Archive for the Backpacking Category

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.



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?”




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.


–<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?


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…



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.


Please see more pictures of the weekend here:

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

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.


Learning to Live: EVO Basin Rambling

Posted in Backpacking on September 6, 2013 by moosetracksca

I wanted to be angry.

I wanted to look up at my mountains and see them grieving their mistake with low clouds; agonized rocks falling; groaning and creaking in the wind.

I wanted to walk among them and feel their pain at the loss.

But the pain I felt was my own, my pack heavy on my shoulders, as my steps drew me through the aspen and out onto the moraine, up the block stairs to the shores of Loch Leven. The familiar slopes riding to Piute Pass spread before me, but the sparkles off the water, tossing lightly in the wind, did not light a path. Each gust dove from the peaks on either side, rode the surface of the water, spun it into whitecaps pushing towards me as I stood, unmoved, along the shoreline. Clouds whipped across the Basin; racing to reach the slopes of Humphreys, climb, and dive into the Valley to the east.

I stepped carefully between the boulders beyond Muriel Lake, the open meadows of the Basin having been left behind, taking care to watch my feet and not roll with the rocks. Crawling up the drainage, passing lakes of lighter green, I ducked after hearing the rumbling train of rushing air fall from the heights of the cirque. Unphased, I pushed up the rock piles, closed in on the weakness in the wall I knew to be Snow Tongue Col. “It’s only a few hundred feet of suck,” I whispered to myself as I clutched for holds and kicked my toes into the sand. Half-buried rocks pulled loose as I weighted them, several sent tumbling to the drainage below. With a grunt, I pulled myself over the top, the sun winking from behind a grey cloud and the wind rushing up the south side of Glacier Divide.

John and I had strolled this slope a month before, and found meadows of purple lupine lining the small streams. A few remained, steadfast in the summer sun, the tips of the racemes bold and purple, but fading into dryness and seed along their bases. It was easy travel along the high meadows, transitioning from the rock and sand to prickly grasses around the banks of the lakes. Behind a large boulder, out of the wind, I pitched my tent and set up camp, then drew out my rod and gear before trudging down to the water’s edge.

I knew the wind might push the fish deep, so my casting was less than optimistic. In fact, I lost a brand new lure on the first cast, caught on some unseen rock 30 feet from shore, and me unwilling to get wet on a blustery evening. I don’t strategize when I fish: it’s cast and pray all the way. Instead, the quiet exercise of flip the reel, hold the line, cast and reach, lock the reel, then slowly turn the crank to pull it all back again quiets me. It allows my head to clear. I close my eyes. I sink into the ground. I feel the water’s pull as the lure streams through.


No, it couldn’t be. This isn’t the night for it. I’m here late. The sun is setting. The wind… has calmed.

*yank *yank

Bloody hell.

I pull up on the rod, see the fins breaking the surface for the first time. Crap, crap, crap… it’s a REAL one. Not some little mini-pan-fryer. OK, don’t get too excited, hold him… hold him… Closer to shore, then quick! Big pull and lift and turn and keep it low and all the way behind you to stop it from twitching off the line and back into the water like so many others this summer. Omigosh omigosh omigosh… There’s enough here for two!

Of course there is.

I am pulled back to the reality, the knowledge of how we had talked so many times of trips. Of how I like to imagine she would have enjoyed this one on so many levels. How I wanted to cook for her back here, to share myself and my own talents in this remarkable place. With a flip of the knife, the catch was clean, and I ambled slowly back to camp to warm the stove, rub the fish in spice and drop it into the oil in the pan. I ate well, watching the light edge away from the Divide.

That night, the wind sang through the treetops but never rustled my tent. A coyote yipped and barked somewhere along the Bench. And I snuggled down in my bag against the dark.

I couldn’t reach the snooze on the Clark’s Nutcracker that squawked and clicked above my tent. Mornings were the toughest: packing up and getting started again, all the while thinking how nice it might have been to have someone with me, sharing this ride. I remembered her bounding up to me at the beginning of the Challenge last year: “HI!! My name’s Pat, and YOU’RE Laura Molnar, and I need to shake your hand because you’re a legend!!” I was bowled over and overwhelmed, in part because I don’t see myself that way: I set a goal for myself, and I worked to achieve it. But she did. I imagined how much she might have liked this trip, what with staying away from the crowds, the myriad of peaks at our disposal, the route-finding across the Bench. But in the morning light, I struck out alone across the golden meadows, jumping quickly above sodden moss beds to keep my feet dry, striding up the interconnected slab sidewalks above Evolution Valley. Beyond the creek, I angled down to the trail, smiling as I voyeuristically watched others on the freeway slowly step off the switchers and cross to the edge of Evolution Lake.

