Going into early spring, the normal skiing destinations in the Eastern Sierra were punctuated with a big question mark. Tahoe had experienced a low snow year but because of how the storms came in there was still decent skiing to be found into April, however there were lots of reports indicating that the snow totals dropped precipitously as you travelled south past Mammoth.
Rafee proposed climbing Point Powell out of Lake Sabrina, an area I had yet to visit. Yelly had visited the peak recently and reported that it involved some tedious cross country hiking capped off by a snow climb up the northeast couloir. Therefore it seemed like an ascent that would obviously be improved on skis! The road to Lake Sabrina had just recently opened and our scouring of trip reports and satellite imagery seemed to indicate that the snow level was still reasonably low. It looked like we’d probably have to hike most if not all the way around the lake but that we should be able to put skis on shortly after.
Rafee and I recruited Alyssa and Jamie to join us for the hike, with caveats about the questionable quality of skiing as well as a high possibility we’d have to turn around early on account of high winds preceding a storm that would arrive in the early evening. Jamie and I carpooled and camped outside of Bishop where we hoped it might be a bit warmer than the trailhead. We arrived to find that someone had abandoned a wicker chair at our campsite and availed ourselves of it, bundling up next to the truck as we caught the tail end of a gorgeous sunset.
The wind was gusty overnight and occasionally shook me awake but when the alarm went off at 4am I found myself well rested and excited for the hike! The wind still rattled the truck as we had a breakfast and put our packs together for the hike. As we drove up CA 168 towards lake Sabrina just after 5 am Jamie and I were surprised at the traffic — there were at least a dozen cars driving down towards Bishop as well as a handful of headlights following us up the grade! There was clearly a lot of Fishmas stoke in the early morning air!
Jamie and I arrived at the trailhead at 5:15 am with Rafee hot on our tail. Alyssa’s van was parked nearby with lights on so we took that as a positive sign and quickly went to work finishing getting dressed for the day. We met up with Rafee who’d parked immediately next to the trailhead and was still finishing up his packing and we discussed the likelihood that our trip would be over quickly given that the high winds seemed to indicate the storm might be arriving ahead of schedule. Acknowledging this possibility, everyone was still willing to give it a try and see how things went. We hit the trail shortly after 5:30, with skis and boots on our backs.
We traversed high along the east shore of Lake Sabrina, marveling at the number of fishers already arrived and setup on the exposed lake bed. Rafee started off setting the pace but after some comments from the group we decided for the sake of surviving the whole day that we might want to dial it back a bit. Rafee graciously accepted the feedback and let Jamie on ahead to set a slower pace. If anything the pace picked up with Jamie in the lead, so soon it was Alyssa’s turn to lead.
After crossing Tyee Creek we found ourselves on a more northerly aspect and soon the trail was covered in snow. The firm snow was still manageable in our trail runners so we continued ahead with out skis still on our back.
We found ourselves at the outlet of Blue Lake around 7 am and promptly lost the trail in the snow. I wandered counter clockwise around the lake to make my way to the shore and see if the lake was safe to cross. I found that it was but when I looked around it seemed that the others had abandoned the route and instead gone clockwise.
I checked the map and found that there was a bottleneck at the upper end of Blue Lake where they’d certainly end up regardless of the route we took so I turned on my radio and started off across the lake solo.
I made my way quickly across the lake following the remains of a recent skin track and after conferring with the map decided that this was the spot where it made sense to trade trail runners for skis. Soon I spotted Rafee, Jamie, and Alyssa who’d made their way onto the lake and were quickly approaching. We quickly finished transitioning to skis and skins, stashed our shoes in a nearby tree and were on our way again.
The route became tedious, following meandering gullies through featured granite. For every step uphill it seemed that there was also a step sideways or downhill and an occasional step across dirt. The good company and conversation passed the time quickly though and by 8:30 we found ourselves at Baboon Lakes soaking in sunlight for the first time!
The sun provided the perfect excuse to eat some breakfast and apply sunscreen at the outlet of the lake. We all agreed that the wind wasn’t as bad as it could have been based on our experience at the trailhead but as we crossed Baboon Lakes the wind gusted strongly, mitigating any warmth the sun had to offer.
From Baboon Lakes we followed an old skin track, trying to guess its age and to infer who might have made it. In the end we decided it was probably a solo splitboarder and were impressed that someone had gotten back here on their own so early in the season. 500ft of climbing brought us to Sunset Lake around 9 am where we got our first glimpse of Pt Powell and the couloir. We initially debated which couloir was the one we were aiming for but soon agreed it was the leftmost along the ridge. We couldn’t see the exit of the couloir yet but conditions looked promising!
