Still not being one to aim low, Rafee decided that for his second ski tour he wanted to summit two near 14ers along a stretch of the Sierra crest which rarely dips below 13,000 ft, Mts Mallory and Irvine. Despite their lofty elevations of 13,845 ft and 13,786 ft, respectively, the Meysan Lakes trail would allow us to start at almost 8,000 ft while avoiding the strict quotas of the adjacent Whitney Zone. My one experience with the Meysan Lakes trail also happened to be on the descent of Candlelight Peak on which I actually met Rafee, so it seemed fitting that we’d return!
I woke up at 5:30 after a great night’s sleep in the Alabama Hills and headed up to meet Rafee at the trailhead at 6 am. On the drive up, I gawked at the lofty summits of Mts Langley, Whitney, and Williamson reaching up into the first light of day. I’ve always found it remarkable how the sunrise or a low cloud level can point out the 14ers better than a measuring stick! I waited until the last minute to strip my puffy and sweatpants and swing my pack, heavy with skis, boots, crampons, and ice axe, onto my shoulders.
At 6:23 we hit the Meysan Lakes trail which, in fact, starts off as a paved detour through a campground and several impressive cabins. I was glad that Rafee seemed to know where he was going because I didn’t remember the route from my last visit, but he was hiking altogether too fast and I had to ask him twice to slow down. I was feeling good and a bit concerned that he was outpacing me so badly, but after telling me to set the pace (which I did much more moderately) he was soon asking me to slow down.
The trail curled around the east ridge of Candlelight Peak into the Meysan Lakes drainage and switchbacked up the north side of the canyon while I preached to Rafee about why I dislike the concept of “peak bagging” (as a self-proclaimed peak bagger, he handled my disparagement well). I was grateful that we weren’t hiking in ski boots because we did not see the slightest bit of snow until nearly 9,000 ft and then only in fits and starts. We cut the switchbacks where the snow allowed us to do so without eroding the hillside. Because the snow was firm and full of frozen bootprints it was easy going.
Around 9,500 ft the snow was softening and my shoes started to get damp with slush. Looking ahead, the trail was covered with snow and it seemed likely that we’d spend the rest of the day on snow so we decided it was time to ditch our shoes. The snow was still firm enough that we opted to boot rather than begin skinning on the off angle snow. We knew that there was a chance of snow and for the first time we saw a sign of unsettled weather as a cloud drifted lazily through the summit of Lone Pine Peak high above us across the canyon.
We continued along the north side of the canyon noting the extensive avalanche damage to the forest. All of the trees were severely flagging even twenty feet off the ground and there were large stretches without any trees greater than three inches in diameter. From our experience climbing Candlelight peak last year, this was not surprising — the entire ridge comprises steep and mostly featureless slabs. It would be incredible and terrifying to witness an avalanche cycle in this canyon!
Around 9:15 we arrived atop a bench near 11,000 ft and the summits of Mts LeConte, Mallory, and Irvine came into view high above us, each of them barely shy of 14,000 ft. We spied a series of beautiful steep gullies running from just north of the summit of Mt Irvine and I was ecstatic. We had planned on summiting Mt Mallory before traversing the high plateau to Mt Irvine but knew there was a possibility we might have to return to Mt Mallory before descending. Now it looked clear that we would be able to descend directly from Mt Irvine as long as we could make it from the summit to the top of the gully. I was skeptical that we’d be able to reach the gully but Rafee radiated confidence that the traverse would be class two at worst (a plus side of his peak bagging pursuits is his near encyclopedic knowledge of every known route on every SPS peak). Even better, we saw a tight gully leading out of the bowl connecting the two peaks and decided that we would head to Mallory, continue to Irvine if conditions permitted, and ski the north gully if we could find a way to it. If we couldn’t reach the gully we could backtrack and ski this tight gully without having to climb back to Mallory.
Above us, the canyon rose in fits and starts and we saw a route which didn’t involve much sidehilling so we finally took our skis off our backs and started skinning up the canyon. At 10 o’clock we arrived at Meysan Lake where we had a view of the three 13ers at the head of the canyon and decided to stop for some lunch before embarking on the final 2,000 ft of the climb to Mt Mallory.
