Ski Mountaineering

Red Slate Couloir
Mar 28-29, 2009

Alvin Walter

There are many outstanding couloirs to climb and ski in the Sierra but none classier than Red Slate's Couloir at the Western end of Convict Lake that is flanked by Mount Morrison and Mount Baldwin on the South and Mount Laurel and the Savanna Cliffs with their highly convoluted, exposed geology on the North. I was stricken by this steep and straight snow and ice line while on the top of Mount Laurel during a summer a few years earlier. The guide books have write-ups on Red Slate Couloir, pointing out that it is at least a double black diamond when conditions are good and the skiers are experts. It was my feeling that a number of my skiing companions would be plenty able and more than willing to give it a shot, so, I advertised it and drew a total of 8 skiers, Angel, Scott B., Scott S., Brad, Luis, Cory, Bill and myself, for the weekend of March 28-29, 2009.

We met at the trailhead just east of Convict Lake early Saturday morning to begin the hike up to snow level, then skinning our way to the base camp at Mildred Lake. After establishing our campsite, three of us, Scott B., Scott S., and I went on to check out the route and found an isolated area of steep east to northeast facing chutes with somebody's semi-permanent snow camp that had a rock and mortar fireplace with a stove pipe vent and piles of freshly cut wood. The Forest Service obviously did not approve this facility - however; there were probably more than a few people who thought highly of this location.

We checked out the immediate slopes further and found some fine powder stashes that started on a prominent high point directly in front of our route to Red Slate. On our descent back to camp, we left our high-speed slalom tracks in the fine powder chutes as souvenirs for some other back-country skier to find. At camp, the wind was steady and gusting at times to 30+, so I moved into about a 20 foot deep, wind-carved well that offered good protection for a group dinner site. We discussed the day and plans to get moving by 7:00 a.m. on Sunday.

The morning start was still windy as we began the ascent up the lower pitch and into the Red Slate Couloir. Snow conditions were packed powder-like wind slab with some of our group able to kick steps while others chose to use crampons. There was a steady flow of spindrift pouring down on us that gave the impression we were floating as we watched the tiny grapple move rapidly by us in surges. I had already been on top of Red Slate Mountain last summer and was only interested in skiing Red Slate's dominant Northeast facing couloir that did not continue to the top.

When I got radio word that Luis and Scott B. were approaching the top, it was time to head down and I was first to go. Due to the aspect changes in the deep, long and cupped couloir, the snow condition changed radically side to side from wind-packed powder, to powder, to wind sculpted powder, to corn. The average pitch of the couloir was about 45 degrees and it was not a place to make a mistake since the fall line would pull one into the steep rock wall sides. After a number of jump and peddle-hop turns, I was able to carve turns down to a point where I could stop and watch the others descend.

Shortly after me were Cory and Angel and both were having fun and doing well until Angel was coming along the last big rock outcrop where I watched him take a serious tumble, just missing the bottom edge of the rock wall. His equipment went in various directions as he cart-wheeled, slid and rolled. When I saw him stop and stand up, I thought he looked OK from the distance. I radioed Brad to sweep behind Angel as he came down to help with anything that got left uphill. Brad got Angel's poles but didn't find the one missing ski. Angel then started post-holing downhill toward Cory and me and we learned that he was unable to use just one ski due to an injured knee. Cory had the same kind of bindings and very graciously offered his skis to Angel who was now able to ski while Cory booted his way back.

Scott B., Scott S. and Luis all had nice runs down the couloir and helped with a final search for the missing ski that was never found. It was slow going getting back to camp and continued slow on the return from camp as we all pitched in to help Angel carry the rest of his equipment out. Two thirds of the way back from base camp the snow ran out on the north side of Convict Canyon and I headed to the south side and a faster snow covered way out that proved to be make-able but challenging. As it turned out, it was slightly faster but it still took us until 10:00 p.m. which was well after dark to get back to our cars. Some celebratory drinks were passed around and short discussions were made of plans for future trips.

In summary, we had an excellent, strong, and talented group of skiers who set out to tackle a challenging goal and were rewarded with the satisfaction of accomplishment, which is something that will always be remembered and savored in photos and stories.

Editor's comments, just to appease some concerns: This was of course a private outing! Skiing the couloir is far more risky than roped climbing, which by SPS standards is an E-rated outing. Angel is lucky to have lost only a ski.
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