Skiing Muir's East Buttress — Page 10

Mount Muir - The Lower Balcony

The Lower Balcony

In contrast to the relatively if also deceptively moderate slopes of the southeast face's upper balcony, the lower balcony is steeper, and its exposure far more evident.

Snow quality remains soft but manageable. However, as we're discovering, one of the more grinding aspects of skiing Muir via this route is that, almost without fail, its gets harder and more intense the farther down you go.

Downclimbing Second Step Dave Descending Lower Balcony Andy Below the Pillar Skiing the Lower Balcony Looking Down Dave Takes the Exit

The steep snow just below Second Step makes for a tricky transition back to skis.

I sink the tails of both my skis into the snow, creating dual belays for myself. Then I do my best to kick out a platform. A short but tense few moves later, I'm back to the pleasures of skiing, en route to First Step and the many troubles of the Exit Couloir.

On skis, the moves are effortless, the sequence always the same: test the snow. Feel the edges. Reach down with the pole, pulling the body out and away from the hill. Feel that uphill ski, transfer the weight to it, pull the downhill ski up as the body rotates and falls downhill.

A quick pivot and we're going the other way. Reach down with the other ski pole and do it all over again.

In some ways this entire experience has the disorienting, disconnected feel of a dream.

We are forced to selectively attend to reality here. Some tasks, like the clockwork motions of making turns, occupy my entire consciousness, while more philosophical thoughts must by necessity be pushed far, far away.

Still: what are we doing here?

How it is possible that two men and skis should be traveling so far from home, through such a merciless and vertical landscape?

Or, perhaps most directly, because it can be skied, does that mean we should be skiing it?

Dave and I descend lower, now nearing First Step and the connection to the Exit Couloir. Here, I find thoughts of the route below more difficult to suppress.

The rock garden—that damned rock garden. How I wish I could keep my skis on, rather than face it again via axe and crampons.

Once again, another transition back to spikes. At the bottom of the narrow tongue of snow that is First Step, I sink my axe into the snow, test it for firmness. It'll hold. Up goes Dave. I follow. Atop the snow, on yet another eagle's perch, I turn to look back at the lower balcony. The perspective is dramatic, emphasizing the steepness of what we've just skied.

Now comes a little scrambling, down a short section of broken granite separating us from the top of the Exit Couloir, and its snow. I think by now I've pretty much burned out the Adrenal glands. Grasp the rock, step carefully. Ski tails scrape and catch here and there, creating sharp grinding, scraping sounds that puncture the stillness of the air.

next: Exit Couloir

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.