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Ice climbing in California

Q.-Tuan Luong © 1995

Most of the information which is here is what I managed to learn from other climbers with more patience or willing to drive than me, or from the few printed sources of information.

Alpine ice

The High Sierra, on its East side, has a number of mountain gullies: U-Notch and V-Notch couloirs, Left Mendel Couloir (aka Ice 9), Mendenhall Couloir, North Couloir on North Peak.... Many of these, and many others, are mentioned in "Sierra Classics: 100 best climbs in the High Sierra", by John Moynier and Claude Fiddler (1993) ISBN 0934641609 This highly recommended guidebook is more focussed on climbing than "The High Sierra: Peaks, Passes, and Trails" by R.J Secor. The later has a more extensive coverage. Most of the routes are about 300m (1000ft) long, and of moderate to steep inclination, with the exception of Ice Nine, on Mendel, which has very steep sections. A good source of information about conditions is Wilson Eastside Sports in Bishop (619) 873-7520.

According to Bob Harrington (bobh@hwr.arizona.edu), author of some first ascent of High Sierra gullies, most Sierra ice climbing (the longer routes) are late summer routes (Robinson's Slippery game guide in a late Ascent), unlike most of the ranges. In winter/spring, you would not see ice, but likely (smooth) rock covered by soft snow. The snow is moist enough that it sticks to the ice and eventually gets covered (and replenished for the next summer). Also, rock fall tends to be worse in the spring and early summer, when there is snowmelt available for melt-freeze weathering.

This might be due to the prevailing climate in the Sierra being relatively dry for much of the year. Perrenially seeping water is pretty rare -- the Lee Vining and June Lake ice flows exist only because of leaks in power generating water conduits, which suggests that air temps get sufficiently low for good ice conditions, but the hydrologic conditions are rarely favorable.

Water ice

The only printed source of information is from Steve Tucker who authored "California Ice," a mini-guide published about two years ago in Rock and Ice. Steve Tucker and Amos Clifford were preparing a guidebook, but I have not followed what happened.

The most reliable site, Lee Vining, is a long drive from the main urban centers. Although it does not offer really difficult routes, it would be certainly worth a visit if you don't mind the drive (suggestion: combine with an other activity in the Eastern Sierras, like sport-climbing, skiing, or hot springs).

More interesting climbs than in Lee Vining form from time to time, but they will probably not stay in for more than a week, so if you are not a local, they might be difficult to catch. Note also that in 1996 a climber was killed by falling ice in the "reliable" Lee Vining canyon. Although Jeff Lowe has written (a long time ago) that "the beauty of [ice] climbing in Muir's range of light can't be surpassed", the truth is that there isn't a lot of ice here, particularly steep ice. I believe that an area like the Canadian Rockies offer possibilities at all levels which are considerably better. Note that I do not imply that ice climbing in California is not worth it for you. Personally I've sort of given up.

An alternative to consider, especially if you are an experienced climber, is to fly out of state. For instance, from the SF Bay Area, it takes far less time to fly to SLC Utah ($100) and drive to Provo Canyon than to drive to Lee Vining, and about the same time to fly to Calgary ($200) and drive to the start of the Terminator approach near Banff (7h). Which of the climb would you rather do ? Note that the weather in Utah is not cold consistently. More reliable conditions are found in Colorado and in the Canadian Rockies. If you buy your ticket well in advance to get good rates, that might be the better choice.

Lee Vining

This is the major ice-climbing site in California, located East of Yosemite. It is quite crowded, with all the consequences (falling ice, hacked-up routes, waiting lines...). Ice forms consistenly here, thanks to a leak in a water conduit. The approach is 45 mn. There are three 2-pitch routes on the left, quite close to each other, which are about 4/4+, and a continuous flow on the right, which is one-pitch high and less steep (3). There is an easy walk-out to the right for all the climbs. Because of that, all the climbs can be easily top-roped, which makes this site a very good practice area. Some variations might form occasionnally. For this site and the following, Wilson Eastside Sports in Bishop (619) 873-7520 generally knows the conditions.

June Lake

2 pitches of moderate (2/3) ice, also generated by a leak in a water conduit. Forms also quite consistently.