We crossed the lake and began the final climb to reach the couloir. This time Jamie ended up in front and set an unrelenting pace. Rafee managed to keep a hold of her but Alyssa and I quickly fell off the back and soon Alyssa had left me in the dust as well.
I didn’t mind hiking solo for this last bit of the climb but I was grateful that they were still in shouting distance because I was able to convince them to pose a the top of the slope so I could get a photo! The opportunity to catch my breath was nice too.
We crested a rise around 12,500′ where we finally had full view of the peak and couloir. Pt Powell was a striking granite knob, with a nearly vertical blocky northeast face and a stunning north face with nearly featureless steep granite slabs. We couldn’t quite see the top of the couloir but coverage looked pretty good. As we put our helmets on we discussed the possibility that we’d be met by gale force winds at the top of the couloir and that a summit might not be possible.
With a plan in place we started across the snowfield towards a large boulder in the exit of the couloir. We decided that this was a fine place to transition so we traded skis and skins for crampons and ice axe and stashed our skis on our packs. Alyssa decided to continue skinning a bit higher and transition below the northeast face. I was first to finish transitioning and around 11 am I started straight up the snow and into the couloir with the expectation that Rafee and Jamie would be quick to catch up.
The snow was a combination of punchy and supportable that made for the highest quality of booting. The upcoming skiing on the other hand might not be such high quality… There was nothing outright bad about the type of snow but the wind was whipping down the couloir and had sculpted 4-8 inch tall sastrugi that could easily catch an edge and knock you over. In this steep terrain such a fall could be very bad.
I set the bootpack up the bottom portion of the couloir before stepping aside to let Rafee take his turn. Eventually he too got tired and asked for some relief. I asked Jamie if she wanted to take a turn and she said “no thanks!” Apparently she thought I was trying to be courteous by giving her a turn in front! When I explained to her that Rafee and I were tired but could continue setting the bootpack if needed she agreed to take a turn.
Alyssa’s hip was bothering her and between that and the lackluster skiing ahead of us she decided about halfway up the couloir that she wasn’t interested in continuing any further. She tucked into a nook along the left side of the couloir and we did a quick radio check to make sure we’d be able to keep in touch.
We topped out on the plateau just before 12 pm. The mood was jubilant as we had 100ft of climbing to reach the summit and Rafee and I were excited for Jamie’s first trip to 13,000ft! And in such style! We gladly ditched our skis near the top of the couloir and traversed across kitty litter sand toward the summit.
I led the way, angling towards the high point marked on my map. Once I arrived however it was pretty clear that there was a point higher just a couple hundred feet to the north.
We traversed north towards the apparent summit but Jamie and I found some fairly difficult climbing. There was a large boulder that needed to be surmounted to gain passage to the summit and although it had some small chickenheads, I didn’t have the ability to climb it, especially in ski boots!
I found a four inch wide ledge that circumvented the obstacle to the left and made my way out onto it. Soon I realized I was at the top of the sheer slab I’d seen below. As I continued the ledge became increasingly narrow and littered with debris. If I had trail runners on I might have continued that way but ski boots did not afford the same sort of confidence.
I found a hold on a rock above me and started to pull myself up off the ledge when Jamie, who’d apparently taken the route I deemed unclimbable, shouted a warning that the rock was loose. I had tested the rock and didn’t notice any movement but I trusted her. So rather than pull down on the rock, I jammed my hands into the crack between the boulder and the bedrock to pull myself up and onto the summit!
When I arrived on the summit I found that Rafee had found a less exciting route around the other side and was already perched atop the summit block. Jamie on the other hand, having surmounted the boulder I couldn’t climb, was now somewhat stuck getting over to the summit. I offered her a hand and soon the three of us were atop Pt Powell (really only one of us at a time as it wasn’t capacious) around 12:15 pm!
I took a minute on the summit to snap some photos but we spent most of our time cowering in the shelter of a large boulder below the summit to get out of the cold. The wind hadn’t intensified as feared but it was persistent and numbing.
We made our way quickly back to the top of the couloir and stepped into our skis for the descent. The snow was surprisingly pleasant but the sastrugi and consequences made for cautious skiing.
I dropped into the couloir first, posting up out of the fall line near the top where I’d be able to see Jamie and Rafee ski without being in their way. Once I was set Jamie followed but before she made it halfway Rafee dropped behind her. Apparently as soon as I left the wind had kicked up several notches making conditions on the plateau unbearable.
