Basin Mountain (#46)
Day 39, Basin Mountain
While Tom might be the biggest peak above Bishop, and Humphreys the most striking, Basin has the most obvious ski descent: THE Basin. It is a huge, moderately pitched couloir, dropping 2,000 feet from just below the summit, angling along the base of Basin’s steep, massive east face. It is truly an Eastside Classic.
I started before dawn, knowing that the fresh snow would heat up quickly under the morning sun. I walked through dry, rocky sagebrush, climbing gradually towards a gently curving finger of snow, barely visible in the dark.
As I climbed higher, the sun slowly rose, casting its rosy morning rays across the valley far below. As the day broke, I came to a large, flat bench, scattered with piles of glacier moraine and cradled on 3 sides by steep rock walls. Out of the back corner of this basin rose the line.
I switched from cramponing to skinning (an uncommon transition) and continued on ever-deepening fresh snow. I had the fun idea to make some powder 8s with my skin track and my descent track, so I set a perfectly symmetrical, even set of 16 switchbacks, 50 steps each, and left them to await my return.
Eventually, the steepening slope forced me to switch back to crampons. Fortunately, I found a strip of mostly old, firm snow that had been cleaned off by the wind, and followed this fairly easily up to the top of the couloir.
I assessed my options: on previous trips up Basin, I had taken a low traverse, wrapping below the steep cliffs above and climbing an easier route up the backside of the summit spire. Today, however, that traverse was plastered with fresh snow, and the direct line straight up steep rock to the summit looked much more appealing. I eyed a line that looked plausible, and set off.
The climbing was tricky, requiring lots of digging fresh snow out of cracks and brushing it off ledges to find secure jams and holds. Fortunately, I found the conditions to add an enjoyable extra layer of complexity, and reached the summit without mishap.
The views from Basin are somewhat limited, bookended as it is by Tom and Humphreys, but spectacular nonetheless.
I enjoyed them briefly, paying particularly close attention to conditions on Humphreys, my objective for tomorrow.
In typical fashion, I became eager to get skiing before the snow warmed up any more. On the descent, I tried to take a more direct, interesting-looking line down a steep face split by many cracks.
Unfortunately, I found the cracks to be wet, grainy, and flaring, and they made for slow, uncomfortable downclimbing. If nothing else, at least it was an aesthetic line.
In a flash, feet went into boots, boots clicked into skis, and skis slid into chute. The snow wasn’t quite the blissful, blower powder I’d been envisioning. It was heavy, wet, and a proper workout to pull my skis around in. I enjoyed it nonetheless, and raced my rollerballs down the slope.
At the bottom, I made sure to 8 my Zs, hitting each one with perfect, symmetrical precision. Ah, the satisfaction of ephemeral art.
As I raced towards the desert, the snow patches became scattered and sporadic once again. I spotted a long, continuous strip, stomped though sagebrush over to it, then rode it out almost all the way back down to the van, dodging rocks, hopping over brush, and spraying slush the whole way.
There’s something truly joyful about the improbability of skiing a 3 foot wide strip of snow for hundreds of feet, with nothing but dry, dusty desert all around. I got back to my van (newly christened Bluebird Skies, a tribute to the joy and freedom of great days in wild places) excited for an afternoon of relaxation and another adventure the next day!
Note: Nathan accidentally paused his watch for most of the descent.
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