Birch Mountain

Despite a decent start, winter had begun to fizzle in Tahoe, with less than an inch of snow in the entire month of February and it was feeling remarkably spring-like. I was in the midst of making plans with Alyssa and Rafee to ski a typically spring descent near Carson pass when Alyssa said the magic words. I passed those words along to Rafee and when he suggested Birch Mountain we were suddenly off to the “east side.”

After inspecting the weekly hi-resolution satellite imagery, I’d created a route which only involved 1,000 ft of climbing to reach the snow line. As I left the house I couldn’t immediately locate my hiking shoes and so, forgetting this detail, decided I would be fine with flip flops, ski boots, and snow boots (just in case). Around Mammoth, I realized my error and also realized that I hadn’t packed any socks! I guess my packing abilities had atrophied after four months off the road… I messaged Rafee and Alyssa who’d made it down to Bishop a bit earlier than I and luckily Rafee had some extra socks, though no extra shoes.

Around 11pm I approached the end of McMurry Meadows Road (not far from where Chris and I had begun our ascent of The Thumb) and spotted a car ahead of me. I flashed my high beams to let Alyssa know I’d arrived but soon realized it wasn’t Alyssa’s Lexus, “Bruce.” I pulled up and found three guys at work getting their packs together. After some discussion I’d found that they were also planning to ski Birch the next day at 3am! We briefly discussed our plans and I wished them luck before continuing on and finding Bruce at a large parking area. Alyssa was parked at the location where we’d agreed to meet Rafee for a 5am start the next day but I decided to continue on to make sure we’d be able to reach the start of the hike. After a several hundred feet of deep ruts, the road crossed a few muddy sections and then turned uphill. At this location there was a piece of plywood propped against the chaparral with a posted notice which indicated that I could drive no further due to impacts of last summer’s Taboose Fire.

I returned to where Alyssa had parked and got my gear ready for the hike. At some point Alyssa’s car alarm went off for a second before she cracked a door to say “hi.” I told her about the other group and we poopooed their early start time before both heading to sleep. When I’d arrived it was a balmy 45 degrees, but overnight I ended up turning on the furnace to stay warm. I heard the other group start up the mountain around 3:30am and then rafee pulled in just before 5am. I told the others about the road closure and we agreed to take Rafee’s car as far as we could and to hike from there.

Sunrise begins to illuminate Owens Valley.

We started hiking from the road closure in the dark, straight uphill. Even with headlamps, it was difficult to see very far in the direction of travel and we had to do a lot of weaving to find a decent route. After less than five minutes we met back up with the road and decided to follow it until it stopped climbing rather than fight through the thicket. I was glad to be with friends and the hike went quickly despite the weight on our back until the road took a sharp turn uphill. Suddenly Rafee was pushing ahead and I asked him to slow the pace. He said he wouldn’t leave me in the dust but I pointed out that was exactly what he was doing.

First light on the sagebrush above Big Pine.

Alyssa seemed to realize my struggle and was a little more receptive to slowing down the pace so that we could stay together. Soon we reached the end of the road and realized that the planned route involved crossing a creek towards a thick copse of aspen. Having experienced the nuisance of hiking through an aspen forest with skis on my back on several occasions I found it easy to convince the group to instead stay on the north side of the creek and hike along the ridge. Above us, in the dark, we spotted the other group’s headlamps. Although it was impossible to tell exactly where they were, I guessed they were at least 1,500 ft above us and I found myself wondering whether we should have started hiking earlier!

Hiking through sage in the dark was not much easier than hiking through aspen, but we trudged along. At times I felt as if I could identify Alyssa’s route just by following the pungent aroma of bruised sage.

A waning half moon sets over Mt Tinnemaha; Birch Mountain, right.

We climbed to the top of the ridge before continuing along it. Around this time Rafee seemed to have taken a keen interest in Mt Tinnemaha across the drainage to our south. I’ve been aware of this peak for some time as I’d nearly wrecked my car a few years ago along Tinnemaha Creek Road trying to get to the Red Lake trailhead for an ascent of Split Mountain. The peak is often overlooked due to it’s minor prominence and its being literally overshadowed by several fourteeners (most notably, Split). I’d also heard of the peak because of an avalanche incident on one of its east gullies last spring and we were now mesmerized by the many steep gullies on its north and east aspects.

Sunrise over the Inyo.

Hiking was miserable in my snow boots which were several sizes too large. I only ever used them when snowblowing the driveway, so I’d never much cared that they were the wrong size. I normally used them without socks despite the fact that my ankles chafed in them — I don’t think I ever wore them for more than 45 minutes at a time so why should it matter? Not only were my ankles feeling quite raw now but I also realized how little arch support they provided. I almost felt that I’d be better off hiking in my flip flops although I knew that, if nothing else, the boots were at least protecting me from the myriad scratches and burrs I’d otherwise accrue.

