The Hotlum-Wintun Ridge — Page 5
The storm wins the race. The transition from clear weather to foul is striking: the moment the cloud reaches the summit, I am blasted with wind and falling snow.
Now only fifty vertical feet below the summit, I'm hugely tempted to keep going, weather be damned. Then again: it's time to descend. I've no desire to be standing on the summit when the lightning starts. I drop my pack and hurriedly switch over to skis. Then I ski down a nearby finger of snow, which hangs somewhat perilously over the Hotlum Glacier's headwall.
There's a patch or two of blue ice along the way, but the ice has softened to the point that it skis just like snow.
Still, I'm cautious as I traverse across it, having learned the hard way to avoid ice when on skis. The presence of ice here suggests that in colder times, the standard route, which traverses over the upper Wintun glacier, would likely be safer.
The skiing is good, corn snow at a rousing 35-40 degree angle, but I'm exhausted and spooked by the storm, just trying to quickly burn off some vertical.
Meanwhile the weather has stopped playing coy. It's overcast and/or raining from horizon to horizon.
Once I've dropped below 13,500 feet, I stop, out of breath, legs mushy-jello, feeling fully disgruntled by the conditions.
'Ten percent chance of Thunderstorms, eh?', I repeat to myself over and over, an angry mantra, as I survey the horizon.
Settling down to the business of skiing, I negotiate the tricky section above the Hotlum headwall, traversing back to the safety of the Hotlum-Wintun ridge's upper snow pack. The skiing gets mushy, but this mitigates the increasing runnels and sun-cupping. If I wasn't so tired, it would make for a fine run, but my race to beat the storm clouds has left me with little energy to spare. It's hard not to feel good about skiing in July, however, summit or not. And this descent marks the highest point I've skied from, by far, with a starting point over 14,000 feet in elevation.
Before I know it, I've reached my base camp, over 6000 vertical feet of skiing, officially qualifying the day as epic, rogue weather or not. I snap out of my bindings and look back at the mountain. I can't help but wonder what this route might be like under slightly more favorably conditions. I imagine the Hotlum-Wintun ridge blanketed from top to bottom with perfect, velvety corn snow...
Today, however, the rain begins to pour as soon as I flop into my tent. I rest until the squall passes. Then, in a cool drizzle, I pack up, heft my backpack, and hike back to the car. Less than an hour later I'm back at the trailhead, switching to dry clothes, still thinking about that missed summit, and already planning my return.