The Sierra Seven-Day IQ-Enhancing Ski Tour

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside Magazine, February 1995

The Sierra Seven-Day IQ-Enhancing Ski Tour

It outclasses the Alps. It nurtures budding friendships. It even makes your brain grow. A journey along the high route, America's finest backcountry trek.
By John Skow

I'm climbing in steep, soft snow at about 12,000 feet, with another thousand to go before the top of Milestone Pass. Feeling airy. And...what? Smug. Aggressively content. Odd thought, though true. At this precise moment, I am exactly where I want to be on the earth's surface. And fairly sure that this bit of surface won't avalanche for a few more days.

Fogging heat of the high afternoon sun beats up at me from the slanted snow face. Over my shoulder is the hulking, unbeautiful mass of Mount Whitney. But I'm not looking over my shoulder. I'm looking through blurry glacier glasses at Rob's boot prints a couple of feet beyond my nose. My skis are lashed to my pack, and I'm laddering straight up. Kick, breathe. Kick, breathe. Plant both poles, punch the step, lever upward, rest. And again. Slowly. After two days of hard churning on the Sierra High Route, my lungs are beginning to accept the thin air. I've never trained for this kind of climb, always just walked myself into shape. Now I'm halfway acclimatized, and for the first time my body is sure that it can do this trek. I float with the strange, three-ounces-of-gin exhilaration that I've always felt at altitude.

Two days ago, three of us drove north toward Bishop through the high desert country of California's Owens Valley. It was about nine o'clock on a bright, cool, late-April morning. I was riding shotgun, muzzily digesting a truck-stop breakfast and letting my mind go back idly to a climb of North Palisade Mountain that had started from this same valley. Roped together, a couple of friends and I had slogged to within about 100 yards of the top, edging in loose snow up the margin of a steep chute. But the surface slides that had been coming down all morning had begun to take on velocity and substance. Earlier they had merely licked at my boot tops; that afternoon, though, when a rush of snow slid past me and hit my partner 40 yards downslope, there was real tension on the rope. Time to bug out, and 45 minutes later we were back in the snow cave, melting chunks of the wall for soup...

"What's that up there?" Rob Mackinlay, who was driving, pulled the car to the side of the road and pulled me back 15 years to present time. Rob, Steve Johnston, and I piled out. High in the air, maybe 5,000 feet above the valley floor, were tiny glints of bright light, dozens of them flashing at a time. There was a long moment of wondering, and then one of us said, "Geese." And that's what they were, geese in a sizable flock, catching the sun as they circled upward on a thermal, letting a column of hot air lift them to flying altitude. We watched for several minutes as the geese rode their elevator to perhaps 12,000 feet. Then, just visible if you were looking at exactly the right spot, they wheeled free of the thermal and headed north. It was a fine omen for our ski tour: go high, move it out, don't forget your down jacket. A couple of hours later we were in Bishop, sorting gear in the backyard of the house that Allan Pietrasanta and Martha Bellisle share on Sierra Street. Our piles of high-tech clutter were enormous. Wilbur and Orville jokes were heard. Would this stuff fly? I wasn't sure.

The Sierra High Route takes off from the Symmes Creek trailhead, above Independence, in sagebrush and piñons at about 6,000 feet. The night before our start we soaked for an hour in a hot spring on BLM land somewhere near Bishop, drinking beer and watching the stars wink. The short rumble to Symmes Creek was dreamlike, and when the desert track ended, we rolled our sleeping bags out on the sand, not bothering with tents.

The next morning, drowsy, blinking, not looking with enthusiasm at the prospect of hard uphill marching, we stretched out breakfast and the fiddling-around process of sorting gear one last time. (I sorted so shrewdly that I managed to leave my spoon behind in the pocket of a superfluous fleece jacket, so that for the next week I had to eat with my fingers, the blade of my Swiss Army knife, and a plastic fork that quickly lost its handle and all except one of its tines. Why didn't I use the knife to carve chopsticks? Dunno.) Somebody on the High Route ahead of us had parked a cream-colored Cadillac Coupe De Ville at the trailhead, and for some reason that seemed very funny. Delaying blastoff for another five minutes, we all posed for a picture in front of the car. Who said ski mountaineering isn't classy?

