With Sonora Pass recently opened some Bay Area friends were eager to take advantage of the now less-remote east side skiing so I made a trip down to Mammoth Lakes with a loose plan to do some touring. I met up with the group and Kevin, Casey, and I opted do a short tour of the Mammoth Crest which none of us had visited before, aiming more or less for TJ Bowl which sits above TJ Lake. Thanks to Casey’s eternal stoke we weathered an alpine start (which didn’t feel all that alpine due to the impossibly early sunrise) and managed to start hiking from the Lake Mary Road closure at Twin Lakes exactly at 7am, as planned.
We were only the second car parked at the closure and found that we had the road all to ourselves. Kevin and Casey opted to hike in their trailrunners. I might have done the same, but I’d left mine at the Airbnb and was unfazed by the prospect of a short hike in my touring boots. Despite setting a good pace it was quite chilly. Water draining across the road had frozen in some places creating a hazard. I lost my footing on a few icy sections but luckily none of us took a bad fall.
After an hour of pleasant hiking and conversation (including a long talk about a recent ski injury on The Incredible Hulk) we crossed the Lake Mary Dam and navigated our way through the road network connecting various half-buried resorts and cabins. It seemed like the majority of the plowing effort was complete, but most of the parking had yet to be excavated.
We reached the Lake George Campground, finding it completely buried and climbed up onto the snow to transition into skiing. Since I’d been marching in my boots I was ready much faster than Casey or Kevin and took the opportunity to have a quick snack while sitting on the second story roof of a buried cabin.
As we traversed the northeast corner of Lake George I found myself entranced with Crystal Crag rising high above the far shore. Although the nearby Mammoth Crest exhibited the normal “grain” structure of large granite features, the rock composing Crystal Crag seemed confused and fractured, growing in all directions and never more than 20 feet without encountering a facet. It’s no wonder it received such a name nor that it’s such a popular climbing destination!
At the east corner of the lake we encountered our first obstacle where the lake overflowed its banks and formed a creek which drained into Lake Mary. A rough jumble of roots and driftwood formed a small bridge which Kevin quickly crossed after taking his skis off. I was more determined to cross without removing my skis and although I made the traverse, I also managed to make it look sketchy enough that Casey instead opted to ford the creek slightly downhill. I followed Kevin’s route across a small tree bridge which crossed the major portion of the creek before he pointed out a wooden bridge slightly downstream and a snow bridge just a bit further downstream which crossed both portions of the creek.
As Casey and Kevin clicked back into their skis a splitboard duo caught and then passed us (although they never ended up putting much distance between us). One was a local showing his friend around and they were planning to summit the Mammoth Crest and then ski the Sister Chutes. I’d left most of the research for this trip to Kevin and Casey so I only had a small idea what exactly that meant…
We climbed a small ridge which appeared to contour eventually to the entrance to TJ Bowl. As it would turn out, this was not quite the case; instead, it was a complex series of ridges occasionally leading to high points which required a skins-on descent to continue toward the goal.
After arriving at one such high point, Kevin had a look a the tight gully below us and warned Casey, who was further behind, that she’d be better off staying low. Kevin eyed the gully for a second before deciding he didn’t want any of it and he too turned around to take a mellower route. I decided to take my chances but soon found my tails sliding out from under me and next thing I knew I was sliding downhill head first. Casey rounded the corner just in time to see me carom past a large pine at the outlet of the gully.
After making a strategic traverse to get closer to TJ Bowl, we finally came to a clearing from which the rest of the climb would be obvious. Kevin and I took in the view of the Mammoth Crest and I got a photo of him pointing toward the crest with one of his poles as Casey arrived and she enthusiastically struck her own pointing pose.
I decided to descend to the center of the small gully above us before starting the climb, while Kevin opted to stay as high as possible to avoid losing elevation. Casey took the middle ground. Although I probably lost some elevation, after glancing back I was happy with my route, as Casey lost some time trying to maintain elevation, and Kevin had lost even more time and was perched precariously atop a glide crack.
