Joined: Fri Nov 19, 2004 8:41 pm Posts: 1619 Location: Santa Cruz, CA
Ever since I first saw pictures of the Dana Plateau, I've been drawn to it like a magnet. There's just something about the combination of the eerie flatness on top, the sheer edge-of-the-world drop on the eastern edge, the improbable chutes that slice through the rock walls on the east side, and the incredible views in all directions. When I first saw it in person from Hwy 120, I just had to pull off the road and stare at it. It's one of those sights that will make time stand still... at least until the drool starts running down your chin (for me it's always the left side for some reason...).
Almost exactly one year ago, I finally made a trip up there intending to ride one of the chutes. Unfortunately it didn't turn out as planned, and I was lucky to get out in one piece. That experience has been weighing on my mind all year, and I've been anxious to give it another go after (hopefully) learning my lesson. I was hoping to have an opportunity to try again during a trip to Tioga Pass Resort early last month, but the conditions and timing didn't work out. So this past weekend I decided to give it another shot.
It appears that I did learn one thing, which is that getting a couple hours of sleep the night before a trip and not spending some time at altitude to acclimatize is a Bad Thing. So this time, instead of fighting Bay area traffic on Friday night, driving through the night and arriving at 3 AM, I made Saturday a drive day. I wouldn't be able to do 2 days of riding, but I figured at least the quality of riding on Sunday would be better since I would be more rested (turned out to be quite true). I also have a lot easier time driving during daylight, and not to mention it's nice to be able to see the views. Such as this one as I drove over Carson Pass:
I arrived in Lee Vining just in time to grab a meal at the infamous Mo-mart (*), and it was well worth it. The plan to drive out on Saturday was already paying off. After dinner, I put together a couple sandwiches for lunch, set up "camp" in the back of the car, and got to sleep at a reasonable hour. What a concept. I didn't sleep all that well though, probably a combination of nerves, and this allergy that I seem to get whenever I'm over on the eastside around this time. I think maybe it's something about the sagebrush. It doesn't seem to happen when I'm up high, but it definitely does when I'm in town... anyone else get this?
(*) And yes, I'm going to keep calling it the Mo-mart even though it's not actually a Mo-mart. That's how it was introduced to me, and that's how it will stay in my mind. Deal with it. It's like "nucular". It's not like you don't know where I'm talking about!
In any case, I awoke early feeling refreshed and ready to go. I had a quick breakfast of champions - banana, PB & J, 800 mg ibuprofen - and I was ready to go. I drove up the road to the closed gate and saw the familiar sight that I'll never get tired of.
The approach to the Cocaine chute was looking pretty burnt out down low. There also appeared to be some wet slide activity from the day before. All expected due to the above average temperatures. I was originally planning to climb up this way, but I got a tip from BCD that Powerhouse chute still contained snow almost all the way to the road, so I continued driving up the lower road toward the bottom of Powerhouse. I knew I was getting close when I saw this:
I arrived at the bottom of Powerhouse a little after 6 AM. Just as I was parking, another guy pulled up and parked around the corner. Cool, so I wouldn't be alone (or so I thought). I spent about 15 minutes or so getting my gear together, loaded up, and walked over to the other car to say hi. But the guy was gone. Not just a little ahead of me, but gone. I walked over to the start of the snow, and I couldn't see anyone around. Whoever it was was going fast. I looked down and could just make out the wide tracks of a splitboard and the "footprint" of Voile crampons. I had a pretty good idea of who it might be... and I was was happy to just be able to follow his skin track ("follow" in this case includes plenty of instances of slipping on the frozen snow and subsequent cursing). The snow down low was refrozen mashed potatoes with ample evidence of previous wet snow sluffing.
Looking across the canyon, the view of Hwy 120 is impressive. It's amazing the road exists at all, the way it cuts through all those slide paths. BTW, it looked like Caltrans had the road plowed almost to Ellery Lake. Maybe they'll have it open by Memorial Day?
Finally the upper cirque and plateau started coming into view.
