For the 2004/2005 winter mountaineering season, Misha
and I had established a record unblemished by success. We bailed off of the North Ridge of Lone Pine Peak
in January due to AMS. Climbs with other partners yielded similar results
. Our original plan for late March was to go back to Lone Pine Peak and do the complete North Ridge—a first winter ascent if we could pull it off.
But as luck would have it, the weather didn’t look like it was going to cooperate. A series of storms was due to pass through the Sierra, starting a few days before our trip, and extending almost to the last day. With no relief in the weather forecast, the decision to bail on the Lone Pine Peak plan was easy. But bailing on the trip altogether was harder. Our schedules were such that this would be our last opportunity to climb together this winter. We discussed Shasta, Russell, and some smaller peaks, always returning to discussion of the potential avalanche danger. The National Weather Service forecast only an inch or two of snow per day in the area the rest of the week. It was light enough to convince us to give it a shot.
Driving up the night before was not an encouraging experience. It rained the whole way, heavily at times. But Wednesday morning dawned gloriously clear in the Owens Valley. True, the highest peaks were shrouded in cloud, and the crest to the north looked evil. But hey, the trend was in the right direction, eh?
Our plan was to make our way up to Consultation Lake, and from there attempt some combination of McAdie, Irvine and/or Mallory. At a minimum, we could console ourselves with an ascent of Thor Peak. We joked that if all else failed we could just hang out in the Alabama Hills and do some rock climbing.
Despite the modest snow falls predicted for the area, we opted to bring full avalanche gear. The storms were accompanied by heavy winds, and unstable wind slabs were something we planned to keep an eye out for.
Wednesday morning we pack our rucksacks, and were happy to find the road clear up to the first switchback. A lone skier who appeared as we prepared to walk up the road turned out to be fellow SPer Scott McKenzie, who was out for a morning ski to the Portal. Scott gave us his take on the conditions; warming up, snow melting fast. Indeed, we were able to walk on dry pavement a good part of the way to the Portal. We made such great progress that we fantasized about making Consultation Lake the first day.
The first stream crossing out of the Portal helped dispel such silly notions. After some exploration through the willows, we found ourselves front pointing in snowshoes up 45 degree frozen mud in order to gain the trail. That was a bit harder than we expected. But we were still feeling good following the trail until we reached the turnout for the North Fork. Then the real fun began.
Amazingly enough, it wasn’t too hard to follow the trail. Doing so saved us some route finding effort, but it didn’t help out with the real problem: deep snow. Despite our snowshoes, we sank in between 6 and 18 inches with each step. In particularly evil places, the new snow balled up under our snowshoes and we rode it down the underlying frozen corn until building up enough of a heap to support our weight. Anybody know where to get antibot plates for snowshoes?
Years ago, a Sierra Club leader tried to show me the rest step. At seventeen, “rest step” to me meant jogging. Now that I’m, well, never mind how old I am. Now that I’m older and more mature, rest step means allowing your body to pause slightly between each step. We did the rest step up to Lone Pine Lake when we were feeling energetic. We took five and a half hours to do what would take us little more than an hour in the summer.
Five o’clock was our target stopping time. Five o’clock came and went, and we were still a few hundred feet below the lake. We weren’t in a particularly good spot to camp; a series of steep gullies dropping a thousand feet from the summit snowfield of Thor Peak lined the route until just before the lake. Here and there we would cross a pile of avalanche debris to remind us why we had to keep walking.
Six o’clock came and went, and we still weren’t there. The sun was just a rosy memory on the Inyo Mountains across the Owens Valley. The temperature headed into the teens. My sense of humor faded. It was time to make camp. Now.
As I walked along, there was an entertaining dialog going on in my head regarding a suitable stopping place. All those nice ideas about what makes an ideal camp site were stripped away one by one:
Flat? Screw that. Have snow shovel, will travel.
Near water? Doh! Isn’t that what the stove is for?
Sheltered from the wind? You ninny. Did you carry that tent all the way up here just to use it as a pillow?
Nice view? What, are you crazy? It’s freakin’ cold out here! Get a grip, pal. It’s time to put down stakes.
On the whole, it felt very much like a trip to the mall with certain females I’ve been associated with; they’re still looking for the perfect whatever-the-hell-it-is-they’re-looking-for, and I’m ready jump in front of a Metrolink train. Only in this case, I had both parties to the madness in my head at once. Ugh.
