Between an on again off again winter and covid related concerns, the 2020-2021 ski season was a weird one. Luckily by early March things were looking up in both respects and several of my friends had started making the weekend pilgrimage to the east side. I was anxious to redeem myself at Matterhorn Peak for my earlier failed attempt but I held out until the end of the month when Rafee would be free. He suggested that we invite Yelly and Leo but I declined as I was keen to make a successful summit and additional group members have a way of adding unexpected complexity to a hike. In the end we decided one extra member would be fine and Alyssa joined us for a second annual late spring trip.
Rafee and I tracked the weather all week and eventually decided that Saturday would be the best opportunity. There was a small storm system that would move through Thursday followed by a gusty Friday and then rapid warming through the weekend. Friday might still be a bit unstable but by Sunday the snow would probably have turned to horrible mank. With that in mind, Alyssa and I drove down Friday night and camped in our cars outside of Bridgeport.
Our plan was to start hiking from the road closure on Twin Lakes road by 5am so I woke at 3:45am, guzzled some of the awful gas station coffee I’d picked up the night before and put my pack together. I started the truck and put my boots in the passenger seat so that they could stay warm on the twenty minute drive to the trailhead when I noticed that Alyssa’s van was still dark. I knew she could get up in a hurry when she needed to but it was getting late, so I honked the horn gently and continued getting ready. When I was about to leave and realized there was still no sign of life from the adjacent parking spot I knocked on the side of the van and gave a quick shout. After a few seconds Alyssa slid open the van door in a daze, wondering why her alarm hadn’t woken her. Knowing that she was at least awake, I took off for Twin Lakes so that I could let Rafee know that we would be running a bit late. So much for avoiding mishaps by keeping the group small…
There were probably fifty cars parallel parked along the road but when I arrived at the closure I found Rafee had managed to secure a prime spot just in front of the gate. I pulled in next to him and guessed that Alyssa was ten or fifteen minutes behind me so he needn’t hurry to get ready. I put my boots on in my truck and continued listening to my audiobook while waiting for Alyssa to arrive. I happened to look up and was startled by Rafee’s ghostly appearance in the dark outside my window. I jumped and rolled down the window just in time for someone to shout angrily from the truck in front of me that I need to turn my headlights off. I had no clue that someone was sleeping in there and felt bad that I’d been shining a light into their bedroom for fifteen minutes, but was impressed by the entitled attitude — what did they expect sleeping in a popular parking area? Rafee had come by to let me know that everyone was ready to go (somehow Alyssa had managed to drive past and park without my noticing) so I hopped out into the dark, threw my pack onto my back and my skis over my shoulder as we started across the Mono Village parking lot only ten minutes behind schedule.
By the time we got to the far side of the parking lot there was enough snow cover to put our skis on. We carefully navigated our way first across the Robinson Creek bridge and then across the Horse Creek bridge before starting the climb out of Robinson Canyon and into Horse Creek Canyon. Unfortunately Alyssa didn’t have ski crampons that fit her skis and decided that she’d rather take a less direct approach and soon we were all hiking the long way along the summer trail’s switchbacks. Although slightly more hospitable than going straight up the slope, I was grateful for my ski crampons which gave me some confidence I wouldn’t careen sideways of the narrow sloping suggestion of a trail. The nearly-full moon was setting up canyon from us and there were several times it tricked me into thinking I’d spotted an oncoming headlamp through the trees. The resonance of my crampons cutting through the snow also gave me pause on several occasions when I though I’d heard voices in the distance.
Twilight broke as we entered the first of a series of meadows along the bottom of Horse Creek canyon, a hanging glacial valley above the larger Robinson canyon. With the first steep climb behind us I was hopeful that the going would be easier from here and with the impending sunrise I was hopeful that the auditory and visual hallucinations would come to an end! It had taken us an hour to climb about 700 feet which was a little worrying but I remembered that we had some easy miles ahead of us.
Five thousand feet above us across the meadow we were afforded our first glimpse of the summit and I stopped to pull out my telephoto lens and assess the East Couloir. We were all agreed that our goal was to reach the summit but our route was still to be determined. From my earlier attempt I knew that the West Couloir did not reach the summit, so without any major detours, that left the East Couloir and Ski Dreams. Ski Dreams is a gorgeous and popular line which I was confident would be skiable but the East Couloir was a bit more of a question mark.
From my photos it looked like there was snow along the length of the East Couloir with one notable choke near the summit. It was difficult to gauge how wide the choke might be, but I was pretty confident that we’d be able to climb it without much incident.
It was frigid and I could tell my companions were getting anxious waiting for me as I scoped out the lines, so I packed up my camera and we continued up the canyon across the meadow.
The hike was long and without much technical difficulty and I was grateful for the company to pass the time. From time to time as we passed in and out of small pine groves we stumbled across patches of still-cold winter snow — perhaps there was hope for decent skiing!
