This is me. In this moment, I’m perched on a ledge about the size of a desk, on a ridge at about 13,900′, with thousands of feet of exposure on either side of me. I’m belaying my partner, Tyler Karow, as he’s about to set out over the next bump on the ridge to see if it’s the 5.9 summit block of the 14,003′ Thunderbolt Peak. Winds are blowing pieces of cornice the size of bike tires off of the ridge, and temperatures are hovering somewhere around 0F without windchill. The heart of the Southern Sierra lies to my west, mile after mile of snowcapped peaks likely devoid of a single human.
Needless to say, this is the most wild, awesome, extreme, unforgettable place I’ve ever been.
There are two ways that most people would choose to tell the story of how I got here, and how I got back. One, is a lighthearted, modest account, full of odd weather and plenty of bumbling in the high mountains. The other is an intense, heart pumping story, with exposure, extreme temperatures, and winter survival. What actually happened was, of course, somewhere between these two extremes. That’s the story I’ll be trying to tell here.
Video by Tyler Karow
The trip began with a 4:45 AM meeting in San Francisco. My partner for the trip, Tyler Karow, had gone to sleep at 9:30 like a responsible adult, while I had decided it was more convenient just to stay up all night (college, woo!). Needless to say, by 5 am, I was feeling pretty tired. We loaded up the car, I handed Tyler the keys, and I plopped down into the passenger street. By the time we got onto the bay bridge, I was conked out.
I’ve skied with Tyler only a handful of times, but those few days we’ve skied together have been true crankers. Our first trip together was a mid-July jaunt to the North Peak couliors, a line just outside of Yosemite that I would describe in one word as “gripping.” Since then we’ve skied together a few times as Squaw, including some awesome Mainline Pocket sessions. The idea for this trip had come about a few weeks ago, when I had seen a weather window that included a three day weekend. When I brought up the idea of a ski mountaineering trip, Tyler instantly mentioned trying to tick off some classic descents in the Eastern Sierra’s Palisaides, the exact trip that I’d been secretly hoping to pull off. We started scoping the lines in earnest, gathering beta, and piecing together the gear we would need.
I woke up for good as we were descending into the Mono Lake basin, around 10 AM. As we drove south, the peaks to our right shone radient white, surprisingly well covered for the admittedly sub-par season we’ve been having. One of the things I love about coming to the Eastside is how every trip just adds endless new lines and summits to my ticklist. I challenge any skier or climber to come to the Eastern Sierra and to not start dreaming of big lines.
As we drove along, I checked the weather on my phone. Clear skies Saturday through Sunday morning, with winds gusting up to 50 mph on the ridgeline by Sunday. Then, an inch or two of snow. So, perfect?
We rolled into the town of Big Pine (population 1,707) around 11:30 AM and, at Tyler’s insistence, beelined to Coppertop, a BBQ joint that apparently was at one time the highest rated restaurant on Yelp. The weather was spectacularly clear, and the peaks we were about to climb gleamed above the outdoor smokers and BBQ racks of the eatery. I fell upon my tri-tip sandwich with abandon, trying to cram in as many pre-trip calories as possible.
The drive up to the 7,800′ Big Pine Creek trailhead was completely clear of snow, a symptom of the dry, warm winter we’ve been having. Perhaps even more symptomatic was the parking lot full of day-hikers and backpackers, preparing to spend the long weekend outside. Let me remind everyone that we were at a trailhead in the Eastern Sierra accessing some of the highest mountains in California, in the middle of FEBRUARY. As we packed up we even got some chuckles from passing hikers. “Are you guys trying to go skiing?” “Well, there’s probably snow up there somewhere!”
Hitting the trailhead at an admittedly late 12:30 PM, our plan was to complete the ~7 mile approach to 11,200′ Sam Mack meadows, and if possible to continue on to the ~12,000′ terminal moraine of the Palisaide Glacier. The south-facing trail was completely dry, and positively swarming with other groups of hikers (we passed maybe 15-20 hikers on a trail that would usually be essentially empty September through May). Dressed in shorts and a T-shirt, and shouldering a pack full of winter layers, ropes, skis, and sharps, I sweated under the high-altitude California sun.
Around 10,000′ we hit snow, and soon were walking on a well packed out trail through full-on snow fields. We passed a few more groups, including a adventure trip out of USC (Tyler’s alma mater), and a group of two young guys carrying camo packs that looked brutally heavy. They said they were trying to ice climb the U-Notch couloir, one of the lines we were thinking of trying to ski. We wished them luck, and continued on.
By 10,500′ and ~6 miles in, I was hurting. It was starting to get cold, and the lack of sleep, poor acclimatization, and heavy pack was getting to me. I popped a few Advils, and pushed on.
Needless to say, I was very happy when we reached the base of the north facing slopes under Sam Mack Meadow. The willows and boulders were covered with just enough snow to make skinning viable, so we plopped our packs down, pulled off our skis, and exchanged approach shoes for AT boots. The snow was cold, and very wind-effected. We tried to stick to wind-scoured hard patches, but more often then not ended up wallowing in wind deposited snow.
