Ski Mountaineering

Shepherd Pass, Emerson and Alice

April 10-17, 2010

Alvin Walter

Within the first day of my attempt to cross the Sierra via Shepherd's Pass, I encountered a major blizzard that blew in 2 feet of new snow with howling winds. After 2 nights and nearly being buried alive, everything had gotten so wet that I had to retreat during the strongest part of the storm. It was tough going breaking trail downhill and up the hump with about a 50 pound pack. From the Hump down I did get some nice turns all the way to Simms Creek at about 6,500 feet even though it got dark about half way down. I could have skied all the way to my truck, but shortly after crossing the stream I had to deal with about a 200 foot section of trail with a huge amount of rock and timber debris from a major slide and decided to pack my skis. At about 10:30pm I reached my truck that was covered with about 8 inches of snow. Fortunately, I had another dry sleeping bag and spent the night there. In the morning, I had to put snow chains on to get down to the main road as the snow level had gotten down to about 5,000 feet. I decided to go down to the Lone Pine Ranger Station to dry out and get another permit to try the crossing from Kearsarge Pass. When I attempted to drive up the Onion Valley road that the rangers told me was open, I was stopped by a barricade at about the 5,000 foot level. It became obvious that the people who control the roads had shut them all down because of all the new snow. So, there I was in Owen's Valley with all this new snow in the mountains and no way to get to it.

I then drove up to Bishop where I found that the road to Aspendell was open; so I got another permit to go up over Piute Pass. I started at Aspendell the next day and made my first camp at Piute Lake where I thought I was in a good position to attempt Mt Emerson. There was a nice couloir that I started up the next morning and despite 3 thwarted attempts including a large 3rd class rock climbing section, I never relly got close to the peak.

The next day I decided to attempt Mt Goethe from my base camp and was having a good time up to the Keyhole where I had to downclimb the other side that was a steep 3rd+ class section of rock and ice requiring full use of my crampons and ice axe. I expected the snowfield below to be corned up since it was mid day and in a south facing cirque. It turned out to be very hard ice that made me change my plans to cicrle around Mt Murial and head up to Alpine Col where I stopped for a break. The north slope from that point was excellent powder and with a nice pitch for executing many fine turns until I got down to Goethe Lake where I kicked and glided until I got back to Piute pass where I cruised back down to my base camp.

Mt Emerson loomed next to me and I decided to move my camp a short distance to Lock Leven Lake where I thought I had another good shot at the peak the next day. The snowfield I started out on had a large amount of avalanch debris from the blizzard several days earlier and I climbed right past it to a point where I reached a steep hard icy chute. I didn't feel comfortable going up it with only one ice axe and no ice screws and again had to retreat without getting near the top.

Back at camp, it was still early enough to have a hot lunch break, pack all my gear, and ski all the way back down to my truck in excellent snow conditions. From there I decided to head down to Big Pine and drive up the road to the Glacier Lodge where I could make a day trip attempt on Mt Alice on Sunday. The wind was ripping and rocked me to sleep in my truck where I was parked at the trailhead. The wind had lightened up a bit in the morning and I was looking forward to skiing with a light day pack up the main chute on the south side of Mt Alice. Once in the chute, it made much more sense to just put my crampons on and go straight up rather than attempting switchbacks on hard snow. The initial steeper chute led to another longer, broader, and mellower chute that led to another long, broad, and slightly steeper chute that led to the Mt. Alice ridgeline where I left my skis to climb for about 40 minutes on the 3rd class rock and snow in some very strong winds to the top of Mt Alice. It felt good to make this one fine peak, but I had to get moving down to avoid getting too chilled.

At my skis, the ridgeline snow was frozen hard and I cautiously entered the top of the highest chute then executed what seemed like hundreds of turns down the three levels of chutes while filming with my Flip Video that was mounted on my helmet. Conditions were very wintery all day and I had the mountains all to myself for a fine culmanation of an adventurous week of skiing.

Footnotes: 1. I'll try to send a video of how things looked inside my tent as the snow rapidly accumulated outside. 2. Ellen and I just read, this last weekend, about an experience that Norman Clyde and a friend had at Piute pass where a blizzard like the one I experienced caught them. Norman's friend froze to death and Norman got a serious case of frostbitten toes -- so, I don't think I made the wrong decision when I retreated. Those mountains and passes will still be there long after me and I will still have a chance to try them another day.

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