Take Route 395 north from LA in the direction of Carson City. Once you’ve passed the barren Mojave Desert, where temperatures regularly reach 100 degrees Fahrenheit during the summer, you’ll enter the Owens Valley. As you look west out of the driver’s side window the Sierra Nevada Mountains begin to rise. The Eastern Sierras, which skirt Route 395, are where Buell Steelman and his riding buddies spend their winters discovering new lines. This year snow conditions in California have been spectacular, opening up unlimited possibilities. Here’s Buell’s account of some the best lines of the winter so far.
Words by Buell Steelman. Photos by Ryan Floyd, Mike McLauglin, Frank LaForge and Buell Steelman.
What a year it has been in the Eastern Sierra of California! The first half of the winter was characterized by constant storms and deep day tree riding. The second part had fewer storms which allowed us to take advantage of the filled-in, stable conditions on the mountains. Here are a couple of classics and a couple of rarely ridden lines.
Pinner Couloir is a classic! Just outside of Mammoth, the couloir runs for just over 3300ft (1000m) It is almost entirely hidden from view, deep inside the rock walls of Laurel Mountain. Earlier this season, my partner and I tried to climb and ride this line but were turned around at the halfway mark by mixed snow conditions and giant roller balls which bounced down the couloir like a bowling alley.
This time my partners and I climbed around the back of the line to avoid the roller balls. We were expecting mediocre, but stable snow conditions inside the couloir. Instead, once below the firm wind board at the top, we found smooth, slightly sun softened snow from top to bottom.
After another storm, next on the list was Mt Tinemaha, a southern Sierra classic. The southern Sierra has not received much snow over the last few years, so it was great to get down there. This peak rises almost 9000ft (2750m) above the Owens Valley. On this day, the snow line to the summit of Tinemaha was a solid 6000ft (1800m) of good riding. The upper NE facing gulley was great powder. The lower SE facing gulley transitioned immediately into perfect corn. It was a great day!
Two days later, a riding partner wanted to chase more corn snow. His choice was a 6000ft (1800m) monster of a chute outside Bishop. We started the hike at 3:30 AM in order to beat the heat, a side effect of the line’s SE aspect. Once we’d corrected a 250m wrong turn that led to an ice filled choke, we made it within 180 meters of the summit before we made the decision to turn back due to deteriorating snow conditions. It was only 10 AM, but it was baking hot when we pulled the plug. Oh well, only 1650 meters of turns. The rock walls and side chutes drop a lot of debris into this line and it is notorious for bad snow conditions. The very top of the line was unconsolidated corn which turned quickly to well consolidated corn, with occasional sections of debris for most of the line. Getting out at the bottom was pure survival riding on a huge pile of avalanche debris.
A couple of days later, I found willing partners to go ride corn on a SE chute on Mt Gibbs. I have ridden the east facing gullies and a north face chute in the past, but this SE chute hasn’t looked rideable for the few low-snow-years. It was 5300ft of vertical (1600m) with three miles of low angle travel to get to the summit. Starting at 5:15 AM, we were on top by 10:30. The peak has great views of Mono Lake. We waited about 30 minutes for the corn to soften to perfection before dropping. Topping off a great line, we could ride almost the entire way to the cars!
And when Buell isn't scaling mountains for new lines...