2019-05-04 Red Slate

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Trip stats

GPX file for Convict Lake to Red Slate. Ignore the obvious GPS error coming up the canyon, and don't follow the route when it goes too high near Lake Wit-So-Nah-Pah

Trip report

When I was first looking at backcountry skiing, the route to Red Slate caught my attention because... well... it was one of the longer routes in the book. Plus I like the view from Red Slate, having visited it during the 2016 Sierra Challenge and seen how great it is. After having skied up and down Sardine Canyon to Kearsarge Peak, which is about equal difficulty in terms of distance and gain, I figured Red Slate would be doable, so after waiting probably one week too long, I gave it a go.

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Map of the GPX track from Convict Lake to Red Slate

I knew the previous week had been unseasonably warm and had devastated much of the snow at lower elevations, so I was curious what Convict Lake would like like. Three weeks earlier Convict Lake had been frozen over, the campground was closed, only part of the parking lot was plowed, and only skiers and snowboarders were visiting. As I pulled up I saw a completely thawed lake, a busy campground, and anglers walking all around getting ready for a day of fishing. With skis strapped to my pack amid a sea of campers and fisher-folk, I felt somewhat out of place.

For the first two miles, I walked along the summer trail with my skis in an A-frame carry, wondering whether this outing would involve more hiking than skiing. When I finally put my skis on, I found I had to take them off and on somewhat frequently as I moved over patchy, icy snow.

As I turned south into the first valley, I found that (1) I had traversed too high and had to walk down some disagreeable scree, and (2) there wasn't enough snow to ski through this area. So it was back to carrying my skis through the trees. At this point, I was wondering just how bad of an idea this was, and I made a mental note that next time I come here it should be earlier in the year.

A little bit before I reached the old washed out bridge, at mile 4, the cover finally became permanent and I no longer had to alternate between carrying my skis between patches of snow. While this was an obvious improvement, my stamina was already flagging and I was beginning to think of turning around.

Things came to a head just below Mildred Lake, where I took of my skis, put on another layer, sat down on a rock. Rather than turn around, I decided to eat about half of my food for the day and see if that did anything to lift my energy level (and my spirits).

Reaching Mildred Lake shortly thereafter, I felt a bit better as I skinned across the admittedly completely flat basin. From there I somewhat botched the next ascent, coming in too high on the ridge on the way to, and just south of, Lake Wit-So-Nah-Pah. Although if I had read the map more carefully I would have seen I could have continued along the ridge without having to lose elevation, I instead transitioned to downhill mode.

Just before descending, I had noticed a pair skinning toward the pass northwest of Red Slate. As they appeared to be going where I was headed, and the infusion of energy from my earlier snack break had kicked in, I thought I'd see if I could catch them. They were already across the flats and beginning to ascend the pass, switchbacking their way up. Since I was feeling good, and I wanted to say hi, I decided to go straight up for as long as I could, and when I reached the pass I saw they were taking a break on some rocks and I headed on over. For reference, I included a photo below taken from a similar spot, but in the summer of 2016. {{#ev|https://youtu.be/vJK6koRn30Y%7C%7Cright}}

It turns out the pair are from South Lake Tahoe (must be nice!) and they were on a 4-5 day tour from Rock Creek to Mammoth Lakes and were tagging various peaks along the way. How cool is that? After a brief chat, they continued along their way, and I popped over to "Inter-Red Peak" to see if I could find a register, as I was curious whether Kyle Atkins and Barbara Lilley had been there on the same day, as their hiking records on Lists of John indicates. Unfortunately, I could not find a register, so I left a register+container of my own. Unfortunately, and for reasons I don't understand, the container had a register, a pencil sharpener, and no pencils. So if anyone visits there... please bring a golf-pencil or two that will fit in a short salsa jar.

From my vantage point on Inter-Red (which ended up being rather further than it looked), I could see my new friends stopped on the way up Red Slate. I couldn't tell whether they were transitioning to downhill mode, or equipping crampons. Either way, from where I was things looked rather more steep at the top than they had looked from down below. Indeed, near the summit and off to the right, it looked as if a the start of a cornice was forming. I then ran back down to my gear and pack so I could follow them up.

On the way up I transitioned to boot packing mode at a nice rock and tried to catch the couple, but I was once again running out of energy, in addition to feeling the effects of the ever thinning air. I'd walk for a bit, and then take a short break to catch my breath, and then continue again, as I was having trouble making my pace match my oxygen supply. Once I finally made it to the summit, I could tell the couple were about to leave and were probably just waiting for me, so I said hi, remembered to tell them about the spot forecast for the next day (60% chance of snow with 1-2" accumulation possible), exchanged the job of taking photos of one another, and then said bye. From about two seconds after they kicked off I could tell they were extremely proficient. So, so, smooth in the turns. It was just a joy to watch them, and I wished I could have seen them go down the steeper part down below, as I wanted to copy whatever they did (to the best of my ability... which means not really copying them at all because I suck).

After my friends departed, I sat for a while and enjoyed the views while eating and drinking to prepare myself for the short steep part near the top of the descent. As expected, the views were fantastic. For comparison, I included some photos from 2017 here as well.

From the summit of Red Slate, it was easy to see how much snow had melted out near McGee and Aggie peaks. They no longer looked skiable, compared to three weeks ago, when the snow cover was near complete.

Having no more excuses to stay at the summit, I decided to start the descent, nearly leaving my crampons on the summit in the process. After the initial easy descent where I made some quick warm-up turns, I quickly decided I wasn't comfortable skiing the steepest part of the face. So I did a downward sloping traverse to the north where I only needed to ski a short section of steep stuff, before the terrain mellowed out. Though I was a bit apprehensive, the skiing was fine from the start and after a few turns I was enjoying myself immensely.

After skiing down to Lake Wit-So-Nah-Pah, I saw the couple from South Lake Tahoe packing up their camp to move it over Pretty Pass to the west, and I wished them luck and continued along my way. From there I had a short flat ski out of this basin, and another descent to the much longer flat section near Mildred Lake.

Just above the outlet to Mildred Lake I took a final rest before the final descent, which I drew out as long as I could by skiing up and down the walls of the canyon without actually moving very much down the canyon. But eventually the fun came to an end, and I removed my skis and walked back to a quieter Convict Lake (which nonetheless still had boats on it).

After cooking up a dinner of pasta, I drove out past a bustling resort with a pop-up building of some sort with people inside, and music, and signs promising gourmet pizza and other foods. Whatever was going on, the place wasn't short on people.

The next day I tried to ski Independence Peak, but I couldn't cross Independence Creek (from later study of a map, I think I was trying to cross too far down stream. Next time (which probably won't happen this year), I'll try further up stream. After wandering around through manzanita for a half hour or so, I decided I was feeling tired anyway and that I wouldn't mind returning early to relax. So I did. Although on the way back to my car I found the location of an old, and nearly overgrown, road, which was neat. Upon reaching my car I went up to check out Onion Valley, which was full of people equipping ski and snowboard boots. Clearly the word was out: the road to Onion Valley is open.

Finally, as I drove home, I saw what appeared to be PCT hikers crossing a bridge over I-15, at Cajon Pass. As the PCT goes under I-15 a bit to the south, I am guessing they were taking a detour for food, or more likely, for the Best Western. Congratulations to them on completing Section C of the PCT. Perhaps I'll see them during the summer further north.