Alpine Conditions Report – August 2017

In Conditions Reports, From the Range of Light & Fast, High Sierra Alpine Report by Howie Schwartz12 Comments

Howdy all,

Why have we waited this long this summer to publish this report? Because we have been busy connecting people to the mountains, of course! The backcountry ski/snowboard season was extended, and summer alpine climbing has been off the hook. Finally taking a breather to catch you up on how things are doing out there, if you haven’t been out there doing your own reconnaissance.

The record wet winter/spring of 2017 has changed the tenor of this report from previous seasons featuring record drought. This year the solstice passed us by with tons of snow in the high country and on the trails. Avalanches destroyed many trails and bridges and runoff was so high that rivers buried crossings and made for treacherous conditions to get around in. Approaches on snow were heavily sun cupped for a while and made for tricky walking in some places, while burying talus fields and making them easier to travel in others. A long transition led to numerous hikers and climbers having encounters with subnivean hollows and water hazards. Some of these included both injuries and fatalities.

Runoff peak has come and gone now that it is August. Snow holes are less of an issue and most trails are exposed at this point. Climbing the high peaks does often still include some steep snow travel. To date the temps have been high enough above freezing at night that it has been relatively easy to kick steps with boots or even get away with lighter footwear (with or without crampons) for smaller slopes in the afternoon. Now the snow is starting to age and harden. Expect night time temps to drop in the coming weeks. This may make for trickier snow travel in approach shoes or without crampons in areas where snow lingers. You’ll find this in places where avalanche debris may have been deposited this winter, or in more shaded or sheltered places that would have seen more snow loading and accumulation in winter storms.

Many couloirs are still full of snow. This is a nice change from the last 5 years. Realize that the tops of couloirs are more exposed to the wind as the storms come in and may have a lot less snow than further down the slope. There is bare rock and scree underneath. Once the season’s snow disappears from these places the rockfall danger will increase. For now, the quality of the snow climbing and cramponing up high is good, particularly early in the morning. Great time to go cruise some alpine snow routes if you have the skills for it, with normal precautions. Realize that bergschrunds are particularly problematic this year in some places due to the wet nature of the storms in January that caused the snow to creep and glide at a rapid rate.

Here are some specific details of interest to many:

Snow is avoidable in the Hulk decent gully.

  • Mt. Whitney is finally free of snow on the final approach to Iceberg Lake, but still a few hundred feet of unavoidable snow in the Mountaineer’s Gully.
  • In Little Slide Canyon, there are a couple small snow sections that will likely persist all summer. Crampons or micro spikes may be advisable as the snow gets firmer. The Hulk descent gully is snow free if you stay in the moat for a section.
  • In the Palisades, Temple Crag has snow on approach and descent from Contact Pass. The approach to Sun Ribbon Aréte has a bergschrund that makes things a bit more spicy than normal. The Palisade glacier zone is looking good, but expect large bergschrund cruxes in most of the steep snow couloirs.
  • In general, alpine ridge traverses are in good shape, with more accessible snow patches to use for water than usual.
  • Feel free to hit us up for other info in comments and we can get back to you.

A note about High Sierra alpine ice climbing: For those who may be anticipating the alpine ice season, you might want to consider carefully the state of these climbs. Many classic ice routes lost 50-100% of their alpine ice in the past 5-10 years. The only places near the Sierra Crest with more than 90% of the ice intact at the end of the 2015 record drought season were North Peak and Mount Conness. Some classics, like on the North Faces of Mount Gilbert and Mount Thompson had no true alpine ice remaining. The U-notch couloir in the Palisades was bare to down halfway from its top. We will have to see what happens, but most couloirs with ice got so much snow this winter that it may not be exposed before fall snowstorms return. Alpine ice takes a long time to form. How many big snow years like this one? I’m not sure anyone knows. If you are happy to get up early and climb the nevé snow, then you will be satisfied this late summer/early fall. If you are waiting for hard alpine ice climbs to emerge, prepare to be a bit disappointed. If you are wanting to stick to alpine rock climbs and ridges, prepare to be rewarded with stunning alpine ambience and probably continued warmer than normal temperatures.

Another reminder is that summer/fall is perfect for rock climbing on the Eastside. We have 4 new secret beginner crags in the region, so join us to learn to rock climb. Or, let’s go climb single and multipitch routes in Pine Creek, Rock Creek, Bishop Creek, Mammoth Lakes, Clark Canyon, Benton Crags, Sagehen Summit, Lundy Canyon, Whitney Portal, Alabama Hills, Owens River Gorge, and many others in the coming months!

Hope you have plans to play in and around the mountains, and let us know if we can offer you information or guidance. Our guides have been busy and happy, so the sooner we can get dates scheduled, the better. See you out there!

