Saturday, April 13, 2013

State of the High Sierra Backcountry - April 2013

Hi there backcountry skiers and snowboarders!

After the first wet one, Mammoth Mountain 12/3/12 
What an interesting season it has been so far. The winter started off perfectly with big wet storms in early December,
followed by high ratio snow dumps with uncharacteristically calm winds. This all gave us a very memorable early season of deep light powder skiing throughout the Sierra. It feels like a distant memory now. January featured it's usual June-uary thaw and began a drought that plagued us all producing record breaking low precip for the two month Jan-Feb time period. March came in like a lamb, and since then it has been highly variable, and unremarkable weather in the Sierra. We have experienced intense warming with little freeze, as well as profound low temps that resulted in some icy and firm backcountry conditions. There has been decent corn skiing for those who have hit it right and/or been willing to carry skis a bit for it. Weak storm systems that split upon reaching our mountains, or just brushed past them produced storms averaging around 2-8 inches of snow at a time and giving us fleeting moments of fun, powdery skiing on top of a mix of
crusts and sugary facets. The winds have finally come to the range with the last storms where winds up to 120 mph were measured. This has smoothed out some sun effects and should help create some decent corn skiing in the coming weeks.

A few highlights to show conditions over the season:

Negatives 12/19/12

False Gibbs & East Peak of Dana 1/8

Green Creek 2/18

Devil's Slide 2/20
Sawtooths 2/26
McGee Creek 3/13
Echo Col 3/26
Ionian Basin 3/26

Hiking with skis and boots up Convict Canyon 4/2

Check out the April-September runoff forecast from Edison/DWR:
Bishop Creek:  71% of normal
Rush Creek:  66% of normal
Lee Vining Creek: 60% of normal
Mill Creek:  52% of normal
Kern River:  41% of normal
Kaweah River:  52% of normal
Tule River:  31% of normal

What does this mean for us as backcountry skiers and snowboarders? Well, first of all, get it while you still can. Soon the roads will open and allow a nice wave of access to deeper snowpacks. But it won't last very long, at least not unless we have some sort of unlikely miracle event in May. Until then, target backcountry trips where the snow is, and that is pretty predictable these days.

Here is how I would describe where to find it: The best High Sierra snow coverage is currently located above 10,000 feet, North of the Palisades and just West of the Sierra Crest. The map below shows this graphically, where the green line and above is the approximate area of most snow, the yellow line and above represents marginal coverage, and the red line and above marks hiking terrain. (below the red line is considered foothills/valleys that are obviously snow free at this time)

High Sierra relative snow coverage map, Tioga Pass to Mt. Whitney
In addition to what you can represent on a map, upper elevation slopes and gullies more exposed to wind and sun are shockingly barren throughout the range. Along the Eastside there is already not enough snow down low on many sunny aspect slopes and couloirs, so the corn season could be better in May when when roads open further and more northerly aspects get more sun. Crest Tours are generally not recommended this spring, except in places like the Ritter Range, Goddard Divide, and perhaps the Sawtooths. Trans-Sierra tours like the High Route should be low tide but OK, just be prepared for significant extra hiking on the in and the out and understand that you may have to portage your skis across barren patches with relative frequency.

Be strategic for the rest of the season in planning your ski outings. For example:
  • Don't plan on descending below 9000' for very long anywhere in the range, unless you think it is worth the walking. 
  • Use roads like the one to South Lake or Onion Valley to get a high start. 
  • Consider carrying a light pair of walking shoes for long stretches of dirt.
  • Wait until Tioga or Sonora Pass Roads open so you can start or finish up there.
  • Re-route your Sierra High Route to Onion Valley instead of Shepherd Pass. 
  • Consider looping the Ritter Range High Tour back to Mammoth via the San Joaquin Ridge to avoid the long trail walk down to June Lake. 
  • Consider a high country basecamp trip instead of a point to point tour to maximize skiing and limit the difficulties of travel. 
  • Be flexible and wait for a good weather window so you don't add difficulties to the challenge of conditions. 
  • A good aspect of this touring season is that there will be plenty of access to open water and dry camping. You may be able to go a little lighter on cooking and shelter systems if you plan carefully and coordinate with stable weather.     
Enjoy what we have, and remember that this is the season to milk and savor every last turn. Hammer on those ski boots and fill them with mud. Scrape those edges on the rocks and don't worry too much about it. The snowline is rising and pretty soon it will be prime alpine climbing season. And next to more skiing and riding, what could be better than that? - Howie

