Ski Mountaineering

Mt Davis

Oct 17-18, 1998

Reiner Stenzel

This was a late-season solo trip into the high country before the first snow would end the climbing season.

Left L.A. on Fri, 10/16, and drove to June Lake to sleep at the Agnew Lke trailhead in my VW Vanagon. Got a permit on Sat morning and hiked up the trail to Agnew Lake and Clark Lake to camp near Thousand Island Lake. There are fine views of the Ritter Range from the high trail and of course from Thousand Island Lake. On Sat, 10/17, morning it was calm and clear and I got a classic shot of Banner reflecting in Thousand Island Lake at sunrise. From the west end of the lake I ascended to North Glacier Pass, continued northwest of Lake Catherine up to the crest of the Ritter Range. There was a lot of old snow left from the earlier El Nino storms in the winter of 97/98. One could have skied on the larger snowfields, but not in the morning when the snow was more like glacial ice.

The hike on the plateau is easy and pleasant. The summit of Mt Davis is at the end of the long plateau. From the summit there are fine views in all directions, especially of the Cathedral Range to the north and the Ritter Range in the south. The crisp and clear Fall day was made for picture taking.

After signing the register and taking some summit shots I headed back down along the same cl2 route. Packed up and had an "uneventful" hike out, which really means a pleasant walk in pretty mountains in fine Fall colors. Just the six hour drive on the 395 was a chore, yet easy compared to horse and wagon 100 years ago.

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The Thumb

Oct 24-25, 1998

Since the trip to Davis last weekend was so enjoyable I thought to do another climb on the next weekend. Birch and The Thumb seemed jsut right for a weekend trip. But this time it was quite a different adventure!

As usual, I left L.A. on a Friday afternoon and drove to the Birch Lake trailhead to sleep in my VW bus.

On Sat morning, 10/24, I was up before sunrise to hike up the trail to Birch Lake. There were clouds in the east and when the sun rose the sky turned bloody-red. Not a good omen in the Sierras.

A few hours later I set up camp at Birch Lake. The sky was cloudy but nothing to worry, I thought. I left a little gap in my Bibler tent door open for ventilation. Then I took off for a day hike of The Thumb. It is a standard cl2-3 hike. There is only one interest climbing section, a chute leading to the sloping plateau on the southest face of the Thumb.

As I worked my way to the summit the weather deteriorated. A fast-moving front had arrived. It got dark, cold, started to rain, then to snow. I was too close to the summit to turn around. So I rushed up to sign in. Forget about summit pictures and relaxing on the peak. I hiked down asap as the storm came in with a vengence.

It snowed like in a real winter storm. Soon the rocks were covered with snow. The nasty part was an ice layer on the rocks under the snow. Boulder hopping was over. The pace downhill was slower than up. Every step could lead to a potential fall due to ice under snow. After many hours descending in this freak snow storm I was finally back at Birch Lake unscathed. I could not believe the change from the morning: It was a real winter landscape. Ice formed on the lake. The tent was covered with snow. Worst of all, the sleeping bag was also covered with snow which entered threw the small gap in the tent door.

After cleaning up the mess, I crawled into the tent to change the wet clothes and warm up. It had become like a real SMS winter trip. I spent the next 12 hours inside as the storm moved through.

On Sunday morning, it appeared to be all over. But soon the low clouds were descending again on Birch Mtn which I wanted to climb in the morning. The early red sky was a reminder of the day before. I decide not to make the same mistake again and left Birch for another day or year. I packed up, hiked out and was satisfied with one peak, having made it out safely in wild mountain weather.

Later I learned that this storm surprised many hikers. Susan Livingston was caught on Olancha, got off trail and needed helicopter evacuation. Many others had a few stories to tell. Guess the climbing season finally ended.

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