“Which way is it?”
I tipped my head up towards the wall that loomed just west of the parking lot.
“Ok.” She shook her head. I felt a bit guilty for talking my retired mom into giving me a ride all the way out to June Lake.
“I’ll be all right.”
I’d been here a few times before and had been turned back by storms each time, trudging in ski boots with my gear clattering on my pack. Now the morning sky was clear. I kicked steps in crust covered powder up through the steep gully, then finally snapped into my skis and stretched my back. I looked down to the lot where my mother still stood beside her car, watching my progress. The next time I turned to look back, just before skiing into the hanging canyon, she was gone.
My plan was to climb along the creek that plummeted from the gap above, then up out of the canyon into the Rush Creek drainage. I’d pass above Waugh Lake and head to Marie Lakes at around 10,000 feet and over the col between Mt. Rogers and Mt. Lyell. From there I’d be on the Yosemite High Route, circling south and traversing the southern rim of Yosemite National Park to end up at Badger Pass Ski Resort four or five days later. For now I focused on trying to get as far as I could this first day–to make the col by tomorrow. One thing at a time.
My camp for the first night was the base of a tree. I stamped out a little platform and crawled into my sleeping bag with half my tarp under me and half flung over a low branch to wall off the wind. I watched the stars come out with the mummy bag cinched tightly around my face, and wondered if I’d make it over the col the next day.
I got moving quickly in the cold, clear morning climbed west towards the far end of Waugh Lake. Trees thinned out and the view west opened in a vault of searing blue sky, ringed by the black crest of the Sierras. Nearer to me, windswept ramps of snow reached upwards, glistening in the sunlight. Even in sunglasses, I squinted in the glare. At one point in the late morning, I noticed I was following fresh paw prints the size of a child’s hand, with neat impressions of each claw, and a smaller set, the size of a dog’s. The tracks soon veered north towards Donahue Pass. I remembered reading once a theory that big cats had no real reason to be so high in the mountains–other than for the fun of it: something akin to the thrill of adventure. There was no wind. I reached the col between Lyell and Rodgers by early afternoon, light-headed, sucking air into my lungs. I hunted along the crest of the ridge for a way down into Yosemite. I’d passed the farthest point I’d ever made it on this route.
With my skis strapped to my pack, I plunged down though a notch in the crest. The entire stretch of the southern rim of Yosemite lay before me. A few hundred yards below the col I stepped back into my skis and spent the rest of the afternoon etching careful turns down a staircase of frozen lakes and connecting creeks, all above tree line. It was like skiing on a frosted windshield. I camped that night on top of the snow, surrounded by dark cliffs and bright stars.
All the next day I made my way along the base of the crest, up and over ridges, traversing high above frozen lakes, and over Isberg Pass. I melted snow for water, took short naps in the shade of an occasional whitebark pine, and kept moving again.
The distance and the rugged heights swept out all around me, a vast temple of open sky with a horizon of black, silent cliffs. I pushed myself onward, up and over ridges, around immense lake bowls and down steep mountain sides checking my route and thinking ahead–too absorbed and on edge to feel very much alone, though I noticed, by the end of the third day, I was talking outloud to myself as I pushed forward.
From the the ridge, I side-slipped down the slope then traversed towards the next ridge, leaving a thin line etched in the white ice a thousand feet above a frozen lake. Once I descended too far, slipping down to the wrong lake, had a glum dinner, then climbed back up over the spur to other dark woods. I would stop, unclip my skis, shake my food bag from my pack, start the stove and boil a little water and struggle into my sleeping bag as I started to shiver in the encroaching darkness. The freezing cold gathered me into its arms just minutes after I sat down to rest, just seconds after the sun went down.
As I left the higher, barren slopes, I was past my halfway point and within reach of Ostrander Lake. I skied in and out of snow wells around trees, hypnotized by the rhythm, looking up periodically to keep the ridge line to my left and — when I caught glimpses of it — Horse Ridge as my bearing.
At one point late in the afternoon I spread out my tarp in a patch of sunlight and fell asleep, then awoke when the sunlight was fading–rousted by the cold and an ache to get moving again.
My last day out I climbed up through a steep gully to a clearing where I found myself blinking at the frozen tracks of other skis. I followed the tracks around the easternmost bulk of Horse Ridge and emerged at Ostrander ski hut, shuttered for the spring. I stretched out on the granite porch of the Depression-era log structure and considered spending the night there. Badger Pass ski resort was 10 miles away. It was afternoon. But being this close to home, after over 40 miles of solitary skiing, a “little bit of lonesome,” as a country song might say, was slowly seeping into my bones. I picked up the frozen tracks headed west.
After a hours slushing through the melted-out Bridalveil trail, I unclipped my skis and stepped out onto Glacier Point Road. It was empty. The route had been closed to traffic down at the turn-off. As dusk settled, I lumbered in my ski boots on the asphalt down to Badger Pass Resort and found it deserted. I poked around the place a bit, then set up my sleeping bag in the parking lot for the night. Then a truck engine rattled to life in the descending darkness.
“Good thing you caught me,” the driver said, “I’m the last guy outta here. Nobody’s gonna be up here for a few weeks.”
“My luck holds,” I said, shaking his hand. “Thanks.”
“Where you coming from?”
“You don’t say,” he mumbled, and nodded.
And then he didn’t say anything else.
Mom’s headlights woke me a couple hours later. I was sleeping on the concrete at the junction with Highway 140.
“Got it out of your system?” she asked, lifting the door of her hatchback for me to load my pack.
“For a while I guess.”
The next spring I went out to try the trip again from west to east, climbing up out of Yosemite Valley via Illilouette Creek. I got as far as Red Peak and looked east over all the way I’d come the year before. There was no snow below 10,000 feet. Drought year — no way to ski it this time. The magnificent, quiet line of peaks from Red Peak all the way around the headwaters of the Merced River to Rodgers and Lyell seemed to nod back at me as I stood on the loose rocks of Red Peak. On my way back down the Mist Trail, I passed a couple park maintenance workers with pickaxes and shovels resting on their shoulders. One looked me up and down, with my clattering gear and sunburnt face.
“Looks like you’ve been on an adventure,” he said. He had long grey hair tied back in a pony tail.
“You too,” I said, and kept on down the trail. My feet hurt and I had a beer waiting in the car. Of all the poignant impressions, simple gestures, raw observations from some high vantage–someone’s arms crossed as they watch me walk into the mountains, paw prints in the snow at 10,000 feet, long turns carved through a staircase of frozen lakes–it’s the wonderful squeak of the passenger side door, as I open it in the dark and drain the first of two beers, still warm from a spring day, that is just impossible to arrive at any other way.