PreludeTo the laborer in the sweat of his labor, the raw stuff on his anvil is an adversary to be conquered. So was wilderness an adversary of the pioneer. But to the laborer in repose, able for the moment to cast a philosophical eye on his world, that same raw stuff is something to be loved and cherished, because it gives definition and meaning to his life.
- Aldo Leopold
Not sure ol' Aldo ever skied Tioga.
Linking turn after beautiful turn on skis, going down what is California state highway 120 during the summer for almost 3 hours, was sweet indeed. If it were sweet enough to justify the suffering endured to reach this point was the question of the weekend.
Epic I: Up, Up (& Away?)Two days earlier on Friday found us packing enormous piles of goods for a 3-day backcountry excursion in the parking lot of the famed Whoa Nellie Deli. One of the legendary Lee Vining Market Monoritos annihilated my hunger and pleased my palate. The beauty of the eastern Sierra in the winter, as well as the driving rock/techno fusion of Muse, diverted our attention from the looming pains and strains. Soon we were ready. As Rob turned the ignition, the disappointing clicking of an underpowered starter motor informed us that we had been indulging too liberally. Out of the blue a blonde-haired, bandana-ed savior appeared. “How’s it going, guys?” he inquired as I walked up to his window. “Hey man, we’ve totally got a dead battery- you got starter cables?” was my reply. He eyed my quizzically. “Is your name Dirk?” he asked. At that point recognition flickered. “Yeah,” I said. Before allowed to demonstrate my memory of him, he reminded me of our chance meeting the Memorial Day weekend previous, climbing at the eastern Sierra chosspile of the Alabama Hills. “So where’s your girlfriend, man?” “She’s not really into the ice climbing thing. She’s just hanging out with some girlfriends. I’m going to meet up with some friends,” came the response. Ski generously offered cables and his vehicle’s vital energy, and we greedily accepted, siphoning the juice from his automobile. After a few ‘Have a good weekend,’ ‘Nice seeing you again,’ & ‘Take it easy’s,’ we parted ways.
Immediately before the gate closed to winter traffic, Rob & I made our last-minute preparations before embarking. He has expressed his disapproval of my guilty desires to consume products from evil fast food corporations in the past, the extremity to which he prefers to keep from me in his usual passive aggressive manner (which I of course completely understand). Or maybe I owed him money. Or didn’t clean his windows at the gas station the last time. Whatever the offense, he decided that it was pay-back time. At the same instant I reached into the back of his mini-van to retrieve some items, he swiftly and brutally pulled his skis backward directly into the bridge of my nose. It happened so quickly I didn’t have time to congratulate him for the beautiful simplicity and efficiency of his retribution. Still recovering from a self-inflicted blow to the face from an ice-climbing attempt gone awry 2 weeks prior, I looked in the car mirror and wondered how lucky I’d now been twice in a row (i.e. both eyes were still intact). An unnerving amount of blood was rushing out from my face, however, which required immediate attention. I quickly grabbed a handful of snow, and shaped it to approximate the curvature of my nose. Applying this to my wounded face, it quickly took on a bright reddish stain, sort of like a cherry Slurpee. As good as his attempt was, though, it failed to finish me off. Eventually the bleeding subsided somewhat, & I told Rob that it would be all right, and that we should continue on. A flicker of disappointment quickly crossed his face before he nodded in acquiescence. On with the show!
Looking up at the Tioga Pass Road past the locked gate whence we started was much like watching a Vince Vaughn movie: when it initially starts out it seems tolerable enough, & with enough determination you figure you can get through it; then, as time progresses, you come to realize how bad the acting & the movie in general really are, & wish you had never started it, but since you have, you need to see it through to the bitter end. The first mile or 2 weren’t too bad, the views were nice, and it was great to just be there in the mountains.
Then the flicker of recognition comes when you realize you’re moving at a snail’s pace, the landscape is barely shifting, & you still have another 10 miles to get to the pass.