Lake Tahoe area

See the guidebook "Climber's guide to Tahoe rock", pp 245-250, by Mike Carville. There are a number of areas listed. The bottom line seems to be that lots of them have ice which is short (half a pitch or less) or not steep, or often mixed, or rarely formed, or, in most cases, a combination of the above. The exception seems to be Cold Stream Canyon near Donner Pass, which requires a 3-4 hour ski approach for six lines ranging from 50 to 70 meters and grade 3-5.

Daniel Engovatov cheked Eagle Creek, and found that it was not high enough to be interesting. One of the best climbs in this area would be Eeyore's Fantasy at Lover's Leap. It is 3 or 4 pitches long, and forms every 5 years or so, as a rather thin and mixed climb. The first pitch is usually the technical crux at 4+R. It can be bypassed by traversing a ledge, to get to the following pitches which form in a large chimney. In March 1996, following a week of intense cold, Eeyore's Fantasy at Lover's Leap formed, and had been climbed by several parties over a week-end. The following Saturday, after a week which had been moderately warm, we drove to the Leap. After four hours spent in the car and one hour and half of approach, we found out that the first pitch was not climbable. It had considerably melt out within five days leaving the ice extremely thin with no adhesion. This unfortunately is very typical of California ice. I have had a similar experience during the same winter in Yosemite Valley.

In the winter 97/98, someone farmed ice near Donner Pass, producing excellent lines easily accessed, and I heard rummors that in 98/99 Eeyore's Fantasy was in (gardened) all the way to the top. Alpenglow sports (916-583-6917) in Tahoe City is generally a good source of information for current conditions in this area.

Tokopah Valley, Sequoia NP

Forms consistenly in the late season. Some climbs are threatened by avalanche hazard. Park at Lodgepole and go up the valley a mile or so. A range of difficulty and lengths. The most interesting climb is Moonage Daydream, which follows the North Gully of the Watchtower for 6 ill-defined pitches. My friends found it to be the best ice climb they did in California. Just down the canyon is Hoppys Favorite, about WI4, 400 feet. See "The General's Highway of Sequoia National Park: A Climber's Guide" by Amos Clifford, also published as a Rock and Ice Mini-Guide (issue number 21 ?). Although they don't climb, the rangers of Sequoia National Park (try 209 565 3135 and 209 335 2856) have an idea of the weather.

Yosemite Valley

The Valley has supposedly very interesting climbs. The only printed source of information is an article in Rock and Ice, number 35, 2/89. For personal information, it is recommended to go and see Walt Shipley in the tent 4 at the SAR site on camp 4. The next best thing to do is to watch the temperature, and ask the climbing store. The climbs are all on the South side: This looks good, doesn't it ? However, the catch is that if you are not a local, your chances are extremely slim. The valley is too low to maintain reliable conditions, and according to the locals, the climb have never been in condition more than a week. They tend to collapse very fast (often a couple of days after you climb them at most), and even when they are formed, the climbing is on funky ice, often thin, mixed, and rotten. A week long of cold is required for things to form up, but also there must be a special pattern of inversion.

Detailled information

Lee Vining and June Lake, by Bob Harrington (bobh@hwr.arizona.edu)

From the town of Lee Vining (e. of Tuolumne Meadows), head west up the Tioga Pass road (US hwy 120) a few miles to where the road is gated closed for the winter (right at the start of a long uphill grade). Make a left (s.) onto a road leading to a campground, and then an immediate right, so you are going west up the bottom of Lee Vining Canyon. Follow this road to its end at the power station at the head of the canyon and park (out of the way of the power stations facilities). Walk through the power station bearing right, and cross the creek (no doubt a trail will be stomped out by other climbers), then head west along the north side of the creek, and then south as the canyon heads that way and there you are. At this point, you are in the Canyon not to far below Ellery Lake, but far below highway 120. The three main climbs are on the left side-- right hand being easiest and shortest, the left hand being longest and hardest -- I don't know anything about rating winter ice, but the left hand route is two pitches, and involves sections of maybe 20 or thirty feet of vertical ice; the center route is one pitch with maybe 20 feet of 70-80 degree if you do it on the left, easier on the right; the right hand involves maybe 15-20 feet of 60-70 degree (these pitches are longer-- these are the lengths of the cruxes). I'm working from ten year old memories here, so don't expect a lot of precision in these descriptions. To the left of the left hand route, there are some thin mixed things that sometime form up -- the longest one I did was three or four pitches of scary mixed stuff. There's also a fun 50 degree 200 foot flow above where the main routes end.

