Ski Mountaineering

Rock Creek Introductory Ski and Base Camp
May 14-15, 2005

Lorene Samoska

We met at the end of the plowed Rock Creek road above Rock Creek Lake a little after 8AM on a gorgeous sunny day. The group consisted of John Anderson, Scott Koepke, Dennis Landin, Keith Martin (assistant leader), Vince Shulda, Mike Seiffert, Jan St. Amand, and myself. Our plan was to ski in with backpacks on the snow-covered road to Mosquito Flat campground (inundated by snow) and then make our way into the John Muir Wilderness and camp on the east side of Box Lake. Views of the big peaks in the range were everywhere - Mt. Morgan, Bear Creek Spire, Mt. Dade, the Hourglass Couloir, and Mt. Abbot.

At the trailhead, another Sierra Club group of about 15 people was heading in with sleds, snowshoes, steaks and wine to camp at Mills Lake and attempt a climb of Mt. Abbot - which was still quite snow-covered for this time of year. Even with skins and heavy packs we were able to pass the snowshoers with the little glide our skins gave us, and within two and a half hours we were setting up camp and looking for water sources. At some open water, we observed a rare breed of Sierra Snow Trout. We decided to take advantage of the early arrival and go skiing instead of setting up a snow kitchen at 11AM.

The bowls on the west flank of Mt. Morgan above our camp looked inviting, and we figured the snow would be reasonably firm on the west and northwest aspects. We pass through beautiful bowls with a couple of steep pitches en route to an 11,200' rockpile with spectacular views of Treasure Peak and the Hourglass, Mount Abbot and Dade and much of the Little Lakes Valley below. The snow was getting quite soft so after only a short break, we whooped it up as we enjoyed turn after turn in the spring snow down to our camp and returned by 2:30. While the rest of us loafed in the shade back at camp to escape the searing spring heat, Keith went out for more turns above an unnamed lake to the east.

By 5 PM we agreed to pull out shovels and dig a snow kitchen. Then the appetizers camp out for Happy Hour - olives, cheeses, crackers, dried mangos, nuts, and the prize-winning appetizer from Dennis - frozen Japanese shrimp rolls, which we patiently steamed in a camp stove. Everyone sat in a circle and we exchanged stories in the long, warm evening. A split-snowboarder headed up near where Keith had been skiing earlier for a sunset run, but did not provide enough entertainment as we watched, since he headed into the trees and out of sight. The temperatures were so warm that Scott took off his shirt to catch the rays. After cooking all of our dinners, 8 o-clock came upon us and the sun went behind the ridge. Expecting the temperature to drop rapidly, I piled on the down jacket, but the air temperature stayed warm for quite some time. It was not until much later in the evening that the snow around camp froze enough to not post-hole on late night excursions. It was a windless and starry night, and we slept well.

The next morning, I wanted to get an early start given the warm temperatures of the previous day, so we met a bit after 8AM ready to skin up into the Ruby Lake/Mills Lake drainage. The route we took up to Ruby Lake is fun! An easy-to-miss cliffband hides a narrow snow-covered "notch", described in John Moynier's books, to gain access to the higher country. The Ruby notch had a snowshoe-tracked crux with slightly rotten snow, but most of it is gentle and everyone made it through for the skin up to Ruby Lake.

We enjoyed the skin up to Ruby, but already the northeast facing bowls were very soft at 9:30 AM. Near the top, an escaped, deflated mylar balloon was captured on the tip of a ski pole. We got to Ruby Lake before 10AM, and the clouds came in and the wind started kicking up. The snow at and above Ruby was very frozen. We had a break at the lake enjoying the views of Ruby Wall and commenting on how the skiing below Ruby Wall looked better than any of us had ever seen it - I remembered the photos from Moynier's book of skiing below Ruby Wall, but have mostly only seen rockpiles there - not beautiful ski slopes!

But Ruby Wall would wait for another day, as we were headed up toward Mills Lake for some great views. As we started skiing up the drainage, the clouds got thicker and the wind fiercer, keeping the snow very firm. We avoided the steep slopes above some open water in the lake while we skinned up higher. As the wind became stronger Jan expressed interest in hiding in a crevice formed next to a 20-foot tall boulder, but I wanted a view! We climbed to about 11,600' and gathered in a large rockpile where we had nice views of both the weather coming in and the surrounding peaks as we huddled together for warmth. What a difference from the windless day before!

Once in the rocks, we chatted and ate an early lunch while we waited for the north-facing bowls above Ruby Lake to soften - which we really, really hoped would happen. By 11:45AM, finally a large lenticular cloud moved away and within 15 minutes, the corn bomb went off. The run down was well-worth waiting for, as we had the finest corn the Sierras have to offer on the way back to the lake!

Everyone unpeeled all the extra layers at the lake and we made our way down the now mushy snow back through the notch. My smarter-than-the-average-husband Mike decided to find a "better" route through a mushy section, and found himself on a more steep, snow-covered waterfall where the water was gushing loudly underneath his skis. Fortunately, it supported his weight and he was able to ski out of it. We picked our way with lots of kick-turns through the crux of the notch and then cruised back to camp by 1PM.

While we were packing up our tents, at 2PM we heard a loud thunderous "boom" and turned to see a large avalanche let loose from near the top of one of the east-facing chutes of Mt. Starr about a mile away. We all watched the avalanche grow and widen, wondering if it would come all the way down to the trail we were going to ski out on, but it stopped after 1000 feet atop a cliff. The day had warmed significantly, which undoubtedly led to the slide we witnessed. That was the closest I've ever observed a large avalanche (and as close as I'd like to come, thank you!)

By 2:30, we were packed and ready to go. On the way out, many more little streams had opened up in the warm sun. We had a pleasant ski back out and reached the cars before 4PM. A few of us met at the Taqueria in Bishop for aprs ski fixings. This was a great spring corn weekend with great friends. Thanks to everyone who participated, and especially to Keith for assisting.

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