Sierra Ice Climbing

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We distinguish two types of ice climbing: cragging, where the approach is easy, and mountaineering, where the goal is a summit.

"Cragging" climbs

  • Horsetail Icefall (June Lake), about 20 minutes north of Mammoth Lakes.
  • Lee Vining is THE ice climbing destination in California. It's about 45 minutes north of Mammoth. Here's a nice topo map that can show the routes on the three main walls when you click the appropriate area.
Lee Vining offers pretty good ice until April, with a large wall (~3 pitch), medium wall and small wall (you can top-rope it with a long rope -- there are a few bolts in places too), and a 45 min approach. To get there, take 395 past the Mammoth turnoff and past June Lake. Take 120 West towards Yosemite (the turnoff is before the town of Lee Vining). In the winter, the road is closed; just before the closure, there is a left turn. Take the left turn, and you immediately face a T-intersection. Go right, and drive a few miles. There is camping along here, though the campgrounds are closed in winater. Keep going as it turns to a dirt road, and drive to the end of the road at Poole Power Plant. Park in the turnoff before the parking lot. Walk through the parking lot to the West end, and hike West for 1/2 mile before taking a left turn into the obvious canyon.
  • Lundy canyon
  • Parker Canyon
  • South Lake
  • Lake Tahoe area
  • Yosemite area
  • Sequoia National Park.

The club has climbed at Lee Vining a lot, and this is where the 2003 Ice Climbing class took place.

There is more information at Sierra Mountain Guides, especially at their online ice report which is updated in the winter. At the bottom of the page, they have conditions and directions (and sometimes topos) on June Lake, Lee Vining Canyon, Lundy Canyon, Paker Canyon, South Lake, Lake Tahoe area, Yosemite area and Sequoia Nat'l Park area. The proving grounds (near Rush Creek), Horsetail Falls and Lee Vining Canyon are all within about 30 miles of Mammoth, so expect about a 325 mile (and 5 to 6 hour) drive from Pasadena.

The best -- and only -- guidebook devoted to ice climbing the Sierras is by SP Parker (of Sierra Mountain Center guiding service -- they ran our avalanche course in 2007), called Eastern Sierra Ice. We have a copy in our library. We also have a restricted pdf version.

Mountaineering ice climbs

The California Mountaineering Club has compiled their list of "classic climbs" in the Sierra. In the snow/ice section, they include Mt. Darwin (N. Glacier), Polemonium Peak (V-notch), Mt. Mendel (Mendel Couloir), Mt. Gilbert (NW Couloir), and Split Mountain (NE Couloir).

A popular moderate ice climb is North Peak, which can usually be done in a single day.

The uber classics are U-notch and V-notch, mainly because they are in the Palisades which is an awesome area -- the climbs are not particularly difficult.

The hardest classics are the ones on Mt. Mendel, e.g. Ice Nine. One of these pitches supposedly motivated Yvon Chouinard to invent the predecessor of the modern ice tool.

Some recent routes like Moonage Daydream look fun.

The great Climbing California's High Sierra, 2nd ed, by Moynier and Fidder (we have a copy in the library) lists the following ice climbs:

The impression I have is that most of these climbs have very short seasons during which they are truly ice; it is also likely on a few of these climbs that crossing the bergshrund is the technical crux.

See Also