Happy spring Eastern Sierra skiers and riders!
Hope you are enjoying the Sierra backcountry season so far. It’s only around half way done. And with that in mind I would like this post to serve a few different purposes: 1) to help inform you about recent and current conditions as per usual, 2) to celebrate June Mountain and all that it offers us backcountry recreators on the eve of it’s annual spring closure, and 3) to report on a tour that a group of us did a few days ago that you might enjoy sometime, which epitomizes the grandiosity and “world classiness” of our June Mountain backcountry terrain.
April 4th, 2017 was a fine spring ski day. The crew contained A-listers Glen & Kimberly Plake and Stacey Cook. A bit of wind in the morning started the day off with some uncertainty about conditions, but once we got into the tour and the winds calmed, we ended up with a perfect day out with 100% epic skiing conditions in a beautiful tour that connected much of the best that the June Mountain backcountry offers. I am calling it the “Devil’s Dream” tour, after the fiddle tune (because I’m into that sort of hippie, redneck music) and because it is a perfect connection of Dream Mountain to Devil’s Slide. Get it?
We started up the ancient, center pole Chair 1 two seater at a comfortable 8:30am, rising slowly but surely above our Sierra Mountain Guides Backcountry Center. The 12-minute ride to mid-chalet included a couple stoppages, which allowed us to better enjoy the scenery and scout our lines. Chairs 2 & 6 were both on hold when we got there so we had a chance to socialize with our friends at the ski school and ski patrol for a bit. Chair 2 opened first and we rode our way down to the bottom of Chair 7, but not without Glen’s requisite detour to check our the pipe dragon graveyard up there, that he is trying to get June Mountain to turn into a museum of terrain park history. What else are they going to do with it? We arrived at the summit of June Mountain where backcountry touring so often begins.
The snow on the ridge was firm but not too crunchy and it allowed us to easily traverse to the Glass-Yost Col at the base of the Hourglass. Normally, I prefer to take warm-up run down the powder of the “Chair 8 Trees” to upper Yost meadow to access the Hourglass (Yes, there was once a plan to put a Chair 8 in there. Wouldn’t that be amazing if they did that?!), or down the south face of June Mountain for a corn run, but the conditions were best to just beeline it and hope the wind would die down.
We climbed through the Hourglass into Zero Bowl (Negatives to the north and Positives to the south). Glen and Kimberly once lived in June Lake and they skied the June Mtn BC quite a bit back in the day. Glen showed me an old photo of Kimberly booting up the bowl on his phone from sometime in the mid-80’s. He took a modern replica of it for sentimental value. Glen and Kimberly were married at June Mountain. Glen said they used to call Zero Bowl, “Steak Sauce” – something to do with the old heli-ski operation and Rusty Gregory’s code name, and something about him taking a big slider down the face of the bowl. Stacey has spent many years skiing in the Eastern Sierra, but this was her first time experiencing the June Mountain backcountry. We all topped the Negatives in short time and continued on to a snack break on Dream Mountain. Stacey invited us to sample some canned, wild-caught California salmon made by a family friend. Yum!
From there, we descended straight down off the peak for 1000 feet of incredibly good spring skiing. We took it down to the big bench and from there transitioned to climb Solar Bowl back to the ridge. Reasonable skinning conditions, and ski crampons, made it a relatively easy climb. From the high point of that side of the Negatives we were able to drop the ephemeral North Face of Dream Mountain. Incline is at least in the upper 40’s. Glen and I took the skier’s left line and the girls took the right. Fantastically velvet smooth facets on chalk the whole way down sending rooster tails into the air and sparkling surface sluffs cascading. A little choke to billy goat through towards the bottom then we were standing in upper Dream Bowl. We transitioned to booting (no crampons needed) up the Southeast Couloir of Hemlock Peak (aka Hemlock Bowl). This led to some fun class 3 ridge climbing and Hemlock Peak, our 5th high point of the day (including June Mountain, top of Zero Bowl, Dream Mountain, & subpeak above Dream Mountain North Face). We skied more excellent north facing snow on the ridge to drop into Fern Grotto, a serpentine 1200-foot couloir run to Fern Lake that looks like it was transported to the Sierra from the Italian Dolomites. Skiing in the couloir was timed well as the NW aspect was just starting to thaw. Stacey called it “cookie snow” because there were some chunks in the grotto here and there, but watching her ski it was a real pleasure and she made it look effortless in her powerful racer style. We all agreed that it was a fantastic run in great conditions.
