Skiing the Thumb

21-22 May 2005 - by Harlan Suits

A lot of High Sierra Crest summits are too rocky or windswept to ski. The Thumb (13,388 ft) is an exception, with a high bowl that starts just below the top. Given the 7000-plus-foot gain involved, Steve Cochran and I planned an overnight trip, especially considering our midday arrival at the trailhead.

Secor's guide gives good instructions for the drive to Birch Creek trailhead. With careful driving, a car can make it up to the gate at McMurry Meadows (about 6200 ft). Unknowingly we parked sooner than necessary, adding about 20 minutes of walking. We began hiking at 12:30 p.m. We had left the Bay Area late Friday to miss the traffic, but had still agreed on getting a good night's sleep at Turtle Rock campground near Markleeville.

After such a wet winter, McMurry Meadows was bursting with flowers. Carpets of wild irises covered the old roadbed. I wished I had enough botany to identify all the other blooms. Above the meadows, on the usually barren hills, I was astonished to see millions of tiny blossoms everywhere I looked the next 2000 feet. They even grew out of the trail; you couldn't avoid stepping on them. This display was a welcome diversion from what turned out to be a hot afternoon slog under a pack that seemed too heavy with skis and ski boots strapped on. We noticed a lot of charred stumps and that the snowmelt was cloudy with mud: A big fire had scorched Birch Canyon in recent years, and the runoff is still affected.

We began skiing at about 8700 feet but soon had to pack the skis to descend back into the main valley. It was about 5:00, and neither of us felt particularly peppy, so we opted for camping relatively low, in the obvious valley bottom at 9000 feet, on snow at the base of Birch Mountain's craggy 5000-foot northeast face. The snow cover above camp was wall to wall.

The next morning we were heading up valley by 6:30 a.m. A beautiful clear day beckoned. We made good progress. Above Birch Lake (about 10,800) I was surprised when my ski baskets punched through what I thought was hard neve snow--an omen of things to come. By the time we reached the couloir that joins the valley with the summit bowl, the snow was softening rapidly. We kicked steps up the 35-degree slope. Since I am heavier than Steve, I occasionally sunk hip deep in his steps (ahh, the joys of mountaineering). Yes, alpine starts are a good idea. Too bad we didn't get one.

Above the couloir we put our skis back on. The angle is mellow at first, then steepens as you approach the summit rocks. Not once, but twice I heard the "whumph" sound of a slab collapsing under the surface of the snowpack (what the...%&?-unstable slabs? This is late May for crying out loud!). We had expected bulletproof slopes. It was now painfully obvious that the layer from the last snowstorm was not very well bonded. We hadn't even brought our beacons and shovels with us.

Perhaps we should have turned back then, but we were about 20 minutes from the summit. I tiptoed over to the edge of the bowl near the rocks where the snow was thinner. We continued.

We arrived at the summit at 11:30, enjoying beautiful views to the north of the entire Palisades range. The south slopes of Disappointment Peak, above South Fork Pass, looked like an awesome ski run. To the south we could see the low-angle north slope of Split Mountain. I was surprised that it did not have continuous snow cover; it probably gets too much wind.

12:00: Now the goal was getting down safely. I felt like we were running a gauntlet. I skied the west side of the bowl, near the rocks, until the angle eased. We heard no more sounds of collapse. The snow had degenerated into wet mashed potatoes. Frequently my ski tips buried themselves into the muck and I ground to a halt in mid-turn. The couloir below was well oriented for a descending traverse on skis, but we didn't dare try it. Instead we retraced our steps. As if to further unsettle us, the mountain grumbled and a small avalanche poured down a rocky face 200 feet away from Steve. Time to get the hell out of here.

Since the east and south facing slopes were so wet, we traversed to the north slopes skirting Birch Mountain. Jackpot: the surface there was frozen solid and just corning up. This was more like it! In the next hour we enjoyed a giddy 3000-foot run down a succession of bowls below Birch's north face, arriving back at camp at about 2:00. The snow around camp was melting fast. I was chagrined to see old cow pies emerging from hibernation. Taste the high country.

On the hike out the flower displays mitigated the familiar soreness creeping into my limbs. I counted more than 25 different species of flowering plants. On some of the distant hills, you could see a purple haze (Jimi Hendrix guitar riffs go here) of lupine.

Back at our car, a man camping by Birch Creek offered us each a water-cooled Coors. We accepted. He said he had camped on Birch Creek every summer for the last 45 years, that he had seen cows as high as Birch Lake, and that sadly, the fishing in the creek had not recovered from the wildfire, which was started by lightning.

Coda: The next day Steve and I skied Dunderberg Peak near Bridgeport. We saw the aftermath of a big slab avalanche that had descended the south face. I later found out that skiers had set it off but had escaped being swept away by the snow. This avalanche happened at the same hour that Steve and I were approaching the summit of the Thumb. Along with several other skiers, we ascended the approach gulley of Dunderberg east of the stables. The weather was a little cooler than the previous day, and we were up on the ridgeline before the snow had softened appreciably. Steve and I skied the north slope of Dunderberg's east peak. At around noon things were just starting to corn up. It was an excellent run.

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