Mount Bradley, Center Peak, Mount Keith
By: Reiner Stenzel
This ski mountaineering trip combined peak climbing and skiing in the Eastern Sierra Nevada. It was appropriately sponsored by the Sierra Peaks Section and the Ski Mountaineers Section and was attended by five participants, two on snow shoes (Patty Rambert, Ron Hudson), two on randonnee skis (Ruth von Rotz von Truckee, Scott Koepke) and one on telemark skis (R.S.). As the detailed trip description will show, we had a great ski mountaineering adventure, climbed three SPS peaks, some with ropes, encountered extremes in weather, best to worst snow, easy and tough days, enjoyed camaraderie but also had a health incidence. Here are the details:
On Sat, 5/12, 6 am we officially met at Onion Valley, although everyone was there Fri night to sleep high (9,200'). We packed and shared gear to lighten packs which still weighed over 40 lbs, Scott's maxing it out with heavy randonnee gear. By 7:30 am we hiked up the Robinson Lke trail which was bone dry. A bloody sunrise was not a good weather omen. Close to Robinson Lke (10,500') we encountered continuous snow and could ski. By 9 am the weather deteriorated and it started to rain and snow. Beyond Robinson Lke we ascended a steeper slope and reached the long morained cirque below University Peak. U. Peak and Pass were in the clouds. We skied/climbed to the base of the pass where we regrouped. Scott's skins peeled off on the steep slope. The last 300' the skiers switched to ice ax and crampons and we all reached the pass safely by 1 pm. Blizzard-like weather greeted us on the pass with high winds, freezing wet snow and whiteout. The southwestern slopes were all barren rock except for one snow filled gully of uncertain runout. So we opted for descending on rocks, carefully avoiding the large granite slabs which were glazed over with a thin layer of ice from the freezing rain/slush. In the whiteout we had to stay together yet keep moving to stay warm which was not easy for a diverse group. Half way down the pass, Center Basin appeared out of the clouds and we recognized familiar terrain. Continuous snow allowed us to ski down into Center Basin which, at 11,000', was all snow covered. All wet and tired we were looking for a campsite and found a nice one near the swampy area north of Golden Bear Lke. There were trees, running water, and some dry rocks for cooking.
Toward evening the storm ended, the clouds lifted and the ragged Center Basin Crags and Center Peak were illuminated by a red sunset. After a hot dinner we crawled into our humid bags and wondered what had happened to the promised spring weather.
On Sun, 5/13, we got up at 6 am to a crisp and clear morning. Surface hoar sparkled in the sun on a few inches of fresh snow. By 7:30 am we left on foot/skis with the plan to climb Mt. Bradley and Center Pk. In no time we made it to the western slopes of Bradley where a long snow filled chute leads up to the ridge just south of the summit. After 300' of skinning up the chute we switched to ice ax and crampons and ascended another 1,500' to the ridge. In the meantime the weather turned finicky again. Billowing clouds rolled in from the southwest covering all of Owens Valley up to the Sierra Crest. From the ridge to the summit we had to traverse a steep snow slope and gully. The soft snow appeared unstable and a potential fall would carry one over a rocky cliff. Thus, Ron and I set up a fixed rope for a safe traverse. Between 11 am and noon, everyone had made it to the summit (13,264') and signed in as the first party in 2001. We enjoyed the Alpine views of many peaks rising and vanishing in the clouds. When the thunders were starting at 1 pm it became time to leave the summit. We descended the same gully first on foot, then on skis and glissading. By 3 pm, Center peak was engulfed in clouds, thunder was rumbling in the west, and there was no chance for another summit bid in the late afternoon. So we headed back to base camp and enjoyed a relaxed afternoon, cleaning up, drying gear, and having an early supper.
On Mon, 5/14, Ron's wake up call echoed through Center Basin at 4 am. An hour later we headed out by flashlight to climb Center and Keith. It was another crisp and clear morning. We skied over Golden Bear Lke and cramponed halfway up the southeast slopes of Center Pk before the first sun rays reached us. At the base of a steep gully we left our skis and proceeded to climb over mixed rock and snow to the summit of Center Pk (12,762') which was reached between 10 and 11 am. The register is at the base of an 8' ci 4 summit block which we all climbed in various ways. Tall Ron took two long steps and was on the top. The others were belayed by Ron. Ruth used a shoulder stand and climbed the block on socks, Patty and Scott did a fine rock climb and I prussiked up the fixed rope. All of us had great fun and many photo ops. Then we discussed the climb of distant and tall Mt Keith which would take another 7 hrs. Scott and Patty preferred a more relaxed afternoon, Ron offered to lead them safely down, so only Ruth and I proceeded as planned. We descended to where we had left the skis, then traversed along the east slopes of Center Pk to Lke 3592m. The ski traverse took only 15 mm on excellent corn snow. In the heat of the day we cramponed up a short gully between Lke 3592m and CouPe Echelle to reach the northeast slopes of Mt Keith. After a long steep climb we finally reached the gentler slopes NE of the summit. The pace had slowed down at almost 14,000' elevation but by 4:30 pm we summitted Mt Keith (13,976'). All the effort was rewarded by a splendid view ranging from the Great Western Divide, Kings-Kern Divide, the Palisades Range to the White Mtns. Shepherd Pass was just below us, and we almost spotted our base camp in Center Basin. We talked to Ron and the rest of the group by radio. By 5 pm the first clouds began to move in and I got nervous and urged for a retreat. We missed the boat by an hour since the sun had vanished from the north slopes and the cold wind crusted up the spring snow in no time. With kick turns and stem christies we handled the ski descent on the upper slopes, but the steep (30-40 deg) NE face was another story. The wicked crust could only be handled with energetic jump turns, but after 12 hrs of skiing and climbing there was little energy left for this fun. So we took the skis off and made a humiliating but safe retreat on foot with ice ax. Further below, the crust became manageable and we skied to west facing slopes which still had soft spring snow in the late sunshine. From there on it was a pleasure to cruise along the western slopes of Courte Echelle and Mt Bradley back home. By 7:30 pm we were back at base camp, still in time to cook dinner by last daylight. It was a looong day but we were happy to have skied/climbed two fine Sierra Peaks. The rest of the group had spent the afternoon relaxing in great spring weather.
On Tue, 5/15, we had a leisurely start since we thought we would to be over University Pass and out within a few hours. At 8 am we started our climb up the pass with full packs. Three of us decided to crampon up a steep snow gully while Ron lead Scott over the safer rock route to the pass. At a steep section of the gully, I set up an SMSstyle belay using the skis as deadman anchor and a Munter hitch belay. When we were two thirds up to the pass Ron radioed that Scott had problems and needed help. So I accompanied Ruth and Patty up to the pass, dropped my pack and headed back down again. Scott had serious breathing problems from a growing lung infection and could not lift his monster pack up the pass. Ron took his pack and I carried Ron's with Scott's heavy boots. By 1 pm we finally made it to University Pass (12,600'). Scott got a good rest, we lightened his pack and he kick stepped down the upper steep section of the pass until it was possible to ski safely. We had a great ski run down, interrupted by many rests stops. After a good dose of tree skiing near Robinson Lke we ran out of snow and hiked down to the cars arriving by 5 pm. Scott stayed overnight in Lone Pine while the rest drove home. We had four action-filled days, climbed and skied as much as we could, and came out safely in spite of some pains. Thanks to everyone's great camaraderie, Ron's legendary leading skills, Patty and Ruth's good humor, and Scott's positive attitude of hanging in.
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