Birch Mountain - Spring Ascent of the South Side
April 30 - May 1, 2016 written by Mihai G
Standing apart for the main Sierra Crest, the imposing bulk of Birch Mountain (called Paokrung or “Mountain of Stone” by the Native-American inhabitants of the region) dominates the view from Highway 395 through the Owens Valley, near the town of Big Pine. Yet this respectable giant, one of the higher peaks in the Palisades region, sees few visitors every year. This is due in part to the challenging drive-in and the steep, trail-less approach. Most ascents are done from the north and east aspects, but the south side also offers excellent opportunities in the spring season to practice snow climbing and camping on a large scale. The first SMC visit to Birch Mountain was organized with this purpose in mind, and also to satisfy peakbagging goals.
A team of 6 experienced climbers was assembled by Event Leader Mihai G (me). The majority came from Southern California, with Keith M, Michelle G and myself carpooling from Los Angeles, while Jeff W drove by himself from San Diego. The family of Serena C and Jeff C joined us from Northern California. Serena and Jeff took Friday off and were the first to arrive; per prior agreement, they headed to the Big Pine Campground next to Glacier Lodge, where the road going west out of Big Pine terminates, and got a site there. I decided to make this our meeting location so that we all had a chance to start acclimatizing (the campground is at approximately 7,800 ft elevation). The LA carpool arrived late on Friday night, while Jeff W showed up Saturday morning, as he had decided to stop and rest along Highway 395 when fatigue overcame him.
We had breakfast and finished packing at the campground before heading back down the road in 3 vehicles. I brought my heavy expedition tent, in which Michelle and Keith took spots in exchange for helping carry parts of it. Serena and Jeff C would share their shelter, while the other Jeff had a one-person tent for himself. It was decided to leave my vehicle somewhere along the road to McMurry Meadows, which is the access road for Birch as well as Red Lake. About a quarter mile from where we turned from Glacier Lodge Road, I parked my car in a pullout and we threw all our gear into Jeff W’s truck, then loaded ourselves and continued south. Serena and Jeff C followed us in a jeep.
The dirt road was in much better shape than I had expected. Research had made it sound like 4WD was imperative past McMurry Meadows, but we found the surface to be well-bladed and easily passable by passenger cars. There are some steeper sections before and after the meadows, but these are not an issue if proper driving maneuvers are employed. At one point we encountered a closed gate, presumably to keep out the cows roaming the fields to the east. The gate was not locked, so we just passed through and left it closed as we found it.
As we approached the drainage of Tinemaha Creek, which is where I was looking to start, I made the first navigational error. (A second error later in the day was made in regards to establishing base camp, but unbeknown at the time, both these mistakes ended up benefitting us). My plan was to take an ill-defined and poorly marked 4WD road that splits off when the main track veers SE and drops. This side road dead-ends somewhere above Tinemaha Creek, and is reported to be very sandy, but has the advantage of avoiding a bunch of elevation loss experienced by the main road. However, without realizing it, we turned on what looked like an abandoned mining road too soon. After bypassing some frighteningly deep and slippery holes full of water, any further progress was blocked by an extremely muddy rut that threatened to take Jeff W’s truck prisoner. Not wanting to risk a disastrous stuck far from help, we parked right there and prepared to head out. It turned out that we had taken an old road towards Fuller Creek, and so our climb began in the drainage of the next creek to the north, not Tinemaha’s. Elevation was about 6,500 ft.
We finally managed to set out around 08:00 after last minute pack adjustments. To the southwest we could see the point where all the creeks between Birch and Tinemaha peaks converge, so we headed in that direction. The first obstacle was to find a way through the wet meadows of Fuller Creek, then to cross the dense alder trees around Fuller Creek itself. Luckily we found a good opening, probably created by animals, which allowed us reach the south side of the creek. Based on sound alone, the creek flowed strongly, but it turned out it was narrow enough to get across using a single stepping stone.
Though initially thinking about staying in a dry drainage, I changed my mind and made for a gentle ridge separating this dry drainage from the main channel of Fuller Creek. We made our way easily over desert terrain consisting mostly of shrubs and low bushes that covered all these lower hills. As the ridge narrowed, we continued rising at a good pace, occasionally taking advantage of animal trails and other openings. It was cross-country hiking the entire time though, so navigation was guided by GPS.
