April 17, 1978–At last, after several months of planning and three years of waiting for enough snow, we are beginning a proposed 200-mile ski tour circumnavigation of the Lake Tahoe basin. An idea in motion. For me, a lifelong skier and Tahoe resident, a sentimental journey through a vital and beautiful part of my heritage. An attempt to establish a Tahoe Haute Route, a safe and close-to-civilization ski mountaineering route easily available to city-bound weekend mountaineers. A time in the backcountry performing the repetitious drudgery of humping heavy packs through snow-covered country on a pair of skis powered by nothing more than sweat. Time to recharge the batteries.
Following the normal packing, farewell, procrastination delays, our friend, Susan, loaded us into her old bread truck and drove a couple miles outside Truckee to Cold Stream Canyon. We piled out, took photos, said our good-byes and began walking south along the dirt-mud-water-snow road leading up the canyon. It was more than a mile before we found enough snow to ski upon.
We were a diverse group—-
Craig Calonica, 24, has lived his entire life at Tahoe. Craig is an Alpine ski racer, a climber, a carpenter and a lover of good times. With his long hair and frizzy beard he looks like Tahoe’s main Rastaman. He spends a couple weeks each year in Cervinia, Italy and Portillo, Chile, seeing how fast he can ski. Two months after the tour Craig fell face-first between his skis at 118 mph in Italy, and, while not seriously injured, he was in the Turin hospital for a while.
Otis Kantz, 36, was raised in an Ohio orphanage and appreciates the good things in life. Otis was part proprietor of the Squeeze In in Truckee, where the best omelets I know of are found; and, that morning, omelets were on Otis at the Squeeze. Otis is one of those people who will have the mundane and not so mundane chores done before the people around him realize or at least admit the job needs doing. Ski mountaineering was new to Otis, and his fatigue the first days was as real as his amazement at the experience.
Tom Lippert, 38, is sometimes called “The Walrus” for his big round smiling face and droopy mustache. Tom is one of the better skiers at the Squaw Valley Ski School and is the consummate professional photographer—dependable, in focus, energetic and right where he says he is. He’s an old friend of many facets and miles including the time we talked our way in carefully chosen French into France and out of Switzerland with a van load of Warren Miller’s very expensive camera gear we could not account for. A few years ago Tom was well into his 30’s and unmarried and no prospects in sight. A friend of mine asked him, “Tom, why haven’t you ever been married?” He replied, “Well, I just never met anyone I thought I could grow with.” Good answer. Thoughtful mind. However, a year and a half before our tour Tom married Laurel and they’ve both been growing ever since; and the tour was the longest they’ve been apart.
Bill McKinley, 25, was a stranger to us all, but a friend of Otis’ said he was a good man and wanted to go, and somehow that was enough of a recommendation. Bill is cheerful, intelligent, strong and incredibly knowledgeable about maps, mountains, trees and the backcountry in general. A forestry graduate of Northern Arizona University, Bill had worked for the U.S. Forest Service and was in the process of getting out of bureaucratic government life into the more classical hand-to-mouth existence of the non-governmental person of the mountains who is not there to protect, rape, govern, capitalize upon, escape to or commune with the mountains, but only to live in harmony within them.
Steve McKinney, 24, is, was, and will be for quite sometime one of the better-known people in the ski world. I’ve known Steve since he was in the cradle and his family since not too long after I got out of mine. Within six months after our tour he had set two more world records for speed on skis. He is the only person to have traveled over 200 kph on skis. Steve is, mentally and physically, one of the strongest humans I know. He is not by any means outside the common experiences, but McKinney has resources you can count on which all people have but most do not know how to tap. He’s one who sets the standard and the pace, and he’s a hell of a trailbreaker when the snow is deep, the pack heavy and the body tired. McKinney used that tour to begin conditioning for the speed runs.