Rafee skied to Alyssa who was still patiently waiting more than an hour after we’d split up, working his way carefully down through the sastrugi and bits of exposed rock.
Jamie descended next and I behind her. The snow was delightful and the obstacles made for some challenging but enjoyable skiing!
After regrouping we moved quickly as Rafee was frigid from his stint at the top of the couloir and less surprisingly Alyssa was quite cold having waited for us in the windy couloir for quite a while. The apron of the couloir was less featured than the rest of it but the snow was still steep and variable.
After a celebratory moment we were still no warmer so we quickly traversed the snowfield back towards sunset lake, arriving at the top of the next slope with minimal sidestepping.
Rafee took a direct route down towards the lake while Jamie, Alyssa, and I traversed right towards a gully we’d noticed on the ascent. We’d noticed that it had much more continual snow cover than the rest of the slope and thought it might prove better skiing. It turned out to be decent but frustrating snow. Each micro aspect of the gully had slightly different conditions meaning that to get the best skiing you had to make very tight turns and keep a keen eye on the snow ahead of you.
By the time we reached Sunset lake the cloud no longer intermittently obstructed the sun and the air had warmed at least ten degrees. The mood was equally elevated and we relished the skate across sunset lake.
Rafee’s mind was apparently in the same place as mine when he asked me out of the blue what I thought about grabbing dinner. He pitched Bishop Burger Barn which I’d been meaning to visit. The image of a burger dominated my thoughts for the rest of the trip.
A short bit of side stepping brought us to the next downhill portion and before we knew it we were crossing Lower Baboon Lake. As we neared the outlet of the lake the wind gusted from behind and we found that if we stretched out our arms we didn’t even need to skate — the wind pushed us across the ice!
Below Baboon Lakes the snow dramatically softened and we found that some aspects were dangerously soft. In places we suddenly found ourselves skiing through shin deep rotten snow. The route back to Blue Lake was just as complicated as the climb and I found myself cliffed out several times, having to sidestep back up and around the obstacle.
We took a slightly different route this time, opting to follow the creek back to Blue Lake. The snow got quite thin on the west bank of the creek however and we soon found ourselves tiptoeing through marsh grass. I spotted a part of the creek where the snow nearly crossed completely and decided to check it out but as soon as I got within a foot of the creek, the snow beneath my ski broke off and floated downstream. Luckily I’d anticipated that might happen and fell harmlessly uphill and out of the stream.
Shortly after, Jamie spotted a bit more of an adventurous crossing. If we were in trail runners it might be an easy rock hop but seeing as we were in skis (notoriously bad for rock hopping) Alyssa, Rafee, and I all watched with gleeful anticipation.
Jamie managed to get both tips of her skis on a rock in the middle of the stream before a large portion of snow broke off below her. Rafee and I formed a chain to help tow her back to terra firma while Alyssa documented the effort.
We gave up hopes of crossing the stream and sidestepped uphill across some gross snow and rock and were rewarded with an easy ski down to Blue Lake.
We collected our shoes from the tree where we’d stashed them and skated across the lake.
We picked the trail up within a couple hundred feet of the outlet of Blue Lake but resolved to keep skis on for as long as possible. We knew that we’d hiked across a decent amount of snow on the way in and didn’t want to put the extra weight on our backs any earlier than necessary.
We gingerly scooched across a 20ft section of bare trail and then were soon confronted with a second, longer bare patch. The skiing portion of the day seemed to be over.
We made quick progress on the dry trail now that we were in trail runners. The sun was out, our mission was accomplished, and the trailhead would soon be in sight!
However, less than a quarter mile after putting skis on our back we encountered a much longer stretch of snow! Alas, now that our ski boots were off, there was no way they were going back on again, especially for a short stretch of snow.
We stubbornly postholed our way down the slope through the rotten spring snow and back to the trail. We crossed back over Tyee Creek knowing that the trail would be mostly snow free back to the trailhead!
As we neared the north end of the lake we heard a car alarm honking loudly from the parking lot. Jamie and I remarked how lovely it was to be out here enjoying the sounds of nature! We arrived back at the trailhead just before 4:30 pm, nearly eleven hours after starting our hike — not bad for a day we thought might be over within an hour!
- No snow below 9,300 ft.
- Intermittent snow on steep and shaded north aspects 9,300 ft – 10,300 ft.
- Nearly complete coverage above 10,300 ft.
- Chalky wind affected snow in the couloir with some observed active transport.
- Decent corn conditions elsewhere 1:30 pm to 2:30 pm.
Elevation Gain: 4,700 ft
1 thought on “Pt Powell”
Comments are closed.