Sunday, March 28, 2010

More fun on the East Side

Ah the East Side. There's really not quite any place else like it on earth. For the past 2 weeks my friends and I have taken full advantage of the mild high pressure conditions and have gone after some of the loftiest summits in the state of California. This weeks goals were Split Mountain and Birch Mountain. Both located just outside of Big Pine, CA, these peaks are separated by only a couple of miles. Basically, Split is west of Mt. Tenemaha, and Birch is north of Tenemaha. You even use the same system of dirt roads to reach both "parking areas". In the photo below my friend Oscar sets out on the "trail" toward Red Lake on our way to Split Mountain, 14,058 ft. I always love the juxtaposition of the desert and the snow, it wouldn't be the east side if you didn't do a little desert walking...About three hours, and a variety of minor issues, we reach Red Lake and catch the first glimpse of our objective. From here the summit is only a mere 4,000 vertical feet away... We came to ski the fabled East Couloir, which becomes visible as you approach the base of the peak. Our ascent route is visible in this photo, and it is the very thin ribbon of snow on the lookers right of the peak, known as the St. Jean couloir.
About an hour later we're still about an hour from the bottom of the couloirs. The East Couloir coming into view on the lookers left, and the St. Jean, in the center of the photo. The scale of things down here is really deceptive. What looks like a short distance often turns out to be much farther and steeper than it seems...Here is a view of our primary descent objective, the East Couloir. On a big year this line has a 70 foot rappel over an ice bulge at the bottom, this year it has about a 400 foot rappel over ice, rock, more ice, more rock... it just isn't that filled in, so we changed our plan. Maybe we'll come back and tag this classic line another year. So we head up the St. Jean couloir in hopes that the snow will be good in this aesthetic, steep, skinny couloir. About a quarter of the way up we find about a half inch of water ice on top of the snow in the chute, fine conditions for climbing in crampons, not so sweet for attempting to ski down. Here's a view looking up the chute....
And here's my view looking down. This chute was no joke, really steep, pretty narrow, and with beautiful rock walls top to bottom. You can also see the Owens Valley, only 9,000 feet below us here.
Eventually the crew made it to the summit of Split Mountain. Andrew, Oscar, Duncan and myself are all pretty wiped out at this point. We'd explored all of the ways down the mountain that we weren't willing to go down, so we opted for the "easy" way down, which we had to pretty much figure out as we went. It turned out to be pretty decent skiing, and far less life threatening than either of the other options we'd explored that day. About 11 hours after leaving the car that morning we returned safe and sound. 7,500 vertical foot runs are lots of fun, especially when you carry ropes and harnesses most of the way for no good reason, I guess we all could use a little extra exercise... In any event, skiing Split Mountain was something I've wanted to do for a while, and I'm thankful to my friend Andrew for providing the motivation I needed. Hopefully the next time I head that way there will be appropriate snow conditions for getting after the more aggressive lines.
One of the best parts of spring skiing down on the east side of the Sierra is the camping. Camping in the desert way out on some dirt road in the middle of nowhere at the base of beautiful 13 and 14 thousand foot peaks just can't be beat. In this shot Mt. Tenemaha dominates the evening skyline. Split Mountain sits just behind that, and Birch Mountain is just visible on the right of the photo.
Our next objective was the summit of Birch Mountain, and as usual this mission started with a healthy little dose of desert walking. In the photo below Oscar makes his way towards the snow just after leaving the car at the end of the dirt road at 6,500 feet. The summit of Birch Mountain is 13,658 ft., so the climb and the ski run are 7,000 vertical feet. Unlike Split Mountain, Birch is not set back on the crest, so the fall line is quite a bit more direct making for a quicker climb and a much quicker descent, depending on your route. Birch Mountain is on the right, Mt. Tenemaha is on the left. Its hard to tell from the photo, but Birch is 1,000 feet taller than Tenemaha. About a third of the way up the mountain and I can't get over the contrast of the snow and the desert. Here Oscar is bootpacking up with the snow and the desert making things interesting in the background.
Our goal on Birch Mountain was to get a 7,000 foot corn run. The south facing slopes were nice and smooth and the winds were out of the north keeping our chances for excellent conditions high. We'd viewed the south side of Birch Mountain from the summit of Split 2 days earlier and this is what we saw. In the photo below you can see the south side of Birch, the peak on the right. We ascended roughly on the lookers right skyline to the summit, and dropped in just to the lookers left down the really aesthetic 3,000 foot long south facing gully. The rest of our run is obscured by ridgelines in this photo, but it was really fun.
Near the top of Birch the views were pretty phenomenal, here Oscar skins with Split Mountain dominating the skyline behind him. Our descent route from two days earlier is visible in this shot. Again, it is hard to capture the scale of everything in a photo, these mountains are absolutely enormous...After about 5 and half hours we reached the summit of Birch Mountain and were awed by the view. The Palisades to the North, Split Mountain and the other high peaks to the south was just too much for my camera to take in. My computer almost exploded when I downloaded all the photos, and in fact I lost about 40 shots in the process. Oh well. Luckily, Oscar captured a shot of me on the summit of Birch scoping out the downclimb to get into the line we wanted to ski.
The High Sierra is a great place to call home, if only for a few days at a time....

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