Comments

  1. Trying to plan for a back pack next August. We expect to be starting at the trailhead near Mono Hot Springs and making a counterclockwise loop to the east to Seven Gables and back.

    Can you provide any information about how late the trails were impassable this summer?
    Thanks.

    1. Author

      Hi Megan,
      Not sure what trails you have in mind, but all of them in that area are currently free of snow including any near Bear Ridge, JMT, Mono Creek/Pass, Sandpiper Lake, etc. We don’t know how to tell you exactly when they became “passable” this summer, because we find them passable in all seasons. This would relate to your skill, experience, equipment, and other factors. Also the info you seek might not be very helpful because we had a very unusual winter with record snowpack. Typically, if you are sticking to trails below 12,000′, they become fully clear by late July/early August. Really depends heavily on what happens during the winter and spring. For x-c routes in the mountains, there is a lot of snow still lingering, as discussed in the report. Great to see your wheels are turning for adventures in the Sierra next summer! Let us know if we can help in any way.

  2. Hi Howie,

    Thanks for the above response regarding North Peak. Any current update? I’m looking for alpine ice of course, preferably not just snow…. Whatdoyouthink?

    Thx,
    Mick

  3. Hello:

    Any sense of conditions going down Potluck Pass and Cirque Pass? We have been planning to hike across Palisades Basin and down these two passes to the JMT in mid-September, but are concerned that snow will makes it treacherous for us (we are backpackers, not climbers). Thanks for your help.

  4. Hi Howie,

    Do you think the coulior on North Peak will be iced up by the 3rd week of Sept.? My partner and I have been wanting to do that route for the last 5 years of so…. Just wondering.

    Thanks!
    Mick

    1. Author

      Hi Mick. I will guess it will be fun snow climbing at that time, but not hard and clear alpine ice. Lots of snow in that area. You never know though. We’ll post conditions again in September and try to get you an update.

  5. Hi, We are planning a trip to Middle Palisade very soon. Is an ice axe necessary for crossing the glacier in the early morning hours right now? Thanks in advance for any info!

    1. Author

      Hi Lawrence, that is going to depend on factors like your comfort and abilities in the terrain and familiarity with the tool. Genrally better to have an ice axe and not need it than the reverse. If uncertain, consider a bit more safety equipment, rather than less. I would say that most alpinists would want to have crampons right now for the short glacier passage of the climb, but one may or may not require an ice axe. Type of footwear is another factor. Some may not feel as comfortable without an ice axe in soft approach shoes with strap on ultralight crampons, for example.

      The snow is good for climbing right now though, and the moat at the upper margin is in good condition. Enjoy it up there and be safe!

  6. Hi Howie,

    Have you been up to North Peak/Conness traverse rte in August yet? Or Mt Dana conditions? We are looking at heading up Labor Day weekend to camp around Saddlebag lake.
    Thanks,

    Ted

  7. Hi! We’re hoping to tackle the Sierra High Route coming up here in late August. We’ve been watching the weather, read the reports, and talking with rangers. But . . . are there any thoughts you guys would have us consider? Any problematic areas that you have us look hard at? Humphrey’s Basin etc?
    Sorry to be a beggar for information!

    -Scott
    505-728-2337

    1. Author

      Hi Scott. Good questions. This year SHR hikers should be more mentally and physically prepared to deal with steep snow and snow covered talus fields especially on wind sheltered N-E aspects and catchment basins above 11,000′. Humphreys Basin is a high place for sure, and its adjacent passes would be an example of these locations. As people generally follow Roper’s route south to north, you won’t always know what you will encounter until you reach the passes. That uncertainty is the essence of adventure, a concept under siege by internet technologies, and the blogosphere that we are clearly part of. In the mountains, we should be encouraged to embrace uncertainty where it must exist. There are 3 recommended ways to manage it: 1) gather more information (which you are apparently doing!), 2) develop options in the terrain, ideally in advance, and 3) increase the margin of safety as dictated by the situation. How you may choose to execute a risk and uncertainty management plan depends on many group and external factors, such as skill, experience, fitness, ability, weather, conditions, mindset, attitude, goals, risk tolerance, equipment, and more. Going ultralight often adds safety, efficiency, and enjoyment but the caveat is that you have everything you may need to travel safely enough. Different people in different situations may need different things. What to carry is not usually optimized for advanced backcountry travelers by using a “10 essentials” list type of approach. Critical thought and judgment along with practice in doing more or getting by with less are needed. Many people are carrying lightweight crampons or ice axes out there, but you would want to know how to use them, and their limitations, given your footwear and the application of such tools for a given situation. I hope this advice gives you some food for thought as you consider your kit and develop your route options. Don’t be too attached to to a line someone else has drawn for you on the map. Who knows what special and lesser known places you may discover!

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