The Mendenhall Couloir is the striking funnel and gully that descends steeply to convict lake from the true summit of Mount Laurel. This is a highly coveted line due both to it's beauty, and it's variety of skiing (bowl, couloir, steep, technical...). Of course many lines in the sierra are like this, so possibly why this one is so talked about is because it is easily approached and clearly visible from the 395. Regardless of why people are stoked on it, they are well within their rights to be stoked, because it is awesome.
There is a lot of history in this couloir. In the summer of 1930, this couloir was the location of the first time a belay was used in the Sierra Nevada. The belay was provided for climber John Mendenhall, co-author of "Introduction to Rock and Mountain Climbing" and a first ascensionist of many California classics including many routes at Tahquitz.
Although sierra climbers like to denigrate a summer climb of this couloir as water-colored choss (they are not wrong), the dramatically colored orange and black rock still makes this an excellent 4th class or easy 5th class rock climb (ratings go as high at 5.6, but it can be 5.anything if you get off route). Probably due to how aesthetic it is, the climb even made it into Peter Croft's eastside guidebook "the Good, the Great, and the Awesome".
It is unknown when exactly the line first started getting skied, but it certainly is not every year. On low snow years the two rock chokes can not fill in or become ice bulges making a descent of this line more dangerous and less pleasant. However, on high snow years (like this one), the Mendenhall becomes excellent ski-able snow all the way down.
Nafeesa and I hatched the plan to ski it on Tuesday. I did some googling and learned that a crown on top had potentially released and slid full path making the line unskiable. We came up with a plan B which was to ski the Wineglass couloir and decided to go for the Mendenhall. I used to become nervous when I got news about bad conditions or just thinking about steep lines, but I don't anymore because some time ago, I just remembered if it is getting too steep or the conditions are getting to bad, I can just walk back the way I came as long as I don't climb up anything that I am too afraid to climb down. So now all I do is remind myself that I can always climb down if I need to and I am no longer nervous, it works great!!
Anyway, we woke up at 4am from our campsites outside of Mammoth and drove to convict lake. After eating a breakfast of homemade rhubarb pie and salted pumpkin seeds, we drove to the lake and slowly strapped skis to our backpacks. By 5am we were moving. Just 4 weeks ago we skinned across a frozen convict lake, but on Sunday the snow had already receded to the Lakes edge and as we left the parking lot an early fisherperson arrived to ready his gear.
We reached snow on the other side of the lake just as it began to get light out, we dropped our shoes and transitioned into ice tools and crampons. The bottom of the couloir was indeed slide debris. We decided that if the slide debris did not let up by the time it got steep we would turn around. Halfway up the chute I looked back and saw the sunrise over the lake illuminating dozens of fish rising to meet the sun, the view was amazing.
Luckily after exiting the first choke, the slide debris did indeed clear up and we had no excuses to turn back. Booting the couloir was pretty smooth however. Like always this time of year we had to dodge some rockfall. One rock scarily hit Nafeesa's helmet, but luckily her Helmet worked as advertised.
The slope angle steepened as we neared the upper choke but the snow was still fairly firm and cramponing went well. By 11:20am we were on top of Mount Laurel and transitioning to skis. By 11:30am we started skiing. The skiing was excellent all the way down. The guidebook states that this couloir is 50 degrees, but I never measured anything that steep, some short sections in the high 40s (still steep!) and mostly mid 40s or less, perhaps on a lower snow year you could find steeper snow. By the time we reached the slide debris it was soft enough to ski through a lot of the ice chunks! We transitioned back and walked the trail back to the car. By then it was nearly 70F and we jumped in the cold Lake, amazing!
Spring ski mountaineering season is the best time of year, go get it!!!!!!