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TR: Eastside skiing pt.I - Alpine Col loop attempt

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TR: Eastside skiing pt.I - Alpine Col loop attempt

Postby Pulldownfrenzy » Wed May 11, 2016 12:08 pm

TRIP REPORT: Ski-mountaineering adventures on the Eastside part I – Piute watershed to Alpine Col attempt
[b]Date
: Thursday and Friday, April 14 & 15, 2016
(2) Participants: Dominic D., Gustave P.

My cousin Gus and I try to attempt some kind of backcountry adventure together every year; we’re both married with children and day jobs, so our trips are usually limited to two to four days with whatever craziness we can fit in. We can't always make it work out but when we can it is usually insane. The poison selected for 2016 was the classic 20-mile loop ski-tour beginning at the N. Lake TH (above Aspendell) over Piute Col over Alpine Col over Lamarck Col and a long run back down cross-country to N. Lake. We had 3 days to complete the loop, with almost 7,000' of elevation gain in the middle. Let's just say it was an ambitious endeavor for the conditions and time allotted.

Day 1: Wednesday – pickup, Owens Valley desert camping
Gus lives on the East Coast so I picked him up from LAX Wednesday night, leaving the airport at the unforgiving hour of 11PM to begin our journey north through the Antelope Valley toward Mojave. We stopped at the Lancaster Wal-Mart to grab a cheap altimeter watch as Gus had forgotten his at home and I didn’t have one. Continuing North onto Hwy 395, we basically kept driving until about 3 o’clock in the morning when we discovered that we were engaging in two- one-way conversations instead of a dialogue and couldn't keep our eyes open anymore. We ended up crashing that night somewhere in the desert between Lone Pine and Big Pine. Gotta’ love Hwy 395 for not caring where people stop to park and camp.
Eastside panorama S-N 1.jpg
Eastside panorama from our car-camping spot somewhere N. of Lone Pine

Day 2: Thursday – N. Lake, Piute Basin
We woke early Thursday morning and finished the drive to Bishop, turning in at 8 o’clock in the morning at the White Mountain Ranger Station. The Ranger (Stan) was on the telephone so we just filled up our water bottles, completed the wilderness permit, turned it in and headed out on our way without ever having actually spoken with him.
We found to our chagrin upon reaching Aspendell, that the gate was not only closed (which we had expected) but that the road had been plowed all the way to North Lake (not expected); this meant we would have to trudge our ~30 lb packs along with 20lb of skis and boots from the gate up a 1,000 ft. of road over 3+ miles to just reach the TH. Not exactly a propitious start to our long itinerary. Enter start of misgivings. We knew that we would need to make it over Piute Pass (EL. ~11,400') on Thursday if we were going to still try and complete the loop.
5- road at N. Lake.jpg
road to North Lake Campground

8- road at N. Lake.jpg
Gus skinning along the half-covered road

The trail transitioned gradually from fully cleared along the lower road, to clear with drifted sections at about the elevation of N. Lake, to about 60% snow cover from then on up. We hiked in our trail shoes along the road, stashing them near N. Lake in a plastic bag for the descent. Skinning up, we quickly found ourselves in the irritating cycle of skin 200 yards, remove skis; walk 200 yards carrying skis, put skis back on, repeat.
4- Northlake.jpg
North Lake

At shorter sections we often opted to cross log bridges and small streams, rocks, bramble, trees, and various other obnoxious low-lying underbrush that was either pushing through the snow or lain uncovered after the thaw-outs and rain of the previous weeks. Clearly the conditions had been okay spring skiing a week so previous and had thawed-out to their almost unskiable current state.
10- Gus skiing across a log bridge.jpg
skinning across a log bridge

We even crossed one particularly bad section of bare talus field at about 10,000 feet on the upper Northern edge of the canyon that sapped most of my remaining energy and will to live/continue.

Oh well. Having endured that, we continued onward and upward – realizing that we were making abysmal progress for the ambitious itinerary we had planned for ourselves. The conditions just were too melted out for skiing; we hadn’t even reached Loch Leven at EL. 10,743 ft. and it was past noon.
11- Piute Basin N. side.jpg
looking to the side on our R as we headed up the basin

18- Piute Basin looking East.jpg
looking back down Piute Basin

19- Piute Basin looking SE.jpg
looking back over our L shoulder as we headed up the basin

20- Piute Basin looking SW.jpg
looking off to our L as we headed up

By late afternoon we were still more than 500 ft. below it and had spent most of the trip donning and doffing skis to negotiate exposed hazards; zig-zagging our way up the thin spotty snow patches and shaded fens and along stream edges, pushing our way through thin stands of canebrake. We also realized that the numerous lakes that lay on our route ahead would almost certainly be melted out to the extent that we would have to plan to circumnavigate them vs. taking the most obvious path directly across the middle of the ice. Even if there was still ice at higher elevation, we would not be able to trust it. Another nail in the coffin of our plans. Having coalesced our individual thoughts sharing together, we still (stolidly) refused to admit that our beautiful trip plan was a wash. However, we did rather rapidly and resignedly agree without any protestation to make camp where we were.

