Red Slate Couloir
Way back in 2014, I first came to California's eastern sierra and it was a drought year. Like most drought years, one of the only lines that was in was the ultra classic Bloody Couloir. With clear visibility from Mammoth and nearly year round snow, Bloody Mountain's north facing Bloody Couloir is probably the second most crowded backcountry ski descent in California (after Mount Shasta's Avalanche Gulch). However, almost nobody skis in California so for the most part this means you will see 1 or 2 people instead of 0. When many skiers make it to the top of bloody couloir (one of Chris Davenport's 50 classic ski descents of North America) they see in the distance a couloir that that you cannot do anyting but drool at. This couloir is the Red Slate Couloir. The Red Slate did not make it into the 50 classics and due to it's minimum 8 mile approach, Red Slate is much better at repelling the meager crowds than Bloody is.
When I skied Bloody Couloir, I heard some scary stories about how steep Red Slate was from some people who were also on the route and initially I was hesitant. But then after skiing Mendenhall Couloir last year, I saw the Red Slate again and the fire in me was reignited.
Red slate is one of the finest looking couloirs I have ever seen.
A long, North facing line that descends nearly from the summit slashing across a steep rock face. Not visible from the 395, but clearly visible from all the peaks around convict lake including the top of Mammoth, the couloir is both intimidating and alluring.
Graham and I drove up Saturday afternoon and made it to bishop in time for me to submit my LBNL National Center for Electron Microscopy user facility proposal and then for Graham and I to watch the Kansas Villinova game (I don't actually know how to play basketball). On our drive up, we called our friend Dave who was excited about the project but skeptical as to whether or not he could find someone to cover his work shift. After a while teaching me the rules of basketball, Graham and I jumped in the car so we could lie down for a few hours before our 2:15 wake up call, we went to bed not knowing if we would see Dave at the trailhead or not. However, just after breakfast at 2:40 to our surprise, Dave arrived! He had found someone to cover work and he was stoked.
Red Slate lies at the back of long North-South Canyon which starts from the far side and runs perpendicular to convict lake. From the trailhead we hiked around the NW side of the lake to a large amount of lateral avalanche debris. Here we noted that the debris ominously covered people's footsteps and not the other way around. Because the air temperatures had struggled to get near freezing, and it was only 3am, the snow was still soft, which made from easy travel.
We transitioned to skins and skis and continued up canyon. Wet slide after wet slide had poured into the canyon over the previous days leaving big piles of squishy golf balls for us to cross. As we got back into the canyon it narrowed forcing us to skin precariously over the small river below. I was a little nervous and I spent some time skinning above some water hazards with my whippet firmly planted for purchase. Eventually the river became completely frozen over and the canyon emptied into a broad meadow. The sky was slightly brightening now and we could just see the hulking mass of red slate above, seemingly alone on the skyline and at 13,123 feet, it towers over all of the surrounding peaks by at least 500 feet.
We followed an old circuitous skin track up to lake Wit-So-Nah-Pah where we traversed up a few benches and were finally at the base of the couloir. It looked pretty steep and intimidating, but the snow was relatively soft so we were all pretty stoked to continue. I quickly dug a hole off to the side of the couloir where we stashed bivy gear, stove, and skins.
I took the first turn with the boot pack and ascended maybe a third of the way up to just above a choke. The snow hardened somewhat to styrofoam snow which sank my spirits but it was so beautiful that we continued on. Dave took over now and motored us to the base of the dog leg, and then I took the final short pitch to the top of the couloir. To lookers from some directions, red slate couloir lines up well with the NE face such that it looks like the couloir extends across the NE face. This illusion has led many skiers to do a weird, highly exposed, traverse across the NE face instead of skiing the fall line upper couloir. Our party had little interest in sketchy traversing so we were very happy to see that the dog leg would be fully skiable.
At the top of the couloir we dropped our packs and continued the rocky and wind hammered 300 vertical feet to the summit without any gear. The view from the top was beautiful. We could see familiar mountains and ranges including the Ritter Range, Bloody Mountain, the Mammoth Crest, and Red and White Mountain. We could also see totally new and inspiring parts of the Sierra including the Silver Divide and the Mono Divide.
A few plunge steps and we were back at the packs. I was so dismayed at not finding powder that I almost suggested to not ski the line, but Graham was stoked which reignited me. I put my skis on and hop turned down the dog leg. Dave and Graham quickly joined me and we all leap frogged down the couloir. The snow was actually pretty good, the pitch was exciting, and my spirits rose again.
At the base, I had not dug the pit far away enough from the runnout of our skiing and it was completely filled in. Dave suggested that we start probing for it and 15 minutes later we had skins and bivy gear in hand and were heading down towards Constance Lake. An uneventful ski out with a lot of looking over our shoulders at Red Slate brought us back to the Mouth of the Canyon just below Mildred Lake.
In the light of day it was clear that all the snow had avalanched off the upper canyon so we confidently skied back to the trail. We were back at the car right at 3pm where we were met by the the standard group of convict lake hikers who all wanted to know what the hell garbage we had been up to.
Great day on an iconic line, I highly recommend.