This is a long-form essay about a mountain ascent I did in the Sierra Nevada a few years ago.
Failure. I know it awaits me and I know where.
I don’t want to go there. I don’t want to do this alone.
I hit the snooze button one more time.
There is fear inside of me. I don’t want to face the fear. I need an excuse—an excuse that will allow me to turn off the alarm and keep sleeping until the sun rises over the White Mountains to the East.
Life is easier with excuses. I just need the right excuse.
Maybe I didn’t get enough sleep last night. Maybe I feel sick. Maybe I ate some bad food. Maybe …
My mind goes through this for half an hour while I search and hope for some justification that will prevent me from going. But nothing comes. My knee feels good. My ankle feels good. I feel energized and ready.
When the sun does rise, it will send rays of pink and violet shooting across the sky over the Owen’s Valley. Those ethereal beams will touch the summits of the Eastern Sierra visible from my bedroom window—Humphreys, Basin, and Tom. And if I am not on one of those mountains when the sun does rise, then I will wish I was on one of them, and so I must go.
I live in an old house. It was built in the 1880s. The floorboards moan and pop, especially in the early morning when my roommates—an artist and a teacher—are asleep. But I make it downstairs and to the kitchen without sounding too many alarms.
I’ve already packed my bag. My boots are waiting by the door. I bought the boots on sale a few weeks earlier at the Gear Exchange. They were 70% off and have held up well to the abuse of this season’s winter mountaineering.
I like Bishop in the dark hours of the early morning. The big trucks that tow freight, feed, and cattle north and south along Highway 395 are absent. And so are the tourists en route to Mammoth Lakes for their annual ski trip. A handful of street lights throw shadows across the empty roads. The air is crisp and fresh, sometimes with a touch of humidity—it feels of promise. The promise of the day ahead, the week ahead, and even the years ahead. The mornings in Bishop give me hope.
And with that extra boost in my step, I start my old Toyota Corolla and turn onto Highway 395 for two blocks. Then I make the memorized right turn onto Highway 168—West Line Street—the road that leads to so many adventures. 168—the road that leads straight into the mountains. To boulders, crags, forests, lakes, peaks, and passes. 168—the road that will carry me to another reality.
Before long I turn onto Buttermilk Road and bounce over the miles of dusty washboards. Winter is the peak season for climbing the world-famous boulders of the Buttermilks. But, the boulderers are still asleep in their vans, RVs, and tents as I slip past. I leave them behind to wind my way past Dale’s Camp and into the solitude beyond. A jackrabbit performs a magic act. It appears on the road and then disappears into the sage.
In November, early season storms washed out the road and a gaping “four-wheel drive only” ditch looms ahead.
“Screw it,” I say.
I put one side of the car in the bottom of the ditch and the other side a yard higher on the bank. I press down hard on the gas. The two-wheel drive Corolla bounces through the ditch without scraping anything. The maneuver made up for my late start and will save me more than two miles of walking along the road.
The road becomes narrower as I pick my way through more washouts. There is a constant scraping sound as brittle sage brush scratches the sides of my car. I’m willing to pay the price of some lost paint to get closer to the Horton Lakes trailhead.
I finally park at the campsite in the willow thicket that engulfs a nearby stream. I’m within a mile of the trailhead—closer than I’ve ever made it in my car.
I throw the car in park and reality sets in a little more. Now the work begins—the slow and steady labor of putting one foot in front of the other. I know that moments of horror, regret, soulful delight, and contentment will pierce the slog. I do not know when this will happen, but the pendulum will swing today.
“Single mountain ax or technical ice tools?” I ask.
“Single mountain ax or technical ice tools?” I repeat, holding both in my hands. I look at both styles of axes. Then I see the silhouette of Basin Mountain. I turn my eyes back to the axes. The tools feel right in my hands. They feel strong and confident. They feel like Excalibur.
I go with the tools. The tools are ice axes, but more aggressive and better for climbing steep mixed snow, ice, and rock. Whereas the mountain ax is best on low-angle snowy terrain.
When I climbed the East Chute of Basin, I used a single mountain ax and it was enough. I tell myself that today will be no different. I tell myself that I will not need the tools today. I tell myself that I will be climbing easy stuff because I will be alone up there. And thus a mountain ax will be fine. But my subconscious knows me better. My intuition knows that I will push into hard terrain today. My intuition knows that my life will depend on the tools. So I listen to my intuition because it is always right—assuming that I am listening.
I do my best to not think about the terrain ahead. I push it from my mind. Thinking about it now will do me no good. Yet, there it looms in the dark before dawn—the 2,000 foot tall East Face and its maze of gendarmes, towers, buttresses, couloirs, ridges, and gullies.
