No wonder Muir was so inspired
Linking the Sierra’s Red Slate Mountain with a couple mariners’ tales could be a stretch, but I think there are some important takeaways with how the sea and the mountains can be coupled through literature.
Go get it, while the getting is good...because that approach is costly
First, Ahab and Moby Dick: Ahab chases a whale around the world, going to great lengths to nab this elusive creature – a reckless pursuit of what becomes a personal obsession. At some point in all our lives, something comes along that commands our attention. A project, a mountain, a climbing route, a musical score, a bouldering problem, surf break, whatever: something captures our attention and sometimes completely consumes us.
Hypothesis confirmed: that thing is steep and full of powder
Second, an albatross. We’ve all heard of the bird – a gorgeous, sea-faring avian with
, and a centerpiece to Coleridge’s
In his poem, Coleridge describes the Albatross as helping lead a ship from danger, but is later slain by its beneficiaries, bringing the same ship and its sailors misfortune. As a punishment, the mariner who speared the white creature with a crossbow wears the downed bird around his neck in hopes of breaking the curse so the ship can press on safely. Hence many of the modern definitions for the word beyond its winged origins include some variant of a burden or frustration.
Third comes Red Slate. Ever since moving to the Sierra years ago, I had set sights on it – you almost have to given it’s stature in a basin of prominent peaks: Morrison, Laurel, White Fang and Baldwin all stand over the Convict Canyon area exuding a presence, but Red Slate stands out – it’s bigger, and bolder than the rest. A major part of what makes Red Slate so special is you don’t see it from the road, or from an easy vantage - you have to work a little just to get a glimpse of the mountain, and when you do get that glimpse, it is striking and memorable. The most obvious line is its north couloir – from a far a clear gash up the north face of the mountain, and almost always choked with snow.
Find the rhythm and cruise
My first Sierra season, Jon and I desired to go back as a fall climb and get the ascent in its WI2 form – both of us fledgling mountaineers were keen to get an alpine experience on some ice or neve, and were willing to brave the approach in our ice boots for such a summit. Bad weather and post-holing through an early season snowfall battered our spirit, and we retreated not a quarter of the way back to base of the couloir proper. We had set eyes on the mountain – distant in the Canyon, and it looked better than the pictures suggested, taunting its seekers for closer look, but conditions did not conspire with us. Defeated, we turned and descended.
Fast-forward three years to the 2012 drought winter. With anemic early season snowfall, three of us thought the north couloir would hold some of the best – or only – snow around. This time we got all the way back to the base of the north couloir only to see its surrounding basin strewn with 7-foot avalanche crowns and the scariest snow column I’ve ever isolated in the Sierra: 7 wrist taps released a 2’ wind slab on Q1 shear – the three of us exited the premises immediately. Such a departure is not to be taken lightly: it’s 8 miles to the base of the mountain proper, so heading back to the car without achieving the objective can be a morale buster, and leave a bitter taste when considering future travel to complete the route.
Summit ski-off looks a little bony
That’s two strikes on that peak. Throwing in the many times summiting Laurel, Bloody, and Morrison in the interim years and gawking at Red Slate from a far, it quickly was taking the form of a geological Moby Dick: When thinking about weekend objectives, it would always be on the list somewhere, lurking, and creeping to the top: “I wonder if Red Slate would ski well after the storm, and if it’s stable…” Many locals know the approach better than I, and when suggesting the objective during this slightly more snowy 2013 winter, they’d give a quick “no” to the suggestion. Still, it stayed on the list, almost becoming that burdensome Albatross that hangs around my neck until finally getting back to finish the line.
The alternative entrance sure looks fun
With travel beckoning and unseasonably warm temperatures laying waste to much of the central and southern Sierra’s already dwindling snowpack, a sense of urgency took hold. With no partners taking the bait, and one local charger already skiing the route this week, it was to be another conservative solo mission out to ski the North Couloir.
