TR: Big Pine Creek North Fork Trail skills refresher

Discussion about winter adventure sports in the Sierra Nevada mountains including but not limited to; winter backpacking and camping, mountaineering, downhill and cross-country skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing, etc.
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TR: Big Pine Creek North Fork Trail skills refresher

Post by CAMERONM » Sat May 19, 2018 11:16 pm

Big Pine Creek North Fork Trail skills refresher, April 9-10, 2018. 14 miles, 4,113 ft.

Note: this is a summary of a longer Trip Report found at

After an interminable wait through the winter I finally make it out to play in the snow. My goals include practicing ice axe arrests and testing some new traction devices. Although I have been to the Big Pine Creek North Fork Trail area in snowshoe conditions before and would like to try another winter destination, I choose to return on the advice of the ranger because of the small distance from the trailhead to snow, and a particularly good safe slope with a safe run-out to practice self-arrests.
The ranger guesses that the snow will start around 9,000. ft and he is exactly correct.
I take a chance that the snow is sufficiently consolidated to not require snowshoes and so I leave them behind in the car. I am wearing some light ankle-high Solomon GTX boots with the some new lightweight Chainsen micro-spikes, and congratulate myself for my wise decision to leave my heavy snowshoes behind.
I find a nice spot at Third Lake top settle in. There is no exposed ground for camping but there are some large rocks that I can sit on while relaxing. Third Lake shows some signs of melting. Morning arrives and it is time to attack the slopes. I bring three types of traction to test.
Kahtoola Microspikes on the left, Chainsen Lights on the right, clocking in at 11.8 and 9 oz, respectively. I am very fond of my Microspikes, and they are indeed more "satisfying" in terms of heft and manufacture, but I have to admit that the lightweight Chainsens perform about the same. ( I only carried the Chainsens on this trip.)
The other item I tested are the new Vargo Titanium Pocket Cleats, which weigh 4.4 oz. They are shown here incorrectly fitted, as I later figured out that I should put them on over the gaiter strap, not under. Nevertheless, they performed well on my icy trip to the slopes. I think they are a fantastic option for emergency traction or those just-in-case situations, shoulder-season trips, and through-hikers who will have to go over one or two sketchy trail passes. In more challenging slope conditions I definitely prefer the microspike-type traction over the Pocket Cleats, as spikes extend to the heel and are arrayed around the edges of the sole rather than being concentrated in the ball and arch of the foot.
I cross the rock field from the trail off from Third Lake to the slopes that look perfect for my self-arrest practice. Once I arrive at the slopes I spend about 90 minutes sliding down the hill self-arresting with axe and crampons, feet first, headfirst, keeping crampons up in the air, using crampons to dig in, etc. I feel good about how it is going and decide to ascend Contact Pass.
The last bit up Contact Pass is considerably steeper more solid and firm ice, and where I have to work a lot harder to plunge the axe, and even front-point the crampons to climb.
I am rewarded at the top of Contact Pass with a great rare view of the east side of the Palisades covered in snow.
The descent is steep but I feel good about the snow and how well my crampons are gripping. I would be less enthusiastic with a micro-spike type traction, and very uncomfortable with the Pocket Cleats. However, lower down the hill I gain my real self-arrest education. For fun, I start doing some controlled slides, and I suddenly find myself traveling downhill quite a bit faster than I want, basically out of control, and I have to perform a real-life self-arrest. It is difficult, snow sprays all over the place, not at all pretty, even a bit violent. It leaves me with the impression that on a real fall I probably only have a 50/50 chance of saving myself with the axe.
It is the rocky area between the slopes and the trail where the real fun begins. I had crossed this area in the early morning no problem, all icy snow. I am now starting to posthole, in some cases down to my waist. Despite that fact that I have good core strength, this becomes very physically demanding. It is a miserable experience that takes 90 minutes to return on a route that took only 20 minutes in the morning. Perhaps I should have brought those snowshoes after all...

All in all, a fun and informative short trip. The next time I go out in early April, I might wear the snowshoes.
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