I strap the axes to the outside of my backpack. The pack, with everything in it, weighs less than 10 pounds. I am going light, very light. One liter of water. A JetBoil stove and a quarter of a fuel canister. Lighter. Knife. Puffy. Rain jacket. Extra socks. Extra gloves. Almonds, carrots, and sausage. Phone. And a headlamp.
I look at the bivouac sack sitting in the trunk of my car. It screams at me to take it.
Yes, a big storm is coming this afternoon. Yes, I could get caught in it if something goes wrong. Then I would have to bivouac somewhere on the mountain. But I do not want to carry the sack because it is bulky and heavy. Nothing will go wrong, I tell myself. I will crawl out using my hands if I must.
I slam the trunk closed with the bivouac sack sitting inside.
By the time I leave the car at 6:30 it is first light. Soon the sun will rise over the White and Inyo Mountains. The sunrises here are unlike anywhere else I have been. Each sunrise fills the Owen’s Valley with radiance and brings the mountains to life. Inspiration. It touches the earth’s surface where it penetrates muscles, tendons, minds, and souls. It inspires bodies to rise from sleep and run to the hills and towards the peaks. Inspiring passion—the passion of the moment. And inspiring love—the love that lasts a lifetime.
My body is stiff. I start slow to warm my muscles and joints for the long day ahead. But I am also trying to delay the inevitable. I am aware of the procrastination. It is frustrating. I must push through it. I must keep following each step with another.
“Perhaps, my ego …” I whisper. It works hard to hold me back—to find excuses for not moving forward.
“Oh, I could have done it, but I was moving too slow,” it suggests.
The trail is an old mining road—a parting gift of the tungsten mines common in this part of the Sierra.
The old road forks not far from the trailhead. One fork goes to Horton Lake, providing access to the South and West Faces of Mount Tom, Peak 12,808, Four Gables, and the North Face of Basin. The other trail goes toward the East Face. Three weeks before, I spotted three undocumented and spectacular winter routes on that face while climbing the East Chute. Since then those routes have filled my imagination and fueled my dreams.
The gates of my mind open and doubt floods back in. I pause at the trail junction. Do I continue toward Horton Lake and Basin’s North Face, where my friend is camping? He is attempting a long, beautiful couloir on the North Face. Maybe he has already started. Maybe he did it yesterday. Maybe I will find him around the next turn. And if I do meet him, I can use the encounter as a reason to retreat. Then I can return to Bishop and the comfort of town where I will find solace lost in the crowd of climbers at the Brewery, hidden from myself.
“No!” I must continue into the uncertainty. I must welcome it with open arms. I cannot bail on this dream.
The trail switchbacks through sage, dirt, and rock. It climbs up the steep alluvial fan that sheds off of Basin’s eastern flank. The road will lead me to the basin and the mine at about 10,800 feet. The basin that gives the mountain its name is a giant horseshoe that looks over Bishop. The beautiful and intricate East Face rises out of that basin.
I begin to cut across the switchbacks to save time and to avoid post-holing in the crusty snow drifts that accumulate in the shadows of the road.
Soon the sun strikes the upper reaches of Basin and Mount Tom. It rises from behind the White and Inyo Mountains. It is a sliver low in the sky—but it is a glimpse that the world and I need. The angle is still low in the South even though the winter solstice is long past. The sunrise is a reminder that it is still winter and the days are short. Dark will come fast, as will the storm that will fill the sky later in the day.
How will I find this undocumented route, climb it, and descend when the light is so precious and a blizzard forthcoming? I will not finish if I am slow. I must not dawdle.
“I am just checking things out,” I whisper to myself.
Maybe I will ascend the couloir for only a few hundred vertical feet to see what it looks like—to see if it is even possible. Then I can down climb to the safety of the basin.
I don’t check the time as I move higher up the alluvial fan and closer to the basin. I don’t want to feel the pressure of a clock—the pressure of seconds and minutes and hours. I want whatever happens to happen, naturally and fluidly.
“We will see,” I repeat to myself.
“We will see …”
I take a break to eat some food and watch the sun continue its rise in the sky. Below me, Bishop still sits quietly in the Owen’s Valley, but the tension is there, it is ready for another day.
I watch the sunshine slide down the summit of Mount Tom. Less than a month before I stood on that summit after climbing up Tom’s North Ridge for eleven hours.
I can see the cars and tents of the boulderers at the Buttermilks. They are still asleep—missing the crisp, impressionist beauty of morning in the Eastern Sierra. My eyes follow the dirt road that I drove up from the Milks. A faint twinkle of sun on metal gives away my car among the willows. From there the trail winds its way up to my position—it is a long distance, maybe 1,000 vertical feet. Sitting here, inhaling the sharp morning air, I remember how good it feels to be above everything. Here life begins to make sense.
After a few minutes, I am moving again, cutting across the switchbacks.
