Flashbacks from Convict Lake, California's Trophy Backcountry Arena
This story originally appeared in the November 2012 issue of POWDER, which can be purchased here.
RED SLATE MOUNTAIN
I’m standing on the summit of Red Slate, high in the rigging of the Sierra crest under a blazing blue California sky, watching Nathan Wallace drop in to the absurdly exposed entrance couloir. A wiry young longhair named Christian Pondella leans out over the void to grab a photo of Wallace, silhouetted against the psychedelic geology of Mount Baldwin. We’re all the way up at the end of Convict Canyon, the East Side of the Sierra’s roadside big-mountain arena, dropping in to the scariest and most beautiful line I’ve ever seen.
His slough cascading off the dead-end cliff just below his feet, Wallace reaches the hidden ledge traverse that connects to the next hanging snowfield around the corner. We will have to ski three tenuously linked chutes to reach the North Couloir proper, and we have no idea if it really connects through or not. I look down at the 210 Head GS skis that I brought to California and wonder what the hell I’m doing here.
Red Slate dominates the amphitheater of upper Convict Canyon, part of a compact cluster of peaks a few miles south of Mammoth Lakes, California, with a hoard of some of the finest easy access big lines anywhere. There’s a paved road to the trailhead. You skin from the car. And the approach is…well, actually, there isn’t one.
Red Slate’s pyramid is the highest peak in the area and home to the heartbreakingly beautiful couloir, which should have been named “Super Colossal Kickass Wonder Cooler,” or something more informative than, “The North Couloir.” The main chute is a gorgeous high-walled, dead-straight fall-line shot with a huge apron, but it’s the drop-in that’s the cherry on top. You roll directly off the airy summit, descending and traversing a linked series of snow-patches that dead-end in massive cliffs before you get to the top of the main couloir and unclench your butthole.
Mammoth local Matt Schott and I are standing on top of Laurel Mountain, the tips of our skis dangling out over the massive funnel of the upper Mendenhall Couloir. Schott loves this stuff. He airs off the cornice to give his first turn a little extra ski-cut power, looks over his shoulder, sees nothing moving, and opens it up, arcing big turns right down the gut. He reaches the first anchor, and I dive in. Twenty minutes later, we’re flying out on to the apron in the sun. Home on the couch by noon. Did we really just ski a 4,000-foot powder couloir before lunch?
The East Face of Laurel is a surreal labyrinth of swirling multi-colored marble and limestone. Two of the most aesthetic lines in the country lie on this sprawling face; they’re also two of the quickest backcountry hits along hundreds of miles of range-front. While most Sierra couloirs are north-facing and hold snow long into the spring, the eastern exposure and relatively low elevation of this face means the window is short. With loose dark rock, lots of little gullies feeding in from the side, and plenty of solar input, you get on these lines early in the winter, as soon as the first big storm hits, and if it’s sunny you want to be off the face before noon.
The first is the hidden Pinner Couloir, which is like a big version of Terminal Cancer in Nevada’s Ruby Mountains, a stunningly long and slender couloir slotted so deeply into the towering rock walls of Laurel that you’d never even know it was there unless you looked across from the summit of Mount Morrison on the other side of the lake. Plenty of steeper lines exist, but the Pinner is an aesthetic experience, a winding passage that runs for thousands and thousands of feet through the heart of the mountain.
Just to the south, right off the summit, the Mendenhall is the huge and intimidating line staring you in the face as soon as you pull up to the lake. With a couple of steep chokes it has a little excitement. But overall the angles are moderate. The terrain, however, is varied and superb: A vast entrance bowl necks down and rolls over into a narrow little slot, doglegs first left then right into a perfect little exit couloir and wide-open apron that rolls right down to the lake. This chute was the site of the first belayed climb in the Sierra and it retains some of that classic cachet; like the Pinner, it’s simply one of the crown jewels of American backcountry skiing.