Getting a little closer, the main Powerhouse chute revealed itself. See that little dot in the middle of the chute near the top? That's mystery splitter. The dude was topping out in just over 2 hours. The guy was motoring! I later found out that it was in fact - who else - the ubiquitous BCD. I had a pretty good idea where he was headed...
The lookers left side of the cirque and chutes came into view, with the impressive Third Pillar poking out on the left.
Gratuitous Powerhouse Pano (tm)
I continued up toward the bottom of the main Powerhouse chute, where BCD had left a nice boot track. I switched over to Verts, and spent a while fiddling with the helmetcam. Then it was on to the booting.
Climbing up the chute went pretty smoothly. The angle is around 45 degrees in the bottom of the chute, and just tips 50 near the top. The snow in the looker's right side of the chute was in the sun and already nicely corning up at 10:00. Here's a view from near the top of the chute. It's hard to get a sense of scale from this shot, but that's a pretty big cornice that's hanging over the looker's right part of the chute. It looks like it's about ready to come down on someone... I'm also always amazed by the rocks up on the plateau. How do all those chunks stay in place?
I topped out around 10:30. Here's a view looking down the chute.
And the glorious view looking straight across the plateau at Mt. Dana. It's really an amazing sensation to climb out of a steep chute onto the completly flat plateau. It's like climbing out of a deep cavern and popping out on a football field. Only with no people around, and amazing views.
The snow on Mt. Dana is looking great! Check out Solstice "couloir". Right now it's more like Solstice snowfield. Now, looking at that shot, where do you suppose BCD was headed? Hmm...
I was stoked to be back on top of the plateau, and at a reasonable hour this time. I walked over to check out the crazy snow fin on the looker's right side of Powerhouse, and it was looking pretty good. Here's a view looking out towards Mono lake, with the snow fin and chute in the bottom, and Third Pillar on the upper right.
Speaking of Third Pillar, I had decided earlier that I was going to hit it if the conditions looked good. I walked over to take a look.
Still looking steep! But the snow was looking nice on top. I downclimbed a bit to check it out, and it was softening up nicely. I measured the angle somewhere in the low 50's. That shady part of the chute worried me a bit though. I could see some exposed rocks, and it looked like it might still be icy. And since that's the narrowest part of the chute, I was little sketched out. I decided to wait around a bit for that part of the chute to get some sunlight.
This gave me some time to grab some lunch, and play around a bit more with the helmetcam. I found out a couple things. First, my camcorder sucks. Half the time it wasn't recording properly. I went back and reviewed some of the earlier footage only to find most of it messed up. Dammit! I got the thing on ebay so I guess I got what I paid for. To anyone out there looking for a helmetcam setup, I would just recommend finding a camcorder that can take some abuse, and get bounced around a lot without getting out of alignment etc. The less moving parts, the better. For now, my solution is usually to smack the thing a couple times until it starts working again. I also found out that the helmetcam lens itself can fog up. So even if the camcorder is working properly, you might end up with footage with a big blurry circle in the middle. For anyone using the Viosport Adventurecam III, here's a tip. Unscrew the removable lens, and use one of those Scott anti-fog wipes on the inside and outside of it.
I turned my attention to taking more scenery photos. There certainly is no shortage of it up there. Third Pillar chute with Mono lake in background:
Here's another view of the entrance to the chute that BCD did the previous week. Let's just call it "BCD Chute", shall we? Or perhaps, "Large Sack".
Looking back the other direction, here's a view of the Powerhouse chutes. You can't really see the main chute here, but you can see the snow fin that connects into it.
I snapped a couple vertical shots of the Third Pillar chute, not realizing until later that they might actully stitch together into a decent single shot. It turned out pretty nice. Gives a good feel for the pucker factor. Again, it's hard to get a sense of the scale without someone in the shot for reference. Here are a couple reference points. At the upper lookers right of the chute, just at the rollover, you can just make out a few "Vert-prints". Where the chute goes out of the picture in the bottom right, it's about two board lengths or so wide.