Time was getting tight for me by that time as I had to be back in Bishop by 5pm for a family obligation. We split into two teams so that Glen and I could get me back quickly. The shadows were getting longer, but there was still sun on the right wall of Devil’s Slide and even the shady side was skiing well. The old avalanche debris was easy to dodge and Glen and I descended the 2000+ foot couloir in 6 or 7 minutes with smiles on our faces. Emerging at the Double Eagle Resort, beneath the “Carsonwand” is as close to alpine ski style as it gets in the US. The food and ambience at the Double Eagle is incredible and they will let you use their hot tub and spa for a very reasonable price. I dropped Glen off to shuttle his car back to pick up Kimberly and Stacey. While I drove to Bishop, with time for a snack stop in Crowley Lake, they had aprés-ski smoothies and reflected on what an incredible tour it was and how surprising it is that experiences that good can still be so relatively unknown. We only saw 4 other people total in the June Mountain backcountry that day, and there is room for dozens, if not hundreds, more.
As I write this, I am in Bishop watching the rain soak the desert. Another atmospheric river is upon us, this time an unusual April weather event. June Mountain is preparing to shut down the lifts for the season. We gave it a good 2017 send off with the Devil’s Dream Tour, but it was bittersweet to think that the mountain is closing with so much amazing snow on the ground. One day I hope that Mammoth Mountain and the rest of our greater ski community will understand that June Mountain is worth investing in. A longer season, a new gondola to a built out and upgraded mid-chalet, a Chair 8, and maybe some nordic trails would put June Mountain on every adventurous snow rider’s destination map. It is already arguably the best lift-accessed backcountry touring venue in North America. Not trying to imply that I know more than Mammoth Mountain about the business of skiing, but ambassadors to the sport, Glen and Kimberly Plake and national ski hero, Stacey Cook agree with me, especially after a tour like this, that June Mountain is an overlooked gem.
On behalf of Sierra Mountain Guides and all of our guests this season, I would like to thank the amazing management and staff at June Mountain for helping us enjoy another safe and successful backcountry ski and snowboard season at our June Mountain Backcountry Ski Center. These folks worked hard and did a great job keeping everything operational amidst an unbelievable, record breaking winter.
Conditions have been fantastic all over the mountains on the nicer days. Corn harvesting and beautiful, smooth winter snow on steep and shady aspects at higher elevations. NE and NW slopes are starting to get tagged by the April sun, as are lower angle mid to lower elevation N aspects. The springtime battle between wind and sun has commenced and at this point the sun has been the victor more often, and in more places, than not. But March went out like a lion, roaring with 100+mph ridgetop winds. April started nicely and we were soon back to the spring cycle. Now we are in the midst of a series of storms forecast to yield 7.5 inches of liquid water in 7 days. That is going to be refreshing, in that the snow surfaces will be refreshed. Temps are high right now (51 degrees F @ 2pm in Bishop) but they are projected to fall and we are likely to see heavy snow down to 5500′ by later today. Get ready for powder skiing windows in the coming weeks and for avalanche danger to rise and fall. Keep your guard up and read the ESAC avalanche bulletin and observations daily. We are done teaching avalanche courses for the season, but we are happy to arrange a private training or day out with a guide. Ski trips should be fantastic in the coming months. We have spaces on some of our longer ski mountaineering tours like the Palisades Crest Tour, Rock Creek to Mammoth, and others. The Bishop Skyline is in awesome condition right now Schedule a Ritter Range High Tour in May this season. Join us!
Here are a few more recent highlights:
Lastly, I know many of you are curious about access, and things are changing fast, but here is the status before this storm: All the normal winter soft and hard closures on the main mountain roads are still in effect. Remember, you drive at your own risk around the road closed signs. Expect fines and logistical challenges if you get a vehicle stuck, and furthermore you may put access for everyone else at risk. Don’t be that guy/gal. Drive safe and swift. The Onion Valley Road has been open to the 3rd switchback and they were working on it beyond that. The Glacier Lodge Road is clear now to the Lodge and fallen trees were removed. Many dirt roads throughout the Eastside are in bad shape from extended periods where water has run on them and created deep channels. The edges of these channels are soft and if your wheels go in then you are likely to be stuck in a bad place. And by bad, I mean a long walk from your ski objective, of course. Consider having a steel spade in your vehicle, or a winch, and definitely some trail running shoes. Most roads are clear to ~7000′, but a couple may have a stopper patch or two especially if they tilt towards the shade at all. At this point is is going to take a lot of snowfall to accumulate it on the warm ground of the high desert, but on snow it could accumulate more. Highway 120/Tioga Pass should open sometime in the heat of summer, but by the time you can get over it you probably will be too!