When I drove down to the east side of the Sierra this week, I didn’t really have a plan — just the 2nd Edition of Backcountry Skiing California’s Eastern Sierra (I’ve since upgraded to the 3rd Edition), some skis, and a will to hike! However in several trips driving back and forth between Mammoth and Bishop and June Lake, there was a couloir that kept grabbing my eye. With no concrete plan and some free time while a storm system passed through the area, I decided that skiing this couloir (which ran from near what seemed to be a fairly tall peak) would be a worthy goal. I soon realized that this was the famed Bloody Couloir (as listed in 50 Classic Ski Descents of North America)!
I tried to recruit some friends to join me but, due to long days in the mountains and poor cell service, plans didn’t materialize so I set out from Sherwin Creek Rd a bit before 7 am on my own. Thanks to deep snow on the road, there was an extra half mile of hiking to start the day. As I started my hike down the road, I passed a snowmobiler who was waiting for some friends. I was only a little jealous of his snowmobile.
Before making it to the forest service road I found that the snow was consistent enough to start skinning, so I headed south through the sparse sage brush toward Laurel Creek Canyon. I came across a barbed wire fence, but found it in disrepair and crossed it between two posts which lacked any wiring.
I followed old snowmobile tracks for a while, but eventually they seemed to diverge from the summer road. I had read that I generally wanted to follow the summer road and knew that snowmobilers might go significantly out of their way to avoid a patch of dirt, so I continued along the buried road. Indeed, I found that the road soon became exposed but it was not too much work to continue along this route.
At the far end of the canyon I had my first view of the Bloody Couloir as the sun rose behind me. Below and to its left, the Y Couloirs and the Y-Not Couloir also came into view. The latter looks like an especially beautiful line!
I continued up canyon, staying along the road which had decent snow coverage, but occasional dry stretches. The snow was frozen and off angle and frustrating to skin on. As I hiked up the road, two snowmobiles flew by in the base of the canyon. I noticed that at least one of the sleds had two people riding on it. I continued a little further up the road before deciding that it would be much more comfortable to follow the snowmobile track and descending a few dozen feet to join it.
Around 9,500 ft I reached the base of the Laurel Bloody Col and started working my way up the steeper bank. I saw two hikers skinning a slightly different aspect towards my right, possibly heading towards Laurel Lakes. I decided to climb a ridge between two smaller gullies which caught the light and which I hoped would therefore have softer, more easily climbable snow.
I arrived at the base of a large bowl below the col and found that the south face of Laurel Mountain was looking very bare above 11,000 ft. I had considered climbing Laurel on the way back to the car, but in this condition it would not be fun. Laurel would have to wait for another day.
I traversed south towards a northeast aspect which I could see from the road had plenty of snow to climb. The face was dotted with small windslabs sitting atop a sun crust which made difficult skinning, even with ski crampons. I skinned up as high as I could before it became too steep to confidently skin and strapped my skis to my pack, booting up the right side of the slope.
For whatever reason, I decided that I would climb up the rocks to the right of the snowfield, but found that the rocks were too steep and too loose to get a reliable footing. I often stumbled and tripped, trying to aim for the larger patches of snow where footing was more predictable. It took about an hour to climb the final 750 ft of this pitch but, perhaps because I was listening to Krakauer’s journey up Mt Everest, it felt like it took much longer.
I was relieved to find that the summit ridge was gentle, free of any large gendarmes, and that the summer trail was mostly visible on the windward side of the mountain. After just another half hour, I was on the summit. Or at least I think I was. I stood atop the highest rocks that I could see, but the south side of the ridge was adorned with a large cornice and I wasn’t willing to test it’s stability. I poked around a bit, but was pretty confident that I’d found the highest solid ground to stand on.
It was a beautiful cloudless spring day and the views in all directions were expansive. Most striking was the nearby Red Slate Couloir, cutting a long gash across the north face of its namesake mountain. To the north was an impressive view of the many pinnacles of the Ritter Range.
It was already 1:30 pm and the west side of the Bloody Couloir was now in shade, so I didn’t waste time transitioning for the descent. I would have liked to ski the couloir fall line from top to bottom, but the entrance was weird and full of small wind slabs. Instead, I rode a spine for fifty feet or so to get a feel for the snow and to get a better look down the chute. The snow on top of the spine was dense wind buff and difficult to ski. A few small slabs released, but nothing propagated.
From my perch atop this spine I had a view of the whole couloir. From the road, the couloir looks to be wide open except for two large buttresses which rise from the center. Now I could see that there were lots of smaller buttresses lining the entrance and giving myriad options for how to ski it. I would love to come back here again with a partner and explore some of the more creative lines! As I was alone, I found what I thought was a low risk route through the cliffs and to the left of the first buttress. The snow was soft and wintry and deep! I left my jacket open, but snow was flying up into my face and into my jacket — who would have guessed there were faceshots to be had in April!?
I stopped above the second buttress to again assess my options. I had planned to ski left of this feature also, but the left side was now in the shade and had fewer escape routes should something go wrong, so I continued along its right. The snow was incredible and I’m glad I’d decided to haul my powder skis up for the trip — this was some of the best snow I skied all year!
The final stretch to the bottom of the bowl was pure bliss and I hooted most of the way down, enjoying every turn and opening it up a bit towards the bottom.
I reached the bottom of the bowl and looked up to see a snowboarder descending one of the Y-Chutes and another standing at the top, ready to descend! What’s more, they’d cut a skin track from the bottom of the bowl up into the chute and I strongly debated whether to take advantage of their hard work and get another lap in. I decided just to cheer them on and continue my descent, knowing that it was another 6 miles before I’d be back at the car.
I waited a minute for them to catch up so I could say hi, but they had mustered several hundred feet uphill of me on the other side of a moraine, out of site, so I began the descent on my own, initially following Laurel Lakes road before opting to once again follow the snowmobile tracks in the center of the canyon.
I was able to keep my speed most of the way, even getting in a few turns below Laurel Lakes. With the sun now behind me, the orange rocks below Laurel Mountain were practically radiant.
I diverged from the snowmobile tracks in a few places where they’d opted for a more circuitous but better covered route, crossing a few flat meadows, but always making good progress. Before exiting the canyon, I took one last glimpse up at the Bloody Couloir and was still able to see my tracks from four miles off!
I followed Laurel Creek through a tight aspen copse before finally finding myself on the alluvial slopes below the glacial canyon. I traversed a few gullies to the south before meeting up with my uphill track.
I was able to ski all the way back to where I’d first put my skis on 8 hours earlier, before hiking the rest of the way down the road to the car.
I set out my gear to dry and had a slow lunch, enjoying the warm sun and pleasant weather. About half an hour later, the splitboarders who’d skied one of the Y-Chutes returned on a snowmobile and introduced themselves as Brian and Nick. We all agreed that it was an incredible day to be on the mountain!
- Snow line at 7,000 ft
- Normal spring conditions below 11,000 ft
- No new snow
- Well consolidated snow pack
- Firm in morning
- Softening with solar exposure and rising temps
- Evidence of recent wet loose slides around 10,000 ft
- Soft, unconsolidated knee deep snow in the Bloody Couloir
- Small isolated 1-3″ wind slabs in exposed areas above 11,000 ft
- Large (6-12″ thick, 1-3′ overhanging) cornices on SE side of summit ridge
Elevation Gain: 5,500 ft