Skiing Whitney's North Face — Page 2

Whitney Portal

The Portal

Whitney Portal, May 2011. Trevor Benedict and I heft skis and packs and begin ascending the Mount Whitney Trail, en route—we hope—to Iceberg Lake and then Iceberg Col and Whitney's north face.

You might think with paved-road access to 8300' and an ultra-famous fourteener nearby, Whitney Portal would be one of the Eastern Sierra's hottest backcountry skiing destinations. The reverse is true: The Portal has a (deserved?) reputation as a lousy place to go skiing.

Whitney Portal Store

The Portal Store

Whitney Willows

Whitney's Wonderful Willows

North Fork, Lone Pine Creek

North Fork Drainage

Above Lower Boyscout Lake

Above Lower Boyscout Lake

Start with the issue of road access.

Yes, driving above 8000 feet is a priceless luxury in the Eastern Sierra—but the Portal road is officially closed for winter and much of spring, often forcing skiers to begin hiking at a vastly less-appealing 6500'.

Snow quality in the Whitney region tends to be variable. Owens Valley lies right at the edge of the Sierra's 14,000-foot apex, hot and cold air right next to each other. Cooked year-round by intense Southern California sunshine, the snow often seems to go directly from winter crust to unskiable summer slop—when it's not unskiable ice.

As for terrain, blame Owens Valley: desert heat kept the glaciers high here, so even with an 8000' start, you still need to climb above 10,000 feet or so, up rugged, willow-choked gorges, to reach the skier-friendly U-shaped valleys above.

And then there is Whitney itself—unskiable from the south and from the east, wind-scoured and ice-bound from the north and from the west. Whitney's north face does fill in with snow—on occasion. But those occasions seem to be getting rarer each year.

So why bother at all with trying to ski this mountain? An excellent question—maybe today we'll find an answer for it.

The last time I saw Whitney's north chute completely filled in was 2006. I made the mistake of passing on it. Every year since, I've waited for the chute to fill in again, only to watch the dreaded north wind strip the Sierra's big north faces season after season. This year, despite record snowfall, is not much different. What is different is my plan: rather than ascend the Mountaineer's Route to ski the north chute, I'm aiming instead to look for a skiable line on Whitney's broad north face, proper.

Admittedly, Trevor and I are here a bit late in the season. The road is open at the cost of a higher snow level, leaving Lone Pine Creek's north fork drainage mostly bare. We are thus forced to waste time wallowing in willows, but stoicism is one thing I have acquired in abundance over the years of my Eastern Sierra apprenticeship. The willows, like many of life's hardships, eventually yield before sustained effort and good humor. Happily too, luck soon smiles on us, granting us a snow patch that bypasses the worst of it.

Clouds swirl above, not quite mitigating the morning sun's heat as we climb higher. Snow flurries are in the forecast today. Old memories, good and bad, work their way through my head as we pass through the landmarks of the north face drainage—including a side chute to the left that I find particularly notorious. It's been a while since I tried to carry skis up here.

next: Clarity



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