Climbing California's 14ers...
In the Winter
By Bob Pickering
I'm not sure why I climbed my first winter 14er. It was probably just a matter of climbing earlier and earlier in the spring and later and later into the fall. The more 14ers I climbed, the more I thought about how I might do the others. I enjoyed the challenge, and the experience helped me prepare to climb Mt. McKinley.
Climbing any mountain in the winter is much harder than any other time of year. The days are shorter, the nights are colder, and snow is everywhere. In the winter, there is never anyone else around to help if you need it. Climbs that would be simple day-hikes in summer become multi-day mini-expeditions requiring lots of extra time, effort, and gear. Because of road closures, I had to use alternate routes and approaches for some peaks. I climbed all the peaks and most of the routes under better conditions before trying them in the winter.
The California climbing guidebooks recognize fourteen or fifteen distinct peaks over 14,000 feet. There is controversy over whether Starlight Peak is a real peak or just part of North Palisade. A winter climb is one between the Winter Solstice (about December 21) and the Spring Equinox (about March 21).
Mount Muir (14,015)
January 30-31, 1993
My partner, Jerry, and I started out intending to climb both Mt. Whitney and Mt. Muir. We had a full moon to extend our climbing days, and we expected good weather. The road to Whitney Portal was closed at 7,000 feet, five miles from the usual trailhead. We slept in my truck at the road closure and got an early start Saturday morning. By the time we skied to Whitney Portal, it was snowing. We continued on, more or less following the Mt. Whitney Trail. We had hoped to camp above Trail Camp at about 12,500. We ran out of visibility and energy at about 11,300 and camped there.
By Sunday morning, it had snowed six to twelve inches, but the weather was clearing. Jerry had two pairs of boots: telemark boots suitable for skiing, and climbing boots suitable for crampons and rock climbing. He didn't want to bring both, so he left his skis and telemark boots in camp. By 12,500, he was tired from sinking into the fresh snow without skis. He turned back.
I had plastic climbing boots that worked with both skis and crampons, so I continued on skis. At about 13,000, I switched to crampons. After what seemed like forever, I made it to the base of Mt. Muir on the Mt. Whitney Trail. I had long since given up hope of climbing both peaks. At this point, I decided Mt. Whitney was just too far away. I headed up Mt. Muir. This is an easy class three climb in summer, but it was very tricky with a foot of fresh snow. I signed the register and headed back to camp where Jerry was waiting.
We ate dinner, packed our gear, and started skiing out. The sun went down long before the moon was high enough to help us see. We made many traverses and kick-turns in the dark on the way to Whitney Portal. From there, skiing to the truck in the moonlight went smoothly.
Mount Whitney (14,494)
March 6-7, 1993
This trip was very much like the Mt. Muir Trip. Same partner, starting point, route, etc. However, this time we had good weather both days. Jerry and I took our skis all the way to the summit of Mt. Whitney and then skied all the way to the truck. We more or less followed the Mt. Whitney Trail except for just below Trail Crest and just above Outpost Camp. As before, we got to the truck long after dark.
Mount Langley (14,027)
December 31, 1993 - January 2, 1994
The normal approach to Mt. Langley is over New Army Pass from Horseshoe Meadows. The road to Horseshoe Meadows is closed in the winter, so I had to find another route. I settled on a route that was not in any climbing guide. Thanksgiving weekend, I checked out a dirt road that ended at a trail that went part way up Tuttle Creek. It looked promising, so I planned to try it over New Year's.
New Year's Eve, I got a late start and only made it to 9,000 or 9,500 on a hillside south of Tuttle Creek. On New Year's Day, I climbed south to a ridge that provided easy climbing to the west towards Mt. Langley. It became steeper for the last few hundred feet before the summit.
At 12,700, I had to make a decision. I wanted to camp right on the summit, but I couldn't remember whether there were any decent campsites there. There appeared to be no campsites between 12,700 and the summit. If I carried all my gear to the summit and found no campsites, I would have to carry everything back to 12,700. With that much weight, I knew I wouldn't make it up and back before dark. I left most of my gear at 12,700 and headed for the summit. There were many excellent campsites when I got there. I signed the register and headed down, making it to camp just before dark.
I carried a tent and snowshoes all the way to 12,700 and never used them. A bivy sack is better than a tent as long as it doesn't rain or snow. It was so clear that I could see the glow of the Las Vegas lights 200 miles away! In the morning, I hiked back to the car, getting there less than 48 hours after starting up.
