Skiing Muir's East Buttress — Page 7

Mount Muir - Southeast Face

The Southeast Face

Though Dave and I have safely passed beyond it, our scramble across the treacherous Rock Garden has rattled me. Yet if we are to ski the route, we will be forced to repeat it, in reverse.

Back on snow on the upper Exit Couloir, it is possible once again to catch one's breath and imagine we are actually on a ski route, though of course any skiing that occurs from this point onward will be somewhat akin to a high-wire act.

Mount Muir - First Step Mount Muir - The Lower Balcony Mount Muir - Second Step Mount Muir - Upper Balcony

I am having some doubts, however, about that possibility.

Perhaps, I console myself, if—when—we reach Muir's shoulder high above, I'll abandon the ski descent and make for the safety of the Mount Whitney Trail and Trail Crest instead.

As for Dave, he seems to have taken to quietly editorializing all of the route's difficulties.

The snow quality he criticizes with particular intensity, as he keeps finding a vexing mixture of wet snow and dry loose powder—particularly at those sections of the couloir where the difficulty increases.

Dave also expresses concerns about wet snow avalanches, which are certainly valid, but which seem at this point a bit like buyer's remorse to me.

We've already cast the dice on this route. It just remains for us to read the outcome.

Still, of the two of us Dave is clearly the one who's enjoying himself, comments aside. A touch of gallows humor seems to have found its way into his observations, while I remain clenched in a somewhat more grim silence.

Topping the Exit Couloir proves a bit spicier than we were expecting. This is a theme that will repeat itself quite a lot, in fact, as we continue to progress higher. These short crux sections inevitably involve crazy-steep pitches and mind-blowing exposure, sprinkled with difficult collapsing snow that sends Dave scrambling when possible back onto rock.

An advantage I have over Dave in this regard is my ice axe. Dave carries only a whippet, which is proving at best only marginally useful as a climbing aid, whereas when the snow is firm, I sink my axe's 60cm shaft all the way to the head with each and every step, providing at least the illusion of a secure belay. And so where it gets dicey Dave heads for rock and I try to stay on snow, and when that works less than ideally for either of us, which is often, we just keep going, because that's all we can do.

Of critical importance, our photographic scouting is proving, piece by piece, correct. Everything depends on us correctly finding the 1st Step and its excruciatingly-narrow passageway to Muir's southeast face, and there it is atop the Exit Couloir, just as we'd hoped. So too is 2nd Step and its outrageous pillar. Each comes with its own difficulties, and the constant unreality of the southeast face's exposure, but I know we can do this, now. I know we're going to get to the top.

next: Muir's Summit

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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