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.
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.