At this point it was about noon, and it looked like the middle section of the chute was softened up. It was time. On the way back over to the chute entrance, I looked across the plateau at the ridge that continues NW of Mt. Dana, and I thought I could just barely make out some tracks in the chute dead center:
Hmm, wonder who that was? BCD kills it yet again. That just added even more adrenaline. I was ready to do this thing. I put the board together, loaded up, and walked over to the chute entrance.
I strapped in.
I thought about my mom, and how pissed she would be if I hurt myself on Mother's day.
I dropped in.
The snow was good! It was pretty soft, but not rotten. The kind you could actually make turns in. I had to stop every 2 or 3 turns to let the sluff go by though. The center of the choke involved a few sideslips to get around some exposed rocks, and before I knew it I was past the choke and home free.
From that point it was easy going down into the bowl. On the way, I "caught up" to some of my sluff from earlier. It was flowing slowly in two parallel tracks, with a section of stationary snow in the middle. I was turning across this flow, and had the weirdest optical illusion where it looked like the stationary middle section was actually flowing uphill! Strange. I think I might have actually got some footage of that on the helmetcam.
When I finally reached the end of the downhill, I let out a huge sigh of relief, and let out a few "happy expletives". It sure was a good feeling.
I looked at the board.
Something was odd. I'm a little afraid to admit this here. I think I might get kicked off the forum for being a dumbass. I'm not quite sure how to say it... well, here, take a look at this picture. Do you see anything strange?
I had a sudden epiphany, realizing that I may have just made a first descent - that is, the first splitboard descent of Third Pillar... with the bindings mounted swapped!!!
I've said it many times before, but it seems more appropriate now more than ever:
I don't know how it happened. I didn't even know it was possible to get boots into the opposite bindings. I guess I was just so amped at the top of the run that I didn't even notice that I was tightening the straps backwards. I was so focused on dropping in. With the Burton interface, it's impossible to mount the bindings swapped (assuming you have different front and back angles), because the angles will be off and it will be obvious. But with the Voile system, you can do this and (apparently) not notice it. Guess that's one of the aspects of the Voile system that I'm not quite used to yet.
I swapped the bindings over and hoped that nobody was looking.
Here's a gratuitous self-portrait just to prove that I was actually there. No bindings in the photo.
And another shot showing Third Pillar on the right, and Large Sack on the left. Some of the sluff you see is from loose snow, and I suspect the big one in the middle is from a cornice collapse.
Whew! The hard part was over. Now I just had to get back to the car. I didn't want to drop down the normal drainage that Third Pillar funnels into because I had seen that it was burnt out down low. Not to mention that would make for a long walk back to the car. Instead, I climbed up onto the lower ridge that separates this drainage from the Powerhouse drainage. This was some work, as it was now after 1 PM and it was over 80 degrees! On the other side of the ridge I found some nice snow heading down toward the bottom of Powerhouse, and did the snow finger connect-the-dots game until it ran out. I looked up and saw 4 other guys coming down the main Powerhouse descent route, looking like they were having a lot of fun. After a minor 5 minute bushwack I made it out onto the road, and soon was back at the car.
I was stoked to get back into town and have another Mo-mart Meal (tm).
On the way back, I ran into those same 4 guys I had seen descending earlier. I gave one of the guys a ride back to where they had parked. They had taken an interesting approach - they had brought dirtbikes, and shuttled their gear up the closed section of Hwy 120 up to snowline. Then they rode back down, stashed the bikes, and walked back up the road to their gear. It sounded like they then climbed up Ellery to get to the plateau, then descended Powerhouse from the top.
At the gate I dropped the guy off, and stopped to take yet another shot of the plateau. Here's a pano. You can see Third Pillar in the middle right, with the couloir sneaking around its right side. On the far right, the lower obvious hill is the one I crossed to get back to the Powerhouse drainage.
I drove into Lee Vining, and stopped by the RV campground at the end of town. Tip: they have hot showers there for like $2. Sure felt good after the day's work. Headed back up to the Mo-mart. They have a pretty decent view there.
