Dusting off the Cobwebs

Day 1: The Matterhorn

The single headlamp floated towards me in the darkness of 0430 as I reached into the TOF to light my stove. I froze for a moment, uttering “Good morning?” to the light, and Michael’s accent wafted a greeting back to me. I embraced my friend and offered coffee, learning that he had pulled into the lot at 0200 after a long drive from the Bay Area. As the water warmed, I busily stretched the skins onto my skis, threw too much gear into the simple day pack, and locked my boots into place for the carry away from Twin Lakes. The sun found us trudging up the Horse Creek Trail, wisps of clouds clinging to the peaks to the west end of the canyon below the Sawtooth Ridge. In the morning chill and breeze, we hiked up along the creek, our packs weighted down with the load of skis and avy gear. Michael turned once early on to ask if he was going too slowly. 


Two hours, 3.5 miles, and almost 2000 vertical feet into our day, we finally reached the snow: a headwall of consolidated hard pack with a small stand of pines lining the bottom. We stashed our trail runners and changed into boots and skis, happy to be rid of the weight. Michael glided out and up an older track across the face, and I gingerly stepped behind him, my ski crampons seeming to not grip the snow at all. At the first switchback, I reached down to fiddle with my bindings, and in an instant I was sliding back to the bottom of the hill, my whippet pinned beneath me as I faced into the slope. Willows near the bottom halted my fall, which Michael later described as “a slow motion train wreck.” I gathered myself, rolling my eyes, and stomped back into my skis to regain all that I had lost.

At the top of the slope, we racked our skis yet again as we hoofed up the ledges, the wind swirling against the granite that bled ice. I kept looking above to Michael, who steadfastly kicked steps into the already softened snow, occasionally leaning forward against the weight on his back. I gasped as we crested a snow-swept ridgeline, the sun sparkling off the hardened pack and a small tarn immediately below us. I stepped gingerly just below the small cornices to a flat just beyond the small cirque, and we snapped into our bindings again to stroll up the slopes to the glacier. 

The air was cold and brisk and rushing against us as we pushed upwards, the snowpack never softening in the light. I began to get a bit nervous as we hit the steeper slopes of the glacier, Michael beckoning to a tall and steep couloir on our left, known as “Ski Dreams.” With the snow running fast, I suggested we stick to the NE couloir instead, although I couldn’t tell any difference in angle. On old avy debris in the middle of the slope, we once again stowed the skis on our packs and slipped into crampons in order to more quickly climb the crusty slope.

I was amazed at Michael: the man had gotten barely two hours of sleep the night before, following a long drive from the Bay Area and sea level.  And yet, without complaint, he happily took the lead for kicking steps, perhaps because, as usual, I’m fairly slow when it comes to the “up” direction. I did my best to hang with him, keeping about 20 steps behind in case of a slip or fall. At the base of the summit massif, we stashed our skis and looked, somewhat forlornly, up at the half-melted-out couli over our heads. The wind by now was whipping around us, blowing old spindrift across the slope and driving clouds fast across the small patch of blue sky above us. 

“Do you want to go to the top?” he asked, and I nodded in the affirmative, since I hadn’t been yet. And so, up we scrambled, crampons and ski boots scraping against scree and rocks, then sinking into crappy snow over ice. The steepness grew in the midsection of the chute, and I was comforted by at least having my whippet to drive into the snow. It was slow progress, but I was climbing! One foot at a time, pushing up, driving my crampons into the step ladder, the wind gusting around us, the clouds rushing overhead, the rock towering above but the angle lessening as we crept towards the top of the chute. I could do this! I could finish this! I could…

“Laura, this isn’t fun any more…”

Crap, he’s right. We were about to get blown out of the chute and I knew it. I flipped around to sit next to Michael in the mild shelter of a large boulder, and I smiled over at him. The summit would have to wait for another day. Already my mind shifted to the classic dihedral climb on the far side of the massif. But that would be for another day. I crept back down the stepladder as Michael bombed ahead, then we slapped the skis on and slipped carefully onto the icy slope of the glacier.

The first turns are always the hardest for me, standing at the top of a long run-out slope, especially if any crust is involved. Michael easily made his turns down the face, then waited patiently while I went through my “scared-then-mad-that-I’m-scared” cycle. After a few minutes of frustration, I finally grunted my way through the fear and we alternated turns flying down the glacier. I finally found my glide and I whooped in joy, turning to shoot a video of Michael before we met up to cruise the easier sections back to our shoes. We were quiet on the long hike out, but we started laughing all over again as we piled into Michael’s truck to enjoy a well-earned brew before heading to dinner.


Day 2: Hourglass Couloir

Karl had met us at the MoMart in Lee Vining on Friday night, after he had climbed a few peaks off of Carson Pass, and our threesome loaded up heavy packs, once again, after spending the night at Mosquito Flat. In the early light, we walked along the dry trail, carefully sidestepping the frozen sections and marveling at the extended crystals lining the crevasses between the rocks. The tarns were still and perfect mirrors of the trees and walls high above, any snow on the trail was hard and allowed for easy passage. After 2.5 miles, we finally stashed our shoes and skinned between dirt patches up to the Treasure Lakes. In a small chute, I suddenly started to feel weak and nauseous, and I called just ahead to Karl to tell Michael that I needed a break. On a gorgeous slab in the sun, I plopped down and tried to start eating and drinking, and was suddenly overcome by shivering. My bonk transition had started, and I grabbed my jacket as the guys looked on a bit nervously. “I’m OK,” I stuttered through chattering teeth. After 30 minutes, I settled down, my metabolism kicking back in, and we loaded up for the big climb ahead.

