Chico’s 30-year-old Wildflower still one of the best centuries to test your riding legs, even for a rookie over 50
By Tim Hauserman
When you get to a certain age — say when the women you are riding with says, “Oh, yeah, my Dad’s about your age” — you begin to think about ways to test your physical capabilities that are challenging but don’t require jumping off rocks or screaming down mountains.
A century ride fits the bill. A hundred miles on a bicycle is certainly a physically challenging day. And just about every weekend in the spring, summer or fall you can find a unique century somewhere in California.
Last year, I decided to embark on one of the most popular, the Chico Wildflower.
For most of the last 30 years, bike riding for me has meant mountain biking on the awesome trails around Tahoe. But a few years ago, I found myself spending a lot of time riding on pavement: grunting up Barker Pass Road or hitting the bike trail between Tahoe City and Squaw.
So two years ago for my 50th birthday, I gave myself my first real road bike (that ten-speed in college doesn’t really count) and discovered the world of road riding. I began spinning on the flats, trudging over Donner Summit to Cisco Grove, or venturing to Sacramento for the 60 miles of pavement that is the American River Parkway.
The next step, once you begin to love road biking, is to take a dip into the world of century rides, metric first.
A great place to start for me was last June’s Tour de Manure in Sierraville. It’s a very civilized century: 200 feet of climbing and a nice metric distance of 100 kilometers (62 miles) through the expansive Sierra Valley set at 5,000 feet. It was all about spinning and holding on to a group that is going your speed.
Then in November it was off to Solvang for the Solvang Prelude Metric Century — a beautiful rolling journey through vineyards, farmland and fancy estates on the Central Coast.
Now I was ready for the next challenge — a full-blooded 100-mile century.
The Chico Wildflower, which celebrates it’s 30th anniversary ride on May 1, has been in the back of my mind for years. Primarily because it’s in Chico, where I went to school on the five-year plan. What’s the hurry when you are living in Chico and the tuition is $100 a semester?
Ah, Chico in the springtime. Bidwell Park. Frisbee. Jumping in the creek at One Mile. What a great place for a century … and the town is flat so how difficult can it be? To put the icing on the cake, the ride was on my birthday, so I had to do it.
Lots of Tahoe riders I’d met were effusive in their praise for the event, although they all seemed to have their own special shortcuts that would drop eight to 20 miles off the total.
What’s up with that? If you are going to do a century do the whole damn thing, right?
And do the whole thing I did. It was an incredible ride. You wind through Chico in the chill morning air and then warm up with a four-mile climb up Humboldt Road, a narrow rough pathway dishing out the quick realization that this isn’t going to be just a flat cruise through the orchards.
After a swift downhill on Highway 32 showcasing a nice view of Chico, you hit Honey Run Road and begin winding along Butte Creek, which in the spring is more of a small river coursing through a progressively deeper walled canyon of red-hued igneous rock. The route heads past delightful countryside with expansive estates hidden in the trees to the first rest stop at the Honey Run Covered Bridge, a Chico-area landmark.
Now comes the big climb, up narrow, switchbacking Honey Run Road to Paradise. Like all substantial climbs, it seems to go on forever, but it’s a great ride in the shade and the numerous chalk signs on the old pavement offer encouragement to help pull you up the hill.
When it eventually tops out at the next rest break you’ve reached Paradise — literally, not just cause the climb is over — and you begin to appreciate what an organizational undertaking this ride is. Hundreds of riders mill about or wait in line to drink and eat and use the loo. It seems like it is all running smoothly.
With lots of miles to go, however, the milling must end and I am off to Pentz Road and a big-ring downhill toward Oroville. Give me the long steady hills and even the flats, but my chicken feathers flutter on the downhills. When I see a sign that says 12% grade, I put on the brakes and feel the breeze of dozens of riders roaring past. Near the bottom of the hill is a sign, “Speed limit 55, so pedal harder.” I put on the breaks and more people pass me. The number of fearless flyers amazes me.
The downhill is followed by lovely views of the coast range capped with snow, impossibly green fields marching on for miles and wildflowers galore bringing you to the shores of Lake Oroville’s Thermalito Forebay and another well-organized rest stop. Only 15 miles and the dreaded Table Mountain between me and lunch.
Table Mountain is a steady mostly unshaded climb. The heat gets the attention of us Tahoe guys. 80-plus degrees in April? That’s not what we’re acclimatized to. I pass a sign that says four miles to the top and about three days later I reach the three-mile mark.
Eventually Table is topped. After a break for flower peeping on the mesa, it’s easy rolling terrain, with a couple of sucker uphills before a winding, steep downhill on a lumpy road brings you to Highway 70 and the lunch stop. I relax with the crowds of people lying like dogs under patches of shade.
Sixty miles completed, only 40 to go with no major climbs. Piece of cake, right? Well not exactly. It starts out easy enough. More magnificent riding across the grassy, wildflower dotted terrain. How did I miss this springtime glory when I was at Chico State? Too much time tubing down the Sacramento, or was it those countless hours in the library?
Crossing Highway 99 we ride through miles and miles of orchard country to Durham and Dayton. It’s flat. I’m tired. I understand that at this point the trick is to jump on a group riding by and stick on the back rider like my life depends on it. The problem with this theory is that you’ve got to have enough oomph to latch on as they pass you. After several attempts, I realize my turbo will not kick in. I manage to hold on to one group for a few minutes — until Mr. Hammer takes the front and begins pounding nails in my hurt locker.