Split Mountain (14,058)
March 13-14, 1994
Split Mountain was the first 14er where I didn't have to deal with closed roads. I parked in the usual place and followed the standard route past Red Lake to the north slopes. However, I had to carry my skis for a long way before there was enough snow to use them. I camped well above 11,000 in my bivy sack. The weather was perfect.
Other than the steep snow chute east of the north slopes, the climb was just a strenuous hike. The chute was about the limit of my skiing abilities. The skiing back to camp from there was good. I took a long break, packed my gear, and skied down. All this skiing must sound like fun, but it's very hard work. With poor, unpredictable snow and a heavy pack on my back, it's usually all I can do to stay on my feet. The final hike back to the truck with my skis on my back was even worse. The fun of climbing such gorgeous peaks makes it worth it, though.
Mount Russell (14,086)
March 19-20, 1994
The approach to Mt. Russell uses the same trailhead as Mt. Muir and Mt. Whitney climbs. Fortunately, 1994 was a drier winter than 1993, and I could drive all the way to the trailhead. I slept at the trailhead Friday night before starting the climb Saturday morning.
There wasn't much snow, so I carried snowshoes instead of skis. I never used them. I followed the "Mountaineers' Route" approach to Mt. Whitney past Lower Boy Scout Lake and almost to Upper Boy Scout Lake. I headed up the southeast slopes of Mt. Carillon and camped at the saddle between Mt. Russell and Mt. Carillon. At 13,200, this was the highest I had ever camped, and I only had a bivy sack.
It snowed just enough Saturday night to cover the rock and make it slick. I had to be extra careful picking my way up the East Ridge route. The rock isn't especially difficult, but if you slip, it's a 1,200-foot fall to the frozen lake below. I reached the summit, signed the register, and started back down. The snow was beginning to melt, making the rock wet, rather than icy. This was a real improvement, and I made it back to camp around 10:30.
After a short break, I climbed nearby Mt. Carillon, which only took a few minutes. I packed my gear and hiked back to the trailhead. I was out well before dark for a change.
Mount Tyndall (14,018)
December 29 1994 - January 1, 1995
My partner, Scott, and I met near the Shepherd Pass trailhead, loaded my gear in his truck, and drove the rest of the way up the dirt road to the trailhead. We skied up the trail, carrying our skis at the four stream crossings and at other difficult places.
Our plan was to spend the first night at Anvil Camp and then spend three nights at Shepherd Pass while we climbed Mt. Williamson and Mt. Tyndall. Conditions were worse than expected, and Scott held me up a lot. It took two full days just to reach Anvil Camp.
On December 31, the third day of the trip, Scott had lost interest in trying to climb either peak. I headed off alone to try my luck. I skied to the bottom of the Shepherd Pass switchbacks and stashed my skis. Much of the route above was either too steep or had too many rocks for climbing with skis. There was, however, a lot of snow between me and the 14ers, so progress was slow.
I decided there wasn't enough time to climb Mt. Williamson, so I settled for the North Rib of Mt. Tyndall. This route was mostly class three slabs with 1-2 feet of snow. The deepest snow seemed to be the most secure way up, but it was also the most work. After reaching the summit, I retraced my steps back down, occasionally sliding down the snow. On the way back to camp, I took a short detour and climbed a nearby unnamed 13,040+ peak.
On January 1, Scott wanted to head home, the weather was deteriorating, and I didn't know whether I could climb Mt. Williamson and get back to camp by dark. We packed our gear and then skied and hiked back to Scott's truck.
White Mountain Peak (14,242)
February 4-5, 1995
The usual road to White Mountain Peak is closed about thirty miles from the peak in the winter, so I had to find a totally different route. In October 1994, Jerry and I scouted a possible winter route from Chalfant Valley. We drove north from Bishop on highway 6 and then followed a dirt road as far up Millner Creek as we could, parking at about 6,700 feet.
We hiked up an abandoned mining road past a mine and then headed up and south until we were on the first ridge south of Millner Creek. We followed this ridge east, traversing around the north of Mt. Barcroft. We eventually found the road that leads to White Mountain Peak and followed it north to the summit. This seemed to be a good potential winter route. We descended on the ridge between Jeffrey Mine Canyon and Millner Creek, which turned out to be a much harder route.
