Ski Mountaineering

Evolution Valley

April 26-30, 2008

Reiner Stenzel

This trip was originally planned by Tom Marsh but he could not make it and asked me to lead it. Jim Crouch, an LA Chapter leader from San Diego, assisted so that it remained an official SMS trip. Further participants were Helga Zimmerer, a Bay Area SC leader, Terry Erickson, Bahram Manahedgi, Fred Reed and Don Ralphs. Seven is a lucky number and our backcountry tour was a full success. Here are some details:

On Friday, 4/25, people converged from San Diego, LA and the Bay Area toward Bishop. Don came early and kindly got us a wilderness permit. It was the opening day of the fishing season and the road to Lake Sabrina resembled the San Diego Freeway.

Saturday morning, 4/26, we all met at the start of the North Lake Road between Aspendell and Lake Sabrina. The road was mostly free of snow but still closed. Thus we hiked up to North Lake with full packs and skis on the back. Fishermen wondered why we like that.

We took the Piute Pass trail, which was intermittently dry and snow covered and easy to loose. Some bushwhacking is not unusual for ski trips in the Eastern Sierra Nevada. We had a lunch break below Loch Leven. Don noticed that he had forgotten some important medicine. Little choice, he had to go back and fetch it. He would catch up with us later. After a leisurely lunch break we skinned up to Loch Leven (10,743') which was still snow covered. But there were puddles of melt water on the ice and it was a warm day. After some soul searching and ice poking we dared to ski across it to the other shore where we continued on solid ground. Wouldn't be nice to have another gadget to measure the ice thickness?

Originally, we planned to camp at Piute Lake but since Don had to catch up with us we decided to stop early around 3pm at Lake 10,800' between Loch Leven and Piute Lake. Next to the lake with open water was a dry meadow where most of us set up camp. We followed our trip motive to take it easy and have fun. Sorry for Don who had a tough first day. He joined us safely around 6:30pm with medicine and the originally missing wilderness permit. We had dinner and enjoyed the perfect spring weather which was warm and calm and had long sunshine since the valley was open to the west. Pikas were twitching in the evening. After darkness the moonless sky was filled with stars.

Sunday morning, 4/27, the birds woke us up with a concert, but we waited for the sun to hit the tents and got up around 7 am. There was no rush since we aimed at crossing the major pass, Alpine Col, by midday in soft snow. While packing we met a local skier who was doing a day tour. He was the only other person whom we saw in the backcountry. We headed up to Piute Lake and skied right across it since it felt safe in the morning. The afternoon water puddles had turned into black ice which called for good balance on skis. After another ascent we reached Piute Pass (11,423') around 8:30am. We took a break to enjoy the views of the vast Humphreys Basin and the Glacier Divide, which we had to cross next.

From Piute Pass we headed west toward Muriel Lake (11,336'). The lake was frozen solid and there was no worry to break through the ice. From the south end we ascended to the next lakes, Goethe Lake (11,531'). This is the fun of spring skiing compared to summer hiking: You ski straight across the lake rather than boulder-hop around the shores. From Goethe Lake one has a clear view of Alpine Col, which looks a bit intimidating from a distance. One could diagonal up from the left or right side but both routes included rock bands. The straight-on ascent had continuous snow but looked steep. We chose it since the snow seemed soft enough by noon. We started our 1000' ascent by switch-backing up on skis. As we ascended the soft spring snow had intermittent stretches of hard, windpacked slabs. The slope steepened and kick-turns became dicey. Six out of seven booted up the hill with heavy packs and skis on the back. A slip was not an option on this slope. We all made it safely to the top of Alpine Col.

There was a splendid view from the pass over peaks and valleys. To the south one could see our destination, the Evolutionists Darwin and Mendel. To the north was Humphreys Basin and many snow-covered peaks on the horizon. Unfortunately, the south side of Alpine Col had no continuous snow coverage. There were two rock bands which we had to climb over before we could ski. But from then on the fun started. We skied down to Lake 11,910 leaving nice tracks behind. We headed further south to Lake 11,540 and crossed to its south end. Now it became time to look for a campsite. Helga and Terry explored one area, Jim another one and the rest had a break. Finally, we decided to continue on to the Darwin Bench. We found a fine area with a running stream and a great view over the Evolution Valley. Unfortunately, Helga's binding developed a problem and she had to ski very carefully from now on. Cirrus clouds were moving through, indicating a possible weather change. Bahram built a snow kitchen where we gathered for happy hour and dinner. Bahram cooked Persian specialties and we had a lively discussion about male vs female cooking skills. There was less controversy about who provided the best spirits, Don's Bourbon was as popular as Fred's Tequila. We had a happy time till it got dark and when some wind came up we retired in our tents.

