Sometimes you want to be on the beaten path, with an expectation of seeing other people, or to do something popular, but then there are times you yearn for path less travelled, to explore something new and the quest for something uncharted or unclimbed or un-skied becomes all-consuming. It’s important to get a mix of both, and to understand how to balance the two and the myriad of combinations in between to help quench your outdoor thirst. With an optimistic foot of fallen snow in the last month, and indications from many sources that finding good backcountry conditions would be challenging, it was welcome time to get away from the trade routes and poke around for something new, something different.
You want to go where? What's the temperature again?
Add to that the ethereal nature of ice routes in the winter, and the recipe was there in the last week to change up the routine. Because it’s been a mediocre snow year, there’s less internal pressure and motivation to seek out the bigger ski lines – poor snow – or none, or no base or little snow at the lower elevations means there is little to no opportunity cost to seeking out buried objectives of obscure routes that see few ascents or descents. So was the theme this past week, and the results were memorable.
First, last weekend. With partners all committed, and a surprising amount of what seemed like lake effect snow with the cold northerly front blowing through, it was time to poke around for what for me would be a new line and a new area around East Peak and the Dana Plateau. Upon arriving at the V-bowl trailhead, however, prospects of finding good snow – or even east-facing, February corn were shot within the first half-mile of the trailhead. I bagged it and scraped back down, skiing the old growth like slalom gates and bringing a cloud of pessimism back to the parking lot where another ambitious local was gearing up. “I didn’t find anything good.”
Pretty grim when making snowmelt rainbows with your car and napping bests a BC tour
The north wind was keeping things cool, and there didn’t seem like any snow accumulation north of June Lake. The only way a backcountry effort could terminate quicker would be to not leave the car at all. When the snow is that bad, though, I don’t mind swallowing my pride and finding a better use of my time and calories. We both left and ended up in the parking lot of the closed June Mountain. The north-facing chutes turned out to be stellar –
– but instead of putting my boots on for round 2, I one-upped myself and fell asleep in the car before I even started. Saturday was doomed, and the highlight was meeting a new friend, followed closely by the 150 minutes of delta sleep that afternoon.
"Yes, this is going to be a good day":
, an Andy Selters FA.
Sunday was to be a real winner. Two locals agreed to let me tag along on a relatively rare and hidden ice route in Convict Creek. The previous weekend while ascending Morrison’s North Ridge, Mike and I scouted a beautiful ice flow the next gully back from the Mini Pinner Couloir. To my dismay, it turned out Mike stealthily swooped in and nabbed the first ascent of the season while I toiled away with wind turbine projects all week. The three of us would go back and ro-cham for the leads on the frozen matrices, verglas and mild mixed terrain. “Stellar at 630!” Time to get off the beaten path and find something new…excitement was high…until 0530 the next morning. Double eject, and time for a plan B.
Not the best way to wake up, but hey, that's what a plan b is for.
We've all been there - and we've all had to bail before for one reason or another. If I can manage a career, a family and hard-charging demeanor half as good as these guys when I'm in a similar situation, I'll label it a success. That's why you always have a plan b. I’d been meaning to tour out along the Sherwin ridge to the Valentine Cirque for a while – time to tick it off the list. All was well on the skin track and summit ridge until seeing the remaining ridgeline completely wind-scoured – meaning at least 2 miles of tallus surfing in AT boots in between meager snow drifts and chutes stripped bare by the breeze. Couple it with a ripping north wind dropping the wind chill below zero, and mojo tanked – mission scraped, and weekend fail. I spent the afternoon looking at how the 0.1% lived around Mammoth Lakes, and seeing how 5.5 acres will set you back $2.095MM for a view John Muir would be proud of.
Yes, that first pitch is $$
So it was resolved to redeem the weekend: experience the backcountry ice with a lull in the work load. One of the best things about ice is that routes can form only sporadically over the course of decades – when a rare confluence of weather events conspire to make routes a reality. Ryan was on board for some exploring, so we were set. I didn’t seek out the beta for the route – in my mind I still wanted it to be an exploration. Bring back some gear for margin in case things get hairy, but instead of getting the full dump of info, seek out a little adventure. “Meet at Convict Lake at 0645, moving by 0700.” Done.
