Approaches in the eastern Sierra can be long and arduous…so when lines are stacked close to one another it makes for a great linkup. The south face of Split Mountain appealed to John and I because of its potential for great corn. I was very intrigued by the guidebook’s description of the north couloir on Cardinal Mountain. Looking at a map, the two lines were right across from one another…only separated by a small valley.
John brought along Jason and Sean and we made a plan to ski the south face of Split Mountain. I entertained the idea of adding on the north couloir on Cardinal Mountain (or one of the other chutes on the peak) after the south face was complete.
We met up near the Taboose Creek Campground around 3:30 AM, prepared for an early start to climb the south face of Split. We hopped in Jason’s truck and made the very bumpy drive up an old road towards Red Mountain Creek. It took us around 45 minutes to drive ~3.5-4 miles, but we were glad to not be walking!
We got moving around 4:45 AM and began in trail shoes. We had to traverse some dry desert into Red Mountain Creek, but once in the creek we hit snow pretty quickly and were able to transition to skinning. The south face of Tinemaha had slid in numerous places and the debris had filled in the creek.
We followed the south fork of Red Mountain Creek towards the drainage to the south of Split Mountain. The other fork would have taken us towards the St. Jean Couloir and Split Couloir (not on the menu for today). We were easily able to skin the whole way to the base of the south face of Split. The north side of Cardinal Mountain stared right at us with its many chutes and couloirs. The most prominent north couloir (the one called out in the guidebook) looked to be in bad shape, but there were plenty of options for later!
Our group began to splinter a bit as we approached the south face. There was poor communication about pacing and overall group strategy. We took a break to switch to crampons at the base of the south face, before proceeding to begin booting up. It would be about 2,500′ of booting to the top, all the while climbing a very hot south facing slope. It was going to be an oven.
There was poor communication amongst us on the climb up. Everyone felt the clock ‘ticking’, and rather than stick together and keep everyone on the same page, we all just focused on ourselves. This resulted in one person in our group falling far behind. Three of us continued climbing up, realizing that the fourth member of our group wasn’t going to make it to the top in time. We didn’t have radio contact with the fourth group member, so all of our ‘thoughts’ weren’t being translated. In hindsight, this was a super shitty way to manage the day. I should have spoken up and opted for us to wait for them; anything really, any communication would have been better than none. Eventually, the fourth member of our group realized they were far too far behind and found a safe spot to wait for the three of us. But this didn’t happen as a result of commmunication; this was just luck. It could have been worse.
Three of us continued to the summit of Split, where we hastily transitioned to going downhill. The snow was getting warm and slushy and we knew that time was ticking away. While we were up there, we spotted a rare snow ramp that easily went into the classic Split Couloir. Just another example of an abnormally fat snow year!
The top pitch off the summit of Split is steep, probably 45 degrees in spots, and had some weird hazards (schrunds, rocks) to manage. I went first and led us towards a more open slope to skier’s right. There was some tricky wet sluff management, but otherwise uneventful. We leapfrogged, trying to ski with as much haste as possible to get out of the cooking slope.
The pitch of the south face eases up after the initial roll off the summit, so we were able to ski back to the fourth member of our group relatively quickly. We grouped back up, chatted briefly, and then skied back to our transition spot at the base of the south face. It was around noon at this point.
I still wanted to check out the north side of Cardinal, as I felt we had discussed in our pre-trip plan. The rest of the group didn’t seem interested in extending the day any further. We had radios, so I asked them if it would be okay for me to split off and go check out one of the couloirs. I’d stay in radio contact with them. They said yes, so I ski traversed over towards the north side of Cardinal. I wasn’t sure which couloir I’d boot up to ski, but I figured I’d at least go check them out.
I found the proper ‘north couloir’ of Cardinal to be in bad shape, so I opted for one of the NE facing ones further east on the face. It had dramatic relief into the rock walls. It wasn’t particularly steep, maybe 35-40 degrees, but looked deep and dark. There was cold, chalky powder remaining!
I found a good rhythm booting and made my way up the couloir. I was stoked at the ‘pureness’ of the line: straight, relatively steep, and tall rock walls!
I radioed to the group that I was about to drop. The couloir was a great mix of chalky powder and warm chalk. All-around fun!
I radioed to John and Sean, who I found out opted to ski another run after I had split off from the group. They were still climbing up!?! It seemed yet again our group had splintered. Poor communication was the theme of the day. I waited for John and Sean, not wanting to split up even further than we already had. We didn’t know where Jason was so we would ski out together and hopefully find him. We figured he’d skied out, but weren’t sure. There was great corn skiing back to Red Mountain Creek, where we retrieved our shoes and began the walk out to the sagebrush. We found Jason at the truck, relaxing in the sun. He’d opted to just exit; he wasn’t feeling well and didn’t want to prolongue his day.
In hindsight, the skiing was cool and all…but I’m very disappointed in myself for the group dynamics of the day. One member of our group was clearly just ‘dropped’, with no communication whatsoever. That’s just shitty. There’s no reason to ditch someone for any ski line…period. I lost sight of that.