On Monday, 4/28, we were having a lay-over day. We had two choices, to ski the Darwin Glacier or to tour the Evolution Valley. Due to the binding trouble we chose the latter. From the Darwin Bench we dropped down into Evolution Valley in the direction of The Hermit. It involved a steep climb down on rocks, grass and through trees, then a short acent to Evolution Lake.

This is a very scenic place both in the summer and snow season. Instead of following the curved John Muir Trail we skied straight over Evolution Lake. To the left was the rugged, convoluted faces of Mendel and Darwin. We proceeded to Sapphire Lake west of Mt Spencer. At the south end of Sapphire Lake was a fine rock where we had our lunch break. After lunch we continued to ski toward Wanda Lake. On the way one has a fine view of Mt Goddard, which we skied once before. One can also make out Muir Pass but Muir Hut was not so obvious. Clouds were rising everywhere.

When the designated turn-around time of 1:30pm came up we took a short break, peeled off the skins and headed back. It was fun cruising down on soft spring snow. Energetic Helga and Terry skated over the lakes, the rest of us followed at a slower pace. Below Evolution Lake we climbed up the slopes to reach the lower Darwin Bench from where we skinned up to our tents. We rejoined with Don who had turned around earlier to explore the pretty Darwin Bench.

Happy hour and dinner time followed as we watched ever-changing cloud formations coming in from the northwest. It was anyone's guess what the next day would bring. At sunset we had some spectacular photo ops of red cloud formations and glowing mountain peaks. It was a wonderful day.

The plan for Tuesday, 4/29, was to get over Lamarck Col, climb Lamarck peak and camp somewhere in Lamarck Canyon. But April weather is finicky and can change all plans. First thing in the morning, there were no clouds in the sky and we thought the little front had passed through overnight. But then the wind came. It was cold and strong. The sun had no chance of softening the snow. We packed up and skied up the Darwin Canyon. Straight across the lowest Lake (11,592), and the next lake east (11,623), but not over the third lake, which surprisingly had open water. From there we scouted our route over the pass. Only half of the slopes were skiable, the upper half was a rock climb. The snow was suncupped and frozen hard. On the other side loomed infamous Mendel Couloir, which has been skied by only a few. It was fun to remember the summer climbs of Darwin and Mendel.

We started to skin up. When the switchbacking on steep hard snow got too difficult we packed up the skis and started a long ascent. As we got higher the wind became more amd more ferocious. It came in gusts where you had to hold on not to get out of balance. Near the col it may have been over 50 miles per hour since one could be blown over without firm support. Just east of the col there was a calm due to the wind eddy. Further below the wind came down again in full force. There was no chance to climb Mt Lamarck since we might be blown off the summit.

We skied down the east side of Lamarck Col on hard-packed, wind-crusted snow, which ran out after a while, traversed on foot to the next snow field and repeated this over and over. Putting skis on and off in the wind was no fun. Most of us eventually just hiked over the crusty snow. But at lower elevations the snow lost its consistency and one occasionally broke through the crust down to the knees or hips. Add the wind and we must have looked like drunkards coming down the hill. Even strong Helga could not help it, walking at one moment and tipping over to the lee side at the next wind blast. Slowly this became demoralizing. In the upper canyon there was no escaping from the wind. At some distance below I spotted a plateau with a stand of low pine trees and coaxed everyone in this direction. The trees saved the day. In their wind shade it was possible to set up tents. We cooked in front of the tents and lived indoors. All night long periodic the wind blasts came down the valley and rattled the tents. The experience of a nature call in this weather shall remain unmentioned.

On Wednesday, 4/30, it was still windy. We packed up and hiked/skied down. We followed the drainage to Grass Lake rather than the summer trail to the Lamarck Lakes. The wind became less of a problem in the narrow, steep parts of the canyon. Eventually, we came into forested but steep terrain above Grass Lake where one only had to watch out not to hit a tree. Part of Grass Lake had open water/streams. It is a very scenic area with a fine view of the reddish Piute Crags.

Near the northern outlet of Grass Lake we found a trail and followed it on intermittent snow down to the North Lake Road. Another walk down the road brought us back to the cars -- and the cold wind, now blowing down the valley from Lake Sabrina. We drove to Bishop and rejoined for lunch at Schatzi's, then headed back on our long drives home. There were lots of pretty wildflowers on the sides of Hwy 395.

It was another classic Sierra ski mountaineering trip with a fine group of people, great scenery, and some surprises with the weather. We had fun, no rush, and no accidents, only a few blisters and some sunburn. Thanks to everyone, especially Jim for assisting.

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