Winter conditions in April? You better believe it. With the Sierra snow pack estimated to be 120-170% of normal, winter conditions are still lingering around. I found myself with 2 free days so I decided, “hey why not attempt some ridiculously long solo route through the snow”? I had initially intended to make a try at Striped and Goodale Mtns, but after examining a very avy prone approach I decided to make a go at the massive East Ridge of Cardinal Mtn. Also located in the Taboose Pass Region, this route offered a very wide ridge line with good possibility for views, and nothing too technical. So on Saturday April 16th I rushed home from work to pack up and get all my gear together. At 7pm I was ready and on the road heading from San Diego to the Sierras.
I awoke at dawn on Sunday morning to a beautiful sunrise over the Owen’s Valley, staring strait up at Cardinal and Split Mountain. I began the long and windy drive toward the Taboose Pass TH around 6am. The progressively worsening road was rough on my little Acura Integra, but I made it all the way to the trailhead without any incidents. I set out to gather my gear and make sure all the necessary items were there. I then proceeded to shoulder my pack for the trek up the East Ridge. When I lifted the full pack I realized that the approach wasn’t going to be “fun”. The pack weighed in around 55lbs, over a third of my body weight, yikes. At 730am I set off up the trail under the heavy load, leaving the trail after only ¾ of a mile to head strait for the sandy/brush filled East Ridge of Cardinal Mtn. The approach up the initial ridgeline was steep, loose, and covered with sagebrush. Not one of the more enjoyable approaches. I methodically slogged up the sandy slopes until I encountered a band of large boulders, which there didn’t seem to be an easy route around. So I strapped the trekking poles to the pack and proceeded through 100ft of class 2+ scrambling. This was more difficult than expected; I guess having an extra 55lbs on my back had something to do with that.
I made steady progress uphill, finally reaching snow at 8100ft around 11am. This was a Godsend, compared to the brush, sand, and loose rock I was dealing with down lower. All day a layer of high clouds had been lingering over the valley, never too threatening, but rather they served to keep the snow firm and made walking very pleasant. So I finally unloaded my snowshoes from the pack(a 5lb weight off my back) and kept moving uphill. The snow was solid all day, making the walk up to Stacker Flat very pleasant. At Stacker Flat the views finally started to open up, as Mount Tinemaha came into view, as did the entire valley behind me. From Stacker Flat it wasn’t too far to the high plateau at 9500ft, where I planned to camp for the night. As the slope leveled out around 9400ft, a large portion of the East Ridge came into view, my first good look at the route that day. Split Mt and Mount Tinemaha were also fully in view now, making for quite a scene. It took me a few minutes to find a nice windbreak amongst the trees, but at 1245pm I unshouldered the pack and began to set up camp. By this time the sun was breaking the clouds apart, and the snow was beginning to soften. I spent the next hour building a platform for my small tent and setting up camp. After a quick scout of the ridge to come, I settled in to boil some water and get my gear together for the early morning start the next day
After an uneventful and warm night(low 20s) I awoke at first light around 545am. The morning was brisk but not cold considering my surroundings. As I hurried to get my gear together, the sun’s first rays were peaking over the Inyos in the East. The soft orange glow and a crystal blue sky promised a beautiful summit day. By 630am I was heading up the ridgeline toward Cardinal. The snow was still firm in the early morning hours, so I left the snowshoes on my pack, starting out with crampons. I picked my way the North side of the East ridge on firm wind swept snow. After passing over two bumps on the ridge the high plateau opened up truly expansive views of the upper reaches of Cardinal’s East ridge.By this time(820am) high clouds had been drifting overhead for almost an hour, threatening to cloud me in. As I neared the plateau at 11300ft the winds began to pick up on the exposed ridge line, gusting at 30mph. I paused in the final grove of trees to grab a quick snack and plan my attack at the snowy bowl above. I headed across the 11300 plateau toward the South side of the East ridge, where it looked like the slope was more gradual and more wind scoured. After digging a quick snow pit, I headed up the 30 degree slope under partly cloudy skies. The weather was variable, at times views were excellent in all directions, another time Goodale and Striped Mtn(less than 3 miles away) were completely clouded in. The clouds continued to dissipate once they passed the Sierra Crest, so I headed on up up up.