And me, Dick Dorworth, 39, the elder. It’s impossible to describe yourself in less than a lifetime of work, and hard enough at that, but I will say I find it intensely rewarding to immerse myself in the simple task of getting from Point A to Point B on a pair of skis. It’s excellent therapy for the aches and pains encountered in the civilized world. I mean, if I were a musician I’d be a blues man. As it is, instead of picking notes and howling hurtin’ words, I spend lots of time picking my way up and down and around the mountains of the world and listening to the wind howl in the trees and through the passes and over the lakes of those mountains.
On this first short day we made only a few miles before camping by the South Fork of Cold Creek about 2 miles NNE of Anderson Peak. It was nice to be out. Lippert’s brand-new boots had blistered his feet. Old friends are better than new when carrying a heavy load. The rest of us were tired in the good way.
Sierra Designs had generously given us six sleeping bags and two dome tents, a three and a four-man. Steve christened the smaller one by spilling hot water all over the inside while trying to cook a brew. Tom, not to be outdone, kicked over a pot of soupy rice inside the larger tent. We finally ate and collapsed into restless comas, emanating snores and farts and belches and the sounds of the uncomfortable movements of the first night in the woods sleeper.
April 18, 1978—A perfect Sierra day. Up early after a poor sleep. Tents are preferable to nothing, but it takes a day or so to get used to a new sleeping situation. Otis complained of stiffness. Tom’s feet had lots of tape. The rest seemed okay, but a difficult day was upon us. Our route was one way—up—from 6500 feet to 8700 feet just east of Tinker Knob; and there’s no way to get in shape for humping heavy packs in deep snow except by doing it. Fortunately, we had luck with wax and our equipment (Hexcel Alpine skis and various models of the Silveretta binding) worked perfectly.
Backbreaking work. The labor of touring with pack through the backcountry is liberating, exhilarating, fascinating and positively healthy. It clears the mind, elevates spirit, fatigues the body. But people are different and Tom, the slowest, cracked us up during one rest stop after a particularly tough stretch when he commented he was “periodically overcome with fits of acute depression.” Tom needed lots of encouragement at that point.
Otis, too, was extremely tired when we reached the ridge by Tinker Knob. The rest seemed all right, and I was pleased with how well the group interacted. We then lost nearly a thousand feet to some outrageous late afternoon spring skiing on south facing slopes of corn snow before setting up camp in a huge clearing at the base of some cliffs. There was running water. A marmot sat in the mouth of his snow hole sunning himself, and he was one amazed marmot when we six skied by and set up camp in his neighborhood.
April 19, 1978—A strange, hard day. Windy and cold. We made excellent progress and Lippert and Otis had more life. Craig and Otis wore old lace-up leather ski boots that were coming apart and always wet. One concern gives way to another.
All of us work and ski at Squaw Valley and are connected to the area on several levels. Four days earlier the tram at Squaw had wrecked, killing four persons and injuring many more; and we were shaken, saddened and subdued by the accident. My six year-old son had been in the tram car an hour before it went down. We hadn’t talked much about the wreck, but it was in all our minds; and as we climbed the ridge leading to Granite Chief we could see the entire upper mountain at Squaw. It was incredibly eerie. The immobile tramcar dangled in the air like a smashed toy. We had all ridden it many times, and four people had died there. The mountain was freshly groomed, the skiing looked fantastic, and every lift we could see was stopped. Abandoned. We knew the wind had shut the lifts, but it was surreal to see the mountain smooth and clear and empty. We considered skiing down to the Shirley Lake lift, firing it up and taking a few runs, but better judgment prevailed.
Steve, the philosopher, remarked on the irony of starting this tour right after the tram wreck. We go back to the basic leg power when the mechanical fails. My mind dwelled on that thought and its ramifications. It extended back to my skiing roots. Back to my first experience on skis at the south shore of Tahoe when I and my childhood buddy Doug Gaynor climbed up and slid down a small hill, over and over. Rope tows were the first lifts we used in the late ’40’s and early ’50’s, and my grammar school friend, Kenny Burdick, lost his arm to a rope tow. The mechanical failed then too, causing me to examine the possibility that perhaps it is not progress which fails but mechanical means to human ends.
