So there I was, alert in my condo, already dressed to the part, only in need of breakfast and a plan. A check the night prior revealed no partners interested and able for another medium mission to hunt powder in the high country. This was to be a solo mission…and of course the ramp we spotted off the crest the day before was topping the list.
Admittedly, I’m not a soloist – I prefer to share an experience with someone in the mountains. Yes, safety first, but being able to bounce ideas off someone, to share laughs, stories and wonder, the highs and lows of a day are almost always better when with someone other than your split personality. There are days, though, when going solo is necessary, and this became one of them – your own start, your own time splits, your own schedule. I had a flight out of Reno first thing Monday, so I didn’t want to burn the candle on both ends unless I really wanted to [and fortunately I did]. I still wanted that ramp off the NC glacier, and with the approach dialed, safety not in question, full knowledge of all the conditions and the skin track we blazed Saturday, I could make this quick and enjoyable.
I decided to shave time wherever I could, but as dawn – with her fingertips of rose – greeted me over the White Mountains on the morning commute I couldn’t help but stop and take a couple of frames with the memory gun. Sure I had a schedule, but when nature presents you with splendor, you take time and prioritize accordingly. A stop on Sherwin Summit was duly rewarded, and marked another notch suggesting this day would come together just fine. I skipped the first part of the skin track in favor of going up the looker's right wash –not the best of choices in retrospect, but by the time I regained the previous day’s path, I had successfully shaved an hour off our split, and with the skin-able gully dead ahead, this ascent would go smoothly and efficiently.
When I reached the first vantage point of the ramp, I was struck with a story from Patagonia this year. Hard-charging Patagonian climbers Mr.’s Haley and Garibotti put up a new route on Cerro Marconi Central where the climbing was marked by a mega ramp of snow and ice. Due to its resemblance of the ramp on Poicenot’s classic Whillans-Cochrane route - but distinguished by much more ‘ramping’ - Haley played off the ‘Super Couloir’ naming on Fitz Roy to name their new route: the “Super Whillans.” As I stared at the ramp off the Palisade Crest, I knew it paled in difficulty, aesthetics, commitment and stature of Haley’s new route, but it made me smile just shouting “The Super Whillans” to any fauna who cared to listen during my ascent. Jeff and I spent three weeks in Chalten dreaming about sinking our tools into the Whillans’ steep snow only to have our plans thwarted by conditions, timing and weather. With a Sierra ramp in view, reciting Haley’s route name helped quell the sour taste of a failed attempt and only made the vertical feet tick by quicker.
Before I knew it, I was above 13k feet, looking at the lead-up to the ramp. It sure looked like blue square from 3k feet below, but underneath the meat of it, the angle of the slope was much steeper and the exposure not trivial should the snow slide or an unstoppable tumble commence. Breaking out the inclinometer, sections of “la rampa” were greater than 50 degrees, with an average slope of what I’d call 40 deg. With noticeable slide debris on the slopes below, caution was exercised, but after checks on stability and cool temps prevailing, things were a go to continue. The slope was mostly unrelenting until the top 20m, and though a bit crunchy from the sunshine 24 hours prior, the skiing looked very promising. The mandatory photo stop on the summit was greeted with gorgeous views of the Sill group, and the rest of the Sierra at all angles. Weather was showing the signs of a storm brewing, though, so after a few shutter clicks, the bindings clicked and I was headed down.
The steepness was delightful, and the rest of the descent mimicked the previous day: big, fast turns through powder of all depths from boot to calf. When I reached that fabled perch and looked back on the Palisades for the last time that weekend, the satisfaction was even more potent, and the sensation of a rest day earned was creeping in. Within hours, dinner was downed, miles logged, bags packed and I was bound – indirectly, thanks to wonderful company of a certain someone – for Kansas City.
Yes, sitting on flights all day after a weekend spending more time above 13k feet than sleeping made for blithe, delirious rambles through airport terminals while fasting for some of the world’s best BBQ. And a few hours later, there I sat in front of plate of Crown Prime Beef Ribs and a glass of Pinot at Jack Stack downtown. Toss in free platinum suite upgrades at a world-class hotel, and the Mountain Hangover’s [MH] cause was recounted with wide smiles, and cured with decadence.
The week was one of successful work on site – tasks completed, deadlines met, customers satisfied, and with that, an earned departure for home…but only before the final phase of the MH was ushered out. Numerous visits to KC last year revealed the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts – a visually stunning building inside and out that held much promise for a dose of culture rare in the mountain towns I frequent and call home. Previous attempts to see a performance there were unsuccessful so with one last night in the city before flying westward, I’d give it another shot. It turned out the LA Philharmonic was playing, and tickets were sold out for weeks, but I had a feeling about this one: I was riding a high for the last ten days and I wanted that wave to keep going. I arrived an hour before show time, only to be five in the hole on a wait list for donated tickets or last minute cancellations. With the only no-show thus far going for nearly $300, I happily resigned to wander the halls snapping images and absorbing the pre-concert buzz from the dressed-to-the-nines locals and leave for a late dinner being void of proper entry…but oh how my luck would change.
“You look like a starving college student,” a well-dressed, short-cropped red-haired woman declared. I may have appeared disheveled from a week spent in a test bunker and wind turbine coupled with sleepless nights in a local hotel, but college student I was not. Surely there were more worthy or needy people than myself of such a ticket to the concert, or surely someone would pay top dollar for it, but my pleas fell on deaf ears.
What followed may go down as one of the best presentations of live music I have ever witnessed. First the musicians – The ‘LA Phil,’ as I first-hand witnessed and later learned from experts – are an exceptional group of artists led by a first-rate conductor. Throw in Yuja Wang tickling the ivories for Rachmaninov’s 3rd Piano concerto, and the recipe you’ve created is Magic.
Sitting there watching and listening to this symphony play the piece – and Ms. Wang flawlessly execute her keys with nary a sheet of music to reference – was unlike anything I can remember. In fact, as I sat there absorbed in feeling this music, the only thought was how there was nowhere else I’d rather be. Ironic, as I finally purged my system of the MH I dutifully generated prior to the week in Missouri, I was experiencing the same sensation I get from generating the hangover in the first place: skiing, climbing and being completely focused in the mountains. For a fleeting moment, there is the thought of how anywhere else is trivial and inconsequential – attention is solely on the here-and-now, and though you know the moment will be short-lived, it is intensely satisfying and unforgettable.
So I am thankful to my classical benefactress and to my backcountry partners these last few weeks – and always. Experiences are almost always better when shared and I played witness to that – especially so this month. As I boarded yet another flight westward after yet another near-sleepless night, I couldn’t help but smile, and think about what good fortune I’ve had and what lies ahead. I surely can’t wait to give myself another mountain hangover, and after visits like that to KC, I can’t wait to figure out how I’m going to cure it. I wish the same journey for you out there, whatever makes you tired, and also whatever helps return you whole.