After having flubbed several opportunities to take advantage of a break in the weather last week, I was keen to make the most of what was looking like half a day of clear skies on Friday. I was also eager to finally work my way down to some of the peaks along the east side of the Sierra crest and scope out the snow levels and conditions. I settled on Mt Warren, a 12,000 ft peak with over 2,000 ft of prominence, just outside of Yosemite and very accessible, even with winter road closures.
I set off from home around 4am and headed south with the full moon casting an eerie glow on the mountains around. I arrived at Lundy Canyon at 6:15, happy to find that there was parking on Lundy Dam Road, just below Lundy Lake. The road was only plowed another two hundred feet past the parking area and at the terminus sat a massive rotary plow. I wonder if the road was only recently plowed and I got lucky to be able to drive so far along it or perhaps the Forest Service dedicates a plow to the maintenance of this road all winter…
I brought my headlamp but found that between the floodlight of the full moon and the dull glow of twilight I had no need for it. I started up Lundy Dam Road, crossing the canyon below Lundy Lake and heading for Deer Creek Canyon, due south. There were plenty of crusty old skin tracks headed up the canyon, but after a short while, one of the more recent tracks began ascending the east wall of the canyon. My plan had been to follow the canyon to near its head before climbing onto the summit plateau. Now that I was here, I realized that following the canyon for so long would restrict my view not only of the surrounding peaks but of the status of the incoming storm.
After checking the topo I decided that this was as good a climb out of the canyon as the one I had planned and that having a skin track to follow would probably make the going easier. The track was fairly easy to follow, until near the ridge where it was icy and poorly defined.
Once atop the ridge the full light of the newly risen sun hit me and the view of Mono Lake below was stunning. I soon realized however, that the tricky climbing had only begun. Despite reports from the Eastern Sierra Avalanche Center (ESAC) of “more snow than expected in the region,” the previous days snowfall was clearly less than 2 inches total, and it sat atop a firm crust from earlier days of warm sunny weather. Where the crust was breakable, I could stomp through and get firm footing. Where it wasn’t, my stomping only delayed the inevitable backwards slide down the mountain.
I had second thoughts about deciding to bring my “fat, fun” skis rather than my narrower “mountaineering” skis for which I have ski crampons. With ski crampons, I would probably easily maintain my initial pace of 1,500 vertical feet per hour. Instead, it would take me two hours to climb the next 1,000 ft.
I decided that in order to eventually gain the summit plateau I would need to traverse two gullies eastward, but traversing on skins without crampons is nearly impossible in these conditions. I tried digging the edges of my skis into the slope as best I could, but each step resulted in my downhill ski sliding out from under me and a concentrated effort to maintain my balance and find purchase on the supportable crust. After getting halfway across the first gully, I decided to cut my losses and traverse downhill to the other side where I hoped the snow would be more easily climbed. The traverse was nerve wracking and precarious, and I found that the snow here was no better. I finally acquiesced, pulling my skis off, shouldering them and starting the miserable bootpack up the hill. In reality, it was not a bad bootpack (I was only postholing to my shins on a 35 degree slope) but I was upset with myself for not having the appropriate gear for the climb.
After ascending a few hundred feet, I approached a rocky ridge which appeared to be easy climbing. I strapped my skis to my pack, stowed my poles behind my back and continued uphill. The rock was very stable and pleasant to climb! If it weren’t for the rapid numbing of my hands from the freezing rock or the clumsiness of my ski boots (I was grateful for the tacky rubber on the soles!), I probably would have decided to climb the ridge all the way to the summit plateau. Eventually I came to a broad flat spot which afforded my first unobscured view of Mt Warren. After a brief breakfast taking in the view, I decided that skinning was once again feasible, and returned my skis to my feet.
The skinning still wasn’t easy and I found that the only suitable snow was in the margin of gully, immediately adjacent to the ridge I’d been climbing. This meant a lot of very tight kickturns on some unforgiving snow. Soon enough I was at the top of the gully though, and it would be smooth sailing to the summit.
Near the top of this gully there was another spot from which I could admire Mt Warren. The northeast face of the peak (which I was hoping to ski) was a beautiful white canvas, delineated at the top by a series of buttresses. Directly below the summit a striking couloir ran 100 feet diagonally, dotted by cliffs around.
