Bloody Mountain Couloir 3,333m
1600m (5,250 feet) gain (trailhead to summit)
The three passengers dozed north of Bishop as I drove toward Tom’s Place in the Sierra.
Passenger 1: My better half Dikko.
Passenger 2: Our friend Dave from LA.
Passenger 3: Our friend Jess from Australia.
Every time we visited Mammoth Lakes, Dikko had stared at the couloir (snowy gully) from Highway 395. This time we had the chance to become more personal with the view. The plan was to camp Friday night, Saturday walk in to Laurel Lakes and camp, Sunday rise early so Dikko, Dave and I could tackle Bloody Couloir before we all walked out and drove back to LA.
Parking at a trailhead on Sherwin Creek Road we prepared to walk in. Our Subaru lacked the clearance to drive up to Laurel Lakes.
Lacing up my boots I smelt smoke. Glancing around I couldn’t see grey haze or plumes. It smelt different to a bushfire, something less shocking. Jess burst around the back of the wagon, presenting four, apple-cinnamon muffins stabbed with candles.
In the focus of walking in I had temporarily forgotten it was my birthday. A song ensued and I felt embarrassed at the trouble my friends had gone to. In the breeze we huddled around the muffins, Jess re-lit the candles as nature had more puff, I puffed and tried not to blow spit on everyone’s treat. My inner child was disappointed.
The walk in was slow for me. I reflected on life and a year passed, and imagined what the next year could hold. Jess and Dave strode ahead Dikko waited for me as we plodded up the rocky road, noticing large pieces of unavoidable granite ready to punch a Subaru Outback diff and axles. Walking in was the right decision.
Marching up we finally reached Laurel Lakes. Beautiful turquoise pools of fresh mountain water, surrounded with pine and granite in typical Sierra style. We set up camp away from the water among the pines and remnants of campfires with rusty, burned tin cans.
Dikko, Jess and Dave walked up to check out the couloir. I remained in camp, enjoying the relaxation and avoiding an altitude headache. I prepared cups of tea for everyone, only to discover our MSR stove (recently serviced) was being temperamental. Lucky Dave had also bought his stove at my suggestion.
The afternoon and early evening passed quickly, a mixture of observing, exploring the lake and treating water to drink. Dave returned to camp and then Jess. As usual in the mountains, Dikko explored like a crazed Labrador seeking a magic stick. I was impressed with his energy.
Our meal that night was super, couscous, vegetables, and tuna and smoked gouda, accompanied by a Pinot Noir carried up in a water bottle. Dessert was dehydrated ice-cream and a great surprise of lemon drizzle cupcakes made by Dave.
I felt spoiled and suddenly becoming drunk and sugar crazed was more appealing than climbing. Pity we had no more wine, and the sugar high was short-lived. Retiring to sleep I turned over constantly on my thin mat. The wind surged, making the pines sound an ocean constantly washing upon a shore.
I slept lightly; waking to imagine the wind was now a long dragon, rushing in all directions around the camp, whipping its tail through the trees. I waited for the wind to die. It never did.
Our phone alarm chimed and I dressed, a stop at Dave’s tent my first task. He was unimpressed with the wind and mumbled, “Be safe.” Fair enough, I thought, sleeping bags are hard to leave.
Dikko and I agreed to head up, if nothing else to see what the wind and conditions were like on the couloir proper. Reaching the bottom of the snow we zigzagged up the surprisingly hard snow, my crampon points hardly leaving a bite mark. The wind gusted but it wasn’t enough to make us uncomfortable.
At the top of the snowy apron Dikko stopped to rope up, figuring it was easier than stopping later if things became a bit spicier up top. Relaxing on my axe and catching my breath, I gazed to my right, and then heard a strange sound.
I looked back at Dikko casually, only to see his expression had totally changed. Even behind sunglasses I knew his eyes were wide. “That was a &(#*ing rock!” he expleted. “Sh*t!” I replied, suddenly feeling the ant in the alpine feeling.
The rock had flown about three metres above Dikko’s head like a ballistic missile. This not a roly-poly down the mountain rock, or a rock spat from Wolgan Valley cliff that flies out into trees and misses your belay.
Worse thing, the couloir still had 3.5 hours before the sun hit it. In climbing team form, we nodded and said together, “Bail?” The rock fall was early and who knows, the wind may’ve contributed to more missiles than usual.
A mixture of disappointment, relief, anxiety and sadness came over me. We started our descent, crossing below an old mine, aiming for the switchbacks created decades ago. With time on our side, out of the spew of rocks, Dikko investigated the mineshafts and I poked about in the talus like a treasure hunter – large rusted tanks, pieces of rubber pipe, dead trees, bits of skis, crumpled aluminum, Dikko’s “plane wreck” (a Union Carbide truck).
Apparently the mines were for tungsten (what you find in light bulbs) and after some dead-end researching online post-trip, my curiosity for the area’s history has only piqued.
Back at camp Dave and Jess kindly had water on the boil for teas. I was disappointed and considered whether it was the right decision to come down. Many would’ve kept going. Many would’ve been used to zingers. But the couloir narrowed and with a warm day the chances of being hit increased. As Dikko mentioned on the way down, “Only takes one that size to clock you and it’s all over”.
With some perspective, the enjoyment of climbing a couloir seemed insignificant. Packing up in the sunshine I felt okay about the whole experience. That was what it was, an experience. And the weather and landscape I was in couldn’t get much better.
Starting the walk out, down the unforgiving rocky trail, the bottoms of my feet started to burn after only half an hour. Jess and Dave powered ahead, perhaps fuelled by the thought of sitting down for the drive back to LA. Dikko and I wandered, me going into ‘save creaky knees’ mode (I was another year older!)
Soon the dust of a vehicle grappling with rocks and tight turns sounded behind us. Stepping to the upward slope I waited for the driver to pass. He stopped. “You guys want a lift?” a sunny Californian accent hollered from the cab.
Dikko and I looked at each other. A sadistic part of me wanted to walk all the way down as some kind of punishment for not summiting. However, the “you have to drive back to LA yet” part of me won over as we gladly accepted the luxury.
Nick, our friendly driver kindly ferried us down. Instantly we knew he loved the area as much as we did, visiting regularly from LA and always making the most of it. We joked about driving past Jess and Dave, and when we stopped near them they stared somewhat blankly into the windows until recognizing our backpacks in the tray (that’s truck bed for you North Americans!).
On behalf of the four of us, I wouldn’t say the drive is that comfortable. However it likely saved us 1.5 hours of walking, giving us time for a nice coffee in Mammoth Lakes, change of clothes, a stop in Lancaster for dinner, and home by 11pm.
Bloody Mountain isn’t going anywhere, it was great to spend time with Dave and show Jess our Sierra playground. Next time we might head up earlier in the season (when it’ll be expert backcountry skiers flying down instead of rocks). Or maybe one day I might ski it…