Pika Peak Loop Ski Tour
We had seen Iva Belle hot springs on the Mammoth Area map for a long time and we had thought that it would be really fun to beat the crowds and visit it in Winter. We crafted a plan to do a loop around the mammoth crest. We wanted to ski out duck pass, climb and ski the North Couloir on Pika peak, ski down into the Fish creek drainage and down to Iva Belle and camp. Then the next day we would climb back up to the Mammoth Crest and ski out red cones back to the car for a nice scenic tour and a couple fun skis.
We started out from Tamarack lodge at 9am on Saturday because during the previous weeks we had noticed that north facing slopes needed all day to soften and we wanted to ski Pika Peak's north couloir in good conditions. The snow was soft but the walking was easy and we made it to the top of duck pass by 2pm. We skied down the east facing slope to Duck Lake in excellent corn conditions and skinned across Duck Lake to Pika lake. We stashed our overnight gear and by 3pm we were heading up the couloir. To our surprise the winds and warm temperatures had not destroyed the powder snow like other similar slops and we had a couple centimeters of nice powder on top of a firm, healed wind slab. These conditions made for excellent booting and by 4pm we were getting ready to ski down.
The snow was excellent and made for great turns in the 40 degree couloir. We skied down in 3 pitches and traversed back over to our gear at Duck Lake. By the time we re-hydrated, refueled, repacked our bags and were heading across Duck Lake it was already 5pm. When we looked at the map the trip down toward the hot springs seemed like a reasonably low angle traverse. We skied down the the exit creek of duck lake towards Fish Creek and we quickly ran into a large cliff band that blocked our westward traverse towards Iva Belles. We then decided to execute our backup plan which was to traverse down the Duck Creek drainage to the southeast. This involves crossing the creek several times and heading the wrong direction.
On our way down to the springs thought, we saw some awesome objectives!!
We pretty much immediately ran into trouble, and therefore we stopped taking pictures :(. I first skied down into the duck creek drainage and picked a careful line because there were a ton a glide cracks [Glide cracks are a stressful sign of glide avalanches. These occur when there is a deep snowpack on a steep slope and significant melt occurs. The melt lubricates the bed surface and cracks appear in the snow where there is roughness in the bed surface or there is a change in steepness of the slope (similar to where rapids appear in a river or crevasses appear in a glacier). Glide cracks indicate that a glide avalanche is possible however glide avalanches are notoriously hard to predict and the avalanche can occur anywhere from hours to months after the actual glide crack appears.] Anyway, I skied down about 200 feet and Nafeesa followed. She stuck to my track well, but soon after she started the snow collapsed and she fell into a partially opened glide crack. Thankfully the white dragon stayed in his cave and the slope did not avalanche, but she became stuck and was unable to self-rescue. I did not want to put two skiers weight on the slope but I also did not have a choice so I established that she was not injured and quickly booted up the hill to dig her out. A quick dig freed her, we removed her skis, and we both glissaded down the slope
The collapse of the snowpack made us both nervous as we skied one at a time over the river to avoid the cliffs on our side of the river. The snow was deep but in many places the snow over the river was melted exposing a gushing river that would have likely sucked you under the snow if you were to fall through. We skied down a little bit but quickly ran into some cliffs where the river turned again into a waterfall. I skied over to the cliffs to see if there was a sneaker, but there wasn't. On the other side of the river, however, there were several hanging snowfields (snowfieleds that end in cliffs) some of which were connected by chutes or couloirs.
Traversing hanging snowfields is definitely stressful, especially when the snow is so wet, but we didn't have another good option. I traversed first and with every turn I avalanched off 8 inches of slush snow. Halfway through the line, the snow collapsed under me and I fell into a glide crack. Luckily, the slope did not avalanche and I was able to self rescue after considerable effort and finished my traverse with minimal effort. I was a bit nervous for Nafeesa because my glide crack collapse weakened and narrowed the slope, but she was able to negotiate the traverse no problem.
After the traverse we thought that we were home free, but we weren't. We thought that the basin in front of us was the fish creek valley, but a few more turns and wet releases later, we found another large cliff band. We were forced to turn around and cross the creek again between two large holes and over another waterfall. On this side of the creek we finally found a way down after dodging a few more glide cracks, but unfortunately we were 2.5 miles upstream of our hot springs and by now it was almost dark. But Nafeesa and I both breathed a sigh of relief.
The snow was concerningly soft so we deiced that we should head back up to the crest at first light when the snow was the most frozen. We therefore wanted to have eyes on our way up, so we decied to keep moving until dark to try to see the uphill terrain, we also secretly hoped that we could find the hot springs that night.
Shortly after our adrenaline wore off, I saw some fresh, large footprints in the snow. I started yelling "Hello?!" and looking around. I followed the foot prints with my eyes and saw what I thought was a very large dog. But it wasn't a dog, it was a black bear which must have just recently woken up from hibernation. Nafeeasa bumped up behind me, also hoping the tracks were humans who maybe would make us tea. I told her that they were bear tracks and we should make noise and keep moving.
We did keep moving, without incident (sorry not pictures, high stress=low pictures). We shortly came across Fish creek which was not the little creek that I had read about. With this year's high snowfall and melt, fish creek was a raging river with 8-10 foot vertical snow walls on either side. We immediately realized that there was no crossing the river to find the hot springs before we had to boot back up to the mammoth crest. I was pretty anxious about glide and wet slab avalanches on our way back up, but I decided to compartmentalize and only think about tonight challenges. We spotted a couloir, I decided I would worry about it tomorrow and we went about making dinner and setting up camp.
Dinner was delicious lentil soup with a dessert of dried mangos. I guess Nafeeasa got cold from sweat so she tried to warm herself while I tried to hang the food (I guess the bears are done sleeping so we have to do hang food again). I then melted some snow for water to drink at night. In the middle of the night I woke up and drank the water and realized that it tasted like white gas, horrible! I had let the stove run out of pressure while I was searching for a tree to hang the food, so incomplete burning left the water drenched in gas. We went thirsty. We woke up before the sun, packed up the tent and found a creek to grab some water and finally re-hydrate. We were blessed with cold temperatures and we got a hard freeze which gave me confidence about booting up to the crest.
The bootpack back up to the crest was difficult and I often punched through to my waist, but it was uneventful and we made slow but steady progress. After we were up on the plateau behind the crest we were able to skin up and slowly traverse up to the crest, By 1pm we saw the familiar sight of Mammoth Mountain and red cones bowl and had an excellent, stress-free ski back to the car. We celebrated with some milk shakes from burger barn and some maple cardamon lattes from stellar brew. Next weekend, I think we will not try to sleep in the woods :). Maybe we will visit Iva Belle hot springs in August.
P.S. We saw a Desert Tortoise on our way back, dream come true