Ski Mountaineering

Taboose Pass Base Camp
May 23-25, 2003

Alvin Walter

The thought of doing a base camp at Taboose Pass opens the possibilities and excitement of bagging and skiing the many glorious High Sierra peaks in the immediate vicinity -Mt. Cardinal, Split Mt., Striped Mtn, Goodale Mtn, Vennacher Needle, and Mt. Ruskin. The challenge that comes along with such opportunities is the substantial elevation gain that starts from the hot and dry Owens Valley at 5,200 feet to the snow covered pass at 11,200 feet for an elevation gain of about 6,000 feet the first day with full packs plus skis, boots, and poles. These factors no doubt limited the size of the group who were up for the challenge. R.J. Secor offered to be my co-leader with Angel Ocana and James Crouch as participants.

After the Sierra Club check-in and announcements we began our hike up the dusty trail at what I describe as a sustainable pace. Mter climbing the first 1,000 feet and still being a substantial distance below the snow, Angel realized that he was carrying various amenities that were not appropriate for this outing and decided to jettison his hammock and various other non-vitalluxuries in a stash spot beside the trail then to share carrying his tent with R.J. With only a couple of stops for water, we reached the first continuous snow at 9,200 feet where we pro- ceeded to skin up and travel on skis. The snow was mostly solid and slightly corned for the rest of the distance to the pass. We did hear a few rock-falls echoing off the walls on the way up that we considered quite normal for the time of day and location.

At the pass, there was that exhilaration that comes from a long ambitious climb when we reached the point where we could see the vast expanse of the western side of the Sierra stretched out in front of us - it was, as John Muir would say, "glorious". We proceeded to scout around for a campsite close to a water source, and found the ideal location near a chute that stretched up toward Mt. Cardinal. R. J.'s behest throughout the day was that he had to bag Mt. Cardinal and it seemed like the perfect goal for the next day. Heck, I had never been in this area before and was feeling like a kid in a candy store with everything all around looking delicious.

The weather stayed clear during the night with the temperature getting just below 32 degrees that was plenty adequate for setting up a solid snow-pack. In the morning after breakfast, Angel spotted the movement of large ani- mals in a line that were headed across the pass. We all were taking note and began to count. R. J. counted into the mid 30' s at which point some of the lead animals noticed us and began an abrupt turnaround taking the herd back to the East side of the pass. We speculated that they were probably Elk due to the large size of the herd. Whatever they were, it was exciting for all of us to see this large number of large animals in the snow at this high altitude pass.

Mt Cardinal was a straight shot up a steep couloir that Angel and myself decided to take. R. J. wasn't interested in using skis, so he set off on foot up a parallel and partially rock exposed shoulder toward the summit. Jim decided to take a rest day and hang around camp. The route Angel and I were on got quite steep in places to the point where Angel said he had great difficulty pulling his knee tight enough into his chest to make a kick turn. At this point we decided to carry the skis and kick steps the rest of the way through the steepest pitches. Soon we were all at the top signing the register and admiring the awesome peaks and scenery all around us.

The descent down was in superb corn for about the fIrst 500 feet then it began to get quite heavy and wet so that we were setting off shallow sloughs with each turn in the steepest - 40 degrees plus - pitches. On more than one occasion, I was sliding along with the sloughs and enjoying accelerating out of them to pop jump turn after jump turn. R. J. plunge stepped his way down the couloir and we regrouped at camp. Jim left some nice tracks on the hills around camp where he was taking it easy. Angel and myself needed more action while Jim and R. J. enjoyed camp. We set off climbing and skiing the slopes and bowls to the west for another 2,000 vertical by the time we got back to camp. On the way back, we were excited again to see that large herd of Elk in the evening in a migration pattern from the west to the east. Also, at this point we were starting to question whether we were seeing Elk or Mule Deer since the animals didn't meet all the classic identifying markings of Elk.

At camp and as a group we discussed our plans for the next couple of days. We all felt that Split Mtn would be the choice destination, but were split as to whether we should move camp. R.J. was adamant that we not move, so we accepted the fact that bagging Split Mtn from our base camp was going to be a long day.

