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Mashed Taters in the Lost River Range

The goal.

The goal.

When it comes to spring skiing, our skiing “vegetable” of choice is corn, nice buttery corn. The recipe for this condition is clear skies, cold nights, (below freezing), and a sunny day. Timing is critical, just like grilling corn on the cob, you need just the right amount of heat/radiation. Too little and you are dealing with raw corn, or in the case of the snow recipe, a tilted skating rink. (And sometimes the rink is tilted in excess of 45 degrees). Too much heat and you have burnt corn, or in the case of our snow recipe, you change it to an entirely different vegetable; mash potatoes.

Based on the title of this article, it is safe to assume that our recipe for “corn snow” was a dismal failure on this trip. Sometimes this is the fault of the skiers because they didn’t get their lazy butts up and going early enough. In our case, it was just plain the fault of mother nature – the grill was simply too warm from the get go. One of the interesting points here is that conditions should have been right for the formation of “corn”. The night was crystal clear and although the valley temperatures were warm, even bordering on hot, the conventional wisdom is that at these elevations, this time of year the temperatures should have been getting cold enough to “set the snow up overnight”. As a point of reference, we climbed Mt Leatherman 2 years ago, (almost to the day), in almost the exact same conditions and the snow was firm for the entire climb. We even had to wait on top for the “corn” to finish “cooking”. Okay, I digress and before I make this a post about global warming, let me get back to the trip report.

The morning started out promising enough. We had hiked up to a small meadow at the snow line, (~9,400 feet), the evening before and had set up camp. Jim and I were in the 2-man tent and Tom was in his bivy.

Looking past the waterfall at Church basking in the evening sunlight

Looking past the waterfall at Church basking in the evening sunlight


Jim gets ready to set up camp in the waning light.

Jim gets ready to set up camp in the waning light.


Tom sets up his bivy on a small piece of soft, lumpy grass.

Tom sets up his bivy on a small piece of soft, lumpy grass.

The night stars were brilliant and illuminated our camp site to the point that it never really seemed to get dark. It always amazes me how much clearer the sky is in the mountains at these elevations. I don’t know whether it was the starry night, or the wind rattling the tent, or being over-hydrated, or simply being wound to tight with anticipation, but I never really went to sleep. I closed my eyes for long periods and rested, but sleep never really came. As we hit the snow on the first pitch right after camp, it seemed firm enough and I even jumped on it a couple of times before putting the skis on and hitting the skin-track.

As we climbed the first few hundred feet up to the lake, and started the main ascent, the sun had just started to hit the mountain tops.

Jim sets the skin track as we head up Church. Donaldson is the small point just right of center.

Jim sets the skin track as we head up Church. Donaldson is the small point just right of center.

However, the snow had already changed under our feet and the slight crust was breaking through, even under our skis/skins.
Tom snowshoes above the lake as we head up to the steeper slopes.

Tom snowshoes above the lake as we head up to the steeper slopes.

Tom was struggling even more because he was on snowshoes. (Tom was there for the snow climb, training for an upcoming ascent of Rainier, and so he wasn’t going to be skiing). As we hit the 11,000 foot mark, we topped out on a small ridge just below the main ramp to the summit ridge.

By this time the sun was out and we transitioned over to the boot-pack. We were now in full on “mashed potatoes”, and this made the climbing tough and slow. With each step we took, we were sinking from ankle to knee deep in mush. There were multiple avalanche debris piles and wet slide zones around us that had went earlier in May, probably in the weeks prior. In late April/early May a series of storms hit the Lost Rivers and dropped more than a foot of fresh snow. Almost all of this snow had slid, but it had not ripped out any of the existing pack.

Jim and Tom give me a big head start on my lead of the boot pack.

Jim and Tom give me a big head start on my lead of the boot pack.


Jim and Tom heading up through some old avalanche debris.

Jim and Tom heading up through some old avalanche debris.

We did find that the snow was slightly firmer in and around these slide zones, so that is where we did most of the climbing. We each took a turn in leading off, and eventually we made it to our target point on the summit ridge.

We were within 50-100 feet of the true summit, in terms of vertical, but to actually get to the summit, we would have had to negotiate 2-3 more serrated ridge points, protected by cliffs and overhanging snow drifts. We were over 12K, and were looking across at the summit, just a few hundred yards away. We all decided that we were “close enough”. Did we actually tag the true summit? No, but we were on top of the route that we had chosen and it was time to get down off the mountain while the taters were still in a mashed state and hadn’t been turned into soup!

The video shows the ski down. Challenging conditions, but I love to ski and I can truly say this was fun.

Refueling with a yummy slice of cold pepperoni pizza.

Refueling with a yummy slice of cold pepperoni pizza.

The final pitch, with our route visible in the upper left.

The final pitch, with our route visible in the upper left.


After getting to the camp, we rested a little while, and then packed up and headed out.
Getting a little rest before we begin the hike back to the vehicle.

Getting a little rest before we begin the hike back to the vehicle.

The initial part of the down climb wasn’t to fun because of the rocks and scree. It is steep and no real trail, plus you have to work around a big waterfall and some cliff areas. But once we hit the stream and crossed it, Jim picked up a nice game trail and it took us to within a few hundred yards of the vehicle. As we had climbed up the evening before, we had stayed higher in the canyon and our route, while not that difficult, was not as direct as the one we found when we came out. I kept wanting to veer off towards that route, but Jim finally convinced me to stay the course. See the GPS Map of the route below.

Closing thoughts:
First off, a big thank-you to Jim and Tom for accompanying me on another one of my “adventures”. These guys are great friends and trusted partners in the mountains.

Also, a big shout out to “Lurch”, (and owner Jim). Lurch is Jim’s 4wd 1990’s era, right-hand driver’s side, Toyota Land Cruiser. He is the beast that his name suggests and made quick and easy work of the notorious East Pahsimeroi Valley roads!

The view of the Lost River Range, featuring Borah Peak, (from Willow Creek Summit).

The view of the Lost River Range, featuring Borah Peak, (from Willow Creek Summit).

Finally, as I reflect on this adventure and think of what I learned that I can apply to my day-to-day life, one thing comes to mind that is a big take-away. As I mentioned earlier, we all took a turn in the lead on the climb up through the “mashed potatoes”. This is a tried and true technique that we use in the mountains. When climbing in deep snow, no matter the conditions, it is best handled by working out a system of rotation. If there are 3-4 people this works very efficiently. The lead climber has the most difficulty and the one in the back is what we call, “riding in the Cadillac”. The point is that we get to the top by sharing the load, by coordinated teamwork, by being a good friend and helping each other out.
This is so true in life. We can overcome a lot of obstacles by working together and by helping one another out. It requires patience and a willingness to share leadership roles. Some can do things faster or better than others, but if we work together, we can get where we are going and not be exhausted with the journey.
It is always more fun when we share the adventure!

GPS Map of the Climbing/Skiing Route:

Google Earth View of the Approach Route:
Church Approach Route GE
The approach route data download in KML format. Clicking on the link allows you to view this directly in Google Earth, or save to your local drive.

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Snow report by Snow Report & Snow Service Denver

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