Ski Mountaineering

Mt Pickering and Joe Devel

Apr 14-18, 2001

Reiner Stenzel

This outing was a ski mountaineering trip where we climbed and skied two SPS peaks south of Mt Whitney. It was a joint SMS and SPS trip and most participants were either active in both sections or otherwise experienced in ski mountaineering. The participants were Mark Vogt from San Diego, Ruth von Rotz von Truckee, Jonathan Meagher, Susan Livingston, and the leaders were R.J. Secor and myself. The trip started officially on Sat, 4/14, 6am, at the "Road Closed" sign on the Horseshoe Mdw Rd above Lone Pine. But, by chance some of us had dinner together on Fri night at P.J.'s and then found the rest of the group sleeping at the designated meeting place. To sleep high I drove up as far up as possible.

This year, the Cottonwood Lks area had 120% of the normal snowfall, great for skiing but a disaster for the road access. During the week prior to our trip it had snowed again. No first-hand information about the road condition was available. So we took our chances. Unfortunately, snow banks blocked the road already at the 8,000' level near the upper switchbacks. The Horseshoe Mdw Rd is looong (24 mi from Lone Pine) and the trailhead is high (10,000'). Short of giving up, we had little choice but to walk many miles on a partially snowed covered road to the trailhead. No fun with packs which weighed over 50 lbs with skis. By 1pm we had made it to the Horseshoe Mdw trailhead. By now we were on skis and proceeded, as planned, toward the Cottonwood Pass. The shorter route over New Army Pass was ruled out due to the steepness and the recent fresh snow on an icy base. Snowed-in Horseshoe Mdw looked beautiful.

Ascending Cottonwood Pass on powder was a workout since the fresh snow was balling up on the skins. By 4pm we were on the pass (11,180') and proceeded to ski toward Chicken Spring Lke. Since it was too late to make it into Rock Creek, our original goal, we decided to stay at the lake. It was located in a big cirque, had nice trees for wind shade, but there was no open water. We cooked on dry ground of tree rings, relaxed for dinner, and spent a peaceful night out of the cold winds.

On Easter Sunday, 4/15, we had a leisurely 8:30 am start. We ascended from the lake to the 11,600' level and contoured above the tree line roughly parallel to the PCT along the southwest slopes of Cirque Pk. The snow was wind packed and frozen, requiring careful edging to avoid a nasty fall down the long slopes. A cold wind blew from the west on a cloudless day. Gnarly foxtail pines are scattered along the slopes. The view over forests, meadows and distant mountains was beautiful. Big Whitney Mdw and the Siberian Outpost were completely covered by snow. The traverse was occasionally interrupted when we had to cross drainages, for example, just west of Cirque Pk and Army Pass. Our destination, the Rock Creek area near Joe Devel, was reached by early afternoon.

We found a beautiful campsite in a drainage below the Soldier Lkes and were delighted to find an opening in a creek with running water. This place would become our base camp for the next three nights (UTM 40 39 312N, 11 3 86 250 E, NAD 27, elev. 3331m). Everyone was relieved and dropped their heavy packs. By the time we had set up camp, eaten lunch, enlarged the water hole, washed up in icy creek water and relaxed in the sun, it was too late for an afternoon peak climb. Nobody was in the mood for an SPS death march. Mark and I scouted the route to Erin Lke for next day's ascent of Mt Pickering. After dinner, as it got dark, we crawled into our yellow Bibler submarines for a long night's sleep.

On Mon, 4/16, I set the alarm clock at 5:15am, and we did start our climb one hour later. It was a clear chilly morning, 13 deg F. Everyone had a light pack, carried skis, and was equipped with ice axe and crampons. We dropped down to and crossed Rock Creek, then ascended benches on mixed rock and snow to the drainage from Erin Lke. After cramponing up a steep slope east of Pk 3857m, we continued to climb on skis to Erin Lke, which was safe to ski on. At the north end there was a frozen waterfall. When we reached it, we were delighted to find some dripping water to fill our bottles. After shooting some nice pictures we proceeded to ski to the northwest end of the cirque where one ascends the southern slopes of Mt Pickering (4107m, 13,474'). The snow coverage was excellent, the slopes not too steep, so it was possible to ski all the way to the summit although five climbed the upper part on foot. All of us summitted between noon and 1pm. We signed the peak register as the first party in 2001. The original plan was to traverse the cl3 ridge to Joe Devel. What seems straightforward in summer time is a different story in winter. The ridge was covered with menacing cornices. My estimate was 3hrs for the traverse, another 3hrs to base camp. We would ski down J.D. on breakable crust, which few could handle. Thus, we shelved this plan and opted for fun skiing.

