As spring falls upon the great Eastern Sierra once again it’s important to remember the story that accompanies a line that takes a few attempts to bag is sometimes just as memorable as skiing the line itself.
*Disclaimer-if you have computeritis, i.e., A.D.D. when it comes to reading long articles online you might want to crack a beer or get comfortable before you get into this one.
It seems like many moons ago that I first got bit by the Eastside bug. In reality it really hasn’t been that long at all, but I can I still remember my first look through John Moynier’s quintessential guide book, Backcountry Skiing California’s High Sierra. I was a total newb to the backcountry scene at the time, but after bagging my first few Eastside ski descents I was hooked. I read Moynier’s book daily. As inspiration merged with motivation I developed a deep desire to spend as much time exploring, climbing, and skiing in the High Sierra as I possibly could. Many lines stood out as objectives in those early years as I continuously thumbed through the 60+ ski descents Moynier discusses in his book.
Of course powder is the drug of choice for the majority of us who have absorbed skiing into our lives and claim it as lifestyle. However, I first learned skiing many peaks in the High Sierra during the springtime offers generally more stable and reliable snow conditions, better weather, and the chance to slide down powder’s welcome warm-time relative; corn. Beyond snow conditions couloir skiing has been and remains a passion. The aesthetics of spending a small amount of your life on a strip of snow sandwiched between walls of rock has been and remains my ideal choice when choosing what type of terrain to ski.
As time has passed and my partners and I have grown accustom to laughing at some of the overly intense descriptions given to some lines in the book, certain lines just seemed to resonate, for some reason or another, more than the rest. One of the most prominent lines that stood out to me those first few years was a line located just outside of Mammoth Lakes known as the Parachute. Sitting in one of the many epic hot springs outside of Mammoth the view out towards the Eastside is nothing short of profound. Many top-notch ski descents are clearly seen from the warm stanky water of the geothermal pools including a huge V notched cleft that splits off the summit of Pyramid Peak. You can see it from route 395 as well. What you can’t see is the full view of the slim ribbon of snow that drops straight down from this cleft.
Maybe it had something to do with Moynier’s description, and maybe it had something to do with allure of what you can see from afar and what you can’t. Regardless, the Parachute is a line I’ve wanted to ski for years and it took a long time before I finally found myself dropping in.
After cutting my teeth on a few Eastside classic peak and couloir descents in the early 2000’s I figured it was time to give the Parachute a go. On a trip to the area during this time temperatures had spiked to the point corn skiing was more like slop skiing, and since the Parachute faces SE my partner and I decided we’d be better off skiing something with a more northerly aspect. That night after a great ski we shared a hot spring with a random duo of ski dudes visiting from Montana. As we swapped stories they casually mentioned they had skied Parachute that afternoon. Apparently it was some of the worst couloir skiing conditions they had ever encountered-complete manky slop. I barely took notice of their description as a wave of regret washed over me for not having made the call to get after the Parachute that day as well. As that season and several others passed the Parachute stayed on my mind, but it seemed almost every random skier I ran into or partner I developed in Tahoe who had skied it shared a similar story. Either the snow was complete crap, or the chock stone hadn’t filled in two-thirds of the way up, or a rappel was needed to bypass most of the 50 degree skiing due to poor snow converge.
Since every time I thought it was a worthy decision to go for the line somehow found me running into someone with a story downgrading the fun factor involved in skiing Parachute I kept passing it up. There’s just too many worthy ski objectives to get after on the Eastside, and I just couldn’t find anyone to commit to the slog for a potentially scary ski in crap snow. Go figure.