When the time came to try the winter ascent, Jerry couldn't go. I ended up going with Peter, an Australian climber I had recently met. Friday night, we drove to the same point where Jerry and I had started up in October. Saturday morning, we skied and climbed up the route. A short section of class three rock was especially difficult with heavy packs and skis on our backs. We set up our bivy camp at about 11,500 and ate dinner while enjoying the view of Bishop over 7,000 feet below.
Sunday morning we climbed, mostly on skis, to the summit. It was so warm that I reached the summit wearing just long johns and a turtleneck. Peter had never been higher than Mt. Cook in New Zealand, and had a little trouble with the altitude. After a long break, we skied back to camp. We had to take off our skis and hike across several sections where there wasn't any snow. By the time we took another break and packed our gear, it was getting late. We skied and hiked down the ridge until it was too dark to ski safely. We took off our skis, plunge-stepped down the north side of the ridge to the mining road, and hiked back to the truck in the dark.
Middle Palisade (14,040)
February 18-20, 1995
On Saturday, I more or less followed the trail up the south fork of Big Pine Creek. There wasn't much snow, and I had a hard time finding a safe place to ski across the creek. At 9,800, I left the trail and skied directly to Brainard Lake. From there, I skied up to Finger Lake and then west to a small lake at about 11,300, where I camped. I set up my bivy sack so I could look up at Middle Palisade from my sleeping bag.
On Sunday morning, I skied south to the Middle Palisade Glacier and followed the summer hiking route to the top of the moraine that divides the glacier. This is where the actual climbing begins, so I left my skis behind.
The route is about 1,400 feet of easy class three rock. Easy, that is, in the summer when the rock is warm and dry. Some of the easier sections had soft, hip-deep snow. Other sections had too little snow for snow climbing techniques but enough snow to make rock climbing very difficult. I put my crampons on and took them off again several times.
The weather was perfect, and the scenery was gorgeous, but the climbing wasn't fun. I finally reached the summit, took a break, and started down. The climb down was tedious, but at least the sun had moved far enough to the west that the route was in the shade and the unstable snow was setting up. I skied back to camp slowly, since I was exhausted and the snow was mostly like wet concrete with a breakable crust.
Monday morning, the weather was perfect again. I packed my gear and skied down in what turned out to be very good "spring" conditions. Below about 8,500, there were rocks and bare patches. I didn't even try to cross to the north side of the stream until I got to the bridge near the parking area. I was tired but proud of what I had just accomplished.
Mount Shasta (14,162)
January 7, 1996
Because of winter road closures, the only viable winter routes on Mt. Shasta begin on the south side at Bunny Flat. Casaval Ridge and Green Butte Ridge are the best winter routes. I climbed both routes the preceding spring in preparation for a winter ascent.
I chose the Green Butte Ridge route because it is easy to follow in poor visibility. I started on skis from the parking lot before dawn in the moonlight. I skied to about 9,000 feet, where the climbing skins ceased to grip the steepening, wind-packed, snow. I stashed my skis by some rocks, put on my crampons, and continued up the ridge, occasionally taking short breaks and adding clothing. When the route became too difficult to climb with only ski poles, I stashed my poles and got out my ice axe. The climb was straightforward, but I placed wands at critical places to help me find my way down in case of bad weather.
When I got above Red Banks, the wind was howling. It was at my back and literally pushed me up Misery Hill. From the top of Misery Hill to the summit, the wind gusted hard from every direction. I spent more energy fighting the wind than climbing the mountain. When I approached the summit, the wind blew so hard that I had to crawl the last fifty yards on my hands and knees. I reached the summit, grabbed a bite of candy and a swig of water, and hurried back down.
As I approached the top of Misery Hill again, the clouds rolled in from nowhere. It was snowing, the wind was blowing, and, worst of all, the fog was impossible to see through. The fog was freezing and forming a coat of ice all over me, including my beard and my goggles. The ice on the goggles was so bad I couldn't even see my boots, so I had to take the goggles off. Without the goggles, visibility varied between twenty and two hundred feet. I felt my way down the mountain, following my wands and my own tracks when I could find them.
As I got lower, the conditions improved, but visibility was still terrible. I looked for my ski poles, but never found them. I spent about twenty minutes looking for my skis. As I skied down the mountain, the weather improved. When I finally got to the truck, it was almost dark.
I had taken nearly fourteen hours, round trip. Not very fast, but not bad, either. A local guide service had told me they don't even climb Mt. Shasta until March, and that it would take three or four days!
