What have I done? — Musings on a Winter Sierra Ski Tour, and Perhaps a Bit More.

Posted in Backpacking, Skiing with tags , , , , , , , on March 28, 2014 by moosetracksca

“What have you done?” was the question posed upon our introduction.

It was not intended as a slight, or a look-down-your-nose sort of statement.

But it gave me pause, taken somewhat aback, wondering if I should defend myself and how I have dedicated my time.

 

“I didn’t believe you had done those things,” was another phrase heard from someone else soon thereafter.

And this time, I pulled up hard, wondered aloud why anyone might think me a liar,

A cheat,

A fraud.

 

And so I chewed on the phrase, ran the words across my tongue and lips, tasted the emotions dancing in my mouth.

Bitter, salty, sour,

And sweet.

 

WHAT have I done?

I have taken the landscapes for my home, matched the topography of the maps to what my eyes see before me,

Discovered the imbalance between the printed page and peering over an edge and thinking…

“Nope, that ain’t gunna go.”

I have watched the sky’s habits and moods from the most brilliant of blues, to the dusky greys of dawn, to counting the blanket of stars on a winter’s moonless night.

Pulled clouds between my fingers across the mountains.

Been blessed by rain, threatened by thunder, tickled by feathery flakes of snow.

I have hiked,

And skied,

And skated,

And snowshoed,

And climbed,

And fished,

And cooked,

And scrambled, and ambled, and rambled,

And lounged,

And napped,

And laughed…

Ohhhhh… the laughter.

 

I have cried for my own pains and fears, for the loss of friends and friendships; mourned my own shortcomings made so painfully obvious when my day’s efforts are reduced to “just get there” or the objective, whatever that may be, is elusive.

 

What HAVE I done?

None of this belongs to me, inasmuch as my holding a title, or deed.

Yet I pride myself in every tree, every slope, every boulder or crag,

Every babbling, bubbling, burbling brook that creeps through a meadow.

I see myself in the landscape: the soft and the hard; the light and the shadow; the windswept and the basin.

There are so many unknowns yet to explore, between the mountains and me.

What I have are my stories: of days pushing hard and others lying back; of challenges met and missed; of unspeakable beauty and unfathomable terror.

But all with lessons attached, and, once revealed, opening another door along my life path.

Life is flux and flow, creep and soar,

Letting the wind alternately beat you down and then lift you by the arms to carry the weight of your being and your burdens.

Even the mountains bend to the wills of time and weather.

 

What have done?

I have done nothing without the love, and support, and gifts of time and knowledge of so many others. I cannot claim to know what they saw, other than an eager pupil, sharing the love of challenge and high places. Without these teachers I would be floundering, lost before I even started, or worse:

Never having left the comforts of my home.

I integrated those lessons with those of the wild, with that which I think I know of myself,

And stepped away, even for short whiles, from the bluster of the “normal”.

Only to realize that, for me, these places on high are normal.

That wandering throughout the year, adapting methods and gear and techniques, is precisely what I should be doing, no matter where I happen to be.

 

What have I DONE?

There are no first ascents, or descents, within the societally accepted meaning of the words, in my nature.

Every trip and adventure is just that for me: a first.

Each step forth is into a new river, a new environment, and new sky and earth.

There is no “early” or “late” season, only this day, this hour, this moment.

I delve into opportunities to just be, a level of presence that exhausts because of the level of focus it demands.

 

And then, I let go completely…

Sink deep into my perch on a boulder resting in a sea of white,

Pull the thick blanket of winter silence over my shoulders,

Allow the hands of the wind to gently caress the single tear running down my face and then embrace me in warmth and acceptance.

 

For it is in that  moment that I am one with my own soul and that of the earth and the sky.

I have stood atop those peaks, called from the heights, scanned the horizon for the next adventure.

I have allowed myself to be confident, arrogant, terrified,

And at peace.

 

I listened to the wind as it roared and whispered; danced between flashes ripping the blackened sky.

Camped on high ridge lines and tucked behind copses of pines or in caves.

I wait, not always patiently, for the next lesson.

 

So,

The next time someone asks, “what have you done?”

I will know to take in a deep breath.

Crack a small smile.

Bring a light up to my eyes.

