"An aggressive Pacific Stonn, with record cold temperatures, and continuation of stonns every two days." This was the description given by the NWS for the Sierras for the next few days - just as we were to begin a 6-day trip from Mammoth Mountain to Lee Vining. With that, Mike Rector, Gene Serabyn and myself ventured into the Sierras with some trepidation and a sense of adventure. The original intent of this trip was to ski the San Jouquin ridge to Thousand Island Lake, than proceed over a series of passes to Lyell Canyon and Toulumne Meadows. The participant list for this trip changed substantially from the original start date of mid-April. Because of EI Nino, the April time period was rated as high avalanche danger from wet snow slabs. May appeared to be a better time.
After finishing a tour of Lamarck Col the previous day, the thought of knee deep powder and cold snowy weather was less than appealing. Based on that report, Gene Serabyn and I decided to do the trip in reverse. This would allow us access to the Tuolumne Meadows ski hut for the duration of the storm.
After meeting Gene in Mammoth, we dropped my truck off at the Mammoth Mountain Lodge and proceeded to drive up to the closure gate of the Tioga Pass road. The Lee Vining Ranger, a few days earlier, had postulated that the gate would be closed near the Lee Vining ranger station for quite some time. The thought of walking, with packs and skis, the 11 miles up the road to the pass was also less than appealing. Well, to our delight, the road was open all the way up to Tioga Pass (Turns out that the gate was opened for the first time, the previous Friday). At Tioga Pass, we met up with Mike Rector. There were at least 12 feet of snow at the pass when we made our descent to Tuolumne Meadows. We coasted the 8 miles to the hut in a little under two hours. Upon entering the hut, we discovered just three bunks left.
The next day dawned bright and sunny. This was contrary to the reports coming out of San Francisco and Sacramento. After a short discussion, we decided to take this opportunity to ski up the 9 miles of Lyell Canyon before the deep powder made the going much slower. Therefore, with much trepidation, we said our good-byes to our hut mates and preceded up the right hand side of the Tuolumne River.
The initial route was difficult and slow through the tree welled forest. The aggravation did create some soul searching about the decision to leave the comfort of the hut. Especially at the advent of the snowstorm. Upon reaching the Rafferty Creek footbridge, we discovered that it took 1.5 hour to go only 1.1 miles. The tree welled forest was giving us precious little progress. Coupled with the increasing snowfall, this was most discouraging.
After a short climb without skins, we decided to have lunch under the best tree shelter around. Huddled in the cold eating meat and crackers, the snowstorm started to let up. The visibility opened up into a serious of long flat meadows. Encouraged by this change of fortune, we quickly shouldered our packs, sheded the extra layer of cloths and plodded into the white meadowy void. At that point, our progress improved greatly. Although, it was like Heaven and Hell as we alternated between tree welled forests and long flat meadows. The Tuolumne River was flowing with large broken slabs of ice. After about 7.5 hours, we finally reached the end of Lyell Canyon. Snow continued as we erected our three-man shelter and readied for the night.
Day three got off to another late start (9:30am), as we were all tired from the previous day. It was partly sunny as we ascended the last part of the Tuolumne River. The snow was powdery dry, but changed to transitional by midmorning. It was a hard climb through the six plus inches of snow. The pushing got even harder with the ascent and the discovery of less consolidated snow.
Upon attaining a bench on the route up to Donohue Pass, we witnessed a bear and her cubs making a decent down a distant snowfield. Reaching Donohue Pass was a pleasure. Although the visibility was not great, it gave us the first glimpses of the Minarets and the Donohue Peak Divide. In addition, it was the first time in two days that gravity was in our favor.
The top of Donohue pass provided some good teleturns in less transitioned snow. After a short distance, any turn was next to impossible in the deep heavy snow. The skiing did get much better lower down as we descended the last part of the drainage between Donohue and Island Pass. We found a nice camping spot next to a pool of water. The sign buried a foot down on a tree read "no camping on this Island". Obviously as a result of the confluence of many intertwining streams. Confident that we would do little damage to the landscape over 7 feet of snow, we decided to stay.
The next day dawned without a single cloud in the sky and no wind. We took our time getting ready as we basked in the morning sun. We finally got off at about 10am with another trudge up to Island Pass. Upon reaching the pass, Gene and I decided to take the South-facing run on the hill next to the pass. Spectacular 360-degree views greeted us at the top as we ripped off our climbing skins and enjoyed telemark turns down to our pack site. Gene went up for one more run as Mike and I enjoyed a leisurely lunch. After that, we skinned up the ridge toward Agnew Pass. After a couple uncomfortable traverses, we decided to drop down to the outlet of Thousand Island Lake. The South facing descent was very enjoyable on wonderful corn snow. Upon reaching the outlet, we discovered the need for route finding around cornices and drainages. At the point we had to put skins back on and make the push up to Agnew Pass, I realized my binding was loose. Luckily, Mike had the right tools to tighten the binding. We did ski repair under the warm sun. It would be the last sun we felt that day. Clouds and fog quickly encased us as we arrived at our camp spot on Agnew Pass.
The last day of our tour started out with clear blue skies and the promise of good west-facing corn snow for this exposed route along the San Joaquin Ridge. The day before, the route was shrouded in clouds after 1 pm. Therefore, we agreed an early start would be advantageous. Unfortunately, this required climbing the steep exposed ascent to the ridge on very firm snow. Our skis would barely dent the surface as we went from safe haven to safe haven behind trees. At one point, we were forced to side step up a very precipitous section. Much to my dismay, the Velcro of my water bottle holder gave way and the bottle jettisoned down the slope at ever increasing speed before blasting into a tree some 500 feet below. By 10:30 am, to our relief, we attained the shelf and softer snow. The firm base made for very fast moving as we passed San Joaquin Mountain. After that, Gene made the ascent to the top of the "Two Teats". He found the telemark decent to be fabulous in the steep corn. Concern over my loose binding convinced me not to join Gene.
The next section was the steepest of all, although it seemed almost "matter of fact" in the soft corn snow. Skiing down to Deadman's Pass was somewhat confusing through existing tracks. Luckily, Gene's knowledge of the route led us to the easiest route. Upon climbing out of the pass, deep unconsolidated snow banks greeted Mike and me. Gene had a better route right up to the top. At that point, we were in day skiers distance to the end point. We enjoyed the last few telemark turns before descending the Minaret Summit road to our waiting shuttle.
In conclusion, the trip ended up being a delight despite the weather predications. The smaller group size and the ability and experience of the group was instrumental to this positive experience. On the other hand, we were deep into some fabulous skiing territory. One or two more days would have given us the opportunity to ski many great slopes. Unfortunately, weather does tend to drive your agenda. We were looking at another weather system the next day. In retrospect, it was probably a good decision. Mammoth was completely socked the next day. Oh well, there are always potential for fun and adventure. It's the time off from work that gets in the way.
Thanks to both Gene and Mike for making this trip possible. Special thanks to Gene for route finding on the San Joaquin Ridge and Mike for the use of his self arrest grip and tools and to Maft Doody for the excellent dinners.
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