Ski Mountaineering

Bishop Pass to Virginia Canyon via Mammoth Hot Spring
May 13-20, 2000

Tom Marsh

Weather for all seasons is the best way to describe the weather in the Sierras for the week of May 13-20. Upon our arrival at the Taboose Creek Campground on Friday night, May 12th, pleasant temperatures and clear star-studded skies greeted the eight of us as we conversed well into the evening. We were Joe McGuire, Evelyn McGuire, Don Ralphs, Randy S, Bill Lutz, Mike Rector, RJ Secor and myself. The weather was still quite nice as we shuttled the cars to the Taboose Pass Trailhead and took the long drive up to South Lake. The first two miles required carrying the ski laden packs through the intermittent snow. At about 10,000 feet, we were able to don skis and relish the lighter packs without skis.

Surprisingly, even though the snow level was quite high, an abnormal cold period had proceeded our trip for the last week. The previous Tuesday had the town of Bodie as the low for the nation at 5 degrees. This was beneficial as we sk ate skied the flat expanse of Long Lake and deep into the Bishop Creek Drainage. Because of our long shuttle, we did not arrive at Bishop Lakes until after 4:00 PM. The wind was blowing at about 40 mph. A large group from the Sierra Peak Section had arrived before us and managed to climb Mount Goodard.

The wind increased to 60-70 mph gusts as we set up camp, the only shelter being behind a large rock. As the night progressed, it was apparent that the wind was not going to abate. The group in the Megamid was constantly being beat by the tent walls. Needless to say, no one slept well that night.

The predication of a strong storm system was still in the forecast as we awoke to even stronger winds. Rather than risk the weather, I decided on a layover day to get the group acclimated and determine the real intent of the weather. Therefore, a number of us ascended the hard windy slopes of Bishop Pass into Dusy Basin. It was difficult to ski upright in the winds as we toured the basin in view of Thu nderbolt Col. Upon arriving back at camp in the early afternoon, we discovered that the winds had broken the tent poles of a VE25 Northface Tent. Faced we no shelter and a deteriorating weather pattern, the decision was made to ski out.

Tired and sore from our brief stay in the Sierras, we all filed into Whiskey Creek in Bishop for beers, good food and conversion. After that, we all drove to Polky's pool for a relaxing soak in an outdoor hot springs. Is this a SMS trip or a hot spring tour? The next day we all had breakfast at the McDonalds in Mammoth to contemplate our next move. The Forest Service Station in Mammoth had posted the prediction of the same strong storm to arrive that evening and stay through Tuesday, preceded by the persistent high winds. Most of us decided to take a off day and visit the town of Bodie. Joe and Evelyn decided to ski the Mountain. Late that afternoon we all came together for some more beers at Grumpy's in Mammoth. As we relaxed, the full brunt of the storm arrived. By the next morning, 8 inches of snow had fallen. We all decided to ski the Mountain on that stormy Tuesday. Amazingly, we were all greeted with some of the best powder skiing of the year.

Starting with Wednesday, we finally had an improving weather pattern. Itching to get back into the backcountry, we drove up to Virginia Lakes in the Hoover Wilderness. A beautiful day provided us relatively easy access up the canyon, over the pass and down to the Eastern shore of Summit Lake. It was an ideal campspot in the view of Stanton, Camaica, Virginia and Greyhead peaks. Ski tours across the long length of Summit Lake became a nightly ritual. The next day we took an 8-mile loop from Summit Lake to Stanton Peak to Solider Lake and back down into the ca nyon. We all very much enjoyed the 2,000-foot decent from Soldier Lake to the bottom of the canyon on great spring corn, although we had a number of unnerving sounds and feelings of settling snow slabs. As well as, large snow ball development.

The next day we decided to pack out with a detour to the top of Excelsior Mountain. We had to scale one 300-foot steep section before the moderate slopes of the pass. Luckily, Mike had plow-stepped down the slope two days early and provided a secure route up the steep icy slopes. Both Mike and Evelyn had ski crampons to traverse up, a valuable tool on this type of terrain.

Upon reaching the pass, we dumped our packs and started the long ascent of Excelsior. The first section proved to be the most difficult. We were able to ski to the ridgeline separating Virginia Canyon from the east encampment. The wind had blown most of the snow off the west slopes. Therefore, we traversed large talus for the last mile to the top. The views were incredible! Even better was the ascent back to the pass on great spring conditions. One lone marmot had managed to chew a hole into Mike's gorp. The descent from the pass to the cars was good, although it was a bit mushy toward the last stand of tree skiing. That evening we had a very relaxing soak in Travertine Hot Spring right out of Bridgeport, as well as fine dining at the Bridgeport Inn.

On Saturday, we had to get one more tour in under fine weather. Therefore, we skied to the top of False White in the Tioga Pass area. It was not the best time to be on that mountain. Contrary to the conditions in the Virginia Lakes area the day before, False White had ankle deep mush on the ascent up. The pit dug at the top evidenced two feet of mush on an icy floor. This became especially apparent after Joe traversed the ridge and let off a 10-foot wide, 2-foot deep slide that went 200 feet. This was unnerving, since all of us were still above this section. One at a time, we gingerly skied down past the runout in the mushy conditions. The snow finally improved toward the bottom on the canyon. We arrived back at the cars by 1:00PM in full sight of the slide on False White.

A final soak in Hot Creek was in order as we made our way home from this week of skiing. Special thanks to Joe for Co-leading the trip and Mike and Bill for some great company.

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