At our post Pt Powell Burger Barn binge we ran into Yelly and Leo and their friend, Peter. Yelly and Leo had just finished climbing nearby Mt Tom and had climbed Basin Mountain earlier in the month so I congratulated them on their progress in summiting the major summits of the Bishop Skyline! I mentioned that I still yet to visit Mt Emerson or Four Gables Peak and Rafee immediately piped up to say that he also wanted to climb Four Gables. Peter said that Four Gables wasn’t visible from Bishop and I was taken aback. There’s a fairly prominent peak visible between Basin Mountain and Mt Tom which I’d always assumed was Four Gables — according to Peter, this peak is actually Gable Lakes Peak. Regardless, seeing as Four Gables Peak is on the SPS list I figured it must have something to recommend it.
I knew Rafee was serious about visiting Four Gables but I was surprised when he messaged me the next day asking if I wanted to ski it the following weekend. I was skeptical about the snow conditions but seeing how enjoyable Pt Powell turned out to be I decided it would be worth checking out. I’ve wanted to ski out of Pine Creek for quite some time now (one of the few east side trailheads which is accessible year round) and this would be a good opportunity to see the cost of admission.
We met up at the Gable Lakes trailhead at 5 am, with headlights on and managed to start shortly after with only two minor mishaps on my part. The first being that I’d forgotten to pack shorts (I’d also forgotten to pack my trail runners but luckily remembered 10 minutes after leaving home and had time to turn around and grab them), and the second being that my waist buckle snapped on my pack as I buckled it. Luckily it seemed that only one of the two tines broke and the other was still able to support the pack — I started brainstorming how to jury rig it if it broke but didn’t relish the endeavor.
Once I was sure my pack was secure we didn’t dally since we knew we had several miles and nearly three thousand feet of hiking to do before we’d transition to skis. Neither of us had been up to Gable Lakes before but Rafee led the way and quickly found the trail. An old double track road climbed steeply south out of Pine Creek Canyon before turning sharply west to follow a contour. After a minute or two it seemed that we were even heading downhill, which wasn’t expected. We consulted the map and, sure enough, we were off the trail. Two minutes of backtracking and we found a now-obvious sign pointing uphill off the road toward Gable Lakes.
The trail only got steeper for the first mile as it worked its way up a series of switchbacks, out of Pine Creek Canyon and into the hanging valley created by Gable Creek. We were able to ditch our headlamps fairly soon but the massive form of Mt Tom kept us well in the shade. Similar to the Pine Creek Pass trail we found evidence of the not-so-distant past when mining was prolific in this region littered everywhere. Looking up canyon towards the Tungstar Mine on the east slope of Mt Tom we spotted the skeletal remains of a tram that would have put Squaw Valley or Jackon Hole’s trams to shame.
The grade eventually eased as it began following Gable Creek, turning to the southwest into the upper canyon. The upper canyon showed more signs of its glacial origin: wide and broad, and the creek was less incised. The northwest facing left side of the canyon had decent snow coverage still but the right side, which the trail followed, appeared mostly snow free. This could be the best of both worlds! Easy uphill travel on the trail and a nice long descent via the other side of the canyon!
Rafee and I made note of a spot near 9,500 ft where we thought we might be able to ski to and ford the creek before continuing ahead on foot. The trail deteriorated, sloughing into the creek in some places and overgrown with willows in others. Clearly this trail didn’t see many visitors, especially so early in the year.
We encountered the first snow covered section of trail around 9,700 ft and I cautiously stepped out onto it, finding that I was able to dig the side of my shoes into the snow about half an inch, giving me just enough purchase to maintain traction. I was pretty confident that I wouldn’t slide far if I slipped but I took it slowly nonetheless. When I crossed the snow I looked back to see that Rafee didn’t have the same sort of faith in the snow that I had, opting instead to climb the loose rock uphill.
Soon the trail devolved into a steep eroded channel that was frequently filled with snow and eventually we lost whatever trail there was, climbing up a snow slope towards a saddle above us. In a reversal, I generally aimed for ribs of exposed rock to climb while Rafee stayed on the gentle snow slopes.
We crested the saddle at 10,500ft around 7:30 am and were greeted with our first view into the upper canyon and of a striking granite buttress. On all sides the peaklet appeared to drop precipitously! Behind us, we were treated with a view of the Owens River Gorge!