Two years ago I found myself down on the Eastside, solo with my two dogs, ticking off whatever lines seemed good at the given time. I randomly ran into someone who had just skied Parachute, and figured my dogs had handled dropping in from the top of Kirkwood’s Cirque when we had skinned it after the resort had closed the prior week, so they’d be fine and we should go get it. Before you go referencing the video of that poor dog tomahawking down that couloir we never even made it up to the base (and I’ve long since decided my dogs shouldn’t ever ski anything so steep with that much danger potential anyway). As we approached the moraine crossing the split where you can head up towards the Bloody Couloir or the Parachute I noticed they weren’t behind me anymore. I looked out towards the rolling terrain and saw two black specks mocking with speed getting tinier and tinier with each passing second. By the time I had devised a plan for staying in the area until they were somehow found (hopefully), almost lost my voice in total from calling (or should I say yelling) for them, and my dogs had returned, I decided that must be the universes way of telling me I shouldn’t be taking my dogs to ski lines like that.
Another year or so later I found myself heading out to finally bag this beast with the guy I’ve ended up skiing many of my most favorite lines with on the Eastside. It was March and we were into one of those early spring corn cycles so we both thought we’d have a good shot at skiing the line in smooth corn. The problem with that logic is March can still be cold and since the upper half of the couloir gets some sun, but a lot of shade as well from its huge flaring walls the dark line that separated the top and bottom half of the couloir was too ominous. The top was going to be bullet proof. I was feeling stubborn and just wanted to go for it. Jeff thought more logically and argued it was worth putting off for another day.
This season I’ve been lucky to get several quality skis down on the Eastside. More often than not, after learning the ropes over the years, if you’re fit and have a good idea of weather and snow conditions bagging a moderate to big Eastside line is a relatively smooth process on the first try. Obviously for me the Parachute has not been one of those lines. So when Jeremy, who has skied the line once and also broke a binding two-thirds of the way up on a previous trip, agreed it could be the perfect day to ski it I was stoked to give it another go.
We left Tahoe at the crack of four a.m. heading south in the cold crisp dawn that got colder and snowier the further south we drove. Tahoe had just got a nice dusting of blower, and our thought was if we could catch the couloir before the sun baked the new snow we just might pull off a great ski in quality snow on a line notorious for its aesthetics and poor snow quality. The Mammoth area has also been hit with an above average winter like Tahoe this season so thoughts on the line being filled were strong, but by the time we had reached Mammoth a different obstacle appeared before our eyes-more than twice the new snow that had fallen up in Tahoe. A quick call to the Mammoth snow phone confirmed that indeed 32 inches had fallen at the higher elevations over the past 36 hours.
“Now what do we do?”
We tossed around our options, and came right back to the hope that the couloir would be sheltered enough to be holding pow, it should’ve self regulated through the storm to release any volatile snow, and may still be our best bet if stability tests and observations checked out on the way up. So we drove out on what started as a lightly covered Sherwin Creek Road before Jeremy’s Subaru promptly stopped in a snow drift. We went from a quarter inch deep to a few feet deep in an instant. The forecast called for a 20-30% chance of light showers with a cloudy sky so we rationalized our early start wasn’t quite as mandatory as if the sun was already out so we started digging.
A solid hour+ later, already getting tired, we made the call to deal with it later and go see if we were either going to ski low angle mellow trees if the snow seem unstable, or potentially have the chance to get after our primary objective.
The approach into the Parachute is painstakingly long for a line that comes in at around 1700’ vertical feet. However, breaking trail through Eastside blower was such a sublime activity neither of us took notice of the slog, but rather focused on the Zen aspect of what we were lucky to be doing. As we crested the final roll and got our first view of the Parachute we both smiled. Observations showed a few isolated point releases from the previous days warming, and all the new snow seemed to have bonded well to the old base layer. The sun was out, the couloir was filled in, and the snow was staying brilliantly cold and light. We continued.
Before the mouth of the line I had measured about two feet of fresh. In the shaded sides of the couloir as we gained elevation I measured closer to four feet. At about the point when we realized we had to start booting some pole placements went all the way up to my elbow. It was deep. But still nothing seemed like it was going to move.
