Southern California Skiing in the San Gorgonio Wilderness offers great choices to the ski mountaineer. From rolling terrain, to broad open bowls, to steep chutes. The goal on this outing was to ski the chutes. The participants were Scott, Thomas, Steve, David, Jim, Maya, Fred and myself, who met at the South Fork parking area at 8 a.m. on Saturday. The weather along the coast on Friday was very wet. My home rain gauge registered 1 ½ inches within 24 hours. That pretty much assured us of powder somewhere on the mountain. Considering this year has provided a record amount of rain, we were looking forward to seeing a record snow-pack.
We started up the South Fork trail that lead to the old closed-off road, then back to the trail that gradually contoured up to Slushy Meadows. Along the trial we crossed an avalanche path that carved out a gully about 12 feet deep and 50 feet wide. It is always impressive to see the power of Mother Nature that continues to give us a healthy respect for the forces that we could be dealing with. At Slushy Meadows, at about the 8,500 foot level, we stopped for a lunch break next to a hole in the snow that went 8 feet straight down to running water. We continued through some trees that quickly opened into two "major" avalanche run-out areas that came from the north and east slopes of Charlton Peak. The scenery in front of us was nothing but snow where on previous trips there were trees and bushes. Even Christmas Tree Hill looked like a groomed run, demonstrating again the effect of the avalanches and the depth of the snow-pack. As we moved above the 9,000 foot level, we entered the bottom of the settled-in cloud layer and visibility further up was limited to the trees 100 yards ahead of us. Knowing that we were not likely to camp with a panoramic view due to the limited visibility, I decided that we should camp in the trees at the 9,250 foot elevation level.
After setting up camp and building a snow kitchen, Scott, Thomas, Steve, David and myself set off to check out the chutes off Jepson. Once we reached Little Draw Bowl and got away from the trees, the light was completely flat so that it was impossible to distinguish between the snow, sky and up or down! I decided we needed to stay in the trees of Little Carlton. As we started up the south-facing aspect, there was an icy layer under 4" of powder and the plan then changed to taking the group further into the trees and on to a different aspect. It paid off quickly as we got off the old sun and wind scoured slope and into deeper uniform powder. We continued up to a ridgeline where the wind was cold and biting -- then peeled the skins and pointed the skis down an east-facing aspect. The trees were wide-spaced and the powder was smooth and fast, the kind that gives one an ego while floating from turn to turn in beats that ranged from fast hops to gracefully carved lines. I stopped intermittently and looked back up to see silhouettes gracefully moving in and out of the trees with the powder flying high and was struck with the impression that I was living a dream. The images were nothing like any I had ever seen. They were all moving so fluidly, yet in harmony through the slightly darkened forest.
We continued down in this manner as I watched my altimeter, knowing in advance what altitude to reach before starting to contour back to camp. We hit that elevation and found our tracks that were like the taxiway to camp. We gathered at the kitchen for social hour and a wide variety of foods for dinner. Before long, we were all feeling the chilly effects of the intermittent snow showers and wind. We hit the sack early only to be wakened many times by grapple pounding on the tents. By morning, we anticipated substantial accumulation and were pleasantly surprised to find 6 inches of new light powder.
After breakfast, we headed up to Little Draw Bowl again to find occasional glimpses through the clouds to the impressive corniced chutes of Jepson's North slope. The visibility was too flat in the open bowls; so we stayed in the trees of Little Charlton. The peak was makeable this time as the wind had substantially subsided. A more northerly aspect through the trees for our ski-line down appeared most appealing. The powder was even sweeter with the new 6 ". Our smiles grew as we floated through turns that powered waves of powder from our interlinked tracks. Near the bottom of the run we contoured further north and close to our base camp elevation. We stopped for lunch prior to making another ascent. The cloud level was beginning to rise and blue sky was showing intermittently. The next route was up to Charlton Peak just to the south of its main 'avy' chute. The ascent was more open and scenic as we traversed through the snow-enshrined tree forest. There was a point about 2/3 the way up where we had a classic view of the entire corniced ridgeline and especially Jepson's 3 north-facing chutes.
When we reached the top of Charlton, the clouds were moving rapidly and photo ops were quickly timed to get maximum visibility. After thoroughly taking in the scenery, the ideal ski line was to head into the main avy chute that pours down to Christmas Tree Hill. Our descent this time was in even steeper and deeper powder.
About a third of the way down the trees the chute opened wide looking down another 1,500 feet. Staying along the edge of the trees allowed us to enjoy the ideal powder pitch.
A pause for a few moments preceded heading into the center fall line where we carved, floated, hopped from exhilarating turn to exhilarating turn. At the bottom, shared broad smiles and pleased looks back at our tracks culminated another very fine run.
It was now time to head back to camp, join the others, pack, and head out. The turns we enjoyed down to and on the treeless, untracked Christmas Tree Hill with full packs were as enjoyable as earlier runs. We then linked up with the trail that was like a continuous roller coaster ride until we got to the road that flattened out and headed back to our cars. The images of the powder skiing weekend in a pristine winter wilderness that was all ours to fully share and enjoy will remain burned in our minds and our cameras at least until the next storm provides another powder opportunity.
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