The Hourglass Couloir stands tall and proud at the back end of Little Lakes Valley, Bear Creek Spire just to the south and east. Old tracks switchbacked up the right side of the chute, then a boot track extended high and around the corner out of view. Michael and I swept forward, Karl bending off to doff his touring rig and throw on crampons. Michael kept looking back at me from the skin track, later telling me that he was checking to see if I was bonking again. He was pleasantly surprised to see me chugging along right behind him. The slope steepened, and we stopped to trade skis for crampons. Damn, there was a lot of walking going on.

A perfect step ladder presented itself in the chute: boot deep track and just firm enough for the ‘pons to grab and hold. It’s ease forced me to remind myself to pay attention, as any slip now would have led to a nasty and long slide back to the base. Michael and Karl forged ahead, and I kept my pace steady, resting as I needed after blocks of 20 steps up. Perched behind a large boulder, Michael waved as he stashed his skis and asked if I wanted to head to the top. Once again, not having been there, I opted for the continuation, and we kept lifting heavy boots and crampons up the slope to the top. Once there, a perfect nap rock presented itself, and Michael and I sat to eat lunch while Karl slogged on to the top of Mt. Dade. I wanted to make sure I had enough legs left to descend safely instead of drag myself up another 900 vertical of boulders.

Michael and I stomped down the slope to the skis, and we juggled for position behind the boulder. I almost lost my ski as I pounded it into the slope, so I waited for Michael to finish and I used his platform to step in. Once again, the first turns were the scariest, and I ended up side slipping for a bit until I once again bit my lip and threw the skis around. In the softer snow of the lower half of the couloir, we traded turns, and my smile grew exponentially. “NOW you’re having fun!” Michael called. Karl caught us up after a brief rest and his glissade of the chute, and we sliced and diced our way around the rocks of the lower approach to get back to the trail.

“Don’t forget to grab a beer!” the man at the side of trail called. Michael had walked right by the brightly colored cans, but I had no trouble spotting them, or the sign saying “4U” written in sticks above them. Our packs felt noticeably lighter following a quick downing of cold Tecate, but they felt the best when we finally swung them down at the foot of our trucks in the dry parking lot.


Day 3: The Sweetwater Mountains

“Let’s not park here: keep heading up the road until we have to stop!”

Backseat drivers. Can’t live with ‘em, can’t live… well, OK. I was the backseat driver, and I was feeling a little lazy after two solid days of lugging heavy packs up and down snow slopes. Michael’s Pathfinder chugged its way up the slim jeep road, climbing ever higher into the sagebrush slopes of the Sweetwater Mountains north of Bridgeport. I watched the trees thin, huge junipers or pines towering in solitary grandeur above the broken rock and soil. The slopes of Wheeler Peak towered above, sienna in the morning light. At just below 10K and Boulder Flat, a small snow bank blocked just enough of the road to halt our progress, and we chocked the tires after Michael pulled as far to the side as he could.

It was nice to be on an easy road with a much lighter pack, but I could feel the effects of two days of grinding in my legs. Head down, I tried to coordinate my breathing with my steps when a shape and color caught my eye. “Hey, guys?” I said, reaching down for the chipped black piece. Arrowhead! “How did you see that?” I told the guys to keep there eyes peeled, but then chuckled at Michael, since he had walked right on by the eight cans of beer on the trail the day before. We walked across easy ground above a small tarn and headed to the broad, loose face. “I don’t think it’ll be that bad,” Michael grinned, and I rolled my eyes, betting him dinner that I’d be sliding all over the damn place.

A well-packed use trail switchered up the face to a collapsed mine, the adit leaning out from the slope. Beneath our feet, minerals sparkled in the sun, and we spent almost 10 minutes digging through the rocks looking for the best samples. Just above the mine, we gained the ridge, and I gasped as I popped up and over to see the rest of the range. The melting, loose slopes dripped color into deep canyons, pines dotting the lower elevations. Snow drifts added even more depth to the rounded slopes and summits; a road along the ridge was etched softly into the rock. My usual smile burst across my face, and I was re-energized to be up high, as well as gazing across one of the most unique landscapes I had ever seen. 

After a break on the summit of Mt. Wheeler, our hardy trio trudged onward along the road, marveling at the shifting colors and striations. The road stretched up to the summit of Mt. Patterson, with the guys of course opting for the straight-up approach (instead of a long switcher). I could hardly complain: it was a perfect day up high, sunny and a cool breeze, and I was having too much fun exploring and talking with the guys to worry about anything at all. After another lunch break, and glowering at four quad-riders who felt that roads were for lesser men, we strode back down the road to the waiting truck. After an epic back-down, where Karl directed Michael’s driving and I was in charge of lifting and throwing the heavy rocks out of the road, we loaded into the Pathfinder for the bumpy ride back down to the twin Elements in Bridgeport.

With big hugs and bigger smiles, my Bay Area buddies hit the highway, and I turned south for home, my biggest weekend in months under my belt.


How the hell did I do this for 10 days straight??


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