When days in the mountains are long, and the rebound from their after-effects take more than a few hours and a good dinner, I refer to the sensation as a mountain hangover. Akin to the traditional sense of the word, the desire to repeat a similar feat is dropped in favor of rest and recovery, and thoughts venture beyond vertical feet, mileage and physical activity. When the days in the back- and front-country are unforgettable, the soreness, fatigue and laziness of the following days are irrefutable, but their tenacity is dampened by the smile and satisfaction of a rest day earned, while the images from the day can be burned into memory immortal and become fuel for the next adventure.
There was an entertaining meme going around the tubes lately describing drinking as “borrowing happiness from tomorrow.” Anyone who has suffered the fallout of alcohol the next day can sympathize, but with the mountain hangover, I’m finding I like recovering from them almost as much as I like giving them to myself. When the outdoor activity planning includes the side thoughts like “man, this is going to hurt…hurt so good,” the extra side on the entrée, that second cocktail and inevitable nap session in the days following are that much more tasty and memorable.
In-steps the Sierra drought of 2014: With the ‘California Winter’ we’re experiencing – with the “not enough snow to ski, but too much to climb” snowpack, it is taking a little extra ingenuity to craft a memorable day in the mountains. With a work trip scheduled to the fly-over states, I was on the hunt for a true mountain hangover – since I’d be basking in BBQ country and close to sea level, I needed to front-load some activity at elevation to ride out the comparatively leasurely days in and around wind turbines. Fortunately I was given that opportunity.
I’ve been trying to link up with Jed in the backcountry for years. Our combined unorthodox schedules and travel plans have conspired against us, but it certainly appeared we had a window to fix that situation, so we jumped on it. Neither of us are quick to let potential mediocre snow conditions prohibit a day on skis, nor are we turned off by long days that swallow a bunch of calories and daylight. With a combined thirst for seeing new terrain, we set our sights on skiing Banner car-to-car. Sure it would involve a lot of flat lake skinning, and sure we didn’t know exactly what we’d find all the way out there, but that didn’t deter the enthusiasm of sharing a day in the Range of Light, exploring new places and seeing for ourselves what the forecasting pundits called “a bad winter.”
A last minute check-in from Sean was promising, and with a little convincing we had a party of three to poke around the backcountry, and we set the ambitions even higher: after tackling Banner, we’d aim for Mt. Wood on the way out to make sure the day was as long as it should be. A relatively casual 0500 departure was set, and we were a go. Everything was good…until the neighbor acted up. Now, I have reason to believe I share a wall with an budding nocturnal adult film producer, which meant for the days leading up to the proposed outing sleep totals were in the red. Then that night happened. In my delerium of exchanging frustrated texts for apologies, I envisioned troubled loved scenes being painted by impressionists. Starting a 20+ mile 8k vert BC day with no sleep isn’t a recipe for success, but there was too much momentum to stop this train from leaving the station, so we pressed on. I’ve come to dismiss such REM-deprived tossing-and-turning as ‘fatherhood training.’
We were moving with headlamps by the SCE station in June Lake by 0600, gaining vertical immediately up the railway. What followed for the next seven hours is a summary of habit: swapping trail-breaking duty, eating, navigating, skinning, pictures, boot packing. What wasn’t habit was finding lots of great snow in lots of fun terrain and being humbled and inspired in new locations. I have fond memories of a certain bear visit at Thousand Island Lake years ago, but never ventured to the Banner Summit. It is very worthy, as that zone of the Sierra is full of hidden gems. The amphitheater nestled between Banner and Ritter Peaks is stunning, and the descent was a glorious mix of powder and corn on slopes that ranged from 15 to 30 degrees. There was even a rocky down-climb to make things full value.
