Stockton Flats — Page 3

Stockton Flats: Gully

Into the Maze

It may be helpful to visualize the Stockton Flats area as a giant bowl, bounded by Dawson Peak, Mount Harwood, and a nameless ridge network to the east.

Together, these features form the natural walls of a giant amphitheater. The bowl itself is divided by deep, cliff-lined gullies, such that traversing across involves considerable route finding—more so the farther you descend. I'd worked my way westward across Stockton's upper steeps, wanting to catch a glimpse of the bottom of the gully below Mount Harwood, as well as scout Harwood's east face for a potential future line.

Mount Harwood's East Face Stockton Flats - Ski Tracks and Avalanches Narrow Gully

The snow remained active, with numerous releases and rollers coming down.

With low to moderate coverage, Harwood's east face shows just a hint of a snaking, discontinuous line from the summit, winding around cliff buttresses before joining up with a network of gullies to form what I call the Toilet Bowl: a collective debris field.

It doesn't take much patience to hear the sound of falling rock coming down that face, nor to see a wet snow release.

Beyond the technical challenge of the steepness and the cliff bands, simply avoiding the steady stream of junk cascading down the face would be a major challenge for any potential descent.

Given present conditions, I wasn't about to try skiing below the face, so I began working my way back toward the east, descending and crossing a maze-like series of steep gullies.

Confronted with this chaotic blend of rock and snow, I tried to imagine chairlift placement and potential ski runs. It's not an easy task.

This is technical terrain, with all the accompanying liabilities and control-work challenges. My best guess is that the ski area plans to put lifts up the forested ridgeline to the east. But what of the chutes?

Will they all remain out-of-bounds? I traversed back beneath my original ski tracks, noting the additional point releases that had let go since I'd started my descent.

From this point, perhaps 1000 vertical feet below the ridgeline, I considered my options. The prudent strategy was likely to keep traversing until I reached the forested ridge and then make a quick escape. But I wanted to see this descent through to the bitter end—there was at least another thousand vertical of steep skiable terrain below.

The rollers and pinwheels would be constant companions at this lower elevation, but if I kept on my toes I'd likely be avoid to getting into too much trouble. It would be reasonable to suspect the terrain would mellow as you lose elevation. Instead, the opposite occurs. The gullies narrow, with 100 and even 200-foot high cliff bands popping up to separate them.

In fact, the terrain grows noticeably rougher the farther down you go. It's easy to get hung up on cliffs through this section, or become trapped within a gully with no way out but down. Surprisingly, the pitch remains steep throughout. Factor in the cliffs, and it gets even steeper.

Steepness doesn't present much of a technical or even mental challenge when the snow is this soft: if you fall, you know you aren't going anywhere. The greater concern is getting knocked over by a pinwheeling ball of snow (which can easily exceed three feet in diameter), or being carried over a rock band by a more ambitious wet slide.

I am reminded of my earlier thought that this entire region is a perfect Poacher Trap. One quick duck under the ski area's ropes, and the skier or snowboarder is presented with deceptively inviting gladed steeps. Only later, a thousand or more vertical feet down, does the unwitting backcountry traveler find themselves in deep trouble, surrounded by cliffs, with no practical means of escape.

next: Entering the Narrows

About SierraDescents

When there is snow, SierraDescents is Andy Lewicky's California backcountry skiing and mountaineering website. Without snow, sierradescents becomes an ill-tempered hiking and climbing blog.

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