Forums Trip Reports Dana Plateau (how NOT to do it), 5/7/05
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    1421 Posts

    I initially didn’t want to write this trip report. I almost wanted to forget the whole thing. This is because I ended up making a series of questionable decisions, all of which combined to put me into a really sketchy situation where I could have gotten seriously hurt. Fortunately the only injury was to my pride, but it could certainly have been worse. I definitely learned a lot from the experience, and I figured it would be at least therapeutic, if not possibly informative to others, to write about it here. So here you go. How NOT to do a Dana Plateau trip. (This TR is written in a format that kind of parallels my state of mind during the trip; i.e. it starts out positive and lighthearted, and gets serious toward the end. It is probably easy to spot the questionable decisions along the way when viewing from the sidelines like this, and in retrospect I can’t believe I did some of the things I did. But at the time I just missed them. That’s the danger.)


    It’s been almost a month since my last trip, and I’ve really been itching to get out to the eastside to experience the epic conditions that have been reported there. I was planning on doing a trip the prior weekend with Larry and Rod; we were planning to hit Dana Plateau on Sat, then either the Buttermilks (Emerson etc.) or somewhere around Mammoth the next day. But a freak incident with Larry’s knee at the last minute caused us to call off the trip. Fortunately he was OK, but having the expectation of doing the trip gnawed away at me. This past weekend Larry and Rod weren’t available, so I made a halfhearted attempt to find some partners; when none were easily found, I decided to make a solo trip using the same itinerary we had planned for the previous weekend. I was actually looking forward to going solo. There are aspects of doing a trip solo that really appeal to me; these are hard to explain, but those of you who do solo trips know what I’m talking about. Obviously there are risks as well. I feel that when I am solo I tend to be more aware of my decisions, and generally more conservative (though that would not necessarily prove to be the case this time), so I feel fairly comfortable with doing solo trips.

    On Friday evening, I wasn’t able to leave Santa Cruz until about 8 PM. I planned to drive all the way to Lee Vining. I kinda forgot how long this takes. Somewhere past Bridgeport I passed my all-time favorite roadsign:

    I finally pulled into the Mo-mart at about 3:00 AM, whereupon I discovered reason #37 that the Mo-mart rocks – they leave the outside bathroom unlocked 24/7! It sure was nice to have access to a real toilet and running water at that moment. It’s all about the little things… After that I hopped in the back of the car and passed out at about 3:30.

    And then got up 2 1/2 hours later. I don’t know how I managed to get up, but I think the excitement of finally getting to check out Dana Plateau had a lot to do with it. I had seen the area on a trip to Mt. Dana last year, and ever since then I’ve been wanting to come back. The many trip reports on the area that have been posted this year (like this one from bcrider) have just added fuel to the fire. So when I woke up and saw a sunrise over Mono lake in one direction:

    … and the colors of the sunrise reflecting off Dana Plateau in the other direction:

    … I think that added enough adrenaline so that suddenly, I didn’t feel tired anymore. I made a couple PB&J sandwiches and drove up 120 toward the canyon. At this point I got a much better view of the objective:

    (Yeah, I know some of these pictures are very similar to others that have been posted… but you can never have too many pictures of this awesome place! :))

    My planned route was the same as bcrider and friends did in their recent trip. Up the snowfield in the lower right of the photo above, across the flats to the left, and up Cocaine chute. I drove down the powerhouse road a bit to a stream crossing that looked like it was pretty much right below the snowfield, got packed up, and started hiking around 7:30. After a short hike to the bottom of the snowfield I was able to start skinning. The snow was already soft in places, which made the skinning slow at times (slippage). A couple hours later I was at the top of the drainage and the full glory of the plateau and the cirques below it came into view. On the right is Third Pillar and its cirque:

    On the left is Cocaine chute and its cirque:

    As others have said, it really is impossible to capture the full scale of this place in photos. It really is awe-inspiring. Here’s a panorama to try and give a bit better sense of the scale:

    I skinned up the flats into the cirque below Cocaine chute, and was just in awe of being in this grand place that nature had carved out, without anyone else around. It was, um… cool. Pretty soon the angle picked up, and I switched over to Verts. It was pretty much corn at this point, and it was already softening up. Definitely not conditions that allowed for skinning as high as bcrider and friends did in their trip (at least not for my lame-skinning ass). Here’s the view of Mono lake from about halfway up the chute:

    Getting close:

    Midway up I saw a sweet chute connecting into the main chute from lookers left. Anyone know if this one has a name?

