By: Beth Epstein, Tim Keenan
Having admired the north couloir of Bloody Mtn from the highway, I finally scheduled this trip and wondered all spring what kinds of conditions.El Nino would leave behind. Looking at the map, I imagined a hike in little sun and much snow below the steep sides of N-S trending Laurel Canyon. When Tim Keenan, Joanne Andrew, Kim Gimenez, Mars Bonfire, Ken Wagner and I gathered at the intersection of Sherwin Creek Road and the Laurel Canyon "trail", we looked at the sagebrush slopes and the bare hillsides and decided against snowshoes. In fact, the "trail" is an old mining road, and the wilderness boundary is drawn to exclude Laurel Lakes. I expect in another week or two we could have driven nearly all the way to the base of the climb. So we piled ourselves and our gear into the back of Ken's very large truck and got as far as the first snow patch at 2400M. We walked the rest, but the snow didn't start in earnest until about 2800M.
Once we came around the bend into the canyon, I could see that I had pictured some other place-this was a wide glacial canyon of graceful slopes and willows and aspens. Well, some aspens and some avalanche debris. The recent snows lying over the consolidated snowpack from April were sloughing in the gullies after the warm weather of the preceding week. From the mouth of the canyon, you could see the Bloody couloir with the distinctive Y at the top, and we could discern even from there that the snow had been sliding. It is a swell view walking in, and we meandered up the road enjoying the sunny day and the good company. At the road junction at 2800M, we headed straight up canyon on solid snow instead of switching back. At our conversational pace, we reached the first lake by noon (2.5 hrs.) and decided to make camp on some open ground, except for Tim, who dug himself a hole in the snow near a marmot den. In winter the lower lake would be a chancy campsite smack dab in an avalanche path. There were flat spots (and even a fire ring) at the upper lake, too, right around the bend, but probably just as exposed and colder. (I expect the whole scene is a little less charming without the snow cover, given the access.)
We lounged the afternoon away, visiting the upper lake for a view of the couloir and enjoying a prolonged and very filling happy hour. Ken Wagner won the prize for getting those tortilla chips to camp in perfect condition, as well as a pint of salsa, emmanthaler cheese and smoked salmon. Gee, Ken, thanks for dinner! I forget that these May days are long the sun-rises around 5:00 and sets after 8:00. So did we. After a moderately warm night which froze just the thinnest glaze in our bottles, we were off at 5:30 walking on good crunchy snow. We put on crampons at the base of the couloir. I had worried about the snow in the steeper sections , shaded by a rock rib for much of the day, but once beyond the open apron at the base, the snow was soft enough to climb without crampon I was glad for them anyway since the base layer was quite hard. Much of the way we kicked steps in avalanche debris, ironically less consolidated because of the recent warm temps, shade and north aspect. Tim calculated the slope to range as high as 45 degrees, but to be primarily between 34-389. Nothing extreme, just 1500' of beautiful mountain anatomy. We were on the summit in under 3-1/2 hours, with sunny mild weather on top. More lounging many pictures, and great views of the Minarets and the peaks around Rock Creek, but especially Red Slate -and Izaak Walton close at hand. The country to the south looked gentle and sculpted from snow, and Tuolomne was a blanket of white.
Concerned about avalanche and the unpleasant glissade conditions in the couloir, we opted for a loop, walking northeast down the ridge to the slopes below 3630M where we enjoyed a thousand foot glissade, then-to a point above the little glacier south of camp, where we descended to another glissade slope that dropped us a few yards from our tents. We were down in an hour and a half We caught this route at just the right time, I think; a little later and the slatey scree would have been poking'through. We lunched, packed and walked out the way we came, looking back often to see the couloir and the tracks of our glissades.
We ended this fun climb soaking in hot-springs off Benton Crossing Road and eating pizza in Lone Pine called in from Bishop. My thanks to all the participants and to Tim Keenan, with whom it is always a pleasure to lead.
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