A summer horse trail heads up Symmes Creek, and at about 7,000 feet wildflowers leave off where patches of north-facing snow begin. Old, melted-out boot prints put the Cadillac party at least a couple of days ahead. We crested a ridge at 9,400 feet and ate lunch below the jagged peaks of Mount Tyndall (14,018 feet) and Mount Williamson (14,375 feet). Then we lost a bit of altitude on a long traverse to the southwest above the rush of Shepherd Creek. At about 5:30 we stumped into Mahogany Flat, a pretty, snow-free meadow of manzanita and mountain mahogany. I let my pack sag. There was some discussion about trying for another camp 1,200 feet higher, but as far as I was concerned it was entirely theoretical. Quitting time.

That's the start of the Sierra High Route, if you go east to west, beginning near Mount Whitney in the John Muir Wilderness and following, more or less, the boundary between two national parks, Kings Canyon to the north and Sequoia to the south, to a Sequoia trailhead called Wolverton. It's a rough, glacier-carved high country of narrow canyons, crenellated granite ridges, and, in any direction, the ranked spires of broken peaks. The mountain passes are only slightly lower and less precipitous than the ragged summits. You travel where the mountains let you travel.

One early explorer who discovered this was Clarence King, for whom Kings Canyon is named. He was a member of the California State Geological Survey, and in 1864 he made a first ascent of what he thought was the highest peak in the area. When he reached the top of what he named Mount Tyndall, he saw two other mountains that clearly were higher -- Williamson, to the east, and Whitney, a few miles south, which he later named, in what was either boundless admiration or a spectacular case of brownnosing, for Josiah D. Whitney, the survey chief. By the time he finally climbed Whitney, in 1873, his party was not the first, but the fourth to get to the top.

Our trek's crow-flight distance, for a supercharged, pressurized crow, is about 40 miles. Parking a vehicle at trail's end and then getting yourselves back to the jumping-off point can take a couple of days of beady-eyed motoring, given the huge driving distances around this roadless chunk of the Sierra. Some frighteningly well organized people split into two groups, leave simultaneously from Wolverton and Symmes Creek, meet in the middle, and exchange car keys. Good for them. In either direction, except for the first day and part of the last, you're never below 10,000 feet, and rarely below 11,000. The trip takes about a week to enjoy properly, and if you do it in much less than that you're making a point I don't want to hear about.

All talk of trailheads and routes assumes that there is snow to ski on. For six winters in the late eighties and early nineties, the Sierra was nearly snowless. The idea of ski trekking came up mid-drought, when Rob Mackinlay and I were jawing in a teahouse on assignment in Turkey. He's a freelance magazine photographer now, but he mentioned that he had done the High Route as a ski guide. It sounded like one of the world's great treks -- if it ever snowed again.

Which it did, come winter. Back to normal, or just a climatic anomaly? No one knew, but the snow depth was 15 feet and more. It kept on snowing. In mid-April, ten days or so before we were to head out, an old climbing partner called to say that he was just off the John Muir Trail. Two days of forward motion in eight days of too much snow, he reported. He also said good luck, and take something to read when you're snowbound in your tent.

The trans-Sierra is said to be the hardest and highest ski trek undertaken regularly, anywhere. Certainly in toughness it outclasses two other treks I've done: the Alpine Haute Route, from Chamonix in France to Saas-Fee in Switzerland, and Colorado's Tenth Mountain Trail. This is worth mentioning not just to establish bragging rights, though that's always important, but as fair warning: After Shepherd Pass, which we reached at about noon on the second day, the Sierra High Route offers nothing in the way of bailout opportunities. No road parallels your path. In the Alps, if you feel peckish from lack of Forelle blau and Grüner Veltliner, you can drop down to Zermatt, scare the tourists with your sun-blasted mug, eat your trout and drink your wine, sleep between clean sheets, and be back on the tour the next morning. Even in Colorado you can reach a ranch house if you need to. But on the High Route you're committed.