Around 7am as we neared the head of the canyon we spotted what appeared to be four hikers climbing up the steep bowl. We were surprised to see that someone had managed to get ahead of us so early in the morning but soon noticed an encampment of three or four tents in the trees nearby. I felt a pang of regret now knowing that we were unlikely to get fresh tracks regardless of what line we chose to ski and got a bit anxious wondering how many inhabitants of the cars at the trailhead we’d be sharing our route with. The hikers didn’t seem to be moving very fast though and I thought maybe we’d be able to overtake them.
As we started climbing the bowl a downhill wind picked up. Luckily the air wasn’t much below freezing but it was crisp enough that I pulled my hood up over my head and put some thin gloves on. We hunted back and forth across the bowl looking for a good route, but the conditions varied from dust on crust to just crust and was quite miserable. Eventually we found the track set by the hikers above us (who were apparently snowshoeing) and hopped in it. This was not ideal skinning and Alyssa opted to boot for a little while before eventually clipping back into her skis.
At the top of the bowl the terrain became partially forested and less steep and we found a decent skin track. Decent, that is, except for the overly conservative climbing angle which resulted in an absurd number of switchbacks. Alyssa was content to save energy and reuse the existing skin track but I took personal offense and took it upon myself to improve the route. Luckily Rafee shared my zeal so we took turns cutting a “better” track up to the glacier.
We arrived at a small gully below the glacier around 8am, somewhat surprised to find that we’d caught up with the group of snowshoers. As it turned out they were a guided group that had been camped in the canyon overnight. The guide informed us matter-of-factly that they would be climbing the east couloir and summiting by noon. The group seemed well-geared (including harnesses) and nervous for the upcoming climb. After some small talk we split up, abandoning the established skin track up the gut of the gully in favor of the ridge along the east side. The climb up to the ridge was a bit difficult but once we were there the avalanche hazard felt much more manageable.
Soon we crested the eastern lateral moraine and Alyssa shot off like a rocket down to the glacier. I was hoping that she’d stop in the shade so that I could save a bit of strain on my eyes and wait a little longer to put on sunscreen but clearly it had been the cold that motivated her surge as she stopped just two feet out into the sun.
Rafee and I joined her just after 9am and we agreed to take a long snack break and discuss our route.
From our vantage point below the north arete, we had a clear view up the West Couloir which looked inviting and eminently skiable. It’s no wonder that I chose to climb it two years earlier! The east couloir, on the other hand now appeared as if it might have a band of rocks running across it near the base.
Although we were pretty confident that we’d be able to get up the East Couloir, we weren’t confident that we’d be able to get down it on skis without incident. The East Couloir was the most direct route to the summit but we agreed that Ski Dreams would be the the more conservative descent and that we’d prefer to climb the route we were planning to ski so that we could assess snow conditions on the way up.
With an up route and a down route agreed upon and some food in our bellies, we started across the glacier to the Ski Dreams apron around 9:45am.
The snow along the route was still perfect winter snow and my spirits were lifted! The sot snow made for easy trail breaking as we worked our way up to the large wall along the east side of the apron and switched back towards the couloir.
We arrived at the restricted section of the couloir and started to find some weird snow. there was unconsolidated snow on top, but a few inches down we were finding a dense wind slab about two inches thick that was sometime supportive and sometimes not. I had a hunch that this was a localized feature caused by swirling wind as it exited the couloir. I hiked a couple feet out into the couloir probing the snow with the handle of my pole ever few feet as I went. The weird layer got deeper and thinner as I went further which seemed to support my hypothesis. After some discussion we decided that we were okay continuing on, but that we should be on high alert if this phenomenon persisted while climbing the couloir.
Rafee and I took turns setting the bootpack up the steep slope as Alyssa’s hip was bothering her. It wasn’t difficult work though it was a little frustrating as the snow consistency seemed to vary drastically every ten steps. As we climbed we noticed that perhaps a dozen climbers had traversed below the Ski Dreams apron making a beeline for the East Couloir. It was unlikely that we’d have the summit to ourselves.
We topped out on the ridge around 11am which was the time we’d been hoping to summit. Now we adjusted our goal to summit by noon. Alyssa was clearly tired of hauling skis up the mountain and decided that she’d stash hers at the top of Ski Dreams and boot to the summit. Glancing up along the ridge I still saw a lot of snow, possibly even skin-able and decided to keep my skis on my back. Alyssa took a route high along the ridge where there were many partially buried boulders while Rafee and I opted to stick a bit lower where I hoped there was less chance of falling into a void.
After a couple hundred feet of booting, I started postholing so badly that I needed Rafee’s help to extricate myself. Alyssa was well out of sight but I decided that it would be dangerous to continue booting and Rafee and I put skis back on our feet.
Rafee and I arrived at the top of the East Couloir shortly before noon and found that there were already six people there, none of which were members of the party we’d passed earlier. I put my crampons on while we waited for Alyssa to arrive, grumbling about how stupid it was that we were going to the summit (clearly the booting hadn’t been very enjoyable).
