Ski Mountaineering

Sierra Crest Tour From Rock Creek To Mammoth

May 21-26, 1995

Reiner Stenzel

With most weekends suffering from bad weather the urge for a long backcountry trip grew stronger and stronger. Toward the end of May a small group consisting of Steve Hessen, Glen Hirayama and myself decided on a six day tour from Rock Creek to Mammoth, roughly following the crest tour E described in John Moynier's book.

We started on Sun, 5/26, in good weather at the snowparking lot of Rock Creek. The road to the lodge was still closed, but we were lucky to hitch a ride in the ranger's truck. We ascended to Ruby Lake to cross Mono Pass. It was avalanche weather as the intense sun shone on the slopes loaded with heavy wet snow. Ascending beyond Ruby Lake on a 35deg slope it almost happened: A large slab below us fractured, but luckily it did not slide. It is a very scary experience to hear for a few seconds the hissing and cracking sounds all around you, knowing that at any moment the hill could start to slide. Like walking on raw eggs we moved off that slope into rocks and trees and finally got into safe terrain leading up to Mono Pass. The weather began to deteriorate, low clouds were moving in and soon we were in a whiteout. We decided to stay at Summit Lke (12,000') where we found an avalanche-safe but windy plateau.

On Mon, 5/22, we descended down to Golden Lake, followed Golden Crk to Hopkins Crk, from where we ascended toward the Hopkins Lakes. It was snowing all day long. Thick wet flakes eventually soaked our clothes and gear thoroughly. Navigation in the forest was by map and altimeter. Skiing down on breakable crust was no particular pleasure. After each fall the forest had to absorb many strong words of frustration. Near the Third Recess we heard a dog barking in the forest, followed the sound and found a lonely camper. At 5pm we arrived in the upper Hopkins basin. West of Mt. Hopkins we found a safe campsite on a plateau among trees. We made a campfire to dry our clothes, but after some time the fire disappeared in a 3' hole in the snow.

Tue, 5/23. We awoke to intermittent sunshine, dried our gear and got off to a late start. By 11am a thundering avalanche came down from Mt. Hopkins. It was time to get over the next pass. Hopkins Pass (11,400') looked trivial from the South, but we changed our mind after looking over a mighty cornice to a shear dropoff to the North. To the West was Red and White Mtn (12,850') which came periodically out of the clouds. We ate lunch, enjoyed the view, and looked for a break in the cornice to descend. From the pass the view into McGee Canyon and beyond to the White Mtns was spectacular. Belayed on a short rope a narrow escape route was found just in time before a thunderstorm moved in. After kickstepping down a 45deg slope with a 30'cornice in the back we were relieved when we reached gentler, skiable terrain again.

We contoured well above Big McGee Lake to a plateau (10,800') at the base of Corridor Pass where we set up camp. Of course, it snowed again, and this time very badly. Using a tarp supported with rope and skipoles we constructed an improvised shelter, cooked and ate under it and finally erected the tents without getting everything wet.

Wed, 5/24. The sunshine in the morning after a snowstorm was a blessing. We took time to dry our clothes, sleeping bags, tents, etc. Although we had discussed going over McGee Pass, we actually ascended Corridor Pass which leads into the upper Convict Canyon North of Red Slate. The ascent to the pass was not the safest since there were steep walls and plenty of avalanche signatures. We descended East of Red Slate toward Lake Constance and Lake Wit-no-so-pah, none of which were recognizable due to the snow coverage. The view toward Mt Morrison and Baldwin beyond snow covered Lake Dorothy was superb, but the summits were in the clouds. Above Lake Dorothy there was a suitable campsite where, for the first time, we set up tents before it started to snow.

Thur, 5/25. Today's pass was Pretty Pass (11,900') which required a short but 1,000' ascent. Many switchbacks were necessary since the slope got steep (40deg) and the snow was still frozen. We made our kickturns carefully above rocks since otherwise a fall would have been fast and long. Bad weather moved in again with plenty of graupel. We were lucky that the cornice on top of the pass was easy to overcome. On the North side of Pretty Pass there was a foot of powder but no visibility. Thus, it was skiing by gravity since everything around us was uniformly white. From Franklin Lake to the Ram Lakes we were in a winter blizzard. We opted out of Pika Pass and turned Southwest to Purple Lake where we hit the John Muir Trail. The weather cleared up. An eagle circled above us. Beyond the end of Purple Lake we found an excellent campsite with a wonderful view of the Silver Divide. A rare event happened: sunshine at dinner time.

Fri, 5/26. This was our last day. The weather was perfect. We roughly followed the invisible John Muir Trail to Duck Lake. After lunch we ascended Duck Pass and then enjoyed the long run down Mammoth Creek past Lake Mary. Since the roads were still snow covered we could ski all the way down to Steve's home in Mill City/Mammoth. We retrieved my car from Rock Creek for my next day's trip to Mt. Ritter and finally celebrated the trip with plenty of beer and pizza. It was a great backcountry skitour with many adventures and challenges. Thanks to Steve and Glen for being such fine companions.

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