Birch Mountain (#33)
Day 27, Birch Mountain
My new friend Ayelet and I started hiking through the dry, dusty sagebrush long before sunrise, without a patch of snow in sight. We were headed towards Birch Mountain, one of the towering front range peaks of the Southern Eastside that rise almost 10,000 feet straight up from the Owens River Valley. The dramatic topography is difficult to process from on the flanks of these peaks, with scale and distance become warped.
By sunrise, we had reached snowline, and looking up at the rocky gullies above, it seemed as if we were near the top. A couple hours later, it felt as if we had hardly climbed at all, despite being 2,000 feet higher on the mountain.
The snow was firm and had formed into large “fins” from months of exposure to the desert sun. In its current state, skiing would be all but impossible, but we knew that the day would be warm and eventually the surface would soften. Climbing higher, we entered the east couloir, a perfect ramp of snow that would take us directly to the summit plateau. Behind us, the world fell away for thousands of feet to the valley floor.
The occasional cool, alpine breeze offered reprieve from the growing heat of the rising sun. Excitement for the epic ski descent ahead spurred us upward, until we finally reached the top of the couloir. A short but tedious section of talus walking deposited us on the final snowfield that led directly to the summit. The snow alternated between deep, punchy spots and firm windboard, making booting tiring.
We pushed onward, intent on maintaining our pace of 1,000 feet per hour and reaching the summit in 7 hours. On top, we were rewarded with epic, expansive views of the valley far below, and the jagged Palisade Crest ahead.
This airy fin of dark rock, with miles and miles of technical terrain, is the most rugged part of the Sierra. My eyes traced the sharp, undulating ridgeline, and I felt chills of excitement and anticipation, knowing that I would be attempting to traverse it in just a few short months.
I would have loved to sit and admire the craggy alpine scenery for hours, but the snow in our line was ripening fast, and it was time for a bountiful corn harvest. The turns off the summit were variable and tricky, as is usually the case on the tops of such lofty peaks, but improved rapidly as we lost elevation.
After picking our way back across the talus patch, we clipped into skis at the top of the real prize -- the east couloir. The snow was soft, smooth and predictable, and I quickly dropped through 2,000 feet of rock-lined perfection, slashing fast, fun turns down the steep line. I waited for Ayelet to make her way down the couloir, and then we leap-frogged our way down the ever-changing snow of the mountain’s middle slopes. Some parts were excellent corn, others were challenging, 3D, wind-effected garbage.
As we continued towards the desert below, we eyed a shallow gully with a long, winding strip of snow in the bottom, snaking it’s way downward. We followed the snow finger, expecting it to peter out each time we rounded another bend, but it just kept going! The skiing was incredibly fun, like riding a slushy water slide that constantly twisted and turned.
In joy and disbelief, we followed the frozen path all the way down to 6800 feet, just a few hundred feet above the car. We threw our skis on our packs, schwacked our way through a willow patch, then bounced down to the car, reveling in the epic summit and descent.
We had skied a continuous line of mostly good corn for well over a vertical mile. Days like this perfectly capture the joy of ski mountaineering in the Eastern Sierra!
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