Monday, 10 March 2014

The Negatives

Ever since Blizzard of Ahhhs, I have wanted to ski these mountains.

I guess I always envisaged dropping those same chutes at Squaw made infamous by Glen Plake with his mohawk, attitude, 80's colours and prototype Gopro.

Twenty years later and I've lost the taste for ski resorts. I love the mountains even more, but hate the cut-up, rutted, tracked out slopes, lift lines, multitudes, car parks and the endless insulting ways of being made to feel like a punter ready for the fleecing. So I will likely never ski Squaw.

But every now and then a conference comes along that happens to be next to these same mountains, and this time around I thought I'd take a friend and organise a ski tour into the vast terrain of the High Sierra that Glen Plake still rates as his favourite, even over Chamonix.

Mammoth Lakes airport is almost higher than Kosciusko. Flying in with JP, we were amazed at just how vast the Sierra Nevada stretches - from horizon to horizon, and including a dozen of the lower 48s' coveted 14ers (and including Mt Whitney, the highest mountain in the lower 48). 

A season-saving heavy snowfall the week prior meant that there would be lines to ski, however California is still in its worst ever drought, and the snowpack was a paltry 20% normal for this time of year. It is probably the driest and warmest year since the Pliocene, but all part of the 'new normal' as folks who don't care too much about climate change always seem to muse.

I had organised the tour through Howie Schwartz of Although there are many self-nominated guides in the US, things aren't regulated in the US like they are in France, and Howie is one of only a handful who is actually IFMGA qualified. He has guided on most of the continents (including Antarctica), and runs very professional avalanche courses. He also owns in Bishop which specialises in mountain running and ultralight fastpacking.

And he basically lives, breathes and obsesses over the High Eastern Sierra, having made many first descents, including several with none-other than my adolescent hero, Glen Plake.

Our plan, after several months of emails, was a four day fully self-supported ski-tour of the Ritter Range, which sits between Yosemite and Mammoth Mountain in the Ansel Adams Wilderness, and through which one of America's most famous hikes, the John Muir trail passes.

This is very much wilderness. There are no huts, no roads, no access, no cell reception, likely no other people, and no choppers if you get into trouble. It was exactly what I wanted. 

We booked a room in Tamarak Lodge, which is a quaint little cross-country resort on the lakes to the south of Mammoth Mountain. Howie arrived at 0600 in the morning for equipment checks and pleasantries, but also with a bit of bad news mostly concerning the weather which was for snow and winds of 60 miles/hour at 3000m which would make camping if not impossible, then at least extremely unpleasant.

He suggested a day tour instead, which would at least help us establish and assess our equipment, and (I imagine), help him assess our capabilities. It would also serve as a reconnaissance for snowpack and conditions in general.

We drove to June Mountain, which is a funny little family resort with a couple of ancient rattly old chairlifts north of Mammoth that they keep trying to close down due to its non-profitability. What they refuse to promote though, is the insane amount of awesome terrain an hours' skinning west.

Due to the high winds, only the bottom access chair was running. We started skinning from around 2500m through sad forests that are being decimated by mountain pine beetle in what is the largest forest blight ever recorded and another casualty of the warmer winters of climate change.

We had a break at the tree line in windy snowy conditions, and Howie asked me to road test one of his new 'Bison Bars' which he is trialling for his shop, and which is basically minced bison in the shape of a muesli bar. Although an obvious good source of protein, I had to concede that it was an acquired taste. 

The weather looked nasty up high, however we continued skinning with ski crampons up a pass known as 'The Hourglass', with JP getting some helpful hints on how to do kick turns in a cyclone.

At around 3300m (the conversion of feet, inches, pounds, miles and fahrenheit to metric was already doing my head in), the weather started to lift but the wind got stronger. I started to worry that JP might be blown to Idaho.

As we topped out on a ridge at 3500m, the snow had been scoured away and we carefully strapped our skis to our packs to stop them flying across the boarder to Nevada. Removing the skins was one of the more challenging tasks for the day.

The couloirs we were to ski are known locally as the Negatives. They are steep west-facing lines set amongst a Martian red landscape that is one of the more extraordinary ski-scapes I have ever seen.

We locked in our heals and were off after Howie, taking it gently at first in the steeper pitches, and then opening up a little on the apron. The snow was fine under foot, with only a small slab set off in the choke. Down lower, a south-facing section of the apron had seen the sun, and we got our first harvest of glorious and famous Sierra corn. 

It was an awesome descent, but with some important lessons and insights into equipment bugs that would necessitate yet another stop at a mountaineering shop on the way back to Tamarack. JP and I are suckers for long periods and credits spent in these shops, especially when a poor snow season has prompted sales. Eventually the staff evicted us, and we were back for a hearty meal before a final pack and early to bed.

Tomorrow was going to be the real deal.

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