 

“Where would you like me to begin?”

 

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The Lake of 1000 Postholes

Posted in Backpacking with tags , , , , , , , , on January 28, 2014 by moosetracksca

I’m pretty sure I’m not supposed to be in this drainage.

–Yup: I can’t see a damn thing, save the ten feet in front of me with this headlamp; I’ve been going hard for 9 hours and somehow I thought I’d been able to step up this moraine while still wearing my snowshoes.

Hear that? That’s running water beneath you. And up ahead? Yeah, that’s a cascade. Maybe I should have holed up on that shelf a few hundred yards back down. Maybe I should have made camp in the trees, near the running water, eaten a good dinner, tucked in warm with the sound of the breeze whispering through the tent.

–Maybe I should try not so hard to be so damn stubborn.

Oh, shut it. You’re almost to the lake.

–Really, sometimes the conversations in my head just crack me up.

Come on, now: Focus. Look around. Does anything go?

–Hell if I know.

Wait: there’s a loosey-goosey section just above you, then step across the blocks to those ledges.

–I can see the headline: woman buried under rockslide and her own pack.

Please.

–<sigh> OK, 10 steps up. Now 10 more. Now 10 more.

Well, isn’t this a lovely knoll… In the middle of nowhere.

–Hey: it’s flat, there’s snow for melting, there’s even a laundry tree.

Does this mean I’m done?

–For today. Now, get this tent up.

 _______________

<poof> Nice work.

–What? I thought you enjoyed postholing.

Not when I have an objective.

–Oh really, now? And what would that be?

I’d like to finally get up Mt. Davis.

–And your plan to head around the lake instead of across it? How’s that workin’ for ya?

Wait: what’s that over there?

–Where?

Does that big flat boulder not have any snow on it?

–Oh no you don’t. Don’t even think about it. We have miles to go…

And the sun just came out from behind the clouds. It’s so warm. My legs are tired. I’m tired. There’s a notch for my feet, and it rises at a perfect incline to lean back on my pack…

–Damitol, you are NOT succumbing to a nap rock. In January. Where you have the lake all to yourself, save a few loud-mouthed birds. Nope. Keep plugging. Time to head up the pass. Ready? Head down…

ZZzzzzzzzzz…

_______________

I can’t believe you made me slog around the lake instead of walking right on across it.

–Shut it. Have some whiskey. And triscuits. And cheese. Enjoy the last sun. At least your boots are dry.

Just try not to mix anything up with the marmot poop. Goddamn gorgeous knoll for camp.

_______________

High road or low road? Sliding up scree or sliding on ice?

–Really? That’s all you’ve got for me? Meh, let’s see how conditions are down low by the river.

It’s a long walk back up from Agnew Meadow, you know.

–Yeah, but I’ve got all day. And way too much energy stored up from the best nap ever.

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Please see more pictures of the weekend here:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/moosepics621/sets/72157640203225655/

From the luckiest girl in the world:

Climb Hard. Be Safe.

On the Trail of the Bighorn: Mt. Lewis (Jan 3-5)

Posted in Backpacking, Skiing with tags , , , , , , , on January 18, 2014 by moosetracksca

The air barely moved at Tioga Pass as I stabbed my skis and poles into the drift. The Beast leaned up against my truck’s wheel well, waiting patiently for me to heave to and stumble in my boots towards what little snow covered the road. I had to smile up at Gaylor Peak, then over to Mt. Dana and Gibbs, and I shook my head at the sad view of their rocky slopes. The sun blazed in the early afternoon as I glided down to the Mono Pass trailhead, the fallen giants lay quiet between patches of white and brown.

Laura came into view twenty minutes after I arrived, her pack swollen and taller than she. “It’s mostly down,” she insisted, but I liked this idea of travelling with another woman loaded down as heavily as I.  Her touring rig slid easily down from the parking lot, while I pushed each step. Too late, I realized that the snow wasn’t sliding under my skis and skins, but instead was sticking, turning the skin track into a boot track. At the creek, I stopped to try and wring the skins out and wax them, but I was now part of the “Mountain Relocation Team”, where I would haul snow from the flats to higher elevations, whether I liked it or not.