We’re skinning up the vast East Face in a foot of fresh on a perfect cloudless day. It’s the first time I’ve toured with Plake since our redneck backcountry odyssey in central Nevada the year before (Powder, February, 1998). I don’t understand how we’re supposed to ski this big open face safely with all the fresh snow. But I figure Glen knows what’s up, he’s been skiing here for almost 10 years, so I keep my mouth shut and focus on lugging my Alpine Trekkered mid-fat carving skis up the skin track. Until we summit and my jaw gapes open at the sight of the Pinner Couloir across the way on Laurel. Is that thing even real? “Oh yeah,” replies Plake. “Darren and I skied it. I call it the Gummy Worm, because it wriggles around so much.”
Spilling below our feet, the East Face looks so different from most Sierra peaks, broad and complex with all kinds of alpine features and varied terrain: open ramps and huge wind drifts, several couloirs, cliff bands, and rock towers. Our line will take us from an open rollover face into a wide gulley with a massive quarterpipe wind wave on the right side into another bowl and then a hidden rock-walled exit couloir.
Morrison’s craggy and gothic north face dominates the view from Highway 395; the mountain appears unskiable, a wall of bare rock. But hidden from view are east and west faces, thousands of acres of optimal ski terrain, dozens of distinct lines and sub-aspects. And even on the forbidding north side there’s a hidden hanging valley, a glacial bowl that sprawls for thousands of feet with the black crags of the north face towering directly overhead, a lost piece of Switzerland floating over the sagebrush of the high desert.
In the early ’90s, Plake, Greg Stump ski star Darren Johnson, and Davey McCoy, the grandson of Mammoth Mountain founder Dave McCoy, were going wild in this cirque, stashing skis at the base of the east face, sledding up and then skinning with Secura Fixes. They were years ahead of their time, touring with relatively high-performance alpine gear, bringing world-class freeskiing skills to the big peaks without helicopters years before everyone went to Alaska. Twenty years later, people will claim first descents on lines they skied on K2 TNCs.
Thirteen feet of snow blasts Mammoth Mountain in one continuous cycle right around New Year’s. A couple of days later, Nathan Wallace and I dig the truck out and drive down Highway 395 to Convict Lake as the weather breaks. We skin up to the top of Baby Morrison, assessing the snow along the way. Mid-storm avalanche cycles have cleaned the steeper pitches, leaving a smooth bed surface covered with a foot or more of cold powder that’s bonding well. Wallace and I sit on the summit ridge in the sun congratulating ourselves for being such backcountry badasses, while everyone else is jostling at the ski resort in the standard first-blue-day-after-the-storm trainwreck. With another day of settling, we should be good to go on the bigger lines.
Looking across the lake at the top of Laurel Mountain, I realize there are three tiny black dots on top of the Mendenhall Couloir, which is so loaded up that it’s all spined out, almost bristling. One of the little black dots drops in on the far skier’s left and puts the hammer down like it’s Alaska, dispatching the upper sector of the Mendenhall in about four massive slashes. I’ve never seen anybody gas it on a Sierra peak like that. As we watch the party negotiating the first crux, Wallace shakes his head and tells me about the first time he went up there with Darren and Glen. “I was asking if it was even possible to ski something like that,” he says.
We down-climb in, ski cut, and then drop onto a broad face on the west side of the peak, an endless sparkling carpet of perfect powder for almost 4,000 feet. The run is magical, as good as primo heli skiing, but I can’t stop thinking about that guy just ripping the Mendenhall to tatters. Later that night, we find out it was Tahoe hardman John Morrison. On Dynafits. He tells me he’s glad that he lives three hours away, because otherwise he’d be out here the first day after every storm. “It’s a ski area. And it rivals any ski area on the planet. There are so many prime-time lines in such a compact area, and skiing on almost every aspect. We’re just lucky there’s no lifts there.”
How to Get There: Convict Lake is 4.5 miles south of Mammoth on California Highway 395. The road is plowed year-round.
General Info: The bar at Convict Lake Restaurant opens at 5 p.m. Local avalanche and weather reports can be found at ESAvalanche.org and Patrol.MammothMountain.com. For a guidebook, check out Dan Mingori and Nate Greenberg’s Backcountry Skiing California’s Eastern Sierra.
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