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Ski and Splitboard Touring in Rock Creek Canyon, March 2003


Little Lakes Valley:

California’s Sierra Nevada abounds with stunning glacier-sculpted valleys.  The Little Lakes Valley at the head of Rock Creek Canyon is certainly no exception.  After climbing steeply from the Mono basin in a narrow canyon along picturesque Rock Creek, the Little Lakes Valley becomes almost perfectly flat and its canyon walls open up to reveal the many jagged peaks that guard its flanks.  The lofty summits that line the Little Lakes Valley – Mounts Morgan, Mills, Abbot, Dade and Bear Creek Spire – are the last of the high “thirteeners” in the Sierra Nevada’s northward thrust.  To the south of Rock Creek lie all of the range’s 14,000’+ peaks, including Mt. Whitney and the Palisades Group, while the highest peaks to the north of Rock Creek, including Mt. Ritter and Mt. Lyell, only barely exceed 13,000’. 

It was to this enchanted area that I had been meaning to go for quite some time.  In addition to the many beautiful summer photos of the valley that I had seen, I was aware that the Little Lakes Valley was a backcountry skier’s paradise.  Indeed, it is said that the valley was a favorite winter and springtime haunt of none other than Sierra pioneer Norman Clyde, who would establish multi-day basecamps below the peaks and proceed to leave ski tracks where no person would follow for decades.  Norman Clyde had this to say about the area: 

To the northwest of Mt. Tom, across a profound gorge looms a sharp, pyramidal mountain, 13,708 feet in elevation. This is Bear Creek Spire, perhaps the finest of a number of peaks that encircle a treeless, granite basin containing Lake Italy. . . Bear Creek Spire rises at the northeastern corner of the basin. Perhaps the most striking views of it are from the north, up Little Lakes Basin. It is an unusually impressive mountain of the Matterhorn type. On all sides, except the west, it drops away in almost vertical walls hundreds of feet in height. The summit itself is a single monolith only a few feet in diameter from which these jagged aretes radiate in true Matterhorn fashion. The view obtained from this circumscribed perch is superb.  To the east, across deep gorges, is Mt. Tom; to the south, beyond others, is the lofty and commanding form of Mt. Humphreys; to the south, Seven Gables, Mt. Hilgard and other rugged peaks; to he west, across Lake Italy Basin, Mt. Gabb; to the northwest, the group containing Mts. Dade, Abbot and Mills.  Another handsome mountain as one looks up the Rock Creek Basin is Mt. Dade. To the north it breaks away in sheer cliffs at whose base lies a small glacier.  It has been ascended only a few times, although the view from its summit is a very good one.

Well, perhaps he was just keeping the goods for himself, but what ol' Norman didn’t say is that Mt. Dade also has a real nice couloir on its east side in the shape of an hourglass.  As the name implies, the “Hourglass Couloir” is wide at the top and bottom, and narrows in the center where it is steepest.  I thought it would make for a nice ski trip, so I made plans to go. 

As luck would have it, Eric O of Teletips reknown had recently moved back to California and was living in Mammoth Lakes, a mere half hour north of Rock Creek Canyon.  A few emails and chat room posts later, and suddenly there were four of us enlisted on the trip – Nate Roth (aka Telenater), splitboard rider Chris Gallardo (aka bcrider), Eric and yours truly.  We traded maps, photos, “beta” and whatever else we could find before the trip in order to “out jones” the other guys.  Since my daughter was born in September, I had not been able to spend any time on the Eastside since a late June trip to ski the Conness Glacier.  Needless to say, I was plenty fired up for this trip. 

In fact, I was so fired up that I agreed to drive from my home in San Francisco to Rock Creek and back for a simple weekend trip – no trivial matter.  To make matters more complicated, all trans-sierra roads south of Carson Pass are snowbound and closed in winter, requiring a pesky detour into a sliver of western Nevada, and then down the east side of the range on Highway 395.  After fighting my way out of the Bay Area in typical Friday afternoon traffic, I picked up Nate and Chris on the way up to Lake Tahoe.  Once in the Tahoe basin, we dropped over Luther Pass and down to CA 88.  I had been told of a great shortcut that shaved several miles off the journey by cutting across the Washoe Tribe Reservation near Dresslerville, Nevada.  The “shortcut” turned into an odyssey involving unsigned dirt roads, abandoned roadside refrigerators and multiple 7-11’s.  Through a combination of directional intuition and muted prayer, we were somehow deposited out onto US 395 heading south towards California (again!) and the big mountains.  Three hours later at around Midnight, we arrived at Eric’s house in Mammoth.

Click on the link below for photos and "the rest of the story".

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