Skiing the Vennacher Needle

15-19 May 2004 - by Reiner Stenzel

The Vennacher Needle (12,996') is a Sierra Peak in the Upper Basin, about 3 mi southwest of Split Mtn. It is rarely climbed, has no summit register, is on no List, is not mentioned in the trip archives of the SPS or, belittled in Secor's guidebook, not mentioned in Name Places..., in short; it is a neglected peak. This alone would be a reason to climb it. But in addition, the peak is completely unobstructed by other peaks and offers a grand view of the Palisade Range, Split, Pinchot, Cirque Crest, etc. Finally, the best part is that in springtime the Vennacher Needle turns into a wonderful ski mountaineering peak, skiable from top to bottom, provided the snow is right.

In May 2004 we scheduled a 5-day ski mountaineering trip from South Lake to Taboose. We (Tom Marsh, Mike Rector, Don Ralphs, R.S.) skied over Bishop Pass along the west side of the impressive Palisade Range, crossing Thunderbolt Col, Potluck Pass, Cirque Pass to camp an the Palisade Lakes. After crossing Mather Pass we entered the Upper Basin where we made a rest day to climb a peak. Our first choice, Split, was out due to poor coverage. Surprisingly, the Vennacher Needle's had complete snow coverage on its southeast slopes all the way to the summit.

Three of us set out on Tue, 5/18/04, to ascend the V.N. along a string of small lakes on its SW side. Initially, the slopes were gentle but to reach the summit plateau between the twin summits one had to ski up a 30-40 deg slope. Don returned, leaving Mike and me for the summit bid. Since the sun was shining on the snow we thought it would soften up the snow for an easier ascent. However, a cold wind and the high altitude kept the snow hard. One could not afford loosing an edge; otherwise it would have been a quick descent into a rock band way below. Switchbacking up required kickturns that got the adrenaline flowing. It was best to do the turns above some solid rocks so that a possible fall would be short. Mike kept asking how we would get down but I assured him the snow was getting softer in time, hoping it would be true.

Eventually we made it up to the gentler plateau below the summit. To our surprise the entire plateau was covered with nice-looking suncups. They had sharp edges and were still frozen. They stood out against the blue sky like needles. Sublimation eroded their tips into exotic sculptures. Now I was beginning to wonder how we could ski down these Vennacher needles.

By 11:30am Mike and I were on the summit. I turned all the obvious rocks around for a summit register, and at an unlikely place found a plastic bag with wet paper signed by Bob Rockwell and his companion in July 2003. I dried it and placed it into a new plastic box covered by a summit cairn. After snacking, enjoying the splendid views and taking many pictures, Mike got anxious and decided to boot down through the needles. I tried my luck to ski them, which was fine at right angles to their long channels but turned into a balancing act when skiing along them during a turn. Luckily the needle tips did soften and it was possible to make some turns further below. In fact the snow got better and better as we descended and was the best some 2000' below in the Upper Basin. Nevertheless, it was fun to be on the Needle.

In the afternoon we broke camp, skied along the South Fork of the Kings River, crossed it over a log and ascended Taboose Pass where we spent the night. The next morning we skied down the upper part of Taboose Pass, then hiked out on the trail and car-shuttled to South Lake.

Vennacher approach

Vennacher summit view

Vennacher nievas penitentes

Vennacher hero shot

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