Two Days to Remember in the High Sierras
Last season I completed five ski expeditions: Antarctica in November, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in February, the Chugach in March, Greenland in April, and the Himalaya in June. Each were noteworthy trips in their own right, but when I look back at the season all I can think about is the synchronicity of two days in my home range of the Sierra Nevada.
“Living the dream.” I’ve heard it before, and you’ve heard it too. It’s a cornerstone ski town phrase reserved for the ski bums that pull it off-it being the dream lifestyle. It doesn’t necessarily have to be any one thing. The dream lifestyle differs for each of us as we’re each unique beings. But I’m willing to venture that there are a few things that overlap in this so-called dream existence. One is being able to ski every powder day throughout a given season. Seems fair, right? I know there are some groomer lovers out there, but they’re probably not reading Ascent.
Another one is travel. I think some would take more, some perhaps less, but part of the dream is to see the world as a skier. Show up in a new to you part of the world, exchange pleasantries on a cultural level, hopefully attain that thing I mentioned first and foremost (skiing powder), maybe even ride a first descent. Well, as much as travel is a part of the dream equation there’s something to be said about nailing it at home.
Unless you were completely unplugged from the North American winter last season you too know that much of Western Canada and the American West had banner snow seasons. It seemed week after week, storm after storm kept coming to one region or another. The Sierra Nevada did not miss out. Although technically the 2010-2011 season counted more inches in terms of actual accumulation, the way certain features filled in last season in the Sierra was a phenomena not experienced in many, many years.
After 2011, the Sierra snow sliding community hit a major bump in our collective dream with several drought years stacked on top of each other. Remember that first principle I mentioned in the dream? It’s hard to rationalize your existence as a ski bum when there’s such a glaring lack of the fresh stuff that makes the dream worth living. But we marched on as a community, did what we could to stay sane, and found solace in dreaming about what it’s like when the Sierra turns on.
Last season that dream was a lived reality. Pretty much all season long, from north to south, east to west, the Range of Light was on fire. In the darker, colder months of winter, we were literally skiing 9k-foot powder runs in the Eastern Sierra. From 13k-14k foot summits to the snow covered sage on the desert floor, it was quite literally all-time conditions. And slowly but surely, as the snow stacked up, and esoteric storms dropped snow that stuck to places it quite simply hadn’t stuck in many years, a few of us took notice.
The season raged on with 700-800+ inches falling in high elevation locales across the range. We even had a couple of powder days in June, with easy access summer skiing throughout most of July. But for the purposes of living the dream, beyond skiing copious amounts of powder, and traveling the world with a pair of skis, there’s also the business of skiing the lines that dreams are made of. Once again this is yet another example of the extreme subjective nature of being a snow slider. One persons dream line can be completely different than another’s, but let’s just say in the Sierra ski mountaineering community, Middle Palisade and the Giant Steps Couloir on Mt. Williamson are revered.
In late January I knew the window was opening. The Sierra didn’t have its deepest snowpack yet, but these are special lines that don’t necessarily need an end of spring depth of snow to be skiable. They need the right amount of snow, falling and sticking in the right way for each line to come into play. It was the Giant Steps Couloir that was really on my mind. I had tried to ski it two other times with my partner Jeff Dostie in years past. The last time we tried back in 2011 our good friend, bonafide Sierra Slayer John Morrison had invited us to join him to ski Middle Palisade on that same day. As much as we were torn to accept, seeing as John would not be going after such an outing if he didn’t think the line was both in and worthy, Jeff and I couldn’t shake what we thought was a prime opportunity to ski arguably the most elusive couloir in the Sierra.
It was a beautiful day with zero percent chance of precipitation. By the time we crested 14k feet on the high summit plateau of Mt. Williamson clouds had enveloped our vantage. Taking notice, we moved quickly to where the couloir starts as unlike many classics in the range, this is a line that gets skied from the top down rather than from climbing up it first. We knew our opportunity had passed as the first waves of snow started washing in, covering us with our dumbfounded looks. With difficulty in finding the right entrance, where the rappel anchor was, and the weather deteriorating by the second we made the prudent decision to bail. John reported an amazing day skiing both Middle Palisade and into the adjacent Palisade Glacier drainage thereafter. He had beat the storm wave and in truth it sounded like it didn’t really affect his day at all. Jeff and I on the other hand were 0 for 2 on our Giant Steps attempts, and missed the opportunity to share an epic day with John.