A dark shape appears in the corner of my left eye. It is startling in this lonely wilderness, with the shadow of the White Mountains still upon me. The dark shape is a man walking towards me.
Could this be my friend, Angelo? Descending from the North Face? Maybe he descended the East Chute—a 1,500-foot snow glissade—the easiest way off the summit in the winter. If it is Angelo, he must have finished his route. Or maybe he is looking for another route to climb? Maybe I can persuade him to climb this route with me.
Or maybe it is another climber also wanting to go up the East Face? Up the same route!
Maybe he wants to go up the East Chute. It is easier than where I am going, but I could be convinced to go. Yes, that would be a good reason not to go into the maze that awaits me.
Or maybe I can persuade this person to go up the East Face with me? Yes, that would be awesome. Then I wouldn’t have to do this alone. And if we turn back then I can blame the retreat on an untested partner. But if he is stronger, then he can lead me through the hard parts. He can break trail through the deep, powdery snow that lies in wait to suck me down like quicksand. And yet, it will be I who suggested we team up. I will have been the one with the idea.
Questions, assumptions, and worries flood the lonely space of my head. It is my ego—once again looking for ways to save itself. It is afraid—afraid of the mountains and afraid of climbing alone. It fears death. It fears injury. It fears failure. But, it loves success. It feeds on my success, taking the pleasure away from me to feed its parasitic growth inside my mind and soul. The only way to beat my ego is to face failure—to embrace failure—for in failure I, the individual, become nothing. All that will matter is movement, one movement at a time. My name is of no importance, how many mountains I have climbed is of no importance, rich or poor of no importance. Soul crushing failure will come to us all. It is part of being human. And I must embrace it. I must embrace failure to the utmost so that all that remains is success. I must love failure.
The man walks towards me. I stand still for a while, deciding what to do. Finally, I take the last few steps towards him.
“Funny seeing you here,” I say.
“Hey. How’s it going?” he asks.
“Good … good. Where ya heading?”
“Well, I’m going down. But I was going to try the East Chute.”
“I’m wearing the wrong shoes,” he says. He points to his suede tennis shoes that are appropriate for scrambling on dry rock, but not stomping holes in the snow and wearing crampons. “I didn’t realize there would be this much snow up here.”
I look at his shoes for a moment. Then I look at the mountain with its obvious layer of snow. Then I look at Bishop with its excellent and clear view of Basin. Then I turn back to his shoes.
“Yeah.” I don’t understand why he would wear these shoes for a climb that is so obviously covered in snow. From Bishop any person can see that a climber will boots, and gaiters. A mountain ax hangs from his pack. If he thought an ax was important enough to bring, then why not boots?
Why would he set himself up for failure?
“Yeah, you need boots like these,” I say, lifting up my foot to show him my boot. “The Gear Exchange has them for 70% off. You should get a pair. They’re good for doing this type of stuff.”
“I might do that.”
My mind is still grappling with his retreat. It seems illogical. He should not retreat. It is an easy route. He can still do it in tennis shoes if he accepts a certain level of discomfort.
“I was up there last week. We broke the trail. And a couple of days later our friends broke it in even more. So you don’t even need crampons. And you can probably get away without boots. Your feet will just be a little wet. You can follow the post holes to the top.”
“There’s too much snow. My feet are already getting wet.” He pauses for a moment and looks at his shoes. “I’m visiting from LA. I really wanted to do the East Chute. But I didn’t expect so much snow.”
I look at his shoes again. They don’t look that wet. And there was more snow last week—a lot has melted on these sunny slopes.
“Oh.” LA. I suppose that explains it.
“Are you from the area?” he asks.
“Yeah … I live down there.” I point to Bishop.
“That’s nice. I wish I could live up here. Where do you work?”
“I work at the hospital.”
Visitors to Bishop always want to know what the climbers do for work. How do they get their money?! We work real jobs. That’s how.
We begin to part ways.
“See ya around,” I say.
My statement puzzles me. Why did I say this? Most likely I will never see this man again. And if I do I won’t recognize him. I will remember our meeting. But I will not remember him.
I continue up toward the basin. As I move up, the snow begins to grow deeper. I am following our previous footsteps as closely as I can to save the energy that would be required to break a new trail through the crunchy snow. The old footsteps have melted and refrozen several times. They are solid and hold my weight, allowing me to climb up the steepening slope like I would a staircase.
The switchbacks finally come to an end. I follow the road as it loops around a thumb of land that juts out from the basin. The road is cut through a small forest of Jeffrey and White Bark Pines. These are the only conifers that I will pass until I return because everything above is snow, ice, and rock.
I round the corner of this large bend in the road and exit the forest. At last, I have my first full view of the East Face. In the center is the route that I looked at the week before. Though I had looked at it only in passing, it is as I remember. There is a deep couloir that cuts into the upper third of the center of the face. The couloir is too incut and the angle is too northerly for me to see the conditions of the snow inside, but I know it is there.
