Saturday, April 20, 2013

New ski terrain on Sheepshead and McDonald

I took advantage of perfect weather on 4/9/2013 to ski in the Missions, and was rewarded with the best day of the season.  After stashing a bike at the McDonald reservoir trailhead, I spent the night just past the canal crossing on the Ashley lakes road.
The majestic, snow-choked Missions from the summit of McDonald peak.
Early morning: It was cold when I rolled out of bed, and I shivered through an otherwise splendid breakfast of canned raviolli and leftover egg sandwiches before starting up the road by headlamp at a brisk walking pace.  With the normal switchback cutting, I made it to the summer trailhead at first light in just over an hour, and continued up the ridge, traversing onto the southwest face of Sheepshead shortly after sunrise.  The morning was amazing - the air was dead calm, sunrise was gradual and cold, and the Mission mountains cast their jagged shadow far into the green Jocko river valley.  The ascent of the Southwest face was slow, even with ski crampons, and I topped out around 10 am.
Cold, blue morning.
Missions casting a jagged shadow out into the valley.
High spirits on Sheepshead.

Late morning: First up was a ramp/couloir on the south face of Sheepshead which drops directly to Duncan lake.  With good coverage, the run ended up being moderate with a good mix of powder up high, some wind spine skiing, a little scraping around power coated rock slabs, and an apron which was about an hour early for good corn.  Thrilled with the fabulous conditions, I took a short break at Duncan lake before traversing to McDonald peak, which I climbed by the south face.  The climb went quickly, so I spun a quick lap in the vast south face of the highest peak in the Mission mountains.

Skiing the South face of Sheepshead.
Looking back at Sheepshead from the traverse to McDonald.
I skied the ramp just below the left skyline.
Ready to ski the South face of McDonald peak from the summit.
 Afternoon: Back on the summit, I skied the upper Northwest face of McDonald peak before making an awkward traverse through cliffs, aiming for a high shoulder which, according to the map, should grant ski access to the remote McDonald glacier.  Unfortunately, I traversed way too low, and had to break the skins out for a short climb up to the shoulder.  Once on the shoulder, a moderate, powdery McDonald glacier rolled lazily out in front of me.  I took my time skiing the glacier, enjoying the good snow and wild and remote setting.  I skied about 2,000 vertical feet down to a logical stopping point well above Post creek.  The day was heating up rapidly, so I pushed hard back up to the summit of point 8,600, which sits low on the northwest ridge of the peak.

West facing slabs were especially touchy, and I did a lot of ski cutting as I descended the west gully of point 8,600 (the striking gully visible from McDonald reservoir).  I was also somewhat concerned about a big wet slide ripping down the steep west face.  The careful approach paid off, and the skiing was excellent and sustained all the way to the terminal cliffs at the bottom.  I made an exposed traverse left to a small gully just north of the standard McDonald exit gully, which involved a lot of bushwacking and downclimbing trickery.  Fortunately it went.
Looking back up at the McDonald glacier.
Lower on the McDonald glacier.
About to traverse out of the west facing gully at the end of the day.
Scarier-than-it-looks downclimbing.
Early evening: Soon enough, I was skiing, scrambling, and brush bashing in equal proportions on the standard northwest McDonald exit.  The hike down through the forest and across the creek was pleasant, and I jogged the trail out to the car, yelling and clapping almost constantly to alert grizzly bears of my presence.  From the trailhead, a relaxed, sunny evening bike shuttle put me back at the car and happiness in the form of chips, beer, cookies, and dry socks.
Bike shuttle back in the valley.
Thoughts: I was extremely satisfied at how well the ski tour turned out.  Every run was new to me, and every run except the South face of McDonald could very well be a first descent.  The snow was great, the weather was perfect, and the terrain was challenging but still eminently skiable.  After spending so much time pushing at or near race pace, it was satisfying to throttle it back a notch, allow some time for reflection, and generally enjoy the day.  I have wanted to ski each of these runs for so long, and it was rewarding to catch them all in good condition.
The route according to Google Maps.  The route is shown in green.


Total elevation gain (based on Google Earth):  11,300 feet
Trip length: just under 12 hours car to bike.
Accomplices: None
Put in:  Ashley lake road just past the bridge
Take out: McDonald reservoir
Ski equipment:  Dynafit Broad peak skis, TLT speed race bindings, Scarpa Alien boots, OR Ferossi pants, ski crampons, 35L pack which carried boots on the inside (helpful for bushwacking), reservation permit.
Safety gear included:  One whippet pole, cell phone.
Recommended Safety gear excluded:  Bear spray
Sustinance:  Big breakfast.  1 L of water with Perpetum, refilled once (not enough).  Two burly egg/avacado sandwiches, and about 1,500 calories of Gu, energy bars and Snickers bars.
Bear tracks?: NO!
Trailbreaking effort:  Moderate
Avalanche conditions:  Moderate with touchy slabs, especially on west aspects.
Fatigue factor (1-10): 8
Stoke factor (1-10): 9.8
Memories to suppress:  Cold morning at the car, being scared of big wet slides in the final gully, chapped lips and sunburned arms.

Final note:  Snowpacks in the Missions are roughly 100% of average, but one more sustained warm spell will put a lot of lower elevation objectives out of condition, including the Southwest face of Sheepshead, and a skiable exit to McDonald Northwest.  Get it while you can!


  1. Looks awesome, Brian! Surprised you got sunburned though, the number of times I've seen you lather it on...

  2. What were your feelings about a route on the north face? I've looked at it before, but it looked highly commiting and scary.

  3. Ha! Well done on the north route!