    I traversed into the bottom just to check it out, but the snow there was very hard. Overall I was disappointed with the conditions. I was hoping that the snow from the storm a couple days earlier would have left some powder here, but it seems that it either didn’t get that low or had melted away. The corn down lower was pretty nice, but in the upper part of the chute it varied from really soft/baked snow to hardpack. At this point my plan was to top out and check out conditions in the Ripper and Third Pillar chutes. I hoped that they might have better snow since they’re a little more protected.

    When I was near the top of the chute, 4 guys started descending from above.

    Please don’t run me over:

    The first guy down set off a small wet slide, which you can see in the lower right of this photo. That part of the chute had been getting baked.

    I talked to the last guy who came down. They had been staying at TPR, and were on their way out. Apparently this was the last day of the winter season for TPR. This explained the cars I had seen parked at the gate closure on 120.

    Soon after the skiers passed, I topped out on the plateau. What glorious views! I pulled out my sandwiches, and had a bite to eat while taking it all in.

    I had not exactly been a speed demon in getting up there. I guess the lack of sleep and coming from zero elevation probably had something to do with that. The climb took me about 5 1/2 hours, for a bit over 4000 vft. But that wasn’t really on my mind at this point. Now that I was here, I wanted to take in more of the amazing views off the plateau.

    Here’s the entrance to Cocaine chute:

    And here’s the top of the mystery chute I mentioned that connects to climbers left of Cocaine chute. This looks like it would be a great line in good conditions.

    I walked north along the edge of the plateau, taking in the views. It really is an incredible place. Like others have said, it is like being on the edge of the world. You’re walking along this normal flat ground, then suddenly you walk up to the edge and there is 1000 feet of nothing. Quite a trip. Here’s a pano taken from the top of Mt. Dana last year on Memorial day weekend, which shows an overview of the plateau, and the entrances to some of the chutes (the chute labeled “C-chute” on this picture is the same as the Ripper chute):

    Pretty soon I made it over to the top of the Ripper. Looking down, it was intimidating. But it looked doable, and the snow appeared better than what I had seen in the Cocaine chute.

    The crux in this line is the entrance. Once past that, it mellows a bit, then maintains a fairly consistent pitch down to the apron. Here’s the entrance:

    And this is what it looks like walking up to the entrance. Like walking off the end of the world. It looks like no big deal, then all of the sudden it drops off.

    At this point, I decided Ripper was a better descent option than Cocaine chute. I probably should have jumped in right then and there and gotten it while the snow was still good. But for some reason I was not paying close enough attention to the time. I still wanted to check out Third Pillar. So I continued on down the plateau.

    I turned around to get another look at Mt. Dana. Here’s a shot of the ridge on the northwest shoulder of Dana. I marked a couple of nice-looking lines… anyone know if these actually go/have names/have been done?

    Here’s a shot looking into what I *think* is the Liberty chute. It’s between Ripper and Third Pillar. Getting in would involve a rappel to get around a major cornice. Ultra-gnarly.

    I finally made it over to Third Pillar, which took longer than I expected. The views and exposure off the end were incredible!

    Here’s the entrance to the Third Pillar chute. It is seriously steep.

    And this is looking down it from the top:

    The steepness and intensity of the line really don’t come through in the photos. I have a new respect for those that have done this line (or *any* line off the plateau for that matter). The snow in this line actually seemed to be the best of all the chutes. Probing at it with the pole, it seemed to actually hold some powder. Being more north-facing than the other lines, this makes sense. But something about the unrelenting steepness of the line made me feel that Ripper would be more comfortable. I’ll be back.

    As I was contemplating this, I realized that my GPS had fallen off my waist strap. Damn! I figured it must have come off when I took my pack off at the top of Cocaine chute. This was all the more annoying because I had lost another GPS on a previous trip the exact same way. So I was really motivated to go back and take a look. Of course that meant walking back the length of the plateau. No problem I thought, I still had time and I was planning on heading that way to Ripper anyway. It didn’t really register that it was 3:15 PM by now, and the chutes had already moved into the shade…

    As I started back toward Cocaine chute, I ran into a couple more guys who had come from TPR. They had just descended Dana couloir. They said that conditions there were great, powder top to bottom. I was jealous. I guess that extra elevation made all the difference. They asked me how to get to Ellery bowl. Apparently someone was going to meet them at the bottom to give them a lift down the road. Did it occur to me that I could have hooked up with them and then caught a ride? Rhetorical question…

    OK. At this point things started going south in a hurry. I started to seriously bonk. I had been hiking for 8 hours on 2 1/2 hours of sleep, and I was getting tired. I was also getting a headache, which I believe was from the altitude. This always happens to me on the first day of a trip at altitude. I usually need to acclimatize for a day when going over 10k. Somehow I always seem to forget this, and I always get the headache experience on the first day. When will I learn? Also, I hadn’t really noticed the slight downward incline of the plateau as I hiked from south to north, but going back the other way I definitely noticed it, particularly in my sorry state. It was painful just walking back.