Oh yes, the pass- Tioga Pass, the highest paved pass in California. At 9,945 ft., it is taller than the highest points of 37 states. Our parked car was approximately 11 miles from there. In retrospect, the very notion that it is possible to drive from Tuolumne Meadows (our destination) to the incomparable Whoa Nellie Deli within half an hour of closing & still make it there on time strikes me as COMPLETELY ludicrous. When I finally staggered to the top of the pass after 18.10 or so, almost 7 hours had elapsed since we’d started. We had both just gotten our asses beaten, and there were still 8 miles to go to the Meadows!
By this point we’d run out of daylight. This was in ways beneficial, as it hid the substantial distance we’d yet to cover. Arriving at the pass shortly after me, Rob looked around him with the steely gaze of one not quite yet defeated. “Well, from what I remember, it’s only another 3 or 4 miles from here, and downhill,” he optimistically declared. He hadn’t noticed the sign he’d just passed in the dark, stating that another 8 miles still remained to Tuolumne Meadows. As he might come in handy for food preparation, water retrieval, or other unforeseen uses, I decided that crushing his soul should wait for another day. “Yeah, man, we’re almost there!”
Once we’d mustered the necessary motivation, we continued. At some point I came to the conclusion that for the softly undulating terrain on which we currently were, our beefy alpine touring skis were like driving a Hummer around in LA- complete overkill. The skins’ propensity for keeping one from sliding backwards barely offset the massive amounts of forward momentum lost by the substantial friction they provide. I longed for my skinny cross country skis to sleekly glide in the tracks that others had foolishly slaved away prior to our arrival to create. As soon as the terrain hinted at having a downward gradient, I immediately took the opportunity to remove the tormenting skins. This was initially beneficial- gravity made its presence felt, and I sped down the hill at a scintillating 3 mph, approximately twice as fast as when we were propelling ourselves forward with our legs. Soon, however, the gradient leveled out, and I was left pushing myself forward primarily with my arms. Through what I later discovered was a combination of remnant skin glue patches on my own skis and a professional wax job that he’d paid for, Rob slid down the slope ahead of me solely under the pull of gravity, as I maddeningly toiled behind, grunting as I heaved my way along. He would graciously wait for me at times, so that my already questionable motivation didn’t completely evaporate. After an interminable amount of time slowly moving past the countless trees in the darkness, Rob gave a cry of delight- he’d recognized a sign that he maintained was at the start of a considerable (at least compared to what we’d been on) increase in the hill gradient. It didn’t come a moment too soon. Sure enough, gravity surely and steadily took control, and my muscular activity started to focus on controlling my direction of travel, not just brutishly pushing myself ahead. I won’t try to pretend that the skiing was good- the hard crust and pre-made tracks made attempts at turns (at least with 60 lb. packs on) an unlikely proposition at best- but compared with the remainder of the “descent” we’d had since the pass it was great. To a degree which words cannot describe, a sense of frenzied excitement and immense relief came over me as I recognized the distinct, triangular shape of Lembert Dome to our right- signaling that we were just about to our destination.
As a final, cruel joke, the trail deteriorated at this point to its worst condition- one ski track would be elevated above the other, requiring a lurching, lop-sided push as one foot lagged the other; one side of the tracks consistently collapsed under ones ski while the other side held firm; and road once again leveled out, necessitating propeling oneself along yet again. In a few minutes, though, it didn’t matter- none of it mattered anymore.
Slightly more than 3 hours after we’d departed the pass, there it stood- the SKI HUT. Our holy grail. Rob’s elated whoop of success from the door dispelled my heretofore lingering fear that it might be locked, leaving us stuck out in the elements without any shelter, as we’d relied on its sanctity from the get-go. The Ski Hut is the building used in the summer for rangers to give customers campsites at the Tuolumne Meadows campground. I’d heard of its being offered to winter travelers in need years ago, providing both shelter from the elements and a place to keep ones food from the thieving local resident mammals and birds. I’d envisioned a stone or concrete floor to put my pad down on, and a box in which I could store my provisions. What presented itself after I staggered down the steps into the structure, though, exceeded my wildest dreams… Five bunk beds, providing sleeping accommodations for 10 people; 2 picnic-specification table/bench combinations, allowing for spreading ones belongings out and allowing for comfortable seating, cooking/water melting, and dining; magazines and a visitor entry log to provide literate patrons with intellectual stimulus and entertainment; and, MOST IMPORTANTLY (insert heavenly chorus of angels here): a WOOD-BURNING STOVE, COMPLETE WITH A FANTASTICALLY LARGE SUPPLY OF WOOD!!!!!!! This last realization almost brought both of us to tears, and the gratefulness we felt towards those who had provided this for weary travelers like us cannot be overstated. These were not simple accommodations for the next 2 nights- this was our home. The ski hut shall henceforth be referred to as The Chalet.
