Mount Gibbs (#20) and Mount Dana (#21)
Day 17, Mount Gibbs and Mount Dana
I frantically drove up and down the bumpy road in the dark, early hours of the morning. I was trying to find the right place to park and cross the raging creek, and I was already running late. After pulling off in a few different spots and searching unsuccessfully for a crossing, I re-consulted my trusty Eastern Sierra Backcountry Skiing guide and realized that I needed to be further up the road. I found the appropriate parking area (with a bridge!) and hurriedly prepared my gear for the day. The routine is now familiar: eggs for breakfast, check pack for crampons, ski crampons, ski strap, sunglasses, extra layer, Inreach, GoPro, phone, etc, etc. On go the cold ski pants and colder ski boots. Skins on skis, grab the poles, and off into the darkness.
Today was going to be a big one — Gibbs and Dana, giants of the northern Eastside. I was excited for the summits, but even more stoked for the skiing — coming down from Dana, one can link not one but TWO world-class couloirs simply by adding in a short stroll across the Dana Plateau. I was a little concerned about dropping into both the Dana Couloir and Coke Chute completely blind — I would be looping around the south side of the Plateau to access Gibbs first. My main concern was wind loading at the tops of the couloirs — with recent snowfall and the Sierra’s constant ridgetop gales, it was a likely issue. I had an escape plan, but hoped for the best.
I climbed quickly up through sparse trees, and was soon greeted by the glorious morning sun, shining first on the soaring granite walls above me, and then melting down towards me until the whole world glowed. The Sierras were made for sunrises. Fueled by the energy of a new day, I traversed my way through talus and brush around to Kidney Lake.
Towering above the lake is the Kidney Chute, perhaps the only line on the east side that is truly “in fat” this year. It was also my escape plan if either of the other couloirs looked too sketchy.
I climbed up to the Gibbs-Dana col, relieved to find a slice of snow to travel on that had been scoured down to hard pack, rather than covered by fresh wind deposits. At the saddle, I examined the north face of Gibbs.
I knew there was potential for skiing a line there, but all of the options looked wind-scoured and rocky. For once, I wasn’t too upset to have a good excuse to leave the skis behind — lots of tricky talus walking and scrambling lay between me and the summit, which would be plenty taxing without the added burden of skis on my back. Walking on snow-covered, unstable talus in ski boots just might be my least favorite form of mountain travel. Have you ever done stairs in ski boots? Imagine that, but the stairs are 1000’ tall, twisted at odd angles, hidden beneath a blanket of slippery snow, and half of them move unexpectedly. It’s a perfect recipe for shifting the pace to hours-per-mile. Fortunately, the weather and views were stupendous, and there was some more enjoyable 3rd class on a nice ridge to buoy me up to the summit of Gibbs.
After the usual summit indulgence, I retraced my wobbly, off-balance steps back to my skis, and started up Dana.
This climb was the polar opposite — steep, firm snow that made for quick progress. In no time I was soaking in summit views once again, and getting ready for a truly epic decent.
Dropping off the summit was a perfect, rounded ridge, adorned with a stripe of steep snow that led straight to the entrance of the couloir. The snow on the ridge was firm but edgeable. It felt like freshly-groomed corduroy, except instead of making turns below a creaking chairlift, I was laying them out in the proudest position imaginable, carving a line for the entire Sierra to see.
All too soon, I was making the swooping left turn out of the sun and into the dark, steep depths of the couloir. The snow was stable, which was good, but excruciatingly firm, which was unfortunate. I picked my way down the couloir, in far from great style, linking turns here and there but doing plenty of survival side-slipping. I wasn’t too upset about the poor conditions, as coverage was good, and one can’t ask for much more than that in the middle of a dry winter. I gingerly picked my way out the bottom of the line, and skied out of the basin, frequently casting glances back over my shoulder at the towering north face of Dana and the striking, aesthetic line I had just descended.
Between me and the top of the next line, Coke Chute, was a mile of traipsing across the Dana Plateau. The Plateau is truly a world apart from ours- it is slightly concave, so all one can see is the barren expanse and the very tips of nearby peaks.
It is an island in the sky, where time and distance warp and bend. I wandered the wasteland in the afternoon sun, seemingly not going anywhere, but not really caring. After what felt like hours, or maybe only a few moments, the world abruptly ended. I had arrived at the eastern edge of the plateau, where the ground suddenly drops away into thousands of feet of air.
I found the entrance to my line, a steep chute slicing its way down through the vertical wall. Once again, the snow looked violently firm. There were also some obvious areas of wind slabs, some of which would be unavoidable.
I threw rocks down into the steep snow below, getting a feel for it’s consistency and stability. Once I decided that I would be able to navigate the line safely, I clicked into my skis and scratched my way down the steep entrance.
Once again, I made turns here and there, but mostly inched my way down the funky, variable snow, occasionally digging into the slabs to make sure I wasn’t skiing onto a trapdoor. It was slow, scary, tedious, tenuous skiing, a far cry from the blissful freedom of skiing at its best.
At long last, about 1/3 of the way down the couloir, I found what I’d been looking for — soft, stable, glorious powder. I linked slow, wide turns down it, savoring each one. My tired legs screamed in protest, but I was determined to take it to the bottom. The powder was a little heavy, a bit wind affected, and every now and then a patch of ice or windboard would briefly interrupt my flow, but they were some of the most satisfying turns I’ve ever had. I linked my way down the rest of the line, 1,000 vertical feet, then coasted to a stop on the flats below, turning on shaking legs to admire my handiwork.
Behind me, the towering east face of the Dana Plateau rose skyward, split by several steep couloirs, with sheer rock buttresses in between. The scene was silhouetted by the late afternoon sun. It was truly a majestic sight to behold. I soaked in the view, and the day.
After a moment of quiet appreciation, I pointed my skis downhill. All I had left was another 2,000 vertical feet of moderate tree skiing. I could finally relax…
The mellow gully that I was following was briefly obstructed by a pile of boulders. I took my skis off, clambered over, then set my skis on an area of flat snow. Well — nearly flat. In a moment of lapsing focus, after so much mental taxation throughout the day, I clicked into one ski, jostling the other as I did so. As if in slow motion, but just fast enough that I couldn’t quite react in time, it glided off down the steepening hill and out of sight. At that moment, all of the exhaustion of 11 hours on the move, and all the tricky and technical terrain, hit me at once. I feared the worst- my ski was all the way back at the highway, in the creek, or splintered in pieces. I would spend the short minutes of daylight that remained desperately searching for it, to no avail. I was almost ready to despair, but there was only one thing to do- I slid downhill after my rogue ski, awkwardly balancing on one exhausted leg. I rolled over the crest to the steeper slope below and started picking my way down it, eyes scanning for a glint of red. And there it was, only 200 feet below me, miraculously stabbed upright in the snow, beckoning me to it.
It was as if the mountains were giving me a little scolding -- not enough to cause any damage, but just a little reminder that gravity is always in charge, and that the mountains know when your focus and judgement lapse even for a second. It was a perfect little reminder of the importance of constantly staying humble and alert. I very, very carefully clicked into the ski and carved my way down increasingly manky snow to my van and the promise of food, water, and sleep.
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