On Thursday, April 24th, Mike and I drove up to French Camp for their first day of operation for the season, one day ahead of Fishing Opener in the eastern Sierra. We set up camp and took our skis to the end of the plowed road at the Rock Creek pack station, about 1 mile from Mosquito Flat. The previous week, a hard freeze had hit the high country, leaving shark-fin-like shapes in the snow. They were still pretty frozen on Thursday afternoon. We skied through the trees west of the road to investigate the snow and where to take the group. On Friday morning, we decided to check out conditions for a potential loop trip with the group, and skied out to Long Lake, then started climbing at the southwest end of the lake. We stopped at an 11,300' bump on the ridge, noticing winter conditions on some aspects, and heavy spring conditions on others. But, nevertheless, the snow was continuous - a big improvement over last year - and, it appeared we could take the group on a long loop the following day.
By early Friday evening, every fisherman from LA seemed to come to French Camp, as bonfires, loud music, cigar smoke, and lots of beer were everywhere. We got strange looks from the other campers with our skis out at the campsite to attract fellow SMSers as they trickled in throughout the evening. Newcomers Ben Phillips and Mark Bunge were the first to arrive, and we shared some happy hour treats as the others rolled in.
On Saturday morning, 12 participants met at the Rock Creek trailhead: Louisa Bonnie, Greg Scarich, Mark Bunge, Ben Phillips, Jim Garvey, Ted Lenzie from Folsom, Andrew Wirkus also from the west side, Ruth Von Votz from Truckee, Lisa Buckley from Mammoth, SPS list finisher Don Sparks, and Bill Kells and Lisette from Altadena. Lisette decided to join us for a tour on snowshoes before heading around the lakes.
We assembled at the roadhead and headed out at 9am, and toured up the meadows and road, which was heavily suncupped and terribly uneven to ski on. The meadows were smooth though, and we were quickly passed by skate-skiers getting their last training sessions in after racing season. The frozen lakes above 10,000' were perfect for high speed skating, as we soon found out later in the day.
For Saturday's tour, we skinned up the prominent gully toward Ruby Lake. This year, the gully was quite frozen, but a few places were thin on snow. We skinned up to the lake and had a quick snack break. The sun was starting to heat the snowpack but we had quite a bit of time before things got mushy. Back on skins, we ascended the drainage above Ruby Lake and Mills Lake to bump 12,039' on the ridge, finding continuous snow along the whole route. In prior years, the ski back down toward Ruby has had some of the finest smooth corn I've ever experienced - but - this year, there were very uneven wind-packed bumps and hard snow for most of the route. Having scouted a possible soft-snow return loop the previous day, we decided to try out the eastern aspects above and between Treasure Lakes and Long Lake.
After lunch on the rocks and many picture taking opportunities, we peeled skins and made our way down the ridge. I fell on my first turn in snow that was heavier than it looked! But, a little more cautiously now, and after Ted and Andrew tested the snow with a few turns, we all got a taste of some good spring conditions as we found the sweet aspects to link our turns. Louisa whooped with every telemark turn. The terrain was magnificent and the scenery unsurpassed in its beauty Ð and what a great group of people to be out in the Sierras with!
After many whoops and hollers and ski photos, we were back at the southern edge of Long Lake. For the telemark skiers, the smooth frozen lakes proved an advantage as skating with the freeheel was a breeze. Too bad we had a headwind coming out of the north!! At least it cooled us off! Within a few minutes, we sailed to the other end of the lake for a short ski down to Box Lake, another skate across, then Heart Lake, another skate, then Mack Lake, another skate, and finally back to Mosquito Flat campground. Then it was one final slog up and down the bumpy road back to the cars at about 4PM - a 7 hour tour with about 10 miles round trip. Well, this was supposed to be an "Introductory" tour!
Back at camp, we lounged, replenished beer & supplies at Tom's Place where everyone was hanging out, and then started happy hour proceedings around 6:30PM. Everyone brought goodies, wine, and delicious food, and exchanged stories about exotic travel, people's backgrounds, where they lived, and general good camaraderie. The campground strangely became very quiet around 7:30 PM or so - with only the SMS group still out having a good time. All of the fishermen had passed out and gone to sleep early. No more big bonfires or wild parties.
Sunday morning, we decided to pack up early and do a shorter ski trip. Ted and Mike checked out the maps the night before, and thought that we might find continuous snow west of the parking area and below Half-Moon Pass, as it's known locally. We started skinning through the trees before 9am and did find continuous snow to our sought-after bowls. By about 10:30 am, Ted and Mike started digging snow-pits to test the snow stability. Mike's pit around 11,200' seemed pretty stable, and we had little boot penetration of the snow. Ted's pit, about 200' higher, had some rotten snow next to it so we decided not to ski higher, despite the pretty ski tracks that someone had many a few days earlier.
Everyone yo-yo'd the slopes from about 10:30-noon multiple times, and Greg was able to take a few movies. The snow was gradually getting mushier. We packed up by 12:15 from our lunch-rock spot, and skied through heavy mashed potatoes (with only minor carnage) for a few hundred feet until we hit smooth corn. Then it was a fast ski down through the trees and meadows in perfect conditions where the skis just went where you imagined them to go. Back at the cars, we could admire our tracks in the bowl as we were changing into shorts and t-shirts and exchanging cold drinks. At about 1:15, we looked back up at our tracks and noticed that a small wet slide had come down from a steep slope above our highest skin track, and slid through the first couple of turns that we'd made! We were glad we got off the steep snow when we had. The small avalanche was surprising to see.
When we got home, we reported the small slide to Sue Burak of the Eastern Sierra Avalanche Center. Greg Scarich had some great close-up photos taken from the cars of our ski tracks with the slide, which we sent to Sue. Here is her comment, from the May 1st avalanche report: "Another group had a different take on the snowpack earlier this week, and enjoyed good skiing in the northeast facing bowl to the south of Half Moon Pass up Rock Creek. They noticed "wetter, mushier conditions as the morning went on. When they returned to their car, they noticed a wet sluff avalanche had occurred, sometime between 1-1:15PM that obliterated the upper section of the area they had been skiing." A few days later, in frozen conditions, Sue skied up to our tracks to check things out. She wrote,"I skied up there today to check out the slide. It certainly was big enough to knock someone down." We were glad that we got off the snow early enough to avoid the excitement, although it felt like we'd cut things a little close, despite leaving around 12:15 from a northeast aspect at 11,000.' It just goes to show that avalanche conditions can change rapidly with a melting snowpack on a warm afternoon, even for northerly aspects. On this late April weekend, the snow was still transitioning from winter conditions in some locations to heavy spring conditions on others. Welcome to wild snow!
We had a great, fun and safe spring weekend in the Sierras, and want to thank all the participants - especially newcomers - for joining us on this trip and letting us drag them around the wonderful terrain in Rock Creek. Thanks to Ted Lenzie also for helping out with the group and being willing to dig snow pits and be a test-particle for unskied slopes! --LS
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