Skiing Muir's East Buttress — Page 9

Dave Braun - Skiing Mount Muir

The Upper Balcony

Our route today consists broadly of two skiable sections—the southeast face's dramatic hanging snowfield, and, far below, the east buttress's exit couloir.

A unique feature Dave and I call 2nd Step (more on this later) divides the hanging snowfield into upper and lower balconies, while 1st Step connects the southeast face to the exit couloir, which is itself divided by the dreaded rock garden.

Dave Braun Skiing Mount Muir Dave Descending The Upper Balcony Contemplating Exposure Mount Muir - Looking Down Approaching Second Step Astride Second Step

With the southeast face's softening snow motivating us to get moving, we snap into our ski bindings and drop into the upper balcony.

The transition from climbing to skiing is for me a happy one.

Despite the route's considerable objective hazards, with slippery sticks strapped to my feet I feel right at home here, at last in my element.

The soft snow also affords us a measure of tolerance when it comes to mistakes, but at the same time raises concerns of wet slides, which could sweep us right off the mountain.

So, my first turns are cautious, done with careful monitoring of the snowpack above me. When the snow begins to slide, in small rushing cascades, I quickly traverse away from the fall line, watching, waiting for the movement to stop.

I film Dave passing by.

His turns as always are bold and solid, as if he were born to ski this mountain.

The upper balcony is kind enough to offer perhaps the most moderate skiing on the entire route, with a modest 40-45° pitch, and the fatal exposure at Second Step well hidden (initially) by the side of the gully.

One can ski this section of the route and feel entirely at ease, as I do now, savoring the magnificent edge-of-infinity views and the electric sense that we are flying as much skiing.

Ah...but second step is approaching!

Call it a knife-blade made of snow.

Sitting between a sheer cliff and a striking granite pillar, Second Step provides a critical connection between the upper and lower balconies.

Climbing up, Dave and I were stunned to discover that the 60° snow on the step's lower side was actually the gentler pitch. To get up, Dave built steps by hand, using wet surface snow to harden the snow below into a ladder. 2nd Step on this, the high side, is even steeper, and here at the base of it there is no mistaking the immediate and dire exposure below. As I watch Dave ski to a stop beside me, his gaze is fixed on the rolloff below, and his expression, I must say, is as focused as I've ever seen it.

Yes, there it is—the void, in all its glory.

Skis must come off here, to be replaced by axe or whippet and crampons, so that we can climb back up and then down the step to regain the skiable lower balcony. This will be the first of several such transitions, and they will all prove to be mentally withering, as they occur in the most precarious of places, with the gravest of consequences.

Dave goes first. I follow. Moments later, I'm sitting astride Second Step, one leg to either side, my butt cooling on as crazy a perch as I've ever known. I take in the views, bask in the sun, wait as Dave on the other side kicks out a platform and then snaps back into his skis.

next: The Lower Balcony

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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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