Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Liberty Chute

After ingesting some excellent winter-sports-oriented forecast data from Powdiction, Hatchett and I left Reno at 4am Saturday to visit the vaunted East Side of the Sierra. We were treated to some wonderful early-morning views on our way south on 395, too.

First light on the Sawtooths

Golden light across Mono Lake

The praises of these mountains have been sung far and wide, but this was my first visit to them with snowboarding gear in the car. Oh, how has it taken me this long to get down there?!?

First look at the playground of lines below Dana Plateau

Turning off Tioga Pass just before the winter closure, we parked, geared up, and skinned onto the snow just before 8:30. We made quick work of the first pitch, V-Bowl, which is a solid 2000 vertical feet. The scale in this area is so deceiving; we're not used to seeing terrain this big! Over the hump, we continued up into the basin below the Plateau. This basin is framed to the east by a view of Mono Lake and the desert beyond, and to the west by a ridiculous amphitheater of skiable chutes, couloirs, bowls, flutes, and cliffs.

Our goal for the day was Liberty Chute, a steep sliver of snow that resembles the Statue of Liberty (as the snow heads up and to the right, this is the Statue's arm, and the torch is formed by the cornice on top). The top of this chute rises something like 4600 vertical feet above the parking spot; this was due to be a long day. We were the first visitors since the last storm, so the skin track was ours to break all day, too.

Liberty Chute, looking wonderful

We had two options for the chute itself; to bootpack up it, thus learning about the snowpack on our way up, or two rappel into it from the Plateau, guaranteeing access to the scariest(=funnest) bits, but making the snow an unknown until we'd be committed. We decided to bootpack up, so we stopped below the rock wall on the looker's left side of the photo above and shed unnecessary gear like skins, poles, ropes, and harnesses in favor of crampons and ice axes.

Our waypoint at the bottom of the chute; cloud cover thickens

The first couple hundred feet of bootpacking were torturous: waist-deep in 50+ degree powder is only awesome if you're going downhill. The snow finally became more suited for ascending, then promptly turned sketchy. The aspect changed slightly from E to SE, the slope steepened a bit, and we found ourselves a few hundred feet below the cornice and on snow that was dangerous to ascend (even with crampons) and also dangerous to descend. Even more disappointing, the cloud cover was thickening signaling the approaching storm, and the light went flat. Not wanting to make headlines, we opted in favor of discretion and started our descent from the halfway point in the chute.

My first turn out into the middle confirmed our suspicions with the discovery of even sketchier snow, so I stuck to the skier's right side and enjoyed the softer deeper snow we had struggled through on the way up. We collected our gear at the bottom of the chute, and were rewarded with a break in the clouds. The nearly 2000 vertical feet of wide-open bowl and sparse trees between Liberty and the top of V-Bowl were filled with stupendous snow, and these turns were rewarding beyond comprehension. So good, in fact, that our failed top-out of Liberty was relegated to distant memory.

Hatchett uses a tree for spiritual purposes

The descents I'm used to closer to home don't offer nearly the vertical that this one did, as we still had the 2000' of V-Bowl to play in! More open trees and great snow awaited us there, and we reveled in every last damn turn. Giggling like idiots, we made the parking lot after 7 1/2 hours on the snow.

We had a beer, packed up, and started the drive home, pausing for a few photos here and there along the way.

Hatchett contemplates steepness

Mono Lake from Tioga Pass Road

And a few more of Mono from alongside 395, thanks to dark clouds and low-angle sun:

Save a stop at In-n-Out, the trip home was swift (and 50mpg!). I literally can't wait to get back down there for some more fun. Many lines beckon, offering up big mountain riding that we spend our early years of riding only dreaming about. Special thanks to Hatchett for being such a good tour guide for an East Side newbie, too. :)


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