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Winter Mt. Whitney 2013

To Summit or not To Summit – Musings of a Sierra Mountain Guide

As I put away the expedition gear from my recent trip and place the kit back on the
racks in the garage, I find myself reflecting on the outcome of the trip I am returning
from. Drying the tent out, I think about the locations we used for camps and add a
little self critique as to if they could be improved on or not. Cleaning and putting the
cooking equipment away reminds me to look into a new pump for that ten year old
Primus stove that acted up a little on this last trip and may just be plum worn out.
Grabbing for the rope and rack, this time it is hard not to be a little dismayed. On
this trip we didn’t get a chance to use the technical equipment; weather came in on
us just hours before the wake up call for our attempt on the summit of Mt Whitney
in winter. While we made a thoughtful decision that most of the members of the
group were hoping to hear, not trying for the summit is still a bitter pill for me.

Having climbed and guided peaks on six continents, it is always fascinating to me
how one can find a ready challenge in your own back yard. Climbing Mt Whitney
during the winter months will always provide a challenge, but it is easy to forget
that even with the best preparation, all you need is a sudden change in weather to
throw a curve at you. Winds that make it hard to stand on your feet on flat ground
prove especially troubling climbing a steep couloir with some 3 rd and 4th class
rock. The added snowfall needs to be taken into consideration as well, as you don’t
want to climb the mountain, only to find the avalanche conditions to have changed
significantly on the slopes now below that must be crossed to return back to camp.
These problems can appear as readily on peaks close to home as they may in the
Andes or the Himalaya.

Without a doubt, proper planning and preparation are the key ingredients to a
successful trip. As a guide, this is where I see most groups fail to achieve their goal.
Perhaps they misjudged the difficulty of the route and couldn’t move fast enough,
or maybe they climbed too high on the first day of their trip, rendering legs useless
from the climb and heads hurting from the altitude. It all comes down to having
a good plan and knowing what to bring. But in the end, the mountain still sets its
terms, and no matter your level of experience, you won’t know what exactly what
to expect until you arrive. Examples of this happening to me flood to mind; a recent
trip to New Zealand to climb Mt Cook that shut my partner and I down to the point
of never setting foot on the mountain. Another trip to Ecuador that stymied us twice
on peaks, when strong wind and snowfall made us wonder if a safe descent from the
summit would be possible. Hasty retreat ensued in both instances, and we never
questioned our decision having endured the torment of the weather for several
hours before coming to it.

Back to Mt Whitney, it was a tough call we had to make that morning. The
conditions were pretty bad; the gusting wind was carrying frozen droplets of
moisture that pelted you in the face like little bb’s, and it certainly didn’t make sense
to roust everyone for the climb when we were almost being blown from our feet

just coming to the decision. Yet when you don’t try for the summit, you will always
be left not knowing the outcome of the attempt, had one been made. Would we
have turned back at Iceberg Lake having found it too difficult to keep our feet on
the ground? Would the stinging snow in our faces been enough to turn us back?
Or would the weather have broken and the summit come cleanly into grasp? In
the end the stormy clouds clung to the peak well into mid-afternoon, and reflecting
with our team on the descent from high camp that day, most were concerned about
simply leaving the tents that morning, no less enduring the weather on the more
extreme terrain of the climb. Sometimes it is just better to turn back and appreciate
the defeat, knowing simply it just wasn’t your day. While I sometimes struggle with
the undesired outcome, I never bemoan the fact that I still have all my fingers and
toes, and good decision-making has kept my partners and I from having a serious
accident in the mountains. Besides, if every climb was guaranteed to be a success,
what kind of adventure would that be?

Cheers and good hunting,
Jeff Witt

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Scramblers/Senders- Kids Climbing Program

Summer 2012 flew by as I had so much fun teaching rock climbing to almost fifty kids from the Eastern Sierra. We had a great mix of ages and abilities, some climbed for the first time and others returned to further develop their skills. In all of the returning climbers I saw an amazing step forward. It was great to see the kids taking climbing seriously, taking responsibility for their learning and turning into real rock climbers. The new kids jumped right into the mix and showed an amazing ability to learn and grow over the five weeks of our program. The motivation these kids have is incredible! Together they learned new knots, hitches, how to belay each other, how to rappel, move more efficiently on the rock and much more.