Because of the warm temps, an early start was called for…but not answered. A long office week made me lazy, and I snoozed an extra 90 minutes away. Because I knew the approach well, and having been up the same canyon a week prior, safety was not a large concern from a slightly later start, as the slopes lining the canyon weren’t major wet slide hazards, and with the North Couloir seeing next to no sun, and all of it resting above 11,500’, it would remain cold and chalky. Bidding adieu to the morning photog’s at Convict Lake by 0750. What a difference a week makes: I wore approach shoes for a solid hour: taking me nearly to the base of the ice route Ryan and I climbed earlier this winter. Skinning up the canyon in the shade kept the temperature at bay, and before I knew it, I was gliding across the upper meadow, ascending the last approach pitch and munching on lunch at the Couloir base at 1145.
The tracks are revealing
John’s tracks were still visible from a few days prior, and one thing was certain: the couloir proper was over 1000’ of cold, light, stable powder, and it was sustained in its intimidating steepness. After transitioning multiple times between skinning and boot pack, I finally found a booting rhythm and was gaining altitude consistently. At the top of the couloir, one has their first glimpse at the true summit drop-in. Literature will tell you if you ski from the summit, you have a no-fall double fall-line traverse before the north couloir proper. I had pondered the true summit entry on the approach, but looking up from my high point and seeing very bony conditions, it was clear that would not be an option for the day – I analyzed the alternative entry. It too was steep, but full of snow...am I going to summit this thing today? It was getting late, and the angst of a setting sun was getting more poignant.
I topped out the alternative entry having the naïve expectation the scramble to the summit would be child’s play, allowing for a quick zenith and blitz back to the gear and descent. Oops. With the low snowfall, there were 4
class rock moves in AT boots on choss…the summit was again in question: It was getting later still, and if the rest of the up wasn’t trivial, the accompanying down might not be either, magnifying tardiness. “Quick check: It’s late, but not dangerous: all wet slides are on steeper terrain, none of which you have to negotiate on the way back down, with dangerous pitches all avoidable.” There were moments of doubt up there, but each time a question arose, it was answered with honest evaluation of the circumstances. I much prefer to have such a dialogue with a BC partner – forcing a second opinion, but the monologue sufficed…to the summit!
The view north sure wasn't bad
Like nearly all views from above 13k feet in the Sierra, the vista will take away any breath you have left, and make you wonder why you didn’t bring bivy gear allowing a longer stay to watch the sunset and soak in Range of Light for a while longer. The summit achieved, the temporary time-induced anxiety faded and the delight of the surroundings silenced everything else. The albatross led the wary party to safe and gorgeous waters…let us not slay the creature in recompense: Snap pictures, sign register, deep breath, descend.
The ski down the couloir proper was about as good as it gets: boot deep powder in sections, and powder/windpack for the rest meant the down went swiftly, smoothly, with many smiles and never with safety in question. The rest of the descent was safe…but because of the hour, it meant just about all snow below 11k feet was isothermal: have you ever post-holed with your skis on? You don’t want to.
The scenery out wasn't so bad either.
Details of the rest of the descent are inconsequential, albeit filled with psychotic ramblings and expletives when even on skis I was plunging to my knees. Too bad I forgot about the Cab Sav I had in the pack to take the edge off. No matter, I was back in approach shoes and at the car before dark. All told, 11.5 hours c2c: no speed record, but that was never the intention of the day. I finished a long-sought objective, soaked in the spring sun, skied hero powder in a sustained north facing couloir, all safely [perhaps under the watchful eye of a beautiful white bird].
You see a reason not to smile? I sure don't
It’s worthwhile bringing Ahab back full circle: Whatever your Moby Dick is, it can be powerful and motivating, and if harnessed properly, it can be a wonderful tool for pushing you farther into areas to explore yourself and the greater world around you. So here’s to finding and making an MB: making you focused and stronger, taking you on a journey opening your eyes wider, making your world bigger, and when you cross it off your list for another one, drenching your spirit with fulfillment.
"Were this world an endless plain, and by sailing eastward we could for ever reach new distances, and discover more sweet and strange sights, then there were promise in the voyage. But in tormented chase of the demon phantom that, at some time or other, swims before all human hearts -- then while chasing over this round globe after those mysteries -- they either lead us on in barren mazes, or midway leave us whelmed." - Melville
One more track, many more smiles. Red Slade's N Couloir, check.