Mount Dana (3,981m) via Dana Couloir – 17 May 2014
4.15am and time to boogie. The $9.99 watch I’d bought in Mammoth Lakes beeped surprisingly. Surprisingly, not because I was already awake, but because the day before I couldn’t change the day of the alarm, hence having to change the day of the watch to match the day of the alarm, because my phone battery wouldn’t last a night and day. Huff! That may well have been the most technical part of this climb.
Like a Subaru ninja I left Aspen Campground with Dave in the passenger seat. Dave is a friend Dikko and I made at Clark Canyon campground last year after Dave had attempted the couloir at the end of its season.
Parking at Tioga Lake the moon shone on snowy slopes. The temperature was a balmy 2 degrees Celsius. The prior week there’d been a decent freeze/thaw cycle so I wasn’t too concerned about the couloir condition. My thoughts were more on a forecast of wind and 14 degrees Celsius at 3000m, it would be a race against gusts and mush.
This was the first time I’ve repeated a mountain, knowing what to expect but also not knowing.
In 2013 Dikko and I climbed Dana Couloir in mid June, different weather, different fitness level, different snow pack, different climbing partner. Time to find out!
First fun of the day, creek crossing. I attempted however, as soon as my boot perched on a shopping-bag sized rock, it slipped on the thin algae covering, sucking my confidence downstream. We ventured lower to find another opportunity, this time Dave went first, and with some walking pole ballet crossed easily.
Following the creek felt easier than 2013. This was somewhat perplexing. I was, in my defintion, very unfit. I apologised to my lungs and muscles in advance.
Topping out through the pines we began skirting the frozen lakes. The landscape was peaceful, the moon was setting and the sky was lightening to a magical grey blue hue. We made good time, there was more snow and we’d both navigated this section before.
The moraine was gloriously white with snow. We followed it with a few talus sections to the base of the couloir apron. The evening prior we’d discussed how we’d climb. I had mentally prepared myself to solo, climbing in Canada had put a lot into perspective and I felt more confident in my tools and crampons.
We wore harnesses, a backup in case either felt a need to become protected or bail for whatever reason. We both carried light alpine rock pro, escape tatt, ice screws and I took a snow stake.
Ascending the apron we aimed for a lone rock. Aiming for miniature landmarks made the climb easier, though distances in the couloir maintained deception. The conditions could not have been better, firm snow yet tools and crampons slid in without little effort.
It was a lovely plod of various techniques. Dave opted for French Technique most of the way. I found daggering faster for me and weirdly, less strain on my calves, plus going straight up with two tools felt really stable.
Dave and I climbed alongside each other, chatting at one stage even and having a lot of fun, the conversation ebbing and flowing depending on the degree of the slope. We were careful not to climb directly above/below each other and a good distance for clear communication.
Topping out after about 350m the slope eased and I walked up. We stopped at the same rocks Dikko and I had stopped at 11 months earlier. It was like saying hello to an old friend.
Food for fuel and Advil for altitude and we plugged on, the snow softer on the upper slope. At 3,981m Mount Dana is no slouch for the lungs. Fit or not, it’s likely I’d have maintained the same 10-20 step counts to the top being unacclimatised. The bonus was extra snow coverage, making it less heart-breaking than sliding talus. From the top of the couloir to the summit took about 45 minutes.
The wind, a concern forgotten on the couloir, was now blustery. We celebrated it as a tailwind but soon realised it was more a crosswind. I was blown slightly off balance a couple of times, making it an easy decision to snap the summit and descend. While I cursed the wind for stealing a relaxing view of Mono Basin and Tioga Pass, I also wondered if its chill had kept the snow crust strong enough we wouldn’t post-hole to the top.
From the summit we started down the talus, aiming for a giant cairn for lunch. We passed a hiker who looked tired and surprised to see us. Turned out his four friends were also climbing the couloir, we’d spotted them topping out on our way to the summit. Good to see others out enjoying the super snow conditions.
Sheltered with the giant cairn we relished lunch and Nature Valley bars, watching two backcountry skiers traipse up. I imagined myself on skis at the top of the couloir. Backcountry skiing is so cool I thought, looking dismally at the jolty, step by step decline ahead. That said, the snow, in retrospect, was quite good considering it was now past midday.
Further down Dave and I stopped so I could loosen my boots which I’d forgotten to do at lunch. The party of climbers behind us caught up and we had a friendly chat. We let them go ahead, Dave commenting they could break trail as we’d done all the hard work to the top. I nodded in the wind and tried not to swallow my ponytail whipping around my face.
The descent seemed both shorter and longer than I remembered. Though before I knew it we were refilling water in a similar position to 2013. I held Dave’s bottle under a perfect rocky funnel, the beautiful meltwater gushing a refill.
I felt like a new person being able to guzzle water to the car, rather than sipping conservatively on my Camelbak.
The next section was somewhat forgettable. Snow patches gave way to a giant, boggy, runny hillside. Dave couldn’t believe his Scottish luck, it was just like conditions he’d been happy to avoid in California. I couldn’t help but laugh at this, until my boot was sucked down, centimetres from filling my boot!
We meandered through the trees, always descending and I kept an eye on the bluff we were skirting, recalling we should aim for the Yosemite National Park East Entrance. The last 45 minutes were somewhat frustrating, plugging through wet snow to the knees, following our noses and hoping we’d hit the road.
Then it happened… I gasped and yelled! An American flag waved between the trees, sun shone and opera singers rose from frozen lakes (okay maybe not that last bit but I wouldn’t have been surprised). It was the national park entrance on Tioga Pass! Yipee!
Back on Tioga Pass Road we celebrated with Snickers and strolled to Tioga Lake only ten minutes down the road. From there, a further descent to the Tioga Gas Mart where we felt we’d earned an early dinner. I made contact with Dikko who had flown back from Cyprus while we’d been climbing.
After a burger so big I couldn’t finish it, I felt content, mentally stoked for soloing, happy I climbed with someone new (thanks Dave!) and totally stoked from another dance with Dana.
Thanks to Dave for sharing his photographs for this post!