Ski Mountaineering

Mt Williamson-Whitney Crest Tour

May 1-7, 1998

Leaders: Reiner Stenzel, RJ Secor

The description for this SMS trip called for challenging skiing, mountaineering, and bushwhacking. We got it all, including some more surprises. Here is how it went: After contacting about a dozen of able SMS members, most declined due to the trip difficulty, but a quorum of three remained: R.J. Secor, Don Ralphs, and myself.

We met on Fri, 5/1, at 8 am in Lone Pine, had a last good breakfast, drove up to Whitney Portal to leave two cars, and shuttled in R.J.'s car to the George Creek trailhead. At least that was the intention, but in spite of his trail description and his GPS we ended up at a different road end and had a warm-up hike before the fun of George Creek started.

Infamous George Creek starts at an elevation of 6,000', has a disappearing trail, numerous stream crossings, and a class 5 thicket of brush on either side of the creek. Our packs were heavy and the skis stuck high into the air, which already called for trouble. It started when R.J. lifted his old backpack and the shoulder strap tore off. After an improvised fix we ascended George Creek, partly XC and partly on a faint trail. At every tree and bush one had to bend deep down to avoid getting the skis entangled. Every stream crossing involved a balancing act over logs or rocks which eventually ended up with wet boots. Arms and legs got scratched by the thorns. After hours of suffering, a broken GPS and pack, and numerous cigarettes smoked to lighten his pack, R.J. could not stand it anymore and quit, yes, he bailed out on us! Now we were down to two. We rearranged gear and continued. Actually, after reaching the snow level around 8,000' travel became much easier. But by the end of the day we were far short of our goal to camp at 11,000' for next day's ascent of Mt Williamson (14,370').

On Sat, 5/2, we got up to a beautiful sunrise. But, surprise, by 8 am billowing clouds drifted up from the valley. They rapidly grew, sank and by 10 am we were in a whiteout. Now it was navigation by altimeter, map and compass. The plan to ski Mt Williamson was obviously out. At an elevation of 3,000 m George Creek splits and we headed SW toward an unnamed lake (3,300 m) and a chute leading to the big bowl east of Trojan Pk and Mt Barnard. The whiteout was dense and there were a few moments of doubt. Finally, by noon, we reached the chute. When the clouds opened for a moment, a steep wall of snow was visible. Don got worried. He felt that he could not handle it and what might come after this. I reassured him of his strong skiing (we had skied together Whitney's Trailcrest the year before) but could not convince him to go any further. I respected his decision to return, for whatever reason, but this was certainly the lowest moment of the trip. He was going to struggle again through George Creek without a car at the trailhead. I was going on a multiday solo trip in rugged terrain. Well, the decisions were made and after lunch we bid farewell. In the afternoon I ascended to the 4,000 m level and by 4 pm set up camp just below Mt Barnard. It was cold and windy in the wide open bowl and I was glad to have Don's good Bibler tent. Clouds were drifting through but it gradually cleared toward the night.

The morning of Sun, 5/3, was perfect without a cloud in sight. With ice axe and crampons I climbed the South ridge of Trojan Pk (4,251 m or 13,947'). It was a pleasure to find the peak register and to place the first signature in 1998. The view was outstanding, but puffy clouds were rising again out of Owens Valley. To the North was Big Willi (14,370') which we missed to ski. Actually, the upper South facing slopes were all dry and it would have been just a climb which I had done 10 years ago. Because of the weather I rushed back to camp, packed out and was ready to continue by 10 am.

The Crest Route goes right over Mt Barnard (13,990'). Surprisingly, there was no snow on the NE slopes and it was a peak climb with full gear, at a slow pace because of the altitude. The clouds were rising, but I was lucky and it remained clear when I summitted at 11:30 am. Another outstanding view of many High Sierra peaks rising above the low clouds. Being on the summit is such a special moment after a long hard climb. Equally rewarding was signing in on the last page of an original peak register started in 1936! Many legendary names of mountaineers were in it.

Finally, it was time for the descent. The Southwest facing slope leading down to Wallace Lke had full snow coverage. It was crusty at the top, but gradually softened into prime corn snow. The 2,500' ski descent was a dream of backcountry skiing. With proper route finding it was moderately steep and avalanche free. After a lunch break at Wallace Lke (11,540') I proceeded to climb up to Tulainyo Lake (12,820'). It was a tiring afternoon having climbed two SPS peaks in the morning. By 4 pm, I found a scenic camp spot overlooking the round, solidly frozen, highest lake in the Sierra Nevada.

