Solo from Desert to Crest
The rabbit just wouldn’t get out of the way, hopping madly in the brights of the TOF as I rumbled along the Taboose Creek road towards the trailhead. Stars hung layers deep in a blackened sky, the Milky Way absorbing the bulk of the sparkling overhead. After swinging the nose around in the empty parking area, I shut everything down, allowing my eyes to adjust to the darkness, the dust to settle around the truck. Setting my SPOT on the dash, I leaned back and closed my eyes for a few more minutes, quieting my fears of walking into a den of Mojave Greens between the swollen rounds of sage and lupine lining the desert floor.
Close to 0400, and I finally extended my poles, grabbing my pack from the passenger seat, flicking on the most brilliant headlamp I could find and scanning the dirt for any signs of slithering. I was smothered by the sweet smell of the night flowers as I strode out along the trail, slowly, cautiously, ears perked to any noises in the moonless night. In 30 minutes I hit the toe of the ridge, rising dark and ominous to my right; I could make out the thick brush and rocks in the slim shadows of starlight. It’s now or never, Laura, I pleaded with myself. But it wasn’t just the snakes I was afraid of. Ahead loomed another challenge I have been studying for two years: the East Ridge of Cardinal Mountain.
Stepping off the trail, I wove carefully around the brush, traversing the first bump to reach a slight saddle, the sand shifting with lesser-placed steps, seemingly solid rocks dropping under my weight. The poles steadied each step as I tried to follow the deer and goat paths up the slope, the boulders above standing black against a speckled sky. It was silent, still, warm, my breathing the only louder noise against the sliding sands. The sky warmed in the east, the ridge grey now instead of black, stars to the west fading against the lowering alpenglow falling to blanket the peaks of the Crest. No wind harkened the rising of this sun, and there was nowhere to hide from its brilliance as it reached forth from beyond the Inyos. In the cradling roots of a huge yellow pine, I dropped pack to rest and eat breakfast, already 2 hours and over 2000 ft up onto the ridge.
The terrain drew me north, traversing steep scree that dumped clear back down to the Valley floor, with minimal shrubbery to impede progress. I found my first patches of snow around 7500ft, tucked in the recesses of boulders and pines, dirty and crusted with the windblown sand and needles of the hillsides. Up and up again, rising now in dirt and pine sap to the tree belt, towering giants still in the morning air and smelling clean in the heat of direct sun. The steps were soft here as the angle lessened for a brief while, the snowdrifts’ crafty fingers reaching down through the slope ahead. Even here with the melting snow, there was no running water, as if the shallow rootstocks simply absorbed every ounce as the ice disintegrated.
An abrupt wall of mountain mahogany guards Stecker Flat, but paths of old wind through holes and weaknesses. Here at the half-way point, I paused to catch my breath and stare at the powerful presence of Split Mountain, guarding Red Lake and its drainage, its capstone gray rock layered over red and cream. Stuffing my water bladder full of crystalline snow, and my mouth with granola bars, I stepped onto the continuous snowfield that would take me to the summit of the day. I could see old descent tracks of skiers winding along the face, knowing of the old road that rises from the Red Lake trailhead. I stomped out along the traverses, picking trees and rocks as landmarks for brief rests. It was 0900, and I was already starting to posthole. Of course I was.
Rising Above It All
Stomp. Kick. Step. Plant. Reach. Pivot. Stomp. Trudge. Head down. Head up, look where you’re going. Where’s the next rock, next tree, next Manzanita poking up through the thin skin of spring snow. Smell the sap on my hands as I brush past, feel the snow melting into corn and heat reflecting off blinding slopes. A series of bump ups, benches for rest, breathe, look around, orient myself. A single puff of cloud hanging, then gathering between Split and Tinemaha to the north, then blowing apart like the first draft thrown into the trash. I donned crampons for the slope reaching to over 12K, although the soft snow would have cradled any stumble or misstep. At last to the final bench, and the meadows of Taboose spread to the West, Arrow Peak guarding the entrance to the South Fork of the Kings River. Immense cornices dangled precipitously across the cliffs of the Pass, the undersides edged and layered with the passage of winter.
Ahead, the final traverse and climb to the summit loomed, talus diving over 2000 feet back to Taboose Creek and the trail. Either my footwork has been dramatically improved or it’s perhaps one of the most stable talus piles in the Sierra.
Crampons dangling from my left hand, poles in my right, I tiptoed in heavy boots across the boulders, trying to keep steps light and quick. Approaching the snow chutes, they towered above, twinkling in the afternoon sun. 700 vertical feet to go and the snow was melting before my eyes. The right towered above, steep and serene, so I traversed to the left, hoping for a little gentler approach to the top. My steps headed left, the edge of the chute rounding high and to my right.
In the pillowed and wet snow, every step became three, a rhythm of driving my axe home, followed by my pole, my foot replacing where my knee had rested a moment before.
Ten steps would send me into groans, but the axe and feet held solid. I couldn’t tell the angle, but I was sure that mom wouldn’t have wanted to see the pictures. I kept driving up, reaching, pushing, pulling, imagining downclimbing. A light leveling to the rocks above, but it wouldn’t yield easily. I sank repeatedly to knee or thigh, the black rocks beneath the blanket absorbing heat and collapsing holes. At last, I swam onto the summit ridge, exhausted and plopping down to rip the crampons off my boots, then turn to see the grey blocks within reach. I stumbled to the top, peeking over the north wall plummeting thousands of feet to the snow below. Throwing my pack and helmet to the ground, I leaned back and threw out a great barbaric yawp to the heavens.
But then, just as I reveled in the joy of triumph, I was doubled over with painful sobs erupting from deep inside. In the still of the air at 13.4K, the tears streamed from behind my glasses as I gripped my gut and sat among the summit blocks. I couldn’t stop crying. I curled into a tight ball, gasping in the thin air, clutching my legs to my chest in an attempt to quell the onslought. Breathe, dammit, breathe! My shoulders finally relaxed in the sun, and my head rose timidly with eyes closed tight. As I cracked them open, slits filtering the light through tears, the basins below flashed white in the sun, clouds shadows danced along the undulating snow. And the entire Sierra smiled back at me. The air descended as the clouds rose, embracing me on the summit. I was home at last.
Instead of downclimbing the chutes, I opted to descend the first chute to Taboose Pass and catch up with the trail.
Beneath drifts 20 feet high and now gazing up to the cornices which had bewitched me from the ridge, I jogged and slid down the gentle slopes to the creek, stopping to tank up around 9000ft.
The lower portion of the trail was trivial, plenty of soft snow to posthole, some minor willows, none of it annoying, merely funny, as if the loop were trying to throw it’s last bit of sick humor my way. I crossed the creek around 7000ft, entering the desert zone once again and the sands and grasses of the trail.
My eyes and ears perked once again, expecting to see one of the many sticks on the trail suddenly turn to look at me, but none ever did. The trail spat me back out onto the purple and green desert floor, and at last the TOF, waiting patiently by the creek. As I drove away, the building clouds of the afternoon faded into gold behind the Crest.
From the luckiest girl in the world: Climb Hard, Be Safe.