Ski Mountaineering

Oak Creek
February 2010

Alvin Walter

Oak Creek in Southern California is an area that is known about by few and visited by even fewer making it an ideal location to explore for its skiing options following a heavy series of storms. I can't really explain what draws me to such places considering the potential difficulty except to say that it must be something like the dark matter in space that cannot be seen but its existence is known by the effective pull that it has. During the summer of 2009, Ellen and I had searched the valley below to establish a suitable starting point for this potential skiing destination and marked it with a waypoint in my GPS when the creek was quite dry. It was pretty apparent from the topo maps of the area with their very tightly spaced lines that the creek was also quite steep which could make for some great skiing in a big snow year. I wanted to make sure there were no impassable waterfalls or headwalls that would hamper a ski ascent and descent; so I proceeded with a solo summertime climb. Waterfalls and headwalls did block branches; however, I did find a way around them via a route that maxed out my 3rd and 4th class climbing skills over an extended vertical stretch that included many loose teetering boulders and much release at the touch scree that would flow down in waves like sloughs of newly fallen dry powder, except that it created a rumble that echoed off the canyon walls thus pumping me full of adrenalin as I watched it continue far below. At about the 7,500 foot level, I reached a north/south ridge with a much mellower slope that looked like it continued to the top of the east/west ridge and felt that I had surpassed the crux and most interesting part of what would make for a challenging winter climb and ski.

In January of this year, the winter storms had performed their magic by blanketing our mountains in at least 7 feet of new snow on the ridges that could amount to well over 15 feet in the canyons and couloirs; so, I invited several friends to join me for a winter explore. Luis Gonzales was eager even after I explained to him all the possible obstacles and hazards that may prevent accomplishing our goal to climb and ski this challenging Southern California canyon for the First Time Ever!

Due to the remoteness, steepness, difficulty of access and requirement for epic snow pack conditions and the right timing, it is extremely unlikely that anyone else would ever consider this route when there are so many other, easier options - not to mention the fact that well over 30 years of skiing Southern California backcountry and a burning desire to expand future options were significant driving forces. The lower end of the creek didn't have quite the depth of snow that I was hoping for; however, there was enough to start out skinning, albeit somewhat prudently to avoid breaking through to the creek. We proceeded up a number of steep pitches on a solid base with 4 to 6 inches of new snow until we reached a section that was too steep and narrow where we packed our skis and booted up to the next steeper section.

At that point, there was only a very narrow -- 3 foot wide -- steep, icy section about 50 feet in height straight in front of us. It was now crampon time and Luis opted to take the lead with his ice climbing axe that he was able to hammer in overhead for maximum grip since we weren't tying off with protection and a fall here could have had serious consequences. I attempted to follow with my self arrest poles and had to back off as they don't have the weight or sharpness to bite in the water ice I was trying to ascend.

As we approached this buttress of rock and ice, I noticed another possible snow line if I dropped down some and moved more to climbers' left. Sure enough, it was a palatable pitch that was make-able with my less technical equipment and we continued up. We followed the left side of the creek a little too far and got out on a ridge where we again came to an impasse that we spent a significant amount of time trying to solve in a couple possible directions. The main problem was that the snow here was deep granular that was too unstable to rely on as a step considering the huge exposure. Down climbing to another approach wasn't too appealing yet so I dug right in -- literally -- and burrowed a tunnel up through a cornice-like structure and a large bush to surpass this one impasse. Not too much further vertically, we came up against more barriers that we pushed to a point were we found access to a small chute where we could drop back into the main gully with minimum elevation loss.

Things went much better now that we were able to kick steps straight up. Granted it was still a steep 40 plus degrees -- but we were beginning to figuratively see light at the end of the proverbial tunnel and it wasn't too long before we made the north/south ridgeline that was skinable to the top. The only problem now is that it was getting late and the discussion we had about making it to the top and skiing down another chute that I knew was good to avoid dealing with the very steep icy sections below became a moot point - we didn't have the time. We were really motivated to ski this chute we just came up as the snow conditions were for the most part excellent -- it was powder that was a bit heavy on icy sections underneath and quite steep but very doable even though it likely would slough where the sun softened it. We took a break while admiring the scenery, then peeled the skins, tightened the buckles and stepped into the bindings.

It was time to head down! The mellow powder ridgeline eased us right into the top of the steep chute - it was a great start! The skiable section was narrow but turning in these powder conditions just felt really good. We were taking our time and enjoying every moment of the ski. There was a very steep icy runnel that we cramponed up that was less than a ski length wide that funneled debris from above. Fortunately we were able to stay high on the canyon wall to ski around it and savor many more turns before we came back to that ice wall where we had to down climb with crampons. That was a small price to pay for the fun we were having in a unique First Ever descent past globular clusters of snowballs that were natural avy debris in places and our own creation in others.

We conservatively down climbed about another couple hundred vertical feet past another icy exposed section until we came to the last of our uphill skin tracks where we removed the crampons and laid down some more powder tracks until we reached a large bouldering section that we down climbed and booted the rest of the way back to where Ellen met us with Congratulations for accomplishing our goal of doing a First Ski Descent!

To celebrate, we went to a local Mexican Eatery with local live music and toasted to the Spirit of Adventure that can make one feel so fully Alive! May we all have these kinds of experiences over and over!

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