We crossed under the face of Granite Chief and over the col on the back side of Emigrant, a place we’d skied many times; but this was the first time up instead of down. Then we dropped into Whiskey Creek. After the long uphill grind it was wonderful to ski down and maneuver through trees. Also, it was a relief to be again in the backcountry, away from ski resorts and the reminders of all we had left behind. Overtones of escapism.
There is a cabin at Whiskey Creek and we decided to track it down just to see and know its location. A couple of dead skiers who accidentally wandered off the backside of Squaw would be alive had they known about Whiskey Creek cabin. It was cleverly concealed in trees and mostly buried in snow, but we dug it out and decided to spend the night. Though several hours of daylight remained, it was a good decision. The two -story cabin has a wood-burning stove, a huge saw, a table, emergency supplies and shelter from the storm which arrived that night, much to our amazement.
We spent nearly two days at Whiskey Creek. I kept notes and read a marvelous book by Farley Mowat, “A Whale for the Killing.” McKinney read Abbey’s “Desert Solitaire.” Tom took photos. Bill kept notes. Otis, the worker, kept things in order. We ate and drank unrelentingly. Steve played his harp and cracked us up with imitations of Jimi Hendrix playing “The Star Spangled Banner.” It was Hitler’s birthday in the heavy cabin at Whiskey Creek.
April 21, 1978—(From my notebook) “Near the top of Little Powderhorn Creek in the gathering dark, we are just a few hundred yards below the ridge leading into the Rubicon, but we were forced to stop in view of a threatening storm and Tom’s slowness. Our precarious camp is on a tiny knoll under trees in snow so soft we used ski poles as tent pegs. Storm seems to be dissipating. Lippert real grateful we didn’t continue. Snow must be melted for water. The team is tired and no one wants to cook.
“Everyone is stronger. Tom is slowest, but his wit and good will and very presence make up for any delays. After all, he’s never done this before; and we all got to learn.
“Bill and I got us lost on Powderhorn Creek, but we came out right where we wanted. We’ve checked the maps and still can’t figure out where it went wrong. Nothing is lost. The light meter on my new camera doesn’t work, so Tom loaned me his light meter. Pissed at the camera. Pleased with Tom.
“Since I started writing here, Otis, who was comatose in his bag, has rallied and is having a great time with my spice kit preparing dinner. The stove works poorly.
April 22, 1978—Up early but all reluctant to enter a bitter cold clear morning. We made excellent time over the pass and for several miles mostly downhill on a long traverse through dense forest. Wonderful touring. We were getting fit and seeing the mountain mileage unfold. We took a snack rest about 11:30. Otis and Tom were a bit behind. It was hot and we sat on our packs in T-shirts or bare-chested sunbathing and watching our mates. A strange thing occurred. About 30 feet away, Tom shifted his weight in a weird way, his leg buckled and he fell like Troy, He couldn’t get up without Otis’ help, and I knew we had a problem. Tom has had the knife taken to his knee twice, and he was hurting in his bad knee.
We rested awhile, but Tom was rightfully fearful of pushing further damage onto a painful knee. We checked the maps, found a convenient escape route via McKinney Creek and cajoled Tom until we were at the head of the route a couple of miles behind Sourdough Hill. Bill and I hurried the eight miles out to the roadhead. On the way we ran into Malcolm and Todd, two Squaw Valley Ski Patrolmen, who were out touring and had a car at the road. Within four hours of leaving the backcountry, Bill and I were at my house enjoying Dos Equis. Two different worlds.
We called my old good friend, Jerry Smeltzer, who, among infinitude of things is involved in search and rescue circles. The last thing we wanted was to call out the rescue freaks, bless their Red Cross souls; all we wanted was a Ski-doo to give Tom a ride out. Jerry tracked it down.
