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.