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.