Bairs Creek Cirque — Page 8

Snow & Endless Darkness

Skinning in the Dark

Darkness. I scramble from my campsite down the steep, rocky edge of a ravine to reach the snow. In my ski boots, this is an awkward task, not helped much by the feeble light of my tiny headlamp.

Once I reach the snow, I snap into my skis and turn off the light. As my eyes adjust, I can see the vertical walls of the Cirque rising against the stars. The snow is a dim blob stretching out to infinity before me. I take my first slow strides upward.

Headwall Pre-Dawn Dawn Over Owens Valley - And Deliverance

Thanks to this extremely early start, time should be on my side. All I have to do is keep skinning up, and I'll reach the summit. Or so I tell myself.

My body is still feeling the effects of the previous days' climb. And skinning in the dark has its own complications.

I can't see nor sense the angle of the snow. As the Cirque gradually steepens, my climbing skins begin to lose their grip on the frozen snow.

Ski crampons would help, but I don't have them, so I must pop out of my bindings and walk upward, skis in hand.

In this manner, switching back and forth as necessary, I make my way upward through the night. My pace seems pitifully slow, and after what feels like an hour of climbing, I doubt I've gained much ground at all. The wind pushes against me, blowing downhill. I'm trying to stay in my skis as much as possible, resorting to sidestepping rather than boot hiking, inching my way up the mountain.

Time drags on meaninglessly, seconds, minutes, hours, as if I'm in a giant sensory deprivation experiment. The moon is completely gone now. Blackness surrounds me. To my right is a towering spire of rock, visible as a looming outline in the darkness. I recognize this feature: what looks like a full-fledged mountain is actually just a minor bump along one of Williamson's endless ridges. The fact that this spire still dwarfs me means I've got a long, long way to go. Something inside me snaps: You Lied! my mind screams.

You said if I could reach the snow, I could ski this mountain, but I can't it's impossible impossible this mountain never ends.

I struggle to come to grips with myself. I try to remind myself that I knew these feelings would come, that I was ready for them, but here in this Heart of Darkness, climbing up an infinite slope, I have no more defenses to offer. I have been tested, and found wanting. Despite all my pride and preparation, Williamson has beaten me. I can't go on.

Deliverance comes unexpectedly then, rescuing me from this total despair: from the east begins the first faint glow of the coming dawn. Even just this tiny hint of light is enough to show me that I am actually near the headwall of the Cirque, elevation 12,000 feet. The angle of the upper Cirque lessens, and this, along with the added visibility, lets me skin upward with relative ease, picking up the pace.

Every passing minute brings more light to the sky, and more cheer to my heart. My crisis of spirit passes, and I am once again able to believe success is possible. I had hoped to reach the headwall at dawn, and here I am, on-schedule. If I wasn't so tired, overwhelmed from my confrontation with personal demons, I'd be elated. Instead, I just focus on breathing, taking a step, another breath, another step. There is still a long way to go.

next: Headwall at Dawn

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.