California’s Sierra Nevada abounds with stunning glacier-sculpted valleys. The Little Lakes Valley at the head of Rock Creek Canyon is certainly no exception. After climbing steeply from the Mono basin in a narrow canyon along picturesque Rock Creek, the Little Lakes Valley becomes almost perfectly flat and its canyon walls open up to reveal the many jagged peaks that guard its flanks. The lofty summits that line the Little Lakes Valley – Mounts Morgan, Mills, Abbot, Dade and Bear Creek Spire – are the last of the high “thirteeners” in the Sierra Nevada’s northward thrust. To the south of Rock Creek lie all of the range’s 14,000’+ peaks, including Mt. Whitney and the Palisades Group, while the highest peaks to the north of Rock Creek, including Mt. Ritter and Mt. Lyell, only barely exceed 13,000’.
It was to this enchanted area that I had been meaning to go for quite some time. In addition to the many beautiful summer photos of the valley that I had seen, I was aware that the Little Lakes Valley was a backcountry skier’s paradise. Indeed, it is said that the valley was a favorite winter and springtime haunt of none other than Sierra pioneer Norman Clyde, who would establish multi-day basecamps below the peaks and proceed to leave ski tracks where no person would follow for decades. Norman Clyde had this to say about the area:
To the northwest of Mt. Tom, across a profound gorge looms a sharp, pyramidal mountain, 13,708 feet in elevation. This is Bear Creek Spire, perhaps the finest of a number of peaks that encircle a treeless, granite basin containing Lake Italy. . . Bear Creek Spire rises at the northeastern corner of the basin. Perhaps the most striking views of it are from the north, up Little Lakes Basin. It is an unusually impressive mountain of the Matterhorn type. On all sides, except the west, it drops away in almost vertical walls hundreds of feet in height. The summit itself is a single monolith only a few feet in diameter from which these jagged aretes radiate in true Matterhorn fashion. The view obtained from this circumscribed perch is superb. To the east, across deep gorges, is Mt. Tom; to the south, beyond others, is the lofty and commanding form of Mt. Humphreys; to the south, Seven Gables, Mt. Hilgard and other rugged peaks; to he west, across Lake Italy Basin, Mt. Gabb; to the northwest, the group containing Mts. Dade, Abbot and Mills. Another handsome mountain as one looks up the Rock Creek Basin is Mt. Dade. To the north it breaks away in sheer cliffs at whose base lies a small glacier. It has been ascended only a few times, although the view from its summit is a very good one.
Well, perhaps he was just keeping the goods for himself, but what ol' Norman didn’t say is that Mt. Dade also has a real nice couloir on its east side in the shape of an hourglass. As the name implies, the “Hourglass Couloir” is wide at the top and bottom, and narrows in the center where it is steepest. I thought it would make for a nice ski trip, so I made plans to go.
As luck would have it, Eric O of Teletips reknown had recently moved back to California and was living in Mammoth Lakes, a mere half hour north of Rock Creek Canyon. A few emails and chat room posts later, and suddenly there were four of us enlisted on the trip – Nate Roth (aka Telenater), splitboard rider Chris Gallardo (aka bcrider), Eric and yours truly. We traded maps, photos, “beta” and whatever else we could find before the trip in order to “out jones” the other guys. Since my daughter was born in September, I had not been able to spend any time on the Eastside since a late June trip to ski the Conness Glacier. Needless to say, I was plenty fired up for this trip.
In fact, I was so fired up that I agreed to drive from my home in San Francisco to Rock Creek and back for a simple weekend trip – no trivial matter. To make matters more complicated, all trans-sierra roads south of Carson Pass are snowbound and closed in winter, requiring a pesky detour into a sliver of western Nevada, and then down the east side of the range on Highway 395. After fighting my way out of the Bay Area in typical Friday afternoon traffic, I picked up Nate and Chris on the way up to Lake Tahoe. Once in the Tahoe basin, we dropped over Luther Pass and down to CA 88. I had been told of a great shortcut that shaved several miles off the journey by cutting across the Washoe Tribe Reservation near Dresslerville, Nevada. The “shortcut” turned into an odyssey involving unsigned dirt roads, abandoned roadside refrigerators and multiple 7-11’s. Through a combination of directional intuition and muted prayer, we were somehow deposited out onto US 395 heading south towards California (again!) and the big mountains. Three hours later at around Midnight, we arrived at Eric’s house in Mammoth.