It felt good to crest over the ridge into the long, flat bottomed valley that is Sam Mack Meadow. The meadow was covered in a foot or two of heavily sastrugied snow, and the wind was already gusting from the West. Aiming to camp out of the wind as much as possible, we scoped out a site in a clump of trees, making camp on a small patch of dirt. At 11,200′, we were still almost 3,000′ from the top of our lines. It was cold. A few freeze dried meals later, we were in bed and completely knocked out by 7.
Tyler’s alarm went off at 5, but we decided to “sleep in” until 5:30. We packed up in the dark, stripping the weight in our backs to what we considered to be the absolute minimum. As we clicked into our skis, the first light of morning came onto the grey sky.
We switched off setting the skintrack up the lookers left coulior out of Sam Mack Meadow (the right one looked too steep to skin). As we climbed, the sky underwent all it’s usually sunrise displays. The scenery was spectacular. Wind gusts were absolutely pummeling us, whipping the clouds overhead and making it hard to talk or sometimes even breathe.
Eventually, we crested over the moraine at the edge of the glacial basin in front of the Palisaides. Time to choose our line. The U notch, the classic line that we’d been eyeing from the earliest stages of planning the trip had a snow bridge over the ‘shrund (yay!) but kind of petered out before it got to the top (boo!). To be honest, it just looked super gnarly, with kind of a dog leg thing halfway up that looked ready to dump you off of a cliff if you didn’t ski it perfectly. The north coulior of Thunderbolt looked much more doable, and I was secretly pretty happy when Tyler suggested we go for that instead.
Luckily, the wind, snow and light had been relatively kind to north aspects at this elevation, and any bergshrund that might have normally been at the base of Thunderbolt’s north coulior was totally covered by a massive apron. The coulior proper ran up the north face of Thunderbolt in a huge dog leg, the top section curving lookers right about halfway up. The line started on the apron at perhaps 12,800′, with the top lying on the summit ridge just shy of Thunderbolt’s 14,003′ summit. At the “choke,” where the coulior turned lookers right, it was perhaps 60′ wide, leaving plenty of space to work with.
All in all, a pretty mellow looking line down a 14er that we were pretty sure we could nab in decent snow. Time to go get it.
Down inside the glacial basin proper, we clicked into our skis, and began the skin to the base of the coulior. Freezing, snowy winds were absolutely howling around the basin, like water swirling around a toilet bowl. Wind sometimes stopped us in our tracks, biting fiercely at our lungs and faces.
Tyler set the skintrack to the base of the coulior, where we switched to booting, leaving our crampons in our bags and our skis and ice axes strapped to our packs. I set the bootpack for perhaps a hundred vertical feet before falling behind Tyler, exhausted. The snow was incredibly wind effected, but super cold and well bonded to the snow beneath. Booting through it varied from merely exhausting to pure wallowfest hell. You would kick a step through the punchy surface, only to have it collapse into nothing when you weighted the sugar crystals below.
I remember ten minute stretches where I barely moved ten vertical feet. I don’t know if it was easier to set the bootpack or to wallow in it after it was punched out.
Inside the coulior, we were shaded by the Thunderbolt masiff, and temperatures probably hovered in the teens or single digits without windchill. Both my and Tyler’s hands went painfully numb after a few minutes of climbing. We stopped every twenty minutes or so to attempt to warm our gloves and hands on our bodies, but couldn’t make much of a dent against the air and snow around us.
We started up through the powdery gut of the couloir, but quickly grew desperate to climb something that didn’t collapse under our feet. Around the bend, we slogged towards the rocky right side of the coulior, in the hopes of being able to climb the solid rocks poking out from the snow. These proved a mixed blessing. It was nice to be able to pull and stand on something that would actually hold our weight, and the sun on that side was a welcome break from the cold, but climbing granite in ski boots with a thousand plus feet of exposure is not fun. The climbing was a mixture of nice edges to pull on, and slabby foot placements made more interesting by the dusting of snow lubricating the rock and the relatively poor rubber on the bottom of my Mastrale RSes. There way were more “push on this slabby, sketchy foothold and pray” exposed moves than I want to think about. Falling probably wouldn’t have been fatal, but would have resulted in tomahawking over a few rocky ledges, and onto 40 degree windpacked snow below.
About two thirds of the way to the top and two hours in, I remember thinking in frustration how easy this climbing would be under other circumstances. If it wasn’t the middle of February, if the snow wasn’t this windslabbed mess, if I didn’t have skis and pound after pound of climbing junk on my back, if I had real shoes on, if I wasn’t at 13,000′, if I wasn’t so freaking tired, if I could actually feel my hands, this would have been mellow class three climbing. I guess winter ski mountaineering is just easy climbing made really, really miserable.
Tyler summited the coulior about twenty minutes before I staggered over the top, utterly wiped. It had taken us three hours to climb less than 1,500′. As I threw my pack down on the snow, a small part of my mind dully noted that it was beautiful.
