Tower Peak on Skis

15 May 1999 - by Harlan Suits

The bear went over the mountain. By doing this, he showed us an excellent ski slope. His tracks were a pleasure to find; not so the snowmobile tracks we discovered in the same area, crossing from Hoover Wilderness into Yosemite National Park. But why were tracking wildlife along Yosemite's remote northern border?

It was mostly because of the way Tower Peak forms a striking profile from Highway 108. Many times while driving past Leavitt Meadows I had risked ending up in a ditch to get a good look at this mountain--distant, yet perfectly framed at the end of the Meadows, isolated and symmetrical --the only Crest peak visible from that viewpoint.

On a sunny Saturday Lin Murphy, John Langbein and I set off from Twin Lakes up Robinson Creek, skies on our backpacks for the first four miles. (At the trailhead, we had bumped into Jim Curl and some other Sierra Club climbers who were going up to climb the Doodad.) We passed Little Slide Canyon; its snowy slopes and jagged granite pinnacles said "come ski, come climb," but that was not the way to Tower Peak. We took the last turn in the valley up past Barney Lake instead. Before heading up I scoped out the high pass at the west end of Robinson valley. It had what looked like skiable snow: perhaps it would provide an interesting shortcut on our return trip (Oh, what fools these mortals be).

We hit snow at about 8,000 feet but had to take our skis off again to get around the lake, which was beginning to thaw. At the head of the canyon, Crown Point, broad and majestic, dominated the view. The scenery was already grand; would Tower Peak be worth the extra miles? We passed a collection of backpacks beyond the lake. The owners were apparently out on a day trip. Despite the mid-day sun, the temperature was surprisingly chilly, and the snow was firm underneath, remaining frozen in shaded areas.

We skied up a narrow side canyon for a few miles. Abruptly it opened out into to the broad frozen expanse of Peeler Lake. Here at 9600 feet we traveled back in time to mid-winter: arctic blasts of wind encouraged us to keep moving after we fetched water from a pool at the outlet. We traversed the immaculately white Kerrick Meadow, then slogged up our final pass in late afternoon, fatigue gnawing at our limbs. A cold wind blew at the top. It was not a pleasant place to camp, so we skied down into the lovely valley at the base of Hawksbeak Peak. A strange melted out track went straight up a nearby slope. Snowmobiles? In Yosemite National Park?

The evening was a cold but windless. John's sweet-and-sour chicken and rice fortified us for the night. To pass the time, Lin and I discussed Wagner's Ring operas, which we are attending later this year. John endured this highbrow chatter stoically.

The next morning we slept in. It seemed to be a silent, consensual conspiracy among the three of us. My rationalization was that our bodies needed the extra hours after the long day of skiing--besides, we were within 4 miles of Tower.

When the sun hit the tent we finally stirred. Despite our late start, I nursed grandiose schemes of both climbing Tower and skiing all the way around it. We crossed a gentle pass south of Hawksbeak Peak into the Walker River drainage, skirting the north side of the Sierra Crest. Happily, the cold weather had given way to a mild spring day. As we descended, the soaring granite buttresses of Hawksbeak made us feel like Lilliputians. More curving tracks in the valley confirmed that snowmobile yahoos had been violating the wilderness.

Ahead, Tower Peak swung into view. We were pleased to see that a series of snow bowls would allow us to ski to the base of the steep granite for which it is named. En route to these bowls we crossed bear tracks descending in lazy arcs from the Sierra crest. This mountaineer had built-in crampons but I don't think he (she?) needed them. He had been smart enough to descend the slope when the snow was soft, plunge-stepping on all fours.

At the steepest part of our ascent we had to sidestep carefully to get our skins to grip. At last we pulled up onto the northwest ridge, with views down into Mary Lake and north to the distant green-brown swath of Leavitt Meadows. The ridge was gentle enough to ski up, but the snow was rock hard. Ahead we saw the cleft in Tower's armor: a steep, recessed snow gully pocked with outcrops. If that snow were also rock hard, we would be in trouble, for we did not have crampons (or sharp claws). At least one member of our party expressed pessimism. I wanted a closer look. "Horsewhipped up another peak by Butch," was the tongue-in-cheek response.

The rocky intervening ridge was a fun scramble. Inevitably, though we had to test the 40 degree snow in the gully. No problem--it was easy to kick steps in it, and the occasional outcrops also afforded good hand and footholds. Soon we were clambering up an airy tilted slab to the summit rocks. To the east, steep rock fell away to lower crags. To the south, long snow-covered canyons stretched down toward the direction of Hetch Hetchy Reservoir; one contained the slender snow-covered expanse of Tilden Lake.

After backing down the gully, we reclaimed our skis. It was 3:00, a bit late to continue our ski around Tower. After all, we had only done about one-third of the circuit. The good news was we looked forward to a 2000 foot ski descent on nice corn snow. At the jumping off point below the ridge the snow was still crusty, but soon we were plowing S-turns down the big bowl below. At the bottom, John and I skinned up the smaller slope that the bear had descended from the crest. That too was a fine run.

The next morning, I suggested we ski Hawksbeak Peak before heading home. It's east-facking slopes, already softening in the morning sun, would ready to carve by the time we packed up camp. The snow cover at the top looked sparse, but as we approached I was delighted to see corriders of snow between the scrub pines leading nearly to the summit. A short scramble led to the top, and a nice cruising descent brought us back to camp in 15 minutes. Ah, wilderness.

I convinced the others to try my "shortcut" back to Robinson valley. We descended easily to Buckeye Pass, then began a 2-mile traverse to the pass between Hunewill Peak and Cirque Mountain. This was a scenic route, but tedious, with lots of shallow gullys to contour around--probably more like 3 miles. In retrospect, a descent-ascent would have been more efficient than contouring. Moreover, the slope right before the pass became very steep--treacherous for traversing on skis. "I don't want to slide into a tree," John remarked as he packed his skis. He was right: kicking steps in this terrain was faster and more secure. Examining the map, I was sobered by the bunched up contour lines awaiting us on our descent--even steeper, I now realized than what we were now climbing. I began to feel I had made a big mistake: John had been rehabbing a broken hip for over a year and had expressly told me he wanted to avoid dangerous slopes ("you fall, you die" slopes as he called them).

But we had come too far to back off without checking it out. The only problem: we had to descend part-way down from the pass before we could check out the steep 400-foot section. It was 4:00.

With the tension mounting we skied down to the hanging valley. At the outlet we could see the blue waters of Twin Lakes at the end of the valley below, only about 4 miles away. We skied up to the big drop. Cliffs lay below us, but snowy ramps led to the right. We could see easier ground about 300 feet down. Could we find a way through? If we had to turn around here, the route out was 11 miles--requiring either a death march or another night out,without food.

Below a row of trees I saw a short, steep chute go through the cliffs. The runout looked reasonable. At 45 degrees, it was one of the steepest slopes I've ever skied--sideslipping that is. We also discovered an old set of steps kicked into the snow, which John used to descend. Was another bear showing us the way to go?

Relieved, we telemarked down the lower slopes, dodging islands of underbrush. Our luck held as a well-placed snowpatch allowed us to cross over the creek and access a long avalanche gully, a big ribbon of snow that deposited us to within a few hundred feet of Barney Lake's outlet. A few minutes of willow bashing brought us to the trail to Twin Lakes.

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