Mount Sill (14,152)
February 10-11, 1996
On Saturday morning, I started up the North Fork of Big Pine Creek. I had to carry my skis for the first twenty minutes or so because of lack of snow. Once I got to the walk-in campground, I was able to ski the rest of the way to camp at the Palisade Glacier. It was a long, grueling, uneventful trip from 7,800 feet to the glacier at 12,200. I got my tent set up just before dark. I climbed in my sleeping bag and began melting snow and making dinner.
Sunday Morning, I headed across the Palisade Glacier, slowly climbing towards Glacier Notch. I stashed my skis and poles just below Glacier Notch and continued up with crampons and my ice axe. There was a lot of soft, loose snow on the rocks and in the North Couloir. The crux of the route is the rock climbing just past the top of the couloir. It's only class three, but cold rock with lots of loose snow, marginal weather, and a few route-finding mistakes made for very difficult climbing. Once past the crux, I finished the climb without much difficulty.
Descending the crux and the rock just below Glacier Notch was difficult, but the rest of the descent back to camp went smoothly. Skiing across the Palisade Glacier was fun, although the crusty, unpredictable snow prevented me from doing anything fancy.
I took a break, packed my gear, and started down. Skiing with a heavy pack is usually far more work than fun. However, I was able to make some nice turns on a wind-packed slope above Sam Mack Meadow and I found a short section of nice powder below the meadow. Below Third Lake, the skiing was pure drudgery. As usual, I arrived at the trailhead late in the day, exhausted, and proud of my accomplishments.
Mount Williamson (14,375)
February 17-19, 1996
Mt. Williamson is a tough mountain, even under ideal conditions. The easiest route is about thirty miles, round trip. It requires over 9,000 feet of total elevation gain, including ups and downs along the route.
This was my third trip with the intent of climbing Mt. Williamson in the winter. I settled for Mt. Tyndall two years earlier when my partner wasn't up to the climb. The year after that, I tried the George Creek approach, which must be the most awful bushwhack in the Sierra. I turned back when I realized it would take four days to complete the climb, while my wife and boss were expecting me back in three.
This time, I had a solid partner, and we were climbing the standard route via Shepherd Pass. Jerry and I chose snowshoes for this trip because we expected a lot of terrain that wouldn't have enough snow to ski. There is debate over whether skis are better than snowshoes when they are on your feet. However, there is no doubt that snowshoes are much better than skis when they are on your back.
We followed the Shepherd Pass trail and made it to Anvil Camp at 10,200 on Saturday. Sunday morning, we headed for Shepherd Pass with light packs and snowshoes. We left the bright pink blade of my snow shovel sticking out of the snow in a clearing to help us find the camp in the dark.
We stashed our snowshoes below Shepherd Pass because they would be useless on the steep slopes above. We climbed over Shepherd Pass and then toward the saddle at 12,500. Much of the route was either wind-packed snow or bare ground. Once we dropped into Williamson Bowl, sections of deep snow required lots of effort to negotiate. Snowshoes wouldn't have helped much, because the boulders and other obstacles would have made us remove the snowshoes often.
We followed the Bolton Brown route up the west face. We climbed a mix of bare rock, firm packed snow, and soft, knee-deep, snow. After a short section of class three rock at the top of a couloir, we were on the summit plateau. A short hike took us to the summit. By the time we signed the register and took a short break, it was 4:30 PM and it was beginning to snow.
We descended quickly to Williamson Bowl. It was snowing steadily and getting dark. We made slow progress back up to the saddle at 12,500 and then down to Shepherd Pass. By this time, it was dark, and there was no moon. We had headlamps, but they only allowed us to see a few feet. Most of the time, we did better turning our headlamps off and letting our eyes adjust to the darkness. This way, we could identify rocks (and, when we got low enough, trees) at a considerable distance.
We carefully descended the slopes below Shepherd Pass and found our snowshoes. We continued down the Shepherd Creek drainage in the dark, occasionally following sections of the trail. We did amazingly well in the dark. At one point, we had been hiking for twenty minutes without our headlamps. I thought we were near camp, so we turned on our headlamps. There was the snow shovel, just thirty feet away!
Monday morning, we slept late. There was a foot of fresh snow on the ground. We packed our gear and hiked down, following the trail as much as possible. Our snowshoes slid out from under us a few times on the steeper slopes with fresh snow. Otherwise, the hike out was uneventful. We were back at the trailhead by mid afternoon.