April 23, 1978—By mid-morning Jerry, Bill and I were back at the trailhead with the gas-eating, ear-splitting, raucous, harmony-destroying dreaded machine affectionately known as the Ski-doo. It was raining. None of us have ever driven such a contraption. It seemed simple, and since Jerry borrowed the thing he decided to go in. We told him to follow our tracks, gave him map and compass, wished him luck and waved adieu as Jerry and the metal monster roared into the backcountry in a blare of cacophonous noise and exhaust.
Bill and I breakfasted and then spent the day drinking beer, reading, talking and sitting in the truck to avoid the ever-falling rain. A few other Ski-dooers were also up McKinney Creek and late in the day Jerry and two Ski-dooers emerged from the wood. Jerry’s day was awful. He learned a lot. So did we. He overturned his machine three times, got it stuck in a creek and a tree well and would have had a tortuously lovely walk out if the two experienced Ski-dooers hadn’t found him. We learned several things—(1) Just because aesthetically, morally, practically, philosophically and environmentally we hold that Ski-doos in the backcountry used for cheap thrills is indefensible, doesn’t mean that a skilled, experienced and intelligent operator isn’t necessary to guide one through the woods. (2) Nobody goes into strange country alone on a Ski-doo. Travel in company. (3) Getting Tom out wasn’t going to be the piece of cake we had thought. (4) We didn’t (don’t) know as much as we thought (think) we did (do).
We retired to the nearest pub to invent Alternate Rescue Plan B.
Meanwhile, our mates enjoyed a restful day reading, talking, swimming and sunning between rain squalls. They wondered what the hell had happened. We were not back as agreed, and there is always the possibility that something had gone wrong to prevent me and Bill from getting out. Those sorts of thoughts are easy in the mountains when mates are overdue.
Accordingly, they made plans for Steve and Craig to follow our tracks out in the morning, leaving Otis with Tom.
April 24, 1978—Alternate Plan B went into effect. We rounded up a second Ski-doo and two people to operate them. Dennis Dunn is the local telemark turn champion and is hot on the Ski-doo. Tim Tilton is a professional ski racer who got the other machine and volunteered to drive it. While we were unloading the machines at the trail head McKinney and Calonica showed up. We saw Tim and Dennis off, gave Steve and Craig beers and sat down to wait. Smeltzer showed up. It was raining. Jerry was going back to work and Steve and Craig, both restless for civilized diversity, went with him. Soon, charming Laurel Lippert arrived to await her husband’s return. Bill got restless and skied halfway in to meet the rescue party. Laurel and I drank beer, talked and watched it rain. I preferred to be where I was than stuck in a tent.
It was after 4:00 in the afternoon when the machines, their drivers and Otis and Tim and Bill, all drenched to the skin, arrived. Tom was happy to be out and even happier to see his wife. We returned the machines and retired to our favorite Tahoe City dining establishment.
The next two days were spent watching it rain. One of the machines had inexplicably incurred $250 worth of damage. Calonica managed to get arrested and thrown in the slammer within 24 hours. Life in the woods, while chock full of certain difficulties, is simple and clear and enormously healthy compared to the usual life we live and leave from and always return to.
April 27, 1978—Compared to our original beginning, we got an early start. Tim Tilton, the 20 year-old ski racer, replaced Lippert. We left McKinney Creek and made excellent time in clear weather and good snow to the exit point. Instead of staying on the ridge to the east we dropped into the Rubicon Canyon, a dreadfully frustrating mistake.
We enjoyed several hundred meters of downhill skiing through open terrain before running into a wall of manzanita. An omen. After that we skied a few times, sort of, but the next five hours were spent carrying skis through impossible woods, across impassable rocky areas, and into chest-deep brush which grabbed at packs, skis, poles, legs, belt loops, anything it could snag to frustrate progress. Tiring. Perverse. Slow. Shitty. It became a personal matter. A month later we reached the lovely Rubicon River. Sunny and warm and clear and we found a perfect camp—a large flat smooth rock ridge to sleep upon with out using tents. We were tired.
