“Which way is it?”
I tipped my head up towards the wall that soared skyward just west of the parking lot, with a waterfall high above us like a wild horse rising through the snow then plunging under it again.
Mom stood with her arms crossed against the cold.
“Ok.” She shook her head.
I gave her hug and thanked her again for giving me a ride all the way out to June Lake.
“Guess what,” I said, “I’m a little nervous about this too.”
I’d been here a few times before and had been turned back by storms each time, stumbling out of the hills in heavy boots with my skis 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 five days later. I grit my teeth against a pang of anxiety about how this would all go. As I said before, I’d been turned back a couple times before on this route, by high winds and whiteouts. These were also big mountains, and I was alone, and I’m not exactly an expert skier.
My camp for the first night was the base of a tree in the canyon side. I stamped out a little platform and crawled into my sleeping bag with half my tarp under me and half flung over a tree branch for a roof. My body warmed the bag quickly as I watched the stars come out. I cinched my mummy bag around my face and fell asleep quickly.
The next morning I climbed up onto the ridge and headed west towards the western end of Waugh Lake. Trees thinned out and the view west opened in a vault of searing blue sky, ringed by the looming black crest of the Sierras. Nearer to me, windswept ramps of snow reaching upwards, glistening in the sunlight. I kept my eyes lowered out of the glare. Soon I noticed 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. I was only on my second day, but already my heart leapt at the feeling that I wasn’t alone out here. The tracks soon veered north towards Donahue Pass. 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.
With my skis strapped to my pack, I plunged heel first down though a notch in the crest. A few hundred yards below the col I stepped back into my skis and spent the rest of the afternoon etching careful turns on the ice down a staircase of frozen lakes and connecting creeks, all above tree line. It was like skiing on a frozen 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 barren slopes of the high Sierra, 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. I knew
I’d pop up somewhere east of Ostrander Ski Hut. 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 the 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, had, like a country song might say, a bitter lonesomeness seeping into my bones. I saddled up and picked up the frozen tracks headed west.
After losing my way more than a few times, shouldering my way through thickets of junior pines and sloshing ankle deep in snow melt, I stepped suddenly onto the Glacier Point Road. It was empty, as dusk settled on the woods. The route was closed to traffic down at the turn off, and I had to slog a few miles in my ski boots on the asphalt. I talked to myself outloud and sang old songs. I walked into Badger Pass resort and found it deserted. As darkness fell, and I prepared to set up my sleeping bag in the parking lot for the night, a truck engine rattled to life in the descending darkness, and I flagged down the driver as he rattled up to the exit of the lot.
“Good thing you caught me,” he 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.
At the junction with 140 I spread out my gear on the asphalt and made a call to Modesto from the pay phone there. Mom’s headlights woke me a couple hours later.
“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.”
“What do you get out of this?”
I shrugged and gave her a hug, got into the driver’s seat.
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 in my ski boots. On my way back down the Mist Trail, I passed a couple park maintenance workers with pickaxes and shovels sitting by the side of the trail. One looked me up and down, with my clattering gear and my head hanging down.
“Looks like you’ve been on an adventure,” he said, and gave me a little salute.
I smiled and nodded.
“Well you’re almost down now,” he said.
In spite of myself, my heart caught in my throat.
“Thanks,” I said and walked the last two miles to my car wiping my eyes now and then, laughing at myself, bone tired and homesick. What do I “get” out of it? Somehow, it’s poignant impressions, simple gestures, raw observations that just don’t come to me by any other means–mom’s arms crossed as she watched me disappear into the mountains far away down in a frozen lot, mountain lion paw prints in the snow at 10,000 feet, long turns carved on quivering legs with a heavy pack down through a staircase of frozen lakes, or the cold squeak of the passenger side door, as I opened it in the dark and drained the first of two beers, still warm from a spring day, that I’d known, from experience, that was just what I would need.