Inside, I found yet another reason to love the Mo-mart. They carry this!
And I finally felt like I was, in fact, worthy.
I had a nice meal, chilled out for a while, and took in the views of Mono lake. Saw a few "dust devils" over the lake - strange sight! Like any good son, I called my mom, let her know I was still alive, and wished her a happy Mother's day. Around 6 PM I headed out. A little later than I intended, but still early enough to get back at a decent hour. Outside of Bridgeport I snapped a shot of the Sawtooths.
And that would have been the end of the trip report.
Except in order to be a true jimw trip, more funny stuff needs to happen. Just having the bindings swapped on a steep descent clearly isn't enough.
So I was driving towards the turnoff for Monitor pass, and the fan stopped working, and the "idiot lights" came on. I figured, I'm not an idiot, so I guess I can ignore those. However I did stop because the lack of a fan was bugging me. It was hot. I thought maybe it was a fuse, but they all looked good. Hmm. Oh well, just keep going I guess. A little further down the road, the cassette adapter started acting strange. It kept switching playback direction. Finally I looked at the battery guage and noticed that the voltage was down around 8 volts.
I think this deserves a nice big DOH!
It looked like the alternator had gone bye-bye. Fortunately I realized what was going on before I took the turnoff for Monitor pass. I kept going to the nearest place to stop, which turned out to be this:
You gotta wonder when you see a mini chopper scooter parked out front.
I literally pulled into the parking lot and the car died right there. So, I got to spend the night at the lovely Topaz Lodge and Casino. Did you know that if you rent a room there, you get a free $10 gaming credit? I thought maybe I could win back enough to help pay for the room, let alone however much it was going to cost to get the car fixed... but that idea proved false in about 2 minutes.
The next morning I called to have the car towed to the closest town - Gardnerville. I got some mechanic recommendations from the helpful staff at the casino, but it seemed like everyone else's car had broken down over the weekend, and the first couple places I called were booked. I walked out and took another peek under the hood. I noticed that the belt to the fan and alternator was gone. There were little pieces of it scattered around the engine.
Now, I'm not a car guy. The extent of my knowledge of car service doesn't go much beyond adding gas and oil. But this looked like something I could fix. I mean, how hard could it be? So I had them tow me to the Gardnerville CarQuest.
They had the belt I needed, so I got to work. Oh wait, first I have to take off these other belts. How do I do that? Back into the store to get the Haynes manual for the car (I already had one, but it was at home... all together now - DOH!). The book has a description of how to remove the belts, great. OK, loosen the idler pulley lock nut... huh? Oh, that one. Wait, I don't have the right size socket. Back into the store. Eventually they just opened up a tab for me. Back and forth I went, gradually making progress. I also discovered reason #27 to keep a thermarest and tarp in the back of the car.
After a couple hours I actually had all new belts installed, and didn't even have any extra bolts lying around that I forgot to put back, so I figured I was good to go. I got a jump from one of the guys at the shop, and I'll be damned if the thing didn't start right up, with the voltage guage looking good! I'm sure that was an easy thing to do for anyone who knows more than diddly about cars, but I felt like a total car stud at that point. In my world, that was almost as big an accomplishment as dropping Third Pillar!
I figured I'd take HW 50 back this time, and stay on the more heavily traveled roads just in case I turned out to be not as much of a car stud as I thought. But the thing kept running like a charm. I had some nice views around Tahoe on the way back. Here's a shot of Tallac and The Cross.
Unbelievably, I made it back to Santa Cruz without further incident. And I'm still on a high from the trip!
Joined: Fri May 13, 2005 8:05 am Posts: 1470 Location: 395
Nice work! I still haven't done the 3rd Pillar chute. Sooooo many lines off the plateau. The top of that powerhouse chute is pretty damn steep itself. Impressive job fixing your ride. I probably would have curled up in the fetal position if I tried to fix my own vehicle. That's why I drive a Toyota . Hopefully it snows down there this weekend to cover up some tracks!
