Allan Bard sat up straight, put on a serious face, and raised an open hand towards me in a royal gesture worthy of Yul Brenner playing the king of Siam.
“Ram Badoor: strong of back, weak of mind,” he pronounced. The rest of the team chuckled.
Damn, I wish he’d stop saying that. “Doesn’t he realize I’ve got brains as well as brawn?” whined a little voice in the back of my head.
The moniker was derived from what Allan claimed was a common name for Himalayan porters. Not that I would know. I could only dream then, as I do now, of climbing in the Himalaya. For now I was just the low man on the totem pole at the Palisade School of Mountaineering.
My nominal duties were washing dishes and carrying water, but I soon discovered that my true purpose was to hump loads up long, steep hills.
We were about to embark on a special trip arranged for a Midwestern couple who John Fischer, the owner of the Palisade school, hoped would later spring for more elaborate and expensive trips. Out itinerary took us up the South Fork of Big Pine Creek to a camp in the vicinity of Willow Lake. The next day would be spent toiling up to a high camp on the Middle Palisade Glacier. Day three was to be summit day, followed by a ski traverse of the South Fork basin ending at Contact Pass. From there we would ski into the North Fork basin and on to our base camp above Third Lake.
We set out in early afternoon; myself, Allan Bard, John Fischer, and our two guests. As usual, I carried a monster pack. It was a ramshackle affair worthy of any third world human pack animal. My skis were lashed on either side, forming a high-rise superstructure to which everything else was attached. Tents, stoves, food for five, a pair of plastic alpine ski boots, and, among other things, a case of beer were tied precariously between twin towers of metal and plastic. It must have weighed 100 pounds. If I ever lost my balance carrying the thing I was done for. Search and Rescue would find my crushed remains pinned beneath it.
A few hours of careful walking, and I arrived at our camp site. The others were already settling in, and someone had gathered a heaping pile of firewood. In those days, backcountry fires were not only legal, they were feasible. The landscape had yet to be scoured for every last scrap of flammable material, though in places it was pretty thin. I was determined to start lightening my load as soon as possible.
“Anyone want a beer?” I asked. I was prepared to humiliate teetotalers and lightweights into drinking their share.
Fortunately, such draconian measures were not needed. Half the case disappeared that evening, and the rest the following night. Our guests proved to be hearty eaters, which further improved my lot. I liked them more and more with each extra helping of food they consumed.
In the morning, our guests had hangovers that made the overcast sky seem positively bright. Without the slightest conscience, I left them with John and Allan, and ploughed up the interminable snow slope leading to the Middle Pal Glacier. Upon reaching the glacier I had some time to relax and take in my surroundings. The Palisade Crest is a spectacular sight. The first couple hundred feet of the faces have been undercut by ice, forming an imposing barrier to any would-be ascensionist. Above these lower ramparts, complex systems of gullies and arêtes sweep up into breathtaking spires.
I examined the Twilight Pillar route on Norman Clyde Peak. It is an imposing line up the nose of the arête separating the eastern and western halves of the watershed. The route catches the first light in the morning, and waning rays of evening twilight, hence its name. It seemed like a leftover creation from an earlier, more primitive and extravagant era in the history of Earth; a dreamtime, perhaps.
That evening as we cooked dinner and killed the last of the beer John went over the game plan for the next day. We would start before dawn, walking up and around the toe of the buttress that partially divided the glacier. An obscure couloir bypassed the steep cliffs above the glacier, leading to a traverse into the north couloir proper. We would follow this all the way to the summit. With one guest belayed by each of the guides, I was free to scramble alongside as I pleased as long as I stayed close enough to assist if needed. Sounded good to me.
The alarm went off far too early, but excitement overcame lethargy, and I was soon itching to go. The glacier approach went by quickly, and before we knew it we were roping up to start the first gully. It was filled with soft snow; a bit treacherous, but not too bad. The sun was up by now, but we couldn’t see it. The overcast of the previous day had deepened. We could still see the summits, but as we gathered at the top of the gully we discussed the possibility that thunderstorms would develop later. Being the fool that I was, I found this a thrilling possibility.
The north couloir was loose third class for most of its length. We made good time. A couple hundred feet below the summit the temperature dropped and the terrain steepened to class four. Fat snowflakes began to fall. I had been listening for the sound of thunder, but so far hadn’t heard a thing.
The snow fell thicker and faster, and soon began to obscure hand and foot holds. At the moment I gained the crest, scant yards from the summit, a tremendous boom echoed all around us. Everybody froze.
