Ski Mountaineering

Mt Perkins
Mar 31-Apr 1, 2001

Reiner Stenzel

In the Alps most mountaineers, certainly the guides, are both climbers and skiers. In our Sierra Club Chapter, with a few exceptions, the peak climbers (SPS) don't ski and the skiers (SMS) don't climb peaks. With both skills, however, the spring trips to our Sierra Nevada become some of the best adventures. Thus, by scheduling joint SMS/SPS I hope to find others to share the fun of skiing and climbing. This report describes how our recent ski mountaineering trip to Mt Perkins went. The description may also fill a gap of trip reports for Perkins in the SPS archives. Mt Perkins (12,566') is a cl 2 SPS peak on the Eastern Sierra crest, and the ascent via Armstrong Cyn makes a classic ski tour. We had a fine group of qualified people: Three climbers (2 list finishers!), propelled by snow shoes, one snowboarder, using short ascent skis, and five telemarkers. They were Steve Eckert, Brian Smith, Susan Clark, Wally Drake, Mark Vogt, Reed Moore, Joy Goebel, Keith Martin and myself.

We met Sat at 6 am at the intersection of the Black Rock Springs Rd and Hwy 395, drove up to the Sawmill Creek Road, switched into 4WD cars at the power house, and ascended 2.6 mi on a dirt road (#12S01) to Scotty Spring (UTM 4088807N, 382280E, NAD 27, elev 5,660'). Perhaps one could have driven further up the old mining road, but nobody brought a humvee. Starting at 7:30 am on a sunny morning we muscled up 2,000' to the snow level near 8,000'. Just below Rudy Mine (8,400') a side trail leads into Armstrong Cyn. Here we skied/snowshoed up the steep, long, and remote canyon. Our scenic lunch spot was at the 10,000' level with views into Owens Valley 6,000' below and, in the opposite direction, the end of the canyon with steep chutes, a long ridge and our goal, Mt Perkins, 2,500' above us.

Our peace was slightly disrupted by an avalanche from Perkins, triggered by a cornice breakoff. We continued ascending the canyon to about 10,300' where, by 2 pm, we selected a safe and scenic campsite among the last trees. After the 4,500' climb without running water, the first job was to melt snow and replenish lost fluids. Then we set up tents, a snowshelter (Steve's cave) and a snow kitchen. Most of us drifted into in a relaxed state of mind. Only Wally and Reed climbed further up for an afternoon ski run. An avy beacon exercise found little enthusiasm until we finished our early 4 pm dinner. The wind picked up and by 6 pm everyone crawled into their bags. One reason was my request for an alpine start next morning, i.e., a 4 am wakeup call (could not announce that it was really 3 am due to change to daylight savings time). At last daylight, the mountains were in the clouds and the wind blew hard, so we were not quite sure about our summit attempt the next morning.

On April foolsday the wind was gone (no joke), the sky clear, and we proceeded as planned. By 5 am we cramponed up the slopes to the end of Armstrong Cyn. Joy and Wally did not feel up to the peak climb and stayed at basecamp with radio contact to the rest of the group. There are two chutes leading up to the ridge, a left (southern) one which is longer but less steep than the right (northern) one. The choice was clear, why make detours? But even the steep (40-45 deg) right chute to the crest was long and exhausting. By 8 am seven of us we were on the 12,000' ridge. We left our skis since the ridge was unskiable, i.e., mixed rock and snow.

We had a spectacular view to the west over many snow covered Sierra peaks, especially Mt Clarence King, Brewer, the Kaweahs stood out. But a cold wind blew again from the west and low clouds hung over the San Joaquin Valley.

On the Mt Pinchot topo map the ridge to the summit looks flat and straightforward. However, the 20m contour spacing does not resolve several 30' obstacles along the ridge which, combined with cornices amount to a class 4 adventure. So we decided to contour below the ridge on the western slopes. We headed toward the first obvious high point on the ridge only to find out that Perkins was still half a mile further north. Perkins has distinguished red-brown rock while the ridge is grey granite. So we backed down from the ridge to continue our traverse. The western slopes are full of gullies separated by steep walls which makes it a slow and tiring traverse. We cramponed over steep snow fields and climbed over cl 3 rock walls.

After the third gully Keith radioed that the tail of the group was getting tired. He, Brian and Susan turned back while I continued with Steve, Mark and Reed. After traversing at least six gullies we finally made it to a broad chute which led straight to the summit. By 10 am we stood on the top of Mt Perkins, tired but satisfied. We called the others by radio, ate and drank, took pictures, dug out the peak register from a plastic cylinder. It must have been rained on and was now frozen. Mark volunteered his armpits, and we managed to open a page without breaking it. It was a pleasure to sign in as the first group in 2001, and as #211 in my SPS stamp collection.

The cold wind eventually drove us down and we retraced our steps. By 12 noon we were back at the main gully where our skis were waiting. Steve pulled out a handy plastic sheet, sat down in the now soft snow, and vanished down the gully. This is the joy of peak climbers. Skiers prefer a series of pretty turns instead of a broad straight track. But in a 45 deg chute this requires some attention. Jump turns are a must, rear ski weighting vital to avoid forward dives. While Mark and Reed were discussing to switch to the less steep chute I tried some jumps and it worked fine because of the soft snow. So we all descended the steeps. It is anaerobic, exhilarating, requires absolute concentration of mind and body to avoid a nasty fall. Snow conditions can changed from soft snow to hard pack within a few turns. The upper gully was of similar caliber as Bloody Couloir or the Wahoo Gully. But all fun comes to an end.

By 1 pm we were back at basecamp, eating lunch and packing up. As we descended the snow got really soft. Wally elegantly snowboarded through the mush with a full pack. The skiers had to struggle a bit more with balance. Engineer Steve used his frictionless seat to glissade with full pack. It was faster than skiing and had the advantage that you could not fall any lower. Snowshoers Brian and Susan had a real struggle on the steeps. Keith joined the struggle because each fall with a cement-filled pack costs at least a hundred calories.

After we paid our dues in Armstrong Canyon it was still a long slog down the dry trail to Scotty Springs. Big lenticular clouds developed over Owens Valley. By 5:30 pm, the last folks were back at the cars. Although the bodies were a bit tired after the 6,500' descent, everyone was in good spirits. We had challenging climbing and skiing, great weather, a fun group with a variety of skills, and a patient co-leader Keith who deserves all my thanks for making the trip possible and enjoyable. Last, but not least, the trip will be remembered for a rare display of an aurora borealis on Fri night.

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