Run: Lucas Valley Open Space Preserve (Big Rock)

Bay Area > Marin > Lucas Valley Open Space Preserve

8.4 miles // 1,450 feet vertical gain//loss

Area Map

This is a great run for:

-I can’t recommend this run as we did it…

-The trail beginning at Big Rock (described at the end), however is great for a good shortish climb (<5M with about 1000′ of vertical gain/loss) and highly recommended


To the Big Rock Variation (recommended): 101 to Lucas Valley Road Exit. Take Lucas Valley Road until you see a really big boulder on your right hand side. You’re there. No restrooms.

To the variation done and described here: 101 to Lucas Valley Road Exit. Take Lucas Valley Road 3.4 miles west to turn right on Westgate. Turn right onto Creekside road. Park on the road near the gate. No restrooms.

It’s always incredible to be reminded that after years of making it my business to find and run trails all over the place in the Bay Area, there will ALWAYS be more to explore.

I let my wife call the destination for this one, and she did a great job of finding us something new and beautiful – at least mostly…

The open Space Gate. Park here.

While there were a few web reports of an out and back run starting from Big Rock, we wanted a few more miles, and cobbled together a loop beginning at the base of Luiz Fire Road,turning west on Big Rock Ridge Fire Road, and taking what the official map calls the Big Rock Trail/Bay Area Ridge Trail (though this name doesn’t appear on other quads that I referenced), then finishing by running down Lucas Valley Road to return to the car. This is a very suboptimal loop for a few reasons.

First, you begin with Luiz Fire Road and its 15% grade for two miles. You are not running this. Seriously, nobody is running this. Actually scratch that: about halfway up I got the idea that somebody should hold a race simply from the gate to the crest of the ridge. This would be perhaps the most brutal 2 mile race ever conceived. Anyway, as I said – you’re not running this. While Luiz Fire Road is a fine walk, we wanted to run.

We were hopeful that we might run consistently once on the Big Rock Ridge trail. While it looked promising on the topo, this too proved less than great running, though it’s at least within the realm of possibility. Footing is rocky and sometimes insecure.

You too can enjoy visibility like this…

On Big Rock Ridge Fire Road

Eventually you’ll come across some moderately post-apocalyptically-creepy antenna towers and then a bit later after that you’ll see what looks to be an old bunker of some kind (?), but overall the ridge is forgettable (at least with the visibility that we had, which approached zero). A feature of Lucas Valley Open Space preserve is the number of easements granted from private landowners. In practice, this just means you need to open and close a few gates along the way. After a gate next to a little shed, you’ll see the character of the trail change quickly.

From a very inauspicious beginning, this trip got better, fast.

From the shed/gate, the trail trends to gently downhilling singletrack, and IT IS GOOD. The trail switches back and forth and is totally rippable – easy grade and good footing.

Mixed Oak and Chapparal

A stand of Oaks.

From here, keep smiling and running downhill until you arrive at Big Rock.

We, like total idiots, chose to run back to the trailhead along Lucas Valley Road to complete a loop. Do not do this. Lucas Valley road is full of blind turns, has absolutely no shoulder in places, and is a truly dangerous stretch of road to run.

THE BOTTOM LINE: Park at Big Rock and do an out-and-back up Big Rock Trail to the ridge. It clocks in at a bit under 5 miles roundtrip with 1000′ elevation gain/loss. There’s a reason this is the first web page to describe the loop we did – it sucks.


Climb: Snake Dike in a Day

The tale of the tape

Total hiking (approach plus descent): 14+ miles // 4,000′ vertical gain/loss

Total climbing (roped and final 3rd class slabs): 1,400′

This climb is often called Snake Hike, and for good reason – you spend a lot more time walking than you do climbing! Going car-to-car is a long day on your feet, and a great way to tune-up for longer days in the mountains.

The approach is found in plenty of guidebooks and websites, so I’ll spare repeating it. The only piece of advice I’ll give is the final bit: walking towards Little Yosemite Valley (perhaps 1/4 to 1/2 mile before the LYV sign), there is only one place where the trail meets/crosses a solid granite slab descending from the small ridge on walker’s left. Turn left here, slip through the notch, gain a highpoint, and sight Lost Lake. Work towards Lost Lake – in general losing elevation before you begin to traverse. From Lost Lake the trail becomes more distinct until you hit the talus. For my money, the slabs are the way to go from here. If you’re wearing approach shoes, just pick a low-angle-looking section and gun it. If you’re wearing boots or trail runners, it’s worth putting on climbing shoes.

