Bairs Creek Cirque — Page 10

Atop Mount Williamson's Summit

Williamson Summit

Ordinarily I feel elated when I reach the summit of a big peak—more so when I've got skis on my feet and I know I'm about to ski the mountain.

As I take my final steps to touch the summit cairn atop Mount Williamson, however, I'm both physically and mentally exhausted. I want only to get this over with, get down to a warm, safe, low place and start nursing my wounds.

Summit & Owen's Valley Mount Whitney & Southern Sierra Panorama Skiing the Summit Plateau Looking Down the Headwall Couloir Bairs Creek Cirque Headwall Couloir Skiing the Cirque The Mid-Section Returning to my Campsite

I take a quick photo of the summit cairn, my skis, and Mount Tyndall in the background. In every direction are stunning views, but I'm just too tired to care. I open my desperation food, to be used only in times of emergency: Peanut M&M's.

The extra energy is sorely needed.

Yes, indeed, I will ski this big fourteener from the very summit today, thanks to a narrow patch of snow extending along the summit ridge's southeast aspect to the wind-swept summit plateau.

I begin my descent at 9:30 a.m., right on schedule.

The snow is hard but serviceable beneath my edges. It feels so good to be sliding down instead of crawling up. As I'm descending, I realize the view toward Owens Valley is stunning.

Because Mount Williamson rises east of the Sierra's crest, I feel as if I'm hanging over Owens Valley. The massive 11,000+' vertical relief is wholly evident.

Looking south, I have fine views of Mount Langley, Mount Whitney, and Williamson's George Creek drainage.

Seen from the top of Williamson, Mount Whitney looks every bit the Sierra's highest mountain, presenting a dramatic north face that includes the upper portion of John Muir's Mountaineer's Route.

Returning to the business of skiing, I put my camera away and descend Williamson's upper windblown slopes. I want to get down this mountain, down to air I can breathe. The skiing is surprisingly good.

As I drop onto the steep pitch of the upper headwall, the summit plateau's winter snow gives way to spring corn, which flows effortlessly beneath my edges.

I push the pace, letting the wind blow through my hair, carving turn after turn, loving my sudden ability to move at will across the mountain.

With surprising speed, I'm back at the top of the Bairs Creek Cirque, retrieving my crampons and axe.

I drink some water as I survey the massive Cirque. Much of it I still haven't seen, due to my ascent in darkness, so I'm eager to explore this vast playground of ski terrain.

From the top of the Couloir, I can see all the way down the Cirque to the flats where I camped, as well as Heartbreak ridge beyond, the Hero's Traverse beyond that, the cursed Notch, still farther, Foothill Road.

I'd enjoy that view a whole lot more if I didn't have to descend all of it in the next few hours.

Skiing the Headwall Couloir turns out to be good, clean fun. The moderate angle (let's call it in-bounds expert) and the perfect corn snow makes for the best skiing of the tour.

The view's not too shabby, either. Though from Highway 395 the cirque appears largely flat and featureless, in reality, it is divided by three large ridges or benches.

From the top of the Upper Bench, the snow seems to hang out over the Owens Valley, like a vanishing-edge swimming pool.

It's a fine illusion.

Now that I'm able to see the Bairs Creek Cirque in daylight, it looks smaller than I expected, more contained within its sheer granite walls.

The drainage makes a series of sweeping 'S' turns, which I follow, riding whichever side has the better snow. I'm trying to assess this descent as I ski it. I myself have written that it ranks among the Sierra's best. Do I still feel the same way? After the unmitigated Hell of the approach, part of me feels the descent doesn't offer enough reward to justify the effort.

It is a telling indicator that I'm thinking about that Approach even now, when I should be enjoying skiing this vast, sweeping Cirque. Part of the problem may be the way the route back home is staring me in the face the whole time—a potent reminder of things to come. Still, I've never experienced a summit descent from a Fourteener like this one.

In contrast to Langley's massive Northeast Couloir, Williamson's Bairs Creek Cirque and summit plateau make for a very different experience. The variety of scenery and terrain, and the effort required to traverse it, make this descent stand out even among giants. The problem comes when you consider this massive route and mountain only from a skier's point of view.

Skiers like roads, chairlifts, hot tubs, and warm beds. Anyone seeking the usual ski experience in Mount Williamson's Bairs Creek Cirque will be severely disappointed. This is a ski mountaineer's peak, as Paul Richins Jr. calls it, a place where skiing is only a distant part of the equation. If that formula works for you, you'll find no Sierra descent to equal it.

I make a quick stop at camp to collect my overnight gear. Still on skis, I wind my way down the narrowing ravine at the base of the Cirque, trying to stay on snow as far as possible. After perhaps 500 vertical feet, I reach the waterfall pinch, the end of the line. It's time to trade skis for hiking boots, and face once again the miseries that await below.

next: Once Is Enough

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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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