Independence Peak (#35) and University Peak (#36)
Day 30, Independence Peak and University Peak
The day started out on a rough note -- seconds after leaving the road, I was tangled in brush, fighting my way across a creek. I thought to myself “hey, maybe I’m just getting the crux of the day over with early!” I was very wrong.
Soon after, I began booting up the Independence Couloir in the pre-dawn haze. Very eye-catching from the valley below, and with no approach from the Onion Valley Road, the line is considered an Eastside classic.
I had been thrilled to learn that Independence was an SPS peak, specifically because I was stoked to ski this line. I made quick progress up the firm, frozen snow.
I was banking on getting up and down this fairly small peak quickly, because I hoped to go up University Peak that afternoon, and wanted to get started up it before the heat of the day made snow travel very difficult.
As I climbed higher in the steepening couloir, the snow changed drastically -- it became deep, unconsolidated facets, with a breakable melt crust on top. Progress slowed dramatically. My goal summit time of 9am came and went, and still I wallowed, sinking to my boot tops, knees, and deeper with each step. It was all the work of booting a line in bottomless powder, but with a far inferior trade off of terrible skiing.
Finally, I reached the top of the chute, exhausted and frustrated. From here to the summit was a few hundred feet of third class scrambling on grainy, loose rock, the most efficient line very unclear. I made my way up the boulders, feeling heavy, awkward, and off balance in my ski boots, and was forced to backtrack multiple times after route finding errors. I finally reached the summit, discouraged, annoyed, behind schedule, and not at all excited for the poor skiing ahead.
I picked my way back down to my skis, fortunately finding a better route, then dropped into the funky snow.
It provided better skiing than I had expected -- by no means amazing, but there were plenty of fun turns here and there. I hung high on the south-facing side of the chute, aiming for patches of more consolidated snow. The line was fairly short and straightforward, and in a few minutes I was coasting back out to the road.
Despite the late hour of the day (it was almost noon) I decided to give University a shot. I ate some lunch, applied a liberal coating of skin wax, then marched off into the wet, sticky snow. The moment I reached the first spot that was sheltered from the sun, huge globs of snow firmly adhered themselves to the bottoms of my skis.
I trudged onward, lugging my 20 pound ankle weights with me. I stopped every few minutes to remove the snow and reapply skin wax, but it was a fruitless endeavor -- within a few steps, the bricks were back.
After I had climbed a few hundred feet, I realized that, in my haste to get going, I had made a stupid mistake: I was hiking up the wrong drainage! The route I was on led to the east face, but I had decided earlier that the north face was likely to provide a better descent, especially so late in the day. I studied my topo map and a photo of the area I’d taken from Kearsarge the day before, and concluded that I could make a traverse across a steep face to get back on track.
The traverse was tough: gloppy pow on top of a firm ice crust. The snow stuck to the bottoms of my skis made ski crampons useless, so I inched my way across, desperately trying to kick my edges in, supporting most of my weight on my poles. I managed to kick one of my skis off, despite the toe piece being locked, and almost lost it down the hill. That’s not supposed to happen. By the time I was across the traverse, I was totally exhausted. I was an hour in, had only climbed 600 feet, and was ready to be done.
I took off my skis, sat on a rock, and weighed my options. After a long break, a snack, and yet another coat of skin wax, I decided to push on. Fortunately, as I gained elevation, travel became easier and more efficient, and before long I was at the base of the NW face. I looked up, and traced the line I had scoped the day before. The bottom half looked fine, a little strip of snow in an otherwise wind-scoured talus field. Above that, however… nothing. The line clearly ended in a cliff.
I checked the photo, which showed an unmistakable strip of white winding through the cliff above. I looked back up. I could easily see the top of the line, but in the middle there was a 500 foot section that was clearly steep, unforgiving rock, with no way around. I was baffled. I’ve grown accustomed to the mountain’s constant tricks of perspective and hidden passageways, and have come to learn that there is always some little hint or giveaway to their true form. Here, however, I was sure that I was seeing everything there was to see. And I was not seeing a continuous line.
I decided to head up with my skis anyways, figuring I would carry them as high as the continuous snow went and scramble the rest. I climbed the stable scree face next to the strip of snow, fearing the deep, punchy snow I had struggled through that morning. Up and up I climbed, and still, all I saw was steep, unforgiving rock. It wasn’t until I reached the very top of the visible snowfield that I realized the wonderful little trick: tucked away on the uphill side of a slightly protruding buttress, indistinguishable from the cliff face behind, lay a perfect strip of snow, just wide enough to ski, connecting seamlessly to the hanging snowfield above.
It was gloriously improbable, a true magic trick of rock and snow. I grinned, then laughed aloud. I eagerly booted the line, finding the snow to be perfect recrystallized powder: dense and stable, but soft. The ideal surface for steep, exposed skiing. I climbed the hidden gully, then re-emerged onto the hanging upper snowfield. Within minutes I was at the top, dropping my skis and pack for the final scramble to the summit.
The sun sank low in the sky as I romped up solid, enjoyable climbing, feeling totally alive, energized, and stoked for the descent. On the summit, I felt a mix of emotions perfectly opposite those I had experienced just a few hours earlier, on Independence. I was full of joy and gratitude for the mountains and my experiences in them. I basked in the glow of the late afternoon sun, eyes scanning the sea of peaks around me, their names familiar but true nature still delightfully hidden away.
I didn’t linger long, as I was too excited for the coming descent to wait. I returned to my skis and slid down onto the steep, exposed hanging snowfield. The upper 300’ of the line was a true no fall zone, but the stable, soft snow was perfect for such a line.
I confidently and quickly linked turns down towards the cliff below. At the last second, I veered to the side and into the hidden gully, turning to watch my sluff cascade into the abyss. I continued down the serendipitous little strip of snow.
The feeling of skiing aggressively and confidently in such technical terrain is pure ecstasy. I continued down onto the open face below, bracing myself for a drastic deterioration of snow quality. However, instead of turning to wind-effected gnarliness as I expected, I was met with a strip of fresh, dry, wintery powder, glowing orange in the last light of the day. It seemed to good to be true. I whooped as I arced turns down it. It was by no means perfect, with a touch of wind crust and ice underneath here and there, but it was real, dry, wintery powder!! I coasted out into the basin below, looking back up the line.
Once again, its true form was completely obscured. The mountains will never cease to surprise and amaze. On the ski out, I managed to find a few little bonus runs of nice, soft snow in steep, shady spots that had been spared from the sun and wind. I even got to ski another mini-couloir!
By the time I reached the trailhead, my legs were toast, the light was fading fast, and I had a huge grin permanently plastered across my face.
It had been a proper roller coaster of a day, and I was totally spent, but my heart was full and my soul was soaring.