Half Dome from Lost Lake - Approach slabs are seen on left

At the top of the obvious slabs, choose either a leftward traverse on a well-defined climber’s trail, eventually turning back on itself to gain the final 100′ or so to the base (easily sighted from a distance as the cluster of trees on the shoulder of the dome) – or climbing some easy 5th class ledges directly up and towards the aforementioned trees. The start of the route is obvious as it has a few trees on the right side and a small (2′) roof.

The route itself is straightforward except for one section: the 5.7 friction stepacross. At the second belay, you need to gain the LEFT dike – DO NOT continue straight up towards the right dike. There will be a very small dike about 15′ above the belay moving up and left towards the BIG dike you obviously want. This small dike, as a further enticement, has a bolt quite near it. DON’T get suckered in to clipping this bolt and taking this dike (that is if you want to climb the 5.7 – feel free to go for it if you’re feeling frisky). Instead, stay well below the dike on semi-obvious small dishes for a friction foot traverse. There’s a bolt about 1/3 of the way across to the big dike that’s easily missed, so keep your eyes open.

Runouts? Honestly, I’m no hero, and I never noticed them in the two times I’ve done this climb. You would have to be totally inattentive or actively let go in order to fall on any of the dike pitches. Pay attention and don’t let go.

Seconding up Snake Dike

From here on out you’d just about have to try to get off-route. Follow the dike up. Efficient parties will unrope after the first seated belay – your feet/achilles are likely to be screaming and this will be a MAJOR milestone on the climb.

After this, all that’s left are several hundred feet of seemingly endless 3rd class slabs to the summit. I think this is the crux of the whole day! People seem to talk a lot about wether to stay right or left, but I just go with whatever looks low-angle and it’s always seemed to work out well.

3rd class slabs above Snake Dike

View downvalley

We were lucky enough to hit the summit just after the cables were closed because of rain/lightning danger and literally had the whole summit to ourselves.

From here, you take the cables down – totally surreal to be the only person on the cables when the number is often >100 – and start the knee-brutalizing trip back down to the valley.

View down Half Dome Cables


Run: Mt. Tam (Old Mine Trail to Coastal Fire Road)

6.4 miles // 1,400′ vertical gain/loss

This is a great run for:

-working on settling in to a long climb

-exploring the difference between windward and leeward flora on Mt. Tamalpais

Bay Area > Mt. Tamalpais > Pantoll Station


Map Here:



Arrive, via your preferred route, to Pantoll Ranger Station. Avoid the temptation to ask why there is an ancillary parking fee ($8, though avoidable) when California already has one of the highest income taxes in the country. Pantoll has restrooms and water pumps/fountains available.

From the parking lot, begin due south on a paved path. The trail, signed “OLD MINE TRAIL“, begins on the LEFT almost immediately (Steep Ravine goes RIGHT almost immediately. Good trail, just not the one you’re looking for). Old Mine trail (recently “improved”, in state parks parlance, though they actually did a decent job at it) winds through an often cool and damp old-growth mixed deciduous and evergreen forest. This trail itself would be a beautiful run were a bit longer.

Old Mine trail ends at a large open trail junction – the meeting of Old Mine, Coastal Fire Road, and two directions of the Dipsea. To gain Coastal Fire Road continue essentially straight, following a wide fire road down a grade. Soon you’ll see a big trail etiquette sign informing you (and, hopefully, others) who yields to who – walkers/runners, cyclists, and equestrians. This trail gets little midweek use in my experience, but cyclists outnumber runners easily 3:1 from what I’ve seen. This sign does indicate that you’re at the start of the Coastal Fire Road and gives mileages to both HWY 1 and the Heather cutoff.

So, here you are – this is about as straightforward as it gets in trail running: you’re gonna go straight down, hit the end, and come straight back up to where you’re standing. Enjoy. The trail itself has suffered a bit in recent years and the downhill running is marginally impeded by the trail condition. What it lacks in maintenance, it pays in views. There are wonderful stretches after rounding a hill with huge views to the Pacific, made more spectacular by the terraced nature of the hillside so that you often find yourself at eye level with soaring hawks and vultures. Jackrabbits, California quail, and other birds are found throughout. Possibly my favorite part of the run from a scenery perspective, though, is the incredible perspective it lends on the coastal environment. As the trail changes from windward to leeward sides of the hill, you’ll notice a wonderful change of flora: dense, lush, and diverse plants and bushes on the wet and fog-bound leeward side, with low, nearly monochromatic scrub on the scoured windward side.

