Friday, April 8, 2011

High Sierra: Mount Whitney Ski Descent

photo of a photo by C. Pondella
 After coming down off of Split Mtn, we kicked it at the trailhead for a while, enjoying the hot Sierra sun before heading back to Bishop for some nasty Chinese food (anything with rice will always be the food of choice).  From there, we rolled down 395 to Lone Pine, took the Whitney Portal road, drove around the "road closed" signs, and made it to less than a mile from the trailhead before getting shut down by snow.  We packed quickly and were asleep (me in the car and JD outside on the ground where he belongs) by 9:30.

We got a semi early start and were hiking by 6:00 am.  Again, the alpenglow was unreal (sorry no pics), and within a couple hours, we had passed both boy scout lakes, catching stunning views of Mount Whitney and the Keeler Needle.

Looking for the highest point in the lower 48

 We skinned to the base of the Mountaineer's Route, where an army of mountaineers had put in a mess of tracks up the gut.  Sun on our backs, we hiked up the couloir to the notch we were bumped into a roped party heading up the first couloir immediately to the south.  Giving them space, we traversed over to the 2nd couloir that accesses the summit plateau, and a few minutes later were talus hopping in our boots to the summit.
Booting up the 2nd Couloir.  Mount Russell in the background. (photo by JD)

Nerds in tights on the summit
 On the summit, we bumped into a couple friendly guys with skis.  We chatted for a while, shared some food, and took turns snapping shots of each other before JD and I decided to take off and tempt our fate on the steep north facing slope above the mountaineer's route.

We downclimbed the first few feet to get established, donned skis, and made cautious turns on the 45-50 degree slope to where we could traverse back to the notch.  Luckily the snow was chalky smooth.  We did note a few lurking rocks on the way up and were able to avoid them on the descent.
Skiing the "2nd" couloir off Whitney's North Face (photo by JD)

Making cautious turns on firm 45 degree snow above serious cliffs (photo by JD)
 Back at the notch, we were psyched to open it up a little.  Below is a pic of JD doing just that.
JD working his edges
 The army of mountaineers had done a good job trashing the middle to the chute so we kept to the sides looking for undisturbed corn.
Getting into the meat of the Mountaineer's Route (photo by JD)

Crusty/slush or frozen boot track?

Corn feast (photo by JD)

Forgot our rock gear this time. (photo by JD)

JD figured out where he just came from
Down from the route, we took our skis off and lounged on some rocks near Iceberg Lake.  We decided to wait for the fellas we met on the summit to see if they'd like to join us for a jaunt up a nearby couloir.  The expected 5 minute wait turned into an hour and we thought something bad may have happened.  Turned out something bad did happen.

While making his first or second turn on the upper North Face, JA somehow double ejected from his skis after possibly hitting a rock.  He began to cartwheel down the 50 degree slope, got banged up on some rocks, and picked up speed heading for a huge cliff band.  His ride lasted for 150-200 feet before he was able to heed his partners screams to STOP by digging in his toes and arresting just 30 feet or so above the cliffs.  In the process, one ski went over the edge, while his partner, DA, climbed back up and retrieved the other. Surely shaken, the two made their way slowly down to the lake, where we found out what had occurred.

Here, we congratulated our new buddy on still being alive and offered to go over the Whitney/Russell Col to retrieve his ski.  He offered a monetary reward that we instantly rejected, saying that it would be our pleasure to go explore that drainage looking for treasure.

We traversed around until under the North Face and identified the chute we had descended before traversing to the notch at the top of the Mountaineer's Route.  In an effort to be efficient, I skied down the drainage and JD climbed toward the cliff band.  My search was fruitless, so I climbed back up trying to rejoin JD.  As he approached the cliffs, I yelled up, asking if he could see anything.  His immediate reply was, "NOTHING!"  Five seconds later he began to squeal with joy as he spotted the errant ski, accessible, propped against some rocks.  My own squeals poured forth as we were both psyched that JA was not only alive, but had all his gear and would be able to ski out.

"2nd Couloir" on the North Face.  Our descent traversed looker's left to meet up with the Mountaineer's Route.  The errant ski was found at the base of the large cliff band midway down.  If one looks closely, JA's claw marks are visible, stopping just shy of the rocks.

The three ski wonder
We made the quick traverse back over the col and down to Iceberg Lake where we met up with DA, and then took off to catch up to JA, who was getting a head start out in case his ski was unretrievable. The man was stoked to see his ski and to get back on two feet, somewhat salvaging his descent.

While I'm sure the events kept replaying in our new buddy's mind, the mood became lighthearted as we skied fun corn almost back to the car.  A friend once said that in the mountains the rules are to come home alive, friends, and successful - in that order.  Done, done, and done.

Day II in the books.  Part III coming...


  1. Jason, Andy... I can't say thanks enough for everything you did out there, just the lifted spirits from the comradery would have been too much to ask for, nevermind spending your afternoon recovering my ski! You guys are top notch, thanks for turning that day around for me. Hope to meet up in the Wasatch, maybe some of that speed will rub off on me ;). Congrats on an awesome, no BS ski mountaineering blog as well, the TR's are endless!

    Josh Anderson

  2. I hate the butt sliders who leave a giant trough down the middle of the chute, I had to jump it