What makes the Sierra trek measurably more difficult than other classic ski journeys, however, is not so much the consistently greater altitude or the big-mountain terrain as the fact that you have to make every turn and climb every step with your house on your back. The Alpine Haute Route and the Tenth Mountain Trail are both hut-to-hut tours. The Sierra High Route is not. A winter pack with tent, sleeping bag, extra socks, stove, fuel, and food weighs about the same, 65 to 70 pounds, no matter who puts it together. Breaking the handle off your toothbrush doesn't help much. In everyday, flatland life, it's a chore for a healthy man to lug a 65-pound suitcase up to the bedroom. The five of us who made the Sierra trip together are all athletes of one sort or another, but none of us is a weight lifter. Allan, like Rob, is a former mountain guide. Steve is a ski racer. Martha, five-foot-two and slender, used to be a top-ranked bicycle racer, and yes, that helps. I am big and strong for my age, as they say about kids, but my age, twice that of the others, is 61.

The challenge, though, is mostly mental. If you can climb a thousand feet an hour, which is a good pace with a heavy load, then the pass that rises 2,700 feet above the snow you are standing in will take about three hours to reach, give or take some sag time. The mental trick is to accept this. Unless you get lucky with endorphins, your knees and shoulders will continue to hurt for those three hours. Then, as you begin the long traverse beyond the pass, they will ache in a different way. Set your mind's timer and let your thoughts make their own ascent.

So I muse my way upward, sometimes climbing the mountain I'm on, sometimes slogging on another snow face a continent or two and decades away. A ski pole sinks 18 inches into soft snow, and the hole it makes when I pull it out is a bright, luminescent blue. It is the blue of the inside of snow, and abruptly I am on a time trip above Salzburg's Hollersbachtal, with the Austrians who taught me ski mountaineering 25 years ago. Then I'm recalling the blue of a narrow, deep crevasse I fell into up to my elbows (one elbow on each edge after a snow bridge broke through, my legs and boots dangling, my oops-alarm going off quietly but insistently) on a lone climb long ago in Afghanistan. I had forgotten this shadowed, glowing blue, seen only in the fissures of steep slopes, under snow intensely lit by sun.

Query: Is ski touring a metaphor for life? Nah. An IRS audit is a metaphor for life. Bob Dole talking through his nose is a metaphor for life. But high-country ski touring is journeying, pushing beyond the ridge above for a view of the ridges beyond. Arriving at a place I've never seen before, making camp, sleeping and eating, then moving on, is the kind of mountaineering that has always seemed magical to me.

Ski trekking is likely to be solitary while you're under way, and a good deal of the traveling is inside your own skull. That's part of the attraction. You're not often linked to your companions with a rope, as you would be on a rock climb, so you move at your own speed. (Though skiing down while roped together, as some friends and I had to do once -- through a whiteout, on heavily crevassed snow -- has its own bizarre appeal, at least when you're telling the story later in the bar.) Normally somebody stops to take a leak, or races ahead for a photo, or feels sludgy or superhuman, and the line spreads, peacefully and naturally, to half a mile or so. At this distance color and body shape are lost, and you and your colleagues are little more than black dots to one another, beads strung on the long thread of a ski track. High mountain solitude is a grand feeling, not easily come by in flatland life.

But when you regroup at lunchtime or supper, it sure helps to have picked the right traveling companions. I've climbed with a tourist who refused to assist in a high-altitude rescue, not wanting to lose his chance at conquering (his concept, not mine) a 24,500-foot summit. And I've traveled with a gent, otherwise exemplary, who thought freeze-dried vegetarian curry was food. Most commercial adventure trips have at least one intolerable clod along, as if insurance regulations required this. The boor's role is to complain about minor flaws (freeze-dried vegetarian curry, for instance) and then pout when they can't immediately be rectified. On the other hand, professional climbers run to "I am right" types, and having two of these on an expedition can sour the nondairy creamer.