Sometimes the dream hits a few bumps in the road. After the monster winter of 2010-2011 the Sierra took a winter snooze. The drought years were tough, especially in the Southern Sierra where the biggest lines in the range reside. But last season there was no drought. Last season was all about dreams, and beyond the multiple atmospheric rivers events that covered the Sierra, lines filled in that hadn’t been skiable in years. John says it well,“It’s great to be tuned in when it comes to skiing big objectives. Tuned in to the weather, the snowpack, your partners, and your routes. Last winter 25 years of listening to the mountains and learning from them paid off with back-to-back ski descents of the two most iconic routes in my home range. Not only were the routes safe to ski, they were in perfect condition with deep, stable powder, and zero wind affect. Timing is everything.”
He’s right. Timing is everything. It’s when scary lines to the uninitiated look like death traps, but to the skilled skier are the definition of living the dream. On the flip slide we also know it’s when the mundane 20 degree slope can also become a death trap in the backcountry. Timing means a lot. That’s why this February window last season, the 13th-15th to be exact, was so memorable. It was the heart of winter, and as much as the snow kept coming, it was just as important about the way it kept coming in that mattered so much.
Jeff and I had talked after a recent Eastern Sierra session and we were pretty sure Giant Steps was at least worth another shot. The storms that had been hammering the Sierra were forecasted to take a pause in the first week or so of February, so this middle month window was becoming more and more on our radar. John was of course on it as well. Part of this living the dream business involves finding and making time for when opportunities such as this become available. Jeff wasn’t able to be free until the 15th, but the window was open on the 13th. What to do?
There’s this feeling of excitement, angst, and restlessness that combines when a time like this is happening. It’s something surfers, climbers, and other adventure sports athletes can attest to in the spirit of knowing you’re about to do something you really want to do. But it’s dangerous, and there are a lot of unknowns. This is also why in a weird way it all means so much. So I called John to see what he thought. Of course he was already en route to the Eastern Sierra with a rather large posse of highly accomplished ski mountaineers. I could tell adding another person to the party was too much since it seemed as though there were already too many in tow for their particular day. I had no idea what they were going to ski, but I knew what I wanted to ski and figured John would sign up as well.
John and I decided to meet up the night of the 13th. I’ll never forget driving down the 395 highway close to sunset that night and calling him. “How was the day?” I asked. “Pretty amazing” was John’s response, but I could tell in his words the amazing had a little emphasis on it. “What did you ski?” A lengthy paused ensued. “Oh, Giant Steps.”
So many emotions washed over me. At first I was disappointed to have missed out on the day. Knowing that very few people have skied the line, that I had already tried unsuccessfully to ski it twice, and that it was in fact in, as I had thought, was a lot to take in at once all while watching a psychedelic sunset splay out across the Eastern Sierra. But at the same time, as much as I value skiing with John, he had just physically confirmed what I had been thinking. Giant Steps was in, and to me, skiing it without Jeff was almost impossible. Part of that comes from the times we’ve tried in the past, but most of it revolves around our partnership in the mountains. From Chamonix, to the tour camp we run each winter in the Chugach, to our days in the Sierra, Jeff has been my main go-to partner since he first showed me around (more accurately scared the shit out of me) Squaw Valley back in 2001.
I paused, took a breath, and smiled. In actuality I was stoked beyond belief for John and his crew. I also knew Jeff and I would have another chance. All I wanted to do was get up there with Jeff and get walled on Big Willy-the nickname many of us in the Sierra have for the great Mt. Williamson. Cresting at 14,379’ a one-day climb and ski of Big Willy is a solid day no matter what way one goes up or comes down the mountain. Depending on snow line and route, a day ranges between 8 and 9k+ vertical feet of elevation gain. Since Giant Steps is characterized as a series of three interconnected couloirs-or steps if you will, each that showcase fatal exposure to the riders left when linking the slivered walls, the employed descent style has been to ski it from the top, accessing Williamson’s summit by one of a variety of paths to its start that are much more user friendly and safe.
Over the years Giant Steps had become the one for me. It was authentically the one line that I thought about the most, the one my relaxed dream state would bring me to in the waning heat of summer when fall leaves start changing, and skiing is on the mind more and more. I squashed any thoughts of missing my chance to experience what to me had become this Holy Grail sort of line and made plans to meet John at dawn. Part of me wanted to bail to make sure I was fresh and ready for a 9k+ foot day on Big Willy. But Jeff was still a day out, and any day I can link with John on the Eastside is a worthy day.
What better way to spend Valentine’s Day than with three stinky backcountry skiers? My partner Jillian is more than understanding of such hilarities as later that night I would find myself calling her from the seemingly out of place, but must visit Still Life French Restaurant in the town of Independence. I was seated alone while couples shared in their romantic dinners, and I thought about the day I had just experienced, and what was to come.
At dawn I had met John at the South Fork of Big Pine Creek. He was his normal fired up self, but a little less gung-ho after his enormous day prior. Along with John were two other Sierra Slayers– Tahoe local Sean Haverstock, and renowned Sierra guide Howie Schwartz. The thought was that Middle Palisade was in, and whether it was or not, the four of us were going to have a look.