With the picture-taking that ensued, timing was not in our favor to tag Wood, so the focus was on making the most of our experience. Topping out on the last ascent of the day en route to the car, the forecasted storm was approaching, with the clouds already ensconced around the summits, and the winds giving their familiar house call sending us home for dinner. We skated across the last lakes and worked our way back to the celebratory beers waiting in snow bank adjacent to the turbo. I finally got to see Jed in his element, and what a sight to see a natural: a mountain professional in his vast office, still excited to the core to spend many hours in mountain sneakers skinning and carving the rare white this winter gave us while taking in vistas the Range of Light is famous for.
And that was a weekday…what would the weekend have in store? Something happened upon returning home from Patagonia: Snow quality wasn’t really a high priority anymore, taking backseat to exploring parts of the Range that have sparked imaginations in trips prior. Perhaps it’s the starvation of copious white smoke and coverage that helped spur this attitude, or perhaps some maturity. Bottom line from the handful of days on skis in the backcountry so far this season was this: There is good snow if you’re willing to go hunting for it and overall, it doesn’t take a huge storm to make things skiable and fun. I hadn’t been to the Palisades yet this year, and I’ve been slowly subscribing to the personal goal of exercising each Sierra trailhead at least once a season. Fortunately, Damon was on board. Since attempting Norman Clyde’s sit start a couple years back, there was a couloir that just begged to be skied…we had a plan.
I didn’t even look for trip reports from the Palisades: I knew we would start the day in approach shoes with skis AND boots on our backs. I didn’t know when the good snow would start, or if there would be any at all: only a desire to get up and see the mountains and find something fun…perhaps a diamond in the rough was waiting for those of us with enough gumption to gain elevation. Good thing Damon was on the same page, because I botched the ascent, choosing a scramble on snow covered tallus in between post-holing snow chutes to the canyon below.
“Why didn’t we just skin up the canyon?”
“I’m a moron”
The surprise was skinning within a quarter mile of the car, and quantity of snow that would make any local question the ‘drought year’ status gracing the range. And then there’s the pleasure of the mountains themselves. The glory of the South Fork trail from Glacier Lodge is the stunning reward to the first hour or so of approach. Just when you’re cursing the switchbacks and early start making the morning less palatable, you’re staring at over half of the Palisades. Time it right and you catch alpenglow and voila! You begin to see why Muir coined it the Range of Light. Before Damon and I knew it, we were staring down a pair of lines above the Norman Clyde Glacier with bigger grins than when we started.
“This could be good.”
“This could be reeeeeallly good.”
After some lunch, our primary objective proved to be filled with breakable crust with a high consequence fall onto blue ice should one lose an edge, so we opted for the second of the two chutes we saw. Made worse was the failure of my Dynafit TLT5 – the Ankle buckle finally gave way and for those of you familiar with the design, if you can’t lock in the ankle, the boot becomes very difficult to ski. Our choice quickly proved to be the right one as snow depth ranged from boot to knee deep, and it was…wait for it…powder! Damon and I stopped a couple of times during the descent – to take pictures of the grins on our faces, but also to look back at the improbably good skiing we just enjoyed – a drought year skiing close to 3500 vert of powder after topping out just below 14k. Heroic!
We were back to the car without head torches but perhaps more important was the long pause preceding the final stretch to the trailhead. Standing for a while at the same perch as mentioned on the ascent, I couldn’t get enough of the Palisades. “I could take in this view all day,” I lamented as I pondered the last of the descent and what might be my only visit to this part of the range for months to come. We did spot a fun looking ramp off the Palisade Crest’s northern tip that looked like a very good candidate for another day trip.
“That looks like the highest blue square in the Sierra.” Damon offered.
“That looks like fun!” I responded.
One long last stare and it was homeward bound.
Dropping off Damon with his convalescing lady friend after such a great day in the hills, I couldn’t help but consider what the Sabbath had in store. Over the last miles home, that Palisade panorama resonated and what I thought would be just a quick sit on the couch after walking through the door ended up being a six hour nap. I awoke at 0500, still fully garbed in yesterday’s ski gear and smelling like a guide’s troubled-client horror story, ready to do something fun…My mountain hangover wasn’t strong enough yet and there was work to be done…