The Sierra Seven-Day IQ-Enhancing Ski Tour
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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.
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.
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
“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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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,