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


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

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