By Brennan Lagasse
It’s spring and the eastern Sierra is going off (ie. the infamous Parachute couloir). And while a descent of the Parachute makes for a good story, the East Couloir of Split Mountain is a bit different sort of beast. It was first skied by Glen Plake in the late 90’s and has seen only a few other tracks since. This is due in large part due to the WI4 ice climbing one must pass, a 14k foot summit, roughly 7,800 feet of vertical from the car, as well as the down-climbing and rappel necessary to exit the line safely. It was recently included in Chris Davenport’s new book, 50 Classic Ski Descents of North America, and is a highly-regarded descent is the Sierra Nevada’s greater community of backcountry ski mountaineers.
My partner and I skied from the top of Split’s south summit this past January, with John Morrison. We talked a lot about the East Couloir that day, and came away knowing it was a highly-involved line; that it has seen very few descents; and that takes a lot of snow to be worth considering. We also came away knowing we’d at least give it a go this spring if the snow piled enough to warrant an attempt. The picture (see Exhibit A, 14er Split Fat Year) I sent also had a lot to do with our efforts, as even though I’ve skied numerous classic Eastern Sierra couloirs over the past few seasons, Split’s East Couloir looked to be the most aesthetic one of them all (and that’s saying something).
So last week my partner, Jeff Dostie, and I got word that the line might be in. We rallied down there to give it a shot. We left Tahoe at about 9:30 p.m. (I had a mandatory meeting with my primary employer, Unofficial Networks, that night), and were trying to fall asleep at the dusty sage-caked trailhead by 2:30 a.m. Two hours later were up and moving, and twelve hours later we returned completely gassed and fully stoked on what we had just been able to accomplish.
Car-to-car the line runs about 7,800 (might be 7,700) vertical feet. We started walking on sand and sage with first hint of dawn's light, bushwhacked through willows and rocks and across a creek, and started skinning with ski crampons when we reached the first sizeable patch of snow. A glorious Sierra sunrise ensued and after about 5,400′ of skinning we reached the base of the couloir. We actually almost pulled the plug at this point since new snow had fallen the previous few days and this was the first real day, so it seemed, that the sun had its warming way… stripping loose snow from the flanks of just about every other chute, couloir, and overhung face in the greater cirque. Thankfully our line remained clean, and since there was only a small amount of new loose snow on the E-SE wall we rationalized we were still a go.
Horrendously slow cramponing characterized the next hour or so. The snow just kept getting deeper and deeper. Our rhythm was characterized thusly: Step with one leg, raise other leg, click that boot on the planted leg so as to shake off the clumpy dense warm powder, place that step, and repeat. By the time we had arrived at the business we were both starting to feel that the day was not going to be as fast as we had originally hoped. We still managed to trudge on.
The main business involves either negotiating an extremely tight chimney filled with blue ice, or a 25-30 foot frozen vertical waterfall. We chose the latter, since the chimney seemed like it would facilitate nothing but a junk show, and we had both recently had a pretty stunning ice climbing experience with our good buddy Kip Garre up in Cordova, Alaska. Feeling confident, I took the sharp end while Jeff anchored himself in, off one screw at the base of the waterfall backed up by two ice axes buried in the snow. I lead the WI 4 pitch swiftly, not placing any protection as the Zen aspect of the climb took full control. I was completely in the moment, and just like that I was anchored in, had Jeff on belay, and we were already switching back over to continue the arduous boot-to-knee-deep climbing to the summit (14,058').
After much longer (than either of us would have liked for it to take), we both stood on top of the north summit of Split and gazed out over the beautiful wilderness that is the heart of the southern Sierra Nevada. Dropping in, we found a diverse combination of snow: Smooth creamy powder on the protected north side of the couloir,to crusty crap on the E-SE side. Meticulously, we skied our way down one of the prettiest lines in the Range of Light. But the closer we got to the first ice bulge, the slower and more calculated each turn became. What was an easy section to bypass with crampons sans rope on the way up (after the waterfall) was a very difficult section to negotiate on the way down. The snow was somewhat spackled in this 150′ section, but underneath laid solid ice. We chose to downclimb it, since it really wasn’t all that steep and wasn't really skiable.
After what became one of the more laborious sections of the whole route, I made it back to the top of the frozen waterfall. At this moment, comfort finally started to wash over me. For the first time all day, I felt safe. With bomber foot placements, I tied both our 8mm 30 and 40 meter ropes together, rigged a rappel, and was back at the base of the waterfall stripping off my harness and clicking in as Jeff made his way down. We had a few more powder turns in the lower portion of the couloir before we came across yet another obstacle. Since the route had taken us much longer than we had anticipated the whole lower apron leading out of the couloir was now in the shade—and freezing fast.
Thankfully, a few sketchy turns and a long traverse out toward the most southerly-facing aspect in the cirque lead us to perfect corn on the refreeze. 5k vertical feet of sweet refreezing corn lead us back to the desert, past blooming wildflowers, cacti, sage, and finally to my favorite thing about a long Eastside spring day—going straight from ski boots to flip flops. Where else can you go from powder skiing and ice climbing to shorts and desert in such a small amount of time? Burritos, beer, a hot spring soak, and an almost-full-moon led the rest of the evening before we were back on the road early that next morning cruising into Tahoe as content as two Sierra ski mountaineers could possibly be.