Laura pulled ahead while I wallowed a bit, the skis too heavy to even kick against a tree to clear the snow. “It’ll just make me stronger!” I yelled ahead, and she laughed as she logged another sighting of porcupine tracks. There were signs of all sorts of wildlife, actually: marten, birds large and small, rabbit, even bear. I wondered if the lair was anywhere close. At dusk, Laura looped back a bit after spotting a flat bit of open ground in the trees, but I wasn’t done yet. I would prefer a view of some sort, having done the work, after all. We trudged another half mile to the clearing and meadow where the Mono and Parker Pass trails split. I found a clear spot on the lee of a great whitebark pine, and we quickly got to work setting up camp.

On an overhanging branch, I hung a new light I had received for Christmas, and our site became perfectly lit. Extinguishing our headlamps, we sat and laughed over stoves as we melted the meager snow and boiled water for dinner. There was red wine, a little tequila, tortellini and bacon-spinach pesto, and cookies for dessert. Under the Cheshire cat moon, we caught each other up on the fall activities, as well as how she and Rob had settled into Tuolumne. The air was still as we crawled into our bags, and the moon set behind the Kuna Crest. In the absolute dark, the stars were almost three-dimensional, reaching down to the earth; the Milky Way stained the northern sky. I drifted off watching Orion do his cartwheels to the south.

We awoke early, but were none too keen to spring from the lofty down cocoons behind the whitebark. Ice crusted the rim of my bag from my breathing. The sun was teasing the eastern faces of Koip and Kuna when we finally sat up and lit stoves for breakfast and coffee. Shadows of Dana and Gibbs reflected in the orange atmosphere across Tuolumne Meadows. Laura called in to Rob to give him a rough itinerary of the day, and we crossed the meadow to gain the ridge towards Parker Pass.

We ran out of snow atop the ridge looking across to Spillway and Helen Lakes, and both took stock of the pass to Lost Lakes, so sadly half-covered in this meager winter. At the top of the ridge, we racked our skis for ¼ mile before trading out our ski boots for trail runners. Stashing our skis and boots on a sun-soaked slab, we hiked up the rocks to the ridgeline, gazed back down into Bloody Canyon and to Mono Pass. I looked up to Laura, and was about to call out when she squatted and waved her arms at me, motioning for quiet. Twirling her hands about her head, she silently and emphatically mouthed, “BIGHORN.” My breath caught as I stepped to her, and I pulled out my little camera as quickly and quietly as I could. Not two hundred yards ahead on the ridge was a huge ram, solid and proud, out for a daily stroll, soaking in the sights.

Laura and I exchanged giant smiles, high-fives, mini-dances of happiness, and pulled up our shots to compare as we walked across the ridge. The ram had really not taken much notice, and had calmly walked around the corner. Excited, we followed the ridge to the great overlook, straining to see any sign of the ram, even with her binoculars. Laura whooped a bit, but I took her lead and bellowed out a call. “Great: harassing the sheep, now?” she smiled at me. But I turned to look a mile distant to the summit of Mt. Lewis, and up popped the rounded rack! So, we had a tour guide!

It took another 30 minutes to finally make the summit of Mt. Lewis, in trail runners, short-sleeve shirts, dripping sweat from our ball caps. The air was clear; a light breeze breathed its chill onto our necks. But the view was epic! The switchers to Koip Peak pass were devoid of snow, the snowfield shining blue and barren in the sun. I wondered aloud if the Alger Lakes might be skate-able. After eating lunch, and having a few more pulls of wine, we strode back down the easy, rocky slope and traversed back to our skis. The snow below wasn’t great, but at least we could claim about ten turns each in the facets.

The wind had picked up during our descent, and we were glad to have the tent that night, even though it meant being “in” for over 12 hours. Laura’s radio faltered, so by early morning she was packed and ready to go, eager to get in touch with Rob. I lingered in the morning dark, waiting for the sun as I sipped coffee and munched oatmeal. My toes screamed at being shoved into cold ski boots, but the downhill work quickly warmed me through. I passed through the silent forest, played tag with the sun as it rose around each corner. I couldn’t help but hum along with the wind in the trees as I slid across the lower meadows.