Otis immediately stripped and had a sunbath. Craig embarked on an unsuccessful fishing expedition. He lost his drop line and took an enormous kidding for previous immodesty about his fishing skills. Tim sat and stared with a bemused smile into the west. Bill took photos and relaxed. Steve stretched out and napped. I explored the area and then sat down with my notes. The terrain ahead is mostly granite slabs covered with rapidly melting snow. Avalanche potential was clear.
That night we built a great fire and ate like kings before bedding down under stars that shone bright and clear in the black depths of space. I slept like the rock I slept upon.
April 28, 1978—Sleeping bags covered with thick frost. We drape them over small trees to dry while we eat. A fine morning. We arranged ourselves without talking about the continuing bushwhack before us. I started first and hadn’t gone a hundred meters before finding Craig’s dropline. It was returned with much humor. The Rastaman is able to blush.
We carried skis and crawled over boulders and streams and the Rubicon River and thrashed through brush and rotten patches of snow until, at last, we could don skis and resume ski touring. Everybody worked well together and Tim was going through the breaking in aches and pains.
It wasn’t Calonica’s day. At Rubicon Reservoir he announced that we were at Rockbound Lake and he had fished it often. We stopped for lunch on the dam and told unmerciful Craig fish stories. It clouded up and cooled down and before we had gone a mile it started raining-hailing-snowing-raining with such ferocity that we nearly set up camp. It cleared and we made fine progress to a camp a few miles north of Mosquito Pass. Open water hole. Flat terrain. Dead trees for firewood. Outrageous scenery. A huge fire was built on the snow. As the night progressed, it became a five-foot diameter receding pit belching flames into the night. After dinner we stood around the fire drinking home-made kahlua until the exertions of the day, the kahlua and the hour forced retreat to tent and bag. Steve and Craig, sturdy youngsters the both, stayed up a quart of kahlua longer telling raucous stories, giggling, and laughing and the next morning we found them sleeping on the snow, bags and boots and clothes covered with beautiful thick frost.
April 29, 1978— Up early to a cold, clear morning. Start delayed while the two speed demons organized hangovers. Then we hit it hard. I went first in a sprint to Mosquito Pass because of avalanche concern. I wanted across the west-facing slope before it softened. In the beginning I couldn’t have worked that hard. Still, I was exhausted from the drain of physical and nervous energy. I thought the snow would hold and it did, but sometimes in the mountains you never know for sure. The same applies out of the mountains.
We lunched on the pass, looking down on Lake Aloha and the lovely, aptly named Desolation Valley, covered in white. After a good rest we had fine downhill skiing on perfect corn snow into the valley. While crossing Aloha Lake we saw two climbers descending from the summit of Pyramid Peak to the west, the first people encountered. Familiar ground to me from many other times. I put myself on cruise control and took a mental sentimental journey. I remembered climbing Pyramid Peak 20 years earlier with two friends, and I thought about those friends now. I recalled hiking in Desolation with certain people and spending training weekends there in ski racing days. I thoroughly indulged my sentimental fantasies; and by the time I came to my senses we were in the woods above Echo Lake, a milestone on our journey. A larger milestone than we realized.
The skiing to upper Echo Lake was composed of long traverses in soft snow followed by a kick turn. As we skied across the lakes other skiers appeared. Proximity to civilization. From the south end of Echo Lake the east side of the Tahoe basin was visible, and not enough snow remained then to complete our tour without an inordinate time in the bush. Rubicon Valley had given us all of that endeavor we needed. Those days of rain and rescue had postponed our plans. We agreed to finish the tour another time, got to the nearest phone and called Clyde Calonica, Craig’s father, and sat down beside the road to await a return to the gyrating mainstream of the civilized world of man and a few hits of Clyde’s home-made wine, very affectionately known as “white lightning,” “white death,” and “Clyde’s revenge.” The tour is not finished.