Sunday, May 22, 2011

Skiing Through the Range of Light

"And from the eastern boundary of this vast golden flower-bed rose the mighty Sierra ... so gloriously coloured and so radiant, it seemed not clothed with light, but wholly composed of it .... Then it seemed to me that the Sierra should be called ... the Range of Light." John Muir, 1912

As I looked across at Doug, hunkered down over his ski crampons trying to scratch some kind of hold from the frozen icy surface to resist being blown off this south (key point) facing slope above Onion Creek in California's Sierra mountains, I thought, "Range of Light, my arse, this is the Range of Wind." Soon after this, we gave up on our planned route, skied - can skating down ice be called skiing? - down and headed up a more sheltered less steep valley to 3400 metres above Bench Lake. This was merely a day trip to acclimatize to the high elevation Sierra's in preparation for a later multi-day traverse.

Ten days later, after a series of storms with wind, snow, wind, some sun, wind, and more wind, we parked our truck at North Lake Road, strapped our skis to our packs, and began, how ski traverses in May always begin regardless of mountain range, walking up the road, skirting minor patches of snow. Within a kilometre, we reached snow, put our skis on and continued up the road, passing some suicidal fisherman out in the middle of the barely frozen North Lake, through North Lake campground, and, by sheer happenstance, right by the sign indicating the trail junction with Lamarck Lake to the south, and Puite Pass to the west. We stopped for lunch on a large boulder - the Sierra's are littered with large, flat, handy boulders perfect for lunch breaks and dry camping spots - near treeline below the steepish headwall leading to Loch Leven.

Easy ramps actually lead up to Loch Leven and Piute Pass comes into view, a few kilometres to the west. At Piute Pass, near 11,500 feet, Humphreys Basin spreads out to the west with its myriad lakes and gentle alplands, flanked on the east by the hulking peaks of Emerson and Humphreys along the Sierra Crest. We clattered across frozen snow to Muriel Lake where we found some good boulders ideal for camping and happily discarded our six day packs. 

Doug at camp by Muriel Lake

Leaving Doug at camp, and using ski crampons, I skied a further 500 feet up from camp to a small bump overlooking Lost Lakes and the route that leads to the Keyhole. Our route the next day lay over either Alpine col or the Keyhole, both about 12,400 feet, and one on the west side of Muriel Peak, the other on the east side. Our guidebook described them as being of equivalent difficulty, but our reading of the map indicated that Alpine col was likely easier. I had a good view of the Keyhole, which was easy until the final steep 200 foot slope which would undoubtedly require cramponing up. I snapped a photo, stripped my skins, and then proceeded to strip the recent wax job from my skis as I descended frozen snow - a lot like skiing 10 grit sandpaper over glacier ice.

On Sierra trips, a key strategy to more enjoyable touring is not to leave camp too early - some softening of the snow surface makes skiing both more pleasant and safer. We left camp shortly after 9 am, and cruised across Muriel Lake, south to Goethe Lake, and, below the slopes leading to Alpine col, we put on safety straps and ski crampons. Skiing to Alpine col was relatively easy, although there was one traverse above a big run-out that felt somewhat tenuous, even with crampons, as the snow was - again - frozen so hard that I couldn't see the slightest indentation from Doug traveling before me. At Alpine col, big boulders were bare so we sat a while and sunned our feet giving the south slope below us a little more time to soften up.

Descending from Alpine col, we skied across three sizeable but unnamed alpine lakes and stopped below the big south side of Mount Goethe. Here we dumped our big packs, grabbed a couple of energy bars and some water, and skied to the top of Mount Goethe at 13,264 feet. The wind was calm and the Range of Light lay spread before our feet. We did have semi-corn snow for the decent, but the recent winds had sculptured the snow into a series of waves and undulations and I felt, how I felt for days skiing across the Sierras, as if I was in a kayak on the open ocean, rolling up and down the big waves.

 Doug nearing the summit of Mount Goethe

Back on with the big packs, we had to use skins to cross Darwin Bench as the slight undulations defeated our waxless skis. I convinced Doug that picking up 2 litres of water each at an open stream was worth the extra weight to save melting snow, so we descended with heavy packs through slabs and pine trees to 10,700 feet, just below and north of Evolution Basin. We put our skins on for the last time that day and skinned up to a small tarn and a convenient boulder at the very north end of Evolution Basin. Wandering around camp that evening, I found an open stream draining off the slopes of Mount Mendel and climbed a small ridgeline to look down on Doug taking a photo of me, taking a photo of him.

In the morning, we filled up with two litres of water each and began the seemingly never ending ski up Evolution Basin. This long valley - one of the highlights of the Sierras - runs north south between 12,000 foot peaks, houses dozens of lakes and tarns, and gains just 1,200 feet over it's 9 km length. We slogged up under a beating sun with our skins on thinking how ideal the terrain would be for some kick wax or fishscale skis. After an hour or two, Muir Pass comes into sight sandwiched between Mount Solomons to the south and Mount Warlow to the north. Eventually, the big round boulder at the pass coalesces into a quaint stone structure and you finally reach Muir Pass, just shy of 12,000 feet. 

