We set out on April 16, 1999, to climb Black Mountain and Diamond Peak. We were Noriko Sekikawa, Lawrence Garibaldi, Charles Schafer, Brian Wachter, John Hossack, Bob Suzuki, and leaders Steve Eckert and Aaron Schuman.
Our starting point, the Baxter Pass trailhead, turned out to be easy to find, up a well kept dirt road from the Mount Whitney Fish Hatchery, just north of Independence. In two hours we hiked through the dusty desert from our 6000 foot origin to the 7600 foot snowline. The snow was soft and sticky from the warm spring days, and quickly became waist deep. Some of us sunk into the slush in spite of wearing snowshoes, and others of us beat down a path wearing just our boots. The conditions tired us, and we stopped lower than we intended, in a spacious grove of pines beside Oak Creek at 9100 feet.
On Saturday, we woke at dawn to climb. It didn't freeze overnight, and the snow was mushy again. Brian, John, Bob, and I snowshoed up the canyon while Steve skied. We passed a pretty waterfall at 10000 feet, with an attractive campsite in the meadow on top of the fall. We left the Baxter Pass trail at around 11000 feet, and entered a cirque formed by Black and Diamond. We deployed our ice axes to overcome the 400 foot headwall. Once in the bowl of Black Mountain, we struggled to figure out which of the pinnacles on the ridge was the summit. Steve's GPS only picked up four satellites, and gave an obviously spurious reading. Our map showed some permanent snowfields, and we tried to match their shapes to the features we could see on the mountain, but since it was almost completely snow covered, we didn't have enough information to work with, and we targeted the wrong tower. At the top, we could see a higher point to the left, and when we got there, a higher one yet further beyond, and so on for about a quarter mile. At last we rested on the summit.
To the west, Mount Clarence King stood naked, too steep for snow to settle. To the south, Kearsarge Pass looked intimidating under its severe cornice. To the north, the Palisades beckoned, and to the east, the snowless Inyos and Panamints begged for their drops of moisture.
The whole area is a preserve for bighorn sheep, closed to the public between July and December. We didn't see any bighorns or any evidence that they had been around.
When we left the summit at 3:00, it was getting late for an attempt on Diamond Peak. It isn't a ridge traverse, it requires a drop back into the bowl, so we decided to leave it for another day. Steve skied back to camp, carving jagged 'S's into the mountain side like a hogtied sculptor forced to hold his chisel between his teeth. The rest of us crashed down the slopes on our snowshoes, arriving back at our tents at 7:00 pm.
After another warm (or at least above freezing) night, we broke camp and headed down. John broke trail through the slush the entire way. John and the next two people in line did such a fine job stamping down a trench that the people at the back of the line just walked between two tall walls of slush like parka clad Israelites crossing a frozen Red Sea.
We ate a huge celebratory meal at PJ's Diner, the 24 hour PCS clubhouse in Lone Pine. I was delighted to discover that PJ's is at the corner of Tim Holt Street, just a slight misspelling of the name of a famous PCS mountaineer.
Steve and Brian found inspiration for this trip from Pink Floyd's song "Learning To Fly":
"Above the planet on a wing and a prayer [...] There's no sensation to compare with this, suspended animation, a state of bliss. Can't keep my mind from the circling sky, tongue-tied & twisted just an earth-bound misfit, I."
Butch Suits adds:
... you said the snow didn't freeze at least one of the nights. This phenomenon tends to increase the risk of avalanches-- since there's no stabilization from freezing and water continues to saturate the snow. At the risk of being pedantic, I would caution people about climbing steep "slushy" slopes for this reason. I've gotten away with this a few times (e.g., climbing Echo Col from the east once on a warm afternoon in May) but am trying not to repeat the situation. Did you notice any evidence of slides up there?
Peter Maxwell adds:
Following on from Aaron's snow report, Anouchka and I were on San Joaquin Mountain over the weekend, and the snow barely froze at 10800' where we were camped. It was definitely crusty, though. We saw no signs of avalanches up there, including a couple of steep portions we had to negotiate.
Larry Sokolsky asks:
Did you see a lot of signs of wet-slide point release avalanches, or any more major slab avalanches from the warm new snow conditions?
Owen Maloy adds:
John Moynier shows an avalanche video in his classes that shows a guy climbing in calf-deep slush. John says if it's over your ankles, go another way. That's why people start at 3AM with crampons. John says he's lost friends to avalanches.
Look at the trip reports for the 1996 Elderberry Canyon and 1995 Mt Ritter trips on the Ski Mountaineers website (http://www.angeleschapter.org/skimt/) for some pictures of spring-snow avalanches.
Steve Eckert adds:
The high slopes weren't really slushy. In fact, I had trouble with the snow sticking to my skins. The locals in Lone Pine confirmed that almost all the snow visible from 395 fell in the (cold) week before our trip. Nothing we were on could be called corn snow in the classic spring sense, except the thin stuff where the snow tapered off into rocks. Water content seemed pretty low on the higher slopes when I tried to fill my water bottle.
>Did you notice any evidence of slides up there?
The south slopes of Black had one big slump, not a fast slide. The north slopes which we climbed had a few snowballs that had rolled down but no slides or slumps. Snow line was below 8k, but only in the right place. You could still walk on primarily dry rocks at 9k if you tried. Higher up the snow was gone anywhere the wind hits... looking at Diamond from Black I'd say there was less than 50% coverage.
I'd like to add a few comments to Aaron's report:
First, the ridge northwest of the peak is a real surprise. Very much better than you would expect from below. Slightly airy, with dramatic views toward Clarance King and Keith, and the central Sierra. We went the long way to avoid some steep snow chutes, but after being there I'd highly recommend it as an aesthetic route.
Second, mushy is a relative term. We never used our crampons, but people got to camp carrying snowshoes instead of wearing them. Charles and I wore skis part of the way up, where the others were sidehilling in waist deep snow and bushes, but walked down from camp because the snow was icy in the morning and too steep to ski down the sidehill comfortably later on. I carried my skis part way to the peak because it seemed easier than skinning up the hardpack - but as the sun warmed things up I skied all but about 200' of the headwall and then ran out of snow about 800' below the peak. The ridge had styrofoam windslab that required hard kicks in big boots, and sometimes had spindrift powder on top of the windslab.
Third, I had one wild reading on my GPS, but in all other places it was dead on (including the summit, where it was 50' from the pre-entered waypoint). I've had that happen twice before, both times on Mt Tam here in the Bay Area, and I don't understand it. Perhaps it was due to limited satellites, but I had 4 strong signals and I've gotten reasonable readings on only 3. Perhaps there was an attack or a threat of attack, and the military knocked the signal sideways for a bit. It was a one-mile error at the base of the headwall! In the bowl above the headwall, the GPS pointed correctly to the true summit which matched the map once we got our heads screwed on correctly.