Not so Blue Couloir, and kinda Dunderberg Peak

30 Apr - 1 May 2005 - by Ted Lenzie (view roster page)

On April 30, Steve E, Jon F, Andrew W, Chip C, and myself. started our ski/shoe ascent of the Blue Couloir. We all met at Schat's Bakery in the town of Mammoth Lakes. We drove up Hwy 203 to the Lake Mary road and parked at the Twin Lakes spillway. Here I got the sign-ins and gave out maps. We had a brief meeting and took to the snow covered road.

We started our ascent of the Blue Col by following the closed cross country resorts trail up to the top of the Cold Creek campground. The snow was in excellent climbing condition. It was hard packed and did not require snowshoes for the first two miles. We all climbed together up the Emerald Lake drainage. We continued up this easy to navigate drainage until Emerald Lake was reached. Here I stayed straight instead of turning right across the south side of the lake as I had done the previous year with an SMS group. The drainage seemed a natural way to go. Finally we reach a large crag with a beautiful ski bowl and two chutes. One on each side. The GPS pointed to the one on the right for the Blue Col. We ate a little just before starting off.

We proceeded toward the right chute following a southwest direction. The skiers zigzagged up the slope while the shoers went straight up. This was the first time our two different disciplines caused us to take different ascent routes. Once on top, we continued southwest toward the Blue Col itself. This required a little traversing and a loss in elevation. It was a brief down than up to the rocks at the base of the Blue Col. This is where we discovered the real climbing differences between the snowshoes and skis. After some discussion we determined that we needed to accept the slightly different routes that need to be taken between the shoes and skis. The skis just don't climb straight up like the shoes and the shoes don't traverse as well as the skis. I think when I do another ski/shoe trip I would like to have a co-lead on the opposite discipline. From here we could see the Blue Col saddle. We all remove our skis and shoes and rest stepped to the top taken turns breaking trail. It worked well. On the top of the Col it was calm and sunny. We took a lunch break and readied our descent. Jon and I skied off the top, Chip walked off, and Steve and Andrew would glissade. All went well without incident. Once at the rocks again, I wanted to point out our next meeting place at Sky Meadow. It was a roly-poly ride down on skis. The shoers would either take a direct walk or glissade off each of the knolls until we all met again at Sky Meadow. This is another difference between skis and shoes. We had about a 10 minute break when Steve showed up so the skiers have to remember not to run the shoers into the ground on the descent and give them a break as well.

Once we were all together we continued our descent into Emerald Lake. It was a pretty natural fall line toward the lake. We met there and came into contact with our original broken trail. We followed it out to Cold Creek campground. The snow covered road was primarily a slight downhill which made for an easy return. However the shoers had to still walk out. They were only 12 minutes behind us, so that wasn't too bad at all. The trail head was at 8,592 feet and the Blue Col was at 11,378 feet. We had a straight gain without the drops of 2,786 feet. We started at 9:00 a.m. and exited by 3:30 p.m.

That night we had a weather system blow in and it was raining at 8,000 feet. The Dunderberg climb looked threatened at first. We bailed into a motel room that night in Lee Vining and would reassess the next morning.

The next day, May 1, 2005 the cloud ceiling was about 8,500 feet. This wasn't good since we were starting at 9,000. Everything looks better after breakfast and coffee so we went out for breakfast and drove up to the Conway Summit. The Virginia Lakes road was about 2/3 plowed. This got us into an easy striking range of the Dunderberg south col. Here I got the sign-ins and gave out maps. We had a brief meeting and took to the snow covered road.. Well, the clouds teased us by lifting very slowly and dropping again. But the weather trend was getting better. We headed west on the snow covered road. I turned northwest a little too soon causing us to have to descend a little to get to the south col's base.

The snow was very soft. The skiers strapped their skis to their backs and began the sinking ascent while the shoers just floated on the soft snow. Most of us went to the rocks for a while climbing next to the slope. Our plan was to head for the Dunderberg saddle and climb the ridge west. After we were on the rocks a while Chip broke trail. The snow was hard enough to hike now. We climbed a while until we all met again in the south facing Dunderberg bowl. Took a short break here and continued up to the saddle. Jon put his skis on and climbed using his skins.

Once on the saddle, it was left for the final summit push. We took turns leading the route with Chip doing most of the trail breaking. Once on top of Dunderberg's east summit we met two other skiers at the top. The weather on top was not too bad, but Dunderberg's west (true) summit was buried in clouds while we were in the sun. We ate lunch and readied our gear for the descent.

The two skiers before us jumped off the top with their dog in chase. Jon and I followed their lead but move over to create our own turns. Chip and Andrew took the same route as the ascent, while Steve glissaded off the main south face. The snow was a slight mix of breakable crust and hard pack on top. The middle was just perfect skiing snow while the bottom resembled water skiing more than snow skiing. Steve's glissade pad took him all the way to the bottom while Chip and Andrew's glissades did not get as much distance. We regrouped at the bottom and continued south to the snow covered road.

Once at the road it was an easy out to the cars. We had a 3,200 foot gain from our start. We started at 9:00 a.m., on top at noon, and were back by 2:00 p.m.

Steve Eckert adds:

> Steve glissaded off the main south face.  The snow was a slight mix of breakable crust and hard
> pack on top.  The middle was just perfect skiing snow while the bottom resembled water skiing
> more than snow skiing.  Steve's glissade pad took him all the way to the bottom ...

