03 Feb Eastern Sierra Ice Conditions Report February 3, 2023
As I sit down to write this Eastern Sierra Ice conditions report, I am reminded of the classic Simpsons episode where Homer is hired by the local newspaper to be the new Restaurant critic. Homer is hired because of his incredible appetite and enjoyment of all foods. The local restaurant owners love his reviews, he is very easy to please and gives incredible reviews. Being an ice climber in California, I find it helpful to be easily excited and happy with whatever you are given. Fortunately, with the right ingredients, we have the receipt for excellent ice climbing in the Eastern Sierra.
Thanks to the hard work of the Mono County public works department, we have access back into Lee Vining canyon. As of Wednesday at 4:45pm, one was able to cautiously drive a 4 wheel drive vehicle, with clearance, back to the Poole Power Plant on a cut, one lane road. Within 24 hours, most of the road was 2 lanes and should be passable with most winter capable vehicles. The road does narrow down to one and a half lanes in places, so please drive with care. Additionally, the parking area has been plowed out for approximately eight to twelve cars. Please try and make enough room for others and remember to NEVER block access to the Poole Power Plant, this sort of careless act does threaten our access into the canyon.
The approach in the canyon was firm and easy with snowshoes. The additional flotation was not mandatory, but very useful. Most of the travel was over windfirmed snow and old avalanche debris. I will likely be wearing flotation into the zone in the coming days.
Chouinard’s Wall looked to be in supreme condition. Curly, Moe and Larry on the right side all have climbable ice with some steps of snow mixed in for good measure. Sometimes I enjoy doing these in two smaller pitches to increase communication with my partner while I minimize rope drag and falling ice hazard, and without an 80M rope, it can be challenging to reach the top of these climbs in one pitch, with a safe belay stance at the bottom.
Moving down the wall, Tree Route seems to be in less stellar shape than usual. There is more rock exposed on the lower portion, and the ice looks to be thinner on what is normally a heavily trafficked, fatter climb in the canyon. But don’t let that fool you, the remainder of Chouinard’s wall, from Classic Curve at its left, all the way to Comrad’s Corner are all in stellar, thick, condition. Some of the anchors may not be exposed due to the limited traffic the canyon has received in recent weeks. Make sure to have a plan before you leave the ground as to where you plan to climb to, possibly some extra screws, or even better, a V-Thread kit, to build your own anchor.
Down and left of Chouinard’s Wall, once again, the start ramp of Heel Toe, Scrappy Child and Careless Torque have all formed ice and can be a fun place to grab a lap if things seem to be tight at Chouinards. Moreover, don’t forget about the excellent mixed climbing opportunities that exist above these climbs. The Heel-Toe start ramp does have a fair amount of ice forming in its cracks, which could make for an exciting lead.
Moving down the canyon to The Main Wall; the best way to describe this would be as Homer the food critic did, tongue out, open mouth salivating and groaning in delight. I believe young Lisa translated his nonsense to transcendent.
What could be said besides, get on it! It is thick, and steeper than usual. The wall has formed thick from Caveman on the right, all the way to Spiral Staircase on the left. Plumb Line, in the center of the wall felt steep, one may gander that it is in WI 4+ condition, Main Line looks to be more in WI 4 condition; for what it’s worth, we did not climb this and my assumptions should be challenged. Fischer King’s final pitches look quite fat, but the approach pitches would make for some scrappy mixed climbing to get there from the bottom. Similar to Chouinard’s, many of the anchors have been enveloped by the ice, may be very challenging to find, and likely involve serious excavating to liberate and use. Consider bringing extra screws up to build your own anchors, before questing into the vertical. The wall felt to be climbing steeper than what I find to be normal. Perhaps my sense of steepness has been tainted by climbing mostly lower angle ice thus far this season. Or, perhaps it’s the excess moisture and lack of traffic the wall has seen so far this season.
I will admit, my biggest letdown when coming into Lee Vining was the Bard-Harrington Wall. I was convinced with seeing how things were shaping up prior to our recent storms, the heavy moisture we experienced form late December through most of January; the bitter cold overnight temps we are still enduring at my home in June Lake, I believed we had what it took to bring the B-H back to the conditions last experienced in 2017. Sadly, as we walked up the canyon through the Narrows, it became evident that although chunks of ice are forming on the wall, it has yet to come in fully, yet. On the bright side, those feeling intrepid may be able to piece together some ice and mixed climbing, Photoshop and The Chimney route could provide some quality ice with a bit of mixed climbing sprinkled in. These routes, in this condition, would be excellent training grounds for alpine objectives in the high country, both near and far. So, don’t count them out if you see yourself getting into some more adventurous alpine climbing in the not so distant future.
While the Bard-Harrington Wall left something to be desired, The Narrows did provide. Zippos Frozen Booger was in, and climbed great. To the right Womp Rat and C3PO are trying to form as well. After climbing Zippos, we descended down Womp Rat to check conditions. This route is in extra lean conditions. After clearing a fair amount of delaminating ice, the route does seem like it will be climbable in the near future, or by someone far more brave than myself. I personally chose to hold off, due to its extra thin state. C3PO is trying hard to be an ice climb this season, but is still very thin and finicky, just like the droid. Lastly, if the M6 mixed climb The Wicket was on your project list, this is the year for the send. Between wind transported snow, and old avalanche debris, you may be able to clip the chains from the ground! Watch out, Mountain Project tick list.
Let’s be honest, Lee Vining is what we have all been waiting for. But, it would be a disservice not to mention the climbing conditions in the lovely town of June Lake. While Lee Vining Canyon is the pinnacle of ice climbing in Eastern California, June Lake can provide a reprieve from the masses on busy weekends, a quick fix for ice climbing and even some fun adventure climbing.
While many were enjoying sunny rock climbing or skiing in the deep powder that was brought this January storm cycle; if one were to venture down to the CA-158 winter road closure, you could find a Green VW Bug and a group of hardcore, excited and willing ice climbers, excited to bash their tools and crampons into anything the resembled ice. Many of these folks found themselves dredging up the tramline behind the SCE Power Plant with their eyes set to climb Horsetail falls, while other enjoyed some of the lower elevation climbing.
Thanks to the work of many, each day, more and more ice became exposed at Horsetail Falls. The ice was in variable condition ranging from thick, solid and well bonded, all the way to hollow, aerated and poorly bonded. The Far left side of this area is completely covered in snow. The center of Horsetail is alluring with its blue ice showing. Personally, I steer clear of this zone as the pourover is fickle and subject to tremendous and spontaneous ice fall. For me it is not worth the risk for 35ft of WI2+. There is one set of exposed anchors, on the right side of the area. These chains can be located on the rock climbers left, at the top of this long, yet very easy, pitch of ice. For the first time in my nearly decade of guiding ice climbing, I brought an adze here and found it extremely useful when trying to locate and clean out spots for good screw placements in solid ice. Lastly, some of the lower elevation ice in June Lake is in and looks to be steeper and wider than usual.
If you are still reading this, it’s evident you are excited to get out and ice climb. Let’s all keep in mind we have a limited resource here in Eastern California. This is a fun, yet dangerous sport with an extreme learning curve. Let’s all do our best to have fun out there, be kind to one another and make good decisions. Homer always wanted to end his column with “Screw Flanders,” I disagree with his sentiment here, as the guide formerly known as Flanders is a dear friend of mine. On the contrary, I will plagiarize Lisa and say “Bon Appetit.”
Author: Kevin McGarity, SMG Guide