Birch Mountain—Still Big

This past weekend Bill, not one but two Prestons, and I headed to Birch Mountain for a climb and ski, and in the early morning hours, somewhere in the first two thousand vertical feet of climbing, I found myself thinking I may not make it to the top today.

Man, Birch is one gigantic mountain. Other than passing right next door for our Thumb climb, this was the first time I'd been on Birch since my disastrous 2008 Marathon, in which I arrived late at the summit, took a nap, and woke up to find the entire mountain in shadow, covered in rapidly refreezing sun cups and shark fins.

Good times.

Things could only get better compared to then, and they were, though still not the primo Birch descent we were hoping for. Our group split in two, with one Preston and me heading for the summit ridge, and the other wisely deciding to ski the main east face with Bill while the getting was still good.

The vistas atop Birch are stunning, not just because of all the neighboring Palisades peaks, including Split looming in the distance, but because Birch is a true Eastside giant, hanging directly over Owens Valley, rather than being buried in toward the crest.

When you climb Birch you get the distinct feeling that you're floating over Owens Valley—and also that you'll never, never, ever get to the top.

As it turned out we didn't summit this time. The weather was biting cold above 13K or so, the snow was brick hard, and the hour was growing late. Figuring (correctly) that the lower mountain was starting to firm up in an unpleasant way, we turned around within probably a hundred fifty vertical feet of the top.

I was pleased to effectively make it atop Birch despite my earlier fears I wouldn't, but on the descent I was just totally gassed. After each series of turns, I'd just flop over and gasp a bit. Part of what made this day so long was unquestionably the high snow level. We didn't get to snow until well over 8K feet, and when you're starting from 6400', that's a lot of dry distance to cover.

Our approach, along the north aspect of one of Birch's prominent lower gullies, also proved poor: too steep and brushy. From McMurray Meadows, I'd recommend you stay on the south aspect of the main ridge that leads to Birch, staying just below the top to avoid up-and-down climbing. Birch Lake Trail would be another option, though that is more circuitous.

Birch is a tough one to get in great top-to-bottom condition. Obviously you'd want to go earlier in the year to stay on snow longer. The sad reality is Birch's snowline has been climbing steadily since my 2008 trip. Birch has always been hard, but with the higher snow levels, it's really turning into something special.

— May 19, 2017

Andy Lewicky is the author and creator of SierraDescents

Joseph Gregory May 22, 2017 at 4:53 pm

Beauty. Glad to see all these trips this year!

James Easter October 20, 2017 at 2:58 pm

Yea I live in Bishop and skied Birch this year and man.... that things a pretty big day. I was in Canada skiing and work in the mountains all summer and was thinking ahh Birch, nice mellow day out there nothing to it. Wow, i'm not sure i've ever been that worked at the top of anything.


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