When it became clear Tinemaha Creek was to the south, I made course corrections that brought us on the edge of the ridge looking down on it from the north, at about the 8,500-ft mark. It needs to be mentioned that an elongated bowl with thick vegetation exists here, naturally channeling the runoff from the steep upper slopes above it. The beta indicated that the route was on the south side of the creek, so our next challenge was to descend into the bowl, cross the much stronger Tinemaha Creek, and continue on the other side. To do this, we had to drop down the loose sandy slopes into the bowl, skirt thick stands of alder, then find a crossing point just below a cascading area of the stream, but above the trees.
After some bushwhacking, boulder hopping and contouring, we found a good crossing place, where we also took our first real break of the day. We also refilled on water here, taking advantage of the cool, cleansing flow of the stream. Continuing on, we fought through the vegetation a few more times before finally breaking out into long talus fields at the base of Mount Tinemaha’s rugged north face. It was here we also encountered the first snow fields, and after alternating hiking on snow and rock, we eventually stopped to put on crampons once we could see a continuous line of ascent in the snow.
With everyone properly equipped, we ascended single file, with people taking turns breaking trail. The snow was soft on the surface and consolidated enough underneath for the crampons to bite well. Though unaware at the time, we climbed right on top of the creek for a while, then veered left (southwest) following the line of least resistance. It is here that my second navigational error occurred. Perhaps calling it an error is not fair, but looking at the map shows the main fork of Tinemaha Creek continuing straight due west. However, following this channel would have required going up some very steep rock (which is not at all obvious when looking at the topo), and with everyone tired and not wanting to expend unnecessary effort, we continued following the snowfields SW.
The fields were fairly steep, yet were surmounted without problems by the entire team. When the slope finally leaned back a little, we found ourselves following the shallow drainage of a stream originating in a moraine at the base of the ridge between Mount Prater and Mount Tinemaha. This drainage terminated in a small cirque at the base of Tinemaha’s north face. It was here that we decided to establish base camp, as it featured the best combination of relatively flat ground and good snow coverage. Upon consulting the map it became clear we were south of where I had planned on stopping, with a big hill standing between us and Tinemaha Creek. Since it was late in the day (15:00), all team members agreed to stay where we were and deal with the additional obstacle the next day. Elevation was about 10,350 ft.
We set out to erecting the tents, then to melt snow, eat and rest. Even though we were out of a persistent easterly breeze that had chilled us most of the day, the unstable weather alternating sun and clouds meant that most people opted to have an early dinner, then retired to the shelter of the tents. I held out until about 18:00, when I finished my meal and joined my companions in the now crowded tent. Since getting in and out of the tent required serious effort, not to mention disturbing the other occupants, I kicked back in my sleeping bag and promptly fell asleep. I woke up to briefly consider exiting for what appeared to be a beautiful light show at sunset, but decided against it given the extraction effort. The night passed uneventfully other than inevitable bathroom runs and a few inches of fresh snow.
On Sunday we woke up to clear skies and acceptable temperatures. I was the first one out around 05:00 knowing we had a long day ahead. However, with the usual chores of melting water, making breakfast and getting ready while also trying to stay warm, we didn’t leave for the summit until about 06:30. The first order of business was to overcome the rocky shoulder between our cirque and Tinemaha Creek to the north. We did this by scrambling up solid rock, including some slabs near the top. Once at the top of the shoulder, the rest of the route became clear.
The rock quickly gave way to firm snow, on which we walked for a short while before the angle of the slop steepened. We put on crampons and took out ice axes, then contoured around the west side of the Tinemaha Creek’s bowl. Coverage was good for the most part, but we did have to awkwardly cross a few gullies where the snow had melted, exposing blocky talus underneath. To the north, the route continued up a narrow and steep slope between two vertical buttresses. The left buttress is part of the impressive east ridge of Mount Bolton Brown, while the right one guards the approach to Birch’s south slopes from the main drainage of Tinemaha Creek. Our only way of getting through to the base of the peak was to climb this steep slope into the cirque between Birch and Bolton Brown.
While I had expected the slope to be fully snow covered, it turned out only a very narrow tongue of continuous coverage remained, and it went directly underneath the left buttress. Everything else was either exposed talus or thinly covered talus, perfect for breaking ankles. The team regrouped at the base of the slope, then followed me as I made my across the tongue of snow and into the cirque. I had been keeping an eye on the skies, which by now had clouded over again to the east, where two masses coming from above Birch and Tinemaha respectively were poised to join forces.