After removing our packs, seating ourselves on the benches, and sinking into an exhausted stupor for a short while, we finally collected ourselves, and began the process of making ourselves at home. Off came the torture chambers (ski boots). On came the down jackets. Rob easily started a fire in the stove, using a pre-made fire set-up provided by some gracious souls before us (we weren’t sure if it was by rangers or previous residents). Snow was melted (there was no way either of us was going to ski the 3 minutes to the river to get water). Dinner was prepared. I’d brought along a multipurpose fluid that could be used to fuel the stove in case we ran out of white gas; as the provided wood alleviated this concern, I proceeded to ingest it orally. Rob supplemented this with beers he’d hauled the 18 miles to The Chalet (the only time I’d approve of a watermelon-flavored beer, but on this trip, it might as well have been Chimay). Dinner was consumed. Weary bodies came back to life. The evening was grand. The 10:15 it had taken to achieve this goal almost seemed worth it. Shortly after satiating ourselves with a hot meal, we both collapsed into our respective sleeping bags & slept the sleep of the dead.
Epic II: What to do with ourselves?
We awoke the next morning, and needed something to do after coming all this way. After collecting our belongings for a short day trip, we set off. We skied past snow-covered Tuolumne Meadows, soaking in the winter high country scenery.
We eventually turned left into the forest. Despite the greater degree of work associated with this decision, the views couldn’t be beat, and the increased isolation was actually pleasant. As we gained in elevation, the views became even better. Not only were we able to make out numerous snow-covered peaks, valleys, and so forth, it became obvious to us how far away from the pass we were that we’d passed (no pun intended) the previous evening. After a short dejected dialogue, we continued on our way.
At one point, we found ourselves below a large mass of rock. Rob muttered something about ‘I’m going to climb this thing with or without you.’ After pondering briefly, it made sense that we might as well use the strange, heavy metallic devices we’d been carrying for over 20 miles for something. Before I knew it, he was clambering up the slope, as I stood there with a rope in my hands. Before long, we were halfway up the monolith. I had somehow become wedged in a body-width constriction, and for some untold reason, it seemed important at the time to go upwards instead of down. I still can’t explain why this is the case. The cavity struck me as oddly familiar, and eventually I was above it. This had required a substantial exertion. Shortly after, Rob proceeded to follow the same course, and it struck me that the temperature wasn’t very warm. In fact, it was practically cold! By this point, though, we had somehow come to the conclusion that it was very important to stand atop this large stone before returning to The Chalet. We repeated the procedure of one of us gaining a position of higher elevation before the other would repeat/follow in the path of the former.
Presently we found ourselves atop the formation. It had gotten dark, and the 50 mph gusts that had been buffeting us since halfway up the hillside began to become vaguely vexing, not to mention making communication difficult. It was also irritating that the water in the tube connecting me to my water supply I’d expressly brought along to stay hydrated was freezing, hindering attempts at drinking. Fortunately I had in my possession a down jacket, as well as a piece of fabric that wrapped around my head nearly perfectly, allowing untold amounts of heat to not be blown away in the breeze. Looking around briefly, we both concluded that we would much rather be back at The Chalet with food and a fire, faithful sleeping bags awaiting use.
Throughout the course of the day, we had unfortunately somehow managed to INCREASE the distance from our destination! After putting on our ski boots and making sundry small adjustments, we were off into the woods. For some time, this portion of the evening was extremely pleasurable- whooshing between the trees in glistening virgin snow was quite intoxicating. Unfortunately we at some point somehow found ourselves in the drainage we’d sought to avoid- steep walls surrounded us, we were forced to cross snow bridges over the cold gushing stream, and numerous abrupt undulations made for unpleasant skiing. After a number of setbacks and a greater than desired number of unplanned falls into the snow, I made the decision to ascend the slope to our right. We did this, and to our relief, found the same tracks we’d used to get ourselves up the same slope earlier in the day.
