Skiing Whitney's North Face — Page 3

Iceberg Col

Clarity

On April 9, 1996, I began skinning up Lone Pine Creek's north drainage with the intention of summiting and skiing Mount Whitney via the Mountaineer's Route and the north chute.

I was using a patchwork of Alpine and Touring gear, plus some climbing hardware I'd picked up in Chamonix. Though I was not planning an overnight, my pack weighed nearly 40 pounds—without skis or boots. Much of it was gear I'd never used in a backcountry context before.

Lone Pine Peak

Lone Pine Peak

The Needles

The Needles: Light & Shadow

Approaching Iceberg Lake

Iceberg Lake

Climbers Descend Mountaineer's Route

Climbers on the Mountaineer's Route

One day earlier, in my journal, I wrote:

Why do I climb mountains? By placing one foot in front of the other, even seemingly impossible distances can be traversed...

It was as much a lament as an explanation. The clarity of direction and purpose I found in the mountains was sorely absent from the rest of my life.

Now, one day after writing those words, using touring adapters with ski crampons on heavy Alpine gear, I am ascending the left side of the north fork drainage on frozen spring corn snow, beneath a chute leading up toward Thor Peak.

The slope steepens; abruptly, the snow becomes icy.

I stop, take a look to see what's underneath me. A fall here could be nasty. There is a steep expanse of snow leading to bare boulders below. The biggest of the rocks is partially snow-covered.

I start an uphill kickturn, intending to get back on softer snow, but my ski crampons lose their grip, and just like that I'm sliding on my back head-first toward the boulder field. I fight to swing my legs downhill but the touring adapters make it impossible.

I try to arrest myself with a ski pole but it's too late.

The snow is too hard I'm going too fast I see I'm heading for that snow-covered boulder so I roll my shoulders to let my pack take the blow and POW I smack into the rock. Mostly unhurt but deeply shaken, I am stunned by the suddenness of it all: the loss of control, the acceleration, the violence. Yes, I'm experiencing clarity now—of a completely different sort.

It will be a long, long time before I return to ski Mount Whitney.

Fifteen years later, as I pass the same place where I took that slide, I find myself wondering what would have happened instead if those crampons had held on that kickturn. Would I have made the summit and skied Whitney? And if I had, how might that victory have changed my life? Or—was there something darker waiting for me above, should I have made it any higher?

next: The North Face



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