Led here originally through the awful circumstances of the death of our mutual friend JB, I can now say that in the shadow of that tragedy, I now know more of this "tribe" to which we all belong, and I am richer for it. And for that, I am eternally grateful. For me, at it's core, this sport has been about relationships; even more so than summits.
Today, I had the priviledge of reaping the benefit of hanging around this site; the opportunity to spend some quality time with Em Knot. I met Em here last winter, shortly before I managed to inflict severe injury upon myself, thereby taking myself out of an extraordinary ice season, and more importantly, out of the joy of adding to a friendship.
In the time since then, Em realized a dream; she moved to this incredible east side of the Range of Light, and is not wasting any time getting after it!
Em responded within minutes to my quest here on the Taco yesterday for a partner, and frankly, it wasn't for climbing. It was for breaking trail up to Horsetail Falls after the monstrous snowfalls over Christmas. She told me she only had half a day, but I felt that at least we could get the approach in, with a slight chance for some tool swinging.
We left the cars at 7:45, with a temperature of 5F. This approach gives one virtually zero warm-up, it's pretty much straight to the business, and at it's steepest right from the start.
We were both in 32" snowshoes, and sinking in 12 to 14 inches. Needless to say, we were sucking O's pretty quick.
Following the trestles approach, there are basically two distinct steps to ascend before leaving the trestles to get over to the Falls. The first step, about 200 meters high, is the steepest, with a slight break of 50 meters before ascending the second step, which is about 100 meters high. Here's Em, breaking trail at the top of the first step:
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This is my 23rd winter here, and I have NEVER seen this amount of snow on the approach to Horsetail! It was consistantly six to eight feet deep on the trestles, which had me rather skeptical about the more avalanche prone traverse above, from the trestles to the Falls.
We made good time, in spite of the difficulty, and stopped often for both a breather and some amazing photo opportunities.
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Near the top of the trestles, the snow began to change drastically from deep powder, to a mixture of wind slab, firm wind pack, and Sastrugi ridges.
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It was here at the top of the trestles that we were treated to a REAL bonus; a huge avalanche had, in recent days, come down off the cliff band above, sweeping down across our route! In all these years, I have NEVER seen this spot go!
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In the shot above, you can see the cliff band that released, from near the two dark trees on the right, all the way across the skyline to the sun/shade line; a distance of about 125 meters! A crown face is slightly visible near the two trees, though the area had almost completely wind-loaded back in.
I was relieved to see that this slide had come down, offering us safer passage, at least for about 60 meters.
Here are some shots of crossing the deposition zone, which was about 25 feet deep.
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Looking up the center of the run-out zone:
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Stunning view of Pap Smear, looming on the wall above us:
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Some beautiful wind-carved flutings amidst the deposition zone:
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Leaving the relative safety of the deposition zone, it was clear we had some dodgy terrain to cover. I felt the avalanche was caused by radiant heating of the cliff band first thing in the morning, causing a section to slide, and creating a sympathetic release in the small bowl where that crown was visible. However, the same cliff band slightly further south, was not getting the sun, and had not slid. We altered our course to avoid being directly in the kill zone, and decided to dig a pit.
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We dug through approximately 4 1/2 feet of snow to reach the ground. We found a very small, 2 inch layer of faceted snow at ground level, followed by a VERY firm layer of about 18 inches, then another firm 12 inch layer, all topped with about an 18 inch layer of powder; our most recent system. Then we set to administering a shovel sheer test.
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We observed three distinct sheers, including one at near climax level.
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I determined the avalanche danger at the vicinity of the pit to be moderate, and in the shadowed, wind-loaded slopes above us, high. We continued on, keeping a safe line away from the danger above.
Here's Em following across the creek, 12 to 14 feet below her under a snow bridge!
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The last 100 meters up to the Falls begins by ascending the gully pictured below; a shallow slot of about 60 feet high, with a tree growing out of it at mid-height. Normally this section is mostly rock; today it was SICK DEEP SNOW! We shed our snowshoes and I started kicking steps.
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The tree is a welcome point of aid, with the crux of the gully about 6 feet above the tree; perhaps 60 degrees and BOTTOMLESS snow. Here's Em 4th classing her way up.
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From the top of the gully, the rest of the approach is pretty simple, and in a normal year, all on smooth rock slab. Today, there was no rock to be found. Once again, I have never seen this much snow on this section, which actually made the climbing MUCH easier, and safer. Here's Em doing a little drafting through that section.
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A few more meters higher, we caught our first glimpse of the Falls.
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Here's Em making the last few steps to the base.
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Just south of the Falls is a prominent gully. Today, this gully was COMPLETELY FILLED IN, and had self-propogated in recent days. Take note of the BLOCKS in the debris field, and the crown face, nearly obscured by spindrift and windslab.
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NEVER seen this kind of action here before! REALLY IMPRESSIVE!!!
Here's a shot of the bottom edge of the Falls, with Pap Smear in the background center, and Tatum's Falls in the gully back and right.
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With Em's limited time today, and the 2 1/2 hours we spent on the approach, we were unfortunately without time for a single pitch of ice. But that was OK by me, as my goal had been reached; to bust open the trail.
Em at the base, wishing for more time.
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Turn around time came all too soon, but we were content with our accomplishment of making it to the ice in the time we had, and safely at that. Rather than try and downclimb the gully, we elected to rap via a tree and the Dulfersitz method.
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Returning on the relative safety of our tracks, we made our way back to some warm sunshine at the trestles, and some much needed calorie intake.
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With some food down-loaded, and after some deeply personal and cathartic conversation (thank-you Em), we turned toward the bottom of the trestles to give the track a final good packing!
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And back at the road after a 5 hour mini adventure, right in my backyard.
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The climbing at Horsetail isn't Lee Vining Canyon in quality, but is WELL WORTH the hike! Just the approach alone can be a joy, as it proved today.
PLEASE BE AWARE that much danger still exists in regard to avalanching, especially between the existing debris field and the creek crossing; about a 200 meter traverse. Of course, as each day goes by, this could either improve or get worse; weather dependent. Feel free to contact me for updates.
Presently, go FULL AVALANCHE READY, with beacons, shovel, probe, and most of all, know how.
With the trail now open (YOUR WELCOME!!!:) expect 45 minutes to an hour for approach time, if one is in decent shape and relatively acclimatized.
I don't know how many times I've done this approach now...countless. But I have to say, I have NEVER had a better time than I did today. Extraordinary, unprecedented conditions were a part of that, but mostly, it was the incredible partner I had in Em.
She is extremely fit, deeply experienced, and most of all, up for anything! Her great attitude and full of life personality, are quite frankly, intoxicating! Do yourself a favor and look Em up here at the Taco, and make yourself a climbing date with her. I promise, you will not be disappointed!
Finally, I'd like to once again offer to anyone that wants to have an eastside adventure, to come on over! We have plenty of room if you want to bivy here, and I am ALWAYS a willing partner, should you need one.
Once again, thank-you Em Knot!