Our group is friendly and peaceful, with no whining or ego-aerobics. Rob knew each of us before the trek and pulled everyone together. The rest of us tell our life stories through long evenings of cooking supper. Rob's stove behaves mutinously for the entire trip, and Allan's tiny, ancient Svea, manufactured by Swedish trolls in the late Stone Age and meant for two people, does the whole job in a reliable though leisurely fashion. Since the weather is fine, tardy food doesn't matter, and we learn that Allan, 37, gave up guiding about ten years ago, mainly because starvation beckoned. Now he runs a sewing shop that makes cases for laptop computers, and he can see the Sierra from his factory window. Martha, it turns out, became a full-time bicycle racer after getting married and having two little girls. Steve, an alpine ski racer good enough to enter national competitions a few years back, is bravely fighting half of his nature -- not the half that propels him into the mountains around Salt Lake City nearly every winter day, but the half that explains, conjectures, and elucidates microbiology, which he studies at the University of Utah. At 28 the man is beginning to age as a skier but just starting to coalesce as a baby professor. And Rob and I? We became freelancers at about the same age, though some 30 years apart, and have lived happily ever after. All it takes is a wife with iron nerves.

Our single disagreement is brief: whether to camp one evening at a relatively low spot beside a sun-heated cliff that's producing a rill of water, or head up to a spectacular prominence 20 minutes away, where we'll have to melt snow with the single working stove. The vote is three to two, go for the view. There's no grumbling, but the water problem remains. So two members of the majority party, Rob and Steve, ski back twice to the tiny waterfall to fill everyone's water bottles.

So it goes. Chores are done without eye-rolling or throat-clearing. No one pontificates on correct mountain procedure. No one insists on crack-of-dawn departures. Just as well; until the morning sun eases over the eastern ridge and shines on your campsite, you aren't really ready to shift your bones. The weather you're hoping for in late April is hot sun during the day and freezing temperatures at night, so that by late morning only the top inch of snow has softened. And that's the weather we have, for seven straight days.

Food, a great improver of character, may account for some of our civility. Martha and Allan planned the meals and bought the supplies. Their wise policy was to go heavy: We've brought zucchini, red onions, cucumbers, squash, sausages, pesto, pasta, canned chicken, pancake mix, maple syrup, drip-it-yourself coffee, Irish whiskey, amaretto. My guess is that we each started with about two and a half pounds more in our food sacks than if we had taken nothing but the usual camping sawdust. Well worth the grunt, say I.

Good for me that my colleagues are amiable, because on the very first downhill run, a long, rolling descent from the top of 12,000-foot Shepherd Pass, I begin to try their patience. What I do is fall down repeatedly. The snow is soft and tricky. But the others stay in control. I flop, get back up, and flop again.

When I finally blunder my way to the bottom, my friends say, "Tough snow, good job, welcome to camp." It's not really quitting time, but they're busy putting up the tents.

I don't argue. My mistake is clear: I figured that I could get by with backcountry three-pin skis and my few scraps of telemark technique. The same skis -- great, arrowing 215-centimeter Karhus, meant for carrying a heavy load through the woods in a straight line -- served me well on the Tenth Mountain Trail. But my pack weighed about 25 pounds then, and the Colorado trail, though high and beautiful, was easy, a moderately demanding golf-course track raised to 11,000 feet.

What we have here is big-bowl skiing, like the toughest parts of the Haute Route. I've done that trek twice without any trouble, but never with more than about 30 pounds on my back and always with randonnée touring gear -- short alpine skis with walking bindings that allow the heels to lock down for the descent. This rig still hangs in my barn, and the semistiff plastic boots that go with it are in the attic. I should have brought the alpine-touring gear with me, of course. But wouldn't that have been like attacking a modern climbing wall with hammer and pitons?

None of this matters. Here I am, scatty technique, wrong skis, and all, with most of the tour still ahead. I decide to forget telemarking entirely and fake through the downhills with stem turns. That works fine when the snow is good. When it is not, I flounder and fill the air with abominations.