    I finally got back to Cocaine chute around 4:15 PM. At this point the chute was completely in the shade. The winds were starting to pick up. And my damn GPS was nowhere to be found. What a waste of time. I already knew the conditions in Cocaine chute sucked, so I headed back to my original target, Ripper. I was at the top around 4:30 PM. It was completely in the shade, and had been for a while. The snow was freezing. I could see the reflection of the frozen layer on top. I poked at the snow. I was not frozen solid but it was damn hard. Remember from the picture above that the crux is the entrance. Crap.

    The situation was deteriorating. I was tired. Hell, I didn’t want to move. The wind was picking up. I tried to consider my options, but I wasn’t thinking completely clearly. I could drop in. I knew I was capable of riding this chute… but in the current conditions, what were the chances that I would lose an edge? And what might happen in that case? A slide for life was not an enticing prospect. On the other hand, the effort required to make turns down the chute seemed like a lot less than other options, which included:

    – Downclimbing (I could do this in Verts, but it would be a lot of effort – BTW no more work IMO than crampons – more work than I wanted to do at that point). I didn’t have an ice axe, but had a Whippet (which I also feel was sufficient for the conditions, but we can have a separate discussion about that). I could have done it but didn’t want to if there was another viable option.

    – Walk to one of the other chutes and descend that way. I knew that Cocaine chute probably wasn’t any better. Third Pillar was probably better snow conditions-wise, but it was seriously steep and I didn’t feel confident that I could keep it together especially after additional walking.

    – Walk to Ellery bowl and descend that. This would be mellower, but I didn’t know what the conditions were there. Then I would have a huge walk down 120 to get back to the car.

    – Take a mellower route out to Tioga lake. Even longer walk to car.

    – Bivy. I had some emergency stuff and could make that work if I had to.

    I probably would have more seriously considered some of these alternatives if I felt that there was absolutely no way I was going to make it down Ripper. But I didn’t feel that way. I felt confident that if I could handle the entrance, I could definitely make the rest of the chute even in the current conditions. It was that entrance that I kept going back and forth about. I already had my board on at this point and had been sitting at the top of the entrance while going over these alternatives in my mind. It *felt* like I could probably hold an edge. I tried to calm down and focus. I must have sat there for half an hour.

    Gradually I convinced myself that I could make the entrance. Finally I stood up and dropped in. My plan was to sideslip the entrance, then turn and stop, and reassess the conditions. So much for that. I started sliding. Not completely out of control, in that I wasn’t speeding up. I had an edge, just not enough of it. I wasn’t slowing down. My hands were sliding on the snow – I wasn’t sliding on my butt, I had an edge in, but it was steep enough that I could be edging and also sliding on my hands. I was heading for a rock. I could actually feel my gloves heating up from the friction of sliding over the icy surface. I knew I could get it under control before the rock. Right?? Come on, come on, COME ON!!!

    Finally I got in under control and stopped. God DAMN! The adrenaline was flowing. That was TOO close.

    At this point I was a little freaked, but I knew I could make it out from here. I had started in heelside; I jumped over to toeside, which I have better control on when riding steep icy stuff. Not to mention being in a better position to self-arrest/self-belay if necessary. I had the Whippet in hand. I’m not sure why I didn’t enter the chute that way. Like I said, I wasn’t thinking completely clearly at that point. Probably something about the fact that it’s harder to see down the fall line when entering toeside, and a thought of what if I caught an edge and started tumbling backwards. Then again, if you’re going heelside, catch an edge, and start tumbling forwards, is that any better?

    Anyway, from there I took zero chances. I stayed toeside and did survival sideslip “turns” till I got out of the danger zone, which meant close to the apron where the snow softened up a bit. Once I got there I was able to open it up and get the hell out of there. I didn’t have much interest in stopping for pictures at this point, but I did manage to snap a couple. Here’s a shot looking back up from the bottom of Ripper around 5 PM. If you look closely, you might see what look like actual “turns”, but don’t be fooled:

    From there out it was easy turns over baked snow that was starting to re-freeze. Even that was no walk in the park given how tired I was at that point.