The snow was now quite consistent so we took the opportunity to transition to skis before continuing on to find a nearby highpoint from which to scope the rest of the ascent.
I found a nice granite bench on which to sit and view the upper drainage, perfect in all ways except that it was still in the shade. The sun appeared close to breaking the horizon and the line of shade cast by the southern ridge was quickly approaching so we decided to have a slow breakfast while waiting for the sun to arrive.
We marveled at the string of peaks surrounding the rim of the basin, each of them so beautiful I couldn’t believe I’d never heard of them before! We had a look at the map to figure out their names and realized that even the largest of them had less than 200 feet of prominence!
The sun eventually hit us and we stashed our shoes in a nearby tree before starting off again shortly after 8. We had to pick our route carefully on account of the moraines that were becoming increasingly obtrusive as the spring melt accelerated. Despite this we made rapid progress, finding ourselves at nearly 11,000ft around 8:30 before realizing we’d made a navigational error and ended up in the wrong drainage.
It looked like we could continue climbing the ridge we were on and traverse along the base of the cliffs to make it over to the couloir we intended to climb but we couldn’t see for certain whether there was a snow route and if so whether it was reasonable. On the other hand it looked feasible, though psychologically painful, to descend the ridge into the gully we’d meant to climb.
According to the map we would only lose 200ft of elevation by down climbing here and it looked like we might be able to keep skis on for the majority, so we accepted our mistake and headed down the slope. Once we were in the main gully it appeared to be a straighforward climb to the top of the snowfield.
As we climbed the final moraine, Rafee passed me heading directly up the fall line. I had already abandoned going straight up the slope as it was approaching 30 degrees and was very firm. Rafee, however, seemed committed. Not feeling comfortable that he’d be able to stop his slide if he fell I tried to hustle out from underneath him but he must have sensed that he was on the brink of losing grip because he too started to lower his angle of ascent.
Just twenty feet from the top he finally lost grip and toppled, managing to arrest his fall quickly but tearing up his fingers in the process. We hiked a little further to a rock below the couloir before taking a break to apply first aid. From this vantage we had a good view of the couloir which forked a couple about halfway up. The left fork looked very steep and narrow but the right looked like it ended 20 ft shy of the ridge at the base of a vertical cliff.
We agreed to play it by ear but decided that the left fork would probably be the better route to climb. Renewed by the excitement for the apparently close summit, Rafee led us up the apron of the couloir and we noted that there was an excessive amount of wet debris. It didn’t seem like any of it had entrained nearby snow but it put us on alert.
As we reached the fork though, we were alarmed by how wet the snow was. It wasn’t even 10 am yet, but there were places where we were getting four or more inches of ski penetration! We had already been leaning towards the left fork which was in the shade and now that we saw the conditions in the sun we decided that we didn’t want anything to do with the right fork.
We made a small platform at the fork and started transitioning for the boot pack. While we had our packs off we took a quick look at the map and realized we’d made our second navigational error of the day: we were in completely the wrong couloir!
If we wanted to get around to the correct route, we’d have to down climb another 500 feet and traverse to the next couloir to the left! I, however, distinctly remembered looking at the other route and almost remarking to Rafee “huh, that route looks interesting, but it needs a lot more snow!” Rafee seemed particularly disinterested in down climbing yet again and was fairly confident he’d read a trip report of someone climbing this couloir and traversing to the summit. After some discussion we decided to continue upwards.
The first couple steps of the booter went well but the snow conditions rapidly deteriorated. As rotten and wet as the right fork had been, the left fork was rotten and dry. The snow was so faceted and weak that I had to take massive steps uphill to avoid breaking down into the previous step.
Soon, even with my precautionary giant steps, I found that every other step was breaking through. I ended up having to stagger my steps horizontally so that they wouldn’t break through into the earlier steps. However once we reached the choke, there was nowhere left or right to step. The couloir was only about four feet wide here and the snow in the couloir was exceptionally shallow, ranging from about 4-8 inches deep.
I couldn’t plunge my axe deep enough into the snow to get any leverage, so I started excavating the couloir, instead looking for rock features beneath the snow on which I could climb. The rock was loose and cold and slippery and my hands were getting exceptionally cold. It was a warm day and looked like it would be a fast climb so I hadn’t bothered putting on my leather gloves, instead just donning my thin cotton glove liners. After taking a look at the rock the left of the couloir and the rock to the right (neither of which looked especially climbable and from which a fall would be completely unforgiving) I told Rafee “well, I think that’s that!”