Just a note on that Dunderberg glissade: this was one of the most dangerous glissades I've done. I could NOT brake with my feet because they'd go thru the crust and risk doing a header. Trying to brake hard on the ice axe often caused my brake hand to break thru the crust - and that crust HURT. Then I'd hit a hard patch that was really fast and need to shift my grip lower on the axe and lean over further for more leverage, then back into crust where my hand broke thru, etc. The sharp thin crust and the variability made it no place for beginners and even knowing what to do I had to make frequent rest stops because all the braking was with my arms.

When the bowl leveled off a bit I could ease up and enjoy the ride, even cutting a few shallow s-turns. I use a "plastic roll-up toboggan" that weighs under a pound and gives you amazing glide over soft or low-angle snow, in addition to protecting your pants from the clawing ice crystals. That's why my glissade went further: I had a cheat sheet!

Enjoy, but be careful out there. The snow isn't consolidated yet and it has more layers than usual. I expect some soft-snow-slumping as the base layers warm up and settle. Snowline was just above Conway Summit, maybe 8500', and the road was plowed to about 9100' (3.4 miles from Hwy 395).

PS: We were on the eastern summit, a third of a mile from the true peak, and my glissade track was pointing more east than south. Sort of the east face of the south shoulder of the false summit. If that makes any sense. We were always north or east of the cabins, not coming directly down the south face to Blue or Trumbull Lakes.

David Underwood adds:

This what happened to me several years ago on the Underhill Couloir. I started in a sitting position but the shaft just zippered through the crust. I turned to do a full arrest but the pick did the same and there was not stopping. I knew when I started that I had plenty of runout so I was not really worried at the time about any real problem. However, there was some rough area where the bergschrund would normally be and for what ever reason I incurred a hamstring injury. I really thought at first that I had a broken leg. That is how it felt. At first I could not walk but later found I could stand up even though I still could not walk. Actually, sitting on the glacier all night was good for the injury. I was highly criticized for this mishap by someone who much later had a far more serious accident on an icy chute.

Steve Eckert adds:

> I was highly criticized for this mishap

I posted my experience to help other people think ahead, not to start a flame. Many people are unwilling to post about their accidents or tough spots for fear of being criticized... but there's a difference between criticism and critique, eh?

>I turned to do a full arrest but the pick did the same and there was not stopping.

IMHO, it's pretty rare to find Sierra snow where a pick arrest is the fastest way to stop. That's why I worked on enhancing my glissade technique beyond what they teach in school. By varying your torso position and how much of the axe sticks out below your braking hand, you can get incredible force on the shaft under almost any conditions. It is possible to glissade 40 degree ice that's too hard to kick even a plastic boot into - and that might be safer than trying to chop steps and get into arrest position when you slip.

In slush, you want a lot of axe shaft digging deep into the snow like a picket. On ice, you want only a tiny bit of shaft below your hand, and you want your hand planted firmly between your ribs and hips while you lean over the axe to keep your center of gravity below the center of force. It's not easy to understand until you see it and try it on tough conditions... but it out-performs an arrest in most situations and it lets you see where you're headed so you can kick rocks to slow down without breaking your legs (a kayaker taught me the value of kicking things to break your momentum, but it only works if you're facing them and if your knee can bend to absorb shock).

During my ice axe check-off with the Angeles Chapter, we were supposed to do a fall-backwards-downhill arrest. The snow (in Baldy Bowl) was so soft that the axe was just a stage prop. I said as much, someone disagreed, and so I threw away my axe as I fell and arrested with my elbows and toes. Got it done faster than with the axe because my elbows had a much larger cross-section than my axe.

Many people have never practiced under the conditions that hurt them. Slush isn't the place to practice because it's so easy to stop that you think you've got it when you don't. January wind-slab or early morning June ice is the place to practice, but you better have fixed pro and a belay. It's different when you fall unexpectedly or there's no run-out.

OK, I'm off the soap box.

David Underwood adds:

I did not post to start a flame, I just wanted to point out that it has happened to others and as you say, criticism does not help things. But also as I said the criticism was there so instead of others learning from my experience they looked upon it as a dumb accident.

My point being that I could not slow down enough using the normal braking technique. As you pointed out, your brake hand was breaking through the crust. In my case the surface felt soft, but just below the surface it was was a thin icy sheet and I could not get enough resistance.

> It is possible to glissade 40 degree ice that's too hard to kick even a plastic boot into -
and that might be safer than trying to chop steps and get into arrest position when you slip.

I am aware of that and maybe I did not have the shaft in a good enough position. I would not have considered the glissade if the runout was not open. Later I was told that at least one person had died on that same couloir when he slipped near the top of the chute. At any rate getting on top of the pick should have stopped me.

> you can kick rocks to slow down without breaking your legs

I have used that technique and I am not disputing that.

> During my ice axe check-off with the Angeles Chapter, we were supposed to do a
> fall-backwards-downhill arrest.

I had a great deal of difficulty with the face down position. I was trying to bring my legs around too soon instead of rolling. I had to work on it myself as others could not see I was doing wrong. The back position was much easier for me as I was able to double up fairly well.

> Many people have never practiced under the conditions that hurt them.

Finding those condition can be difficult. Unfortunately, you find then when you least expect them.

Later I took a course with Jon Fisher and one of the techniques he use is to put your head down and roll if you are falling forward. He said the most common fall is forward, usually from caching your crampons in something like your pants leg or gaiters.


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