After my first use of verts to lead the steep section of the couloir, since Jeremy had done most of the hip deep breaking on the lower half, I approached the top of the couloir and it started to absolutely puke snow. Visibility was non-existent. If we weren’t in a place lined by rock (beyond skiing in trees) we would’ve been in a complete whiteout. We stayed calm and collective, knowing the forecast had called for showers and that we should be able to find our way out since we’d both been in the area on previous occasions.
At this point there was only one way down anyway so I dropped in.
I wish I could say that first pitch was the most glorious turns I’ve ever shred, but the small amount of sun had cooked it. With the little fluff stuck to the top it wasn’t hero status by any means, although for super tight steep skiing it was manageable and some pretty fun spicy turns. The chock stone was gone, no rappelling was necessary, and the crux was just wide enough to get a pair of 182’s through.
As I watched Jeremy make his way down I thought about how deep some of the snow in lower portion of the couloir was when we were coming up. When I came around the corner into the next section I had one of the most unique sensations I’ve ever had skiing-a complete and utterly bottomless face shot that did not excite or thrill me. In fact, I was full on terrified as I felt like I had just dropped into quicksand and I was going to get sucked down into the depths of the earth with no way of getting out. Thankfully I was wrong-the snow was just that deep.
We traded off on the last few pitches keeping watchful eye on each other in case the snow did end up ripping and carrying us off to somewhere we didn’t want to go.
Truth be told it was one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen. That is, my friend skiing out of this notoriously fickle couloir and all I could see was his goggles and the top of his helmet. My personal experience felt similar.
More bottomless blower carried us through the Valentine Cirque and just like that the snow storm dissipated and it was bluebird.
Was it ironic that the only snow that fell that day was when we were directly in the middle of the business, or how the rest of our day progressed? Stoked, we cruised our way out the lower flanks of Pyramid Peak back to the car energized to dig ourselves out of our hole and get back to Tahoe. A few hours later we got the car to move…four feet…and got it stuck again. Trying to maintain a sense of humor and think about the turns we had been blessed with we watched the sunset and called AAA.
It was dark now and we both questioned whether we were going to get home that night or fight over the one sleeping bag in the car. Just then what looked to be headlights appeared down the road. Excitedly we hopped out of the car to greet…the cops. Mammoth police had walked the road down to our stuck vehicle to tell us the AAA guy didn’t want to drive through the first mini drift of snow Jeremy’s Subaru had made it through. We walked back with the police to the tow truck and confronted a driver fully unwilling to drive through the snow drift-no if-and-or-butts about it. At this point I felt like I had taken crazy pills a la Mugatu in the movie Zoolander. Here’s this big dude in a huge truck and he won’t go through a small drift for fear he might get stuck, even though we made it in a low-clearance Suby. Really?
The options looking ever bleaker got even more random when, lacking food or adequate warmth, we took the drivers offer to give us a ride to town. We got a room at the Motel 6 and then proceeded to get lost walking around the streets of Mammoth looking for a place that was open to eat. We found one, but at 10 pm when we walked in they promptly informed us the kitchen was closing for an hour until 11, and then we could get food. Really?
What was a lot of hoops to jump through ended in a really nice tow driver plucking us out the next day like it was nothing.
For some reason we had to deal and that was what was meant to be. It’s turned out to be a pretty funny story along the way, skiing this random couloir that although pretty rad in its own right, is extremely easy to bypass in lieu of the other numerous classic couloirs that line the 395 corridor. So when you’re off in the Eastside tagging lines in the golden season this spring just remember sometimes the lines you don’t bag on the first try might just give you a better story when all is said and done. The motivation to go back and learn from a first failed attempt, study maps, the weather, aspect, and dial in your next attempt all add up to knowledge you need to learn to be safe in the mountains anyway. In the end the Parachute was an unforgettable day of skiing and just one more Saturday night. If I had it to do all over again, I wouldn’t change a thing (except maybe getting a car stuck in a snow drift when 100 feet behind you is dry road).