The reward for me as an instructor is seeing the beaming faces of these children. Maybe they just climbed to the top of a route that they found challenging, or they might have just mastered a new knot or belayed for the first time, their excitement and enthusiasm is priceless. There are endless opportunities for each child to learn and succeed in a supportive environment on the rocks.

So hopefully I will see you and your children for our Summer 2013 program. If you have any questions on how to sign up don't hesitate to contact the office 760.648.1122
~Guide Barbara Wanner

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Europe Trekking Part 2

Another stellar week in the Italian Dolomites! Dan and I hiked a good portion of the Alta Via 1 trek, staying at several stunning alpine huts along the way. My favorite was Rifugio Lavarella – great food, relaxing ambiance, pleasant staff, and a traditional Finnish sauna to relax your muscles at the end of a long day’s hike.

Exploring a bit off the beaten track, we hiked up to a high point above the Lavarella hut. A small rock rolled across the trail in front of me, so I glanced uphill. Nothing. Curious, I thought. It didn’t seem like somewhere I would see rockfall. Something would have had to kick it to get it rolling. I stopped again, and looked more intently this time. After a moment, I saw something move. Chamois. First just one, hiding in its stillness. Then a second appeared, blotting out the sun – and casting a perfect silhouette. Then a third. They skipped up the ridgeline faster even than Ueli Steck – and with one last glance back at us, they were gone. But not before I got a few postcard shots of their charming, distinctive outline along a striking blue backdrop.

The next day, we watched a world-class rescue on a peak we hiked by. A climber had fallen, and within an hour, he had been plucked by a helicopter and flown down to town. Impressive technical rescue teams here.

This week, we are back in town for some day hikes to cover some of the highlights of the region we didn’t see on Alta Via 1.

~SMG Guide Lyra Pierotti

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Dolomites 2012! - Part 2

Evening light on the Fanes and Tofana Groups featuring 3 of our classic via ferratas 

Wynne and Jill on Day 1
“Can we please stop somewhere?” asked Kellie in a shaky voice as we drove up the pass on day 1 of our week long via ferrata mega tour in the Italian Dolomites. The trailhead was around 5 minutes away, but Heidi the taxi driver pulled over promptly, which was good because it turned out that Kellie was very suddenly and violently suffering some acute gastroenteritis of unknown origin picked up on her travels. It was fortunate that Taylor, (see Dolomites Part 1) stayed with us to join this via ferrata trip because he taught us the verb “bullfrogging” and because he had very fast reflexes when Kellie needed to quickly exit the van for another round on the way up to the pass. It was clear that she wasn’t going to join us on our adventure that day so Heidi took her back down to town while Jill, Wynne, Taylor, and I went up for an excellent warm-up day on the Ferrata Tridentina, a beautiful route that ascends a steep cliff alongside an alpine waterfall. During a nice lunch at the top at the Pisciadu Hut we learned that Kellie had a much different adventure that day. Her illness got worse on the way down and she took a ride in a helicopter to a nearby hospital. Fortunately she got much better quickly but the doctors kept her overnight to make sure her health was ok. She was given the go ahead by the doc to join us the next day. We were all very concerned but it is amazing that she was able to be so active less than 24 hours after being hospitalized, a testimony to her spirit and fortitude, as well as the modern Western medical system. We met her at the end of day 2 at the Lagazuoi Hut. On our way to meet her we hiked a scenic trail to the steep and technical Ferrata Tomaselli. We hiked past WWI ruins to the Lagazuoi Hut where we met Kellie and enjoyed a fantastic dinner and an epic sunset all together.
Wynne, Jill, & Taylor on Ferrata Tridentina

Via Ferratas (iron paths) are manufactured routes through the mountains equipped on steep and exposed walls with steel cables and anchors. With special equipment we can clip to the cables and keep ourselves attached to the mountainside. Most of the via ferrata in the Dolomites follow historic routes used by the Italian and Austrian militaries back in WWI. They have been modernized and maintained for the mountain adventurers that these routes now attract. Via ferratas are often incredibly scenic and can be long and physical, requiring several hours of activity. Moving on a via ferrata route feels like cross between steep hiking and rock climbing. The moves can be steep and sometimes difficult for the average hiker, but there is always the equivalent of a ladder rung where foot and hand holds are needed. Such an amazing way to tour the mountains!

