“You do not attack or conquer a mountain; you must learn to live with it in judgment and abeyance tuned to what it is.” – Andrea Mead LawrenceThe edge caught quickly as we were flying down the run on Thanksgiving morning. Disappearing into a cloud of snow, I landed on my back, my head bouncing off the groomer, my legs flying overhead with the skis still firmly attached. I felt the strong pop in my left knee as the skis reconnected with the snow and I tumbled over them once again before gliding to a stop. The pain wasn’t strong, and it was early in the day, so I kept skiing to keep it from getting stiff. Then my quads shut down, and the swelling kicked in, and I knew something was pretty horribly wrong. My good friend and PT in Mammoth checked it out, the MCL gapping in her hands as she cradled my left knee. The occasional collapsing of the knee worried me further, but I could still walk… sort of. Then there was getting bucked off the horse in January… twice…
My first ski tour was not starting well. Mashed potatoes under my boots, I sank crotch-deep into the slope traversing above the far side of Sabrina Lake. My heavy pack of almost sixty pounds pushed my shoulders into the slope. The tails of my skis, dangling from my pack due to the patchiness of the snow, touched the surface, forcing me to wriggle and writhe to move out of the hole, driving my left leg to the side and planting my poles flat to plank myself upwards. I wasn’t even 3 miles into the weekend and I was already flailing in the soft snow, driving up and around the ridge to the slabs leading to Blue Lake.
The lightness of the waters in the lake, lapping gently in the wind, belied the heaviness of the snow at its borders. Layers stretched six inches into the water, both above and below the surface, sparkles dancing as I bent to fill my bottle and guzzled the freshness of the recent melt. I crossed the logjam twice, balancing gingerly in my ski boots as I carried the skis, then the pack. Frustrated already, both with my slowness and the energy expended on the slop, I glided uphill, following a skin track from perhaps only a day ago, the thin cut sinking deep and forcing me to one side in my wide skis. Past melting lakes of brilliant aquamarine, the pines dancing in the growing wind, I wandered towards the ridgelines that would lift me higher into the basin. At once, on an open slope, my step elicited a whoosh of breaking glass beneath me, and I froze, checking all sides for fracture, behind me for the run-out. Deep beneath my heavy steps, some hidden layer of hoar frost had surely collapsed, the topmost layers thankfully holding true as I scurried up and off the slope. Breathing heavily, I glanced back down to the ridge, then turned and slid into a small gulley, finally sheltered from the wind.
I rounded a few boulders as I passed through the slot, furrowing my brow at something that appeared beyond: a cave! The opening was at least twenty feet wide, perhaps a dozen feet deep, icicles dripping at the back into frozen pools, and a snow berm guarding the far entrance. Walking in, I could stand at my full 6 feet, and not a breath of wind penetrated the shelter. I knew how much more I had originally intended on climbing that day, but with the growing intensity of the weather, I decided to look beyond at the terrain before making a final decision. A half-mile more of skinning brought me to an easy choice, as the clouds descended upon Mts. Darwin and Haeckel over open hills, and I turned back to the cave to make camp. I shaved off the top of the berm as my tent platform, my stove and food placed against the rear wall on an island of dry ground between the icicles. Through the afternoon, I would walk in and out, checking the weather and the wind, grabbing moments of warmth in the waxing and waning sunshine. Through the night, I awoke to the rush of air barraging the trees around camp, yet the tent walls hardly fluttered under the overhanging rock.
With the rising sun, the wind had not diminished, so I lay quiet and bored in my tent, even falling back asleep for a time. Ever since my knee injury, it’s been markedly more difficult to rise in the morning, my motivation to push hard just evaporated. Between the recovery, gaining weight, and a lack of a big goal this year, I was struggling to come to terms with my current physical condition and where I was last year at this time. I still loved to go out and play, but the intense focus of 2010 had been buried under the deep winter snows. At last, I rose up to one elbow and somehow convinced myself that the wind had, indeed, died somewhat, and that packing up and continuing on the adventure, whatever that would be, was of the utmost importance. At 1000 I ventured into the open, crossing the snowfields and rollers leading to Midnight Lake and beyond.