The cirque at the head of Deer Creek Canyon and the west wall of the canyon had some beautiful cliffs and snowfields through them too. Still high above me to the west, severally gullies ran nearly 4,000 ft from the summit of Gilcrest Peak to the floor of Lundy Canyon. All around, stunning lines to ski — I would love to return with a partner to ski many of them!
To the east, Mono Lake finally came into full view. It still amazes me how many different appearances this lake can take on, depending on the weather! The first time I set eyes on it was from Mt Dana on a perfect Sierra Nevada summer day when it shone back in brilliant blue. Today the lake was a moodier blue green, but nonetheless stunning. Far beyond lay the massive peaks of the White Mountains, the great White Mountain Peak rising high above the others and cloaked in snow.
Unfortunately, it became immediately obvious that it would not be as easy going as I had hoped. Between me and the summit, the summit plateau was badly wind stripped. It seemed as if there was as much rock and gravel and bush as there was snow along the route. It probably would have been more efficient to take off my skis and hike the majority of the way to the base of the peak but, having already removed my skis once, I was doubly reluctant to do so now. It was not the nicest treatment for my skins, my skis, or the flora, but as anyone who’s toured with me knows, I am very stubborn when it comes to taking off my skis.
The wind had steady increased in strength along the climb and I was occasionally being buffeted by moderate gusts that seemed to draw out for several minutes at a time. Above me, the northeast face showed signs of recent wind effect and I could occasionally see snow being blown up the bowl. I was wary of a repeat of my experience on Mt Rose where light to moderate gusts on the slope translated into hurricane force winds on the summit. Instead, the wind lessened as I climbed.
Despite the obvious loose snow in the bowl, there was very little loose snow along the ridge I ascended. Frozen wind drifts lined the route and made climbing tedious. I had to carefully chose my route so that I would have enough contact on my skins and so that it would not be too steep. As I attempted to surmount one frozen feature, both my skis slid out from under me and I somehow ended up head butting the frozen ground. I arrested my slide and took stock of my possible injuries. Miraculously I seemed alright, and decided that I was oriented enough that I probably hadn’t concussed myself. I decided “if this happens one more time, I’m bootpacking!” I realized the idiocy of that statement (apparently I’m okay with bashing my head on ice once, but not twice?), and thought that maybe I had injured my brain. In the end, I figured the fact that I had that introspection meant I was merely stubborn, not brain dead.
I ended up climbing to the small subpeak east of the summit in order to avoid the iciest snow on the north face and was rewarded with the first view south. Mt Dana cast a striking figure, rising sharply toward the low clouds. Further south the peaks of the Sherwin Range stretched skyward, many of them capped by small lenticular clouds. Southeast of Dana, the high peaks of Yosemite were already being obscured by cloud and snowfall. I recognized the Lyell Glacier, but Mt Lyell itself was already hidden from sight.
As I climbed to the summit, the snow was more amenable though still firm. To the left and right of the summit, Mt Conness and Dunderberg Peak rose, respectively, and I was encouraged to climb the final 300 ft at a decent pace so that I would have a view of Mt Conness and some of the possible ski descents from the summit. Alas, by the time I summited, Conness was also in the clouds.
I was surprised to find a series of solar panels as well as what appeared to be a weather station on the summit. I was a bit confused by the weather station which had its own solar panel, because the panel pointed north-northeast, a position the sun rarely occupies in this part of the world. As I drew nearer, it became apparent that the small station had been blown from its original location at some point. I’ve no idea who’s station this is, but I bet they’d like to know that it’s off-kilter! Then again, they may already know, since it’s pretty unlikely that the solar panel is functioning at capacity.
I arrived at the summit at 1pm and took some time to admire the nearby peaks, although it was disappointing how many were already cloaked in fog. If only I had crampons, I might have arrived two hours earlier! On Mt Dana the Dana Couloir, as well as many other couloirs falling eastward from the Dana Plateau near the Third Pillar looked wide and eminently skiable! Dana Couloir even looked like it had an alternate entrance — a feature which definitely did not exist when I skied it last Memorial Day! I was also grateful for a look at Dunderberg Peak, which I had considered skiing. Perhaps the north face would be enjoyable, but the south face did not look much for skiing.
