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High Times at Low Tide | UNITED STATES, CALIFORNIA | 03/29/2009, by BrennanLagasse
A few weeks back before we got our 6+foot dump in the Sierra, we were looking pretty thin at lower elevations. However, Red Slate is high and whatever snow falls usually sticks and stays hidden in its North Couloir. I remember climbing at Clarks near Mammoth Lakes one October, many miles from where Red Slate lies, and on the hike out you could see this prominent line way across the valley; a couloir beaming with white against a stark brown backdrop that already had snow top to bottom. This is why we figured it was good to go, and since Jeff and I had a window, and our buddy Ming was fully onboard, we decided the time was now.
After a few hours of sleep at the Convict Lake Trailhead, we started our day hiking in sneakers at 4:30am by headlamp. Little did we know we wouldn't see the car until 14 hours later, by headlamp again, but we were all stoked to be down there and give what some call a 2-3 day mission a fast-light one day push. Needless to beat it into the ground, but as Ming so eloquently put it several times on the approach, "man it sure is low tide in the Sierra".
Ming's words stuck with me for those first few hours as the canyon that leads up to Red Slate has some amazing geologic features that look like waves artistically inscripted on the rock. It was also clear that low tide conditions did exist and as we made our way up the canyon it became obvious to us no one had tried to ski anything up here this season. None the less we kept moving and as we got closer, we got a view of our line, and just like that three simultaneous smiles began beaming as we forgot about the arduous approach and just kept motoring.
Even though we were moving at a solid pace it still took us several hours to reach the base of the couloir. When we switched over to ice ax and crampon mode, the three of us were relived to gain the walls of the couloir and see just how steep the line was. The climbing was steep, but not as steep as we had imagined. Actually, it was really fun to be in there and conditions were prime to lay a solid bootpack.
None of us knew what the actual pitch of the couloir was because all three guide books that have Red Slate in it give different descriptions. Recently, a new guide book was published (highly recommended), which said the couloir was 50 degrees sustained. Well, looking down from the top of the couloir, it was definitively steep, but not 50 sustained in our opinions. We bet that depending on conditions it could be that steep, but today 45 seemed a more reasonable assessment.
Once we reached the top of the couloir decisions had to be made. There's two ways to the top from the couloir proper: an alternate entrance that's described as the "easier" approach but seldom goes, and the "death traverse" route that we planned on doing even though the name is such a buzzkill. However, we didn't end up taking the traverse route. As we were traversing to get over to the traverse route we transitioned onto a wind slab that hadn't yet released. It was clear the rest of the couloir had self-regulated during the previous storm cycle, but at the very top of the couloir heading to the death traverse a huge wind slab in an extremely precarious spot remained.
As Jeff led the last few feet he told Ming and I "it's super hollow, so walk lightly". This didn't sit to well with me, and whether Jeff would've kept going or not had Ming and I not said anything we'll never know. But we did have a quick conversation between the three of us and decided it was safest to use the alternate entrance since it connected and looked good (even with a rock in the middle that seemed safer to billy-goat through than hope the wind slab didn't break and the death traverse wasn't hollow either).
Unfortunately this decision probably cost us the summit as once we topped the alternate chute it was getting pretty late and we knew we'd probably be skiing out in the dark. On the other hand, and as the new Sierra guidebook rates this line with it's most extreme rating, meaning a fall from here would be fatal, we did make the more responsible choice. So reluctantly passing on the summit, but getting to ski from 13 grand, we dropped into a huge line in absolute epic conditions.
Knee deep powder to perfectly edgeable chalk characterized the descent. When we skied the alternate chute to the wind slab and the top of the couloir proper, we definitely acted cautiously, but were able to negotiate the terrain effectively and had a surreal ski down one the most classic lines in the Sierra.
Reflecting on the day that night you could tell we were all wondering if we should've just done the traverse or made the summit push regardless of our timing. But we made our choices collectively, and while soaking in a hotspring for desert that evening and breakfast the next morning, we all shared our stoke factor as we had definitely found high times at low tide.