There had been no flash, so we couldn’t tell how far away the strike had been. After several minutes we concluded that it was far enough away to allow us a quick dash to the summit. By that time clouds had descended to envelope us in swirling fog. We scrambled hastily to the top. Our guests signed the register, which I had retrieved from an obscure crevice, and we immediately began our descent.
The route was virtually unrecognizable from when we came up. The husband was starting to get tired and sketched out. Allan and John double teamed him, with one belaying and the other climbing next to him, helping him place his feet and hands. I was assigned the task of belaying his wife down the route.
This was an opportunity for me to let my inexperience shine through, and I made the most of it. Halfway down I got cocky, and started belaying my charge from a standing position. As I stood there paying out rope nonchalantly I noticed John waving frantically and yelling something. “What?” I called out. “Sit down,” he cried, motioning simultaneously with both hands. “Oh,” I mumbled to myself, “Of course. How could I be so stupid?” And I sat down.
We were by that time as thoroughly caked in snow as the route. There was at least four inches of fresh powder covering every non-vertical surface. Despite my heavy woolen mitts, my hands were getting cold. If I lost my footing in the exit gully, I was ready to just let gravity have its way. There wasn’t anything to hit, and I was keen to lose altitude as fast as possible. Mercifully, we warmed up once we were on the glacier and could move continuously.
The next morning we were greeting with the most spectacular sight I have ever had the privilege of seeing in the Sierra. A foot of snow had fallen before the storm cleared out. The dark brown gullies of the previous day were now a dazzling white, and the steep cliffs were dappled with snow. A perfectly clear blue sky soared above it all. We stood outside our tents after breakfast stomping the cold from our feet and gawking.
Then it all started to fall apart. One by one, as the sun warmed the snow, the gullies discharged enormous loads of snow and rock. It would start with a rattle that soon turned to a roar. Our heads would swivel wildly until we located the source. Then we would see the avalanche gather strength until the entire gully was a torrent of rock and ice from top to bottom. When the slide reached the top of the barrier cliff at the bottom it would shoot out into the air and fall in a perfect parabolic arc two hundred feet to the glacier below.
This drama replayed every few minutes, until it seemed almost mundane, hardly worth watching. My Himalayan veteran compadres eventually lost interest and began preparing for the day’s activities, but every time one of those gullies unloaded I was compelled to drop what I was doing and stand transfixed until the last pebble came to rest.
By mid morning our guests had recovered sufficiently from the previous day that we could set out for our grand ski traverse. The odd avalanche still broke the silence, but by the time we reached a notch below the Twilight Pillar the last one had run its course. If it were not for the dozens of debris piles staining the pristine glaciers it would have been difficult to know that anything out of the ordinary had happened.
We began our traverse with a glorious thousand-foot descent to the toe of the Clyde Glacier. That stands out in my mind as the best ski run of my life. There is something about being miles from civilization under a warm sun making turns on perfect corn snow that surpasses even the best powder run.
It was over all too soon. We spent the rest of the day alternating between sweaty uphill slogs and low-angle traversing glides, skating to squeeze every yard of forward progress from our hard-earned altitude. It was hard to imagine, given the enormous load of provisions I carried on day one, but we were pretty much out of food. At a rest break I bemoaned the fact that I had consumed my last energy bar. Allan graciously offered to share his last can of sardines with me. Now, smelly fish turns my stomach at sea level, but at twelve thousand feet I was close to retching at its mere mention. I politely declined, preferring to hang onto what little food remained in my system.
We all somehow managed to endure the exhaustion of both our food and water, reaching Contact Pass by mid afternoon. There was our camp across the valley, perched on a broad bench a few hundred feet above Third Lake. The promised land. A camp stocked by mule with fresh meat, vegetables, pasta, and best of all, ample beer and wine.
Boots clicked into bindings just as quickly as we could manage. The two thousand-foot descent from Contact Pass rates as the second best ski run of my life, primarily because I have never been so keen to reach the bottom of any run. We skimmed the tops of two-foot deep sun cups, barely noticing that our skis rarely had more than two small points of contact with the snow at any time.
We rendezvoused were the snow finally gave out, near the outlet of Third Lake. From there to camp it was every man for himself. I don’t believe I even bothered to take off my pack before popping the top on a cold frosty.
That evening, as we savored a fine meal and watched the sunlight fade from the peaks, it was hard to remember any of our earlier discomfort. But the good fellowship and memories will last a lifetime.