Ski Mountaineering


April 10-11, 1999

Reiner Stenzel

This trip was a fine ski mountaineering adventure with great powder skiing, a challenging peak ascent, a gamble with the weather and avy conditions. Here is how it went: On Thursday before the trip a winter storm moved through the range, the avalanche conditions were rated as high, and another storm was forecast for Sunday. After describing the situation to our potential 15 participants, the group shrunk to 10 die-hards: Tom Marsh, Mark Vogt, Mike Rector, Angel Ocana, Jim DeRose, Brad Kinney, John DiGiacomo, Doug O'Neil, Michael McDermitt.

We met on Sat 7am, at the end of the South Lake Road just beyond Parchers Camp (9,400'). The road was officially closed, covered with an icy crust, but everyone made it somehow up. After sorting out shared gear, packing, testing avalanche beacons, we were off to an 8:30am start on a sunny crisp morning. The tour starts with a good warm-up, a 1000' climb through forest up to Bluff Lke (10,523'). Since the snow from the last storm had not yet settled, safe route finding was the highest priority. We ascended half way up in the forest, but then the snow became so unsettled that at places one could push the entire ski pole into the snow without reaching a solid layer. We traversed into an open area which, unfortunately, was an old avalanche path. Less than one foot of soft snow on top of a solid base felt much better.

We switch-backed up among large boulders, everyone spaced properly apart and on high alert. Finally, the slope mellowed and near Bluff Lke we were back on safe terrain. As a reminder, we saw a big, fresh, cornice-triggered avalanche on a nearby ridge of the Inconsolable Range. We were so lucky with the weather, the spring sun was out, no wind, and we could ski with one layer of clothing. Near Brown Lke (10,800'), we passed some inviting gullies which were loaded with fresh, untouched powder up to the 12,000' ridge of the Inconsolable Range that would be explored in later summer trips. The next day, we would plan to carve these slopes. We made basecamp at the shores of Green Lke (11,054'). A row of pine trees provided shelter from winds, otherwise we had a grand view over the frozen lake towards the Inconsolable Range with Cloudripper in the distance. Unfortunately, the weather began to change. A broad high layer of clouds moved. In the north the clouds began to cover the summit of Mt. Tom. During lunch we considered our options: Originally, we wanted to climb Cloudripper on Sun morning. But with the impending storm, there was only a narrow window of opportunity. We therefore decided to make an attempt for the summit in the afternoon. By 1:30pm 8 skiers headed south along the creek drainage toward a steep slope leading up to the 13,000' plateau north of Cloudripper. We carved endless switchbacks into this 1500' slope whose angle steepened to about 35 deg. The deep snow and the thin air took their toll, the pace slowed down, and somewhere on the slope the group decided it would be more fun to ski down than up. In the meantime three of us, Jim, Mark and I, were on the plateau with Cloudripper in full view. The summit was still clear of clouds and seemed just an hour away. With my portable radio I contacted co-leader Tom that we would make an attempt for the peak and keep him and the group informed about our progress. We proceeded to ski up on windswept slabs to a band of rocks, stashed our skis and started the ascent on foot. I set landmarks with my GPS since the chances of finding skis in a whiteout are usually slim.

Now it became a race with the descending clouds. An ice cold wind and light snow flurries accompanied us on our climb. Just before 5pm we summitted Cloudripper (13,525'). In the south the Palisades Range was still visible while in the north Mt Humphreys, Tom, Basin, etc, were all covered by dark clouds. Finding the peak register was a real challenge since it was in a white plastic cylinder buried in the snow. But it was a pleasure to sign in an SMS trip for the first ascent in 1999. The arctic winds allowed us only a few minutes to rest and take a summit picture, a bite of hard chocolate, and a sip of water. Then we had to move again, climbing down over rock and snow in a storm guided by GPS to find our skis hidden behind a rock.

We skied carefully over the windslabbed plateau, then dropped down the steep powder slopes toward Green Lke. It felt like skiing on a mine field since fresh powder loosely covered underlying rocks resulting in nasty falls when skiing or turning over them. Further down we followed the tracks of our skiers who descended earlier. But nobody could compete with Angel's tracks which were a straight line of tight precision turns made by short randonnee powder skis. By 6:30pm we were back at camp. Cloudripper had vanished in the clouds and we were glad to be down. We all had dinner in a snow kitchen while light snow flurries were coming down. As it got darker and gloomier we vanished in the tents. The wind picked up and all night there was a light snowfall.

On Sun morning, at 5:30am, Mark gave us the weather report with the result that nobody got out of the tents. But April weather is unpredictable and by 8am the sun broke through. The mood was up but an hour later the clouds moved in again and Cloudripper was in a whiteout. No chance for a second ascent. So we packed and headed for the powder slopes near Brown Lke. There we simply dropped our packs and switchbacked up for an hour to the 12,000' ridge overlooking South Lke and the Thompson Ridge. The backcountry was in a deep winter weather, covered with fresh snow, clouds drifting around peaks, and more of it on the way.

Then the fun started when skiing 1,000' down in fresh powder snow. It was one sweet turn after another only interrupted when the legs got too tired. We carved the whole slope with tracks ranging from narrow parallel ones to giant slalom turns, even a straight line of footsteps since Mark's binding broke somewhere on the slope. By noon, after a brief snack, we continued to ski out. The steep slopes down to Parcher's Camp were another skiing adventure. Now the challenge were tight turns around trees, bushes and rocks with a full pack in deep snow. Even my fat powder skis sank into the bottomless unsettled snow in some places. But everyone made it somehow down and reached the cars by about 1:30pm. We were in high spirits to have finished an exciting ski mountaineering trip. It was a pleasure to be in the company of fine strong skiers. My special thanks go to Tom for co-leading the trip. In the late afternoon the predicted storm materialized. The mountains vanished in dark clouds which even sank to the ground of Owen's Valley and it rained from Lone Pine to LA.

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