Skiing the Bairs Creek Cirque
Adventures in Soul-Crushing on California's Second-Highest Fourteener
- Looking for the Notch
- The Hero's Traverse
- Ode to Williamson
- Heartbreak Ridge
- Sage Camp
- Skinning in the Dark
- Headwall at Dawn
- Williamson Summit
- Once Is Enough
MOUNT WILLIAMSON, CALIFORNIA — Darkness. I have been climbing in darkness for hours on this massive, merciless mountain, and my will is crumbling.
I have climbed thousands of vertical feet, a cumulative attack that has finally bested me. I've reached the crux of my climb right here, right now, in the middle of the night, body exhausted, mind defeated, surrounded by towering spires of black that rise against the stars...
True story: for the past year, whenever I have felt weak, or sick, or banged my toe on a corner, gotten stuck in traffic, or just been lowered by the usual existential angst, I have quelled my misery with a simple mantra—this is good training for Williamson.
If you have ever driven California's Highway 395 through Owens Valley, you know Mount Williamson. Among the many impressive peaks towering some 10,000 vertical feet over Owens Valley, Williamson is easily identifiable: it is the big mountain.
At 14,375 feet above sea level, Williamson is California's second highest peak, behind Mount Whitney. But, as Climbing California's Fourteeners authors Stephen Porcella and Cameron Burns put it, "In overall dimensions, Mount Williamson has no rival."
Williamson dominates the landscape in a way perhaps unmatched by any other peak in the range, offering an unmistakable invitation—a call, should you hear it, that cannot be refused.
The North Fork of Williamson's Bairs Creek drainage ends in a spectacular amphitheater carved out long ago by glaciers. Seen from Highway 395 just south of Independence, the cirque's gleaming snowfields are surely as tempting a skier's treat as anything to be found in the entire Eastern Sierra.
Via Bairs Creek, it is possible to ski from the true summit of Mount Williamson, down the headwall, through the cirque, and all the way down (in good conditions) to 7000' or so, deep within the claustrophobic lower reaches of the drainage. But backcountry travelers beware: Williamson stands ready to crush any would-be suitors with an approach savage enough to turn back even the most hardened mountaineer.
I first attempted to ski the Bairs Creek Cirque in May 2005. After hours battling talus, thorns, and scrub I turned back, having barely reached the snow. The unexpected difficulty of the approach made me wonder if success was even possible. Returning to Mount Williamson would require a number of adjustments. Physical preparation, technique, gear, strategy—everything would have to change if I was to have any chance of success.
But I did learn something critical while flailing about on Williamson's flanks: there was no rational way to justify the suffering involved. Returning would not be about enjoying a spectacular ski descent (even if such was the case). No, I would need a new reason to motivate me, to keep me moving upward with skis on my back when every shred of reason screamed otherwise.
Hence my unusual strategy of the past year, turning life's trials into training. I would have to patch together a crazy quilt of determination, stoicism, optimism, denial, and—yes—even raw arrogance. In the end, I could only hope it would be enough to get me to the summit and back.