Birch Mountain Marathon — Page 10

Owens Valley and Skis


Somewhere below the east couloir, elevation 11,000' or so, I start trying to drift off to my happy place. This is a ski descent that measures in not minutes but hours.

With another four thousand vertical feet to go, the snow's texture has continued to worsen. The sun cups are much deeper now. Maintaining travel on skis requires finding relatively smooth patches upon which is possible to make turns.

Snow, Shadow, & Owens Valley Progress The End of the Snow Andy Lewicky: Done

It also requires suffering.

In my addled state, I find myself speculating whether my legs will simply pop off from the immense strain. Hristo and I criss-cross the immense snowfield on Birch Mountain's lower eastern flank in a futile search for smooth snow.

I keep thinking the snow has got to soften at some point, but the surface remains jarringly hard. I'm developing a dark suspicion that it would actually be faster to take off the skis and walk down.

It would certainly be easier.

Somewhere in the vicinity of 9000 feet, the snow's icy crust at last begins to yield a bit. The air feels warmer down here.

We are returning to the Owens Valley desert.

The softer snow has at best a tiny impact on the skiing; the sun cups get softer but deeper. But it does take the edge off the constant jarring we've been subject to for the past unknown number of hours.

I imagine Birch Mountain covered from head to toe with smooth, glorious corn snow.

On these wide open slopes, we'd be racing downhill, carving effortless, sweeping GS turns.

Whatever activity we are engaged in today, it does not in the slightest bear any resemblance to that happy fantasy. In the 2008 Sierra Backcountry season, Spring arrived at the end of February. For those who were lucky enough to realize it, the range offered safe, big-line skiing on these giant southern summits. But for those who waited for 'spring' to arrive, it seems the season has long since come and gone. Perhaps up north there remains good skiing.

The south has little to offer now but misery.

Hristo and I work our way down to the slender finger of snow where we began our day. As a final bit of Sierra irony, we find the snow here has formed a cornice edge that is baby-bottom smooth. The skiing on this last finger of snow is actually quite good—the best by far of the day. We milk this narrow ribbon of snow until it at last gives out, leaving a walk of less than a mile to get back to the cars and end this adventure. For the first time in memory, it is actually a relief to take off my skis and begin walking.

The sun sets over the White Mountains. We hike across the marshy ground of McMurry Meadows in fading light. When at last we reach the cars, it is about half past eight, making for a grand total ski descent time of approximately four hours. Four hours to ski 7000 vertical feet? That tells this tale as well as any words I can muster.

About SierraDescents

When there is snow, SierraDescents is Andy Lewicky's California backcountry skiing and mountaineering website. Without snow, sierradescents becomes an ill-tempered hiking and climbing blog.

Pray for snow.