Rafee follows a ridge toward the east face of Birch Mountain.

As the sun came up we had a view of both the Tinnemaha Creek drainage where we’d planned to climb as well as the east face of Birch. The route up the drainage appeared unnecessarily flat although it provided access to several gorgeous couloirs. The east face, however, appeared to have a mostly snow-free approach for at least a thousand feet followed by several obvious couloirs which we could climb to gain the plateau. It seemed to me that the east face was the more direct route although the drainage and south face would be likely more interesting skiing. Alyssa had made it clear throughout planning that she was more interested in the uphill than good skiing and would happily down climb anything she couldn’t ski (in the past I’ve heard her adorn herself “Tahoe’s greatest advocate of ice climbing). Rafee seemed to be in a defeatest mood and was skeptical about our prospects. I was feeling much less than 100% and didn’t want to push for an afternoon summit, knowing that, if Alyssa was down climbing, the descent would not be very quick, so we decided that we should change course and take the direct route up the east side.

Rafee Climbs steep snow amidst granite spires.

We continued along the ridge, Rafee opting to stick along the north side along mostly solid snow and Alyssa generally opting to stick along the crest and the south side. I flirted with both sides, sticking behind Alyssa until I got annoyed with the dense sage and then following Rafee until I got tired of the occasional surprise posthole. We reached an area where outcroppings of granite interrupted the ridge and attempted to circumvent them on the right because the left side appeared quite steep. However as we went further right the snow became increasingly rotten and difficult to traverse. Eventually we turned directly uphill through the granite.

A granite spire rises above the sage.

We found a flat spot among the granite and I stopped to put on the ski socks Rafee had lent me and to switch into my ski boots now that we were likely to be on snow for the rest of the day. After several hundred feet I began to fantasize about reaching the plateau several thousand feet above us when we’d be able to ditch our heavy packs and continue toward the summit unburdened. Rafee asked me if I thought we could switch to skinning and I admitted that I’d been thinking about it for a while. Now that we were clear of the granite outcroppings the snow was more continuous so I decided to transition and Rafee followed suit.

Rafee skins up the east face of Birch Mountain.

Alyssa decided to continue booting ahead and by the time Rafee and I were started back uphill she was out of sight. With weight off my back and skis underfoot I was suddenly feeling much better. No longer was Rafee stopping to wait for me but instead I was keeping pace. The skinning wasn’t especially difficult but every dozen feet the conditions changed from slush to corn to breakable crust to bulletproof and then back through the whole range. We ended up making kick turns ever fifty feet so that we could stay on the aspect where skinning was easiest.

Rafee takes a break from the climb up the east face of Birch.

The day was getting warmer and after half an hour of skinning Rafee decided to take a break. As I continued toward him I saw he’d left his skis on a flat-ish part of snow and I warned him that he should be careful about leaving his skis untethered on the snow like that. He moved to adjust them and I continued past him aiming for the shade. Below I noticed Alyssa climbing up toward us and was surprised that she wasn’t higher up the mountain. As I found the shade of a pine one of my skis touched Rafee’s bag which he’d left sitting on the snow and the bag lurched down the hill. I lunged for it with my poles but could not stop it. I was a bit surprised how nonchalantly Rafee watched his pack tumble. Luckily it came to rest in some trees thirty feet below us, though it easily could have slid several thousand feet further. Rafee looked at me and asked me when I was going to grab his pack. I told him it was equally his fault as mine but he wasn’t convinced. After sitting a moment I told him I’d grab it but I wasn’t completely convinced I wanted to. Besides my exhaustion, I really don’t like taking my skis off once I’ve put them on. Rafee apparently grew impatient with me because he decided to grab his bag himself.

Rafee and Alyssa begin skinning up the east face of Birch.

Alyssa made her way up to us following the new bootpack Rafee has set for the final 30 feet and briefed us on her journey. Apparently she had headed for the main gully, expecting that we’d do the same. In the gully she found lots of breakable crust and wind packed snow with rotten faceted snow beneath which made for miserable booting. She had waited for us there and even attempted to radio me (though my radio was off) before deciding to continue climbing and look for us. With that information we glumly realized that we might not find any decent skiing on the east face. Alyssa transitioned to skinning and I set the track up the east face toward the top of the gully. Above us we spotted the other group although I didn’t watch them for too long. I was under the impression that they were descending, but Rafee and Alyssa later said it looked like they were climbing so perhaps we weren’t too far behind them. The skinning wasn’t becoming any easier and eventually we decided to reevaluate our goals. it was nearly 11am and we’d not quite reached 10,000 ft, leaving well over 3,000 ft to the summit. I was certain that we could make it to the summit but was feeling very out of shape. In addition, neither Rafee nor Alyssa seemed especially keen on continuing further and I wasn’t certain that we’d make it back down before sunset. We decided to cut our losses and head across the gully to a more southerly aspect where we hoped to find soft snow and a fun descent.