The views when scampering between pitches weren't so bad.
The text I got in the morning was a little more opportunistic this time: “Eating Doritos, passing Crowley.” It was go time. We were at the base of the flow in 2:00. Opting for snowshoes and ice boots over skis and skins was not a bad choice, but not the best – a little flotation helped the morale and the pace. Knowing how good the TLT5’s perform with monopoints now, I’d suggest a skin in. Now, the timing couldn’t have been better. We were geared up and swinging tools just as the sun was blasting the first fat pitch of WI4. In a matter of minutes it transformed the flow from brittle dinner plates to sticky plastic ego ice – “You can’t get a bad stick.” This first pitch is what caught Mike’s and my eye – it’s fat, long and worth the price of admission. Steep enough for the WI4 title, but forgiving with steps for rest and takes screws the entire way up.
The bottom half of pitch 2 on the descent.
The route is reminiscent of those in Cody’s South Fork: Climb a pitch, hike up snow gullies, climb another pitch, hike, repeat. The second pitch was reached after a couple hundred vert of boot pack. It was split into two sections: a bottom half with a thin smear of brittle ice to bring in a couple mixed moves and delicate pick placements.
Top of pitch 2: "That was engaging"
The upper half was fat and mellow, taking screws well and at a very manageable – albeit calf burning – angle. Boot up another couple hundred feet to the ice bouldering third pitch. As we crossed the snow – moderately sketchy with wind slab on top of deep, unconsolidated sugar - we saw no ice above the bouldering, so we decided to forego the WI 1-2 bouldering and descend.
a most excellent finishing of the route to the top of the ridge with Ian, as their uncanny skill at one-upmanship pushed them higher to put and exclamation point on route. Well done, gentlemen.
Ryan, pointing at pitch 3 and beyond: "Let the pros do it tomorrow"
Opting for a v-thread to rap over P2 and an added triple-stopper-equalized anchor on the top of P1, we arrived safely back at the bags, descended and re-crossed the frozen Convict Lake, arriving back at the car by 1615. A great day indeed.
Going in heavy: "Make it full value"
"Let's get this party started"
Fast forward to the weekend. Earlier in the winter, I went on a scouting mission to find some flows in the Mammoth Backcountry. After discovering the Convict Ice was previously climbed by a hard local [aptly coined “Conviction,” there was renewed interest in finding a hidden gem – a route protected by an approach and overlooked by the hoi polloi.
"Oh boy, the ski down is going to be good."
Playing coy, I advertised only a “big day with full value” to buddies to chum the waters – and it worked. Scotty was game – our days in the backcountry are almost always big ones, he wasn’t shy. Like the previous April, we’d be leaving Mammoth’s main lodge early, skinning out towards Banner and Ritter to find the ice flow I’d scouted a few weeks prior. Couple it with a couloir that looked equally delicious directly adjacent to the flow, and we had the recipe for a day of good, clean backcountry fun.
The price of admission was steep, but well worth it: Bomber, unpicked backcountry ice.
Main Lodge in our rearview by 0600, seeing the alpenglow on the backside of Minaret Summit and staring at our flow across Agnew Meadows before 0700: This day was going to win. We scraped down the eastern drainage of the San Joaquin and skinned through very good snow up to the base of the flow: We were racked up and ready for the steep blue wonder by 0830. The snow was so good on the ascent, the ice was so fat and blue, we were filled enthusiasm – revealed by the big grins on our faces that didn’t really dissipate until the thoughts of the slog back to Minaret Vista brought us back to reality.
"Yes, Scott, it does get steeper."
The first pitch was more ego ice: steep and plastic. The thin veil of high elevation clouds saved us – like Convict the earlier in the week, the sun hit the flow at just the right time, but due to higher air temps throughout the latter part of the week, we were worried about the ice conditions.
The clouds kept the temps manageable, and we were faced with beautiful, solid, steep BC ice. I’d pin the first pitch as a long WI4, with a section of dead vertical, perfect chandeliers. Fat enough for the 16mm with margin, there’s even a perfect gear anchor and pedestal to stand on the top to watch Scotty dance up in pursuit. The second pitch was pretty token – slog up some snow to a short bulge of ~70 deg WI3, followed by a scamper up to a snow gully for the descent.
