Skiing Stoke from Lake Tahoe

Month: March 2011

The Day After

Clear, calm, sunny skies and warm temperatures brought us back to reality on Monday. Powder harvesting needed to happen quickly and by the end of the day only select north faces still held cold snow. The spring corn festival should arrive soon. Here are some landscape photos from around Tahoe the day the clouds lifted from Massive March.

Squaw Valley as seen from the East Shore

Third Creek Drainage

Mt. Tallac and Desolation Wilderness with Thunderbird Lodge in the foreground

The Pacific Crest and Tinkers Knob as seen from Martis Valley

Hammer Time!

Heavy snowfall continued yesterday and intensified to a rate of four inches per hour later in the day.  Here is some video from around town on March 24:


Summer home?


Snowbanks almost reaching power lines in Serene Lakes

Schallenberger Ridge

Post storm sunrise over Mt. Rose

Donner Lake enters the Nice Age

If the amount of snowfall this year is starting to seem like something special that’s because it is.  Ski areas are having to trench below lifts to keep them from hitting the ground, cars are buried beyond recognition, and first floor views have disappeared. With resorts on the west side of Tahoe exceeding 600 inches it’s time to start looking where this winter stacks up historically. Tahoe Weather Discussion provides a great recap of years past and the direction we are heading: A look at where this winter is headed vs. past big seasons.

The recent storm dropped five to seven feet of snow.  The next round comes in tonight and a cycle of several more storms will continue through the weekend.

Walkway at the PlumpJack Squaw Valley Inn

Truckee residence

Typical first floor view

Trip Report – The Pinner Couloir

What goes up...

Last Sunday, I met up with a couple of ski buddies for an East Side ski mountaineering adventure.  After a successful ski of the Scheelite Couloir on Saturday, they had their sights on the Mendenhall Couloir on Laurel Mountain for Sunday. The Mendenhall Couloir is 4,000 vertical feet with an average pitch of 45 degrees. It has several chokes and twists to keep things interesting.  The top of the line is crowned by a large northeast-facing snowfield.  This potential loading zone led us to ascend the neighboring, east-facing Pinner Couloir.  With a mellower pitch of 35 degrees, and less exposure to snow accumulation at the top, the Pinner seemed a safer climbing route. As the name implies, the Pinner twists narrowly between towering red cliff walls for 3,400 vertical feet. The Pinner was our alternate descent option should the Mendenhall seem too dicey.

Some forecasts called for partly sunny, some for mostly cloudy. Either way, we knew a front was arriving later in the day and we hoped it would hold out long enough for things to soften and make for pleasant skiing. It didn’t. As we began our quest along the north side of Convict Lake, we could see a cloud bank forming above the distant Red Slate Mountain and the dramatic North Couloir. By the time we reached the base of the Pinner, cloud cover had reached the summit of Laurel.  I yelled up to my friend Matt, “It’s not going to soften today is it?”  “Nope,” he replied.  In another 100 yards or so, we came across slide debris that was frozen solid and covered the entire width of the chute.  “I’m not a glutton for punishment,” Matt said,  “I’m out.” He said not to let his decision spoil our plans and that he was going back to the car to read a book or maybe hit the local hot springs.

I looked up at my other partner Robb who said, “We can still go up this thing and experience it.” Since the Pinner is 35 degrees, I figured I could descend its bowling lane surface with survival turns and slide-slipping if necessary.  If it were 45 degrees, I would have promptly turned around.  Donning crampons and whippits, we continued up.  After a bit we stopped for a snack and water, estimating another 1,500 vertical feet to go.

Farther up conditions changed, and not in a good way. We now had a crust layer that, if weighted properly, post-holed us into dry powder. As Robb began to put distance between us, I found myself front pointing up the couloir on all fours, punching through to my knees every few steps.

A good sweaty while later, I noticed clouds ripping by a few hundred feet above my head.  I could see Robb looking down at me from above and could tell he was at the top.  The sun began to come out. I finally crested onto a perfectly flat shelf, dumped my gear and walked a few feet to look over the ridge we had summited.  I could see neighboring Bloody and Red Slate Mountains and the dramatic landscape that comprises the Eastern Sierra “Range of Light.” The arduous climb began to seem worth it.