Rafee and Alyssa traverse the east gully.

We cut across the main gully around 10,000 ft aiming for what appeared to be an easy route across the rock on the other side. I stepped onto the rock and shouldered my skis, happy to find that the route was indeed quite easy. We hiked a hundred feet to the next patch of snow and clicked back into our skis, climbing just a little further before finding a logical place to descend and a nice rock on which to perch.

Alyssa looks back at our traverse across the gully.

We plunged our skis tails first into the snow to secure them and sat down on the rock, pulling out our lunches. Now that we weren’t concerned with topping out, suddenly all the tension was gone and everyone was content to enjoy the day.

Loving my Moment Wildcat 108 Tours!

We had a slow lunch, enjoying the beautiful spring-like day, the sun, the views, and each other’s company. In the end we spent nearly an hour and a half hanging out on the mountain without a care in the world, fully engrossed in the beauty of the mountains. Even though I spend most of my life in the Sierra Nevada, there’s something special about the east side, where snow desert peaks rise 8,000 feet above the desert floor. Most of the time on the east side I find myself constantly moving, either pushing desperately for a summit or descending eagerly back to safety, but in that moment I found peace and happiness and the ability to bask unconcerned.

Alyssa hanging out about Owens Valley.

Eventually we decided it was time to head down and we scoped out the route. Directly below us we had several hundred feet of nearly south facing slope which would surely be great skiing. Beyond that a half dozen sinuous snowy lines traced gullies down the hill and out of sight so we picked the gully which seemed to have the the most snow and decided to aim for that and see how far it would take us.

Alyssa makes turns down the Birch’s east flank.

The first several hundred feet were as sublime as we’d expected: not the thrill of skiing off a 13,000 ft summit that we’d been seeking, but nonetheless incredible. Since I’d brought my camera and Rafee seemed receptive, I took the opportunity to try to get some good shots, suggesting lines that he could ski for the best shot.

Rafee harvests winter corn above Owens Valley.

Eventually the snow field became increasingly dotted with chaparral punching through the regions of thinner snow and we were restricted to the center of the gully.

Rafee descends toward the desert.

We neared the bottom of the main gully and traversed south towards a more prominent gully which we’d noticed from our lunch spot. It wasn’t clear how much further the route would go, but it seemed that this gully would probably go further than any other and, the more skiing we could do, the happier I would be.

Rafee and Alyssa scope out snow along a gully below Birch Mountain.

Soon even the center of the gully was dotted with sage and it wasn’t clear how much further we could go. Knowing that we’d be heading in that general direction regardless, I volunteered to go ahead and check out the conditions. I ended up having to take several rowdy but thoroughly enjoyable detours through the sage.

Sagebrush provides ample obstacle along our descent.

I radioed back up that the route went for several hundred feet and soon Alyssa and Rafee joined me. We continued down the canyon quite a ways. Several times where it looked like the route would surely dead-end I would side step 10 feet through the sage and then find that the snow continued another hundred feet.

Rafee and I enjoy a sun burnt gully below Birch Mountain.

Along the steep north facing side of the gully, there were occasional sections of light powdery snow which were incredible to ski but difficult to get to. I tried to scope them out as much as possible and let the others know when I found them.

Rafee skis some astonishingly light snow in a gully below Birch Mountain.

Finally around 2pm with less than 500 ft remaining to reach the cars, the snow ended completely. We hoisted our skis back onto our packs and started down a cow path towards the meadow above the cars.

Alyssa waits for Rafee as we transition back to hiking.

We found a minor creek which we had to cross, but within half an hour we were back at the cars and dreaming of dinner. I took my time lying my wet gear out in the sun to dry before shuttling Rafee back to his car. Half an hour later we were ripping back down McMurry Meadows Road toward Big Pine for some Barbecue.

Trailhead Discussion

The road information I wrote up at the end of my trip report for The Thumb is still relevant. In addition, there is a large area between Birch Mountain and Taboose Pass which is closed for the remainder of 2020. See the closure notice here.

Snow Discussion

Avalanche Forecast

Snow Observations

No avalanche activity observed. Lots of weird snow. 6 inches to 3 feet of rotten, faceted snow, sometimes with corn, or windboard, or breakable crust on top. Very aspect and exposure dependent.

GPS Data

Elevation Gain: 4,100 ft
Distance: 8.1 mi

It seems possible that we might have accidentally violated the Taboose Fire closure area so I will omit data to avoid the possibility of self incrimination.