As the saying goes, “The Higher you get, The Higher you get”. On Saturday January 8th Jeff Dostie, Jeremy Frumkin, and I were undeniably the highest skiers in the continental USA. Dropping in from the summit plateau of Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the lower 48 at an elevation 14,496 feet, with good soft snow, we knew we had made a quality decision to go after this classic line in the middle of winter. With an 8,000 foot descent starring us in the face and the Mountaineers Couloir in reasonable shape, this is about as good as it gets in the High Sierra for early January.
Let’s back up a few days…It was mid week after I bagged a sweet couloir off Mt. Laurel in mostly pow when thoughts shifted to what might be filled in further south. Brendan Madigan and I were dumbfounded by how good the couloir next to the Pinner, known as the Mini Pinner by some, skied when we finally topped out on it early last week.
Booting was not an easy way up as many sections had us both wallowing in snow up to our waist. But when we dropped in everything made sense. Effortless powder turns in a couloir with huge walls in such a tight space is a feeling I hope every backcountry snow slider can lock into at some point. Couloir skiing is one of my favorite ways to makes turns, and doing so in the Mini Pinner on this day with perfect fluff was for surely another “best run of the season”.
Heading back to Tahoe I mused what else might be good to ski taking into account the many feet that has fallen so far this season, but also remembering it was still January. Since coverage is good down south, but up high is still somewhat thin, thoughts shifted to Mt. Whitney. The whole line isn’t always in that good of shape anyway, being above 14k feet and all, but the chance to catch the route with enough skiable coverage and the potential for an 8k foot descent rationalized making this adventure a go.
This project also had another pull for me personally. Earlier in the year my good buddy Jeremy asked me to help him raise money for a group called Bay Area Wilderness Training. Check out their website for more info http://www.climbingforkids.org/ or take a look at Jeremy’s fundraising goal here http://bawt.kintera.org/faf/donorReg/donorPledge.asp?ievent=287609&supid=279246797.
Jeff Dostie and I headed back down to Bridgeport after another epic day in the Tahoe backcountry to ski Crater Crest prior to the Whitney push.
The Tahoe backcountry has been holding solid with cold temps and a low sun keeping the snow amazing all week, but the Eastside was calling. Crater Crest is a peak I’ve usually looked past as far as Eastside descents are concerned, but for a somewhat mellow skin you get 4100 feet of goodness for your efforts. It’s an excellent choice to cut your teeth on before getting into some of the bigger terrain to the south of Tahoe, or to have a mellow effort in between going for bigger objectives. For Jeff and I it was silky smooth powder and a great warm up day before making the charge south to Whitney. Jeremy met us in town later that afternoon. After a soak at the Hilltop Hot Springs outside Mammoth and dinner in Bishop we found ourselves driving towards the Whitney Portal Trail Head before snow and ice on the road dictated where we’d begin the next day in a few short hours.
3:15 a.m. Not the easiest time to get moving but it was a mandatory. Zigzagging up the closed access road it was clear that at least the lower flanks of our descent would be powder. As we kept a steady pace and kept gaining elevation the weather was stable and the snow quality remained high. It wasn’t until we got about 1000 feet from the Mountaineers Couloir when the wind picked up. Of course. It couldn’t be that easy right?
But it wasn’t as bad as some stories I’ve heard and with the line mostly in we busted out the hardware and started cramponing up. The top of the couloir was free of skiable snow, thankfully only for a few feet, and the next ribbon of step snow lead us right to the top.
Amazing views, great snow, a fun classic couloir, good vibes towards a worthy charity, and 8k feet of skiing was all that was left. By the time we approached the car sunset was in full effect and three of us were fully amped to have just scored such a high quality line in good winter snow.
Coming back to the Lake there was still so much soft snow hiding out in sheltered north facing aspects. Unreal. I hope everyone’s seen Ralph and Abro’s epic backcountry powder posts from earlier in the week, and hopefully by now anyone who wants to get out has made a few turns since the last snowfall. I’ll tell ya, backcountry traffic has been solid around the Lake in the past week and rightfully so. Whether you’re slednecking or getting ready for a big skin into Desolation or the Eastside good snow is still available and people have been shredding it. Winds have picked up in the past few days though and some scouring has taken place. If you ski above 8k feet it’s probable you’ll find some wind crust, wind slabs, and some scoured terrain, especially on north aspects. Other crust layers are also starting to come in on aspects with west and south in them, but don’t get too fooled because protected north shots are still super soft and smooth.
Head out to something sheltered, and below 8k feet you should find some great pow turns. The snow got a little warm on Tuesday, but with snow flurries falling hopefully things will get smoothed out in the next few days. Avalanche danger is super low right now and things may not change all that much since what was supposed to be 2-3 feet of new this week has backed off to a forecasted few inches over our area. Watch the weather and let’s hope that changes with 3 separate systems set to brush us in the coming week, and have fun seeking out the many good turns still to be had more than 10 days since our last snowfall.