It wasn’t the plan I had driving down to meet John, and even he hadn’t necessarily thought Middle Palisade was even going to be skiable, let alone ski as well as he had just experienced in Giant Steps. Nevertheless, we started skinning from the trailhead, and with each step the snow got deeper. The consistency and quality was reminiscent of the velvet we seek in the Chugach Mountains of Alaska. But we were still in California, and as much as that fact frames many people’s perceptions of what the skiing is like in the Golden State, when the High Sierra is on I will argue it’s as good as any ski range in the world. And today was one of those days.
Looking up at the face of Middle Palisade we knew we were in for an adventure. If we could safely access the face, it appeared we might be in for the run of a lifetime. As we collected at the base questions came from each of us. The line cliffed out at the bottom, so to get on route we would need to enter from a thinly exposed snow ramp. Our first attempt was too much to handle. Not enough snow connecting to various sections of uncovered Sierra granite. Just as it looked like the plug was being pulled John thought better and decided to poke around an even more precariously situated corridor of snow. It went. And so did we, one by one swapping leads on a truly exhilarating snow climb.
The top was cold. A single digit day with blustery winds, no one wasted time in changing over to get ready to ski, or in making some silly joke that we were freezing in California. Our group felt good about snow stability. With the ever-aware presence of the closeout cliff below us we each dropped in one at a time. Negotiating the upper crux of steep, off cambered fall line brought us collectively to the upper branch of the face in snow that I have rarely experienced outside of Alaska. The impulse to open up our turns was strong, but the billowing sluff kept us each in check. We each skied calmly and coolly, leap-frogging each other as cold waves washed up our waists, chests, and shoulders. My face was completely frozen from the face shots. To experience this line with this crew, in these conditions was worth the wait. All four of us rejoiced at the bottom and relished our way down as we still had several thousand feet of moderate powder skiing back to the car.
I know this day means more than just another outing of skiing by the way each of us has acknowledged the experience since. Sometimes things line up, and being open to that feeling, and the awareness of when it’s happening speaks to being in tune with the rhythm of the mountains.
I left the lovey-dovey vibes of the French restaurant later that night to post up at the base of Big Willy. John, Sean, and Howie had gone home after our day on Middle Palisade. Jeff was driving down from Tahoe to meet me, but I was far too tired to wait up for him. Instead we would greet each other by headlamp the following morning, something we had done many times in the past. With a few Williamson sessions under our belts we figured the approach wouldn’t be much of an issue. Usually it is. It’s part of how Big Willy gets its name and reputation. Once you’re higher up the mountain the ascent become more manageable, but from the desert floor thick willows, steep canyon walls, and tricky topography tends to own most any taker.
I guess it had been a while since Jeff and I had been on Williamson because our morning didn’t start as well as it ended. We got off track-not too much, but enough to question if we were going to be able to attempt our objective. Readjusting our internal compass we clawed our way from one precarious island of vegetation to another and finally saw passage to the upper slopes of Big Willy.
The sky was clear, the wind was calm, and no zero percent chance of precipitation freak storm looked to be on the horizon. We opted to down climb rather than rappel into the line due to both the amount of snow and chance to save a little time. After a few dynamic moves and a short walk we had arrived. It felt almost surreal to be there, and while the evidence off our friends trip from two days prior wasn’t completely erased, a breeze had lightly blown up the couloir erasing their ski tracks and coating the couloir with a fresh layer of light snow.
Stable, soft, and creamy as could be, the skiing was just as good as the point of view. This truly is a unique line as the way the steps connect the triad of couloirs, spilling out onto a European Alps style face is unlike any couloir I’ve ever skied. We danced our way down each of the steps admiring our situation, and all that it took to have us arrive at this moment. The couloirs were perfect, and the exit was cold, smoky powder until the lower drainage the took us a fair amount of time to navigate until we made it back to the trailhead.
It was worth the wait. Jeff agreed adding, “ It’s a line worth wondering about for all those years. Sometimes that image of what something is going to be doesn’t always pan out when you finally get to do it. This one did; it really is that special.”
For me, it takes the summer solstice to snap out of ski mode. There are usually still plenty of turns to be had in the Cascades, or like this past winter, in the Sierra, but it’s the first official day of summer when I tend to catch myself really reflecting on the winter that was. It was a genuinely banner season for Sierra snowsliders. As much as ski travel remains a part of the dream, the more time I’ve spent away from home the more I value time spent in my greater backyard. Putting the logistics together for a ski expedition is no menial task. It takes vision, time, and follow-through with many moving parts. It’s kind of funny when you realize the payback from all that time spent on expeditions can be had with one epic day at home. Maybe two.