Ski Mountaineering

Bloody Couloir - Three Fingers

March 13-14, 1999

Reiner Stenzel

The originally scheduled trip to Mt Baldy's Dare, Shit, and Zen chutes had to be canceled (s... happens, no snow). So I chose another chute with snow, Bloody Couloir, e-mailed to a dozen SMS'ers, and got two participants, Don Pies and Coby Teffts. Thanks to Don's assistance it became an official SMS trip.

Coby was new to the SMS but after he described his skiing background I thought Bloody was the right intro tour for him. We were so lucky with the weather: A storm had moved through on Thursday (3/11) and the next one was due on Sun (3/14). Our plan was to do Bloody on Sat and something steep on Sun morning and the timing was just right for both.

Bloody Couloir is one of the classic ski descents in the Eastern Sierra Nevada, described in John Moynier's book of Backcountry skiing (p.142,177), Craig Dostie's Couloir (Vol.X, No.5, Feb 98, p.29) and on the web. The couloir on the N side of Bloody Mtn (12,544') is visible from Hwy 395 near Mammoth Lks. The ascent along Laurel Crk is about 6 mi and 5,000' one way. We met Saturday, 3/13 at 6am at the intersection of the Sherwin Creek Rd and Laurel Lks Rd, organized our gear, forced down some oatmeal, and were off by 6:45am. After a 15 min hike we continued on skis and climbed over a ridge into the drainage of Laurel Crk. Except for a few bare spots the 4WD road allowed a steady ascent to the Laurel Lks where we had our first rest. It was windy and slightly overcast. After continuing around a ridge we suddenly faced Bloody Couloir. It's an awesome sight: At the base the couloir starts broad like Baldy Bowl, but then narrows and rises at a progressively steepening angle some 2700' straight to the summit.

By 11am we started our switchbacks. Fortunately, the snow was soft since the N-facing couloir has too little sun to crust up. In endless long zigzag turns we worked our way up toward the Y-shaped split in the couloir. By noon the couloir was in the shade. Don turned around, Coby stayed at the rock tower at the split, and I ventured higher. It is recommended to ascend to the left of the split since the right is steeper and narrower. However, the local winds had scoured the snow on the easier side and deposited it as loose powder in the steeps. Since skiing up or down on hard-packed steep slopes was asking for trouble I chose the right hand side.

As the gully narrowed the switchbacks became shorter and shorter, the turning dicier, the effort to ascend in 2' deep powder at 40+deg angles utterly exhausting, and the snow stability somewhat questionable. Finally, a rockfall from the steep sidewalls was the call to get down. I could not afford an injury six weeks before the Haute Route. Although the summit appeared within reach I decided to turn back by 1:30pm.

Facing the couloir downhill was quite a sight. Don had skied to the base and was a barely visible spot on a rock. The first few turns produced plenty of adrenaline. Snow gushed down with each turn. At the lower tower Coby joined the fun with a great display of high-speed parallel turns on his randonnée skis. I enjoyed my powder tele skis at a slower pace. After at most 10 turns it was necessary to stop and recover. Somewhere in the deep snow my Voile release bindings came off and I took a healthy plunge.

Don was watching from below as we left our tracks in the Bloody Couloir. Eventually, we regrouped with him on a sunny rock recovering with great satisfaction from an exciting ski descent. After some picture taking we skied back the mining road to the Laurel Lks, plunged down another powder slope through mixed forest and bushes to Laurel Creek, crossed it on a collapsing snowbridge, and paralleled along the creek on soft spring snow. Some hiking and skiing along the dirt road got us back to the cars by 4pm. It was 9 hrs of exciting skiing, but nobody got hurt or was too exhausted.

We drove into town, called Owen Maloy, went out together for dinner at Matsu's, accepted his kind offer to stay at his condo, and heard many a story till late into the night. Our plan for Sunday was to ski the Three Fingers on the Sherwin Ridge, a favorite backcountry tour for the locals at Mammoth Lks. Sun morning it was windy and an ominous front was building up. Before 8am we headed to the golf course below the Sherwin Bowls, left one car at Ranch Rd, and carpooled up to the Lake Mary road end near Tamarack Lodge.

From there we skied up to an old mine but missed the local's trail and ended up with a cl.3 mountaineering ascent to the Sherwin Ridge. On the plateau (10,100') we were greeted by ferocious winds indicating that the next storm was impending. Like tilted drunkards we staggered in 50 mph gusts along the ridge toward the Rock in front of which the Three Fingers lead down into Sherwin Bowl. Luckily, the gullies to the East were on the lee side and had surprisingly good powder snow left.

The ski run down on 35 deg powder slopes was a pure delight. At the base we traversed through the forest into the open avalanche slope of the Sherwin Bowl whose runout got us straight back to the car by noon. An hour later, we had carpooled back to the upper car and were ready to drive home. High winds and dust filled the entire Owens Valley. The whole weekend was a great success in backcountry skiing. Just a pity that so few joined the fun. Thanks to Don for his co-lead and to Coby for joining our group.

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