The spires of Picture Peak shot upward against a crystalline sky, the wind whistling high before diving through the couloirs and driving across the lake plains. At the headwall below Echo Lake, the track charged upward, but I hesitated amongst the trees for a few minutes, contemplating my options. I had made sure that I could survive the weather that had been forecast, even bringing my heavy 4-season tent should I get caught in the open. With each step forward and up I strayed from the safety of the cave, the wind gusting stronger and stronger above the rim of the wall. I watched the wind dance across the blanketed Echo Lake, the spindrift patterns likening to those on the water in summer before a thunderstorm. No clouds threatened yet, only the howl of the wind served as a possible warning. I pressed on, climbing above the far side of the lake; past snow rollers tipped on their sides and looking like roses on the bank; a wary eye watching above with too much evidence of wet sloughs on the north facing slopes. I finally stepped onto the upper reaches of the moraine, gazing across the cirque to admire the sharp switchers carved into the far wall and leading to the small chimney of Echo Col. While I paused to eat, I decided that I wasn’t confident enough with my skinning skills to follow the steep track with my beastly pack. I strapped the skis to my bag, donned my crampons, and began the slog across the cirque and up the far wall.
It didn’t take long for me to find my happy place; that is, I was post-holing to at least my knee or thigh with each step. With my winter travels of the past few years, I’ve learned to take this – ahem – in stride, and I adjusted my pace accordingly. Driving my axe, then my whippet, then one foot, then the next, I slowly gained the col, my fear of falling minimized by the soft snow. If I didn’t sink, then the skis might catch me, and then I could worry about a self-arrest, thank you very much. Sixteen steps at a time – a flight of stairs – I reached and scrabbled and cursed and kicked my way up. In the shelter of the cirque, I could hear the scream of the wind through the narrow col, and I prepared myself for as quick an up and over as I could manage.
Mostly filled with snow, I ducked underneath the rocks of Echo Col, attempting to decipher the best series of foot and hand holds to pull both myself, and the beast, up and over. The weight of the pack and the stiffness of my boots conspired against me however, and I was forced to doff the pack, shimmy it around in front, and clean and jerk it overhead to clear the boulders. Lodging the skis between the rocks as if forcing my bag into the overhead bin, I scurried up and around before the pack had a chance to tumble back down to Echo Lake. Another decision had to be made here: with the wind howling and a cloudbank creeping in from the south and west, this was my last opportunity to retreat to the cave or dive further into the high Sierra. Sitting low, I could hear the Sirens’ call of my Evolution Basin. Black Giant beckoned across upper Leconte Canyon, undulating snow pouring under his eastern face. The ski tracks below me cut deep into the soft snow, and my fibers aligned to the south, looking over a thousand feet below to the headwaters of the Middle Fork of the Kings River.
I shuttled my skis down the rocks, returning for the beast, and knowing that it was moments like these that make solo trips a bit more challenging. Just above my skis, an awkward down-climb forced me to lower the pack first, but I guess the base of the rock wasn’t as level as I thought, and the beast pitched forward, rolling towards the snow. In slow motion I dove for the pack, then simply prayed it would catch in the nook between rock and snow. Nice work, Molnar. I breathed a sigh of relief as I picked up my skis, removed my skins and crampons, and set them across the slope. My gear was intact and relatively unscathed, and I nervously turned the skis into the fall line for my first turns.
My quads screamed under the weight of the beast, the skis breaking the miserable crust on the slope as I slowly wound my way down. Fatigue from the climb up limited me to only 6-10 turns at a time before resting, my legs trying to figure out the combination of balance, edge pressure, snow conditions, and speed to keep me upright. I stayed as high as I could upon reaching Lake 11428, traversing the north side in an attempt to run all the way down to the canyon. But the soft snow once again sucked me to a stop, and the procedure of skins on and off began in earnest. So this was touring. I felt incredibly inefficient, having to drop everything to don the skins, walk for a bit, take the skins off and stow them, ski down a few hundred feet, and repeat the process. All the while, I was watching the slopes around me, taking note of the snow conditions, listening to and feeling the wind directions, watching the clouds overhead as they drifted and wandered and closed and fell back.