Just before Dayton I come upon a moment of decision that many century riders must face: One rider is telling two tired ladies that if they just take this little old road instead of the main route it will cut 10 miles off the remaining 25. He is like the little devil of conscience sitting on my shoulder and egging me on … But I stubbornly refuse to listen and press on. And on. And on.
The last 20 miles of a century can be an uncomfortable tug-of-war between your will to finish and your body’s aching desire to get off the bike. Time and distance seem to creep along in slow motion. But I keep the pedals turning on fumes and centrifugal force and the green power of pride.
Suddenly I am on the tree-lined streets on the outskirts of Chico, and my spirits rise with a tide of energy born of relief and accomplishment, knowing that the end is near.
It’s a great day because I realize that even though another year had accrued to my personal tally, I can still ride one hundred miles … One hundred beautiful miles with nearly 4000 other cycle-happy folks sharing the road and the common bond of a rewarding achievement.
Tim Hauserman is the author of Cross-Country Skiing in thee Sierra Nevada and Monsters in the Woods: Backpacking with Children.
If You Go:
This year’s 30th Wildflower Century is on May 1. The registration deadline is April 15. The ride is limited to 4,000 riders. The entry fee is $65 and includes a 30th Anniversary Chico Wildflower Century t-shirt. Contact the Chico Velo Cycling Club for more information: www.chicovelo.org
You can camp at the Silver Dollar Fairgrounds where the ride begins. There are restrooms, nice grassy areas to set up your tent and it’s fun hanging out with a bunch of other riders the night before. Just camp as far away as possible from the go-cart track. It’s very loud and they ride late into the night.
Upcoming California Centuries
February 26 — Spring Death Valley Century
Death Valley, www.adventurecorps.com
March 12 — Solvang Century & Half Century
March 26 — Hell’s Gate Hundred
Death Valley, www.adventurecorps.com
April 3 — New Moon Century Ride
Santa Monica, www.newmooncentury.com
April 16 — Mount Laguna Bicycle Classic
San Diego County, www.adventurecorps.com
April 16 — Tierra Bella Bicycle Tour
April 17 — Diablo Century
Walnut Creek, www.ccjcc.org
May 1— Chico Wildflower Century
Butte County, www.chicovelo.org
May 1 — Grizzly Peak Century
May 1— Delta Century
May 7 — Wine Country Century
Sonoma County, www.srcc.com
May 7 — Tour of the Unknown Coast
Humboldt County, www.tuccycle.org
May 14— Hungry Buzzard Century
May 15 — Strawberry Fields Forever
May 28 — Heartbreak Hundred
Frazier Park, www.planetultra.com
June 4 — 2008 Auburn Century
Gold Country, www.auburncentury.com
June 11— Fiesta Metric Century
San Diego, www.shadowtour.com
June 11 —Sierra Century
Rocklin, Placer County, www.sierracentury.org
June 25 — Summer Solstice Century
June 26 — Climb To Kaiser
August 7 — Mt. Shasta Summit Century
August 13 — Tahoe-Sierra 100
Soda Springs, www.globalbiorhythmevents.com
TBA — 2007 Marin Century
September 24 — Tahoe Sierra Century
Squaw Valley, www.TahoeSierraCentury.com
October 29 — Fall Death Valley Century
Death Valley, www.adventurecorps.com
With daily flight service from the Bay, Mammoth lures Nor Cal skiers to the High Sierra
By Pete Gauvin • Photos by MMSA/Peatross
It is only by virtue of geographic inconvenience that Mammoth Lakes is considered more a playground for Southern California than Northern California. If it were not for a wall of snow-caked mountains in the way — chiefly Yosemite National Park and the Ansel Adams Wilderness — Mammoth would likely be Nor Cal’s winter alternative to Tahoe.
Look at a map: Mammoth is directly east of the Bay Area, at virtually the same latitude as Hayward and San Mateo. By way of the bird, the Bay Area is closer to Mammoth than Los Angeles. If you had wings, you might care.
Without them, the drive to Mammoth in winter is more than most Nor Cal skiers want to undertake; some 6-8 hours from the Bay Area on clear roads. Plus you have to drive right by the temptations of Tahoe — and we hear there are some decent mountains to ski there, too.
Indeed, for Bay Area and other Nor Cal skiers, “Mammoth” … well, that might as well describe the drive. And so, heretofore, Mammoth has largely been left to Southern Californians, who have no significant mountain passes to cross, nothing approaching Tahoe in their path, just a few hundred miles of sagebrush-lined asphalt to channel them up the backside of the Sierra.
That’s not going to change. But with the advent of direct flights from San Francisco and San Jose this season, Bay Area skiers and boarders can now jump the topographical fence in little more than an hour and find themselves at one of the most unique, dramatic and naturally well-endowed ski mountains in North America.
Through April 25, there is one flight daily out of SFO on United (departing 3:50 pm), and one flight out of San Jose on Horizon (12:30 pm weekdays; 3:10 weekends). (There are two daily flights from LA.)
And the cost of flying is on par with driving. Flights range from as low as $29 one way from San Jose, $59 one way from SFO. If you’re flexible, there are some tremendous weekday deals. Through February, Mammoth is offering a four-day/four-night midweek fly, ski and stay package for $99 a day from San Jose, $109 from SFO. (Check mammothmountain.com/flyskistay for details.) For comparison, a one-day adult lift ticket runs $92.
