After talking a big game all season, Rafee finally found himself a ski touring setup and was looking to break in his new equipment. I on the other hand, having been shut down by my last two summit attempts in the Eastern Sierra (at Matterhorn Peak and Mt Langley, the latter of which nearly resulted in rolling my truck down Tuttle Creek Canyon and therefore will probably never be memorialized in a trip report), was looking for an “easy win.” Never one to lower the bar, Rafee (again, with no ski touring experience) thought Cloudripper would be an easy win. I was mentally exhausted from a day of extricating my truck so despite knowing nothing of the peak (aside from its having the coolest name of any Sierra peak) I was glad to ride Rafee’s excitement for what looked like a doable ski tour.
It should be said that I do not recommend taking someone up a 13er for their first ski tour, nor would I even necessarily recommend any tour with significant elevation gain at all. There are so many ways that equipment can fail and the consequences of a small failure in the backcountry, especially in snowy conditions, can be amplified greatly. I was taking a bit of a risk but felt that Rafee’s fitness, experience with backcountry hiking and snowshoeing, and his stated “expert” ski ability (I am generally skeptical of anyone who calls themselves an expert at anything, but I trust Rafee enough to give him the benefit of the doubt) as well as my own experience with ski touring and introducing friends to ski touring would give us enough margin to have a safe outing. Before the tour Rafee asked me what I thought a reasonable goal for the day was and I told him frankly that climbing 1,000 ft with no major blisters, injuries, or equipment malfunctions would be a huge success.
We arrived at the Rainbow Pack Station where South Lake Road was closed at 6:10 am and went about preparing for the hike. Another party was just about to head out with one skier and one splitboarder and I waved “hi,” discovering they were planning to ski the east face of Mt Gilbert. When we told them we were headed to Cloudripper they said “wow, you’re going for it!” As they left Rafee and I looked at each other, a bit confused as to their statement. Sure it would be a big day, but it was barely even a full day compared to many east side ski tours. By 6:30 we were ready and started hiking up the road in our ski boots, trying to cross a creek labeled on the map before starting the climb.
The creek turned out to be very small and still mostly buried by snow, so we clipped into our skis. I gave Rafee a brief tutorial on kickturns, knowing that it would be much easier to learn here on flat ground rather than on a steep slope where the skill might be needed, and we started uphill. The snow was very firm and difficult to climb. Eventually it became steep enough that we had to sidestep up to a flat area where we could put on our ski crampons. The terrain was gradually becoming more difficult and I kept a close ear and eye on Rafee behind me to see how he was coping with it. I was amazed by how well he was doing — I think this was some of the most challenging snow conditions one can encounter on skins and he was handling it as well as I!
We managed to summit the first rise in a bit over 90 minutes and I congratulated Rafee on what I already deemed a successful first ski tour! He seemed to be taking to the sport like a duck in water which was good because I was not feeling very good at all.
We continued up the canyon at a decent pace, able to stay on the snow except for a ten foot stretch of skinning through some low willows. A beautiful face dropped down towards Brown Lake with some chutes running between the cliffs. Rafee and I discussed the possibility of skiing these on the way out and noticed many tracks on the slope above it.
We climbed a short moraine to Green Lake and I skinned across to an island where we had our first good look at the steep part of the climb and descent. The descent looked fine, but the route we intended to climb was mostly bare and would be difficult or impossible to skin and very tedious to boot up. Above Green Lake we spotted the summer trail, mostly bare of snow and providing easy access to the plateau above the canyon. After a little debate we decided to climb a small snowfield up to the trail and follow the plateau to the summit. The route would be a little more circuitous but the trail would make quick work of the steepest part of the climb.
We started skinning up the snowfield but it became too steep a few dozen feet short of the summer trail. I hiked over to the left side to take off my skis on the rocks. Rafee headed towards the right side before deciding he’d rather go left, making a risky kickturn and losing his footing. He was able to gather his gear and hike across the snowfield to me.
We hike along the summer trail, quickly gaining the summit plateau where it disappeared. I was amazed by how much snow was lingering up here. I had expected we’d have to boot across the majority of it, but after only a few hundred feet we were able to put our skis back on and continue skinning.
Rafee was in stride and I still wasn’t feeling well. He took the lead and I followed his track noting that even up here the corn was massive and just starting to soften, which bode well for our descent timing.
Around 12,400 ft, the plateau dropped slightly and the snow disappeared. I optimistically started skinning across the talus before realizing it would be about a quarter mile before meeting again with the snow. Vagabond Peak’s east face was imposing, although its summit (which we would have to pass near on the way to Cloudripper) looked very close.
