Monday, April 15, 2013

Mammoth – Tour of the Couloirs – April 2013

please remember you can click on a photo to see a larger version

We have mentioned our friend, Mr. Randonee, in previous stories. An excellent mountaineer, climber, and ski mountaineer, Mr. Randonee leads trips for various organizations. He has summited Denali, climbed in the Alps including the Eiger, skied the Haute Route, along with extensive more "local" trips. He has always been kind in including us with invitations to join him on his spring ski mountaineering trips to the eastern High Sierra. The last couple of years, time, weather conditions, other obligations conspired against us making one of the trips. We wanted this spring to be different. The Lady especially wanted to make his trip out of the Mammoth area to climb and ski the Blue Couloir.

With anticipation we watched the weather. It was looking good with maybe some wind – 40 to 50 mile an hour gusts over the ridges. We reached Mammoth Lakes with enough daylight to check out the trailhead for Saturday’s trip and we also checked out access for a couple of our own future trip ideas. We had to find a spot to camp. We headed over to the Hot Creek area and the heart of the Long Valley Caldera.

Camping or any overnight use is not permitted in the hot springs area. We found a cozy little spot on the eastern edge.

We scrambled down into the gorge and found that Hot Creek is hot. Not hot by hot springs standards but nice and warm.

Lying in the water, floating with a hand on a rock, the warm current rocking our bodies was luxurious. We lost track of time as the day waned.

The east side of the Sierra Nevada is always spectacular.

That wonderful round Jeffery pine quickly became a favorite anchor point for my photos.

We were up before dawn as we were meeting the group early at Schat’s Bakery in Mammoth. The coyotes sang during our breakfast prior to leaving. It was a good omen.

Lake Mary Road in the winter ends at the spillway for Twin Lakes. This was our trailhead. We were soon above Emerald Lake. We stopped for a group photo.

I will have a little fun here with names and this will be our cast of characters for the day, from left to right – Mr. Smooth, the Lady, the Kid, Mr. Randonee, Vlad, the Little Guy, the Fireman, and May. The Kid and Mr. Randonee are friends. The others we were meeting for the first time.

This was the area of the Mammoth Crest where we were heading.

As we climbed the vistas opened up before us. We had to stop and take it in.

Other photos were in order. The young lovers.

The Lady with her buddy, Mr. Randonee.

The Fireman asked for a photo. This guy knows style.

We were soon headed up into the high, steep, open bowls. The Lady is keeping herself "found" on the topo map. There is another group of skiers above the Lady and Mr. Randonee.

The Fireman had a great line, “I may be slow on the climb but I can ski down anything!”

Vlad and Mr. Smooth.

The lead group, the Lady, Mr. Randonee, the Kid, and the Fireman were ready to climb around the corner and take a look at the couloir.

We were in stunning terrain. How could we not be utterly thrilled?

Vlad and Mr. Smooth caught up and Vlad shared the secret of the fuel he uses to make steep and arduous climbs.

Mr. Randonee and the lead group reported back, “That’s the wrong couloir. There's a big overhanging cornice and it is too narrow. We have to head left.” Our “tour of the couloirs” was beginning.


We traversed to the left and stopped on a high bench for a snack and hydration break.

Another couloir soared above us. The ski group ahead of us was zigzagging their way up.

Mr. Randonee had tied in with them earlier and gotten this reply, “This is not the Blue Couloir. You are way right of the Blue.”

Our “tour of the couloirs” was going to continue. The Lady & I were content. We were seeing and experiencing incredible terrain. It was wonderful to look to the north and down to the top of Mammoth Mountain. Far in the distance was Mono Lake.

Mr. Randonee consulted with his co-leader, May.

The other ski group above had reached the limit of what they could climb on skis, strapped them to their packs, and booted up the extremely steep couloir.

Our new route was now to drop into a steep gully, traverse out of it and round the ridge beyond to turn the next corner. Another steep couloir loomed above. Up we went.

It was indeed “up” and it was steep. Mr. Randonee led the way with the Kid behind.

The rest of the group headed up.

While traversing out of the previous gully, I had fallen when my skis cut into some hard crust, putting my head down the slope. I immediately did a roll and had my ski edges safely into the slope below me. Climbing around the ridge after, I felt pain in my right shoulder. Half way up the couloir I decided I did not want to ascend higher with a questionable shoulder. Also, I really wanted to get in a good position to have fun photographing the skiers. 

The Lady continued up. She loves to climb.

May’s job was sweep, the last one up.

The Lady was soon up with the leaders. Mr. Randonee is above on the right, the Kid is making a turn, and the Lady is close behind.

The rest of the group decided it was time to strap skis to packs and climb the remaining distance on foot. I turned to look at the terrain below and around us.