Once on the ground, it’s easy to get around without a car. It’s only an eight-mile shuttle ride from the airport to the closest lift. In town, the free Mammoth Trolley runs every 20 minutes until 2:30 in the morning.
You can grab a coffee in town at the Looney Bean and head for the mountain, enjoy a pint of Real McCoy Amber Ale from the Mammoth Brewing Company at the popular Whiskey Creek restaurant and bar, or head to the actual brewery tasting room (open daily 10-6) two blocks away for a full sampling. There’s the also the Euro-style pedestrian village at the base of the mountain with a selection of shops, bars and eateries.
Blessed by Geography
There’s the Sierra and then there’s the High Sierra. Though often used interchangeably, they are not one in the same. The true High Sierra, as noted author/guide John Moynier has pointed out, begins near the northern boundary of Yosemite and Matterhorn Peak, the northern most 12,000-foot peak in the Sierra, and extends southward 175 miles through the Whitney Zone.
Mammoth and sister resort June Mountain are the only developed ski areas in the true High Sierra, where the relief from sageland to summit is most dramatic.
Due to its geographic position and altitude, Mammoth often gets more snowfall than Tahoe resorts, an average of 32 feet annually. This season it nearly equaled that by January with an astounding 370 inches.
Sitting on the eastern flank of the range, one would guess the mountain might suffer from the rainshadow effect. But the San Joaquin River canyon funnels Pacific haymakers up to a low section in the Sierra Crest allowing moisture-laden air to cross to the east side, where it’s wrung out by the broad volcanic peak topping 11,000 feet.
The mountain, which has been snoozing since its last eruption some 50,000 years ago, is the remains of a humungous volcano that may have been as tall as 18,000 feet. Imagine, for a second, the vert we’d be talking about had it not blown its top!
Still, Mammoth more than justifies its name. The resort’s base of nearly 8,000 feet is as high as some Tahoe resorts, yet it still offers more than 3100 feet of vertical. It’s all sprawled over 3500 acres served by 28 lifts (including three gondolas) and three base areas: Canyon Lodge, Eagle Lodge and Main Lodge.
All this in a stunning Alps-like setting framed by the steepled summits of the High Sierra and long views of the Great Basin out east.
On the Mountain
Mammoth’s upper mountain is entirely above treeline and offers some of the steepest skiing in the West, including the famous Cornice Bowl. Beginner and intermediate skiing can be found all over the mountain.
The backside, close to a thousand acres and served by only two lifts, Chairs 13 and 14, is a good place to find both sunshine and powder. It features big bowls up top and well-spaced tree skiing below. Hemlock Ridge just beyond Santiago Bowl is a great place to hike for turns. After about a 400-foot vertical hike, a steep descent leads down to Chair 14.
Though not well publicized, Mammoth has an open-gate policy. The most popular expression of this is skiing off the top of the Mammoth Crest, a big palisades running right behind Mammoth Mountain toward the south, with multiple runs that all drain back to the Tamarack/Twin Lakes area, where the Tamarack Lodge and cross-country center are located. The most popular and unique out-of-bounds run is “Hole in the Wall,” a steep chute through a lava tube that forms a natural tunnel.
From Tamarack, you can catch a free shuttle bus that runs every hour on the hour back to the village and town.
If you work up an appetite but don’t want to leave the slopes, keep an eye out for Mammoth’s latest culinary creation, the Roving Mammoth, a snowcat that roams the mountain like an all-terrain taco truck, selling burritos for $5.50.
If you like your burritos with lots of corn, wait till spring. That’s when Mammoth’s ‘Great Corn Factory’ produces that buttery hero snow ripe for carving and serves it typically longer than any resort in the country. Last year, Mammoth was open until Independence Day.
For a change of pace, Mammoth tickets are also good at June Mountain, a hidden gem of a resort about 10 miles north on Hwy 395. There’s a shuttle roughly every hour, opening the possibility for a double day.
Overlooking the June Lake Loop, with jagged mountain peaks right behind it and views of austere Mono Lake out east, June is more of a purist’s mountain. No roaming burrito snowcats here.
Although it gets less snow than Mammoth, about 250 inches a year, June is known for its powder because it’s so uncrowded for its size. While a weekend at Mammoth can draw 20,000 people, a big day at June is 2000 people. And its acreage is still substantial, about two-thirds the size of Mammoth. It has seven lifts and 2,500 feet of vertical with a variety of terrain, including some great tree skiing.
Another great way to mix up a week of skiing at Mammoth is to stretch out the legs and lungs on the 19 miles of groomed trails at Tamarack Cross-Country in the scenic Lakes Basin. Adult day passes are $27. The ski school run by two-time Olympian Nancy Fiddler can help iron out your skating or diagonal stride imperfections. Snowshoe trails are also offered.
However you choose to wrap up a trip to Mammoth, with the new flight service there’ll be no worries about fatiguing yourself because you’re facing a long drive home. Enjoy your wings.
By John Yewell
The stunning northwest face of Half Dome.
Photo: Karl Bralich
When it came time to design its state quarter for the U.S. Mint, California had a wealth of iconic images from which to choose: larger-than-life personalities, grand structures (the Golden Gate Bridge would have been an obvious choice), and countless natural wonders. In the end, a state not known for dwelling on the past did just that, reaching deep into history to create an illustration with a strong conservation theme depicting the ancient California condor, the great naturalist John Muir, and Yosemite’s 87 million year old Half Dome.