Great views continue throughout. At about the halfway mark you’ll pass through a wonderful grotto of oak and elm forest. The final fifth or so is indeed the steepest, and ends – depending on your preference – either at the Heather Cutoff junction or all the way to the highway (0.1 mile additional, each way). I suggest simply turning around at the Heather Cutoff junction, as the trail can be overgrown for the final bit and the views do not improve as you descend to the highway.

Take a drink, marvel at where you are, and buck up for the climb. This is a great climb to learn how to “settle in”. A phrase more often used in cycling than running, settling in is a (somewhat nebulous) concept that encompasses finding a sustainable pace and (most importantly) letting your body mechanics become quiet – letting go of tension in unused muscles, focusing on efficiency in your stride, and just generally getting “loose”. A quick time back to Pantoll from Heather Cutoff is just sub-half hour, so good news: You’ve got plenty of time to work on it!

Easily the biggest grind of the whole trip home is the stretch through the trail junction between Coastal Fire Road and Old Mine Trail mentioned above. Strange, but Old Mine Trail is super flat and a good place to open up for the final stretch.

Afterwards, go eat at Grilly’s – a surprisingly decent burrito for Mill Valley!

Climb: Mt. Whitney – East Buttress

Mt. Whitney from the Portal Road

Mt. Whitney from the Portal Road

Best laid plans and all that… The trip was slated for Mt. Russell’s Mithril Dihedral. Day one was the LONG drive from SF to Lone Pine’s multiagency center to secure (we hoped) a much coveted Whitney zone permit. Fortunately my luck with walk-up permits continued and we were set.

After picking up the new(ish) Bishop area guidebook, we walked in killed the rest of the day with  our first climbing at the Portal. Short story: not much easy rock in these parts. The majority of the routes come in at 5.10 or better, so buck up. Afterwards, we headed back to the car to sort gear, thankful for late light, eventually bedding down in the Backpacker’s campground at the portal (elevation: 8,300′). For the first time, I heard no sign of bears during my stay here – they’re notorious in this area: blame it on a steady supply of ma and pa kettle backpackers coming to “do the big one”, lax with their food storage practices.

Without any interruptions I felt almost rested when the alarm went off, and a 5 AM start had us on the trail at 6.

We shouldered packs, mine coming in at 45 lbs. This weight would be terrible if I was just backpacking, but was actually pretty reasonable considering it included half of our rock climbing gear: twin ropes, full rack of protection (including triples of .75-3.0 camalots for the neverending handcrack of Mithril Dihedral, and harnesses, helmets, etc.), 1.5L of water, and I even had the tent – hey, I AM getting more efficient.

White Montains Sunrise

White Montains Sunrise from Whitney Trail

The trip starts along the main Mt. Whitney trail – the superhighway to and from the summit, but pretty quickly branches off to follow the North Fork of Lone Pine Creek (note: this junction is now signed). This year’s snowpack was huge and the river/stream crossings of the North Fork were BANGING. Mandatory shoes off stuff, if you were interested in dry feet, and the infamous waterfall was going to get you no matter what you did to avoid it. Up higher, the Ebersbacher ledges were well clear of snow and and routefinding continues to get easier above the ledges these days as the Forest Service consolidates various use trails. Snow was intermittent from Lower Boyscout Lake to Upper Boyscout Lake. From upper Boyscout we were on continuous snow. Fortunately, the snow was solid and we avoided postholing. No crampons needed, but the ice axes were useful in two places: the ramp up (SW) from Upper Boyscout and the final steep incline to Iceberg Lake. I wear trail runners for 90% of my approaches (which is a big step – I used to wear Chacos on everything up to a few miles), and got VERY tired of having cold wet feet on this trip…

Ryan on the North Fork Trail

Ryan on the North Fork Trail

Day one was to be a bonus climbing day, but the effect of the 6 hour walk in dampened spirits somewhat, and I resigned myself to a day of reading under the incredibly clear and sunny skies. Iceberg lake, our solitary camp, sits at 12,700′, which isn’t exactly the top of the world, but plenty high if you live most days at sea level. I had the benefit of having spent a fair number of nights at elevation this season and felt great.

