Skiing Stoke from Lake Tahoe

Tag: ski mountaineering

All Aboard the A(drenaline) -Train!

By Rob McCormick

When the sun finally came out at the end of March I became depressed. I love snowstorms and had become accustomed to skiing powder every day. On March 28 temperatures soared into the 50’s and began radiating twenty feet of fresh snow like a greenhouse. A ski tour that day brought me within striking distance of one of my favorite zones along the Pacific Crest. I frequently observe this region from a distance but was able to get a good look from a nearby peak. I was amazed by what I saw. The technical face was loaded with snow. Lines that are usually questionable at best seemed to go. More importantly, the menacing cornice that overhangs the ridgeline seemed much smaller than usual (i.e. 10 feet instead of 30 feet). A very long approach and frequent storm conditions had kept the region off my radar most of the winter. I took a few photos and skied back to civilization but could not shake what I had seen.

When I got home I started to realize the warming trend was not all bad. Predictable corn cycles do have their advantages. Long approaches become much more feasible. Steeper lines seem more realistic and less intimidating in perfect corn. It was time to refocus my goggles and start getting fired up for ski mountaineering season.

On April 4, Robb Gaffney and I found ourselves standing on top of the ridgeline I had spied a week prior. It was warming quickly and dead calm. A pole scrape of the face below us indicated two to three inches of perfect corn snow. Although we had both skied lines in the region, neither had dropped the direct fall line routes off the summit. We opted to hit the east/southeast face first as it would get rotten soon. Since we gained the summit from the north we did not have a great view of the face we were going to ski. My photos from the week before indicated it would go and looking down it seemed possible so we dropped in. We could not have asked for better steep skiing snow. We leap frogged down the face with one skier advancing and providing beta on what he found. We came across three different crux zones in which the snow had melted out and required some rock skirting. The pitch held steady at 53 degrees for the entire descent. The last couple hundred feet we each selected a different chute and began to link some legit turns together. The bottom of the face even had a little bergshrund to boot. All said and done the line was only about 700 vertical feet, but a solid shot of adrenaline for sure.

The small vertical meant another run was a must in such ideal conditions. We strapped on our crampons and front pointed up a narrow couloir. About halfway up the chute gave way to a gorgeous summit snowfield which became our next objective. Since we climbed our descent route we new what we were getting into this time and were able to really enjoy it. The northeast facing ramp delivered huge before funneling back into the couloir. The chute itself was really narrow and beatup but the overall aesthetics of the entire line were second to none.

Robb booted back up for one more run while I shot video from across the valley. The day had been a tremendous success. Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the adventure is knowing the zone contains lines that are far more challenging than the routes we chose. Many narrow chutes and straightlines seem possible in perfect conditions. There is also a large steep face that ends in a mandatory seventy foot air. When you consider the fact the nearest road is about five miles away this becomes extremely committing stuff indeed. Plenty of lines for future generations to get after. In the meantime, it was satisfying to tap into a new rush right in our own backyard known as the Pacific Crest.

The first half of this video includes the trip described above. The second half is a recent tour on the southwest shore of Lake Tahoe.

Mini Mountaineering

Inspiring and intimidating...a look back at our objective (photo by Robb Gaffney)

Last week a friend and I sessioned one of our favorite zones along the Pacific Crest. Perfect conditions allowed us to ski some exciting new lines. At 600 to 800 vertical feet, it hardly qualified as big mountain skiing. However, sustained pitch and secondary exposure combined with mini couloirs and faces to climb and ski made for an exhilarating day of mini-mountaineering.

Dropping into the center line (photo by Robb Gaffney)

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.