The road climbed from the trailhead, and opened to look across the lower slopes of Mt. Dana once again. I red stop sign just before the pass glowed against the white ground, blue sky, and dark trees. Leaning into each step, I found a rhythm.

Not a bad way to start the year. Image

Resolution: 2013 Review

Posted in Uncategorized on January 13, 2014 by moosetracksca

Someone recently asked me to give a letter grade to the past year, to rank the roller coaster on a bell curve of time. I had to laugh at the thought of somehow consolidating all that the past year had to offer, arriving at some standard about which I could either be proud or hide the results from my parents, forging their signature before returning it to my superiors.

Is this going on my permanent record?

Ok, I’ll give it a “B”.

But wait: we instinctively focus on the highs and lows, each extreme weighing on our memories like stones on a scale. Throw on a few expectations and the balance swings wildly hither and thus, further muddling our ability to evaluate the greater picture. I can remember what a crummy snow year it was; yet a master of the backcountry showed me the wing tracks of a bird of prey as it swooped to grab its dinner. The weather also conspired against me as I ventured north, and I met some incredible people and skied the skirts of Rainier on a bluebird day, dodging crevasses and riding 3000 feet of cream-corn under an icefall. I had my heart broken, but completed my most challenging birthday challenge to date and made a substantial donation to the Friends of the Inyo.

I lost a friend, but somehow saved someone else’s life.

There were so many stories from this past year, many I chose not to tell, except to those seeing me in person. There were some that I wish I had written: like how I managed to forget my big down jacket on a February overnight to Humphreys Basin; about hauling a sled into Rock Creek Lake with my best girl friends to celebrate green’s birthday; how my trip up north turned into a random assortment of fun, from visiting friends, to beer tasting, to climbing a few volcanoes, to driving the coast, to beer tasting, to jet-skiing the Columbia River, to playing with my nephews, to beer tasting; returning to a few 8000 vertical foot days both solo and with an incredible friend/photographer/backcountry hero; to resupplying my friend on the JMT and my ranger buddies in Rock Creek South; to dodging thunder storms with another dear friend during the Sierra Challenge.

I watched the leaves change in autumn, and slipped away from the grasp of social media for a while. I needed the space to regain perspective, to revisit exactly why I go out to have adventures of all sorts. Some may claim responsibility for my “leaving”, but I assure you all, this was coming for quite some time. In returning to my adventures as play — and, believe me, this is ALL play of some sort – I’ve found a new sort of happiness. I suppose these adventures are selfish in large part: I have goals, and know what sort of work it will take to achieve them. I will share some of the adventures, both in photos and words, but my focus must be inward still in order to finish healing and changing.

In cleaning out a section of the gear room last week, I came across one of my first assignments from grad school: my Mission Statement. Written in 1998, I remember keeping it pinned to a corkboard for years:

“I am determined to persevere in the face of adversity.

I will utilize my personality and talents to encourage, inspire, and challenge myself and those around me.

I will strive to maintain a balance of my passions: my family, my work, and my friends, knowing that they make my life fuller and richer.

I will be open to the experiences this world offers me, knowing that each dawn brings new hope and perspective.”

It’s more than a resolution: it’s a lifestyle. I am genuinely looking forward to what 2014 has to offer. There are plenty of lessons yet to be learned.

Oh, and maybe I should change that grade to an “A”.

 

Thanks to all for your continued support, and I’ll see you in the heights.

 

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 5,700 times in 2013. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 5 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

The Long Night’s Journey Into Day: Winter Solstice Below Sawmill Pass

Posted in Backpacking with tags , , , on January 10, 2014 by moosetracksca

The north wind swept across the desert, chilled the drips of sweat that fell down the back of my neck. Under my first heavy pack of the winter, I kept a calm and focused stride as I followed the sandy trail across the face of Sawmill Point. Animals had already broken the occasional drifts across the path. I picked my head up at the pops of distant gunfire, and wondered if it was deer or elk that had been in the hunter’s sights. Across the narrow, rocky gap, the trail turned west into the canyon, gently descended to the toe of the Hogsback.

The Beast landed with a soft thunk in the shadowed snow near the creek. While I had frowned at the sun as I had plodded up the sandy slopes earlier, now I longed for its touch as it teased and lingered one hundred vertical feet above me. The pine boughs carried snow puffs; the branches sagged and swayed in the breeze. Miles to go, I thought, as I lugged the Beast back up onto my shoulders. The snow was only ankle-deep here, but steps were careful and regular.

