Sunday, April 24, 2011

Middel Pallisade - 14,016' & Polemonium Peak - 14,200'

In what has become a winter to remember, the 2011 ski season keeps rocking on here in the Sierra. In Christian Pondella’s and my continued ‘Big Game’ hunt, we ticked off another couple of big lines on Friday. Our primary goal, the NE face of Middle Pallisade (14,016’) had not been in condition since 2006 and we were psyched to give it a go. Three weeks ago, a visit to the base of the face revealed a proper amount of coverage for a decent ski, but the snow surface was tattered by the wind and by slides. We decided to wait for the ‘right’ kind of storm to resurface the face before we skied it.
Thursday brought 11,000’ snow levels and wind from the due west, a perfect combo.  I picked up Christian from his house in Mammoth at 8:30p and we hit the road planning to get a good night’s rest at the trailhead and a pre-dawn start. Our day commenced a touch earlier than we considered ‘civilized’ thanks to a nudge from some fellow skiers aiming to ski the same mountain. Though our 3:30a start hurt a bit, it quickly became our blessing in disguise.  A ¾ moon lit the way perfectly as we ascended 4000’ or so to the base of the climb.  Up on the glacier, Christian rattled off photos in the pink morning light and we soon stood at the bergschrund, and readied for the climb.
Climbing was fairly easy thanks to a supportable layer under the foot or so of new snow. The new snow bonded well with the old and showed no signs of weaknesses or wind affect. We were psyched! We encountered a couple of ice cruxes along the way that were sure to offer a challenge on descent. At 8:30a we stood atop Middle Pal and clinked our poles together as we buckled down for the ski.
The first turns off the top were in glorious Sierra pow, followed by a bit of rock and ice navigation, which led to the main face. We arched turns down the face at a cautiously fast pace due to exposure worked through a bit more ice and rock and jumped the cliff at the bottom. At the schrund we met Ben and Shane, our fellow climbers/skiers, thanked them for getting us started an hour earlier than we had planned and the chance to climb and ski first. We wished them luck and descended the glacier and valley below back to 10,000’.
Now 9:30a, it seemed far to early to return to the truck and snow conditions were perfect up high. We discussed our options and decided to head for the V-Notch on Polemonium Peak (14,200’) for an afternoon ski. This meant heading directly up the South Fork of Big Pine Creek to a notch on Mt. Sill (14,162’)at 13,800’ and a descent of Sill’s NW Couloir. Skinning was easy and the breeze kept us cool. At 12,500’we ran into Bishop’s Dan Mingori and joined forces for the skin to the notch.  At the notch Dan decided to drop back into South Fork and we parted ways pointing our skis down the NW slope. A few scratchy turns led to perfect creamy powder and we knew our senses had led us in the right direction. As we traversed further North onto the glacier, I looked up in awe at the amount of snow stacked in the V-Notch.
V-Notch April 2005
As predicted for the afternoon, the blue skies had turned to grey and a light snow began to fall from above. As we cruised towards our intended line, I called to Christian, “That doesn’t look like the V-Notch I’ve skied.”  He responded with a very positive grin and we pulled or skins out for the climb to the bergie. The snow was of perfect gradient density and conditions seemed almost to good to be true. As we climbed, the skies continued to darken and the scene began to turn from bright and happy to dark and eerie, a welcomed tone for the afternoon ski.  Before we knew it we topped out, and battled the wind and driving snow to 14. A quick buckle of the boots and a jump off the cornice and we were off carving perfect turns down the creamy 50 degree slope laughing the whole way. We took the run well out onto the glacier, scoped the other lines in the area, clanked our poles together in celebration. I called out a few yodels and listened in disbelief as they bounced over and over again off the hulking walls of granite that surrounded us.
Less than an hour later we were back at the truck clinking a toast with our fellow climbers/skiers Shane and Ben as they too had enjoyed success with a ski of Middle Pal. We reveled in the glory of the moment and congratulated each other on a day well played in the mountains. Off to Bishop for tacos and tequila! Christian and I had now ‘officially’ completely skiing all 14 CA 14ers from their highest skiable points and it was time to celebrate.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Split Couloir

Split Mountain 14,058'

Perhaps the most aesthetic snowy line in the Sierra Nevada, the Split Couloir begs to be skied.  In addition to the beauty and grace of the route, there is the problematic year to year snow coverage that makes this line tough to nail, and even more special when skied in proper condition.
In early April, Christian Pondella and I made plans to climb and ski the couloir, after inspecting the snow coverage with a spotting scope from the valley floor nearly 10000 feet below.  If it went, it would be my second descent of the line and Christian’s first. Through the scope, coverage looked to be in the ‘good enough’ category so we made plans to go.
Upon arrival Sunday night, we were surprised to see 3 other trucks at the trailhead.  We figured the others were headed for the South Face of Split, which has become quite the go to line this year, due to fantastic coverage. Just as we saddled our packs somewhere around 4:30a, Andy and Jason Dorais of SLC, Utah walked up, and mentioned they were gunning for the Split Coulie as well.
After the initial ‘uh, ya, whatever’ thought ran through my mind, we said, ‘let’s go!’, half figuring there’d be a good chance they’d fall off the back, somewhere on the approach. Turns out these guys are as solid as they come, and if anyone was going to get dropped, it was Chris and I. These two know how to move in the mountains!

From the Red Lake trailhead, a 5500‘ ascent puts you at the base of the technical ice climb that guards this beautiful, 2000+ vertical foot gash in the mountain.  Whether approached via the hopefully snowy, main drain or via the Red Lake Trail, the approach climb is steep and arduous.
We hopped on snow right at 6500’ and skinned all the way to the top of the apron just 300 feet below the ice.

As we now were a group of 4, we divvied up the tasks of setting boot pack in the upper couloir and building a solid anchor for the rappel on the way back down. Andy and Jason soloed the 60 feet or so of vertical ice, and were off kicking steps up the line.
Chris followed, protecting the climb, and began work on building the anchor on the climber’s right side of the gully just above the ledge and vertical drop below.  Once the anchor was set, Chris quickly belayed me to the ledge, and we were off to catch the brothers from Utah.

From the ledge, fun, relatively easy ice climbing led to boot top winter snow in the upper couloir and the Dorais’s beautiful boot pack.

 Christian and I caught the brothers at the summit, shared some good food, and readied for the descent.  I gave a shout out and shed a few tears for my brother who tragically lost his wife and kids in a plane crash the week before. We clicked in for a amazing ski, with their spirits along for the ride.

The snow was ‘mostly’ good and wintry on descent, but a few patches of refrozen glaze in the center of the couloir kept us on our toes. We snapped photos where we could and made our way to the rappel, choosing to down climb the short section of ice just above the ledge and anchor.

The 30m rappel led to a few more decent turns lower couloir, followed by some more refrozen glaze. We emerged on the apron with huge grins, happy to have safely climbed and skied this beautiful line. 5500 feet of velvety corn snow led back to the desert and cooler full of cold beer.

At the tailgate of the truck, we shared some more stories with the Dorais brothers, talked about other possible ski descents for them to tackle and made plans to ski with them again in the future. It is always a pleasure to meet and share time with good peeps in the mountains, especially on a big day like this one.             Another great adventure in the Sierra Nevada!

Thank you to Christian Pondella for the great photos.