One last spring ski-mountaineering weekend before really shifting into mountain bike season! I had a partner this time, my friend TJ. We carpooled down from the Reno/Tahoe area, down highway 395 to Independence where we drove up Onion Valley Road to the trailhead for Golden Trout Lakes. Not to be confused with Golden Trout Wilderness, which is further south. I'd post a map link, but Topozone appears to be out of service tonight.
After the typical night drive, we threw our sleeping bags down at the trailhead and slept until sunrise. I could have posted a lot more "how much snow is left at Onion Valley" photos but I forgot to take them. We were eager to get above the warm weather and up into the airy heights.
First there was about 15 minutes of hiking through mixed conditions, then we started skinning still within sight of the parking area. This all was much more burned out just two days later when we returned.
There were a couple of interruptions in the snow where it was easier to boot the Golden Trout Lakes trail, but we were skinning uphill 99% of the time. University Peak is looking pretty good here in the background. For anyone interested, there's some great beta on it in a recent TR on The Backcountry's message board.
The sun was blazing hot and I almost could have put on shorts instead of pants, but I was thinking of the high pass we were aiming for. TJ recently moved out here from Salt Lake City and was soaking up the sights (and lack of sounds) of the eastern Sierra.
We passed the junction for Golden Trout Lake and kept to the right-hand fork of the canyon instead. We were aiming for Dragon Peak and a way to get over it on its right-hand side. More on this in a minute.
In the following photo, Dragon Peak (12,995') is the main attraction with the nice zigzag chute on its front side. We would have liked to ski that but it was too south-facing and just looked too melted. Where we ended up crossing over the Sierra crest is the first notch just north of Dragon Peak. I didn't exactly know where we were going at the time, I was flying by the seat of my Black Diamond Alpine Pants. The official North Dragon Pass turns out to go like this: ascend toward the notch that we crossed, but before reaching that, you angle steeply up to looker's right below the face of the big, blocky subpeak near the center of the horizon here, then wind around its far side.
This turns out to be important because if we had crossed the "actual" North Dragon Pass and passed anywhere north of it, we would have been trespassing into the California Bighorn Sheep Zoological area. There are regions of it which are closed seasonally, but the region north of North Dragon Pass is closed year-round and trespassing is said to carry a heavy fine. I did not realize at the time (not even by a long shot) how close we were coming; I simply had not researched the issue. If you asked me on Saturday, I would have said in all honesty that I was aware of bighorn closures somewhat south of our area, and some distance to the north, but none this close to the Kearsarge Pass region.
Anyway, we did not break the closure on this trip, but upon doing some research afterward I was startled to see how close we came. Okay, back to the ski report.
I must have been too excited at the top of our Sierra-crossing notch to take photos -- or too concerned about whether TJ would follow me over it. It was a very tight, steep couloir on the other side, looked about 1000 feet long, beginning with angles well over 40 and then staying in the high 30s for the rest, then a couple hundred feet of lower angle apron below.
You'll see photos of the notch anyway, farther down, when we return via the same route. Meanwhile... we walked steeply down about 20 feet on frozen gravel, using handholds on the rock walls along the way. Then before putting the skis on there were a couple of large rocks across the chute.
Here TJ has just passed the upper rock. I put my skis on for the second one, preferring ski edges rather than crampons on descent. TJ elected to downclimb the second rock and I don't blame him; it was steep, tight, and had some gravel in the snow.
Here's looking down past the second chockstone before I skied right by it. Gotta practice these things when you can... Meanwhile we were catching a fine view of Mt. Gardiner, and all the way out to the ubiquitous Mt. Goddard. (More magnification on that later.)
TJ demonstrates steep skiing with an overnight pack.
The wide-angle lens helps capture both walls, the sky, the slope and the skier, but in the process it lies about the slope. The skier's body and edge angles do give some clue, though, to the slope.
Not deathly steep but surely steep enough for fun. TJ was standing level here, which helps you readjust in your mind's eye for the wide-angle distortion.
