The air was still and stale when we woke up on the ground in Pine Creek Canyon in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The sky, which is usually a deep crystalline blue on these excursions, was a monotonous grey. The high clouds hung stationary and the air was humid and almost luke-warm, at least compared to what we were expecting.
After stuffing down some yogurt, bananas and a protein shake, we drank enough fluid that we felt like we were going to pop. Noah has become accustomed to this routine and learned over the years, that when he doesn’t drink enough fluid at the start of big days, he feels like he’s hiking through glue.
Late the night before, we had strapped everything onto our packs, including our skis, and leaned them up against a huge ponderosa pine tree next to where we slept. We picked them up, slung them over our shoulders and began working our way up through the pack station to find the rudimentary trail that would lead up the deep ravine behind the massive Mt. Tom. Shortly, we began running into patches of snow on a steep, left leaning side hill. They were spaced out just enough that using skis and skins would have required a lot of putting them on and taking them back off. So we hiked along, punching deeply into the snow, which was wet, spring-like and unconsolidated. The patches clung to a smooth, dirt slope, slick with pine needles, and every couple of steps our feet would loose grip and we’d slide down an energy draining 5 feet.
As we traversed high left, we made our way over towards the old mining tramway tower that hung high and exposed over the deep and dark canyon below. I pointed out to Noah the platforms across the canyon on the flanks of Mt. Tom, and how the tramway once spanned all the way across that vast reach. We were amazed to think someone could pull so much cable onto such an apparatus and we shared a chuckle about how powerfully money can drive the human spirit.
The next stretch of side hilling was extensive and along the canyon wall that brought us directly south. Exposed cliffs lurked below, so we opted not to skin and instead booted across, with Noah in front of me to be safe. Fortunately the snow had firmed up a little, and despite post-holing, there was much less risk of sliding out.
Normally at this stage of a hike, Noah begins to feel more motivated as we climb into the alpine and his speed picks up. The start of these trips are usually slow and I find myself drawn to putting on the pressure, externally motivating him. Sometimes I nail it and stay in encouragement mode, but other times I reveal my frustration. He’s sensitive to that and has learned to share with me when he doesn’t like it. He and I are very accustomed to these moments and we move through them knowing they have just become part of our big day routine.
When he was 13 years old, we skied a lot of mountains in the Eastern Sierra, including the highlights Mt. Wood, Mt. Gibbs, and Mt. Dunderberg. Later that spring, we shared the summit of Mt. Shasta. During each and every one of these days, we move through tough and bogged down moments early on, but he emerges from them fairly quickly into a mood more in line with ‘this is awesome’.
This day was different. All the elements that typically help him move through the shift - the crystalline facets of snow reflecting light, the crisp cold air, the sun beaming, the deep blue sky, and the expansive views that come from climbing higher and higher up the side of a beautiful mountain - weren’t there. We were trudging through awful snow, side hilling across a deep, dark canyon shaded by the high ridges surrounding us, and the skies were dark grey.
Noah fell back and I knew he wanted to turn around. But I also knew that if we did, he would have regretted not pushing up over the next ridge. So I stayed out ahead, and using space, pulled him along. At one point we reached a long craggy section and for a half hour, wallowed in waist deep sugary snow. Fortunately, above this bench, after 3 hours of climbing, we were finally able to put on our skis and skins. But sure enough, after another 15 minutes of uphill travel, above the next bench, we were surprised to find we had to descend hundreds of feet across jagged talus to the basin below to reach snow that connected to high basins we wanted to ski.
As we skinned further and further up, we could finally breathe. The ridges opened up around us and Mt. Tom was no longer a looming giant blocking our view. We chose to ascend some cool slivers of snow that snaked up through rock outcroppings and Noah excitedly took note of landmarks that would lead us back so we could ski them on our way down. After 4 hours from pine creek canyon trailhead, we reached an open bench that offered a panoramic view of the massive basin above which spanned laterally across miles and offered an array of wide open bowls and chutes.
We were both wiped from post-holing, cross-hilling, and from weather that would make you rather curl up by a fire and read a book. The snow was marginal at best and we decided to sit, eat, and figure out what we were going to do. Heading back down was the most attractive choice, especially since we knew the descent was going to be nearly as tough as the climb and that daylight could become an issue if we continued onward.
