Skiing Muir's East Buttress — Page 4

Climbing Muir's East Buttress


Curiously, it is a photo I took from the summit of Lone Pine Peak that reopens the door of possibility on Muir. When I find it I sit up at once and squint intently at my monitor screen.

The photo reveals a dramatic hanging snowfield angling across Muir's southeast face, connecting—maybe—to the couloir along the lower east buttress as seen from the top of Thor Peak. By mentally piecing together the information in the two photographs, I realize the route's 'discontinuities' may actually just be steep, snowy steps.

Mount Muir North Peak Climbing the East Buttress Trevor Benedict Dave Braun Skiing the Exit Couloir Andy Lewicky Skiing the Lower Exit Couloir


Unfortunately, the view I need is the one I don't have: Muir's south face from the vicinity of Trail Crest.

And so, a few days later, I find myself returning to Whitney Portal with Dave Braun and also Trevor Benedict to further scout and possibly even try to ski the east buttress route.

Trevor, a former Aspen ski patroller, is close to my ideal of a backcountry skiing partner: fit, skilled, and conservative.

I figure he's had more than enough safety protocols drilled into his head over the years to keep Dave and I honest.


But on this day the big story is the weather: clear and bitter cold.

It's May 2. Here in the Southern Sierra we ought to be worrying about soft snow and wet slides. Instead, tricky Mother Nature has thrown us an overnight low of zero, forecast high at 12,000 feet a chilly 24 degrees.

The snow everywhere, even in the sun, is brick-hard. North faces look unnaturally smooth, with a shiny glaze that suggests unskiable ice.

But as we approach the base of Muir's east buttress, the snow turns wintry, soft sticky powder just right for steep dabbling. Maybe we'll be able to ski a portion of the route, or even more?


We stop to eat lunch just below the start of the route, below what I'm calling the Exit Couloir—as in, for a skier, the couloir that provides the exit from the hanging snowfields on Muir's southeast face.

The view is intimidating. The view is insane.

I am thinking to myself, if this route has never been skied before (assuming it even exists), there is a very good reason for it. The reason is staring me in the face. Unskied big lines in the well-traveled Sierra generally fall into two categories: those no one yet knows about (rare) and those no one in their right mind would want to ski. Muir's east buttress may or may not belong in the first category. It definitely belongs in the second.

Still, lunch concluded, we gamely press on, wrapping around the mind-blowing base of the east buttress, then climbing up the apron below the start of what we think is the exit couloir. The pitch starts steep and quickly gets steeper. As the angle shifts toward 50° the snow abruptly hardens. Ice. I know at once our ski plans are over.

We go a little higher, hoping the ice will go away. It doesn't. And the angle continues to increase, now passing 60°. Trevor shakes his head; he's had enough. So have I. Dave pushes on, wanting to see if we're at least in the right spot. The verdict: indeterminate. Just out of sight above is an exposed rock garden. Maybe the Exit Couloir connects above. Maybe it doesn't.

The prudent thing to do is turn back, and that's what we do. Dave down-climbs back into view and snaps into his skis. I share a few thoughts with him regarding my opinion of the snow quality, and then he steps through an icy choke, bangs out a fearless set of turns on an exposed spine, and whoops as he hits the softer snow below.

I'm next, showing a lot less aggression through the icy section, feeling much happier when I hit the powdery stash, stunned the whole way by the crazy-crazy steepness of it all. Trevor skis down to join us on a comfortingly-flat patch far below the apron. Am I a little bit shell-shocked? Maybe. Muir's east buttress has just delivered a time-honored Eastern Sierra tradition: the smackdown.

next: Of Sample Paths and Uncertainty

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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