    Once I got down to the bottom of the drainage, to add insult to injury, I came out at a slightly different spot from where I went in, and ended up walking the wrong way for while before realizing it. When I finally backtracked my way to the car, it was about 6:30 PM. 11 hours later… a damn long day, but I was just happy to be in one piece. Dinner at the Mo-mart is always good, but that night it seemed especially tasty…


    I did a lot of thinking about what had happened afterward. There were a number of questionable choices that I made. Each one of these choices individually might not have been a big deal. But the combination of all of them added up to bad news. Here is a list of some of them:

    – Driving from SC in one shot, and arriving way too late. It is draining to drive for that long, at night, by yourself, and 2 1/2 hours of sleep is just not enough for a long day trip. There is only so far adrenaline can take you. I hate to admit that I’m getting older too…

    – Planning to do way too much. Partially this is just a general tendency of mine. But in particular, with backcountry trips I don’t generally have nearly as much opportunity to go as I’d like (this is only like the 7th bc day I’ve had even in this epic season!). So when I do go, I tend to try to pack as much in as possible. This is a problem for a couple reasons. First, my limited number of days in the bc makes these trips generally take more time/effort than they would for a person who spends an “average” amount of time in the bc, and I don’t usually take that into account. Even though I do a lot of other activities to stay in shape, there is no substitute for actually spending time in the bc. Second, packing the schedule like that doesn’t leave much margin for error if conditions change etc. And it sets you up for disappointment because the likelihood of all the elements of weather, snowpack, etc falling into place just right is not something to count on.

    – Going solo. I don’t necessarily think this is bad, and like I said I am generally more conservative when I’m solo. But in this case having a partner might have at least put a reality check on some of my other decisions.

    – I had an expectation of how the trip was going to be in my head. When the actual reality of the trip did not match, I didn’t adjust my plans accordingly. For example, I topped out later than expected. I should have scratched my plans to check out other chutes on the plateau.

    – I should have forgot about the damn GPS. How much is that worth vs. personal safety? (BTW if anyone finds a Garmin Summit up there or in the top part of Cocaine chute, let me know…)

    After that whole experience, I decided to scrap my original plans for the next day, and instead went to Mammoth for some lift-served. Had a sweeet view of Bloody Mountain on the way in though:

    Normally that would be enough to make me head directly over there, but not today. Someday…

    158 Posts

    hoho … another tr that makes me speechless!
    thx for the pics – they are awesome ❗

    121 Posts

    That’s a great TR in a growing list of inspirational treks. Those basic board survival skills that have allowed you to manage the transition to the “next level” of riding have served you well.

    Thanks for letting us in on it.


    Great write-up, lessons, and well thought out. The pictures are amazing! Solo trips are great, but I definitely do not have the seeds to be dropping couloirs alone. Way to get after it though and come out alright! I swear, everytime I am out in the bc I learn something new or about myself. It is amazing. 😀

    4150 Posts

    Awesome pics jim and an even better read!
    Live and learn. 🙂

    Thanks for sharing!

    2068 Posts

    Great read. I think we’ve all made mistakes out there.

    My sketchiest trip was on a mtb trip in Tahoe a few years ago. I was the default leader of 3 and ended up on a 16 hour adventure. One of my buddies ended up dehydraded and pucking, the other totally bonked and had to be left for a truck pick-up after I road another 8 miles back to camp. The trail was super technical, I remember watching my buddy get tossed over the bars and land HARD on 100% granite. The dudes 6’9″ and 230lbs. Not pretty.

    The whole ride was wayyy to much for a day. 30 something miles of mostly technical singletrack w/ scary stream crossings and near vertical hike-a-bike sections. We didn’t bring enough food or water to be out that long. Thank god we ran into some backpackers who had a pump filter.

    I get the same thing JimW gets in regards to wanting to make the most out of my once a month camp trip adventures.

    76 Posts

    @jimw wrote:

    Gradually I convinced myself that I could make the entrance. Finally I stood up and dropped in. My plan was to sideslip the entrance, then turn and stop, and reassess the conditions. So much for that. I started sliding. Not completely out of control, in that I wasn’t speeding up. I had an edge, just not enough of it. I wasn’t slowing down. My hands were sliding on the snow – I wasn’t sliding on my butt, I had an edge in, but it was steep enough that I could be edging and also sliding on my hands. I was heading for a rock. I could actually feel my gloves heating up from the friction of sliding over the icy surface. I knew I could get it under control before the rock. Right?? Come on, come on, COME ON!!!