I didn’t waste much time before heading down. Despite badly wanting to ski Warren’s northeast face, I recognized that it was avalanche terrain, and a very large feature. Although it isn’t much of a terrain trap, if it were to slide while I skied it, it would be very difficult to traverse all of the way out of the slide path before being caught. I decided (and had discussed with Brian on Thursday) that I would only ski the face solo if I was very confident in the snowpack. The ESAC forecast for the day listed windslabs on northeast aspects as the number one problem, and although I saw signs of wind loading I observed no other signs of instability on the ascent. I was skeptical of how relevant the forecast was, since the ESAC is responsible for such a massive and diverse topographic region.
I decided that I would dig a pit on a representative slope and only ski the face if the observations I found pointed toward good stability. I found a location downhill of one of the buttresses where I felt I would be unlikely to get caught in an avalanche and went to work. I was surprised to find that the snow was only 3 ft deep here and was also fairly surprised to find that there were many buried crust layers. I began a compression test and my heart sank when the 13th tap had a planar break on a wind slab about 8 inches down. Were I skiing in a group, or on a day when a storm wasn’t coming in, I probably would ski this slope, but my margins were tight today and I had set a firm restriction on what I would ski. I recorded my results, buried my pit and cast a longing look down the slope before booting back up to the ridge.
I traversed into the bowl where the slope angle was lower and still managed to find some decent skiing. The snow was wind effected and shallow but it was infinitely better than retracing my path up the alternately icy and rocky ridge. The clouds had moved in though, and I could barely see twenty feet in front of me. I trusted my memory of the bowl from the way up and skied blindly to the bottom.
After skiing the bowl, my goal was to head more or less the way I’d come, descending one of the large gullies and eventually skiing Roadside Attraction, the series of small gullies directly above where I’d parked. The route finding turned out to be fairly difficult as there were many small hills along the way, and I was reluctant to either travel uphill or remove my skis. I accidentally found myself at Deer Creek Canyon and appreciated the west wall across from me which was dotted with beautiful couloirs. The near side was the section of the canyon which I’d originally intended to climb, and it didn’t look much better than the route I took instead. Either way, crampons would have been a game changer.
I eventually found the drainage I was looking for and started down. Northern aspects were very firm, eastern aspects were soft, and most southern aspects were melted out entirely. About halfway down, I descended an incredible northeast pitch and briefly considered climbing back up for another lap, but the hike to Mt Warren had taken longer than planned and I had to return home soon.
I traversed counter clockwise quite a bit, occasionally finding stretches of snow to descend and had some great fun adventure skiing, weaving in and out of tight trees and opening up the throttle when the forest parted. The northwest aspects were not great skiing. They had just enough snow to feel like they would be good skiing, but as soon as I sunk my body into a turn, my skis sank through to the supportable crust and started to slide out.
I arrived finally at Roadside Attraction and found an unskied gully to call my own. I skied the far left side of the gully, hoping that the morning sun might have softened it a bit but found more dust-on-crust. I skied it to the bottom and arrived back at the car at 2:30pm after an hour of skiing.
I stood up my skis and skins to allow them to dry as much as possible, but didn’t waste much time getting on the road. After removing my gear and having a long drink of water, I headed home.
Along the drive, I kept an eye out for Mt Warren. I never noticed the peak in the past, as Dunderberg is much more obvious from the north, Mts Gibbs and Dana are more striking from the south, but now that I knew to look for it, I’m surprised it never caught my eye. At the top of Conway Summit and for a long way further Mt Warren rose high in the distance.
Note that the area of travel is south of the forecast region for the Bridgeport Avalanche Center and north of that forecast by the Eastern Sierra Avalanche Center.
- Clear, calm in morning
- Little new snow, lots of recent and historic wind effect
- Breakable and supportable crusts below new snow
- Sustained light to moderate gusts above 10,000 ft
- Building clouds to 75% around 1pm
- Warming on east and south aspects in afternoon
Elevation Gain: 4,700 ft