 Muir Pass with Muir Hut and Mount Warlow Behind

Despite feeling kind of flogged, we couldn't pass up another ski peak, and with much pared down packs, we headed south and skied to the summit of Black Giant at 13,330 feet, feeling every bit of the elevation. I was dying to have a good rest on the way up, but forced myself to stop for only one minute each 500 feet of elevation gain, which meant I got to rest for about 2 minutes on the way up. Not very long, but long enough to keep me way behind Doug who was also dying to rest, but swore he would carry on until I caught up with him.

We had wonderful views from the summit of lake encrusted Ionian Basin ringed by the big peaks of Scylla, Charybdis, the Three Sirens and Goddard, and far down to the east, forested Le Conte canyon where the summer trail runs up to Muir Pass. Another rolling descent down the corned up waves of the west face, followed by a clever long traverse to maintain our elevation, but we still had to skin up for the final 200 feet back to Muir Pass.

The next morning, we both felt somewhat fatigued, but looked forward to a day trip into Ionian Basin. Ski crampons helped to reach the broad pass to the west of Black Giant, but the south slope down to unnamed lake 11,828 feet had softened up, and we cruised into another pass at 11,800 feet that led west into Ionian Basin. We stopped for a break here to give the snow time to soften, and, after emptying both our packs, discovered that Doug's lunch was not with us. I shared my lunch with Doug for the remainder of the day and was truly shocked at how much of my lunch - now seeming quite meager - he could devour although he was clearly restraining himself.

We skinned through Ionian Basin and climbed up a south facing slope to a small knoll at around 12,200 feet where we relaxed again for a while and I watched more of my lunch disappear. Continuing north, we crested the col to the west of Mount Solomons, briefly considered attempting to ski the west ridge, then strapped our skis to our packs and kicked steps up the steep west ridge until we could put our skis back on and ski easily to the top. Doug did not want to linger on top as his huge lunch, sitting uselessly back at camp had become a siren calling to him to return, so we stripped the skins and skied the steep southwest face down into Ionian Basin and Doug, putting on his skins and a burst of speed at the same time rapidly ascended back to the col. We wanted to avoid skinning up again, so we skied a big traverse across the north face of Mount Solomons and ended some 100 feet above camp. Doug was down long before me with his head in his lunch bag snuffling like a truffle dog. 

Doug in Ionian Basin with Charybdis behind

On our penultimate day, we had the crux of the trip to contend with, the climb over Echo Col. Initially, we descended to Helen Lake, then followed a drainage down to another small alpine tarn at about 10,500 feet. We used ski crampons again for the 1,500 foot climb up to the col which is really a mere notch on the ridge between Clyde Spires and Mount Powell. It is difficult from below to tell exactly where the col is as the ridge line is a jagged line of small cliffs and bluffs. But, we had identified a likely spot to climbers left of a prominent black tooth, and, while we rested and ate below the final climb, a couple of skiers popped out from this location confirming our original theory. The final climb to the col is class 3, but probably the most difficult part was getting into and out of skis without losing them - or ourselves - on the steep, icy and narrow snow ramps that abutted the col on both north and south sides. I had to take my pack off for one short step in the col, and Doug kindly ferried our skis up from the south side. Descending the north side, I found vaguely terrifying, as the slope was steep, and the snow on this aspect had not yet corned up. Instead, it slid off in big heavy waves that threatened to engulf you and carry you away.

Below the initial steep section, the rest of the descent to Echo Lake is a cruise and we did manage to cruise a long distance - across Echo and Moonlight Lakes, past Topsy Turvey and Pee Wee Lakes and eventually down some short, but steep slopes to the tree ringed Emerald Lakes where we made our last camp.

The terrain in this middle fork of Bishop Creek is convoluted as we discovered the next day. Some up and down around minor ridgelines eventually led us to Blue Lake the next morning, where we eventually found the descent gully running north that houses the summer trail. We had some concerns that there would be little snow on the descent to Sabrina Lake and had initially thought of following the summer trail. But, the summer trail traverses steep bluffy terrain heading west and we soon abandoned it to ski gullies down to Sabrina Lake. Actually getting down onto Sabrina Lake was somewhat tricky as the lake level had dropped leaving big sheets of broken ice stranded above shoreline and we had to tentatively side step and butt slide down these. We lacked the confidence or perhaps the bravado to ski across Sabrina Lake, which had big patches of open water, and so followed a tedious course wacking around the eastern shore of the lake and booting up to gain the summer trail. The summer trail was intermittently snow covered, bare or icy and steep necessitating a combination of walking, step kicking with an ice axe and, if you were really lucky, actually skiing. Eventually, we reached a spot where we could ski down and out onto the lake shore where big piles of avalanche debris enabled us to put our skis on and cruise the final section along the snow covered trail and out to the road.

We had stashed a pair of sneakers at the beginning of the trip, and while I lazed by the packs, Doug walked the kilometre or so down the road to the truck. My siesta was interrupted by an old guy with an even older dog who came by to chat. He was a real backwoods character with a 12 year old dog whose longevity he ascribed to Noni juice - some kind of Polynesian plant extract of astronomical price that had apparently cured his dog's "huge heart". In between rantings about global warming (can't blame him for that) he told me all about the Startrek movie filmed at Blue Lake. Eventually, both he and the dog staggered off with trembling legs, and I was hard pressed to discern the difference between the two of them. Soon, Doug returned and we drove down to the blinding heat of small town Bishop, stunned as usual, to come back to civilization after a week in the wilderness, where life always seems incredibly simple and free.

 Doug at Contact Pass near the Sierra Crest

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