At the slabs beyond the inlet, I dropped my pack and dangled my feet into the clear water cascades. Once again, the breeze had quickened in the late morning hours, and shadows danced up the walls of Mendel and Darwin. I just wanted to be alone there in the heart of EVO Basin, to lose myself in watching the light dance across the granite. I would flash to thoughts of my itinerary, and then settle into repose and lean back against the polished rock. There was an almost constant flow of people crossing the inlet, marching back and forth on the trail just away from my perch, but they fluttered on the edge of my perception. The rock along the east side of the creek offered an easy and gentle walk up to Sapphire Lake, where I gave into the sadness and pitched camp above the shoreline. Be gentle, I reminded myself. Be gentle.

Hours later, after the peaks had burned through the sunset, and the glow had lifted from the atmosphere, I stared at the west faces of Mounts Huxley and Fiske. The water still lapped onto the beach below camp, but the wind was slowly calming. Against a grey sky, the rock still seemed to glow, but in ways that I still have difficulty describing. Perhaps they were painted there, millions of sharp strokes creating edges and shadows to bring out the ridgelines and ledges. They appeared almost smaller, coming down to my level of existence. I shook my head numerous times in a reminder to blink and bring myself back to camp. The first stars appeared, but the mountains held their glow as long as they could.

The trail through Evolution is a social experience, with a constant flood of humanity shuttling back and forth across the Basin. I felt strength in my legs that morning, such that striding up the shallow switchers below Wanda Lake was an easy task, even with the constant weight of the pack. I chatted with passers-by: How was Snow Tongue Col? I’m not sure my shoes can take much more of this, and I’ve already tripped? How’s the fishing? Where are you headed? Where are you coming from? Where do you live? Are you out here alone? Isn’t that scary? Your plan sounds so adventurous! We’re from Seattle: what peaks could be a fun scramble?

I bypassed the turnoff to Wanda Pass, searched the top of Nietzsche Col for snow, and opted to visit my old friend, the Hut, at Muir Pass. I touched the blocks around the walls, felt the roughness of the cement bonding them under my fingers, smiled at the wooden panel on which I had spent a lonely night listening to the storm rumble around me. Scrambling to the top, I reached skyward. I invited the Seattle guys to join me over Black Giant Pass and into Ionian Basin, to have company for the scramble up Charybdis. At their reluctant decline, I loaded up once more and followed the easy line across the slopes of Mt. Solomons to the Pass.

“No matter where you go, it’ll be right!” Seattle called from behind.

The dark cloud settled in atop the summit of Charybdis as I dropped the mini-Beast on an island of rounded rock above the lake. Broken, sharp chunks surrounded me; barely a patch of open ground was visible. Hunting around, a single tent platform availed itself, and the rocks served a valuable purpose to anchor the corners and the fly of my tent. I’d never been in a quieter place. The cloud and I began our staring match; the wind and I held our collective breaths, only for the air to rush across the lake and send me into shivers. Rockfall, occasionally soft and tinkling, other times blocky and resounding, sent new material splashing into the lake. The ridge looked challenging, and also loose. I lost my nerve. Shaking my head, I wandered the shoreline, hopping over rocks that perhaps would be underwater in a normal year. More silence.

The broad outlet poured into the enormity of Ionian Basin, each level defined by rough walls of moraine, striped to match the rock beneath. Shallow lakes glowed emerald in the shifting light. I spied a patch of green along the wall to my right near a seep, a flash of red from a few last Indian Paintbrush clinging to summer. It offered a soft perch above the endless boulders. I still watched the cloud, which hadn’t moved, stubbornly clinging to Charybdis and that damn ridge. I tanked up at the cascade, reaching between rocks to where the water fell, before scrambling up to the meadows directly underneath the peak.

