Ski Mountaineering

Birch Mtn

March 25-26, 2000

Reiner Stenzel

Birch Mtn (13,665') is a classic ski mountaineering peak in the Eastern Sierra Nevada. It is also a listed SPS peak. Thus, it was natural to have a joint SMS-SPS trip to this peak in the spring. Five participants came together: R.J. Secor, Susan Livingston, Richard Contreras, Alan Franz, and myself. Three of us were both SPS and SMS members, and all had backcountry skiing and climbing experience. We made the summit, enjoyed the skiing, and had a good time without incidents. Here are the details:

On Sat, 7 am, we met at Baker Creek Cpgrd in Big Pine. In spite of a forecast of an impending weather front, it was sunny and clear, the Sierra Crest was beautifully white, and Birch Mtn was visible in the distance some 9,500' above us. The first challenge was to get to its base. We drove about 7 mi on a dirt road over washboards to McMurry Mdws, then switched into two 4WD cars to dive through Birch Creek, through deep muck, over vicious rocks and moguls to the Tinnemaha Creek "trailhead" (6,800', no signs, end of road).

At 9 am we started our hike, loaded with usually too heavy packs and skis poking into the sky. We took the faint use trail along the creek. Big mistake; it led into brush country and then disappeared. For a while we traversed on 30 degree slopes parallel to the creek, then lost patience and muscled up to a ridge high above the creek where we followed bighorn sheep trails through sagebrush country. At about 8,000' there is a sizable forest along Tinemaha Crk. and continuous snow started at its upper end. A trail was spotted near the creek and the group left the ridge. The subsequent struggle through the forest and willows in intermittent soft snow is not remembered fondly. After this ordeal we had lunch, skinned up and ascended the wide, open creek drainage to about 10,100' where we found a fine campsite on a small plateau. By 5 pm three Bibler tents were pitched. We relaxed and enjoyed our cocktails, appetizers, and dinners, overlooking Owens Valley some 6,000' below us to the East and admiring snow covered peaks some 4,000' above us to the West. Since a big day was ahead we were in bed by 7:30 pm.

Sunday's wake-up call was at 5 am (not universally appreciated) and we were on our way about an hour later. The snow was frozen solid and four decided to climb on foot with ice axe and crampons. I used ski crampons and had no problems skiing all the way to the summit. High clouds covered the sun and dimmed our hopes for soft snow. R.J. and Susan were concerned how to ski down the steep frozen slopes and opted for an SPS-style peak ascent without skis. We followed the Tinemaha Creek drainage West to about 11,500', then turned North and ascended the southeast slopes of Birch Mtn all the way to the summit (13,665).

It was a long climb and the group arrived between 11 am and noon. Since it was Richard's first climb this year he decided to forgo the summit, enjoy the skiing and save some energy for the way down. We had two radios to stay in contact when out of sight.

The spectacular summit view from Birch Mtn was worth all the effort. We had a 180 degree panorama of white Sierra peaks around us. The 14,000' peaks of the Palisades Range and Split Mtn were close by. Surprisingly, the earlier clouds had vanished and we were blessed with sunshine, no winds, and the prospect of soft snow.

After signing the peak register, taking many pictures, enjoying a high altitude lunch, and calling home with Susan's cell-phone, it was time for the descent. Alan and I telemarked down from the summit and later met up with Richard. Guidebooks (J. Moynier, P. Richins) describe the ski runs appropriately as advanced (black diamond, 30-35 deg). It starts on windslabs near the summit, followed by transitional snow and finally soft spring snow where carving tele-turns becomes a pure pleasure. Except for crossing some rockbands we had continuous snow for the 3,500' ski descent to basecamp.

While we skied our hearts out others regretted to walk down or glissaded and got a wet cold rear end. By 2 pm we were all back at basecamp, snacked while packing, and left by 3 pm. Skiing down with a full pack in super soft spring snow is another acquired skill. In telemarking, the weighting of the rear ski makes all the difference between a faceplant or a nice turn. Somehow, everyone got down to the snowline, although walking (postholing) was not an easy option. Having paid our dues near the creek, we remained high on the ridge and walked through thousands of sagebrushes down to the cars arriving by 5 pm. One could feel the 12 hr, +3,500', -7,000' day of skimountaineering. On the drive out one car got nearly stuck in the McMurry mud. We rejoined for a nice dinner at P.J.s in Lonepine which was a bargain compared to what our cars swallowed at $2/gallon. A late drive home concluded our adventurous weekend in the mountains. Thanks to everyone for the camaraderie and for R.J.'s assistance, which made this restricted trip possible.

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