Rafee didn’t seem ready to give up yet (perhaps because he didn’t have as good a view of the challenge as I did) and said “what if you climb up that?” I didn’t really know what exactly he was talking about but I took it as a sign to keep going. I put some more energy into uncovering the rock, reaching above me with my axe and scooping snow off the rock with the adze. I moved quickly, mostly with the intent of revealing the situation to Rafee as quickly as possible so that he would be convinced that the climb was impossible and that it was time to turn around.
Once I had exposed more rock, though, it became obvious that the snow got deeper above. I somehow managed to find secure purchase with my pick on the rock above and found a decent foothold below and managed to pull myself up and through the crux! Now that I was through, there was only another 20 feet of climbing to the ridge and after checking with Rafee, I powered on with the urgency of too-cold hands.
Now that I was through, it was Rafee’s turn to get past the crux. He struggled for a while, poking plaintively at the horrible rock and snow that surrounded him on all sides in the same manner that I just had. After a couple minutes he managed to get up through it and into the snow above. I had taken my liners off and set them to dry in the sun while I warmed my hands and was now suffering from the screaming barfies, the painful feeling of blood returning to cold extremities that makes you feel like screaming and barfing at the same time. I told Rafee that I was okay and to ignore my dramatics.
Now that Rafee was past the rocks I expected him to join me on the ridge quickly but he soon encountered a second issue. It seemed that the snow which was supportable enough for me to climb was now destroyed beyond the point that he could climb it. Any time it looked like he found purchase he’d pull himself up six inches and the snow would crumble underneath him. After a couple minutes I could tell that he was pretty demoralized but he had pushed me to get past it so I was determined to do the same for him.
Rafee asked me how the ridge looked to the summit and I told him I wasn’t going to look until he got up here! He also made a comment about how the heck we’d get back down and I told him not to think about it — we’d need to get down regardless of whether he made it up or not so it wasn’t worth thinking about.
It would have been so easy to haul him up, if only we had a rope! I could tell he was starting to lose hope and his cold hands were increasingly bothering him. As I watched him, I realized that it seemed like his axe wasn’t providing enough anchor in the weak snow so I suggested that he use the handle of his pole as a second axe. The second pole provided some aid but still wasn’t enough so eventually I decided to lower my axe to him, dangling it precariously by its leash on the end of my pole. I couldn’t quite reach him so on the count of three I twisted the pole to drop it and it slid three feet to him.
With the second axe in hand, which was a much longer mountaineering style axe compared to his hybrid mountaineering/technical axe, he finally pulled himself up the vertical wall of snow and was able to make quick work of the last twenty feet. He joined me at the top of the couloir for an exuberant moment!
Now that we’d gotten through that ordeal we could finally relax and take in the new setting. From our perch on top of the Sierra crest we could see west into a spectacular and remote area of the John Muir Wilderness! This area, much like Humphrey’s Basin just to the south, is dominated by large bench lakes, still snowy and blue! To the northwest the Royce Lakes Basin lay high above the recently snow free French Canyon and topped by the iconic summits of Merriam, Royce, and Feather Peaks!
Before continuing along I decided to quickly traverse downwards to find the top of the right fork and figure out if that might provide a safer descent than the route we’d just climbed. I found a viewpoint from a couple dozen feet above the entrance from which I was pretty confident we’d be able to enter — thank goodness! I returned to relay the good news to Rafee who was warming up in the sun.
After a short break we agreed to ditch our skis, axes, and crampons and start the ridge traverse. I was a little wary seeing how steep the terrain was and we both wished we’d brought our shoes with us.
As we traversed, the climbing only seemed to get more difficult and there were several times where I had to down climb and find a different route. Eventually we came to a spot where our only option looked to be to go all the way to the top of the ridge along a fairly committing line. On top of that, looking further along the ridge, there appeared to be a very shear section of slab which I didn’t think we could climb and which didn’t have an obvious alternative.
We stopped for a moment to check the map and it looked like we had quite a long distance to cover before reaching the peak. We’d spent more than an hour climbing the couloir and it was now approaching noon. I guessed that it would take at least an hour in each direction to make the traverse, assuming it was possible at all. After inspecting the map Rafee eventually decided that this was not the route he thought someone else had taken. We decided that it was unrealistic to make the safely summit today and agreed to turn around.