We reached the snow again and easy skinning brought us within 200 feet of Vagabond Peak. We strapped our skis to our pack and booted up the remainder to the top of the ridge where we were rewarded with our first unobstructed view of the objective. We were a bit dismayed, though not deterred, by the stretch of bare rock separating us from Cloudripper.
After reaching the snow on the north face of Cloudripper we started skinning again. The snow was firm and not pleasant to climb, but we soon found ourselves at the top of the snowfield. We stashed our skis and made the short traverse towards the summit.
Looking down the east face, I marveled at the steep corn slope and told Rafee that this was the aspect we should be skiing! Unfortunately this aspect would not lead us back to the car, so we’d have to settle for returning the way we’d come. I looked down and spotted what I thought was a switchback and, looking more closely, noticed a set of tracks running down the slope! As we traversed we came upon a bootpack leading to the summit — we must have missed the other party by only an hour or two!
Rafee had warned me that the summit might involve some class three moves, but as we approached he decided that the difficult portion of the climb was buried. An easy 20 ft rock climb took us to the summit just after 1 pm!
The view was astounding but a little disorienting; I’ve never done a climb in this area of the Sierra, so despite being surrounded by familiar peaks, I didn’t recognize many of them from this angle. The Palisades, which I’m familiar seeing as a wall of rock far to the northeast was especially confounding to me!
Up to this point an occasional gust of wind and the forecast for a 30% chance of precipitation had discouraged me from preemptively declaring that it was a beautiful day, but now with the hard work behind us, I could authoritatively say that it was a great day to be in the mountains! The sun was out and there were not clouds ripping across the peak. It was quite chilly on the summit though, and Rafee was only wearing a t-shirt, so after snapping a few photos, we headed back down to our skis.
I made the traverse quickly and looked back to take a photo of Rafee crossing the snow along the ridge. Whether he noticed me take out the camera or not, he seemed to suddenly realize his position. As he told me later, he suddenly realized he “was in a serious don’t-mess-up location” and chuckled as I saw him struggle to keep his balance crossing what was a fairly easy boot pack.
Back to our skis and on more solid ground, we prepared to descend. I went a little over the top with the safety discussion, since this was Rafee’s first backcountry descent and we started down the slope. There was a short stretch of decent snow, but most of it was still very firm.
From the snowfield we booted across to and up Vagabond Peak. Rafee had mentioned possibly visiting the summit but he showed no interest now, and I didn’t much mind heading straight down. Looking to the north, Rafee pointed out a massive cloud building behind Mt Goddard as if it were an erupting volcano!
The descent down Vagabond Peak started with some tricky skiing through steep snow with lots of rocks. A small amount of rock hopping brought us back to a bare patch on the plateau and after crossing this we stepped into our skis one last time.
From the plateau we looked back towards Goddard and realized what we should have recognized earlier — the billowing cloud was an indication of convection and had grown into a massive thunderhead. To the north and northeast more convective bursts were occurring and we could see the thunder cells moving across the range releasing rain in their wake. We decided to make our descent hasty, traversing across the plateau towards our descent route.
The snow was surprisingly firm for so late in the day and I began to be concerned that our planned route might not be very enjoyable. We found a route sloping to the northwest which was getting lots of sun and decided that might be our best option. I dropped onto the slope first and found some incredible snow! The corn was about 4 inches deep and it felt like powder skiing in May!
At the bottom of this pitch we had a great view into the cirque above the rock glacier. Numerous couloirs ran top to bottom along the cirque! This would be an incredible place to return to sometime!
We continued our descent towards Green Lake, crossing a small meadow and trying to stay high along the west side of the canyon so that we wouldn’t have to do too much skating.
Although there was not much vertical relief, the snow was incredible and I made turns on every bit of vertical descent we came across! I was a bit disoriented trying to find our way back through the willows between Green and Brown Lakes, but Rafee seemed to know exactly where we were so I followed him down the canyon.
We soon reached the mouth of the hanging valley where there was a beautiful blue green lake and started down the final pitch toward the car expecting to ski through dense and difficult to navigate forest.
Instead we found a large clearing which ran downhill for several hundred feet and got yet another incredible pitch of spring skiing! There was evidence of other hikers who had hiked up to this point before turning around to reap the easy reward.
The trees tightened up in the last hundred feet and we had to make a few quick manuevers to avoid trees, cliffs, and creeks. We arrived back at the road high on a successful summit and an incredible day of skiing! A short hike brought us back to the car by 4 pm. Normally I would take my time packing up and enjoying the afternoon sun while my gear dries, but Rafee had rented a hotel room in Bishop, so we headed back out quickly, eager for a shower and a place to relax!
- Overnight freeze
- Hard crusty snow on wind affected aspects
- Huge corn on sunny wind protected aspects
- No signs of instability
Elevation Gain: 4,800 ft