We walked over to the base of the largest couloir on Birch’s south slopes and halted for a break. I had been studying the couloirs since I had first noticed them from the earlier scramble, and was certain they all terminated on Birch’s Southwest Ridge. Since the peak’s gentler southeast slopes only had a dusting of snow on top of oceans of talus, the decision to climb a couloir to the ridge, then traverse over to the summit was an easy one to make. The right-hand couloir was the widest and looked to make a beeline straight to the ridge. There were some exposed areas right below the ridge that we couldn’t see in detail, but decided to deal with them when we got there. From our elevation around 11,200 ft, it appeared the couloir would gain about 2000 ft in about a mile to the ridge.
(Writing this with the GPS track in front of me, I see it was actually 2200 in 0.8 miles)
As we moved into the couloir and began gaining altitude, the clouds moved in. They swirled around for the entire time, occasionally revealing fantastic glimpses of the southern Palisades, with the sun playing peek-a-boo. Team members took turn breaking trail up the couloir, first getting past a narrow middle section, then to reach the broken terrain above the couloir and just below the ridge. Because the snow was soft and punching through was inevitable, no one could go for more than 10-15 minutes without changing places. The person in the front kicked steps that all behind used. With a few longer breaks thrown in, I lost all sense of time and wasn’t surprised to find that we still hadn’t topped out 3 hours after starting up the couloir.
While turnaround time was starting to become a consideration, I knew we were close now. The weather remained unstable, but not threatening. I decided to continue. From about 13,000 ft on coverage got thin again, but we managed to always keep a continuous line of ascent through the snow. Eventually we got right under a large cornice signaling the top of the ridge. The cornice was well compacted, so I attacked it determinedly and finally stepped on top of the Southwest Ridge, elevation 13,400 ft.
Incredible vistas unfolded to the north and west, but only for a few minutes before the clouds closed ranks. A noticeable breeze also welcomed us. As the rest of the team made their way up one by one, I was anxious to keep going, so I turned northeast and proceed to break trail up the ridge. The change in snow quality was immediately apparent, with deep wind-tossed powder making the going much tougher. I was sinking in to my calves, and occasionally to the knees.
The roar of several tremendous avalanches coming down the extremely steep east face of Ed Lane Peak to the west served as good reminder that our grace period in this environment was limited. From our top out point on the ridge, we could discern what looked to be the highest point impossibly far away. Though I didn’t want to admit it, I knew that the northeast summit was the true high point, and that looked out of reach as everyone, including myself, seemed to be at their physical limit. Nevertheless, I decided to keep going.
Ahead of us, the ridge rose to a modest bump. I decided to get to that point and reassess. I tried to stay at the edge where talus met snow, but with snow being so soft and powdery I kept punching through repeatedly and had my crampon points hit rock underneath. Walking on boulders with crampons on was not much better. I finally decided to take off the crampons at the top of the bump.
The ridge took a tiny dip, then a steep rise seemed to terminate at a flat top that we couldn’t see. As the rest of the team removed crampons, I heard the first doubts on whether we should keep going or call it a “summit”. The time was late indeed and we had a long descent plus the hike out, but I still felt we had a chance to make it, being less only 100 vertical feet below. I informed the team that I was planning to scramble up the rise and make the final decision at the top of that. Everyone agreed to follow, though a couple of people decided to drop their packs on the bump and pick them up on the way back.
With renewed energy, I headed up the boulders, staying close to the windward edge of the cornice. Occasionally the cornice narrowed, revealing some big drops on the leeward side. We stayed cautiously on rock as much as we could, but I still had to break trail through the snow at points. The mountain seemed endless. Finally, blessedly I stepped on top of the flat summit, and rejoiced to my teammates behind. We were at the top, but not the highest point. The NE summit looked much closer now, and there was no question we would visit it. Only a few hundred feet of gentle ridge separated us from it. When everyone joined me at the SW summit, I could detect indecision as to whether all were willing make this traverse, but without giving them time to reflect, I confidently took off, leaving no choice but to follow.
The walk-up was trivial, though marked by a painful moment when I banged my left kneecap into a rocky protuberance, having taken my eyes off the rock to gauge the distance to the top. Fighting searing pain, I marched to the NE summit, where I yelled at the top of my lungs when I saw the metal cylinder housing the register. Joy was coming out more than pain - we had succeeded on mighty Paokrung. One by one, the rest arrived, a sense of relief palpable on every face. No more uphill. Time was just before 13:00.
