Alpine Conditions Report – August 6th, 2016

In From the Range of Light & Fast, High Sierra Alpine Report by Howie Schwartz2 Comments

Hi mountain folk,

We are in the full steamy heat of the summer season. Climate change is real and we have seen multiple days in the past month with high temperatures in Bishop above 105 degrees. Some days in the mountains have felt too hot and lately I have not had any need to zip myself completely into a 40 degree sleeping bag, even at elevations up to 12k’. It’s been a good summer though. More snow around in early season than in the last 5 drought years. A slightly better winter for snowfall and a stormy late spring helped to create those conditions. Unfortunately, it was all too little, too late for preserving what little is left of our permanent snowfields, glacierettes, glaciers, and alpine ice couloirs.

It's been pretty warm in the High Sierra this summer...(climber: SMG Office Manager, Jessica Ary)

It’s been pretty warm in the High Sierra this summer…(climber: SMG Office Manager, Jessica Ary)

Alpine ice climbs are a particularly big loss for late summer High Sierra recreation. Some of formerly classic late summer alpine ice climbs that could be climbed at least partially as ice even a few years ago are now extinct:

  • Polemonium Peak: V-Notch Couloir
  • North Palisade: U-Notch Couloir
  • Thunderbolt Peak: North Face
  • Mount Darwin: North Face
  • Mount Mendel: North Couloirs
  • Mount Gilbert: North Couloir
  • Mount Thompson: North Couloirs
  • Mount Emerson: North Couloir
  • Peak 13,121: Kindergarten Chute & Checkered Demon Couloir
  • Red Slate Mountain: Red Slate Couloir
  • Mount Dana: Dana Couloir

The North Couloir on North Peak still contains decent ice to climb, but by the time it fully

V and U Notch couloirs 7/31/16

V and U Notch couloirs 7/31/16

emerges there will likely be significant rockfall hazard. All of these, like other features that lost their alpine ice in earlier times, can still be climbed on frozen nevé in late spring/early summer, depending on the year. Some climbs may form ephemerally in late spring (or late fall after snowfall and subsequent melt) as water ice climbs. These may both be quite enjoyable, but not the same as climbing 3-5 pitches of pure, solid, reliable alpine ice. By mid-summer these places become death traps as running water lubricates shattered bedrock and loose stones are dislodged. Climbers are highly vulnerable to rockfall hazards in these terrain features, and the problem does not improve until a strong snowpack and sustained freezing temperatures lock everything back into place for the winter/spring.

Once alpine ice is gone, it takes a long while of favorable weather conditions to re-form. The ice we recently lost had been there for many thousands of years. The reasons we are not likely to see lost alpine ice return to the High Sierra are twofold:

  1. Once the ice exposes bare rock the overlying winter snows melt much faster in the warm season. Radiation from the bare ground is powerful and increases the rate of snowmelt. In the past couple of drought years we were still able to climb exposed alpine ice in the Palisades, for example, while the upper couloirs were still choked with snow in spring. This year we are seeing by early summer there that too much rock is exposed, and alpine ice is completely gone. This means that we have to climb these terrain features by early summer as snow climbs from now on. The only thing that can possibly change that is a series of several consecutive giant snowfall amounts in the winter, followed by sustained cool temperatures, and maybe cloud cover to block solar radiation, in the summer.
  2. Unfortunately, climate scientists don’t see a future of increasing snowfall amounts or cooling temperatures in North America. In fact, climate change towards warming is considered to be certain and one of the most serious problems the human race will have to face in the coming century.

This report will probably assume that you are no longer using older informational resources to choose your late summer classic alpine ice objectives. Be warned that generally from now on, attempting to climb alpine couloirs this time of year through at least October will be highly dangerous and relatively unrewarding. We stopped guiding in couloirs of the Palisades this year in early July, just before a fatality occurred in the U-notch Couloir. We do not have any information to speculate about the cause of the climber’s fall, but if there was rockfall involved it would not be in any way surprising. If you are interested in climbing northern Palisades 14’ers we recommend access via Bishop Pass and Kings Canyon NP. The access to Glacier Notch for climbs of and descents from Mt. Sill back to the east is fairly “un-classic” at this point, in our opinion.

As for the rest of the range, It is a great time for getting out there and going light and fast. Sleeping bags have been practically optional for sleeping comfortably below 11,000 feet. It is recommended if planning to hike or climb in the sun to get an early start and get as much as possible done when temps are cool, if possible. Drink lots of water and consider supplementing with electrolytes.

Smoke is becoming a slight nuisance. The Sand Fire is well-contained at this point but it, along with the Soberanes Fire are still putting a haze into the air. We also have some new local fires: the Clark Fire, which has affected all climbing in Clark Canyon and the Rock Creek Fire, which has once again threatened the community of Small Meadows after a fire last year destroyed dozens of homes there. We can expect that fires and smoke will be a big consideration for Sierra recreation into the foreseeable future.

Well, I guess this report contains a bleak outlook and some nostalgia for the past, so let’s end by saying with utmost optimism that this has been, and remains, an incredible season for alpine rock climbing and wildflowers. Compared to last year the smoke is completely tolerable so far. People are more psyched than ever before to be in the mountains, and while we are more likely to run into each other out there, this can also be a good thing.

Reminder for Mount Whitney climbers that the Whitney Portal Road has construction this year that will cause delays and inconveniences in accessing the Portal.

I hope you enjoy the rest of summer and we will be in touch again with this report as conditions change.


  1. Hi, we were planning on heading up Mt. Sill via the Swiss arete in a couple of days. What do you mean by “un-classic”? Dangerous or just not much fun?

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