Ryan Running Barefoot

Running barefoot through the snow (time to quarry some snow to melt).

The sun sets behind Whitney at about 6:30 during June, which makes for a long, cold, dark spell if ambient temperatures dip down. We had no reason to be out and about, and shut ourselves in for the night at 7:30 after running our stoves in a head-to-head race for dinner and snow melting. Iain’s MSR Windpro was the clear winner over my Jetboil (for those that care about such things), which I attribute to the Windpro’s ability to run in liquid fuel mode (inverted). In any case, this was the LONGEST NIGHT OF MY LIFE, laying in my bag, letting the minutes tick by during hours of the evening that most geriatrics would be embarrassed to find themselves in bed. Low temperatures were probably in the low to mid 20’s overnight.

We both awoke to voices at 5 am – basically one phrase repeated over and over: “is your carabiner locked? Yes. Is your carabiner locked? Yes.”… after hearing this five or six times I came to two realizations: 1) this was a guided group and 2) they had left someplace at some ungodly hour to arrive at the base of the mountaineer’s route at 5am. Sadly 5 am feels like time to get up when you’ve been in your sleeping bag 10+ hours, and I once again dug in to my book, desperate to kill time until we had sun on our tent and all of the warmth that would come with it.

7:30 ended up being the hour of salvation, and we made a slow morning of it – boiling water, sorting the rack, etc., as Mithril Dihedral is well known to be a cold route – we wanted every bit of sunlight we could get while climbing.

After weighting the tent, we set off for the Whitney/Russell pass with both crampons and axes. This section is mellow snow climbing, ending in a large windscoured col where one immediately gets a full frontal view of Mt. Russell.

Mt. Russell from the Whitney/Russell Pass

Mt. Russell from the Whitney/Russell Pass

Awesome. Mithril dihedral looked… well, very vertical, to say the least.

Mithril Dihedral

Mithril Dihedral

Our first thought, though, was the incredible wind. Back at camp there was little to no wind. Up here on the pass it was whipping – probably gusting to 40-50 mph. The rest of the approach is easy, crossing talus and a well-tracked scree field. Closer to the base of the route, we agreed to stop and take shelter behind a huge boulder, waiting for the route to come in to full sun. 20 minutes later, we stood back up from behind our improptu shelter and were nearly blown over. The wind, if anything, was picking up.

Still, this is why we had come here, and we decided to make the last bit of the approach before making a go/no go decision. In the end though, our fate was sealed. This would be a tour de suffer – we were both wearing plenty of insulation, hats, and gloves while moving. Sitting at belays would have been miserable at best and dangerous at wost. It was decided: we’d go for the fallback route – the East Buttress of Mt. Whitney.

We tucked our tails and headed back over the Whitney/Russell pass, dropped back down to the tent, dropped off 2/3 of our rack (bringing singles of BD 0.3-3.0 and a single set of nuts), and began the climb up the snow finger leading to the roped first pitch of the East Buttress.

East Buttress, Mt. Whitney

East Buttress, Mt. Whitney

For some maschocistic reason I volunteered to take both ropes (2 x 70M 8.8) for this approach – probably thinking I was tough and wanted the conditioning. Oops. The approach to the base of the route proper honestly felt like the hardest part of the whole trip for me, and Iain agreed. Just a sloggy bit of vertical gain, I suppose, but it had us both sucking wind.

After a short discussion about how best to approach ropework – we decided to pitch it out with simuling when it looked favorable – Iain was off. I love alpine climbing because you’re lucky to see ANY of the features noted in the topo, and this climb was another great example of why an adventurous spirit is required to go beyond cragging to alpine rock climbing. Iain said a number of times, “this isn’t in the topo”… and each time after noting that, simply kept going. In the end, this is one of those routes where, once the grade is established (5.7), the guidebook might simply say “don’t climb anything that’s harder than 5.7”, because the possibilities are endless. I imagine there are places you could get yourself in to trouble from a routefinding perspective, but we quickly abandoned the topo in favor of discretion and judgement.