Even if we had found a faster climb up the couloir we weren’t sure that we’d be able to make it to the summit. It seemed like our best option would have been to descend the west side of the crest and climb another snowfield on the northwest face of the peak. We returned to the top of the left couloir around 12:30 pm with the mixed emotions that come from failing to obtain objective but managing to persevere and surpass an extreme challenge along the way. We picked up our gear and continued on to the right fork finding an easy down climb into the entrance.
Rafee skied down to the fork first and I followed behind. The snow was weirdly rotten and with every move debris let loose below us but again never entrained any surrounding slow. As we descended a rut formed down the couloir where the slush accumulated and slid slowly down the slope.
The best skiing was in the apron but it was short lived and as soon as the slope angle eased, the snow became exceptionally grabby, almost throwing me over the handlebars!
Now that we were back in the flats we took a moment to figure out how we’d made such a severe navigational error in deciding to climb the wrong couloir. Looking over at our intended route, it was no surprise. The supposed “couloir” (it was actually marked as a permanent snowfield on some maps) had not even the slightest indication of snow, and it looked to be full of horribly loose rock. On top of that, even knowing that the true summit was to the left of this couloir, I couldn’t manage to convince my brain to see the truth — the rock to the right still looked taller.
We agreed that it was a reasonable mistake to make but were still hopeful for a happy end to the day. So we continued our descent down the canyon. Unfortunately, unlike the pleasant surprise we found a week earlier at Pt Powell, the snow in the canyon was some of the worst I’ve ever skied. Coverage was spotty and the snow conditions alternated between icy and fast and slushy and grabby without the slightest warning. I felt like I was at a rodeo, getting bucked all over without any opportunity to get comfortable.
We had to climb back up the moraine we’d down climbed earlier in the day, vindicating our first navigational error, but for the most part the ski out was fast and gentle. Although the conditions were exhausting, I was glad to be descending on ski rather than foot.
We arrived back at Middle Gable Lake and found it in a condition in which neither of us dared risk step out onto it. Large pools of slush glowed blue around the perimeter and portions had newly opened water. We picked up our shoes from the top of the saddle where we’d left them and started to descend the canyon below, hopeful that we could make it much further down.
Unfortunately the snow down here was horribly rotten. Rafee seemed to be doing okay but, thirty pounds heavier and with skis 15mm narrower, I was struggling hard. My skis were sinking deep into the snow and I often found myself shin deep or more! Each turn felt dangerous and our snow was rapidly running out. We found ourselves very near to the creek with our only option to traverse up through some willows. Rather than doing that we decided to call it quit and crossed to the north side of the canyon looking for a shade tree under which to transition.
Rafee spotted a tree with a nice seat in its shade and we crowded in, doffing our heavy ski gear and laying it out in the sun to dry. I ventured over to the creek and found a perfect rock from which I could dangle my feet in and cool them. Back in the shade I put on a new pair of socks and my trail runners, refreshed and ready to hike out. We had the last of our food and water and enjoyed the bird songs that filled the air.
We spent nearly an hour enjoying the day before heaving our packs onto our shoulders and setting off to find the trail around 3 pm, I in my underwear. We picked up the trail quickly but the snow was now soft making the hiking a bit more challenging. I was surprised to see that new tracks had been made sometime earlier in the day and wondered if we might bump into their maker on the way home.
Soon we were back on dry trail and making speedy progress down the hill. The views were just as stunning in the morning and the mining artifacts were beautiful and intriguing.
We returned to our cars just before 4:30 pm, tired and ready to go home. On the way out of Pine Creek we stopped briefly to admire Scheelite Chute along the north side of the canyon, climbing nearly 6000ft to the summit of Broken Finger Peak. There was no snow in the chute and between this and the day’s adventure we decided that the ski season in the Sierra was coming to a bittersweet close.
- No snow below 9,700 ft.
- Intermittent snow on steep and shaded north aspects 9,700 ft – 10,500 ft.
- Nearly complete coverage above 10,500 ft.
- At high elevations, snow conditions varied greatly by aspect. Sun exposed aspects were overripe and perpetually unexposed aspects were badly faceted.
- Shin to knee deep ski penetration on all aspects below 10,500ft.
Elevation Gain: 5,300 ft