Ontario Peak Traverse — Page 3

Graupel & Ski Tip


Did I say smooth sailing? As I traverse above the creekbed to the north aspect, which I expect to follow upward without difficulty, the snow suddenly changes.

That April storm has worked some foolishness after all—two plus feet of graupel! In Ski Mountaineering, Peter Cliff defines graupel as "ice crystals formed by heavy riming (water freezing directly to the snow crystal)." Graupel's rounded, pellet shape can act as a ball-bearing layer for an avalanche.

Climbing Snow in Ice House Canyon Graupel A Winter Wonderland Upper Ice House Canyon

Additionally, graupel's shape loses heat slowly, so the pellets can remain unaltered for a long time. I'm not concerned about avalanches today, but the graupel brings a new problem: the tiny, pellet-shaped grains have virtually no cohesion to each other.

Making forward progress, even on skins, is suddenly extremely difficult. I am floundering like a wounded animal in this snow, sliding sideways, backwards, every which way but up.

I stop and look back at my tracks. It looks like I've been skinning through shredded Styrofoam.

I've fought mightily to make a meager 100 yards of progress.

This is ridiculous. Should I call it a day and turn back, I wonder? I think not. I stop to take a photo of the graupel, admiring its fiendishly perfect shape. If I go on, I know, it will be hell.

But I have an answer, nowadays, to life's difficulties. Wherever I am, whatever the circumstances, if I find myself suffering, I think to myself: this is good training for Mount Williamson.

Oh yes, Williamson is still on my mind.

And what better way to prepare for future soul-crushing adventures on Williamson's flanks than to press onward now, here in this canyon, mano-a-graupel?

So onward I go, making utterly pitiful progress, two steps up, three back—or so it seems. Traversing across graupel proves to be an especially tedious undertaking.

If it were possible to stay in the bottom of the gully (which is unfortunately a brush-choked creek bed filled with rushing water), I would at least have some slight angular advantage against the snow.

But I am forced to stay against the gully's steep walls. There is no end, it seems, to the number of ways a mountain can test you.

At least I have this extraordinary scenery to distract me from the misery of the climb, the increasing blisters forming on my heels, my aching legs and back. I enjoy a temporary respite as I reach a U-shaped portion of the gully, which makes skinning relatively easy compared to the steep terrain below.

But soon enough, the gully I'm following closes out, forcing me to decide which steep wall to climb: north or south? I elect to climb up the left side of the gully, optimistically hoping the slope's southern aspect will catch enough sun to melt that cursed graupel. If I can gain the ridgeline, the angle looks moderate enough to make the climb much easier. That's a big if, however, as the gully's walls are steep enough, given the conditions, to make getting there quite a trial.

It is every bit as bad as expected, possibly worse. I make a series of low-angles zig zags, planning my turnarounds at pine trees, whose tree wells I shamelessly use as turnaround points. Cascading beads of graupel slide about madly, little evil ball bearings trying to carry me back down the hill. Is it really taking me an hour to climb a hundred vertical feet? It seems that way. Oh, cruel, heartless graupel, what did I ever do to deserve such harsh treatment?

Eventually, I gain the ridgeline. It will still be a difficult climb up to the saddle, and the summit of Bighorn Peak, but my battle with the graupel is over. I stop in the shade of the Angeles National Forest, drop my pack, and guzzle water, trying to recover enough strength to go on.

next: Bighorn Summit Musings

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.

Pray for snow.