Above the Hogsback and through the burn, the aspen of Sawmill Meadow were briefly backlit as I broke trail. I leaned back against a huge pine and watched the last rays hide behind the ridge. I could stay here, I thought. Plenty of snow to melt for water but not so deep that digging out a platform would be too much work. It was quiet, out of the wind.

But it was only 2 p.m.

Ahead, the headwall to Mule and Sawmill Lake was too much of a challenge for me to not attempt it. I knew the trail switchered through the forest, but I wasn’t totally sure where, so I headed right to the north wall, hoping that the snow was layered less thickly. Up and across the moraines I stumbled, the heavy pack pulled me back down the drainages as I fought forever upward. I found more than one bottomless hole between the boulders. Near the top I wallowed a traverse back into the trees, laughed at the steepness and knowing that a fall would cause nothing more than a bruised ego: a hapless tortoise on its back in the snow.

I admit I didn’t expect the uphill swim to take quite as much time, but the colors were fading from the above the Inyos across the valley as I finally started to search for a campsite. The purple haze of winter was chasing the pink sunset into the upper atmosphere when I spotted a small basin in which I could perch my tent. Pinecones flew in all directions as I nested. Every few minutes I would grunt as I tossed another shovel-full of snow, and I nervously glanced around the darkness, looking for eyes. Without the moon, my headlamp was a lonely beacon; my platform, a small sanctuary between creaking pines. I was glad to finally fire up my stove and go through the motions of melting snow and making dinner. If nothing else, the small rumble of the gas flame was company in the dark.

The longest night, I thought. And I remembered back to my first snow camps, to all of those who showed me just a little bit each time so that now I could confidently stride up into the hills and know I was safe.

The longest night, I thought. The darkness forced me to look inside, since I couldn’t see out. How long I had beaten myself up for one thing or another, how much energy I had spent on trying desperately to be perfect. How I had taken other’s compliments and used them as motivation to keep pushing myself, but how I had somehow morphed that into a responsibility to continue in order to make everyone else happy with pictures and stories. You must keep going, I would say. “They” are counting on you. And when I couldn’t, or wouldn’t, or didn’t want to keep going, there was my excuse to berate my weakness, my weight, my slowness, anything.

The longest night, I thought. My knee injury had been an excuse to stop and drop into a perilous state of apathy. Instead of being gentle and consistent, I motored through fits and starts, pushing myself hard and burning out. It was like I was playing with the stove, cranking the gas and then killing it.  It wasn’t fair to try and sprint through life, or even to think that I could. The pace I was trying to push wasn’t sustainable, so instead I did almost nothing. I convinced myself I was content to watch the world pass by, but then I wracked myself for not pushing forward. It was a dark and lonely cycle.

The longest night, I thought. I awoke after a few hours to a glow as the half-moon soared above the forest. Long shadows creased the snowdrifts; the wind touched the treetops and breathed gently through my tent. I was warm and safe, curled up with my bag tucked snugly under my chin and around my head. The hot water bottle had wandered somewhere between my legs. I tucked my hands across my chest until they fell asleep and needed a different position. For a few minutes, after I rolled over, adjusted the stuff-sack pillow, I stared into the orange moon-glow of the tent walls and listened to the quiet.

Seven miles in and five thousand feet up, a small orange tent perched in a snowy basin between the pines. The walls shuddered from movement within, and the zipper growled as the door opened.

I greeted the sunrise with a smile, sparkling eyes, and a new sort of confidence.

Another chapter had begun.

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Under (no) Pressure: Fourth Recess Lake

Posted in Alpine Skating, Day Hiking with tags , , , on December 6, 2013 by moosetracksca

Framed against the grey sky, the northeast face of Bear Creek Spire cradled the gloaming. The guys had already pulled ahead, driving hard to Mono Pass while I settled into a comfortable swing of legs and breath, loaded down for the day. Around the corner, the Ruby Wall traded shadow for its morning burst of gold. Bill waited at the cutoff to Ruby Lake, offered a shorter day and fresh legs for the skating. I glanced up the south face of Mt. Starr, spotted John and Steve striding up the switchers, and the fire of challenging myself roared to life. With a wave to Bill, I turned and leaned into the packed down snow covering the trail.