A booming voice broke through the sound of the wind. It immediately caught my attention.

“Self arrest! Self arrest! Self arrest! Self arrest!” yelled Mr. Randonee, fulfilling his leadership role.

The Lady had already stopped her fall as I looked up.

Snow underneath her had collapsed as she was making her upturn. Balance upset, she flipped backwards down the slope. She rolled and got her skis below her and dug her elbows into the slope arresting her slide. She is like a cat. Her poles had been knocked loose with the first hit.

This is dangerous terrain. If the Lady and I were not confident in each others abilities and experience, we would not venture up into these spectacular high places. But that does not mean you don’t get rattled. The Lady was obviously shaken. She was back on her skis and carefully moved down to the rocks above me. She joined May. May had decided that was high enough for her.

The Kid continued up on skis. The Little Guy and Mr. Smooth were now on their way booting up the couloir.

Near the top, on extremely steep terrain, Mr. Randonee pointed out the route through rocks to the Kid.

The group continued up.

The last pitch was steep enough that Mr. Randonee and the Kid put skis on packs and continued climbing.

The Lady called down to me. “I’m not skiing from the top but Vlad and I are continuing up without skis!”

The group was now in a line.

And the Lady was right with them………………………………..

…………………….and was soon going over the top.

I was given permission to use this photo taken by the Kid. It gives another perspective of the terrain.This is Vlad nearing the top of the couloir.

As the Lady carefully descended, her parka told me the wind was stronger over the crest.

I heard the call from the skiers over May’s radio above. “We’re starting down!”

Mr. Randonee was first over the lip.

He has a skiing style built on strength

Mr. Randonee paused on the slope and here came Mr. Smooth.

What an incredible skier with great form! He was beautiful to watch ski. It was a thrill.

Mr. Randonee finished the run down to my position.

We chatted for a minute and he asked if it was butterflies in the stomach that had halted my ascent. I told him about my shoulder and wanting to see if I could get some good photos. He told me these were the worst snow conditions he had ever skied in the Blue Couloir and, "Look at all those rocks! What a poor snowpack. I don't remember ever seeing rocks like this."

The Kid was next one down.

He earned that smile!

I’m having fun with the nickname I’ve given him for this narrative. In two days he celebrated his seventieth birthday. In the last few years, among other accomplishments, he has climbed the Matterhorn, skied the Haute Route, and hiked from Badwater to the top of Telescope Peak, a vertical elevation gain of 11,300 feet.

Remember the Fireman’s line? I believe he can ski down anything and do it well.

We all skied down the remainder of the couloir and took a break on the high bench. We then did a few tight turns in a narrow steep gully that brought us into the beautiful bowl below. We marked it up properly with turn after turn. The new buddies, May and the Lady took a break at the bottom.

We still had a lot more down to go.

On the lower slopes in the afternoon sun the snow had turned to slop and started to eat skiers. Here the Kid gets help from the women.

We all regrouped in the main drainage. Mr. Randonee, our leader, was facing the group. “Well I’m going to confess. Behind you is the real Blue Couloir.”

The Blue Crag is near center in the photo below. The Blue Couloir is below to the left. The gully and bowl we descended from is on the upper right.

Mr. Randonee told us later that they stopped in at Mammoth Mountaineering. We had skied the 45° Crag Couloir. We will have to come back next year and ski the 40° Blue Couloir with Mr. Randonee. We might even do a couple of extra couloirs, who knows?

We completed our circle back to the spot of our much earlier group photo.

It had been a great day. The snow conditions were hardly primo spring corn. Skiing was challenging but definitely fun. The minor mix up over the couloirs had given us a longer ski and showed us more of the area and the incredible terrain available for day trips. We were happy.

We said goodbye to the group. We were surprised to find our cozy little spot from the night before still available. You bet we enjoyed floating in the soothing current and waters of Hot Creek. We climbed out of the gorge to a beautiful evening sky.

We woke to the wonderful sight of first light on the Sierra crest.

And sunlight streaming across the broad Owens River Valley.

On our way out we stopped along Hot Creek just above the private water of Hot Creek Ranch.

We stopped at Convict Lake and had it all to ourselves.

We found Monitor Pass open, one of our favorite gateways home. We stopped and walked around Heenan Reservoir.

The cutthroat have not yet started moving into the inlet stream to spawn. There was no activity at the bald eagle nest. It does look like our friend the bear is up and around.

What can I say? We had traveled through, climbed, and skied in magnificent terrain. It had been a wonderful trip.


  1. What can a mere mortal say.That was a fantastic trip.
    Thanks Frank

  2. Not being a skier I cannot appreciate that part of the trip as much as the rest. The eastern Sierra photos are wonderful and Hot Creek looks so inviting!