More or less following these tracks downward, we eventually arrived back at the road. This was an exciting moment, and the prospect of comfort hung before us tantalizingly, like a banana before a monkey. Rob decided to put on his skins to (minimally) aid his forward progress, while I chose to go without. ‘See you back at the hut, bro,’ I said cheerfully, and off I went (I didn’t feel like spending the time to put skins on & I don’t really like them anyway on flat ground). I realized at a certain point that an artificial light source was unnecessary under the light of the big, bright moon, and proceeded without unless I was under the cover of trees. This was beautiful and serene, and the rants of that Muir character began to almost make sense.
Epic III: What Goes Up, Must Come DownWhile we’d originally planned an early departure time, given the long previous day(s) & the late night, neither of us was particularly keen on leaping out of bed at the crack of dawn, although we knew it would put us back at our ride later. Once we finally got up, we got busy fairly quickly, though. The time was 9.50 when we left The Chalet. I took a last melancholy glance at the place before setting off. There is a good chance that this would be the last time I’d see the place in winter. The expense required for the luxury of the experience was certainly rich for my blood.
As anticipated, the initial struggle up the intimidating slope that brought us to the chalet 2 nights prior was the physically most difficult part of the day. The size of the hill, combined with the (lack of) speed we were both going, was a difficult blow to take.
Somehow we both survived this ordeal, and then it was trudging across almost flat space, surrounded by trees, for seemingly ever. Particularly annoying was the ever present impediment of one ski track being slightly higher than the other for long stretches on end.
Eventually this section of the journey came to an end as well, and we started to catch glimpses of Mt.s Dana and Gibbs up ahead, & Mammoth Peak to our right. This was at first encouraging, before we realized that Mammoth Peak is at least TWICE THE FUCKING SIZE OF KILIMANJARO. You catch a glimpse of the thing through the trees. Twenty minutes later you see it again- the view hasn’t changed. Half an hour later, it’s still there, on your right, watching you, laughing at you, mocking you… A couple of rest breaks, and much sweat & tears, later, though, and we managed in some way to FINALLY get past the thing. Ugh.
After a half-hour break, we started off. The newfound speed we had on our sides now (& had earned) was almost unbelievable. Neither on the first day nor at any earlier part of this day had we experienced anything like it. It was like catching a free ride (if you forget we’d been earning it all day)- “Wooooooooeeeeeeeeee!!!” We enjoyed a spectacular sunset around Tioga Pass Resort (also the one part of the journey from the pass where it was flat). Shortly after that it got dark, but from then on, we were cruising. The only speed bumps we encountered were 2 traversey sections where snow slopes went to the edge of the road (i.e. if you started to slide, you’d continue to until the bottom of Lee Vining Canyon), and a few rock- slide impacted areas where we both probably put some massive gouges in our skis. All part of the fun. Oh yeah, and near the bottom, where we had to make a pavement traverse (connecting 2 snow systems) on the skis. Besides that, it was cruiser the whole way. What joy after such agony. When we reached the gate, it was 19.15- on the way down from Tioga Pass it had taken us barely over 2 ½ hours to get down (vs. 7 hours going up!!!!).I most certainly will NEVER view that endless road the same way again, & have a newfound appreciation for the miracle that is vehicular mobility.
Putting all of our stuff in the van, we were ready to go. Well, almost ready. Rob turned the key, and a ‘CHUG-chug-click-click-click-click’ reverberated through the black night. Shit. Of course the battery would go dead right as we wanted to go home! Fortunately it was still all downhill to the ranger station (we had to push some of the way to overcome friction), & when we got there… whew, a gracious ranger (Lisa?) offered to give us a ride.
Mad props out to the generous rangers out there, by the way!!!
Pulling into Oakland at 2.30 in the morning, we both concurred that each day of our little excursion qualified as an epic. Now why did we go again?