Thursday, April 7, 2011

High Sierra: Split Mountain via Split Couloir

Photo of photo by C. Pondella
Brother JD and I just returned from a smash and grab 4 day trip to the high Sierra.  We had been following the weather and it looked like it was time to attempt some big lines.  This TR will be the first of a three part series.  First on the agenda was the extremely aesthetic Split Couloir on the 14er, Split Mountain.  The drive was uneventful until we tried to make the approach to the trailhead on a long 4x4 road, riddled with cunning dead ends.  After filling in some ruts with our shovels and consulting the world wide interweb, we made it to the Red Lake TH around dark.

Surprisingly, there was another party camped out, but they were planning on the SE Face of Split.   Up at 4:30, we "racked up," ready to climb ice/rock/snow, and to have a full on ski adventure.  Again, to our surprise, there was another party that had snuck in during the night, that was leaving at the same time.  A quick conversation revealed they had the same objective in mind.
CP with ski crampons, on fire in the Sierra alpenglow
Glow Tree
 They were super cool guys and offered to point us in the right direction.  Turns out one was Squaw native, John Morrison, and the other was Christian Pondella, from Mammoth.  Both strong alpinists, we made the approach together to the base of the couloir while enjoying the rich morning alpenglow.

A couple hours and four thousand feet later, we pulled up to the crux of the climb - an icy headwall, guarding the entrance to the couloir.  Starting vertical, the ice flow eased off after 20-30 feet.

             The greatly foreshortened Split Couloir ascends to the notch between the South and North Summits
 The plan became for JD and I to place to booter to the summit while CP and JM rigged the anchor and for them to join us before making the descent.  John said he thought maybe less than 10 people ever have skied the Split Couloir and that very few if any had climbed and skied it.  Now, with it's inclusion in the book, 50 Classic Ski Descents in NA, those stats will quickly change.
Nearing the ice headwall
The ice flow was warm and straightforward.  Maybe AI 4, JD and I soloed the short 30-40 foot pitch. Now realizing that we had about two 60m ropes, a rack of pins, 8 screws, and a few cams too many, we finished off the easy ice section and left the gear to be retrieved on the way down.

Nearing the top of the ice headwall (photo by JD)
JD watching and taking pics of CP on lead

 A couple thousand feet later, we were standing at the notch between the two summits.  I think I have a new favorite range.

High Sierra from the notch on Split Mountain
A short climb leads to the higher North Summit, where we were amazed by the weather and the endless possibilities.

JD looking back toward the notch

 The skiing was marginal, with variable conditions most of the descent.  Pockets of softer drifts made some turns enjoyable.
JM giving a clinic on chute skiing (photo by JD)
CP with his smooth, easy style (photo by JD)


Now in the shade, the surface was crusting up 
Low in the couloir (photo by JD)
 A couple hundred feet above the rappel, a group decision was made to down climb the low angle ice/snow patches rather than side step through.
Group down climb to the rappel (photo by JD)
 A single rappel was all that was needed to free ourselves from the couloir.
JD on rappel

 On the apron, I had a fleeting thought of heading up the St. Jean Couloir but with more to ski during the week and a lingering cold, gang skiing thousands of feet of California corn sounded more fun.
Where's JD?
We were told by the other guys that this year has been huge in the Sierra.  I feel like we pulled off a coup, finding the Split so filled in and making the descent with two local hard men.  On the way out, JD and I agreed that if we could tick the Split and Mount Whitney, the trip would be a huge success.

Installment II coming...