But then we spotted it - this little sliver of snow, across the basin, about a mile and a half away. It ran up a deep cleft on a beautiful, granite face, streaking up until a large cliff abruptly blocked it below the summit. There was a huge buttress at the base of it, and from our vantage, the chances seemed slim that snow connected around behind it. It was 11am and with 6 hours of daylight left, we chose to go for it, fully understanding we could be dealing with fading light while descending the lower canyon.
As we skinned down into and along the broad basin that led to the apron below the chute, a thin connection of snow that wrapped around the granite buttress came into view. Sure enough, this thing was good to go!
Something was in the air. A very special experience was brewing. Maybe it was that we came across this surprise after such a tortuous approach. Maybe it was the gloomy weather, offering something quite different than what we are used to in the high Sierra. Maybe it was the subtlety we both felt and couldn’t help but tune into. Maybe it was the fact we were sharing the ups and downs of the day, both willing to push through them together…together.
The apron was slippery as anything and we worked our way through and up and over firm ridges of wind scoured snow. We finally pulled our skins off, put our crampons on and shoveled out a shelf so we could shed some of our heavier items before we climbed into the recesses of the chute.
Noah led us up into the initial section, which we had thought from a distance would be about 5 feet wide. But the scale was deceiving and it ended up spanning about 40 feet. The granite buttress that we previous thought obstructed the bottom of the chute was about 50 feet high and created a majestic entrance. As we climbed in, the snow transitioned into that perfect, feathery, stable, boot deep powder that is familiar to anyone who skis the Eastern Sierra. The towering walls on each side protected the experience, and created a whole new scene inside this solid granite mountain. Noah stopped, looked back over his shoulder, and tacitly shared his thought: ’WOW!!’
As we climbed, we realized we were drastically wrong having initially estimated the total vertical of the chute at 300-400 feet. This thing kept going and going and it was 3 times that. From below, we marked a rock outcropping that we thought was close to the top and as we passed it, we were surprised to see that it was only the half way point. The air got colder, the snow got better, and despite both of us getting tired-er and tired-er, we were lit up with energy that I hadn’t tapped into in long, long time.
Wind had carved out a little flat spot underneath the vertical granite slab, that guarded the top of the chute. We sat, ate some energy food, and through the slit created by the granite walls, we gazed over Mt. Tom and the north part of the Owens Valley way off in the distance. We were part of this peak, not standing on top of it, but enveloped safely within it.
It was time to descend, despite both of us not wanting this part of our experience to end. Noah went first. He crafted his turns carefully and smoothly. Emotions welled up inside me and I had to wipe away a tear so I could see through the view finder of the camera. As he skied, he yelled a couple “ahhhhh, yeahhhh, Dad!!”’s and they echoed off the walls around us. He stopped about half way to the rock outcropping which, itself, marked the half way point of the entire chute and I descended down to him, legs burning. We still had three quarters of the chute to go!
“Take it in Noah. Here we are bud!”
“This is awesome.”
He paused, glanced around, then faced downhill and began making turns up against the left wall of the chute, dwarfed by the solid rock above him. A couple more repeats of this cycle and we skied by the entrance rock onto the rippled and scoured apron below. The snow turned awful and very challenging. We gazed back up into the chute, took in what we could, and then grabbed our heavy items before skating across the basin below and contouring up and out.
From afar, we stopped and looked back across at the sliver of snow that just gifted us one of our most memorable mountain experiences ever. We talked about life. We talked about struggles. We talked about the struggles we faced today and how they were far from what many people around the world experience on a daily basis. We talked about pushing through them and that just by doing so, we have the power to create the goodness you find on the other side. It’s all relative.
Under the grey skies, we found Noah’s landmarks and skied through the chutes that led us to the basin below. We scrambled wearily up the challenging talus and then schussed over the waist deep post-holing section into the dark canyon below. Mt. Tom loomed above, as we took off our skis and then post-holed and side-hilled above the hanging cliffs below. As we passed the old mining tramway tower, we laughed again at those crazy miners and what they must have put up with to build that mind boggling contraption. We slipped and fell several times through section of the unconsolidated snow, smooth dirt, and slick pine needles.
The stale air at the car had lifted, at least it seemed so. In fading light, we drove out the canyon and caught a glimpse of the sparsely covered Scheelite Couloir.
“Next year, Dad!”
Our phone pinged, as we drove into reception. Kirk and Mark were checking in about a meeting spot for the following morning. We were all going to ski The Ripper and we were pumped!