Far below, we prepared a camp for the night, made good food and contemplated the surprise Sierra crest crossing we'd just made. At this point I was wondering what happened to North Dragon Pass (remember, I came to this trip with only a vague awareness that there was "some way" to pass just north of Dragon Peak), but also thinking "well, whatever we just did, it was a fine pass too, and a great run."
My attention was also drawn to Dragon Peak itself, which we had come here to ski by some route. The couloir on the right, though more central, doesn't "go". There's a major hanger in the middle. The left one, though, shows up beautifully on p.167 (2nd ed.) of R.J. Secor's High Sierra Peaks, Passes & Trails
. This year I have made a practice of consulting climbing guidebooks to find ski runs that are less standard and less well traveled than the ones in the skiing guidebooks.
You like that little patch of light up where the left chute goes around the corner? That was leading me on and gave me something to dream about for the next day.
The sun went down on a beautiful multicolored mountain, on our unexpectedly challenging approach route, and on our intended stairway to heaven for tomorrow.
Fine Sierra springtime views from our perch on jumbled moraines above Dragon Lake.
The Betalight provided secure, quiet shelter, but that's not saying much since the night turned out to be almost windless. In any case it provided what seemed like a huge floor space for almost negligible weight (ski poles are the tent poles and there is no floor).
Some beta on the Betamid/Betalight: to fully stretch the walls and eliminate flapping, do use the side guy-lines, and in addition also place one ski or other stake and tighten a line to the loop at the rear pole top, which tightens the span between the two poles (assuming you have solid down-anchors at the front door corners). This gives you a good vertical stretch on the walls and should keep things quiet as possible.
In the morning, TJ had some sort of stomach flu that he'd felt creeping up on him over the previous day. Unfortunately he had to lay low, though he did hike up the lower apron of the couloir with me to take a few turns. I continued up into the belly of the Dragon, marveling at the scale of this couloir. It was nothing particularly technical or hazardous at this point, just big and fun and nicely sloped. The snow was springish at climber's left and smoother/softer/drier at climber's right.
I love when a couloir goes around the corner, it adds to the visuals and gives you a sense of just busting one huge turn around the corner on your way down. I'm never a fast enough skier to really do that, but I love the visuals. In the distance to the north we're seeing Bighorn terrain in which only scientists will set foot for the time being.
Decision point. I didn't know the chute had an upper split. The left looked fine, but it seemed to end a little short and too simple. I was wrong about the short part, but I didn't know that at the time. I stubbornly decided to head up the more complicated right side just to see if it could be done.
The left side was mighty fine and I should have skied it. It looks about 150 feet over my head here, and as it turns out it was really 400 or so. We are in fact seeing all of it here, but it's just so foreshortened in this view that I didn't get it so I passed it by.
The right fork looked like it just might go. Maybe. It had this cool "diving board" rock way up on the right that I wanted to see up close too.
I ascended the better part of the right side and was glad that I'd be skiing a steeper tighter line. The view was awesome too, looking past our previous day's notch and out over the Owens Valley.
I should mention that I really, really love granite. Not all of this rock was exactly that, but the snow made up for that.
Here there be Dragons.
Above me the possibilities fell apart as the size of the rocks became more real. And the final greenish slab separated the snow from the notch, for the most part.
Climbing steeply up. This was just above the point from which I skied down later. There was no need to ski the 2 foot wide icy choke just for points, when the total of the skiable snow above it is almost entirely shown in this view. Anyhow, you gotta love those zigzags down below. Unless they're super skinny, zigzags don't make a couloir any harder, they just make it more fun.
Standing on top, with an even better view, after some moves you don't really want to know about. There were bad crampon placements on unconsolidated snow that was resting on rocks that weren't stable. There was hanging the poles off a rock to get them out of the way. There was stuffing of arms through powdery snow to find hand cracks to jam in. Someone once told me: Don't try this at home -- try it in public instead, with witnesses!