The canyon to the south offered only a narrow view, bleached by the afternoon sun, so I turned and rambled back to the outlet. I was surprised to see anyone back there, but with his rugged face, slender legs, and small pack, he didn’t seem too out of place. We waved, and smiled, and came together, calling greetings and starting the small talk of the backcountry. He was 62, been out for 24 days, covering plenty of ground from Road’s End to here. I asked about Explorer Pass, and when he said out of Wood’s Creek, the bridge popped directly into my head. “I wish I had started this when I was your age,” he said. His camp was below, at the bottom of the cascade. Randy seemed to know exactly what he wanted to do, so with a wave, we turned and I headed for camp. “Enjoy the journey!” I called over my shoulder.

The shaft of light burned across the water and hit the base of the wall near camp, then slowly crept skyward as the sun lowered in the west. The clouds had thickened above me, threatening but nothing more. The breeze riffled the water. I had finished my dinner; sipping on the whiskey that had to last me two more nights back here. I stood and wandered a bit with my camera, searching for the best angles of the water and rock and clouds as they flared into the sunset.

“Beautiful, isn’t it?”

I turned to see Randy wandering back into my camp, almost shyly. I beamed a greeting, asked what he was doing here.

“I’m a little embarrassed to ask, but do you have a spare light?”

The descent down the boulders at the outlet could get a little tricky, I figured, although I was a little confused. With an easy shrug, I dug out my kit bag to look for the light.

“I thought your camp was down below.”

“Well, of course you would think that, because that’s what I told you.”

I cocked my head to one side, wrinkled my brow a bit. I dug into the bag.

When I looked up, tears streamed down Randy’s face.

“I didn’t want to tell you that I had come back here to kill myself.”




He pulled his prayer flags from his pocket, held them up for me to see.




The silence had become palpable, a bolt of energy surrounding us both. He curled into himself, sobbing, his arms hanging limply at his sides, the flags dangling from his hand. Without thought, I dropped my bag, squared my shoulders, and reached out for him, stepped closer.

“Come here, Randy.”

His tears wet my shoulder, but I didn’t let go. I pulled his head up to see the last brilliance of the sunset reflecting on the low clouds around Scylla. “Look where you are, Randy. Look at what’s happening.”

I will never forget the far-off look in his eyes, the sun reflecting on the tear-stained cheeks. He shifted back to me: perhaps the faintest glimmer of hope crossed his face. He shuddered as he drew in a breath.

I gave him my light, and he was obsessed with returning it the next morning. His gear was actually stashed at Muir Pass, tucked at the Hut with a note and some money for the ranger. I insisted he not be concerned with such triviality, as now I really had no clue as to what I was going to do. “I just want you to live, Randy,” my eyes pleaded behind the simple words.

“I’m going to head back to Bishop Pass tomorrow,” he insisted. He could tuck the light under the wipers on my truck at South Lake, I explained. I handed over a few bars to fuel him, and he turned to climb Black Giant Pass.

A pause, another turn.

“Do you realize just how amazing you are?” he asked.

I stood and gave as strong a smile as I could muster, waved him on his way, watched him gracefully climb the talus until he was lost in the rocks of the top of the pass. I exhaled, and sat gently on the block holding the front end of the tent fly, looked up at the sky.

My name echoed across the basin. I gave a shout to let him know I had heard.

“Thaaaannnnkkkk yyyooouuu…”

The cloud above Charybdis melted away, the first stars sparkled in the graying sky, blurred through my own tears.

The basin was quiet again.

Sleep never came.

Clouds already at sunrise, and I stayed huddled in my bag, pulled it up under my chin. I wasn’t ready to face the world yet, so I rested and breathed as deeply as I could muster. The tears had played out, but I was exhausted. Gently, gently, I reminded myself. I finally emerged from the cocoon and stretched aching bones as the sun crept over the shoulder of Black Giant. The lake was perfectly still, reflecting the old snow and crumbling rock. What was this teaching me, I wondered aloud. Why, at this time, did I have to feel like the shifting sand on the slopes around me?

I stopped midstride on my way back up from the lake. “Wherever you go, it’ll be right” echoed in my head. The memory of the thank you bouncing off the walls struck me again.

We come here to live.

Pat had come here to live, to reach beyond herself. We don’t know what happened, but it led to the end of her life. It happens, as horrible as it may be. But she LIVED.

Randy had come here to die, but had instead found at least one more day.

I had learned the lesson, and it was time for me to go. For once, I needed time out of the mountains to process, instead of the other way around. I packed up my bag, shouldered the load, and scrambled back up the pass.

