So there I was, standing atop Stevens Peak on my first ever winter ski mountaineering attempt but I was not reveling in glee as I had expected to. I mean it’s just Stevens Peak. No big deal but I had never before skied to the top of a peak, so it was a milestone for me. So, why was this not feeling good?
Being an avid skier wanting more than what resort skiing has to offer I set out to explore other places I might find satisfaction and excitement on skis. Since none of my skiing friends share this desire and none of my hiking friends ski or board I decided to pursue this activity solo, spending each spring season in the Tioga Pass area hauling my heavy alpine gear up various slopes and chutes that were not too far from the road and limiting my descents to aspects that had seemingly consolidated snow pack. But, alas, that only satisfied for a brief time.
Eventually I bought Randonee gear and decided to go for a real winter ascent and descent. I did not want to attempt this solo, though. I thought it might be wise to go with a group and seeing how I could not assemble a group of my own I started looking for guiding services and finally decided that in lieu of paying actual money to a person or company that I would instead participate in an outing provided by a locally established and reputable outdoors group that provides guided outings at no cost. Great. Experienced guides on familiar terrain for free; what could be better? I might even meet some folks that would turn out to be skiing/climbing buddies.
But standing atop Stevens Peak that day I did not see the party that I started the day with waiting for me. As a matter of fact I didn’t see anyone. Even though my apology for lagging behind had been all worked out in the 2 hours I spent skinning up behind them they were not impatiently waiting for me. I had nobody to apologize to, except myself, perhaps. You see I could be in better shape; the daily tread mill workout and weekly resort skiing is not sufficient training for keeping up with a motivated and experienced group. Damn, they kicked my ass up the hill but I didn’t do everything wrong. Despite not being in “killer” shape I was pretty well prepared. I always carry the 10 essentials, even in my daypack and it has come in handy on more than a few occasions. What’s more, on this day I even carried a blister kit, which I would not need because I was leaving my new Randonee boots behind and using my ancient, comfy alpine boots instead. And, although I have hiked extensively in the Carson Pass area I had never been to Stevens Peak so I studied the topo carefully prior to the outing.
Unfortunately my preparations did not quite actually prepare me. As it turns out my tried and true boots betrayed me, and a blind faith and trust in the guides lead to the decision to leave the topo behind. I was on top of a peak I had never been on before, my map was safe and sound at home on my desk, I had horrendous, open, bleeding blisters the size of quarters on each heel, I was out of water, the wind was picking up, the sun was going down and my party was not where they were supposed to be.
“Well, it’s not like this is the Eiger or something. I know where the roads are and it’s only a three or four mile ski depending on the route. The group couldn’t be too far ahead but where did they drop in? Hell, if drop the wrong bowl I could end up cliffed-out or bush whacking in the dark. Even if I do choose the correct route I could fall and end up spending the night on the mountain. Good thing I brought and extra layer. Shit, I forgot to eat my lunch; no time for that now. Where the hell are they? Screw them, I’ll catch up and when I do I’m gonna let ‘em have a piece of my mind!” I then verbally cursed them, using only the finest four letter words I had collected and saved for just such occasions and that conversation I had with myself went on the whole time I was searching the western ridge for my party’s tracks. There were so many tracks, though, with Stevens being such a popular peak, it was difficult. The snow was so wind affected that I decided the shallow scrapes and scratchy marks were probably the ones I was looking for so I finally made my choice on the descent route.
The west side of the ridge gradually became more and more corniced so I traversed farther to the east end and as the slope eased to a relatively safer pitch I cranked a left turn. Fear, eating at the fringes of my thoughts, uncertainty and doubt looming before me. My edges scraped and chattered across the smooth hard surface and I felt my feet going out from beneath me but with my outstretched left hand I was able gain brief balance and prevent the potential disaster. Going quite a bit faster than I had anticipated and almost falling on turn number one I braced myself for turn number two. Big, fast turn. In powder! Woo-hoo! Bliss and heaven! Huge, fast turns teetering on the outer boundary of control. Wonderful! A third, a fourth, fifth and maybe even a sixth smooth turn followed, and then: more fear, doubt and hatred. Well, maybe not that bad but it was so flat skiing out through the woods I found myself on a roller-coaster ride trying to keep my speed up but in the process having to dodge tree after tree with branch after branch trying desperately to knock me off balance; the bare and dry boughs ripping at my jacket and scratching at my face.