We found a nice stand of stunted pines at about 10,700 ft. with a very large log that had fallen at a very convenient angle forming a lovely little hollow on the leeward side from higher elevation (points West). I shoveled out the few foot of drifted snow that had built-up in the space, using the opportunity to utilize the removed snow as building material for a nice wall on the one remaining open side, effectively closing off a full two sides of our lair and rendering it cozy and protected. On a previous trip we had discovered (to our great anxiety) that the winds that often blow down from the higher elevations at night can be blustery, strong, and very, very, cold. Since then, we have been extra careful to pick a campsite with a leeward aspect and carefully entrench our camps in such a way as to protect them from those directions more obviously exposed to windward. We made camp, warmed up with a pouch of chicken-noodle soup, and cooked a great dinner of freeze-dried spaghetti and meat sauce doctored up with extra spicy kale chips, washed down with hot tea and dark chocolate for dessert. We watched the sun drop slowly below the alpine horizon and quickly scurried into the shelter of my four-season tent to avail ourselves to the creature comforts of windproof walls, dry socks, warm sleeping bags, and soft air pads as the mercury slipped downward. We slept soundly that night, exhausted.
21- Gus & campfire.jpg
chillin' at camp - dinner simmering over an open fire

25- camp.jpg
cozy camp - our thousand star hotel ensconced in the bosom of the outdoors

Day 3: Friday – self-arrest practice, ski out and hike back down
As mentioned before, our planned itinerary really is a great ski touring loop- when the conditions are good! Unfortunately, the conditions were not good: the early spring melt-out, coupled with our limited time availability, limited acclimatization, and gross overestimation of progress were all stacked against us. It did not us take long the next morning to make the joint decision to bail; our way out lay back the way we had come. Back down the basin – with less than a thousand feet to the first pass. Clearly this was just not the trip (or group?) for such an undertaking.
After getting all packed up to go we started down a few hundred feet to the top of a broad steep slope (maybe 30°) with pristine snow coverage and a beautiful broad apron spread out about 500 feet below. Gus got the idea to practice our self-arrest technique. At first I found the thought of sliding backwards out of control down a snowy slope in ski boots unappealing. With some cajoling he managed to convince me that it was the perfect –i.e. safe– opportunity to practice, and that we wouldn’t get another such one for some time. We began with some simple slides. The easiest ones; feet-first, facing inwards (toward the ground) digging our toes into the snowpack. This being so much more fun than expected that we quickly transitioned through the various types to the most difficult presentation; it wasn’t long before we were careening head-first on our backs completely out of control down the slope. It is important to be comfortable with this kind of thing when you spend a lot of time on snow and ice in the mountains. I was glad that Gus convinced me to do it having only practiced once before. If you ever have the opportunity to try it (assuming all conditions are safe for it) It is highly recommendable and enjoyable. 

Stepping into our skis, we were also able to get in a few great smooth skiing turns on nice snow before reaching the bottom of the slope, at which time we performed a lot of bad turns on poor snow. At this point we recklessly careened our way, sliding over rocks, through canebreaks and bushes, around trees for most of the long the way back down, choosing a much more skiable path than the way we had come. It is interesting that it is much easier for an experienced skier to descend quickly through lousy varying spotty terrain than it is to ascend the same. Perhaps it’s the benefit of a wider perspective and being able to see the field lain out below you vs. hidden on the slopes perched above. Regardless, it is my experience that one can usually find a skiable path down much further, faster, and easier than was possible to skin up. Naturally, we enjoyed some sketchy side-slope traversing, some quick schussing over and between foliage, and general “creative” problem solving skiing along the way. We eventually found ourselves at the end of the snow at the dirt road just after the North Lake Trailhead.

We hiked quickly and easily back down the long road to the car, arriving at the gate just as a Forest Service Ranger was opening it up. We found it ironic that there was someone at the gate and mused that it would have been nice to have been able to catch a ride. Ahh, such is life. In any case, the Ranger asked us about our trip and recommended us try something out of South Lake. Taking his recommendation, we drove the short (15 minute) over. However, once we got to the gate and we were faced with the clear and present necessity to hike another several miles in full regalia, our interest in the endeavor faded very quickly. Looking through our trusty “Backcountry Skiing California’s High Sierra” Falcon guidebook, we decided to scrap that plan. Having a day and a half remaining for adventures, we were still hoping to get in some vertical drop. We then decided to head to Basin Mountain (13,246') to try to bag the summit and the beautiful ski descent down the classic Basin Mountain Couloir. Off we went North to Buttermilk Road.
:) -DD



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Re: TR: Eastside skiing pt.I - Alpine Col loop attempt

Postby Beantown » Thu May 12, 2016 7:35 am

too bad conditions were not so great for the trip but sounds like you guys still had fun. I'm hoping next year to do my first tour as this year didn't work out.
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Re: TR: Eastside skiing pt.I - Alpine Col loop attempt

Postby Pulldownfrenzy » Thu May 12, 2016 10:56 am

Beantown wrote:too bad conditions were not so great for the trip but sounds like you guys still had fun. I'm hoping next year to do my first tour as this year didn't work out.


True, not so great. But we always still have a GREAT time. I'm sorry that it didn't work out.

I'd be interested in touring with you (day or multi-day trips). Ring me up - you have my email.

-Dominic
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Re: TR: Eastside skiing pt.I - Alpine Col loop attempt

Postby Beantown » Thu May 12, 2016 11:35 am

when are you available to go? both my friends i go with are busy the rest of the month so that makes me done also haha. Are you interested in bloody couloir? I have unfinished business there! or anything else? i could go the weekend of the 21 for a few days.
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Re: TR: Eastside skiing pt.I - Alpine Col loop attempt

Postby Pulldownfrenzy » Fri May 13, 2016 9:18 am

Beantown wrote:when are you available to go? both my friends i go with are busy the rest of the month so that makes me done also haha. Are you interested in bloody couloir? I have unfinished business there! or anything else? i could go the weekend of the 21 for a few days.


Hmmm...Not sure what is going on that weekend. I'll have to check with my other half. Bloody couloir - I've heard that's a pretty epic line. Isn't it on the S. side of Mt. Humphries? What is the approach like?
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