I didn’t look back.

My breath clouded in the beam from my headlamp, and I could see that the rain had soaked the earth below Long Lake. It took a few minutes to find my truck at the trailhead, and I sank heavily onto the tailgate after throwing my pack inside. The engine roared right to life as I turned the key.

My headlamp was not under the wiper.

“I want you to live, Randy,” I whispered.


Trippin’ the Tuolumne Light Fantastic

Posted in Backpacking, Skiing with tags , , on February 21, 2013 by moosetracksca

Our boots dried in front of the stove at Ferdinand’s Hut as we munched fresh sourdough and pesto pasta. The huge pot marked “snow melt only” held its slanted perch above the fire as we three laughed into the night. Stories of adventures and people and weather and our own histories poured forth without hesitation or pause. Outside, the air was perfectly still, stars twinkling in defiance of the bright moon. I shoved my hands into the pockets of my jacket and exhaled warmth down under the collar. Along with my friends from high places, I watched the dry logs sparkle and crack behind the glass and iron, and we toasted the beginning of yet another walk.

Clouds brushed the sky at sunrise, the orb creeping around the southern shoulder of Mt. Dana, her slopes weathered and wind-scoured. Snow-filled chutes on her western face sliced into the forest of the meadows below. Under my skis, the steeper slopes leading to Gaylor Peak were firm and slick, the crust occasionally giving way as I traversed back to the skin track Rob and Laura laid down. From the saddle, they peered back at me as I slid above the rise, knowing smiles on their faces as I gasped to see the morning light bathing the Cathedral Range above the lake and meadow below. I could feel a blanket of contentment rest gently upon my shoulders. “Where do you want to go?” Rob asked.

“I don’t care,” my breathless reply.

Laura and I criss-crossed the slope, hunting for threads of snow tying the white patchwork together. The air was heavy with juniper in the late morning warmth. After Rob caught us up, I peeled left, drawn to the opening in the trees and spying clean granite. On the northeastern ridge, I halted in my tracks at the expanse below. Dense pine forest carpeted the borders of the Meadows and the slopes leading to the spires to the south, the great faces to the north. When I had started my snow experiences, my mother had asked me, “When do I get to see Tuolumne in winter?” Happy tears brimmed in the sunlight, and it was all I could do not to whoop and dance on the edge. Through my eyes, I was making my mom’s wish come true.

After eating lunch at the Soda Springs, I walked alone through the center of the meadow as Rob and Laura hoofed back to check on our neighbors staying the hut for the weekend. The afternoon sun spread long, needled shadows across the polished surfaces, thin ice glinting as I passed. The river whispered across small open sections, polishing the rocks below. Each gliding step thudded through the crust, the only sound other than my boots squeaking. Catching them up, we three climbed Puppy Dome, across from the ranger station, a perfect vantage for feeling the final caress of the day’s light as Mts. Dana and Gibbs caught fire behind the curtain of pines. Skiing through the best snow of the day, I hollered as I caught air off a log, my friends turning to laugh and shout with me.

The climb was slow and steady for eight miles along the road, my skis finding purchase on the offset skin track. It was silent save for the swish of the skins on the snow and my breathing, steady and solid as I found a happy pace. “What the hell have you got in here?” seemed to be Rob’s new phrase for me as he inspected my pack. From the top of the first hill, just beyond Little Blue Slide and past the 9000 foot sign, I stopped in the trees to listen to the breeze, closed my eyes to the sun, and let it wash over me. With the same knowing smile that Rob and Laura had given me a few days before, I looked back over my shoulder one more time at Cathedral and Unicorn Peaks.

I wasn’t going home: I was already there.

From the luckiest girl in the world:

Climb Hard. Be Safe.


Day 10: Repose (7-31-12)

Posted in Backpacking on November 1, 2012 by moosetracksca

Dittli’s to the east. Fiddler’s to the west. I melted into the slabs once again and practiced the fine art of relaxation.

To Rest

–       To acknowledge

–       To stop

–       To breathe

–       To assimilate

–       To watch

–       To learn

–       To grow

–       To recover

–       To listen

–       To nourish

–       To observe

–       To consider

–       To focus

–       To stretch

–       To sleep

–       To move on

–       To dream

–       To gift of yourself

–       To love yourself.

Tomorrow, I will explore outside of this amphitheater.

Today, I explored inside myself.