Skiing Muir's East Buttress — Page 2

Mount Muir and the Davenport Line

Davenport's Line

April 17, 2011. SoCal ski mountaineer David Braun and I summit Thor Peak. We are here by accident, in the sense that we had intended to ski an entirely different mountain, to the north, only to be turned back by unexpectedly poor conditions.

So were are here instead. The defining characteristic of the 2011 Sierra winter has perhaps been its erraticism. Huge storms, huge snows, huge winds, outrageous heat waves. The result is a snowpack of the ultimate capriciousness.

Mount Whitney Crest Dave Braun Atop Thor Peak Mount Whitney's East Face Skiing Thor Peak

Some faces look as bare as the worst drought year. Other areas see historic snow levels. And so we are here atop Thor Peak, something we've climbed today mostly just for sightseeing.

Along for the ride is my heavy DSLR and giant zoom lens, which Dave has graciously agreed to carry specifically to capture those magnificent Whitney Crest views.

Dave and I take turns snapping shots of Whitney landmarks...and then I happen to notice we also have a striking view of Mount Muir to our left.

Naturally, I immediately begin to look for the Davenport line—or, more properly, the Davenport-Pondella-Boyer line, as Dav was accompanied by two locals, photographer Christian Pondella and Mammoth skier/alpinist Ryan Boyer.

Given as I say that Mount Muir is unskiable, you might wonder how it is that Davenport and company pulled off the impossible and actually skied it. The answer is...they didn't.

At least, not if you take an extremely strict and grinchy view.

The Davenport line (or the DPB line, if you prefer) descends a narrow, discontinuous couloir adjacent Mount Muir's north face (click the lead photo for route).

Dav, Pondella, and Boyer were forced to rappel twice during their ski descent, and skiing from the summit of Mount Muir via the route was not possible. And if that's not enough to call into question the definition of 'skiing Muir', the entire line, bold and beautiful as it is, arguably sits not on Muir itself but rather adjacent to it.

Defining what is and is not a ski descent turns out to be a matter of no small debate. Believe it or not, there is disagreement over who first skied Mount Whitney, because Orland Bartholomew, who stood atop Whitney on his skis in 1928, wasn't considered (by some) a good enough skier to ski Whitney. Bartholomew's descent-while-wearing-skis, they apparently would argue, just wasn't 'skiing'.

To that charge I would answer: should not all future Whitney skiers then be forced to use Bartholomew's skis? The spirit of skiing, in other words, matters a great deal more to me than any small-minded criticisms. And so I will happily if jealously credit Davenport with skiing the unskiable Muir, as least as best as mother nature has permitted.

But look at this: here, to the left of Davenport's line, my naked eye seems to be detecting a thin ribbon of snow connecting Muir's south shoulder all the way to the moraine at the base of the east buttress. Quickly I grab the Nikon from Dave and begin snapping closeups, section by section, to be studied with much intensity when I get home to my computer screen. My intuition says that what I'm seeing right now can't possibly be real—there can't possibly be a way to ski Muir's east buttress.

Even so, my heart starts to flutter. A previously-unknown ski descent on the as-Muir-as-it-gets east buttress? A true first descent—maybe the true first—on a California Fourteener? It's like a glimpse of El Dorado, riches and temptation unbounded.

next: Vanities

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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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