As we arrived at the top of the gully Mt Ritter and Banner Peak rose to the northwest, as beautiful as ever. The view of the south side of Mammoth Mountain was also interesting and I took note of a few mostly contiguous snowfields which might prove fun skiing the next day.
Fifty feet above us the splitboarders continued their climb, traversing toward a low point on the crest. They passed through a large debris field below some chutes (perhaps the sister chutes?) and the first paused at a chunk of snow as tall as himself. I shouted for him to push it over, but it didn’t seem like he heard me. Even if he had, I’m skeptical that it would be possible for a person to knock it over as it probably weighed several hundred pounds and was firmly cemented to the snow below.
Around 11am we arrived at the top of the descent and transitioned for the downhill ski. We had mentioned a few possible routes, but given the late hour, we felt that descending sooner than later would be prudent. We had a brief safety talk (Casey wasn’t impressed by my lack of avy gear) before starting the descent. I headed down first and although the snow through the entrance and on the right side of the bowl was a bit firm, the snow in the center was perfect spring slush!
I was glad to have taken the route I had – the skier’s right side of the bowl was criss-crossed with massive glide cracks. I radioed up to the others to warn them of the hazard before Casey descended to me and then Kevin. We reversed the order on the next pitch so that Kevin could scope out the route and so that I could get a few action photos of them both. Casey seemed to be showing off for the camera and poured on the gas as she scooted down toward TJ Lake!
I stowed my camera, replaced my gloves and took off after her. The slope angle was a perfect pairing to the slightly-sticky snow and I was glad to be skiing with a crew for the first time in a while. I felt confident opening up the throttle a bit and enjoying a beautiful spring day of skiing!
We skied out the drainage to TJ Lake and traversed along its east side, admiring Crystal Crag across the small frozen body of water.
We arrived back at Lake George, this time at its southern corner, and Casey and Kevin decided to switch back to trailrunners and follow the summer trail to the road. I wasn’t yet done with skiing for the day, so I opted to “ski” across a dry section of trail before arriving at the outlet of Lake George. Armed with knowledge garnered during our morning mishap, I aimed further downstream, crossing the snow bridge without issue. From here I made a traversing descent to the road above Lake Mary, following the road along its berm before hopping down to cross the dam on the road.
While hiking past Lake Mary I passed a couple of fishers and marveled that they were trying to fish on such a day when all of the lake still appeared to be frozen. They marveled back at me for skiing on such a late date and after a glance at the snow all around I responded “well, duh!” I wished them a good day and continued down the road, hiking up the berm at the next intersection and continuing on skis. I was able to ski almost all the way to the main portion of Lake Mary Road before crossing to the other side and skiing along the berm.
In places where there was more sun exposure the snow had already melted and I was forced to hike for a hundred feet at a time. The amount of dog poop on the berm was disappointing, but it’s now something I’ve become used to at the more popular trailheads around Mammoth — it seems that people either don’t care or don’t understand that just because it’s snowing when their dog poops doesn’t mean the poops will be buried forever.
I arrived back at the car and found that parking at Twin Lakes was overflowing. I wasn’t sure how far behind the others were so I took my time laying out my gear to dry and found a comfortable place to wait. Soon Casey and Kevin arrived and we headed back into town.
We caught up with Pete who’d skied Mammoth and Jasmine and Ben who’d hiked Reverse Peak and decided that there was too much of a beautiful day left so we headed to Convict Lake for a short hike. We hiked counter clockwise around the lake and I quickly spied a tempting couloir on the south side of the lake. When we reached the couloir and I found that the snow ran all the way to the trail, I knew I’d have to return the next day!
To be continued…
- Normal spring conditions
- Evidence of recent cornice falls
- Evidence of recent rockfall
- Snow line at Twin Lakes, aspect and exposure dependent
Elevation Gain: 2,100 ft