Had I not been left behind and felt a bit more secure about getting to the trailhead for my ride home I would have really enjoyed negotiating my way through the dense trees but it was getting dark and I just wanted to reach the trailhead. Soon after sunset I could hear the faint hum of traffic on the highway and quickly made my way to the trailhead, now following numerous and obvious tracks. The apology I had prepared earlier had turned into something that resembled a lecture and I was ready to deliver it but again I was denied my audience. The trailhead was empty.
So, I figured a fitting end to the day would be a hitch-hike back to civilization. I put my skis on my pack, a song on my lips and started walking north along the road with my left thumb out, thinking, “Wow, what a great day.” I had survived my first winter peak solo ski ascent/descent. I then started to plan the various mountaineering courses I would take and vowed that I would never leave my map at home, never trust strangers the way I had and that whenever I lead a group of any kind, in any sort of conditions I would never make any assumptions about the safety and the location of the group members. I learned a lot that day and looking back, two gruesome blisters were not a lot to pay for it.
"Since none of my skiing friends share this desire and none of my hiking friends ski or board I decided to pursue this activity solo, spending each spring season in the Tioga Pass area hauling my heavy alpine gear up various slopes and chutes that were not too far from the road and limiting my descents to aspects that had seemingly consolidated snow pack."
This sentence generally describes my social calendar for the last few spring/summer seasons! I must admit I would kill for six good backcountry turns.
I 2nd yocal420's sentiments: I can't believe that a group you went out with not only left you before you reached the summit, but left you stranded without a ride home. What the hell is that?! You should most certainly give them hell if you have the chance.
I worked seasonally in yo for like 12 summers and started the same way. Have you checked out jakes? It is really popular and always has a good boot pack straight off the road in the spring. Tallac also has a pretty dependable boot pack in spring too, but is about twice as long. You really should always have a beacon. Its good ettiquette. People shouldn't leave people behind in the backcountry and they should all have beacons and no how to use them. These are basic rules. Even Ellery bowl could bury you in may or june on a good year. In june of 95 an avalanche killed a snow plow driver by teaya lake. The threat is always real.
How irresponsible of whatever group you went with! I do / lead club led group trips and it is the groups responsibility to make sure everyone gets back to the car even if it means your day isn't as fun as you'd like. I agree with Magellan, let the world know who these lousy people are so somebody doesn't get hurt the next time.
Wow! Thanks, for the comments. I was shocked to see my TR on the main page. Although my skills and my nerve were tested a bit on this trip I was reluctant to post due to a feeling of inadequecy about my ability to mount a 'real' mountaineering effort. It may not have been an epic expedition but considering the situation I figured someone might enjoy my story.
To add clarity I did, in fact receive a ride home from the group leaders/guides. On my way to the bus station in South Lake Tahoe one of the group members called me on my cell phone and instructed me to give him my location and to "stay put". The begining of the conversation was particularly ammusing and went something like this: Group member,"This is , where are you?!" Me, "I'm in South Lake, where the hell are you?" Actually, this guy sounded concerned. He was not one of the guides, nor was he one of the folks who subsequently came to collect me and gear.
Funny. One of the guides told me that this was the second time time they "lost" a party member and the second time "...cellular technology came to the rescue." Upon which time I informed him that, despite his efforts, I was never lost. What is also rather telling is the silence of the guides and their lack of any attempt to make anything resembling an appology. They either didn't think it was a big deal or they were not man enough to admit their error(s).
I decided prior to being picked up for the ride back home that I would refrain from giving them hell. I made it out okay, I'm better off for the experience, they suck at guiding and nothing I can do will change that. So, I figured that I would set the example again and be a man about it.
magellan & moneal, email me if you really want to know who I went out with as I do not want make it public nor do I want to involve SP. It's for real and one of the guides is an SP member.
yocal420, I have not checked out any skiing in desolation. I hike all over it in the warmer, drier months but my BC skiing has been limited to Stevens, Red Lake Peak, Round top area, Conness area and, actually Ellery Bowl. Ellery was the first place I ever earned my turns. Anyway, thanks.
pksander, what's up with that? I don't know. They never gave me any sort of explanation and I never asked for one. Thanks, man.
BobSmith, thanks. Stevens is an easy day trip but seeing how it was new to me I guess it did take some guts. For a minute, anyway.
mrwsierra, thanks for the encouragement. See you out there!