Introduction to Lee Vining Canyon
Lee Vining Canyon contains California's steepest, longest and most consistent ice routes, so much so that it is almost synonymous with California ice climbing. Among the first to climb ice here were Yvon Chouinard and Doug Robinson who made the first ascent on the Main Wall in 1970 using new ice tools Chouinard was creating. There are several main climbing areas and routes in Lee Vining Canyon including the following working list:
This page will primarily cover the single pitch areas of Chouinard Falls and the Right Flow. To climber's left of Chouinard Falls is the Main Wall (aka Main Flow) and other 2 pitch climbs.
Getting There / Approach
Take CA SR-120 (aka Tioga Road) west from US-395 just south of Lee Vining and about 25 miles north of Mammoth. If you heading south on US-395 coming from Lee Vining, you can take a short cut to 120 by turning right on to Utility Road which will dead end on to CA SR-120 where you will turn right. Follow CA SR-120 for about 3 miles from 395 until just before you reach the closed gate where you will turn on to Poole Road. Then turn immediately right and continue westward up the canyon for about 2 miles until it ends at the Southern CA Edison Power Plant. There is a small parking area that is plowed, however, you should not camp here. Hike on to the snow just beyond the chain link fence and up the canyon. Head generally up and left (south) into Lee Vining Canyon for 20-45 min depending on snow conditions until you see the Main Wall on your left.
As you enter the canyon, you will see two large sets of ice falls on your left. The first set of falls is the Main Wall which is comprised of several 2 pitch routes including several direct routes up the center of the main flow as well as Spiral Staircase (WI3+) on the left and Heel Toe (WI4 5.9) on the right. The second set of falls is Chouinard Falls which contains about 4-6 single pitch routes in the WI3-/3/3+ range. The routes range from 120' on the left to 80' to the right. To the right of Chouinard Falls is the Right Flow which has about three WI2+ routes ranging from 45' to 70'. When the ice is in full conditions it is possible to climb many variations to the top as well as traversing the bottom of the falls for some ice bouldering.
There are four sets of bolts with chains at the top of Chouinard Falls with three more sets on the Right Flow. Generally these can be used for a rap descent or lowering. It is also possible to walk off climbs on the Main Wall, Chouinard Falls, and the Right Flow by hiking to climbers right, descending and coming around the bottom of the Right Flow.
Use the following guide for additional information:
- Eastern Sierra Ice by Sierra Mountain Center
Standard ice gear. A 70m rope is useful for toproping the leftmost 2-3 climbs on Chouinard Falls. Otherwise you'll be belaying directly in the ice fall line or need to use 2 ropes. Generally 3-6 screws are useful for leading the 1-pitch climbs. Some stubbies are desirable for thin ice and screamers are generally useful for leading. The routes on Chouinard Falls are often free soloed.
Canyon Conditions / When to Climb
Ice climbing in Lee Vining is generally best during the winter between mid-December and mid-March. The area around the Southern CA Edison power plant and the canyon is prime avalanche terrain so make sure you are aware of avy danger when entering the area. Here are some sources to check:
- Weather Conditions: Weather.com (Lee Vining, CA)
- Weather Conditions: Weather Underground (Bishop, CA)
- Ice Climbing Conditions: Nidever Mountain Guides (TheMountainGuide.com)
- Ice Climbing Conditions: Sierra Mountain Center
- Misc Conditions: Mono Lake Live
Accomodations / Restaurants
Murphey's Motel and the Lake View Best Western, both in Lee Vining, are the primary accomodations for Lee Vining ice climbers. They both have discounts for ice climbers, however, the Best Western is a bit more expensive (and thus nicer). They are both located on the western side of US-395 with Murphey's being just north of Nicley's and the Best Western just south of it. Nicley's is the only diner open in Lee Vining during the winter. While Nicley's is good for breakfast before the climb, it is often nice to have something a bit more robust for dinner. Two popular dinner spots include the Double Eagle Resort and the Tiger Bar, both on the June Lake loop. The Sierra Inn (next to the Tiger Bar) makes a good steak, but it's pizzas leave something to be desired. During the winter, the northern end of the June Lake loop is unplowed so you should drive in through the south entrance where there is a Shell station. Beyond that, people sometimes drive as far south as Mammoth for apres-climb activities.
If you have information about this route that doesn't pertain to any of the other sections, please add it here.