Mark Twain was quoted “If you don’t like the weather in New England, wait a minute.” This can easily apply to other areas in the country, especially the major mountain ranges of the west. So when the Sierra forecast flips from balmy 50’s at 8k feet to a brisk boreal breeze and varied snowfall and back to the heat over the course of days, one must play the hand they’re dealt. Toss in work and travel plans, and sometimes you have to play the luck card when choosing an outdoor endeavor and hope for the best. Or, you can pour over forecast discussions, snowfall history, sun angles, wind roses, trailhead access, beta from friends…yadda yadda yadda until you have an algorithm dictating what objectives are worthy of the limited time and calories you have on your days away from ‘the office.’
At least the views were good. Snow? Dangerous or heinous, my planning failed.
The last couple weeks saw at bit more of the latter. With a looming trip to Tehachapi to prove I’m worthy of rescuing people off turbines, it was necessary to make sure outdoor appetites were sate for a week of travel, and with friends making a rare trip to the Sierra, planning was important to make sure their hours of travel were not spent in vane.
If a view like this doesn't make you smile, check your pulse
First, warm weather pummeled the fickle winter conditions gracing the Sierra. With the weight of rock climbing discipline still heavy on the mind, a trip to the gorge was eminent, but only after trying to find some decent snow in one of the north facing, shade-drenched old growth forests dotting central Sierra. With the memory of falling asleep in the June Lake parking lot fresh, it was time to go explore the north facing gems gracing that zone. Skinning up, it was apparent where a lot of snow was blown over the previous week, and to those privy to avalanche safety, that should evoke ambivalence: Snow is good, but lots of it moved around by the wind can be bad…and it was. 2/3’s up the ascent to the hemlock ridge, a sound akin to the Doppler effect of a passing commercial airliner was loud in the surrounding snowpack, coupled with a collapse of localized slabs. I was alone at the time, but chose a conservative approach through terrain heavily anchored by old growth pines. A pit revealed a heavy 18” of wind slab on top of unconsolidated sugar: A perfect recipe for a bad afternoon should vigilance be overlooked.
The office isn't so bad sometimes
Change of plans: go find something safer. A few photos and new skin tracks later, I was atop devil’s slide below Carson peak. It looked like it had so much promise of untracked, perhaps wind transported dust-on-crust, but was nothing but 1600 vert of knee-jarring, jump/survival-turn breakable crust. Wow…fail. Sunday it was time to pull on Volcanic Tuff, and after some back and forth, Ben and I were caravanning down to the volcanic chasm to get in a handful of humbling pitches and a stop to marvel at the growing leak in the LA Aqueduct. “Flush twice, LA needs the water.” To be ready for training in Tehachapi ‘first thing’ Monday morning, that meant an overnight in Lone Pine to stage the 2 hour finishing push to the hach after catching sunrise on the Whitney Massif.
Grey, Katha, The Sierra welcomes you
I can’t explain why, but watching alpenglow light up Langley, Lone Pine Peak, Whitney, and Russell, even for just 15 min before continuing the super-unleaded haul to Kern County is always enough to lift my spirits…such lifting can last for a while, and in this case, for the entire week. For anyone seeking just one reason why the Sierra are called the Range of Light, I invite them to park themselves in the Alabama Hills with a full view of the aforementioned foursome, set an alarm to guarantee alpenglow, wake, and watch the show unfold. Splendor!
Grey, cleaning up Mono Jim's summit, one rock at a time
With the image of immaculate grey granite turned red by the rising sun etched in memory, it was on to Tehachapi for tower rescue recertification. The wind turbine week played out mostly according to plan, save a couple of exceptions. Towers were climbed [including safely setting a new PR for an 80m, unassisted tubular tower ascent of 3:00.00 flat – I think I can bring that to 2:30 this year], mock victims were rescued and the steel safety system operations were refreshed. Unexpected was the flash trip to Vegas to meet the lovely Ms. Lauren and her colleagues on the Strip. With a 70’s theme, that meant trolling the club in 4” patent white leather platform shoes amongst other period garb procured from a convenient Goodwill. Before retrieving a strapping group from the airport, I was
, and didn’t stick out too badly later at the soiree for lack of proper attire. Ah, Vegas. Back in the hach the following afternoon, and also unexpected was the wonderful dinner chez McQuillen: catching up on the recent goings-on while devouring delectables and downing vino at the house on the hill.
Fresh off his
, Ian making steep ice look easy.
Training wrapped up Thursday, nowhere to sleep and nothing left to do in the hach, it was time to meet Grey and Katha back up in the Sierra. That also meant eyeing the weather and more planning…The week started cold and stormy, but got progressively warmer and calmer by the weekend. That meant a hunt for spring corn was in order…a fitting way to flip the page and welcome G&K to the Sierra, and March to the 2013 Calendar. Old Man’s bowl was full of corn. The way up was nearly seamless skinning directly up the fall line, followed by gorgeous views of the Morrison cluster and Mt. Laurel and a late lunch. A bit of a delay meant the corn harvest wasn’t as bountiful as expected, but still a joy for all on the descent.