While we ate clouds blocked out the sun and it suddenly felt twenty degrees cooler. We finished up quickly so that we could get moving again and as we started we realized that clouds had started forming within the bowl around 12,000 ft. Mt Irvine’s summit had disappeared and Rafee and I, knowing that the forecast called for light snow, discussed how we should continue. I wasn’t much interested in summiting in a cloud (or descending in one!) and Rafee saw where I was coming from but was pretty keen on at least summiting Mallory. We saw a reasonable ascent route which was low enough angle that we thought we could still descend in less than ideal conditions, so we decided we’d continue climbing and only turn around if conditions became dangerous. We realized we’d probably have to return another day to visit Mt Irvine. After a minute, Rafee stopped an asked “would you rather summit Mt Irvine or Mt Mallory?” I realized his point — it looked like we could climb either peak via the tighter gully. Neither of us had a strong preference, but I liked the gully leading toward Mallory better for both the ascent and descent.
We were happily surprised to find that we were able to skin all the way to the base of the gully we planned to climb at 12,000 ft. Before we’d started the climb, we briefly talked about hazards and I mentioned that my biggest concern was probably rockfall but looking up at the slope I saw no signs of fallen debris so I said that we’d probably be okay. All of sudden one of us (it happened too quickly to remember) looked uphill to see a rock headed towards us. Whoever saw it shouted “rock!” But in fact it wasn’t one rock but dozens, each about the size of a football and rolling towards us with such velocity that they whistled as they skipped across the steep snow (no wonder there wasn’t any indication of debris)! I suddenly felt as if I were playing frogger and was acutely aware that any one of these rocks could break a leg or an arm or, if unlucky, could possibly kill us.
For what seemed like a minute I watched uphill for rocks heading toward me or Rafee, shouting to him when I saw some heading his way. The rockfall finally started to ease up and one of the last rocks headed straight for me. I wasn’t sure how predictable its path would be so I waited until it was a little closer. I realized it wasn’t going to hit me but if I didn’t move it would probably land on the tips of my skis and possibly cause them to explode. I slid backwards down the steep skin track and lost my footing but managed to dodge the rock. I was grateful that there were no more rocks falling and quickly regained my footing and climbed to meet Rafee below a buttress which we hoped would provide shelter from rockfall.
Rafee and I agreed that this was an incredibly dangerous hazard but also realized that in the last hour we’d been downhill of the chute and this was the first rockfall we’d witnessed. We decided to continue uphill, switching to boots and ice axe (and helmet!) for the climb, but agreed that if a similar rockfall happened again we’d abort the climb. A few minutes later a second smaller rockfall occurred. We could see that the rockfall was originating from the same gully above us to our right. We could also see that the shape of the gully would funnel the rock away from us as long as we stayed high on the left side of the halfpipe-like feature and that we’d soon pass the danger, so we decided that we could cope with the threat.
I had set the bootpack through the top of the gully but, now that we reached the tops of the buttresses on either side, Rafee took over. The gully eased off but it was hard to judge in the flat light and it seemed to take an eternity actually climb out of it. I thought it couldn’t be more than 50 feet to the top. Rafee guessed 300 feet and he ended up being pretty close. He poured on the gas near the top, climbing up out of the gully and saying he’d be “just over the ridge” before disappearing from sight. I reached the bare talus at the top of the gully but couldn’t find him anywhere — it was another hundred feet before I found him having a snack on a large boulder.
I joined him and took in the view. Across the plateau to the south the north face of Mt LeConte rose to 13,937 feet and looking much more intimidating than the photo included in Secor’s book. I hadn’t realized how close it was to Mt Mallory and seeing it now I was surprised Rafee hadn’t seriously suggested including it in the traverse. He said that he wasn’t a good enough climber for that — I wasn’t sure I agreed, but I wasn’t as familiar with the route nor was I keen to do any fourth class scrambling in ski boots.
We climbed towards the east ridge of Mt Mallory hoping to find a route into the bowl connecting the peak to Mt Irvine that we might be able to use later which we’d seen from Meysan Lake. We found a snowfield which dropped off toward the bowl so we stashed our skis here. I also removed some of the heavier items from my pack including my helmet, axe, and crampons. Rafee opted to ditch his pack altogether.
Near the summit the climb became steeper. We wrapped around the south side of the peak and the second class climbing quickly became easy third class climbing with fairly intimidating exposure. We crossed to the north side of the peak just below the summit, traversing a high snowfield. I wondered if it was possible to ski off the peak and regretted having left my skis below.