And there’s a million-year-old message hidden inadvertently in the coin’s design. Muir long ago achieved a kind of sainthood, and the condor is undergoing a captive breeding program that has rescued it from the brink of extinction. It’s time that Half Dome, under pressure from a crush of visitors, be redeemed as well. Yosemite was Muir’s cathedral, after all, and Half Dome was its altar, courtesy of George Anderson.
Anderson was a Scottish blacksmith who first climbed Half Dome in 1875 by the route now leading to, and occupied by, the famous steel cables.
He hauled a forge to the base and made eyebolts into which he inserted lengths of rope, creating a series of grips. Anderson wasn’t motivated purely by a desire to be first to the top. According to some accounts, the first person to the top, regarded by many at the time as the only insurmountable summit in the valley, would earn the right to build a hotel at Half Dome’s foot.
Anderson initiated the use of climbing hardware in Yosemite, and his remained on Half Dome for 35 years. In 1910, the Sierra Club removed them and stretched a single cable down Half Dome’s flank in their place. Hoping to increase tourism, Camp Curry’s David Curry urged the Sierra Club to construct an even easier method of ascent, and thus was born in 1919 the current double cable, stanchion and two-by-four plank system. At the same time granite steps, sometimes referred to as the Devil’s Staircase, were built into the lower dome leading up to the saddle at the base of the cables.
I was 17 in 1971 when my cousin Roy and I first climbed Half Dome at the end of a backpacking trip from June Lake. A photo from that trek shows us alone on the cables — a virtual impossibility today. Certainly by that year Yosemite Valley was already overcrowded, but the masses had not yet discovered the Half Dome trail.
I’ve been up a dozen times since, and try to go every summer as a kind of pilgrimage. But last summer, after years of increasingly rude behavior from the growing swarm of hikers, I finally hit a wall.
I was about halfway up the cables when a teenager at the bottom with a mini boom box insisted on sharing his music. I shouted, asking him to shut it off, and he shouted something back, but the music continued. I practically ran up the rest of the way to escape. I didn’t fault him. His adult supervisors were the real problem, having apparently made little effort to instill in him any respect for the outdoors.
Heading down the cable route.
Photo: John Wang,
At the summit people weren’t much better behaved, shrieking, running around, and talking on cell phones. The adults were as bad as the teenagers. I’m usually better at ignoring Yosemite’s crowds, but this time I swore it was my last trip. I admit to a certain sensitivity on the subject. I adopted Muir’s cathedral as my own in 1962, when I was eight.
But every summer my reverence for the place gets harder to sustain, as an increasing number of hikers — the Park Service last estimated the number at 400 a day in 1994 — makes the roughly 17-mile round trip up Half Dome. They are suffocating what used to be a wilderness experience, not to mention damaging plant and wild life — most notably the Mt. Lyell salamander, and the trees, now virtually gone, on the summit.
The Park Service says it promotes the “leave no trace”principle, which has had some success at minimizing damage to the environment. But its passive education effort has left almost entirely unaddressed the broader issue of trail courtesy and noise pollution. The Park Service seems reluctant to confront the issue head-on, but cell phones and even loud iPods can be more disruptive to the wilderness experience than a discarded beer can.
The NPS is missing an opportunity. Because the Half Dome trail is the first wilderness experience for many hikers, it is an ideal place to teach backcountry etiquette Å0ç0 if we can summon the will and resources to do so. The Park Service should take advantage of that allure and undertake a vigorous education program. A simple start would be a sign at Happy Isles, at the beginning of the trail, with suggestions for how to assure a wilderness experience for everyone (see sidebar).
The alternative may be extending the quota system, now used exclusively for overnight backcountry use, to the day-use portion of the trail beyond the top of Nevada Falls. Continuing to ignore the problem is not an option. All it takes is paying more attention to the rock itself, which has created its own inspiring icons — like a diminutive 70-plus year old named Ruth I met a few years ago on the trail. Ruth practically sprinted to the cables, then scampered up the 800-foot, 45-degree incline as a group of high school football players watched from the lower dome, begging off for fear of heights.
That’s Half Dome’s trump card: the climb remains daunting for many, otherwise trail use would be even greater. For that reason and many others, I’m not among those who argue for removing the cables. But if something isn’t done about the environmental degradation and trail behavior, the voices of those who advocate removing the cables will grow stronger.
The pull of Half Dome remains strong, and it wasn’t long before I began to rethink my oath. The things that bring me back are the things that will never change: the feel of steep granite under my boots; the quality of the air and light; the smell of the forest; and most of all, of course, the view. Whenever I want a reminder, I can reach into my pocket and pull out a quarter.
I don’t expect a return to the serenity of Anderson’s 1875 Half Dome, but the rest of his story does contain a portentous note. Soon after reaching the summit, and before he had time to give his hotel much thought, Anderson set about replacing his crude grips with a ladder. Before he could finish, he became sick and died. Perhaps Half Dome was offering him, and us, a lesson in the pitfalls of easy access.
Photo: John Wang
Half Dome —Trail Etiquette
If the music of granite and water don’t seduce you, the least you can do is not ruin it for others. If you must take your iPod, remember that on the trail even headphones can be overheard by people nearby. Bring a boom box, go to jail. Unless you’re falling to your death, don’t scream or talk above a conversational level. With so many hikers you’re rarely alone, even on Half Dome’s 10-acre summit.
Seventy percent of respondents to a 2003 online poll by nwhikers.net said cell phones should be taken into the wilderness for emergency use only. Another 19 percent said they don’t belong there at all. Pack it if you must, but keep it turned off. Coverage is spotty, but calling your girlfriend or buddy from the summit to say “You’ll never guess where I’m calling you from!” is strictly déclassé.