I recognized a stand of trees at the bottom of the run, knowing the John Muir Trail was running somewhere beneath the snow. Ahead I could still make out the tracks, but this spot was familiar to me, and all that was required was to head up to reach Muir Pass and the safety of the stone hut. As the skies greyed, I pulled my shell jacket’s hood up onto my head, tightening the straps to keep it in place in the wind. The light went flat as the clouds, almost sensing my being down from the heights, crept ever closer over the ridge to Mt. Warlow. When the snow finally came, ice crystals bounced off my chest and the occasional snowflake stuck to my face. The clouds stayed high, however, allowing me to see the route climbing ever higher towards the pass. At Helen Lake, I started my fight with the wind as it pushed and tossed around me. I leaned forward, driving with both arms and legs to climb the slopes, balancing on my edges and skins. Suddenly, as I traversed out of Helen Lake towards the final pitch to Muir Pass, I looked up just in time to see a wave of spindrift pour over the ridge and dive towards me. Bug-eyed, I ducked as low as I could on my skis and held on as the gust blasted by. “I don’t care what you do, Molnar,” I muttered, “but you put your head down and get your ass to that hut, NOW.”
With a last burst of energy, I pushed upwards into the wind, around the corner, and whooped when I saw the rock chimney of the hut ahead. Like a stone in a river, the wind had carved around the hut to its base, leaving the door and steps easily accessible despite walls of snow reaching eight feet on the windward side. I tore off my skis, quickly unlatched the door, and dove inside, slamming the door shut behind me. In the evening light, the stones looked cold and grey, yet there was a warmth and comfort about being inside as the wind screamed across the pass. A deep rumble signaled another gust passing, but the hut was as solid as it has been for eighty years. With a relieved and tired smile, I unpacked, set up my sleeping area, and started boiling water for tea and dinner. As the light faded in the cracked window, I hunkered down in my sleeping bags and listened to the raging storm. I was safe and warm, but I already was beginning to wonder how I was going to get home.
Dawn broke cautiously, almost as if the sun was checking if it was safe to come out and play. Blue on blue, the air crystalline and calm, the edges of the remaining clouds towards Black Giant burned softly as I poked my head out of the doorway. I could still make out my tracks from the previous evening, but everything into Evolution Basin had been swept clean and scoured by the raging windstorm. In the quiet of the pass, I walked slowly around the hut, drifts of up to six inches fluffing over my down booties. I had weathered the worst of it inside the hut, near 12,000 feet, and I knew that I would have to start exploring my options of getting home. The worst case scenarios had me walking for miles either into Leconte or Evolution Canyon, coupled with long climbs out to either Dusy or Humphreys Basin. But with the clear weather that morning, I started hoping that the worst was over, and, despite a few patches of unsettled weather that day, the higher cols might be amenable to my passage. I had two days before I was expected back at work to fumble my way back over the Crest.
My pack and skis rested against the Hut as I snapped a few last pictures, a bank of clouds hanging off to the west as I clicked into my bindings and slid onto the northern slope of the pass. Even though the angle was not steep, I tested the snow by traversing far to the right before dropping in to make a few turns. The skis carved easily into the fresh and light powder, edges biting the harder layer beneath. I slowed to a halt on the flat shoreline of Lake McDermand, and I gazed longingly back up to Black Giant and Mt. Solomons, their faces teasing with a fresh layer of pow, and I desperately wanting to get some unlabored turns on their runs. But the wind loading and deposits of the previous night overrode any options other than touring, so, watching a few shadows pass across the face of Mt. Warlow, I resumed my measured pace to Wanda Lake. The air maintained its chill even in the bright sun as clouds breathed in and out around me, cloaking the Goddard Divide, Mt. Huxley, and then the pass behind me. A few lovely slopes offered their treat of a modicum of speed for a few hundred feet at a time as I dropped into Evolution Basin. Skimming into the drainage, I suddenly found myself at the shores of Sapphire Lake, and a few hundred feet to my right, open water at the inlet. With a deep breath, I sprinted across the lake to the safety of a boulder on the far side, fearing – only moderately rationally – that each stride would break through. Once perched on the rock, I stopped to rest and look around.