By early afternoon the snow on Pickering had softened and it was great skiing down its southern slopes. Of course, one had to watch ones turns on a long 30+deg slope. Mark and I had a great time with jump tele turns until Murphy's law struck: In the soft wet spring snow one more strong steering of his skis cracked Marks bindings. The entire Voile base plate broke in half which was impossible to repair. There was no alternative than to hike down which he did ahead of us. The rest of us waited for R.J., then proceeded down on skis. By 6pm we were all back at base camp. Except for the ski damage it was a fine afternoon, and we all agreed that climbing J.D. would have been too much.

On Tue, 4/17, we got up at the usual hour, 5:30 am, except for two who wanted to have a rest day. Our plan was to climb and ski Joe Devel. Since the snow coverage along its southern slopes looked spotty, R.J. decided to leave his skis behind and hike with Mark. We dropped down into a meadow in Rock Creek, then gained the southern ridge and ascended the long SE slopes to the summit (4062m, 13,327'). Impressive cornices hung over parts of the ridge. At 11:30am Mark and I signed in as first visitors in 2001, followed later by Susan and R.J. We talked by radio to Ruth and Jonathan at base camp. Mark's 2m amateur radio had a longer range than my sports radio and he could also make contact with a station in Trona. In emergencies, a ham radio seems more valuable than a cell phone, which was out of range in the backcountry. On a clear, winter-like day we enjoyed some of the best views from the summit. We could see San Gorgonio, Mt Pinos, the Panamints, the Kaweahs and the Great Western Divide, and of course the house on Mt Whitney. Mt Guyot, which we also wanted to ski, appeared tantalizingly close but judging from the GPS reading and the terrain it would be at least a 10mi round trip which was out of question for the afternoon.

After taking many pictures and finishing an early lunch it was time to descend. Mark went ahead to avoid the soft snow, while I was looking forward to it for a fun ski run down. Near the summit the cold wind kept the snow crusty but further below it turned into nice spring snow. The main difficulty was to find a continuous ski route through the rocks on the south-facing slope. It required many tight turns and, of course, no falls into the rocks. But it was infinitely more fun than post holing or walking on scree as in summer time. Further below, I found a pair of skis hanging in a tree, obviously Susan's. I sat down, took a nap, and waited till she and R.J. came down. Then we skied/hiked together back to base camp, arriving there by 3 pm. It was warm enough to take a full body wash in the icy creek and to make laundry. We had a relaxed afternoon, an early supper, but watched with concern the increasing cirrus clouds and the ring around the sun. A spectacular red sunset concluded the fourth day.

On Wed, 4/18, we all packed up and began our return. We counted on skiing out in two days. If it were not for the long trek on the road we would have stayed another day to do Mt Guyot. But in retrospect, the decision to head out saved us from a rapidly approaching winter storm. As we retraced our route along the slopes below Cirque Pk a cold wind was blowing, the sky became overcast, and low clouds approached from the south. Although it was tricky side hilling along the frozen slopes we made good progress and arrived by noon at Cottonwood Pass. Good spring snow made the 1,000 ski run down from the pass a real pleasure, although tiring with full packs.

We lunched in Horseshoe Mdw, skied to the trailhead, and then enjoyed a wonderful ski run down the snow-covered road to near Little Cottonwood Creek where the snow petered out. A short ascent got us to the high point near the heliport. There the road makes a narrow passage in the ridge forming a wind tunnel where 60mph gusts nearly blew us off the road. After this last obstacle we cruised down to the cars. By 4 pm we had concluded our 15 mi ski/hike out from Rock Creek. We were glad since the weather report predicted snowfall on Thur down to 5,500'. Near our cars a crew was filming a TV commercial showing a luxury car driving on a curvy mountain road.

After unloading our gear and changing into fresh clothes we headed down to Lone Pine for dinner. An extra large pizza vanished in no time since we had burnt many calories on this trip. At 6 pm we all scattered into different directions, some even staying in town. Although the bodies felt various aches and pains nobody got hurt and we felt good about our ski mountaineering adventure. We had hoped to ski more peaks but road and weather conditions are unpredictable in mid April and it is not so easy to knock off two peaks a day in winter. Instead of many peaks we had lots of fun. Just remember the discussion of frying the grouse, Susan's dream talks interpreted by R.J., the story of her "missing" gloves, the many "mutinies" on the rocks, and gossip about all our somewhat eccentric SMS leaders. Thanks to everyone for five enjoyable days.

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