    That got my heart racing! Reminded me of the Saturday descent we did a few weeks back at Jepson. I can imagine you might be a little freaked after that!

    I was in Mammoth last weekend. If I had known you were up at Dana, I would’ve driven up and met you.


    61 Posts

    great fukin’ TR. the ones where you learn are the best, and we can all learn from this stuff. thanks for posting.

    1669 Posts

    Nothing like a reality check, eh Jim. Those types of days just make you stronger and you really learn from them.

    I like solo trips for the same reasons you do, but, did you post on the split partners forum looking for partners last weekend? hmmm. 😉

    Next time your partners can’t make it post a thread or PM us Tahoe guys. We’d be stoked to ride with ya. Especially knowing you’d be willing to check out a sketchy line first. 😀

    Jon Dahl
    384 Posts

    Good tr, it reminds me of some of my solo trips, and the reasons I’ve bailed out on a few of ’em.

    88 Posts

    thanks for putting all this up Jim. indeed, solo trips are great, but as you noted, especially when you get super amped up it can be a bad combo. ‘preciate you being so candid, everyone that reads this will take it to heart (head???).

    note to self: try and get on trip with JW – he drops GPS units like bread crumbs 😉

    Dutch MArC_OS
    22 Posts

    Thxs Jim for the great Pics & TR. I learned a lot more from you’re story. Great writing!!! thxs for sharing. Maybe someday we can all ride together.

    Grtx Marc

    Snow Nymph
    22 Posts

    Thanks for posting this trip report.

    124 Posts

    @jimw wrote:

    I started sliding. Not completely out of control, in that I wasn’t speeding up. I had an edge, just not enough of it. I wasn’t slowing down.

    A very uncomfortable sensation I must say. I’m glad you had the edge balance to slow down. It’s so hard to keep that ideal edging angle on firm steeps, a real balancing act. Interesting thought about trying to enter toeside, I could see that being pretty awkward. Heelside, it’s like dipping into a pool. But being able to use the iceaxe would be really nice…

    1421 Posts

    Thanks for the comments guys. As they say, that which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Or something like that.

    SFB/PJ – We’ll definitely have to hook up for a trip sometime. After my original partners couldn’t make it, for some reason I really got the urge to go solo. I don’t know why. Otherwise I would have posted in the partners thread. I think it was my unconscious telling me I need to learn a lesson…

    digdug – I don’t plan on dropping any more GPS units! It might be a while before I replace that one. I think I agree with Eric O over on ttips, who said it was the universe telling me I don’t need to attach numerical coordinates to my location. 🙂 It’s not like I really needed it that day. (Though it might have been useful to avoid hiking the wrong way back to the car at the end…)

    Ecobrad – Sounds like we need to hook up for a mtb ride! 🙂

    121 Posts

    @jimw wrote:

    I think it was my unconscious telling me I need to learn a lesson…

    and then you were able to teach us all…….thanks again.

    2068 Posts

    Sounds like we need to hook up for a mtb ride!

    Sounds good to me. Let’s talk at Saddlebag. I’ve been itchin for a mtb camp trip up near Sonora Pass. I’ve found a shit load of s/t up there. Probably not till August this year. Oh well. We’ll have to board till then. Thanks again for the post.

    1421 Posts

    I’m more of a day trip guy, but it probably wouldn’t take too much convincing to get me out there for a weekend. I’ve ridden one trail in Sonora, the Parrot’s Ferry trail. Great fun, lots of nice jumps. Some pics over here (that’s where my avatar came from). But yeah, that will have to wait till the snow melts! 🙂

    1 Posts

    Thanks for the great TR. We’re doing either Saddlebag-Twin Lakes or Virginia Lakes – Twin Lakes next week, but can’t figure out the Saddlebag access. Can you clue us in since you’ve just been there? How far from 120 closure to the Saddlebag turnout? Any hope of Caltrans or other hitches?


    1421 Posts

    Sounds like 120 is still closed about 3-4 miles in from the junction with 395. That would mean a LONG walk to get to the turnoff to Saddlebag, then another couple miles up that road to the lake, then traversing around the lake… not fun. It would probably be easier to get in there via Lundy Canyon, though I’m not sure how far in that road is open. VA Lakes is a pretty sure bet for easy access though.

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