It was hardly a chase: more like I harbored an insane notion that I might see the guys again on the trail into the Fourth Recess. Instead, their single set of tracks cut a line through the snowdrifts; an occasional tread outlined in the sand or across a flat boulder; wound down the face to Trail Lake and into the trees. Tucked against the north face, the trail became a trench in soft powder, with more than a few crystals wiggling down into my boots to chill my toes. With each step down, there rose knowledge that the climb out would be brutal, but I did not fear the work.

At last, the trees opened into the cirque, and I spotted them gliding along the western shore. My call echoed off the granite walls, and John skated up, big camera poised as I smiled and waved. They shared the beta on thickness around the lake, how somehow their standing in one spot had set the whole plate to split into hundreds of cracks at once. They skated anxious circles by the shore as I dug into my pack for dry socks and heavy skates, and I was left once again to catch them up on the far side of the lake.

The sound of the skates gliding on the ice has a grind to it, bumping and jumping across feathers of new crystals. Snapping and popping, small cracks spread from under my steps as I leaned my weight into the fronts of my skates. John found a patch of kryptonite: the ice glowed green in the shadow behind the rocks at the lake’s edge. Bubble trails stretched through the ice, some pock-marked the surface to add texture. Fuzzy boulders lurked in the depths.

In the middle of the lake, the old plate had absorbed the snow from last week’s storm, melted, and broke apart. Black, fresh ice canals wound around the broken white sheets, at once angular and then winding. The guys took to balancing on the frozen fractures, racing off to the far corner. I stumbled a bit on the white ice, my body chattered as I pushed across. John got a shot of me tentatively gliding along, arms out front, but a tremendous smile across my face.

I didn’t bother racing them to either end: I only wanted to feel the glide, the air on my face, the sun reflecting off the ice and rock. Steve reassured me at every crack under my skates; John grabbed my elbow to do-si-do as fast as we could. I laughed and cheered, then listened to the echo.

The climb out beckoned, and I knew how I would be forced into a slow march to get back up and over the Pass. The guys headed out for a final lap as I packed, and I whooped to let them know I was off. “Patience,” I kept repeating, as I kick-stepped in our trench in 50-step increments. I still got frustrated, the old anger at myself kicked in to try and berate my lack of speed. But then I looked up and across the Recesses to Bear Paw Peak, at the deep green of the forest, the golden trunks of the snags, the blue of the sky. I breathed deep, took another 50 steps. I knew where I was going, and what it was going to take to get there.

I topped out on the ridge a half-mile shy of the pass and accidentally dropped my pole. In disgust, I turned and crouched to lift it from the snow, but my eyes caught on the flame and fire of sunset reflected on Pointless Peak and the wisps of clouds in the sky to the north. I brought my poles together, cocked my hip to one side to shift the load on my back. But that was all my shoulders carried in that moment: no expectations, no pressures, no desires from myself, or others. There was just the quiet of the high country as the mountains and I watched the sun blaze through the last moments of the day.

Venus sparkled brightly above the Crest, and lit my way home.

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First Solo Skate, 11/16/13

Posted in Alpine Skating on November 18, 2013 by moosetracksca

I crouch.

Gingerly balanced on steel blades,

Poised to leap, arms rigid at my sides,

Teeth clench as I listen and feel,

Waiting for the ice to crack.

I whimper.

Tentative steps away from shore,

Blades never losing contact.

Each puff of breeze throws me.

Mountains stare down in silence.

I glide.

Patterns beneath my feet swirl.

Ripples shining in the last sun.

Reflections of broken rock in an infinity pool.

Gusts sweep the shavings into long feathers.

All is quiet, save for the wind

And the grumbling roar of the shifting lake.

It doesn’t mind me.

I tuck into the far wall, waiting with mischievous eyes.

The air builds on the ridgelines,

Dives in a rush.

Pushing off my toes, strong legs drive.

Laughter bounces around the cirque.

The wind and I in a desperate race to the opposite shore.

My arms raise.

I fly.

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