Day One -- The Ski In:
I woke up at 5:45 to the smell of Eric's meatless sausage burritos. After a hefty amount of commotion getting our gear sorted (which prompted a outburst of "you owe me BIG TIME man," from Dangerous Dave, Eric's roommate), we left and actually made it to the trailhead by 8am (where another round of parking lot "gear backgammon" ensued).
This early in the season, the road up Rock Creek is gated at the East Fork campground, a full five miles from road's end at Mosquito Flat. Thus, our morning would be spent slogging up a snowy road until we got to the real good stuff. Fortunately, the weather was perfect and the views from the road up into the valley were spectacular. The five mile ski to Mosquito flat was accomplished relatively quickly and pain-free.
Along the way, we were treated with an upclose look at the east gullies on Pointless Peak and Mt. Starr, two chute skiing gems near Rock Creek Lake. Beyond Mosquito Flat, we left the road and started skiing up the stairstep series of lakes that occupy the Little Lakes Valley -- Mack, Marsh, Heart and Box Lakes -- each of which seemed more beautiful than the last one. High up to our right was the Ruby Wall, Mt. Mills and Mt. Abbot.
After skiing for about 7 miles, some grumblings arose among the group about finding a campsite. We originally intended to go as far as Treasure Lakes, about 8 miles in, but we ultimately decided to throw our packs down in a small stand of trees above the west shore of Long Lake. Our spot gave us a perfect view of the amazing couloirs dropping off the west face of Peak 12,782' (known locally as "Little Lakes Peak", but which will be forever known by our group simply as "MrPowder's Wet Dream" -- don't ask).
Upon arrival, Eric immediately went to work excavating a platform for his megamid. You see, Eric is a megamid perfectionist. I sat and melted snow for drinking water while Eric tutored Nate on the finer points of Megamidology ("Be sure to dig a proper platform. If you screw that up, you might as well start over in a completely different location"; "Dig down to establish a firm base layer upon which to sleep, as this will afford you more headroom"). After what seemed like a full 8-hour work day, both Eric's megamid and Chris's Kiva pyramid tent were pitched quite professionally. All the while, I dreamed of my typical five-minute dirtbag bivy sack setup and how it would have let me ski the dreamy chutes on MrPowder's Wet Dream. Clearly I was travelling with the Gucci crew on this trip.
The day dawned in an outrageous fashion -- the skies were on fire with the early morning sunlight and everyone ran out of their tents "oooing" and "aaaahhhing" while snapping off entire flashcards full of digital photos (does anyone shoot film anymore?). The previous evening, we formulated a plan -- "Hey, why don't we get up early and ski the Hourglass, and then cruise across to the other side of the valley and ski one of the chutes on MrPowder's Wet Dream?" "Sure", was the universal response. It didn't really work out that way.
We packed up our camp and skied up a natural halfpipe to the outlet of Treasure Lakes, right below the north face of Bear Creek Spire. We skied across the lakes to the base of the Hourglass. Cognizant of snow conditions, we spaced ourselves out while skinning up the lower apron of the couloir. Eric, as usual, was breaking trail for the flatlanders with his 8,000' lungs. At the "waist" of the hourglass, Eric stopped and dug a snowpit. Conditions were fairly stable, but the snow looked grim for skiing on -- about six inches of breakable crust sprinkled about in pockets of sun-warmed and wind-impacted "powder". Hey, we hiked ten miles for this, so let's make the best of it. And the best of it did we make.
At the bottom of the Hourglass, we skied some nice powder runs back to the spot where we stashed our gear. The hour was getting pretty late by now, and with 7.5 miles to go to the car, I was a little concerned. I also had a minimum six hour drive home that night and work the next day. The trip out was a combination of monotony, pain and frustration with periods of good humor mixed in; a perfect tragicomedy to round out the trip. It sort of reminded me of that Stephen King book where you get shot in the head if you stop walking. Yeah, it was that fun. In spite of the pain, we made it to the roads' end at Mosquito Flat at around 5:30pm. Thanks to gravity, we skied the entire five mile road back to the car in 25 minutes.
Two "mammoth" pizzas were picked up at Giovanni's in town, and the three flatlanders were promptly on their way. I made it home at 1am (without the Dresslerville "shortcut"). I was utterly exhausted yet at the same time feeling totally alive and clear of mind. Would I drive 13 hours in one weekend and slog 20 miles on snow to ski breakable crust in the Little Lakes Valley again? You betcha.