People climb and descend at different rates, so be considerate of the pace, and fears, of others. Whether you stay between the cables or go outside, never disturb another climber’s grip, and offer assistance to those suffering from fatigue or acrophobia.
At the bottom of the cables is a pile of gloves, which will improve your grip on the hot, slippery steel. Most are worn out and only nominally useful. Better to bring your own and leave them for others when you’re done. Inexpensive cloth garden gloves with small rubber studs on the palms and fingers grip better than leather.
2005 Summer —Trail Restrictions
The Park Service plans to close the steps on the lower dome for repairs Monday through Thursday from 7 A.M. to 4 P.M., from July 6 to Oct. 4.
Access to the summit will be blocked during those times, resulting in more concentrated trail use on the remaining three days of the week.
Get an early start. The cables are going to be even more crowded than usual.
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) will begin gathering excess wild horses from public lands in northeastern California and northwestern Nevada starting next week. The animals will be made available for adoption through BLM’s national Wild Horse and Burro adoption program.
Northern California BLM District Manager Nancy Haug said herds in these areas have exceeded the population levels that can be sustained on the range, along with wildlife and authorized livestock. These levels were determined through BLM’s land use plans and the environmental impacts analyzed through environmental assessments, both with public involvement.
Beginning Sept. 9, crews will focus on the New Ravendale Herd Management Area (HMA) about 50 miles north of Susanville. About 100 wild horses may be gathered to bring the herd within its appropriate management level (AML) of 15 to 25 animals. The AML is based on a number of factors, including water availability and plant productivity.
During the week of September 14, the gathering shifts to the Cedarville area, with a two-week focus on the Carter Reservoir and Coppersmith HMAs. At Carter Reservoir, along the California-Nevada border east of Cedarville, BLM plans to remove 125 horses to bring the herd population within its AML of 25 to 35 animals. In the Coppersmith HMA, straddling the California-Nevada border northwest of Ravendale, Calif., BLM estimates 86 horses must be removed to bring the herd population to its AML of 50 to 75 wild horses.
Haug explained that BLM gathers wild horses under provisions of the 1971 Wild, Free-roaming Horse and Burro Act. The law requires BLM to protect, manage, and control wild populations as part of a “thriving natural ecological balance on the range” and to remove some animals when herd populations grow too large.
Horses removed from the range will be brought to the BLM’s Litchfield Corrals east of Susanville and will be available for adoption. Animals not adoptable because of age or other reasons will be shipped to BLM long term holding pastures in the Midwest. Information on adopting a wild horse or burro from Litchfield can be obtained by calling (530) 254-6575. Information on wild horse and burro management, including herd population and adoption statistics, can be found at www.wildhorseandburro.blm.gov.
Ice Climbing in Lee Vining Canyon and June Lake Loop
Story and photo by SP Parker
Nearly 40 winters ago, Yvon Chouinard and Doug Robinson scaled the Main Wall ice route in Lee Vining Canyon, off Highway 120 east of Tioga Pass. A near vertical frozen waterfall, the climb was likely a good opportunity to test some new ice climbing tools Chouinard was developing at the time, including an ice axe with a shortened shaft and a curved pick angle. His innovations helped push the sport past its roots as a subset of mountaineering to become a worthwhile winter pursuit in its own right. Since then, the sport has surged in popularity.
Unfortunately for ice climbers, high-quality accessible ice is in limited supply in California. The most consistent ice occurs in the Eastern Sierra canyons of Lee Vining and June Lake—a reasonably short road trip, depending on conditions. Seepage from Eastside spring and creek flows (and, as local legend has it, a little leak or two from Southern California Edison’s nearby power plant) congeals as the temperatures drop, forming intricate pillars and columns of ice. Climbers can choose between easier routes or sheer, overhanging multi-pitch and mixed-climbing routes to test their crampon skills and ice-axe picking techniques—all in a 40-mile radius of winter fun.
The eponymous Lee Vining Canyon, situated just southwest of the town of Lee Vining on Highway 395, stays cool in the shadows of Mt. Dana. The 2,000-foot high canyon walls are mostly shaded from the sun, almost guaranteeing consistent winter ice. The canyon has several main climbing areas:
The Right and Central (or “Chouinard”) areas feature top-rope bolt anchors (be careful getting to these since they are right at the edge of the cliff) and offer good test routes for novice ice climbers.
The Main Fall area offers more than a dozen multi-pitch routes to choose from. Routes up the face and to either side are mostly M3 to 8 mixed grade and WI 4 and 5 lead climbs (see sidebar, “Ice Climbing Ratings”). Well-known routes include the mixed lines of “Fischer King” and the intermediate route of “Spiral Staircase.”
The Bard-Harrington Wall demands longer pitches but offers some great mixed climbing lines. But take note that the Main Fall and Bard-Harrington areas are the domain of lead climbers. Be sure of your abilities before committing to these longer routes.
Lee Vining Canyon is located some 100 miles south of Reno. Highway 120 is closed in winter so if coming from the Bay Area it is necessary to loop around to Highway 395 via Tahoe. Road access is dependent upon the county plowing so if there is a big storm, the canyon may only be accessible by skis or snowshoes.
Lee Vining is small! For accommodations try Murphey’s Motel—they offer an ice climber discount. Nicely’s restaurant, the only diner in town, is the sure spot to meet up with other ice climbers and fill your mandatory thermos of coffee or hot chocolate.