Joined: Mon Feb 06, 2006 11:31 pm Posts: 590 Location: ca. - sierra
good info, nice pics! glad you had a good time and made it home - despite car probs. as for the bindings i too have made a run switched - and it is easier to do the more rushed or amped you are. i took a big sharpie and made "F" for front and "R" for rear - sometimes they still end up on wrong but i always check the marks and swap if needed! it is easy to get rushed and not pay attention - but important to have a fast, clean, zen transition!
Joined: Wed Mar 09, 2005 4:15 pm Posts: 2552 Location: san diego CA
Nice Job Cheif, but Im pissed. I should have been there,freaking job, whers the boss . I need to quit. Hey rain up there yestwerday. As we left mammoth snow levels were down to 9000 ft. Should get a foot over 10,000
Joined: Wed Nov 17, 2004 11:42 am Posts: 2392 Location: California
Awesome tr and impressive line. I will visit the plataeu this spring/summer. Great pictures too.
Or perhaps, "Large Sack".
No matter which one it is, I'll vote for Large Sack. BCDs obviously got veto power on anything us groupies propose though.
One of the few pictures that really shows the full breath of a steep chute. I got butterflies in my stomach when I studied it--kinda like when your standing on top of one! Which leads me to:
Too funny. I've done so many stupid things like that. Not to long ago I lost a few pack tools, a pipe, and the goods because I didn't zip my pack up before a downhill. And the time I left my sunglasses, And the time I left my front wheel at home and didn't notice till I got to the trailhead. And the time...
Joined: Fri Nov 19, 2004 8:41 pm Posts: 1619 Location: Santa Cruz, CA
I know this TR wasn't quite as exciting as last years... but then, that was the point. Still plenty damn exciting standing on top of the chute ready to drop in though. Apparently, since I didn't notice the bindings were swapped!
Yeah, I'm going to have to get out the big sharpie and mark the bindings now! Though it won't be an issue for the time being as I'm temporarily going back to the Burton interface. What's really funny is I went back and looked at some of the helmetcam footage, and I got the whole sequence where I was putting the board on, tightening the straps backwards and all (if only I had footage of the car repair! sorry digdug)... I must have been really focused on that first turn. In mtb terms, the closest equivalent I can think of is starting a gnarly descent with your rear shock set up for climbing (i.e. shorter travel, or locked out but still with blow-off) - it works, but feels a little odd.
p420, sorry I missed you this weekend. Sounds like the weather wasn't great anyway, but I still want to see pics from your trip! We'll have to hook up next weekend.
Ecobrad, about that picture, I'll go from left to right:
Purple - I dunno if that goes, but if it does, it would have to be called "Elephant Sack".
Blue - That is actually "Large Sack". The fall line of the upper chute funnels to the cliff on looker's right. Apparently you have to hug the looker's left side in order to sneak into the left-angled exit chute.
Red - That would be "Tripping On My Sack". About halfway up there is a fork off to looker's right that is more doable, except that the entrance is a cliff and you'd have to rappel to get into it. I think this chute may actually be called the "Liberty Chute".
You can get a better look at the blue and red lines in the first plateau pic in the TR. Here's a better pic of the Liberty Chute entrance.
I hope you get up there, it sure is an amazing place. Just don't take any of those lines lightly. There's no easy way down. All the lines off the east side of the plateau get up to 50 degrees or more at the top. I'm not making any judgement one way or the other whether you or anyone else should drop these lines, just trying to prevent any mishaps like I had the first time. I was so focused on the goal that I dropped a line that I shouldn't have at that time. Of the eastern lines, Cocaine chute is probably the "easiest". Here's the entrance:
I would say a rough analogy is that Cocaine chute is similar to Y couloir, but longer. Third Pillar is kinda similar to North Peak chute.
For this season, I would think that only maybe Powerhouse (and Ellery) would still be decent, because it's north-facing. The other ones are probably getting too burnt (even if it snowed last weekend), and/or it's so burnt down low that the exit would be hell.
Here's a view of the chute entrances from on top of the plateau, viewed from Mt. Dana ("C-chute" is also known as Ripper):