Three large boulders rose up to very similar heights. By my estimation, the westernmost boulder was the highpoint so I headed directly there. We took a few photos before concluding that actually the middle boulder was higher and headed back toward that rock where we found the register.
The register we found had been placed fairly recently by a group as a memorial for their friends and included a small booklet of eulogies with extra blank pages. Matt Yaussi’s death still being fresh in my mind, I found my voice quaver as I read the instructions for others to use the blank pages. In addition to signing the register we both wrote a small note remembering Matt’s life and the joy he brought to our hikes. It would be more fitting to jump in a lake for him but that will have to wait for a warmer day.
Clouds were encroaching and it was lightly snowing. Mt Williamson was all but obscured and the Whitney Basin was dark. To the west though, the views of the Kaweahs and the peaks of the Mineral King region were astounding!
I had the second half of my lunch and we started back down towards our skis. I found a way to avoid an awkward mantle by stepping around the large Boulder. The move meant crossing a twenty foot drop however so Rafee elected to reverse the route we’d taken to reach the summit.
After watching Mt Williamson disappear in a snow squall and knowing that the northerly flow would likely carry the flurries toward us, we expected that we’d collect our skis and return to Meysan Lake via our ascent route. The skies parted as we descended the ridge though, and by the time we reached our stash, there was hardly a cloud in the sky. We knew that there might still be clouds just on the other side of Mt Irvine but we decided to test out luck and continue to the second summit.
We clipped into our skis and I started down the steep snow field to see what the route entailed. After descending fifty feet I reached the rocks and was dismayed to see nothing but air on the other side. This was a dead end and a bad one. I told Rafee the news and he asked if I saw another way down. Looking west I could see a high snow field that rose up to near the ridge. Dismayed, I guessed that it was about 200 ft uphill. I wasn’t keen on hiking the ridge for a third time and figured this meant our Irvine attempt was over but Rafee said “okay” and turned to start hiking! I shouted up to him “Hey man! Don’t leave me — this is really sketchy here!”
Of course there wasn’t much Rafee could do to help me but I certainly didn’t want to risk a tumble off the hanging snowfield while he was off hiking elsewhere. I sidestepped fifteen feet up the 55 degree slope to a spot where I felt comfortable taking off my skis. I thought about grabbing my ice axe from my pack, but didn’t want to climb such steep and precarious snow with my skis on my back so I strapped them together and used them as an anchor, slamming them edgewise into the snow above me as deep as I could with every step. I made it back up to Rafee and was still somewhat surprised that he was still stoked on Irvine.
We hiked back up the ridge for what we hoped was the last time, looking for an entrance to the bowl below. I found a route across some class two mixed snow and rock and Rafee, after having a look, approved of the route. The scrambling was difficult wearing ski boots and carrying skis in hand and there were several large loose rocks we opted to throw down the mountain so that we wouldn’t dislodge them onto each other.
Finally we were back on our skis and on more promising snow. Rather than add more vert to a big day, we decided to traverse as high as possible around the bowl, reaching the south slope of Irvine around 13,300 ft. I put my skis on my back and started hiking towards the ridge without waiting for Rafee who I was sure would catch me. I was able to find a route which stayed on the snow and made for easy going until Rafee caught up to me and we found a large patch of rotten snow where we were both postholing up to our waists.
From the ridge Rafee took a route directly to the summit. I was a bit fed up with ski boot scrambling for the day, so I went around to the north side of the ridge where I found a very easy climb to the summit, arriving at 4:20 pm.
We signed the register and admired our luck — just a few hours earlier we weren’t even sure we’d make either summit and yet the weather allowed us to gain both! Clouds were still moving quickly through the area, but visibility was much better than on Mallory. Never before have I felt so small standing atop such a tall 13er — the massive summits of Williamson, Russell, Whitney, Muir and Langley all but obscured the view to the north and south. We had a splendid view of Mt McAdie, just to the west, as we had from Mt Mallory, but now we had a view of a beautiful couloir running from near its summit!
Rafee tried to convince me that we should take our backup route down the bowl we’d just traversed rather than hike over towards the steeper line we scoped earlier. My motivation for climbing Irvine at all had been to get to that pretty line so I was not very happy when I heard this suggestion. I managed to convince Rafee that he was wrong so, after signing the register, we started east from the summit to find the entrance to the gully.