At quarter to seven, we finally stopped. We were tired, but in good spirits. As we cooked dinner Misha kept bringing up the subject of the next day’s activities. It was all predicated on the notion that we were going to stick with our original plan. I kept putting the discussion off until after we were all through with the logistics. It was my opinion that our original plan had a serious conflict with reality, and it was time to give up the struggle to pretend otherwise.
So, after we finished cleaning up I introduced Misha to a game I’ll call “climbing objective limbo”, or “how low
can you go?” I laid out my case for doing a reconnaissance up toward Consultation Lake with only day packs, rather than trying to move camp. If things went well, we could knock off Thor Peak. If things went as I expected, we could thrash around for a few hours before crawling back to the tent with our tails between our legs. Misha wasn’t totally convinced. We agreed to talk about it in the morning.
Thursday morning dawned clear and calm, with temperatures in the single digits. The big issue of the day was what route to take on the way up toward Thor Peak. I had my ideas, but wasn’t real particular about how we went about it. It all promised to be some form of suffering. Misha was keen to head straight up a chute that loomed about a hundred meters to the west of our tent, so that was it.
Snow travel conditions went from bad to worse as we approached the gully. Misha struggled gamely, as the snow under his feet refused to support body weight. Just following in his steps was considerable work. Soon I took over breaking trail, heading out left over some old avalanche debris in hopes that the surface would be firmer there. It was marginally better, but still a real chore. I never imagined I would find myself kicking steps in snowshoes, but that was the best strategy for gaining traction.
We slowly zigzagged up the couloir, aiming for what appeared to be a notch where we could sit down and assess the situation. When we reached the “notch” it proved to be nothing more than a slight dip in a ridgelet separating our gully from another that came up from the east above the trail to Lone Pine Lake. Misha checked his altimeter. After nearly two hours of exhausting labor we had managed to gain a measly 700 feet of altitude.
If we were to make the summit, we would have to endure another 1,400 feet of this misery. Misha was concerned about the avalanche danger on the snowfield above. As if that wasn’t enough, it looked like the weather was beginning to close in on us. The upper reaches of the mountain were wreathed in fog, and snow wraiths slithered across the canyon wall opposite our position. A slender obelisk atop the buttress forming the west side of the gully gave us a clear indication of what mother nature thought of our presence.
“If we headed down now, do you think we could get out by nightfall?” Misha asked.
“Hell yes,” I responded without hesitation, visions of beer and tacos dancing in my head.
We macked down a few more mouthfuls of food and strode off with a clear sense of purpose. Plunge stepping down the useless snow, it occurred to me that this chute deserved a more appropriate name than “southeast chute”, as it has sometimes been called. I decided to name it the “knucklehead couloir” in honor of the personal qualities required to attempt it under the day’s conditions. Two days later a solo snowshoer went up that same couloir and got hit with a wet snow avalanche. He was partially buried, but able to dig himself out. Had we continued, and the clouds not moved in, we might have suffered a similar fate; the surface layer was getting quite wet.
We were back at the tent in about twenty minutes, and on our way back to the car within an hour. It took us an hour and twenty minutes to descend to the Portal. It had taken us five and a half hours to cover the same ground the day before.
There were two parties camped at the Portal. No signs of life from tent number one, but two big guys were hanging out by the other, a North Face dome worthy of a Himalayan expedition. The bigger of the two asked me how far we’d gotten. I replied that we were descending from Lone Pine Lake. Upon hearing that we hadn’t been near the Mountaineer’s Route, the lummox gave me a terse “Thanks”, and turned his back. Nice case of plumber’s butt, I thought. Misha and I laughed as we imagined them humping their big loads up through the mush that awaited them only a few hundred feet higher. It couldn't happen to a better guy.
We soon reached the car, and began plotting activities for the following day. We had decided to reward ourselves with a day of sport climbing in the Alabama Hills, assuming we could get a place in Lone Pine that night. Fortunately, the wildflower enthusiasts headed for Death Valley hadn’t sucked up all of the rooms in town. A half an hour and ninety bucks later, we were sitting in the Bonanza swilling beer and anticipating the imminent arrival of two huge plates of hot Mexican food.
Climbing in the Alabama Hills
was a real treat. Neither of us had climbed there before. Clear skies and temperatures in the mid- to upper sixties made for perfect conditions. We soon realized that the Hills had more moderate climbs of high quality than Joshua Tree, and far less hassle. No fees, no reservations, no crowds; just two climbers in a seemingly endless sea of rocks. It seemed to me that if this is what failure was like, I’d like to do it more often!