Ski Mountaineering

SMS Peak Revisited
April 13-14th, 2002

Lorene Samoska

After Reiner sent me a delightful story for the Mugelnoos about his ascent of Ski Mountaineer's Peak (13,237') off the Thompson Ridge with Susan Livingston the weekend before, I got peak-itis and decided I wanted to try it. The weekend plans were to join up with the scheduled Blue Col/ Mammoth tours. However, the trip was cancelled, and I was not looking forward to another dry, snowless weekend in LA. Mike & I kicked around the idea of hitting the Mammoth Mountaineering Demo Days, but I was really looking for a wilderness experience. On Wednesday, Dennis Landin had emailed us, also itching to do a trip somewhere. By Thursday evening, the decision was made for the three of us to carcamp out of Bishop Friday night and ski up to Treasure Lakes to make a base camp for a possible SMS peak trip. Luckily our stock of freeze dried food in the pantry was enough to get us through a weekend without a trip to REI.

On Friday night, we ran into Jan St. Amand and Leslie Hofherr at the Coso junction gas station (you know it's a small community of backcountry skiers when . . .) They were headed to day-ski out of Lake Sabrina and then off to the Demo Days. After picking up a permit at the Bishop Ranger Station, we made our way up to Aspendell to find an attractive carcamp without an attractive name: "Intake 2." It turned out to be a cozy, free camp and we slept well on a warm night. When we awoke and packed up our stuff, Jan & Leslie were also there, having camped in the same place! We waved our goodbyes and headed for the South Lake trailhead, which just opened for the season the day before, saving us a walk from Parcher's resort.

After a wild gear sort to pare down weight, we set off at 10 AM and made our way on the summertime trail to Bishop Pass. The snow was intermittent and soft! We got through the rocks and started postholing, so ended up putting skis and skins on and off a few times until we reached a good turn-off to Treasure Lakes. A snowboarder on snowshoes and a skier were headed there also. We continued on the summertime trail to the west, and after 2 snowbridge crossings (one was easy, the other scary!) we started climbing higher to avoid dropping down into the Treasure Lakes drainage too soon. Our route avoided any descent before hitting the Lakes, but we had to negotiate a steep rock band on the east side of the drainage as a consequence. Here we carried skis and packs separately, and found the snow very rotten by the rocks, such that you could easily sink to your chest in the unconsolidated muck without warning. We were close to the lakes now, and after getting through the rock band, found a flat dirt patch under some trees where we regrouped for lunch. Dennis brought some albacore tuna salad in a pouch with crackers (this was a hit, and apparently can be bought at regular supermarkets), which he generously shared along with lots of colorful trail mix. Soon we came upon the north end of the smaller eastern lake, and decided to camp by the larger western lake (10,668') where there was fresh water from the stream. By 2:30 we had tents set up, Mike & I in our summer tent (which turned out to be very cozy and light), and Dennis braving it in the megamid, where he promptly dug out a nice kitchen block. Since Reiner's trip account involved ski crampons, I decided to do a little self-arrest practice and tried to find some slidable snow, however, by late afternoon I could do little more than sink into the soft stuff. The slopes around and below the lake had reasonably nice snow for skiing though.

We cooked a bunch of soup and my favorite sweet & sour pork dinners (feels like ordering out for Chinese in your tent), and as night fell we prepared for the next day by filtering water and getting packs ready. The temperature when the sun went down was still > 40F! We picked a weekend with a new moon, and the starlight alone was enough to light up the snow - it was truly spectacular. This weekend, the temperature inside the tent never got below 40, although outside a thin crust formed on the snow.

This weekend, the temperature inside the tent never got below 40, although outside a thin crust formed on the snow.

The next morning, we woke with the sun around 6, filtered some water, and started making our way up to SMS peak. We were on the trail by 7:45, and chose to drop a little into the Treasure Lake drainage and make our way across the bowl before climbing the west slopes above the drainage. By 9 AM we'd reached the top of the slopes with the great traverse on the way to SMS peak ahead of us. The clouds came in to harden the already softening snow and the wind was picking up, but after about an hour of ominous weather the sun came back out. We continued through some gorgeous traverses and bowls to a rock band where we stopped to unload ice axes and crampons, which we knew we wouldn't need in the warm sun. Shortly after 11, we were at the foot of the main peak. We zigzagged up in our skins until about ~200 feet below the summit, where the snow turned really rotten. With skis on, one sank to the waist. With skis off, one sank to the chest. Now we had to make our way to the summit rocks in these conditions, and it took much longer than one would predict based on the short distance! Finally we were able to scramble to a rock where we unloaded skis and happily tromped upon the hard surface in our ski boots. We were on the summit at 1 PM, found the register, and hung out for a bit enjoying the sunny view down the steep cliffs to the bowls and cirques to the west by Mt Darwin.

We made our way back to the skis, and did a few kick turns in the soft muck before tele-ing down the slopes. The snow was a trickster, because it would look great but if a rock was buried, the snow was not very consolidated near the rock and would suck the skier in! It was a trick to find the right line away from hidden rocks. Also, the steep slopes were easier to ski than the shallower benches, as they had not soaked up the previous week's sunny weather as much. After many buried ski tips and the consequential digging out that follows, we made our way back past the traverse and down the slopes to Treasure Lakes drainage. We got back to base camp near 5 (much longer than we had expected) and there were new clouds moving in and lots of wind. We decided that despite how tired we were we would pack up and make our way back the way we came, with headlamps if necessary.

We headed out with skins on for the descent, and Dennis found a nicer route to negotiate the east-side rock band this time. The snow on the north side of the rock band was the worst I've even seen, with deep sinking or postholing possible on the flat ridge. We were not in avalanche danger though because the route was fairly flat and we were on top of the ridge. Finally we made our way across a north-facing bowl (and firmer snow) and into the forest, where the snow was better. We reached our first snow bridge in darkness, and crossed it with headlamps! The route from there was pretty easy to follow with many ski tracks and occasional compass bearings. We could've hugged the John Muir Wilderness sign when we came upon it! At this point, snow started to fall and the wind grew more fierce, but we knew we did not have to set up any more tents since we were almost home. As we took off our skis to hike the last half mile back to South Lake Dam, the booms of thunder and incredible lightening lit up the entire South Lake basin. Dennis remarked that the lightening alone was "worth the price of admission." Back at the car rain was falling in sheets but we didn't care. A late night snack was waiting for us at Denny's down the hill.

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