The one section that felt, to me, sketchy, is the section marked “tightly packed cracks” in supertopo. There is a LOT of very loose rock in this section, all sizes – a veritable sampler pack of lethal gravity’s rainbows waiting to rain granite on you, your rope, and your belayer. Avoid this in favor of the alternate path noted in supertopo (to climber’s right, I believe). Otherwise the route is casual, with as little or much difficulty as you choose. The final two ropelengths (200+ feet) were the only place we asked aloud: “where do we go”?, as we were getting a bit of summit fever. Why? Not because of any particular yen to stand atop the highpoint of the lower 48, but because we were FREEZING OUR ASSES OFF.

By the time we had finished our Russell out and back, touched base, and made it to the base of the East Buttress, it was noon. My one piece of advice, and you’ll find it in all the guidebooks, is to start the East Buttress early. The upper half goes out of the sun at around 4pm in June, and it is a cold, cold, little slice of the world once in the shade. It’s been a long time since I’ve shivered uncontrollably. I was glad to have most of my insulation and wind layers with me, and would have brought a full-on belay parka if I’d known what the overall feel was going to be, with wind and ambient temperatures combining to be, well… low.

Being cold adds a dimension of “epic” to a climb in the high and wild. Big wind (it was catching up with us) always ups the perceived drama of a climb. We had both in spades.

We summitted a little before 6pm (not terrible for 1400 feet of roped climbing), realized we were really the only idiots up there in those conditions, coiled ropes in the now gale-force wind, and started walking around the perimeter of the summit looking for the entrance to the Mountaineer’s route: our descent. After one false alarm, we found it.

Ryan on Summit

Ryan on Summit of Mt. Whitney

Whitney Summit Plaque

Whitney Summit Plaque

Entrance to Mountaineer's Route

Entrance to Mountaineer's Route

Iain, being British, is always describing routes in terms I don’t understand. His accent lends an incredible amount of credibility to whatever he says, though, and this first section was apparently Scottish grade II… whatever that means. What it meant to me is that I wouldn’t have minded a second ice tool, given angle and conditions (quite firm at this relatively late hour).

The upper third of the mountaineer’s route was snow, the middle third (including the notch crossover) was dry, and the bottom third evil, evil, evil, suncups and old postholes. It sucked.

On the descent, as much as I was not enjoying myself, more than anything I was just glad that I wasn’t going to be in bed as early as the night before (seriously, it was grim being holed up for so long. I do NOT know how mountaineers can deal with being tentbound for days on end). And after another stove race (again, the MSR killed the jetboil), we were off to bed with a good long day behind us.

The wind continued to pick up overnight, with big gusts (the NOAA had a ridgeline gust advisory that night, apparently)… the kind that tries to flatten even a burly mountain tent to your face, but I think we were both sufficiently tired enough to basically sleep through the straightline hurricane. Bummer, though, the next morning I awoke to many small holes in my beloved Awahnee tent. Off to Black Diamond – hoping their customer service lives up to their reputation and my expectations.

The descent from Iceberg lake to Whitney Portal was the only reminder I’ll ever need to NEVER again forget trekking poles, but otherwise uneventful. We did meet a number of parties headed up for Iceberg lake, but gave each of them our personal opinion: with the kind of winds we were feeling at the lake that morning, there is NO way that we would attempt for the summit. Something felt deeply unsettled in the weather, and our suspicions were proven when we saw that Mammoth Mountain, north of Whitney, got 3-6″ of new snow that day (June 30th!).

Climbers: Bring an incredibly light rack. We were glad to have brought the #3 BD, though, as there were numerous obvious and helpful placements for it. Overall, we averaged 3-4 pieces of protection placed per 200-250 feet of climbing – less a testament to our climbing (we are both low 5.10 trad leaders) than the nature of the route. There’s tons of 5.5-ish climbing with occasional 5.7-5.8 cruxes throughout.

Final analysis – yes, it’s a long walk for a rock route, but it really is a great package: high-quality rock, lots of it (1,4,00 feet of vertical gain on 5th class rock), and you get to touch the highpoint of the lower 48. I’d go back and do it again without reservation.

Climb: The Stumps

The Stumps is a small climbing crag near Mammoth Lakes, CA.

We had a day to kill before our shot on Bloody Couloir, and decided (more like I insisted) that we get a little climbing in on our free day.

