Bairs Creek Cirque — Page 6

Below the Bairs Creek Cirque

Heartbreak Ridge

The Traverse concludes when I finally decide to abandon the north side of the drainage and cross the creek, perhaps a few hundred yards past a landmark I recognize from last year: a hump-like bench of dirt where someone long ago flattened out a camp site.

I am now deep within the narrow confines of the drainage, which is choked with avalanche debris, some fresh, some old. In the cool shadows beside the creek, I stop and eat a quick snack. The rigors of the Traverse have taken their toll. I am exhausted.

Avalanche Debris Massive Avalanche Bridge Looking into the maw Heading up the Left Fork Route Overview: Looking back toward the Notch Looking up Heartbreak Ridge Scoured by Avalanches The World's Luckiest Forest

I had hoped to ski this route in early March, when there might actually be snow at this elevation.

The Sierra Winter, however, altered my plans. Lingering instabilities deep within a record-setting snowpack convinced me to wait for the safer, consolidated snowpack of spring.

Consequently, instead of switching to skis and skins, I must instead climb up 2000 vertical feet of steep, loosely-piled talus and debris to reach the Cirque.

Thankfully, the piles of avy debris make the creek crossing only mildly difficult.

Once across, I round the corner and get a shock:

I see a massive snow bridge, which the creek has tunneled through, producing a cave some 20 feet high and 100 feet long.

This is the product, I believe, of not this year's but last year's avalanche season, when an enormous slide piled snow and debris across the drainage.

During my ski attempt a year ago, I'd seen the aftermath of that slide, which was of a scale so large I hadn't immediately recognized it as an avalanche. This unusual, massive feature deserves a closer look, so, despite my fatigue, I carefully make my way along the creek to the base of it.

Cool air blows from the mouth of the snow cave, while cascading drops of water glitter in the sun. I see buried within the snow the stripped-bare remains of mature trees. Incredibly, the cave goes all the way through. I can see sunlight at the far end of it.

The place has a dark, ominous feel, and I am happy to leave it behind and resume my climb.

The route from here ought to be straightforward. The creek forks, with the left branch leading up a steep ravine that eventually opens into the Bairs Creek Cirque.

The ravine, however, has several chokes that cliff out in waterfalls. Moreover, cliffs rise along either side.

I need to get to the western edge of the ravine, which I know from last year's adventure I can follow all the way up to the Cirque.

But how to get there?

I enjoy the company of yet another section of willow, crossing between two waterfalls, which permit me access to the west side of the ridge.

After a short climb over steep debris mixed with rock, I reach the ridge, where I'm rewarded with a fine overview of my route thus traveled.

Owens Valley now appears far below, beginning to glow in the late afternoon sun. I can also retrace my path back to the Notch, via the 'Heroic Traverse'.

I reach my campsite from last year. Surprisingly, there is no snow. Last year, later in May, I was able to begin skiing at this point.

It's five p.m. I've been hiking a little more than four hours straight, with at least 1500 vertical feet of trailless talus to go to reach the Cirque.

My reserves and my morale are low.

If I can make it to the snow, I tell myself, I can ski this mountain.

The ridge has that unique quality where it seems to go on forever. Just as I think I've crested the worst of it, I see I still have much, much more to climb. This area of the route is noteworthy for the extraordinary avalanche evidence I observe. The ridge appears to have been regularly blasted by powerful avalanches which have scoured away everything in sight.

Given the winding, angled terrain, it's hard to identify where, exactly, the slide(s) originated. It seems possible that the ridge I'm standing on gets hit from multiple directions, making a midwinter ascent much less palatable of an option. The avalanches are not without a sense of whimsy, however. To my right is a triangular grove of trees I dub "the World's Luckiest Forest."

This stand of mature evergreens has somehow escaped the ravages of the surrounding avalanches, which have blasted everything away on all sides of it. Clearly, given the force of the avalanches, topography alone has spared the grove. What a place this would be to camp in winter, and witness the unimaginable destruction all around.

Meanwhile, Heartbreak Ridge, as I've now named it, goes on. If I can make it to the snow, I can ski this mountain. I repeat the phrase over and over, like the Little Train that Could, trying to motivate myself to keep climbing. This portion of the climb is pure gruel, heart pounding, lungs gasping, legs grinding out steps on aching muscles over loose, constantly shifting soil.

If I can make it...

More than once, despite my best efforts, a loose rock gives way, and I am driven to the ground beneath the weight of my pack. Normally, I take considerable pride in never falling. Here, there is nothing to do but suffer the indignity, right myself, and resume the climb.

...make it to the snow...

I am heartened to see the vertical walls of the Cirque beginning to close above me, and I get a mental lift as I pass my turnaround point from last year: a last waterfall close-out just beneath the Cirque that closed the case on my summit bid. With more snow, the waterfall might be passable to the east, or even vanish entirely. Currently, however, the only safe route is the west side of the ravine, and I'm thankful to be there.

...I can ski this mountain...

Just another few hundred vertical feet, and I will finally be able to see into the Grand Cirque itself. As much as I'm anticipating the moment, I'm even more motivated by the thought of dropping my heavy pack and setting up camp for the night.

next: Sage Camp

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.