TR: Eastside backcountry skiing pt.II - Basin Mtn. couloir | High Sierra Topix  

TR: Eastside backcountry skiing pt.II - Basin Mtn. couloir

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TR: Eastside backcountry skiing pt.II - Basin Mtn. couloir

Postby Pulldownfrenzy » Wed May 11, 2016 1:42 pm

TRIP REPORT: Ski-mountaineering adventures on the Eastside part II – descent of the Basin Mountain couloir
Date: Friday and Saturday, April 15 & 16, 2016
(2) Participants: Dominic D., Gustave P.

NOTE: This is a continuation of a previous trip my cousin Gus and I did. See

Day 3: Friday – Selection of our new destination; rest day above the Buttermilks

As mentioned before, we had scrapped our backcountry loop trip plan in favor of the more exciting and classic ski-descent of the Basin Mountain Couloir. Our current plan was to try to bag the summit and the beautiful descent down Basin. So off we went North to Buttermilk Road.

Basin Mountain (13,246') is a wide and beautifully aesthetic crag, at least from when viewed from Bishop or the Buttermilks (actually from immediately below it you can see that it is actually a rather broken ridgeline). The unique characteristic, though, is the unusually large flat 'basin' at about 10,000 ft. 2/3 of the way up the side of the mountain that used to have a mine and a cabin (both of which were destroyed by an avalanche years ago). You can still see the remnants of the cabin to this day.

According to the guidebook, at over 2,600 feet long, and broad as a football field most of the way, Basin Mountain couloir is an intermediate ski-mountaineers dream. In some years you can ski from the summit col (the apex of the couloir, a bit less than 250' below the summit proper) all the way to your car almost six thousand feet below. What a treat! Of course, this time of year (or, at least, THIS year) the snowline had receded a good way up the lower slopes of the peak. Because it is a NE-facing slope we hoped that the snow conditions would still be favorable despite the lateness of the season. We had skied up the shoulder between it and Mount Humphrey on a previous trip in 2013 to an elevation of over 12,500 feet.

We drove past the Buttermilks and up toward Basin, the road getting ruttier and rougher as we went, eventually becoming a 4x4 high-clearance road. We finally were stopped dead right below Basin Mountain by a Forest Service gate- a sign just behind it right in the middle of the former “road” indicating that it was the start of the John Muir Wilderness. The guidebook says in late-season or low snow years you can drive all the way up to the Basin via the old mining road; not so in 2016. We decided to set-up camp, take the rest of the afternoon and evening off, and enjoy a rest day and storm it alpine-style the following day (Saturday). We set up the car – including driving my Explorer up on rocks in front to make our sleeping surface more even – and spent a fun afternoon relaxing in the sun, sharpening ski edges, eating, and filtering water from the babbling brook trickling it’s tortuous path down from the melting snow upon which we would be skiing the next day. If we couldn’t ski on it, at least we could drink it! From what we could see from our campsite the start of ski-able terrain was a thin half-melted-out gully situated above 8,500 ft.

Day 4: Saturday – A spring ski-descent of Basin Mountain couloir
We rose at 6 (late for alpine style) and packed light day-packs with a motly assortment of skis, boots, poles, crampons, ice-axes and ski-crampons and headed up the mountain, aiming for the lowest finger of receding snow hiding in the gully barely visible from our camp. By our estimation, we traveled about 1,300 ft. (from El. 7,700 to El. 9,000 ft.) before we finally were able to don skis and skins. We actually ended up hiking a good 500’ above the start of the snowline in the gully because we knew the grade would have been too steep to be able to skin straight up on the already very soft spring snow. As it turned out, we were right. When we did start, we still ended up having a lot of sideways sliding on the slushy soggy “corn.” I think the analogy of “overcooked corn” would be fairly apt. It certainly felt and looked a lot like it.
37- Gus 6K feet above the Buttermilks.jpg
Two thumbs up! finished with our hiking ascent of the gully

46- the gully Basin Mtn. E. side.jpg
looking back down the gully - half of a half-pipe

48.9- DD at the top of the gully.JPG
Me at the top of the gully just before the lip of the Basin

Once we got into the [partial] shade of some stunted pines, we found that by using ski-crampons we were able to negotiate the extremely variable snow conditions through the rest of the basin. Stopping briefly for a snack break, and to rest our winded legs and lungs, we quickly negotiated across the basin itself at 10,000 feet as the sun began to make its presence known to us. The basin is a large broad gradually sloping bowl with light tree-cover and a lot of big chunks of rock jutting just above or below the snow. At the top of the basin, we reached an obvious split – the right fork (N-NE) heading into the bowl proper, and the left (S-SW) a tight chute between a steep ridge and a short snow-covered hillock. Choosing the right fork to avoid potential exposure to rock fall from the steep wall above the chute, we enjoyed circumnavigating the sharply sloping ridgeline to the start of the couloir proper. Snow coverage at this point was quite good, with only a handful of large rocks penetrated through and of course the rocky outcroppings on the converging sides of the couloir. Rock coverage was very good. I judged the depth to be more than 3 feet by this point, except for isolated areas where it was windswept to mere hardpack inches on top of the rock face below.
50- Gus in the Basin.jpg
Gus traversing the Basin - the couloir in the far background
50.1 - which way to go.JPG
fork in the snow - which way to go?

