Sierra. When first moving to Tahoe 5 years ago, I recall with a grin how NPR on the alarm clock would report “Extreme cold warning: lows of 17F expected.” Waking to temps of -20F made me flush with New England and Jackson nostalgia, and though Rocky Mountain inhabitants will laugh at such temps I’ll take all the sub-zero time I can get.
|"McGee has the worst snow on the planet right now." I couldn't disagree more.|
Keep enjoying the winter where you are, everyone…you know I will.
|Sub-zero temps, great snow, beautiful mountains and these guys: Only good can come of this.|