We were lucky to enjoy a few minutes of sunshine while we rested, ate, took pictures and signed the register. We were the first to sign in 2016. Unfortunately the clouds never parted enough to experience the glorious views from Birch, but sometimes you can’t have it all. I was deeply grateful for just having the weather hold long enough for us to summit. Though the official elevation is listed at 13,608 ft (NAVD88), my GPS consistently recorded values at 40-50 ft higher, so I am fairly certain the mountain is taller than what the records state. A new survey is in order.
We headed down as soon as possible. It was past 13:30 now and we had more than 7,000 ft of descent ahead of us, back to the cars. Scrambling down the Southwest Ridge was much more straightforward going downhill, though not necessarily easier. We still needed to pay attention to steps, as the snow continued to hide treacherous rocks underneath. We got back to the bump with the packs, collected them and descended back to our cornice. By this time the clouds had moved in for good, the wind picked up and a light but persistent snowfall started.
I urged everyone to put their crampons on as fast as possible, then dropped down, following our previous path. I stopped occasionally to monitor the progress of those above me, and made regular calls to ensure we were all within earshot. As snowfall intensity picked up, so did our pace. Michelle, Jeff W and I separated ourselves from the others by taking big plunge-steps down the couloir. The snow was soft enough to allow that, but it would also ball up or slide repeatedly, leading to some teetering moments.
I noticed the three above were slow, descending step by step in staircase fashion. They didn’t seem as comfortable plunge-stepping down the long slope as the rest of us did. I was expecting this to slow us down as a group considerably, but eventually Keith, Serena and Jeff C decided to try glissading, which worked out much better for them. Jeff C caught up with us just before the narrow gauntlet, then waited for Serena. Michelle and I continued descending rapidly and reached the bottom of the couloir first. We stopped there to regroup and were pleased to see the other four cover a lot distance by butt-sliding their way down. Large snowflakes were falling relentlessly from the white skies, and visibility had dropped. We could still for a few hundred feet, but not much beyond that. Our tracks were getting rapidly covered.
Once everyone was out of the couloir, we proceeded without a break through the cirque and down the slope between the two buttresses. Since many were out of water or very low, and we didn’t want to have to spend time melting back at camp, we took a brief delay under the buttress, where I scampered to a tiny stream coming out of the rock and refilled everyone’s bottles. Well hydrated now, we made quick work of the bowl traverse above Tinemaha Creek, and continued down the shoulder toward our camp in the next drainage. Some had taken off their crampons earlier, I kept mine on until the last tongue of snow ran out, then took them off and followed Keith through the talus down into the drainage and back to camp.
The falling snow didn’t let up, so we broke camp and packed up with a winter wonderland all around. Everyone was anxious to be back to the cars and while we knew the possibility of hiking out in the dark was a real one, we wanted to make sure we were out of the snow and talus fields by then. Despite the heavier loads, this resulted in a quick pace down the drainage, then fast descents down the snowfields back to the vegetation bowl. Everyone chose to glissade, while I stuck to plunge-stepping or boot-skiing, and was pleasantly surprised to see that I was moving almost as fast.
We made quick work of the snowfields; meanwhile the precipitation also stopped, but elevations above 10,000 ft remained socked in and the damp air was chilling rapidly. After consulting the map and doing visual assessments, we decided to make our way to the ascent ridge by crossing Tinemaha Creek higher than on the way in, above the cascade section, then contour on the north side of the bowl until we connected with the ridge without dropping elevation, or having to fight our way through alder stands.
This strategy proved successful and we were back on our old track through desert scrub very fast, though we did have to do some side-hilling and scrambling through snagging bushes and on very sandy and loose terrain. Descent via the ridge was rapid, with Keith setting a strong pace. After some debate on whether to continue following a dry drainage down, Keith and Michelle headed that way, while the rest of us stayed on top of the initial ridge. The drainage group had it much easier and they reached the cars first, with the rest of us arriving soon after. We were at our starting point close to 19:30, having returned before nightfall. We had descended 7,000 ft in under 6 hours, more than half of that with full packs. If the snow hadn’t been soft enough in the couloir and below camp, that would have taken much longer!
The last obstacle was to get through the deep holes full of water before it got completely dark. This was no problem, though Jeff W’s truck did take a beating. We drove the rest of McMurray Meadows road back to my car, which thankfully was still where I had left it, untouched. We said our goodbyes there, congratulated ourselves for the accomplishment once again, and each vehicle proceed on its way home, where my carpool arrived very late on Sunday night.
I am extremely proud to have climbed this outstanding mountain with a very motivated and resilient team. We were lucky with the weather and the conditions, which can never be taken for granted in the Sierras. What an awesome adventure!