54.1 - view looking back at Dom, Owens Valley bckgrnd.JPG
looking back at me on the traverse - Bishop far below in the background

We crisscrossed several undulating slopes – the terrain was actually pretty forgiving despite the menacing appearance. The couloir layout reminded me a lot of a giant slalom (GS) course: a gorgeous successions of concave and convex slopes linked together one upon the other all the way up the bottom half. The top half was a more classic chute: a straight just slightly convex slope, dropping somewhere just shy of 45 degrees for over a thousand feet down the fall line. We enjoyed relatively steady upward progress –insert labored breathing here– kick-turning back and forth in tigher and tighter angles as it steepend until we reached an elevation of about 11,700 ft.
58- the fall line from about 11,000 ft..jpg
the fall line - craggy outcroppings abound

63.1- DD rounding the corner, bottom of the steep part of teh couloir.JPG
rounding the corner into the top portion of the couloir into the chute proper

Two-thirds of the way up the couloir, we encountered the fallout of two small parallel old wet-snow avalanches right in the middle of the couloir that had occurred sometime (a few weeks?) earlier. There was not any rock debris in the mix, which told us that only the top layer had let loose and that the snowpack even this high up was quickly melting out and was no longer adhering to the base snow layer. From this point onward we began keeping a weather-eye out for avalanche triggers. We carefully watched and tested as we went, observing transition of snow surface from corn, to break-through crust, to thick weight-bearing crust, to refreeze, to hardpack inerspersed with chunks of avalanche debris. Reaching the bottom of the two avalanche paths, we carefully skinned (making heavy use of our ski-crampons) across the first few dozen feet of frozen oblong pieces and ridges of hard-packed snow and ice. The traction was tenuous at best.
60- view of couloir and avalanche paths.JPG
looking up the couloir - you can see the avalanche debris

At an elevation of 11,700 ft., according to our trusty Wal-Mart watch, we determined that conditions were not going to get any better for the descent and that we would have to doff our skis and don crampons and ice axes if we were desirous of further upward progress. By this point it was past noon and we were cooking in the sun and jonesing for some turns (naturally the primary objective for ski-mountaineers). We knew it would be almost impossible to ski any further up over the densified mixture of debris that the two avalanches had deposited, and it would be increasing the danger of our descent. These reasons, coupled with the blistering heat (70s by that point and rising), and our misgivings about snowpack stability on the upper portion of the descent as the upper slopes began warming up helped us to make the decision to terminate the remaining few hundred feet to the summit. We knew the soft snow near the base was only getting softer by the hour. We were also dog-tired and the elevation was eating us for lunch.

The great thing about ski-mountaineering (at least to us) is that the trip down is as much the objective as getting to the summit, so we weren’t that particularly cut up to bow out. We were ready to remove our skins and enjoy the vertical drop. We locked in, snacked, hydrated, then dropped in, executing about 500 vertical feet of scary survival turns; first on avalanche debris, then transitioning to break-through crust, before encountering refreeze all in rapid succession. This alarming and exhausting cocktail quickly gave way to something much more consistent and pleasurable: more than 2,000 vertical feet of AMAZING spring corn snow. In spite of our thighs screaming for oxygen we were grinning from ear to ear as we schussed every ski-able pattern imaginable. Impossibly large GS turns that would have taken up an entire resort slope, short small half-8’s, full figure-8s, even some figure 11s pin striping straight down the fall line. Those 45 minutes of skiing were worth the whole trip in both of our minds, and we said so.
67.1- Dom descent 8- leaning into a turn.JPG
Me making sweet turns in beautiful corn - done to perfection!

89- Gus descent with style.jpg
Gus descending in style despite unfamiliar skis

Looking back up at our tracks, we were surprised to see a person descending via the same slope we had just skied. We soon saw that he was the same guy we had seen trudging resolutely up the road past our camp while we were breakfasting that morning. When we saw him we had just accidentally skied a hundred feet past our shoes at the end of the gully and it took us (okay, just Gus - I was too tired and he magnanimously offered to) a while to walk back up to them and grab them. In the meantime, this guy had reached us. He told us he had summited and enjoyed 45 minutes on top in complete peaceful silence. After a brief conversation, he slowly continued on, down the slope, hiking down all the way to his camp at the Buttermilks. A pretty hard-core dirtbag climber, living out of his car, living the dream.

We were able to descend a full 500' below where we hiked up to (easier to ski down patchy snow than ascend it as I explained earlier). In the gully below the basin we had to execute a series of very tight jump-turns to avoid boulders, trees, tree wells, and other spicy obstacles as we descended closer and closer to the end of the snowline. The snow was completely melted out on the South facing half of the gully, so we had to pick a very particular path down, staying as high on the Southern shoulder of the gully as possible so as to avoid running out of skiable surface. Reaching the terminus at last, we laced up our shoes and hiked back to the car. All in all, a GREAT trip to the backcountry and refreshing and exhilarating to just be up there at high altitude, whooshing down a mountain couloir with the civilized world spread out below. Not the deep isolated backcountry adventure we had planned, but a good one for the books nonetheless.
90.2- Dom head of the gully executing a jump-turn.JPG
executing a jump-turn - we were deep in the trees here

:) -DD

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Re: TR: Eastside backcountry skiing pt.II - Basin Mtn. coulo

Postby maverick » Wed May 11, 2016 4:02 pm

Thanks Dominic for sharing these wonderful backcountry skiing adventures, they look like a lot of fun.
HST= Wilderness Adventurer who knows no bounds, except for their own imagination.

Have a safer backcountry experience by using the HST ReConn Form 2.0, named after Larry Conn, a HST member:
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Re: TR: Eastside backcountry skiing pt.II - Basin Mtn. coulo

Postby LightRanger » Wed May 11, 2016 4:20 pm

Nice work.
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Re: TR: Eastside backcountry skiing pt.II - Basin Mtn. coulo

Postby DAVELA » Mon May 16, 2016 12:30 am

Great report.Thanks,sounds like a blast.
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