Virginia Peak

3 May 1997 - by Harlan Suits

My friend Lin Murphy and I climbed Virginia Peak May 5. Except for some gusty winds Saturday, the weather was perfect for ski touring, with continuous snow coverage above 10,000 feet. We were able to start skiing from the parking lot at Virginia Lakes (approx 9600)--this is a good place to ski late in the season. The valley above the lakes is a wonderful place: a gentle lake basin surrounded by moderate to steep bowls. Plus, this valley gives easy access to Summit Lake pass, which was our entry to Yosemite National Park. We camped at the lake southeast of the sharp pyramid of Virginia Peak. We had time Saturday to ski Gray Butte on perfect corn snow. Our lake was snow covered, but I was able to dig down to water that had melted and puddled on top of the ice.

From camp the northeast bowl of Virginia Peak did not look like a ski route--rock slabs with only a few narrow snow chutes. But Sunday morning we skied to the base and found that the main drainage, previously hidden from view, offered a steep, though skiable wide gully. We skied to the upper lake, then up a huge bowl to Virginia's north ridge and along the ridgetop to the final pyramid. What a spectacular setting! The final scramble up Virginia was saved from being a rubble slog by the interesting ledge systems formed by the weathered metamorphic rock. It was the first recorded ascent of 1997. The ski back down to camp was sublime.

Having spent most of our energy on the peak, the slog back up over the pass was grueling and very hot (we needed the gusty winds that day). It was also an occasion for breaking both of my ski poles.

Funny how a series of small errors can lead to a vexing problem in the back country. Error 1: I was going to order Ramer poles and their pole splice kit earlier this year but since they were sold out of poles, I ordered neither. Error 2: I had been too lazy to beef up the glue on my climbing skins; they started to come off on a steep section a few minutes from the top, but I kept climbing. (3) Without realizing it, I had extended my adjustable pole far past the recommended length. So when my failing skins slipped, I stopped the slide with a vigorous pole plant, snapping the pole in two. Thus I had a broken pole and no splint.

A few moments later, the screw mechanism in my remaining pole broke free from the lower pole so that I was unable to completely tighten it. (Leki-brand poles--to be avoided, in my opinion; I also find their breakaway tips entirely too fragile.)

Fortunately the snow was forgiving and I was able to ski out with one pole without too much trouble. Anyway, it was a beautiful area for ski touring.


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