Bairs Creek Cirque — Page 11

Andy's Ski Boots & Feet

Once is Enough

From skis to hiking boots I go. Mentally, this is another low point. I can scarcely imagine putting that heavy pack on again, much less repeating the rigors of the Williamson Approach in reverse.

Perhaps the only salvation is knowing it's all downhill from here. Except, of course, for the climb from the creek to the Notch. I dry out my feet and tape up anything that looks like a hot spot. Speaking of heat, the day is a warm one, probably near 70 degrees.

Gregory Alpinisto, Fully Loaded Contemplating the Bairs Creek Drainage Avalanche Path Bairs Creek and Avalanche Debris Bairs Creek Avalanche Debris Traversing back to the Notch The Bairs Creek Cirque Andy Back at the Car

It's 11 a.m. I'm already regretting my plan to hike out today, rather than spend an extra night. I stuff everything, boots included, into my backpack, cinch it up, and strap on the skis.

I stare at the fully-loaded pack, squinting in the sun, regarding it as an abomination. Can't we just skip this part?

My pack has been a disappointment on this hike. The waist belt's design makes a poor fit for my narrow anatomy, consequently my shoulders have been bearing too much weight.

To get around the waterfall-pinch, I've got to traverse westward, up the ravine's ridgeline. These first few steps are truly special: back to hiking on that loose, scrubby talus.

I warn myself to stay focused. Hiking down such loose, steep ground with no trail is dangerous. I make considerable use of my ski poles, trying to transfer as much weight off my feet as possible with each jarring step down.

The top of the ridge provides a smashing view of the route ahead. I elect to keep traversing westward, descending the steep, loose scree and avalanche debris alongside the World's Luckiest Forest.

The violence done to this region is sobering.

Shredded trees and debris liter the ground, which has been scoured down to bare earth. I slide down the loose scree, making good progress toward the creek below.

Bairs Creek, of course, is utterly choked with avalanche debris. I am astonished to see mature trees exceeding 10 feet in diameter among the carnage.

The size of these victims leads me to believe the perpetrating avalanche was a hundred-year event. I carefully make my way across the piles of debris, to the creek's north side, and the start of the long traverse to the Notch.

The scale of the slide defies description.

This is the same avalanche, remember, that created the giant snow bridge and cave some 500 yards east of here.

The aching in my shoulders has become a constant companion. I take a moment to pull my pack up, try to cinch that damned waistbelt tighter.

I'm sweating in the heat. It looks like I'll run out of water around the Notch, but that's okay, I've got a liter waiting for me at the car. I'm so ready to be done with this hike.

On to the traverse.

I try to maintain a higher line toward the Notch, thinking I see the semblance of an upper traverse path. It's a mistake. I get hung up above a nasty series of bluffs and have to downclimb a good two or three hundred vertical feet.

There's just no easy way to do this route.

I make the Notch about an hour and a half later, where I do indeed drink the last of my water.

I take a last look at the magnificent Cirque and Headwall Couloir, trying to see my tracks. Ah, misery. I'm close now, just another 1300 vertical feet to go. The traverse from the Notch to the ridgeline above Bairs Creek is long and tedious. Everything is long and tedious now. I'm starting to go crazy thinking about that water in my car. Time seems to tick along at a snail's pace. Just keep going, keep going. Try to lift that heavy pack off my shoulders, which are screaming in protest now.

I can see the car, a dot in the distance. When I do finally reach it, another hour later, I'm too exhausted to even stand. I slide my pack off my shoulders. They're so worked I can't lift my arms. For a few minutes I just sit there on the ground, staring dumbly at my car, hyperventilating, trying to summon up the will to stand and get at the water inside.

I've traveled a staggering 18,000 vertical feet in 24 hours, give or take. I try to process these numbers, compare them to other hikes I've done, put them in perspective. I feel none of the usual euphoria after a big climb. Just relief. Later, perhaps, when I've drank and eaten and slept and rested, I'll be able to begin to appreciate this hike, I'll begin to be able to see it as the remarkable personal achievement it is, a once-in-a-lifetime experience. For now, however, I just want to go home.

And with that thought, I put my gear in the trunk and start my car.

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.