I went a bit ahead of Rafee who still wasn’t very stoked on the route and quickly arrived at the top of a snowfield. I compared landmarks with a photo I’d taken from below and was pretty sure this was the gully we’d scoped out. There was also at least one set of ski tracks already heading down which was reassuring.
Rafee arrived and immediately told me that I’d make the right call by coming here. We were both excited for the descent and started transitioning into our skis, but I heard Rafee shout and I thought maybe he has slipped. In fact, one of his skins which was on the outside of his pack to dry had fallen off on the hike from the summit. He hiked back up a dozen feet to see if he could find it, but had no luck. I felt bad since I’d suggested he put his skins on the outside of his pack, although I’d warned that they could fall off and also mentioned on top of Irvine that they looked very loose. I didn’t encourage him to hike back up because it could take a while to make the round trip with no guarantee of finding it, all the while the snow would be getting firmer. When he returned to his pack he realized that his ice axe was also missing! This was very puzzling to me since he’d had his axe through the ice axe loop and buckled up top. How it could have fallen out was beyond my understanding. I suggested that he should ask Osprey for a refund — a dropped ice axe is a serious liability and we were lucky that we wouldn’t need one for the rest of the trip.
We did a quick safety check and started down the descent. We were a bit too late for prime conditions and ended up skiing mostly frozen corn through the top 500 feet, but the snow softened considerably as we descended. I love descending these Sierra hallways!
At the bottom of the chute, the angle started to ease and we skied together down to the base through some incredible soft spring snow!
We turned around to look back up at the line we’d just skied. It was a beauty! We still had a long way to return to the car and I expected it to mostly be a traverse but we were almost immediately rewarded with a bonus pitch down the backside of a buried moraine!
Now we began the traverse, trying to milk every decent sized hill for a few turns here and there. I found a fun little tree jib to jump off on a small slope and turned to tell Rafee to hit it as well. He didn’t see what I was pointing to but he found a few other small things to get airborne off of. From the bottom of this hill we happened to have a gorgeous view of Mt Irvine and the slope we’d just skied!
The descent was far more fun than the last time we’d descended this route together and the afternoon light on Owens Valley and Lone Pine Peak was beautiful.
We realized we were quickly approaching our shoes and started paying more close attention to the descent. Luckily Rafee had the foresight to save the GPS location so we had an idea when we were in the right place. Even knowing we were within a few feet of the shoes, they were hard to find, but eventually Rafee located them.
Rafee changed back into his shoes while I kept my boots on, knowing that we’d have some more snow to hike through before the day was over. We cut some of the switchbacks downhill through the snow. At one point I tumbled into a buried rock well up to my waist and needed Rafee’s help to pull me out. Once I was confident that we were done with snow, I switched into my trailrunners.
We’d heard grouse calls throughout the end of the hike and were trying to keep an eye out for the culprits to no avail. I heard the low air-over-a-soda-bottle thrum of a grouse nearby and looked up into the nearby trees to try to spot it. I looked down briefly to see where I was walking and was stunned to see the grouse in the middle of the trail less than ten feet ahead of us! I’ve seen sooty grouse before but never making their call! We watched a while as this grouse did a call and response with some other distant bird before shoeing it off and continuing down the trail.
The last of the trail went quickly but Rafee started talking about dinner and we were both getting hungry. After arriving at the trailhead around 7 pm we took a quick “after” photo and set off to get some food in Lone Pine.
Rafee stopped at the first switchback on Whitney Portal Road to take a photo and I stayed in my car, but a few hundred feet down the road I was struck by the setting sunlight on the rain clouds and also stopped to take a photo.
We had a hearty dinner in Lone Pine and I happened to bring Secor’s book as well as the east side skiing guide in to plan for my next trip. We were both delighted to see that the route we’d skied was in the guidebook as the “Northeast Couloir” or Mt Irvine! I was a bit disappointed that neither the east couloir of Irvine nor the east couloir of McAdie were in the book, but maybe we can return some day and pioneer the route!
- Normal spring conditions
- Some corn growth on sunny aspects
- Large areas of slush and rotten snow above 12,500 ft
- Buried rock wells becoming easy to fall into
- Snow line:
- 50% coverage starting at 9,000 ft
- 100% coverage starting at 9,500 ft
Elevation Gain: 7,100 ft