Go ahead, Scotty, top this thing out.
Headed back to the gear and to ski the chute by 1130…but wait, there’s another flow. On the descent, we passed another sizable smear of ice on another cliff. “When’s the next time we’re going to be back here with ice gear, Scotty?” I posed. “Hopefully never.” Our fate was sealed: the ski would have to wait for another pitch of WI3 with some mixed moves and grabbing rock. All together, fully worth the extra hour+ we took to delay lunch back at the packs.
"Let's go get some lunch"
It's there, we've got the gear...why not climb it? Photo: Scott Rokis
Now, it was time to live up the advertised “full value” nature of the day: grab a bite, and skin up the chute lookers left of the ice flow. With the skin track earlier in the day being boot deep+ powder on top of a firm and stable base, we thought this was going to be a cakewalk with hero turns and face shots. Boy, were we mistaken. At the exact level we dropped our gear to climb the ice, the snow turned to that magical mix of bulletproof wind board and breakable crust. I got a jump on the ascent, and immediately switched to bootpack: “How long are you going to bootpack?” Scotty asked, surprised to see our powdery ascent change. “As long as it is efficient to do so.” I responded.
"Our ice work is done."
"Now it's time for the 'full value' part."
Conditions never improved. Half way up the ~800’ of ascent, I looked down, exclaiming, “This snow is pretty crappy.” “It is REALLY crappy.” Scotty retorted. Neither of us wanting to be the one to turn back, we pushed it to the summit – full value being the mantra. We snapped some top-out shots of the stunning Banner-Ritter combo and scraped our way back down to the gear.
How about some Shiraz to take the edge off? I swear it'll help wash down that GU packet you just threw down, Scotty.
35lb packs shouldered, we skied the best snow all day, and it was hero. It took us an hour to get back to the road. We downed some Shiraz to take the edge off the slog up to Minaret Vista, and caught a most worthy bookend to the day: a gorgeous sunset. Back to the car by 1845, and downing homemade pizza and ginger beer by 2000, we soaked the soreness away with friends, and promptly fell asleep.
"It's simple really: climb those, ski that."
A delightful distraction from the road slog.
With occupancy in Mammoth besting 90% this Presidents’ weekend, and reports from on-mountain skiers containing phrases like “junk show,” it is a bit surprising that the only company Scotty and I had on Saturday was each other [and a seemingly lost flock of Canadian Geese]. But that was the intention of the weekend – to get off the beaten path and do something different. Conversing with locals post-ski, the sage advice was “Success in an objective requires three things: health, weather and partner.” In this case, it was three strikes and you win – all three of them coming together to make the day full value, and utterly fulfilling.
I like where that road is headed
I woke up Sunday with a hangover – a mountain hangover – the kind where you feel the muscles you used the previous day and we used a lot of ‘em. With parties headed to the gorge, I sensed my climbing obligation to get stronger, but couldn’t muster the gumption to head down to the volcanic tuff chasm. Instead, I picked up the climbing beta and searched for something new – to continue the off-the-beaten-path theme. Casa Diablo came into view. “…one of the coolest places to explore in the Mammoth area.” That certainly fits with the weekend motif.
Casa Diablo: go boulder around, take some photos and ogle at the views
It’s five miles down a dirt road, and situated on a bluff between the Sierra and the White Mountains, so your views are quite good. Couple unmerciful sunshine, mid fifties temps, stunning views and quartz monzonite forming crazy huecos, runnels and tunnels, and day was a gem. Only saw nine people the entire outing – all on the roads to get back there, and all passing in their vehicles. They stared with cocked heads and wide eyes from their dirt bikes and SUVs as my german station wagon wound across back country sage-centered roads. Win. Toss in another stunning backdrop to a sunset, and the weekend was won.
You see a cloud? Neither do I. Haven't seen any for a couple weeks.
So backcountry, front-country, side-country…alone, partnered, mobbed…wilderness, suburb or city, Calculate what it is you want, need or desire, and get outside. You’ll be rewarded.