Desolation in Winter.
“Things often look their darkest just before it gets pitch black”
After 1 p.m., Frank Tarzannin and I strap on skis after a half-day drive to Tahoe. The sun blasts down as we skin up the hollow slopes: 4 feet of fresh, bottomless powder is the winter’s first crop of snow, concealing a minefield of manzanita and buckbrush; my rental Randonees pop off at each sweltering kick turn until I set the tension release up into the realm of fully-cured concrete. “The manufacturer disclaims all responsibility for any injury that may result from incorrect binding settings” as I reach down and twist my leg to extricate yet another buried ski tip from an unseen, hooked shrubbery.
Summit. The thin afternoon sunlight provides no warmth. We huddle in the lee of the icy rocks, cold wind slicing through sweat-chilled pile, and scope out the lack of ice on the north face of Crag Peak. The shadowed face remains dry in spite of the mid-winter snow. A westering sun highlights the upper snow shoulder of the peak as if to remind us of the waning daylight. Time is slipping by.
A short icy downclimb lands us back at the skis, fools who have overextended their stay. Frank swoops off down the slopes, linking graceful turns, as I tremble, face-plant, sideslip, cartwheel and awkward my way down the slopes, a pinball crazy-bouncing off tree bumpers toward numerous and inevitible craters. TILT!
Late night. Frank is somewhere behind me, following my tracks, patiently kicking through the dark powder. Hopelessly lost, I sob desperately in the blackness and hug another tree to stay upright. Not the way we came. I used to at least think we were descending toward Lake Tahoe. The faded twilight of the burned-out sun lingered long in the sky behind us. Or still is. Unless that is the moonrise soon to come. Or maybe the lights of Tahoe city?
Fading headlamp shows dark, trackless snow, dim and grey, impaled by trees, with only the starry sky overhead to hear my bleak helplessness.
Disoriented, the twilight now to my right up the gully I have followed, (I don’t remember the gully changing direction. We are SO LOST!) the bottom drops out of my stomach as I realize I must have chosen the wrong way, long ago, up there somewhere on the summit ridge. We’re headed into the backcountry of the Desolation Wilderness, miles between us and civilization, with a cold, wet unplanned bivouac ahead. I don’t want to be here. I blink back chest-clenching tears as I top the ridge and stare, uncomprehending, at a street light.
Back at the car, we sip Pete’s Wicked Ale. Frank shakes his head again in amazement. “That” he says, “was incredible route-finding.”
“Nah... Piece of cake.” I smile, fingers crossed in the darkness, and we resume loading gear into the car.
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