June Lake Loop
At June Lake, good ice is just a short but steep amble from the side of the June Lakes Loop Road, just south on 395 from Lee Vining.
The formations at June Lake tend to have less overhang and are therefore friendlier to beginners than Lee Vining Canyon’s routes. However, it is necessary to lead up to the top. Also, because the routes are more exposed to sunlight, the ice here can be shorter-lived and a lot more variable with “chandeliers” and “cauliflowers” of soft ice. So-called easier routes can quickly become tricky. “Horsetail Falls” and “Tatums” are the main climbing areas.
June Lake is 10 miles south of the town of Lee Vining. For lodging, try the Whispering Pines Motel here. For luxury treatment after a day spent picking and kicking, the Double Eagle Resort offers spas and massages. They also offer a tasty breakfast with a fireside view of the climbing area.
Due to the shortage of predictable, accessible ice in California, both of these locales are popular. If you can, avoid weekends and come midweek instead. And when the approach means waiting in line for your turn, avoid spending time at the base of climbs when there are others climbing above, for obvious reasons. For ice updates, visit Sierra Mountain Guides’ website at www.sierramtnguides.com.
If winter camping is your thing, check out Big Bend Campground in Inyo National Forest. For camping info, visit www.fs.fed.us/r5/inyo/recreation/campgrounds. For current road conditions in the area, visit http://www.monolake.org/live.
Here are a few tips to ready your rack for winter climbs:
You can get by with general-purpose mountaineering equipment, but dedicated waterfall climbing tools will make life a lot easier and more enjoyable.
For pure ice climbing, a bent shaft tool is the norm. Also, going leashless is becoming more poplar, just watch out for dropping tools—yours and those belonging to climbers above you.
Keep your ice tools sharp and touch them up with a file rather than a bench grinder which can overheat the points. (With all the sharp pointy equipment required for ice climbing, there are numerous ways to put a hole in yourself or someone else. Pay attention to your points!)
Keep your helmet on when you’re on or near the ice.
Bring several pairs of gloves so that as one pair gets wet you can pull on another.
Originally from New Zealand, SP Parker has lived in the Eastern Sierra for 25 years. Certified in rock, alpine and ski disciplines by the American Mountain Guides Association and with international certification through the IFMGA, he runs a guide service based in Bishop and leads trips throughout the Sierra and worldwide. He is also the author of “Eastern Sierra Ice,” available for sale at www.maximuspress.com.
Ice 101: Get Schooled
Ice climbing is a definite step up in danger from most rock climbing so be sure of your skill and ability before venturing out. If you are not confident in your skills, take a class from a guide or guide service. The following companies, all featuring AMGA or IFMGA certified guides, offer Eastside ice climbing seminars and trips:
Alpine Skills International leads Lee Vining and June Lakes trips for novice and experienced ice climbers alike. They also offer ice axe, crampon and glacial ice workshops. www.alpineskills.com; (530) 582-9170
Sierra Mountain Center features several ice climbing clinics in the Lee Vining area from basic skills to advanced waterfall climbing and private waterfall lessons. www.sierramountaincenter.com; (760) 873-8526
Sierra Mountain Guides, based out of June Lake, offer introductory and advanced ice climbing skills courses, with a two-day classic mixed-route course offered to intermediate climbers. www.sierramtnguides.com; (760) 648-1122
Sierra Wilderness Seminars offers basic and advanced ice climbing seminars as well as mixed-ice and rock technical combo courses. They also offer women-specific clinics. www.swsmtns.com; (888) 797-6867
Ice Climbing Ratings
All rating systems, whether for rock, alpine, ice, or mixed climbing, are subjective and dependent on the area, the climbing history, and the opinions of the climbing community. But for ice climbing and mixed ice climbing, ratings are even less precise because the medium of ice can change daily, seasonally, and—as all ice climbers know—hourly.
Remember ice-climbing ratings are nebulous at best and dangerous at worst. Use sound judgment and trust your instincts.
Water Ice Climbing: The Technical Ice (WI) and Mixed Ice rating systems below are based on various established systems such as the Yosemite Decimal System (YDS), the New England Ice system (NEI), and others.
- WI1: Walking on ice with crampons, low angle, up a stream bed.
- WI2: Up to 60 degrees, good protection and belays. Ice usually thick and solid.
- WI3: Sustained angle of 70 degrees with short steeper sections up to 80-85 degrees, with good protection, resting places, and belays. Ice usually thick and solid.
- WI4: Sustained angle of 75-80 degrees with short steeper sections up to 90 degrees with good resting places in between; good quality ice offering secure protection and belays.
- WI5: Sustained angle of 85-90 degrees, vertical with fewer good resting places, while still offering good quality ice for protections and belays.
- WI6: Sustained angle of 90-plus degrees, vertical with very few resting places, ice may be of poor quality, thin; protection and belays may be difficult to attain.
- WI7: Vertical to overhanging, ice quality thin, not well-bonded to surface; protection is marginal or non-existent.
Mixed Ice Climbing: Mixed Ice Climbing ratings (MI) are new and are still being developed. The ratings are related to the Yosemite Decimal System used in rock climbing with a liberal dose of “feels like…” subjectivity thrown in for good measure.
- M1: “Feels like” 5.5 climbing with occasional dry tool move.
- M2: “Feels like” 5.6 climbing with couple dry tool moves.