After a brief rest, we walked along the tallused ridge to the summit of Laurel Mountain which stands at 11,812 feet.  We had great views of Mt. Morrison and Convict Lake and we could look directly into the entrance of the Mendenhall Couloir, our initial objective.  We threw a few rocks onto the snowfield and they stuck into soft snow.   Having heard reports of recent instabilities on the exact aspect we were looking into we decided to be “gluttons for punishment” and descend the Pinner that we climbed up.  It sucked.  We actually found soft snow to the skiers right of the chute and had several hundred feet of descent turns off the top. Then we encountered what we knew was coming and skittered and grinded the rest of the way down the long, narrow coully.  The snow was slighly more edgable than anticipated. Although it wasn’t pretty, nor was it frightful.

Despite our less than glamorous excursion, the Pinner is actually a magnificent run.  In perfect corn, or edgable winter snow, it must be a very rewarding ski descent. It winds through massive red walls for thousands of vertical feet. The only truly unsettling thing about it is the hectic amount of rockfall that zings down from above. As the walls heat up, the cliffs shed rocks that pepper the chute by the hour, if not the minute.  We skied past many “chips” of various sizes that were not there on the way up.  I highly recommend wearing a helmet of some sort both up and down the Pinner.  I also wouldn’t suggest dilly dallying around for any length of time unless you get a thrill out of Russian Roulette.

All said and done the outing was not a total failure.  After all, we summited Laurel Mountain, took in some amazing views, got a good workout, and survived the Pinner without injury.  The experience should make future Eastside missions seem dreamy in comparison.  At the end of the day it reminded me that not all ski tours end with effortless pow turns and shit eating grins. Sometimes it’s just nice to return in one piece.

...must come down.

Details: The Pinner and Mendenhall Couloirs along with many other challenging ski routes can be found in the Convict Creek Region of the Eastern Sierra, just a few miles from the town of Mammoth Lakes.

Three Days

The last three days of February were as good a three day stretch in the backcountry as one could ask for.  As the storm clouds slowly lifted on Saturday, February 26 we sessioned a North Shore venue.  On Sunday we visited the East Shore and on Monday we hit the West Shore.  Each day conditions surpassed the day prior.  Here is a recap of our tours over that killer three days.

Ed Viesturs Speaks in Squaw Valley

Norman Wright Mechanical Equipment hosted renowned climber Ed Viesturs at their annual client retreat in Squaw Valley last Thursday.  Ed Viesturs is perhaps the most accomplished and respected American high altitude mountaineer in history.  Ed spoke about his entire climbing career from his early days as a guide on Mt. Rainier through the completion of his Endeavor 8,000 project in which he became the first American to climb all fourteen, 8,000 meter peaks without the use of supplemental oxygen.   Ed is one of the most responsible, thoughtful, and ethical climbers in the game.  His motto: “summiting is optional, getting down is mandatory”.  He is always willing to assess conditions, respect turnaround times, and pull the plug on summit attempts if conditions are not favorable.  He once retreated just 300 feet from the summit of Everest.  Shelving his own summit attempts to assist injured parties is standard protocol for Ed.  He spoke about his involvement with the Everest Imax production filmed during the 1996 climbing season.  The film crew ended up being critical responders to the tragedy in which six climbers died including guides Rob Hall and Scott Fischer.

Ed is the author “K2 Life and Death on the Worlds most Dangerous Mountain” and the national bestseller “No Shortcuts to the Top”.  He has a new book coming out this October that examines the difference between commitment and obsession, specifically as it relates to Annapurna, which takes the lives of 50% of those who attempt to climb it.

Living legend Ed Viesturs with Squallywood Author Robb Gaffney


A bit of new snow caked over Squaw Valley Wednesday night resulting in really nice conditions Thursday.

A lovely solo effort exits Tram Chute Proper Friday morning.

Upper Tram Face looking sugar coated and ready to rock.