I think if I ever counted how many steps it took me to get up one of these chutes I'd wig out and have a hard time doing it ever after. That would be as poisonous as if I'd tried to count the telephone poles when I rode my bike across Nevada. Well ok, I did
try to do that, but thank God I ran out of patience in a couple of hours.
On top, I enjoyed a fine view of the bowl between Dragon Peak and Mt. Gould, with the Mt. Brewer group in the distance.
Mt. Brewer with its North Guard and South Guard. A pretty awesome sub-area of the Sierra which, like the Goddard massif, is located far west of the main crest so it sees and is seen by a very wide range of other high points. Hopefully I will be visiting this group in summer or spring someday in the next year or two.
Looking up toward what I thought was the peak since it seemed to contain the tops of most of the (no-go) chutes. It turned out to be the fatter but lower tower of the Dragon. Anyway, since Ener-Gs make such good climbing shoes, I 4th-classed my way up this ridge to one of the first pinnacles to shoot another photo or two.
This was the better of the views I had from up there, looking westward and northward toward Mt. Rixford and Mt. Gardiner. More places I hope to visit soon.
After a heinous downclimb, the chute was skied from the highest point I could stand. It was so much fun and the snow was so good that I didn't stop for a single picture -- only to catch my breath.
Back in camp I kicked back in my inflatable chair and heaved a sigh of satisfaction (and safety). I need to wipe that one smudge off of my camera lens soon.
The spring corn was developed about 2 inches deep, good for maximum spray from the tracks.
At the end of the day, not having the slightest concept that I was near a bighorn sheep boundary line, I hiked a little ways north and snapped this telephoto that shows how much I should have skied the main line instead, and how much higher the actual summit of the Dragon is.
The sunset painted the peaks wild and bright. I took this one largely for the reflected light within the steep slot that provided our access to and from this area.
The next day, we moved on out, climbing the chute as early as we could get up and going so that it would be firm underfoot. Even then some parts of it were soft enough for front-point bucket kicking. I forgot about the camera on the way up. It was long but went by like a steep staircase.
A zoom from the previous pic. We're seeing Mt. Goddard (no, those good looking chutes do not Go! Mike and I noticed that 2 weeks before...) and if I'm not mistaken, also Scylla, one of the 3 Sirens, Solomons, Warlow, Charybdis, Fiske, and Black Giant including the southwest chute we skied off of it! One or two of these may be reaching a little, but I'm not so sure.
Dark as it was on the twilight side, the sunrise side of the notch was bursting with golden goodness and the snow was already corned up at 7:30 AM. Anyone reading this should probably reconsider their Onion Valley plans for this season.
Kearsarge Peak (if that's the mountain I'm thinking of) appeared to have a couple of good runs left. Sardine Canyon probably does too, but we didn't get a view of that.
The snow was decent for the run down, but we concentrated more on an easy smooth descent and less on getting many turns. Still we probably each had about 100 good ones somewhere in this canyon. I sure must have been fired up when we ascended on Friday because I sure didn't remember crossing all this distance and gaining all this altitude. The run down the canyon impressed me with what we had accomplished on Friday. We were really farther back there (especially while west of the crest) than I gave us credit for. I don't mean to be a gear whore, but I really must give some credit to my G3 Targa Ascents and TJ's Black Diamond O1s, both tele-touring "free pivot" bindings, for our ability to get waay back there without really noticing how far we were going. And for our ability to ski steeply with packs without being terrified on every turn (both of these bindings are pretty active; his with active cable guide points and mine with "Race" springs).
Near the end, we skied the final continuous tongue of snow out past a waterfall and out of the canyon. After that there was some bush-hopping on skis to connect various snow patches, and just a couple of minutes of walking out to the road. But the whole show was fading fast and I can't imagine much snow left there in a week.
Another awesome trip. Maybe someday I'll revisit the area (maybe even in powder?) and recap all of this in a day. It probably would have been easier in a day (at least if I'd actually known where to go before I got there). Lesson learned, too, about the Bighorn area -- I will not plan any trips up Sardine Canyon and over the crest, for example. I might not have realized that if not for this little adventure.