June Lake: Take the *southern* entrance to the June Lake Loop and head through the town of June Lake and continue on a few miles to where there is a power station on the left and park near here. There are two areas: one is a cliff right next to the road a few hundred meters further down the road which is closed at this point for the winter. I don't exactly remember where the cliff is in relation to where you park and where the winter closure is, but it's right off the road, so if you find the power station, you'll find the cliff. Doesn't always form very well. The other (better?) area at June is several hundred meters above and west of the power station: walk through the right (north) side of the power station to a tramway that goes steeply up the hill above and follow the tram several hundred meters up until it looks like you're at the right level to traverse left (south) over to the climb -- two pitchs with a bulge or two of 60-70 degree stuff.

Moonanage Daydream, Tokopah, by Tom Lambert (tom@lambert.net)

With Chris Dube, another displaced New Englander, I went to Sequoia to do Moonage Daydream (aka North Gully of the Watchtower). I was sure that we wouldn't climb given the high temperatures of the week before. I was as surprised as anyone to find the route in climbable condition. Since then, the temperatures have been lower, and the forecast is for low temperatures through the weekend, so if you're looking for an ice climb, head out to this California classic before it's too late. It's not difficult (guidebook says grade 4 ice), it's not long (it took us about 2-2.5 hours of actual climbing), but it is well worth it - it feels a lot like a moderate "gulotte" climb in the Alps.

The climb is described in the Kings Canyon/Sequoia guidebook in the section on Tokopah Falls. In brief, though, here's more beta than you'll get there.

Go to Fresno, take Hwy 180 to Hwy 198 to the Lodgepole campground (you'll get a map at the hwy 180 entrance to the park. It took us about 4.25 hours from San Jose to the parking lot.

From the parking lot, the snow is currently transformed and crusty and you do not need skis (which simplifies things). About 200' past where the end of the parking lot, cross the river on the bridge. Follow the river upstream on the Tokopah Falls trail. After about 45 mins (?? 1.5 miles), the climb will come into view. You get a good view from a footbridge, and just after the next footbridge, turn right and cross the river on a downed tree. Another 15-20 mins gets you to the base of the climb.

The climb itself consists of 6 pitches accd. to the guidebook, but that's rather misleading. The first pitch was very thin ice plastered on rock. I suspect that it will be a bit thicker given recent and forecast temperatures, but this will probably still involve some rock/mixed/wet climbing. Bring a couple of Lost Arrows for this pitch. This is the most difficult climbing, though it's never vertical, so you can take a deliberate approach.

Pitch two takes you up a relatively steep pillar, with about 40(??) feet of steep climbing, to an easy groove and snow slope. I believe the guidebook says this is grade 4, which sounds close enough. There is a possible belay on the right but once up on the snow slope, I traversed over to a good crack on the left that took small stoppers and tricams.

After that you have an easy snow slope for about a full rope-length, an easy ice step and snow slope (another rope length) and a final section of easy ice (another rope length). We simul-climbed all of this, which made it a calf-burning aerobic exercise, but lots of fun too. There's a narrow gully off to the right that looked pretty good, but we wanted to do the classic route... just to be conformists I guess.

From there, walk up to the ridge, and follow the ridge down until you are past the cliff bands and can descend to the valley floor, cross the river and hike back to the car. We climbed with packs and carried everything with us so we would not have to return to the base, and I would heartily recommend that (this is also why you are better off not taking skis).

It's a beautiful setting and an aesthetic route on an impressive formation. Depending on conditions more difficult variations may be possible. It took us 6 hours from car to car, the majority of which was devoted to the approach and descent.

Camping at Lodgepole is free in the winter. There are some other minor climbs at the head of the valley (we did not do these - they don't look too interesting, but if you want to make a weekend of it, you could fiddle around there).

Check also Mike Sarmiento's report on Tokopah

Reader's comments

I just read your new CA Ice page, and was surprised to learn that the climbs in Lee Vining are formed by leakage from a man-made duct! Do you suppose that once this knowledge is widely spread, someone will go up there with a Bosch and drill some more ''leaks''? (:-D)

Also, RE: The Widow''s Tears in Yosemite Valley - There is a write-up about this climb in the latest Yosemite guide, "Free Climbs of Yosemite Valley" (Chockstone Press). Also also, I read somewhere (can''t remember) that Ililouette Falls forms up nicely and is one of the best to climb in The Valley.