- M3: “Feels like” 5.7 climbing with several dry tool moves.
- M4: “Feels like” 5.8 climbing/ WI 4 / with some technical dry tooling.
- M5: “Feels like” 5.9 climbing / WI 5 / some sections for sustained dry tooling.
- M6: “Feels like” 5.10 climbing / WI 6/ with some vertical or overhanging difficult dry tooling.
- M7: “Feels like” 5.11 /WI 6 or WI 7/ 10-15 meters of technical dry tooling.
- M8: “Feels like” 5.11+ / 8-10 meters of slightly overhanging technical dry tooling.
- M9: “Feels like” 5.12 / 10-15 meters of slightly overhanging technical dry tooling.
- M10: “Feels like” 5.12- 5.13 / overhanging, technical, strenuous dry tooling.
- M11: “Feels like” 5.13- 5.14 / Almost at the upper end.
- M12: “Feels like” 5.14 – ? / Nearing the upper end.
- M13: “Feels like” 5.14+ / The upper end.
- M14: “Feels like” 5. ?? New techniques, creativity … the future?
– Timothy Keating
Timothy Keating is an AMGA certified guide with Sierra Wilderness Seminars Mountain Guides. He has been guiding since 1981, and has spent more than 20 years guiding and ice climbing in Lee Vining Canyon. www.swsmountainguides.com; 888-797-6867
by Seth Lightcap
Driving up the road to Glacier Lodge last March, looming Mt.Alice looked huge. Flipping open a topo map and my tattered copy of Paul Ritchens’ 50 Classic Backcountry Ski and Snowboard Summits in California, I measured up Mt. Alice and our intended route. Scoffing past the, “Snowboards: Not Recommended” bit, I sought words of encouragement, and read aloud to my two partners, Nick Sovner and his dog, Max, “The circumnavigation of the Palisades is an arduous ski mountaineering MINI expedition through some of the most rugged alpine terrain in the Sierra Nevada.” I got no reply. I could tell they were both looking at Mt. Alice and the surrounding terrain. Mouths open, they stared at the vast landscape. There was nothing “mini” about it.
Arriving at an empty trailhead around 1 p.m., the air was dank. The dripping pines glistened as the sun shown through onto the fresh snow. I stretched out my pesky leg cramps and watched Max casually sniff at a pine bough in a snow drift. Perched with precision, Max shook off a drip from his coat and radiated his veteran snow demeanor. I turned back to the truck, eager to begin gearing up. Nick had already unloaded the boards and was elbow deep loading his pack. Game On!
A recent crossover from snowboarding, Nick was touring on telemark skis. True to my roots, I was piloting a splitboard. A splitboard is a hybrid snowboard that can split in half to become skis (see product review page 42). The splitboard allows the dual reality of efficient skiing on the way up and blissful snowboarding on the way down. As I had already skied about 150 total miles on my 170cm Burton with few issues, I was ecstatic about challenging my schizophrenic chariot to a true epic in the Sierras.Finessing this expedition would finally give me the ammunition I needed to crush two-planker naysayers who spout about a snowboard’s limitations in the backcountry. As far as I knew, no one had ever attempted a Palisade circumnavigation on a splitboard. …And so the journey began. Three Donner Summit snow warriors, poised for an extended journey into a massive winter Valhalla. We had all seen many nights under the winter stars, but such a journey around the Palisades would be our most committing adventure yet. Inspired by the write up in Paul Ritchen’s guide book,I had convinced Nick that this expedition was THE adventure to fill his spring break from Humboldt State. Without requiring any car shuttling, the 30 mile trip would take us up the North fork of Big Pine Creek, around the remote Western flank of the Palisade Range, and back down the South fork of Big Pine Creek. The route began at 7800 ft and climbed five 12,000+ ft passes, crossing the Sierra Crest twice in the process. I reasoned we would spend five nights in the snow.
Prepared, and giddy with energy, we hid the car key, and began mounting our skis. Max was already down the trail. The first six miles of the journey followed the North Fork trail up Big Pine Creek. Slogging through 18 inches of fresh snow and pesky manzanita, we camped in the trees just above First Lake in the shadow of beloved Temple Crag. Watching the sunset on Temple’s gothic aretes and massive pillars, we dug in our Mega-Mid tent, humbled to have just entered what we knew to be holy land. The next day Max had us up and charging at first light. We ditched the trail and took a high traversing line above Second and Third Lakes dropping back to the valley floor at Fourth Lake. Arriving aside Fifth Lake around noon, we found what would be our last open water source. Everyone guzzled the icy melt water and recharged. The first sustained steep push lay just ahead. Matching each other step for step, Nick’s telemarks and my splitboard both worked flawlessly as we switchbacked up the massive headwall that guarded the drainage below Jigsaw Pass. Stoic in the face of deadly exposure, Max scurried on top of the crust as Nick and I busted steps one at a time.
Upon reaching 11,700 ft. at 3:30 p.m. we dug in for the night. Sleeping in the trees at 9000 ft had been comfortable, so we figured digging our shelter into a four foot deep hole next to a rock might help recreate that warmth 2500 ft. higher. Two hours effort paid off, and we slept relatively
warm despite Max’s attempts to steal my sleeping pad. Awoken to bluebird skies, Nick led the rally to the Crest. The final 400 feet of climbing gave us a chilling reminder of the committing conditions that guard the Sierra Crest mid-winter. We clung to our edges and perched on our poles, as steep icy crust led us through broken exposed rock. Nick’s telemarks gripped a bit better than my splitboard initially, but upon engaging my crampons and tightening my skins I gained the crest just behind him. Looking off of Jigsaw Pass at the glorious peaks of King’s Canyon,we took a reverent break and stood in awe of the snowy serenity awash around us.
