Diamond Peak (#39) and Black Mountain (#40)
Day 33, Diamond Peak and Black Mountain
As soon as I woke up, I knew something was a little off. The sky was already getting light. I checked the time: 6:20. Well, shoot. I had been planning to wake up at 4:30 and be headed up the Baxter Pass trail by 5:00. Instead, I wasn’t on my way until after 7:00.
I had a big day ahead: Black and Diamond, both just over 13,000 feet, from a trailhead at 6,000. Despite taking a rest day the day before, I felt heavy and slow as I marched up miles of dry trail in search of snow.
I crossed patches here and there, but ended up carrying my skis all the way to 9,500 feet. I was relieved to transfer their weight from my back to my feet after hours of hauling them uphill.
I continued up the canyon, now with a lovely view of Diamond’s steep and impressive NE face. I wrapped around below the towering cliffs and into the small cirque between Black and Diamond, where I surveyed my intended ski lines.
Ironically, the south face of Diamond had excellent coverage and promised a great corn descent, while the north face of Black had been stripped nearly bare by the raging Sierra winter winds. It’s always hard to anticipate snow coverage on alpine faces in the Sierra, as the most subtle changes in aspect, elevation, and surrounding terrain can make the difference between deep, consistent coverage and bare talus.
I started up Diamond first, booting a gully of snow already very softened by the mid-day sun. I eyed the piles of loose talus above warily, their instability clearly evidenced by the freshly deposited boulders littering the couloir’s run-out. I climbed as quickly as my tired legs would allow, eager to get out from below the loaded gun.
At the top of the steep gully, a large, moderate slope led to the summit, which I reached exactly 7 hours after starting out. A nice, even 1,000 feet per hour!
I gazed across the cirque at the summit of Black. The best way to get there was to ski down the face I had just climbed, then hike back up 2,000 feet up to its summit. It looked rocky, foreboding, and decidedly distant.
I strained to pick out a reasonable ski line, but none appeared. There were patches here and there, but lots of talus in between. I felt sluggish and like I wanted to ski straight back down to the trailhead. I decided I would ski my line, then re-asses the prospect of climbing Black at the bottom.
I dropped in, finding very nice corn skiing all the way down. The speed, adrenaline, and fun turns worked their magic, and I reached the bottom of the cirque stoked and energized, ready for more climbing. Fortunately, there was plenty of that to be had.
The north face of Black starts steep, has a large, flat bench in the middle, then climbs steeply again to the summit. Because of this shape, I could only see the bottom third of the face from my current vantage point. I picked a traversing line with decent snow coverage, and headed up.
I reached the bench, and sized up the dismal gully above. There was some snow, but it was very, very rocky. I considered leaving my skis behind, and climbing up and back down the face. However, after a few moments of assessing, I picked out an improbable line that wound its way through the boulders.
It wasn’t a clean line, and it certainly wouldn’t provide any conventionally “fun” skiing, but it looked like I could descend the steep face without taking my skis off. I’ll take that over downclimbing any day.
I headed up, gingerly picking my way from one meager strip of snow to the next. The line got progressively steeper as I zig-zagged across the slope.
My assessment was confirmed: it was indeed “skiable”. Sort of. It would definitely be the least skiable line I had ever skied.
I tagged the summit, clipped in to my skis on a tiny, precarious perch, then began picking my way down the steep, rocky terrain. Occasionally, I could link 2 or 3 quick turns, but it was mostly traversing and sidestepping my way over rocks. I did get to make some surgically precise turns here and there, rocks everywhere and no room for error.
After 30 minutes of delicate skiing, I emerged out the bottom. Was it faster than downclimbing? Not likely. Was it significantly more exciting and memorable? Absolutely! I pointed my skis back down the canyon in the waning evening light.
By hugging the north-facing wall of the canyon, I was able to ski down to 8,500 feet, but most of the snow was a wet, unconsolidated mess. At one point, traversing above the creek, I sloughed off the entire snow bank for 20’ in either direction, almost going tumbling down into the icy waters myself. After that, I was careful to stay a bit further back.
The skiing was so challenging, often sinking to my knees in the mess, that I was actually excited when I finally reached dry trail. I pounded down the remaining descent, made all the more painful by the fact that the trailhead was clearly visible almost the entire way. The setting sun projected the jagged silhouette of the Sierra on the White Mountains across the valley.
I picked up the pace, eager to finish before dark. I was relieved and exhausted when I finally finished the day. It had not been the biggest day so far, but it my have been the most mentally taxing. It was certainly a day that I’ll remember for a long time!
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