The basic routines followed: pitching the tent to get out of the cold wind, boiling water for a hot soup, and more water for the freeze-dried dinner, and still more for a hot drink afterwards, since one is so dehydrated after a long day skiing at high altitude.

During dinner, I noticed a worrisome change in the sky: Dark stratus clouds moving rapidly in from the West. While the puffy clouds in the East usually dissipated at night the front from the West was a real snow storm. It started to snow at 8 pm and continued all night. Wind gusts rattled the tent. My greatest concern was the potential avalanche hazard on the steep Northern slopes of the Russell-Carillon col which I had to cross the next day. If necessary, I was ready to sit out the storm since I had supplies for seven days.

On Mon, 5/4, I woke up to a good omen: Sunshine on the tent. Outside it was a glittering winter landscape with everything smoothed over by a few inches of fresh powder. This precious break in the weather had to be used. I rapidly collected a few essentials and headed up to nearby Tunnabora Pk (13,563'). This was the last SPS peak I wanted to climb to finish the Whitney-Williamson quadrangle. At 7 am I was on the summit, and not too early since the higher peaks such as Mt Russell became shrouded in clouds. It took me a while to find the summit register which turned out to be stuck in a crack and covered by rock and snow. During those moments one gets the lingering doubt whether one has climbed the right peak. After signing in as the first in this year and taking a few summit pictures, I headed back down to camp.

I had a leisurely breakfast and waited to see what would happen to the weather. The clouds were coming and going. By 10am I decided to pack out and give it a try to climb Russell-Carillon Pass (13,290'). This is a genuine mountaineering experience involving a climb on 45 deg snow and rock with ice axe and crampons, complicated by a full pack with skis sticking high up. The snow had a firm base under about 1/2 foot of windpacked powder which did not slide. Luckily, there was no cornice at the pass. After about an hour of high-concentration climbing, the pass was reached with a big relief. This was probably the most tricky part of the crest tour. (In summertime the pass is straightforward).

From the pass the view due South was breathtaking. Clouds rose from below and drifted around the high peaks, exposing occasionally the peaks of Mt Whitney, Russell, McAide, Thor, etc. Since I did not trust the weather I soon headed down to the Upper Boy Scout Lake. This was another fine 2,000' ski run on good spring snow. However, when skiing the steeper part, the wet snow started to slide. After each traverse of the slope one had to wait till the oozing mass came to a standstill before starting the next traverse. In an earlier similar situation on Mt Ritter I was once caught by the slush and washed down, learning to respect the slowly moving ones.

Further below, it was sweet turning, only interrupted by one long tumble when I foolishly initiated a turn in a climbers old glissade path. At the Boy Scout Lake it was time for lunch and to ponder what to do next. In the distance I saw some skiers in the fog who later turned out to be Rich Henke's group on their Crest Tour in the opposite direction. Originally, I had planned to camp at Iceberg Lke and to go over Whitney-Russell col to ski Young and Hale. But in view of the whiteouts, the potential for more snowstorms, and the inherent risks of a winter solo trip, I decided to ski out at this point. In retrospect, this was a good decision since the weather got worse the following days.

There was plenty of snow along the North Fork of the Lone Pine Creek. Thus, instead of crawling along the Ebersbacher ledges, it became a fine ski run down the right hand side of the creek until the lowest possible creek crossing. There was a bit of bushwhacking at the creek crossing, but nothing comparable to George Creek. Finally, after a 30 min hike down the civilized Whitney trail, I arrived at my car by 1:30 pm, surprised how fast four eventful days had passed.

I noticed that Don's car was gone. When I later called him at home, he said that on his way down George Creek he met a group of hikers who kindly gave him a ride to Whitney Portal, solving his transportation problems. R.J. also made it out safely to his car near the George Creek trailhead. I would have enjoyed sharing the tour with them, but must admit that it was not an easy one. It involved all elements of high-altitude ski mountaineering: skiing, climbing, navigation, stream crossings, unstable weather, and unpredictable human reactions. For a while, this trip will satisfy the need for more.

Reiner Stenzel

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