The Lewis/Moynier guide’s directions were not quite as good as I’ve found them to be for other areas. I used the GPS and AccuTerra quad topos a few times to get us to where we were going, but we arrived only having mis-spent about 10 minutes in asutin powers-esque episodes of 20 point turnarounds. Roads are high quality, graded, USFS dirt, and passable in any car.

The Stumps

This area is interesting – essentially the beginnings of a canyon being eroded through the top layer of volcanic bedrock – with two main areas, one roughly north and the other roughly south facing, so finding or hiding from sun is easy. The approach, however, is short (<5 minutes) but highly sucky. The volcanic rock has created a pumice field that one climbs to gain the base of the climbs. Three steps forward, two steps back kind of stuff, and your shoes fill quickly with sharp little crystals and volcanic dust. I’d wear gaiters here next time.

Dusty Shoes

Climbs measure from 5.6-5.10, all trad, and some of the easier climbs have bolted anchors and a walkaround approach to the top, making toproping easy.

We started with  ZigZag crack (5.9), which the guidebook called “the stumps classic”. I would have called it “Illinois Crack”, but then again, I may be biased.

ZigZag Crack - Here a little foreshortened. About 60 feet of quality climbing.

It has two well-defined cruxes – one of which is the second move. A fun climb, but I had to get used to using the solution pockets in addition to the crack. While I came up climbing on limestone I now go years without touching something other than granite, and getting used to the techniques used on other types of rock always takes a few minutes. The top anchor on this one is awkward (2 x .75 BD is a good start) no matter how you slice it.

We also climbed a few of the moderates on Money Wall (the wall in topmost picture), including the 5.6 (name escapes me and guidebook is packed for a future trip) with a two-bolt anchor at the top. This was a COOL 5.6 and would be a great lead for the fledgeling 5.7 leader, as it has a few exposed but all-there moves. CAUTION: There are two VERY LOOSE blocks on this climb, and either would likely result in realllly bad outcomes for your belayer. They are avoidable, however. Test your holds and exercise caution.

Ski: Bloody Couloir

The alarm was set for 4:10, but it never went off. I was up at 3:59, having heard Mark’s wake-up call beat mine to the punch. I felt strangely awake and ready to go – equal parts full-moon-so-bright-you-could-read-at midnight and never having really gone to sleep.

I love sleeping out. With no tent between you and nature, you’re exposed (literally) to the side of the world that wakes up when you go to bed. And sure, you get the normal nocturnal fauna – the sound of a jackrabbit near your head is terrifying until you identify it, BTW – but this night, I was also visited by a lesser-known species: the truck RIPPING right past your bivy site at 40 miles an hour! Wow! I went to bed sure that I would hear anything coming from a long distance (wheels on dirt/gravel, all that), but I didn’t wake up until this vehicle was literally passing 8 feet from my head. I was terrified!

Anyway, back to 4am. It was warm – warmer than it was a few hours earlier, for certain, and I was worried that we hadn’t gotten a hard freeze. We were still about 6,000 feet below the high point of the day, so our weather wasn’t necessarily indicative of what we’d find above, but it still concerned me. The full moon sped the final packing of the bags, we were soon on our way up the Laurel Lakes road, en route to the day’s objective: Bloody Couloir.

Progress is quick on this old mining road. Sure, it’s even faster if you are able to drive some or all the way up it, and many do – at least those with high-clearance 4WD – but even though we were probably taking the longest of all approaches (ever), the miles were coming relatively easy.

As the sun came up over the White Mountains behind us, the world began to awaken, and we came around a bend to our first view of Bloody Couloir. It looked downright close!

looking upcanyon to the couloir

The road was used for mining in the distant past, but it now serves outdoor enthusiasts of every stripe: skiers, hikers, fishermen, and those that just like ruining a perfectly good vehicle suspension.

Eventually arriving at a few large switchbacks, you too may find yourself having to convince your partner that these switchbacks, while yes, technically “longer” in distance, are a sure thing. He will counter that the (still frozen snowfield) that cuts them is shorter. Ensure that you persevere in this debate. While no doubt a viable or even preferred route in the winter with good snow conditions, the road is clearly the way to go in spring.