Eager to make our first turns in three days, Nick and I clamored over the rocky crest and looked down the western escarpment hoping for a powdery chute to descend. Instead we looked off into nearly 500 feet of nasty steep rock mixed with narrow tongues of loose snow. A tattered bamboo wand marked a
narrow rocky entrance. The downclimbing that ensued was by far the crux of our trip. The steep snow made for sketchy kick stepping and the loose rock made for horrible down climbing. More in touch with the rock, I zig zagged my way down intermittent rock steps. Nick’s plastic tele boots allowed him to kickstep through the crust so he moved snow patch to snow patch. Max charged down head first, running laps around us both. A stressful hour later we reached terra firma—a 500 ft. snowfield that dropped to the basin at Bishop Pass. Assembling my splitboard for the first time in three days, I took a deep breath and launched into some of the most rewarding turns I have ever made. Ripping through the shin deep, wind blown powder I felt unconscious. Nick and I milked that sweet pitch for every vertical inch. Catching a hidden rock, Nick took an unexpected fall, but even a tweaked ankle couldn’t rip off his plastered smile.
The rest of the afternoon we crossed 12,000 ft. Bishop Pass and blasted a bit further, setting camp in a drift directly below Thunderbolt Peak. The dawn of day four found us a bit cold, but still energetic. Setting a preliminary goal of a camp below Norman Clyde Peak, we had three 1500 ft. passes to climb and descend. Tackling Thunderbolt Pass with ease, we plotted our line to Potluck Pass, and dropped in for our second helping of turns. Returning to our skis and skins we traversed below North Palisade and made good time ascending Potluck Pass. Nick’s telemarks and my split skis handled the variable snow with grace.
From the top of Potluck we spied our final pass for the day, the inconspicuous Cirque Pass. Cirque Pass is a narrow break in a major ridge jutting away from Mt. Sill and gaining its threshold proved to be quite intimidating. Peering over the southern edge at almost 4 p.m. we quickly
stowed the skins, and dropped into a technical descent through fall lines that fell off into jutting cliffbands. Nick proved himself the worthy partner and photographer as he passed on a few dream-like exposed lines to safely guide himself rock band to rock band while shooting pictures. More at ease with my bulky pack, I hucked and played with every drop and constriction on my splitboard. Arriving at the basin below Norman Clyde Peak, an eerie fog rolled in and we dug out a home for our last night
west of the Sierra Crest.
That night below Norman Clyde Peak was miserable. Icy condensation rained from our tent walls with every gust of wind, leaving me no choice but to cover my face with my jacket to escape the frost. Sleeping with a jacket over my face at 11,000 ft. quickly led to hypoxia and I would awaken tearing the jacket away to gasp for breath. Everyone slept horribly. The wind died with the dawn and we finally got some decent sleep as the sun hit the shelter.
The final day west of the crest we contoured above beautiful Palisade Lakes. Traversing the rolling slopes far above the lakes put my split ski skills to the test. Spooked about slipping on the split skis, it was my turn to make the cautious traverse lines and take the pictures. Nick casually made the turns as Max chased us both. Hooking around to the east, we arrived at the base of Southfork Pass around 1 p.m. We inhaled some lunch and began our final climb. Steep switchbacking on exposed slopes gained us a narrow tongue of loose talus on which we scraped our way up the final 300 ft. to the top of the Sierra Crest.
Gaining the 12,560 ft. Southfork Pass, my eyes lit up. What lay to the east is what backcountry dreams are made of. A 500 ft. funneling chute of soft wind pack that emptied out into the massive southern drainage of Big Pine Creek. After negotiating the narrow chute exit, a descent of over 3000 vertical feet still awaited us. Before dropping into the chute we checked that our transcievers were beeping, and dug a hasty pit to get an idea as to the stability of the snowpack in the chute. The snowpack seemed nicely consolidated, so we geared up for the descent. Nursing his tweaked ankle, Nick chose a lower point to drop from. I made off with the glory turns,
punching several tight slashes right off the crest, before pointing the hole shot. Screaming out into the massive snowfield below, I once again found
religion. Floating through the countless gullies and small headwalls of the Big Pine drainage, we rode and skied for over two and a half miles. Choosing lines picture perfect for our respective styles, Nick and I frolicked as Max chased our tracks. Although we could have easily descended all the way to the trailhead that day, we stopped short and camped one last night at Willow Lake. Legs weary and souls aflame, we celebrated our achievement and slept womb-like under the shadows of the Palisades. The next morning, we loaded up, and pushed on to the final descent. What we expected to be a no-brainer down the main drainage ended up coercing us into very committing territory. Riding tree to tree next to exposed rushing water made for a fitting ending to the adventure. Snowline forced us to give up the now tic-tac descending and we hiked out the last half mile in the snow and dirt to the trailhead. The truck held clean socks, cold beers, and offered our first interaction with other people in six days. Questioned as to our journey, we spoke in tongues still unintelligible to anyone but ourselves. No one asked us a second question and we sought no more answers. The Palisades had pushed us hard, but all worry and suspicion were now gone. No technology, no guidebook, and no physical or mental limitations could take back our success.A snowboarder, a telemarker, and a dog had completed the journey of a lifetime.