As I reoxygenated my brain, I realized it was beautiful indeed. The bone dry Inyo valley stretched out to our east, but the real treat was the heart of the southern Sierra to our West. There were endless miles of perfect alpine granite peaks, snowcovered and desolate. It was a ski mountaineers paradise, a lifetime of unnamed descents awaiting anyone willing to undergo the monster approaches into those remote glacial valleys. My guess was that not a single human had ventured anywhere we could see for a long, long time. It was a pretty cool feeling, to stand in a place not many people had stood, looking out over a view not many people had ever seen.
The wind was absolutely howling on the ridge, and with temperatures already probably in the single digits, we quickly sought refuge in our giant belay jackets. From time to time, the winds would blow huge chunks of cornice over our heads, big enough to make me think that one was a eagle from its shadow. Clouds were blowing in from the west, but for the moment, the sky was clear.
We racked up, having heard that Thunderbolt’s summit block was somewhere “a short climb” along this ridge from the top of the ski line. What we didn’t know (and later found out) is that in bigger snow years, you can climb (and ski?) the rocky face to the left of the coulior, which is where the short ~two pitch climb to the top of Thunderbolts summit block begins. Instead, we had followed the coulior proper up to the right and were looking at something Secor calls “The Lightening Rod,” a point on the ridge just shy of 14k, with the true summit perhaps three hundred feet farther along.
Tyler lead out along the ridge, through a gap, and into the unknown. Eventually, the slack in the rope ran out, and I followed, thinking I was simulclimbing. Turns out, Tyler had stopped on a narrow shelf and put me on belay. We convened on this narrow belay ledge. The views were absolutely jaw dropping.
Looking up from the belay station, the block in front of us seemed the right distance away from the coulior to be the summit block, but didn’t quite look like the pictures we’d seen online. I put Tyler on belay, and he lead up to peak his head over this block to see if it was the true summit.
A few minutes later, Tyler poked his head over the block, with me watching from below. He immediately started shaking his head. He descended back to the belay ledge, and yelled above the wind that that wasn’t it, that there were higher blocks much farther down the ridge beyond. We made the call that the climbing was just too exposed and sketchy for us to continue safely while looking for the true summit. We were bailing.
We made our way back to the top of the coulior, ripped skins, and clicked in. Per tradition, we held a round of Rochambeau to decide who would drop first. It would be me.
The first turns were not particularly fun, icy jump turns over some rocks and a bit of exposure. However, after the wind scoured initial section, the skiing really opened up and the snow turned into a quite fun (though pretty punchy) wind deposited layer. I opened the throttle as much as my 177 Kastle TX 87s would allow, and made some of the most cinematic turns I’ve ever made. Fast, untracked, high altitude, big mountain skiing.
It felt like something I’d watch in a ski movie. I just wish I had more burly skis that would have let me rip it a bit harder.
Overall, the line was pretty mellow. 40 degrees, pretty good snow, wide, not really much exposure after the top. It felt like a 1,500′ long version of National at Squaw.
On the apron, Tyler claimed that we’d just skied the best snow in the Sierra. I wasn’t ready to go quite that far (it was pretty punchy in places), but it was crazy to have skied a line like that in midwinter snow.
We made our way back down through the basin under Thunderbolt, heading back towards camp. The winds were really ripping by now ahead of the coming storm. On the way down, we skied across pretty much every snow condition possible, from super glarly coral reef sastrugi to perfect windbuff powder.
It was great to get back to camp, and I already felt like conking out for the night (it was 3 pm). But the winds were already ripping through the valley, and had actually already bent one of our tent poles. We made the call to pack up camp as jankily as possible, and make for the warmer weather down below 11k.
We made camp in the forest around 10k, sheltered by the trees and some rock outcropings. I’ve been talking about how cold it was all trip, but it got really, really cold that night. While cooking our rice-a-roni dinner, I was shivering in full belay jacket, a bunch of mid layers, gloves, you name it. Easily in the single digits. Just after we went to bed (8 pm bedtimes ftw) it started snowing, leaving my boots with a nice interior dusting of snow for when I put them on the next morning. Inside the tent, condensation froze to the tent fabric and then dusting down on us all night, essentially covering us in a cold layer of our own exhalations. Added to the fact that we only had one tent pole, and it was broken, the conditions didn’t make for the most pleasant night.
The walk out was downhill. That was nice. It was also really cold. And our packs were heavy.
Alright, I’m done complaining.
We beelined to Bishop and massive breakfast burritos. I’ll never get tired of how food tastes after being in the high mountains.
Things I learned on this trip:
- Skiing big lines in the high Sierra is awesome.
- Winter alpine climbing is awesome.
- Ski mountaineering makes things that look easy really hard. Winter ski mountaineering more so.
- Cut water weight to absolute minimum. I’m doing a 750 mL the next time I’m doing a summit day where I don’t expect to sweat.
- Eat more sugary things when climbing to keep the energy level high.
- In the winter, even when it’s good weather the weather isn’t that good.
- I want bigger skis. I also want lighter skis. I also don’t want to have to buy new skis.
- Tyler is a beast. I need to start doing cardio again.
- Always take a photo of your line before and after you ski it.
- I need to go back here ASAP. North face of Whitney, anyone?