Up into a fairytale setting
Within 12 hours, however, the weather flipped and old man winter re-entered stage left with a ripping WSW wind bringing a welcome white refresh to the Sierra. That meant the reported snow totals at the local ski hill were underestimated thanks to our favorite wind transport, and a full day riding lifts left all of us with perma-grins and sore lower backs. Open-to-close on the mountain including blistering laps of the upper hill with a squad of Germans and an American who all either raced in their past, or should have also didn’t do well for the immune system, and left the entirety of last week filled with long naps and honey-laced tea to nurse the body back to health. It worked, and the anticipation of the weekend was enough of psychological edge to ward off the rest of the sickness.
Aesthetic from afar, and from within: Pinner, you are magic
The weekend started with some post-work ice climbing laps on Friday. A three week ice hiatus, coupled with sitting inside all week with work and recovering from the hate while downing the best girl scout cookies on the market does not help one’s ice climbing strength. I couldn’t complain, not when my partner was fresh off the first winter ascent of the Palisade Traverse. It was a wonderful outing, and the only way to properly end a week and jumpstart the weekend festivities.
Mr. Offenbacher, finishing off ascent part I as the clouds receded
After a storm brushed the central Sierra with a white coat, it was time to explore Convict Creek. Mr. Barnes arrived in town with a small posse of Tahoe folks and was kind enough to allow me to tag along on some objectives for the weekend. On tap: Pinner and Mendenhall Couloirs and a seldom skied line on the west face of Morrison. After twice in the last month staring down the Pinner couloir and saying out loud how it might be the Sierra’s most aesthetic ski line, it was time to pay it a visit. Saturday started with brisk winter weather, replete with swiftly moving cloud cover adding presence to the mountains, but that disappeared from the summits by midday. It added even more beauty to the area, and set the stage for a wonderful day in the hills. The north wind raked the surrounding summits and while the preceding weeks’ storm seemed more localized to the north, with a little altitude, the upper Pinner and Mendenhall Couloirs were knee deep, soft and plenty stable.
Yes, the top of Pinner was what dreams are made of.
The full itinerary saw a boot pack up Pinner, Pinner descent, reboot, and drop down the Mendenhall. The original intention of linking up Pinner with Momo’s west face was 86ed due to timing – the face and its approach was larger than expected, and with the booter already in, and the top of Pinner so good, Mendenhall was a worthy plan B. The tops of Pinner and the ‘hall were both what dreams are made of: Deep, dry and stable. The bottom part of the Pinner was avoided due to hard conditions and the linkup plan, but we had to exit the Mendenhall…something that would lend full value to the day.
Mr. Barnes finding the deep pockets in the Mendenhall...
During the approach to the Pinner, it was clear there was snow top to bottom in the Mendenhall, albeit with at least one ice bulge in the middle that would require either ‘hucking one’s meat,’ or a down climb, but what wasn’t anticipated was the periodic parts of the descent that were very thin coverage. Jimmy negotiated the first crux bulge by gently scraping a buried rock band. The second crux was the distinct 20’ of WI2 we could see from below, 2/3’s of the party negotiated it by front pointing in Al crampons and either one stubby axe or two whippets. Sean decided the adjacent rock was more to his liking and put his rock skills to work in his AT boots.
Sean, also finding the deep pockets of the Mendenhall...
After a few more turns, the third ice bulge was much more casual – instead of clear, brittle blue ice it was crusted bulges that accepted a ski edge. Before we knew it, we were in our approach shoes and back at the car by 1630.
...and Mr. Barnes finding a not-so-deep pocket in the Mendenhall, and consequentially making the day fuller in value
Sunday was to be decided in the morning, and after daylight savings took its toll, and a delicious breakfast downed, Morrison’s west face was the agenda. With the only exceptions being a 10min lunch break, another 10min to enjoy Morrison’s south summit and 5min water refill at the creek, progress on the day was rarely stopped or slowed. Departure from the trailhead by 0830, a topout at 1330, and finished descent by 1430, we were sipping congratulatory beers in the parking lot by 1630, which with daylight savings meant the sun was higher, and with two straight days of backcountry splendor, sitting down to soak in the spring weather was even more enjoyable.
Day 2: go. The aesthetics helped make the ascent go quickly...so did having three charging dudes slaying a bootpack
In a matter of 48 hours, the mountain weather went from a very wintry north wind and wind-blown snowfall to shirtless, 3-layers-of-sunscreen spring. For the west face descent, that meant the upper half was still powder – lots of it in pockets – followed by a transition to corn and ‘hot-pow’ midway down the slope. To an unsuspecting eye, the line down Morrison’s west face doesn’t appear to be coherent, but after ascending and descending the gem, it is sustained, gorgeous and when caught in the right conditions with the right weather [you nailed it, Jimmy], it is a very worthy outing.
"I ate a GU, and poof, I just kept going." - Mr. Barnes
Winter is fading here in the Sierra, but don’t rest on your laurels – it doesn’t take long for a system to blow in and remind us all we’re still in the calendar winter. With a little planning, great people and the right attitude, there is something fun to do to take advantage of whatever Mother Nature throws at us.
The descent was superb: top to bottom
The weather does change quickly, but one thing's guaranteed: Spring is on its way, and it is delightful