The party we met at the top of the couloir had started the climb up to the summit and we were eager to follow their bootpack which climbed directly up a steep snowfield toward the summit.
The route crossed only a small section of bare rock and otherwise wasn’t very interesting. Soon we were topped out and traversing towards the summit block around 12:15pm.
I think there were eight to ten people and three or four different parties up top so we were patient and waited our turn to visit the summit. With crampons on the bare rock it felt like a fairly precarious game of musical chairs. At one point I lost my balance and toppled into Alyssa nearly knocking her over.
Alyssa hurried back down, eager to get a head start on the trip back to the top of Ski Dreams while Rafee and I hung out a bit longer, chatting and taking photos. While we were up there we were pleasantly surprised to see Leo join us! We downclimbed back to the East Couloir which felt a little spicier than the climb up.
We met up with Yelly at the top of the East Couloir and chatted for a bit while transitioning for the ski back down to Ski Dreams. Apparently Yelly and Leo had come with the intention of rock climbing on the North Arete! They brought a rope and climbing gear all the way to the base of the climb before realizing that the approach would be too dangerous and opting to climb the East Couloir as a consolation prize.
We arrived back at the top of Ski Dreams around 1:30pm and found two snowboarders who had just topped out. They didn’t seem to be in a hurry to ski and astonishingly it looked like there was still fresh snow to ski in the couloir! I skied first, taking caution down the couloir where the snow was crusty and variable when suddenly I hit a pocket of powder. I ducked off to the side behind a rock and radioed up to tell Rafee and Alyssa to join me.
Once again I skied first, excited at the prospect of good snow! I found one soft turn that transitioned to windboard before transitioning back to soft and nearly got bucked off my skis! After a couple of weird turns I was in the apron and skiing beautiful cold winter powder.
Alyssa and Rafee followed behind, just as amazed as I was by the stellar conditions. This storm greatly outperformed the expected dusting — there was nearly two feet of cold snow in places!
It was late in the day and we were keen to make progress towards home. I was glad that we made it to the summit because in the future if I were to show up and find these sort of conditions I don’t think I’d bother visiting the top again — instead I think I’d vote to spend several hours lapping the apron on ski dreams and scoring incredible spring turns!
Rather than heading directly for the exit, we decided to pay a visit to Ice Hose Couloir which I’d skied on my previous visit (though I hadn’t known its name) and which some other friends had recently skied and reported good conditions.
Shortly after we arrived at the entrance two other skiers arrived and stood at the entrance watching us ski one at a time. According to Rafee, they seemed unhappy with our pace and even tried to cut into the lineup between him and Alyssa. Luckily Rafee managed to convince them to be patient, but we felt them breathing down our necks the whole way…
The snow was starting to heat up and become a bit manky but was still enjoyable and the terrain was incredible. We had to be a little careful exiting the couloir to get back to the main canyon, skiing through a steep overgrown choke and then into some very soft sticky snow.
The dudebros must have dropped shortly after us because as we traversed the canyon to gain the well worn exit path I spotted them exiting the couloir. One skier was moving quite fast and I watched as he shot straight into a small pine, somersaulting and losing equipment in all directions. I heard him shout to his partner that he was okay and therefore had no problem laughing at the spectacle.
As I’d found in the past, the traverse out of the canyon was fast and enjoyable. In a few places, patches of rock spotted the route but negotiating these was easy as long as I wasn’t currently distracted by the view.
The route back to Mono Village continued fairly uneventfully. There were short portions of skating and sidestepping across flat and gently uphill terrain but very few of the usual spring shenanigans.
The route back down the switchbacks through tight trees was even quite decent, with some patches of decent corn up top and good coverage all the way to Robinson Creek. The snow was very manky towards the bottom but none of us could complain given that we didn’t have to take skis off.
Shortly after crossing the creek, the terrain leveled out and snow became intermittent enough that we stepped out of our skis to hike the remaining distance to the cars, arriving back at the gate on Twin Lakes Road around 3pm.
I only had some vague thoughts for a possible tour the following day but no urgent need to move on, so we decided to set up camp next to our cars and have a lazy lunch while waiting for Yelly and Leo to return. As crowded as the trailhead had felt at 5am, there were easily twice as many cars now, and a constant stream of snowshoers, skiers, and boarders returning back from various destinations.
Yelly and Leo returned about an hour later, and two other friends appeared out of thin air that I hadn’t even realized were in the area! After hanging out for a while and unsuccessfully trying to recruit people for a long Sunday tour we each slowly made our way home. What a promising start to the spring season!
- Snow coverage all the way to trailhead, though varying based on angle/aspect/exposure.
- 8-20″ unconsolidated cold snow.
- Variable buried crust layers in wind affected areas.
- Several wet loose slides observed in the afternoon on east aspects.
Elevation Gain: 5,400 ft