Above me, Mts. Huxley and Fiske were fading in and out of the light clouds, all sound muffled by the snow, old and new. No birds sang, no scuffling of marmots or pikas, only the gentle rush of Evolution Creek broke the complete silence of that spot. I sat on that stone, the next storm stepping up quietly behind me with snow sparkling in the sunshine; a single set of tracks extended back up the bench to Wanda Lake; the mountains looked down at me, and insignificant speck in orange with a huge pack and even bigger dreams, and smiled their acceptance of my being among them. Even with the breeze, it wasn’t cold there. Slowly I stood and spun around on the rock, pivoting on the heel of my boot, arms outstretched and my face bursting into a huge smile. So this
The snow fell more heavily as I quietly stole around the shores of Evolution Lake, pausing to glance up to the spires of the ridge above, combing the clouds like wool across a carding brush. The clouds thickened ahead and hung on the slope leading to Darwin Basin, and the lack of wind told me they were there to stay. I quickly decided to take a break and set up a temporary camp to wait out the storm under the tall pines below the lake. It was only 1300, and I was disappointed, and worried, about my limited progress that day, knowing that the climb up and over either Lamarck or Alpine Col would be even more brutal if I had to start from here. Inside the tent, I busied myself with menial tasks: fixing my sleeping pad, retaping my feet. I broke out my flask and had a few sips, the warmth of the whiskey warming my insides. And still it snowed, and snowed, and snowed. The sun popped out for ten minutes around 1500, and I, hopeful, popped out with it, basking in warmth but frowning when I saw the wall advancing up Evolution Canyon below, the grey swallowing row after row of trees. I dove back in for a long and cold night deep in my sleeping bags, my arms wrapped so tightly around me that I awoke with both hands numb from lack of circulation. “Just let me wake up to sun,” I whispered to the dark as the breeze pelted the window with snow.
The brightness startled me as I crept up to the top of my bag and shivered. I felt like a truck had run me over, as calorie deficit reared its ugly head. Slowly, I dug for a few granola bars and lay back with my eyes closed, chewing and fighting nausea. Into my hot water bottle I poured the Gatorade powder and drank deeply. With a whoosh and a sigh, I wriggled out of my bag and started packing and cleaning, waiting for the sun to crest the ridge. The days climb was daunting both for its’ rise to almost 13,000 feet over Lamarck Col, but also for the descent, knowing the new loads that the slopes now carried. That, and the winter descent, a direct line to Grass Lake, was different from hiking down in the summer. Nervously, I stepped into the skis and began winding my way up the steps and slabs into the Darwin Bench.
The snow was soft and quiet, but the birds had begun to sing once again, complimenting the tinkling creek as it cascaded to Evolution Canyon below. Behind me, The Hermit was frosted and steep, the chute which scared me so much a few years before filled with snow and capturing my eye, disturbingly now assessing its possibility as a ski descent. With a wave and a smile, I leveled out into the Bench and turned to follow the string of lakes towards Lamarck Col. The sun was warm at last, and my forced eating had given me a spring to my step as I angled higher and higher above the lakes. Most of the slope was under a beautiful blanket of snow, and with the change in weather, I suppose I could have had a glorious run by leaving my pack high on the slope. Instead, hugging the rock bands, I switchered higher and higher, aiming right to the break in the jagged ridge, racking the skis a few hundred feet below the col to scramble, as best one can with almost 60 pounds and in ski boots. Of all things, the use trail had melted out just below the col, and I stood and watched the wind pull snow up the southern slope and toss it high out onto the north cirque. I pushed through the pass, gazing down to Bishop and home far below, wondering how the hell I was going to get there.
In scanning, I noticed the ski tracks to my left higher in the bowl, then a flash of orange immediately below. Two day-skiers stood on the wind-blown flats, and I hooted to get their attention. They waved in return, and started down and across the long slope of the col. I knew I could never catch them, but I still ripped off my pack and fiddled and futzed with my gear to ready it for my descent. Locking in, I took a deep breath and traversed the bowl, kicking down a few times to try and knock something loose. After two turns without movement, I guided my skis into the fall line and danced my way down the col. I saw my guides only once more, waiting a quarter mile ahead at the turn that dives into the drainage, and then they were gone. With another smile, laughing at the aching in my legs, I let the skis swing back and forth across the slope, staying close to the other tracks as I dropped. The Blue Danube waltz ran through my mind, and I felt, even with the weight on my back, that I was flying down the mountain. Smooth turns, edges catching, tap of the poles for balance, wind rushing by my face, with every foot down I was closer to safety, and…
“Whoop! Whoop! Whoa! Ack!”
Really, face-plants are even more impressive with 50 pounds on your back.