After crossing a few snowfields, the largest of which necessitating a change to boots and use of axes, you’ll come to the gate. Now, if you’ve just walked nearly 5.5 miles and more than 4,500 feet of vertical gain with skis on your back, seeing the gate is kind of a conflicting experience. On the one hand, the gate means that you’re at the base of the couloir. On the other hand, the gate means that some people are able to drive here, and you’re kind of an idiot for having walked it. Or at least that’s the way I felt.

We planned to take the line to looker’s left of the vertical rock pillar in the couloir and set out. The snow was still firm and had clearly gone through a hard freeze the night before. Bonus. It was also clearly warming – fast – and we could see remnants of a wet slide higher up, and a big rock release near the middle of the apron. Negative bonus.

The whole apron is skinnable, and has a great mellow angle for making good time. Things were looking up. Or rather, I should have been looking up more often. We’d seen small (golf ball and baseball) sized rocks careening down the apron past us since we’d started, and occasionally heard the sound of rockfall, but it had never risen above a level of nuisance. That is, until the time I looked up while making a turn in my skin track and literally shouted “OH SHIT!”. There was a desktop PC-sized (strange reference, I know, but it works) sized rock FLYING towards me, and I had only looked up in time to see it in its final 50 feet before it intercepted my elevation. I knew in an instant that I could not dodge it effectively and simply tried to crouch. The rock whizzed past me, missed Mark, and continued down to the base of the apron.

I was spooked. Some trip reports had talked about rockfall in the sub-couloir to looker’s right. Yeah… I could see why. If that rock had made contact, it could have been fatal, simply owing to the incredible speed it had acquired by the time it reached us. I decided it was time to stow the skis and boot up, thinking that it would allow me to keep my eyes ahead/up more often than skinning. The tactic seemed to work, though while there were more small rocks, we saw only that one killer missle.

In the end though, it proved enough to be our undoing. By the time we reached the base of the pillar, we surveyed the totality of the situation. The rockfall had freaked us out, and would likely intensify in the right sub-couloir along with the temperature. The left sub-couloir was filled with large, ulgly, wet slide debris. Not only not fun to ski, but clear evidence of a propensity to slide. The snow, while still in good shape, was going to be subject to rapid warming from the ambient temperature rise.

It was a tough decision, but we knew that this wasn’t the day to take it to the top. We paused at the foot of the pillar dividing the two sub-couloirs, ate and drank a bit, and pulled the skins off our skis. As we fueled up, we saw the guys we KNEW were somewhere behind us (they were in the truck that woke me up, and we had passed them, still sleeping, on our hike in) hit the bottom of the apron. We went through the drop-in rituals: boots to ski mode, bindings locked down, poles lengthened, and cast lots for who got to go first. I dropped in a little aggressively – the angle was mellow at about 30-35 degrees, and I expected the snow to be much softer than it actually was, but it was a fine wide-open line… all 60 seconds of it.

A long walk for a short, mellow, ski for sure, but one that remains on my tick list – to be done from the top.

Postscript: the walk out kinda sucks. That is, of course, if you’re like us and had to walk ALL THE WAY back out to the turnoff for the Laurel Lakes road. Fortunately, a kind soul let us jump in the back of his pickup for about the last half of the journey. Absolutely spent, we headed for Mammoth, visions of a shower and pizza dancing in our heads.


It pays to take a high-clearance vehicle to cut out some/most/all of the approach. I will never again do this with the approach that we tried (park at the Laurel Lakes turnoff and walk…. walk…. walk…).

We both agreed that this would probably be an awesome two day tour in the winter, given the ability to ski back out to the car on day two.

Rockfall in the couloir is very real.


The next day we went to extra innings and hit Mammoth. Absolutely UNREAL corn conditions from 8a-11a.

Yours Truly, in Hangman's Hollow

Hike: Sitton Peak

Sitton Peak sits at 3,273 ft. in the Cleveland National Forest. A fine enough half-day outing; don’t miss te Ortega Oaks Candy Store at the trailhead – just stick with the candy and pastries: the sandwiches aren’t that incredible (though they are a throwback at $4.25).

We hit water at Pigeon Spring (enough for the dog, anyway) and passed a total of probably 50 cub scouts – some coming out after a dayhike, others camping and making the summit push that afternoon.

I’d recommend Bear Ridge trail rather than Bear Canyon in all but extremely hot weather, though doing this exposed and dry route in hot weather is not advised in any case. Bear Ridge has much better views and adds a trivial amount of distance and vertical to the overall hike.