And, since it''s close to my home town (Los Angeles, yech!), I''ll also mention Williamson Rock in the San Gabriel Mtns. on Angeles Crest Hwy (CA-2). There is a gully which separates the main Williamson formation from the smaller spires just north. This gully is where the emergency gear is stashed. Just below the emergency gear, the gully ends (bottomless!!) and a year-round seep runs down the face here. This seep sometimes forms some beautiful water ice. There are also shorter ''practice''-sized ice flows in the bottom of the main canyon just northeast of Williamson Rock.

Contributed by Tom Kenney (tkenney@bearcomp.com) on October 24, 1997.
Winter 1997, saw some of the best conditions in years at Lee Vining. There is the right flow which is usually the most consistent ice in the canyon. In the center there is a flow that was big and fat all year. For the first time in years, the far left flow was also in yielding two different lines about 125 meters long of relatively steep, mixed climbing. The right side of the left flow was more heavily traveled with a decent belay in an alcove. Good rock pro could be had the entire line including during those scary transition points from rock to ice or vice a versa. The far left side of the left flow (heading up the obvious right facing corner) had practically no traffic and required a little inprovisation to find a good belay. Its doubtful that either will be in again this year, but if we''re lucky ... remember to bring a few pins!
Contributed by joel koury (jckoury@aol.com) on January 26, 1998.
Feb 10, 98 Ice climbing at Lee Vinning. I was stunned to find that Mono County no longer plans to keep the road open into the Lee Vinning power station.

In fact the road is closed NOW!

The approach now starts at the Tioga Pass road block. This means you now need skis and two more hours for the approach.

Contributed by Bill Wagener (Wags) (dbcooper@telis.org) on February 10, 1998.
there is also man made ice climbing on donner summit near tahoe. These climbs are formed by diverting some creek water to the nearby popular crag snowshed wall. Directions on how to get to this wall is in the book "Tahoe Rock."
anonymously contributed on October 15, 1998.
Anyway, if anyone is looking for ice climbing beta in Lee Vining as of Jan 31, 1999, the Left wall is in condition although some parts are a little thin. Central and Right walls are in condition. Left wall is 1.5 to 2 pitches, Central and Right are 1 pitch and can be top roped. Hike in is about 1/2 mile and very reasonable - but watch for avalanche danger as this past storm has probably loaded some of the slopes above the canyon.

You can stay at Murphy's Inn on Hwy 395 in Lee Vining for a "climber's discount" of $38 plus tax ($41.32 total) per night per room. Double twin beds go quick - so bring a sleeping bag and pad to crash on the floor. There is enough space in each room to dry all your gear and the showers are nice and big. Rooms are heated but the heater drys out the air so drink water throughout the night to stay hydrated. Oh yeah, you even get free coffee in the morning. Nicely's Restaurant is 50 meters away on 4th St and Hwy 395. It is the only restaurant in town open during the winter. 7am-8pm. Good breakfasts and dinners for about $5 - $10. Owner is very friendly and can give you info on road conditions, weather, etc. She even filled up our thermos' with hot water for the day! Drive took us less than 6 hours up (and I was driving the speed limit!) but 7 hours back due to the storm/chain requirements and traffic. From SF, take I-80 east to US-50 east over the pass to South Lake Tahoe. Right on CA-Hwy 89 south over another pass then left on CA-Hwy 88 east. Take 88 to the town of Minden the right on US-395 south to Lee Vining in the Mono Lake basin. Take CA-Hwy 120 east just until the gates close the road. Take a left onto the Southern CA Edison utility road and follow it all the way up to the power plant. Do not park or camp in the power plant area as this might jeopardize access. Park close to the port-a-potties instead. Hike up behind the power plant westward into the canyon. If you are lucky, someone else has post-holed a trail up and you just follow the bread crumbs. Bring food, water, a headlamp and enough gear to lead or set up TR anchors. Some climbers brought shovels to set up comfy belay stations on the ground. Pack out what you pack in.

For up to date conditions and other beta on the Eastern Sierra, check out this killer web site:

Gordie's Ramblings in the High Sierra


Contributed by Mike Sarmiento (msarmiento@worldwrapps.com) on February 1, 1999.

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