Thunderbolt Peak (14,003)
February 15-17, 1997
Jerry and I started up the North Fork of Big Pine Creek late Saturday morning. We carried our snowshoes until there was enough snow to justify wearing them. We followed the trail to Third Lake and carefully walked across the frozen lake. We followed ramps on the rock above Third Lake. This was shorter, but not any faster than following the trail to Sam Mack Meadow. We camped just before dark somewhere between Sam Mack Meadow and the Palisade Glacier.
Sunday morning, we hiked to the glacier and across it to the Underhill Couloirs. We left our snowshoes and climbed the hard snow (and a little blue ice) in the right couloir. It was great climbing. We left our crampons and ice tools at the top of the couloir and followed the path of least resistance to Thunderbolt's summit block.
The weather had been excellent to this point, but the wind started picking up. It took several tries to throw our light rope over the summit block, even with a rock tied to it. After much fooling around, we both pulled ourselves up the rope to the summit, signed the register, and left. Downclimbing back to our crampons in plastic boots was dicey. We did one short rappel on the rock, retrieved our ice gear, did a short rappel into the couloir, and then downclimbed the rest of the couloir to our snowshoes. By this time, it was getting late, and the weather was really deteriorating. We hurried back to camp, arriving just before dark. We reinforced the snow walls and the anchors on the tent and then climbed into the tent.
The wind buffeting the tent kept us awake much of the night. By morning, the wind had died down, and there was a foot of fresh snow. On the way down, our snowshoes slid out from under us a few times and we wished we had brought skis.
North Palisade (14,242)
Polemonium Peak (14,080+)
Mount Sill (14,153)
Starlight Peak (approx. 14,200)
March 15-19, 1997
I put off climbing the remaining peaks in the Palisades because I wasn't sure whether I was up to soloing or leading them in the winter. I finally decided to climb them with a guide.
I had climbed Mt. McKinley with American Alpine Institute, and their guides were first-rate. I contacted them and scheduled a six-day trip into the Palisades. At the last minute, my guide was injured in a non-climbing accident. They brought in another guide, Jim Earl, from Montana.
On Saturday, I met Jim in Bishop for breakfast. We discussed the usual stuff you discuss with a guide: my experience, our equipment, and the objectives of the trip. Jim had never even seen the Palisades, let alone climbed there. There had been a misunderstanding about which routes we were going to do, and Jim had studied all the wrong route descriptions. It didn't matter. I knew the routes, and Jim was an excellent guide. The trip went almost perfectly.
There was a lot of snow, and we had a lot of food and heavy technical gear, so we took two days to get to the Palisade Glacier in marginal weather. We camped Sunday night above the northwest edge of the glacier.
On Monday morning, the weather was perfect. We headed for North Palisade, my main objective of the trip. We went up the U-Notch couloir. The bergschrund was only a minor inconvenience, and the snow was partially consolidated. Not great conditions, but not bad. We climbed the chimney above the couloir to get to North Palisade. I had soloed that chimney in rock shoes, but I was really glad to have a belay from above when climbing in plastic boots. We rapped back into the notch after finishing the climb to North Palisade.
Jim started leading up to Polemonium Pk. On the second pitch, his progress slowed, and he called down that he couldn't find anything easier than 5.8. I told him to keep looking and insisted that there was a class 4 route to the summit. After a few minutes, he yelled that he had found it, and the rope moved quickly until he was on the summit. He belayed me up, and we signed our second register of the day.
I convinced Jim to take the longer but easier route towards Mt Sill, rather than rappel all the way to the U-Notch bergschrund. He belayed me down the northeast ridge of Polemonium and then put the rope away for the rest of the day. We hiked over to Mt. Sill, climbed to the summit, and made it back to camp just before dark. It was a long, tough day, but very satisfying.
On Tuesday, we climbed partway up the Clyde Couloir, exited onto the rock on the right, and eventually found ourselves at the summit block of Starlight Pk. I've soloed the "Milk Bottle" several times in rock shoes, but I was really glad to have a "top rope" in plastic boots. We downclimbed and rappelled towards Thunderbolt Pk. and eventually descended the left Underhill Couloir.
On Wednesday, we skied out and then got showers and a Mexican dinner. I had paid for six days with Jim, so we spent Thursday practicing ice climbing in Lee Vining Canyon.
Well, that's the story. All the California 14ers, spread over five winters. It was quite a project, and one I'm glad I did.