Finally I topped out on the snow bowl around 12400ft at 955am. From here I could finally see my route to the summit. I was surprised to see that the ridgeline directly ahead was more than 50% melted away. After another quick snack break I headed straight up the North side of the ridge toward a false summit around 12900ft. After doing a little bit of mixed climbing with the crampons on I reached the crux of the climb. A short 40 degree snow chute that had to be climbed in order to obtain the summit ridgeline. Though it was only 50ft long, it was only 10ft from Cardinal’s sheer North Face, not a comforting fact. In light of all the accidents of late, I took my time and was very cautious. After testing the snow I was delighted to find it soft enough to kick good solid steps into, but not too soft as to slip from underfoot. So I slowly but surely kicked steps up the chute moving one point of contact at a time. I then climbed over a short section of rock to a more mellow 30 degree slope. From here it was a short traverse under one false summit and then up some easy mixed climbing(more like walking) to the summit of Cardinal Mountain.
As I approached the summit block, a pile of rocks with a traditional metal canister were clearly visible. I let out a “WOOHOO!” as I trudged those last few feet to the summit. At 1140pm I stood atop Cardinal Mountain, though it felt more like the top of the world. The clouds had blown off, and views stretched for miles in every direction. From Williamson to the South, the South Fork of the Kings River to the West, Split Mt and Mather Pass to the North, and of course the Owen’s Valley far below. There is nothing like a trudge up from the desert floor to 13400ft to make one feel alive. I sat down on the summit block, took a deep breath and just gazed for several minutes, remembering what it felt like to be alone, so far from anyone. Utter silence, the sound of the wind being my only company. After scarfing down a bagel I took a few pictures and set off back down through the rocks and snow.
I kept reminding myself that the ascent is only half the journey, the other half is of course the descent. I moved slowly down the first few hundred feet, backing down the 40 degree chute to make me set my feet more securely. Once that was over, it was an easy walk back to the top of the large snow bowl at 12400ft. From here I descended another 100ft into the bowl, then sat down for a nice long glissade. With snow conditions softening under the sun, the bowl was perfect for a nice long controlled glissade(bottoming out at a small concave valley). When I reached the high plateau below the snow bowl it was only 100pm. It had taken me only one hour to descend what had taken me nearly 3 hours earlier that day. As I walked across the plateau the effects of the sun on the snow were becoming more evident as every 10th step dropped me knee deep in the snow. I debated pulling out the snowshoes, but decided I would be able to do a little more glissading down lower. So opted to suffer through the occasional posthole, just letting out a few mumbled curse words each time my lower leg disappeared. As I walked down the East Ridge the snow became softer and softer. Once I hit 10500ft I began to hit thigh deep on occasion. Finally I reached a point where the ridge opened up enough to be comfortable glissading down through the slush, this was a very welcome relief. I was able to slide down to nearly 9800ft, then suffered the final .3miles postholing knee deep through spring slush.
I slowly made my way back into camp at 140pm, ready to get a move on. I broke down camp as quickly as I could, and downed my last power gel. Now it was time for the snowshoes with tails, because with the extra 45lbs on my back I probably would have been waste deep for miles. I decided to try an different decent route, rather than wade through the sage brush and risk spraining an ankle on the loose gravel. I traversed South from my campsite to a smaller spur ridge which meets the Taboose Pass Trail at around 7200ft. As I descended the ridge became increasingly steep and narrow. Realizing this and remembering that I had seen several rock pillars on the lower section, I decided to traverse down off the ridge into the valley to the South(there is a spring marked on the map in this valley). The consistency of the snow had turned from hardpack to slurpie like. Luckily this valley was steep enough that I could ski down it on my snowshoes. This made for a rapid descent which consisted of gliding 5ft for each step taken. Finally I reached the Taboose Pass Trail at 8000ft, leaving another 2.5 trail miles back to the car. I made that final push without stopping, all I could think about was a cold soda and Pizza Factory. My body had probably consumed 2-3X as many calories as I had taken in, and was starving for some grease. The only shock of the day was to discover that my Suunto had logged me as doing 5500ft of elevation gain, and 9500ft of loss that day(April 18th). I assumed it had been 1500ft less on both ends, oh well, at 425pm I was back at my car, ready for that pizza.
Eric J Lee, Summited Cardinal Mt April 18th, 2005.