Typical Dolomites snack stop
On this trip we planned to take on 6 classic via ferrata routes and a climb of Mt. Antelao in a week as we toured across the Dolomites. This was planned ambitiously and optimistically. Surprisingly, we had perfect sunny weather for every day! Although various physical and medical ailments conspired to drive us off our itinerary and impede our enjoyment, this group remained outstandingly flexible, strong, and high spirited. In addition to members of our team summitting Antelao, Tofana di Rozes, & Tofana di Mezzo, we also collectively managed to enjoy the following classic ferratas:
  •         Tridentina
  •         Tomaselli
  •         Lipella
  •         Pomedes
  •         Berti
  •         & Dibona

An awesome team!
This is in addition to a day spent by 4 of us to check out the town of Cortina for some great food and window shopping. We enjoyed spectacular sunsets and sunrises, incredible local food, cappuccinos galore, and more chocolate than any person should ingest in a week. We saw sheep, goats, and chamois. Tons of moving history in the mountains. The only raindrops we felt the whole week were a few minutes after reaching our destination on the last day as we sat down to one last cappuccino and torte together. This group was so easygoing and hilarious and I really enjoyed everyone’s company - many great laughs! Thanks Taylor, Jill, Wynne, and Kellie for a most memorable and incredible tour of the Dolomites 2012!

More photos:

SMG Guide Lyra Pierotti on the Ferrata Berti

Taylor on the Ferrata Olivieri

Jill approaches Ferrata Tomaselli

WWI bunker on Lagazuoi

Approach to the Ferrata Lipella

Ferrata Lipella starts in a war tunnel for 300 vertical meters

Kellie & Wynne take on the cables of the Ferrata Lipella

Beautiful day on Ferrata Pomedes

The sun deck near the summit of Tofana di Mezzo

Taking a break on a hike down to Cortina

Approach to the historic San Marco hut. Mt. Antelao behind

Jill high on the N ridge of Antelao, 2nd highest peak in the Dolomites

Sheep on the approach to Ferrata Berti

Civilized approach to the Lorenzi Hut

Lunch break at the shelter on Ferrata Dibona
WWI ruins on the ridge of Ferrata Dibona

The start of Ferrata Dibona

Jill in the balcony at the finish at Ospitale!

Monday, September 3, 2012

Summery Summary, Part 3: "Listers"

Jed's final post of the summer.  After one more Palisades trip he'll head to Washington for an AMGA exam.  He'll be back in October:  Bring on couloirs and rock climbing!

Forgive me, but I like to find themes that unify chunks of time in my memory.  My summer, 2012 has been easily divisible by 4: Part 1- Sweet sending.  Part 2- Big traversing.  Part 3- Family time.  Finally, this latter portion of my personal summer, has been chock-full of peak-bagging "listers".  I have spent a ton of time in the mountains with you folks who seek out the ticklists.  State high-pointers, county high-pointers, threshold listers (14ers, 13ers, 12ers, 11ers, even 10ers... yes, I'm serious), run-a-marathon-in-every-staters... the list of listers could go on and on.  Each person's lists are different, each persons motivations are personal, and everyone's tactics are unique.  What unites all of you is that you feel the need to somehow apologize for who you are.  And that's a shame.  Own it!  Find that motivation, go beyond what you think you can do, visit those places that no one else visits.  Rest assured that you are not alone and that we do not think you are ridiculous.  

Peakbagger extraordinaire, Teresa G. nearing the summit of Dragon Peak.  #840 something out of the "highest 1000 peaks in the contiguous US".  Shazam!

Cardio monster Joe L. on Thunderbolt's summit block.  Tough to get time away from work and family? Trying to climb all the lower 48 14ers and all the state highpoints and run a marathon in each state?  Just be uber fit, duh.
Fascinated with the lists?  Looking to go beyond the 14ers?  Yeah me too.  Teresa introduced me to  To say "the list goes on" is an understatement.