We rose early for a group breakfast at which time R. J. notified us that he was leaving the group to head home on his own. Apparently he was satisfied with just hiking up Mt Cardinal and felt we had little chance of making Split Mtn; so we signed him out. Fortunately, Jim is an experienced Sierra Club ski leader in San Diego and I appointed him as co-leader so that the outing continued as an official SMS trip.

Our approach toward Split Mtn began with a 1,000 foot descent to the South Fork of the Kings River via a forest with wonderfully frozen snow and non-stop moguls thanks to the tree wells. Angel and I were having an absolute fun filled descent while Jim would have preferred slightly different conditions. At the river, the sparkling rapids and sounds indicated a tremendous amount of power that truly heightened our wilderness experience. We did consider doing Ven- nacher Needle that would have meant crossing the river, but we didn't find any suitable snow bridges for a number of miles and my big concern was that they probably wouldn't be passable later in the day on the way back.

The Upper Basin we were in was broad and impressive with tall mountains all around providing a great sense of the wilderness. We were drawn to explore it further and continue our goal to bag the fourteener - Split Mtn - from the third class route up the north-facing flank. At a little over 12,000 feet, rocky patches broke up the snow and we decided to leave the skis and set off on foot to the peak. After about two hours, we all reached the peak for the grandest view of the Sierra and a look back at the awesome route we took to get there. Signing the register is always part of the fun; however, in this case there was only an accumulation of papers that some of our members will have to one day replace with a nicely bound register that this peak very much deserves.

The real fun began on the way down when we were able to do standing glissades with numerous linked turns mixed with various sitting glissades on the extensive snow-fields. Then back at our skis the fun continued on the fine corn with many turns for the next 1,000 plus feet. After that and with a change in the aspect of the slopes, the snow be- came a little less ideal. Angel, with his very short, very wide and very parabolic skis was able to pop numerous parallel powder style turns in the soft wet snow that we were starting to encounter. The fun started to dampen as we found spots where the snow became uniformly soft for at least three feet deep and we had to use a bit of caution to prevent sinking up to our waists.

We were considering skiing some of the other fine slopes around, but chose to let caution be our guide and stayed close to the river that provided fine views with many excellent photo opportunities. When we finally had to leave the river and start our ascent back up to the pass, the moguls that were so fun to ski down, were now quite steep and caused us to take a rather convoluted route back up. To no one's surprise, it was taking longer than expected and the sun managed to find its place below the horizon. As dusk was coming on, layers of clouds floated in around us providing this absolute mystical sensation as an occasional window of visibility gave glimpses of the fading world around us.

As I was leading the group back thru the forest with a rhythmical kick and glide pace, thoughts of the wildlife and the mountains surrounding us kept me in a very pleasant state as we faced a cool breeze upon approaching the pass. With visibility quite limited as a result of the clouds and growing darkness, I was completely satisfied that we were right on course from the visual fixes I took along the way.

Soon we were at the pass and heading down to our campsite. The snow patterns established for me exactly where we wanted to be and in no time we were at our campsite. It had been a warm day and much of the snow was gone. With a little work, we had everything like new and ready to indulge in a well-deserved feast following a thirteen and one half hour day of adventure.

On Monday, we were planning to head out after some more early morning turns during peak corn conditions. Angel felt that he hadn't really gotten all the turns he deserved for our efforts and no one could disagree - that's always a risk with such day-to-day changes in the weather. The sun was shining bright and it looked like the corn would develop early. Jim had already decided he needed to get an early start on the way out since he knew his feet were going to bother him on the long descent. Angel and I each picked a different slope to leave our individual signature set of turns, then regrouped at camp to ski the remaining 2,000 feet of snow together -it was a blast! We picked the best time for all the best snow conditions of the day. Once we were off the snow and on the trail, we pretty much continued non-stop down to the cars with the exception of stopping to pick up Angel's luxuries that we left near the bottom of the trail.

Both of my altimeters documented that we accumulated over 17,000 vertical feet of elevation gain in that weekend that truly confirmed we ended the season - at least for me - with an all out effort for a very memorable ski mountaineering experience.

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