Mt. Baxter

9-11 May 2003 - by Ron Norton

Mount Baxter is a great candidate for a spring snow climb. The most common summer and fall routes can be somewhat uninspiring class 2 scrambles on scree and sand. In the spring however, snow can transform these slopes into enjoyable, moderate snow climbs. It was the hope of Brian Smith, Dennis Wasserman and myself to experience these "enjoyable" conditions on the North Slope of Mt. Baxter.

Friday May 9th We all met, enjoyed some coffee and were on the trail by 7:30. Before leaving, we debated the need for snowshoes - the weather had been unsettled for several weeks and we were concerned about new and/or unconsolidated snow. In the end, we decided to leave the snowshoes at the trailhead - a decision that most certainly was influenced by the impending 5,200 + ft. hike into camp. Since this trail starts on the desert floor, we were all grateful for the cool, crisp temperatures we experienced throughout the day - perfect hiking weather. The trail itself was also in much better shape than the last time I was on it in 1996, when I remember it being painfully overgrown - it has since been pruned back.

As we worked our way up the Sawmill Creek drainage, we saw remnants of the old sawmill and flume system that at one time supplied wood for the Owens Valley. It is my understanding that the wood from the sawmill was used to make charcoal which was then used to smelt silver ore taken from the nearby Coso range.

We started hitting patches of snow at around 9,000 ft with complete coverage from 9,500 ft on. Despite the occasional posthole, we all agreed that snowshoes were not needed for the hike into camp. We reached the outlet of Sawmill Lake at 3:30 p.m. and established camp near a large rock just below the lake outlet. The rock provided some shelter from the chilly wind that was blowing across the frozen lake - although not enough to keep me from cooking dinner in my tent. The highlight of the evening was when Brian produced a Nalgene Bottle of Merlot that he selflessly shared with Dennis and myself. He was unanimously declared "Da Man!"

Saturday May 10th We were heading for Mt. Baxter at 6:15. The snow flurries and steady breeze from the night before were gone, and we had clear blue skies all day. After crossing the frozen lake, we started working our way up towards the bowl that is north east of Mt. Baxter, and east of point 3,575. Our plan was to survey the north slope of Mt. Baxter from this bowl and then choose the best route based on what we saw. The North Slope has several 30 - 35, 1200-1300 ft chutes that will get you onto the summit ridge so we anticipated having plenty of choices. We were also concerned about avalanche hazard since there had been a pretty good storm the weekend before (18+" of new snow) that had not had a chance to consolidate - so having some route choices would be important.

As we made progress towards the bowl, the new snow became increasingly deeper. By about 10,700 ft. we were regularly sinking in past our knees and had to rotate trail-breaking honors. Snowshoes probably would have helped at this point, but would not have worked well on any type of slope because the upper 18-24" of snow was very cold and dry and would not pack down.

By the time we reached the bowl and could see the entire north slope of Mt. Baxter, we felt that the best option would be to get up onto the summit ridge as quickly as possible (and hopefully out of the deep snow). We chose a chute that would place us on the summit ridge approximately 0.5 mi northeast of the summit. As we plowed our way up the chute, we realized that the snow conditions were just as unpleasant here as they were below - I would have traded my ice axe for canoe paddle at this point. A third of the way up the chute we decided to exit onto a shallow rock band that provided better footing and allowed us to gain the ridge with minimal frustration (the climbing near the top was actually quite enjoyable). Once on the ridge, it was an easy stroll over to the summit, which we reached at 1:30. We had originally planned to continue on to Colosseum Mountain but because of the deep snow decided to save Colosseum for another day.

Our return was made much easier by the trail that we had forged earlier in the day and we were back in camp by 4:30. We spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing and working on a clogged MSR stove, which despite my assistance, we were able to fix.

Note: Even though there was quite a bit of new snow, we did not see any evidence of avalanche activity all weekend.

Sunday May 11th The return to the trailhead was uneventful except for the spectacular display of wildflowers that were encountered as the trail descended into the desert.

While I don't think this climb will be remembered by any of us as a "classic". We all agreed that it was a good aerobic workout and a fine spring weekend in the Sierra.

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