I spend a lot of time watching my friends telemark. All four are experts, unfazed by snow that might change two or three times in a long downhill run. But they all fall, much more often, in my judgment, than they would have with alpine-touring equipment. Telemarking is harder and chancier than parallel turning with locked-down heels. My final conclusion: Telemarking, an American reinvention whose current form has been evolving for about 20 years, is a good way to tour the High Route if your turns are flawless. If not, alpine touring, though relatively unknown in the United States, and decidedly unfashionable, is a fine and honorable alternative.

A mountain journey can take on such intensity that the valley world and even a climber's valley identity fade to unimportance. As we crest Colby Ridge and descend among spires of vertical rock, Allan and I make a coin-flip route-finding decision that could backfire. The whole party might be slightly off course, and we find ourselves at the top of a steep, rock-dotted Steilhang (German for "steep hang"). The others head left, where, as it turns out, the rocks and steepness ease off. Allan and I go right, where for 20 minutes or so our route is dodgy, just doable enough so that we keep on descending but tricky enough that a fall, over rocks, could be disastrous. The steep snow is frozen hard, and I pick my way above a cliff on a millimeter of angulated ski edge. In other places the snow is soft and rotten, so that it breaks away under my traverse. Yes, I discover, you can self-arrest a slide with a ski pole.

Now we're down to skiable snow, feeling fine. In the evening Rob and Steve climb high above camp, free of packs, and give a three-pin giant slalom demonstration worthy of videotape. They keep it up till after alpenglow has disappeared from the west-facing cliffs and finally carve down to our tents by starlight, blown and laughing.

What began with a gaudy and spectacular succession of peaks and high passes -- Whitney, Tyndall, and the other giants of the Sierra's eastern escarpment -- now starts easing into gentler country. For a tricky hour the next morning, after skirting a vast, dark blade of rock called Shark Fin, we have the beginnings of something close to whiteout. Bad visibility awakens what Austrian mountaineers call the inneren Schweinehund and the French call the cochon interieur -- the inner pig that lives in each of us and rises in one's throat to oink when things get scary. The terrain is easy enough, however, that the pig can be silenced. The reminder is polite: We could have days of whiteout, with or without falling snow. If so, just humping our heavy packs wouldn't be our biggest problem. Progress would slow, tents and gear would stay soggy, conversation would diminish to grunts. Route-finding would be a matter of compass, map, and altimeter, contradicting the woozy evidence of eyesight and intuition. Each morning and each lunch break, the decision would be to wait out the weather or force the march.

That is what doesn't happen. What does is that we make a wonderfully scenic last camp on broad, rolling tableland just at treeline. Here the highest streams of the western drainage sluice off the season's wild excess of meltwater. We finish our pint of Irish, feeling good about what we have done, and somewhat warily regard jobs and bills and the rest of civilization's discontents that lie just over the horizon.

With civilization in mind, I bring up a little-known bit of mountain lore. Steve and Allan, who survive by intellect, are delighted to learn that high climbing makes you smarter. My Austrian ski-touring friends established this scientifically. First, alas, mountaineering makes you stupider, if you climb really high without oxygen. (This part of the theory we do not need to explain to our friends and loved ones who remain in the valley, was the Austrians' opinion.) But then the body, uneasy at being led by a brain incapable of outthinking a mountain sheep, cranks up hemoglobin production to increase oxygen uptake. When the alpinist returns to sea level, his abundant red stuff keeps on working, and for several days he is smarter than everyone else. Eventually, though, the smartness wears off. The climber is now almost as dumb as everyone else. With the last shred of his luminous high-altitude intelligence, aware of his obligation to family and profession, he makes the only possible decision. He goes climbing again.

Sounds good, we agree. The next morning, fizzing with extra brainpower, we hump over the last hump, converse briefly with several marmots sunning themselves at 9,000 feet, and then slalom through snow blackened by the bark chips of a great sequoia forest. Steve's van is parked where we left it, 20 feet beyond the last soggy trace of winter. Three hours later we're in Fresno, cleverly ordering margaritas.

Filed To: Snow Sports

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