A mystery that has nagged at me all week remains. How do I get there? What about the lower two-thirds of the face? Is there a natural line connecting the basin with the upper couloir?
I need time to observe this part of the mountain—to reflect on what it wants. So I sit on a large boulder on the edge of the basin with a clear view of the face—and I stare at the wall.
A cone of snow piled high against the wall and flowing into the basin hints at a couloir that could be the start of the route. Again, I cannot see into the couloir, but I can see the shadows cast by the rock walls that tower over either side. It appears to extend about a quarter of the way up the face. It is to the left of the upper couloir and hints at leading in that general direction.
But I cannot see if they connect!
“Do they connect?” I keep asking myself. “Do they connect?”
“What lies between the two? Is there a feature that connects the bottom to the top?”
I do not know the answer. There is only one way to discover the truth. I must get closer—much closer.
The abandoned tungsten mine draws my attention. A prospect that never amounted to more than the road that miners plowed to its entrance. Nearby, miners of past have piled up rusty metal pipes and rotting logs. The entrance to the mine is about five feet high. The last time I was here my climbing partner and I went inside. The mine extends into the mountain about seventy-five feet before ending. I guess that is where the vein ended. It seems like a lot of work for no payout—the road, the equipment, the labor. Mines like this one are all over this part of the Sierra. The spectacular roads that lead to nowhere are their legacy.
Since I am resting, I eat a carrot, a handful of almonds, and a few slices of the peppered sausage.
I take my phone out and snap some pictures of the route for reference, making mental notes of key features, should I make it that high.
There are two other potential routes on the East Face. Both have captured my imagination. They look exposed, hard, and beautiful. I contemplate climbing one of them now, but they look harder than I want to climb today. They are too unknown. I need to look at them longer and from more angles. I need to get on top of them and see where they reach the summit ridge.
I take a final swig of water and look into the bottle. It is still three-quarters full. That will be enough for now, but I will need to melt snow somewhere on the face. That’s when I will take my next break.
The middle of the route still towers above me unknown. It pulls at me, dragging in my gaze once more. I try to connect the two obvious couloirs—the lower and the higher. Powerful forces create couloirs. There is the underlying geology that makes the couloirs the weakest point. Then there are the eons of weathering that break up the rock to create the gully. Water and rockfall scour the couloir deeper into the mountain.
If the couloir at the top exists, then all the rock and water that pours down from it must go somewhere. And if the couloir at the bottom exists, then something from above must channel down it to cut it deeper and to build the large cone of debris at the base.
“Yes,” I say. There must be a hidden section that connects the two. I know it.
The East Face reveals itself as a siren. I am transfixed by its song. My eyes squint hard to pierce the layers of rock—to see what lies behind. I begin to make out what looks like one wall of rock layered in front of another layer of rock. I shift my head from side to side. Making this motion, I notice a tower on the closer wall.
“Yes!” I whisper.
The couloir is hidden between these two enormous walls. It cuts through a narrow canyon that slashes the face of the mountain, bound by hundreds of vertical feet of beautiful, steep granite.
I am now confident that the route is there even though I cannot see it. I repack my bag and walk toward the cone of snow piled high at the base of the route.
I follow my past footprints for a distance before cutting off toward the face. Looking into the East Chute, I see our glissade tracks from last week. If I am successful, I will be sliding down that Chute again. But that possibility is far away, a distant thought, something I have not and do not want to consider yet.
As I plod closer to the start of the cone leading into the couloir, the size of the face grows taller above me. It is massive and desolate. But, here I am, heading into this abyss. I remember the story of T.E. Lawrence crossing the Nabil Desert, chin up, and taking long strides into a place where men go but do not return.
I pause while the gears in my brain turn faster and faster. I am thinking too hard. The audacity of what I am about to do dominates the horizon. Here is a giant—an all-knowing giant—looking down on me—looking into me. It knows what I am made of. It knows what I am capable of—this puny human.
But I know nothing of it.
And thus the unmoved Zeus looks down upon the peasant, while I struggle to grasp what lies above.
I stop thinking. I tell my thoughts to stop. Thoughts of success. Thoughts of failure. Thoughts of what lies above. The thoughts barrage me. I silently scream at them inside of my mind.
I struggle to overcome these thoughts and instead to become lost in this moment and this place.
“Yes!” I exhale the word to a great release of the weight that was crushing my chest. This is the real reason I came here—to lose myself. And I start up the cone.
I make my way up the first half of the cone quickly on the hard snow. The snow here is perfect. When I kick my boot into it, a step forms with the first swing of my leg. And when I press down on the step to move up, the step holds my weight and does not collapse.
The core of the cone is a pile of loose talus—rocks that have fallen from the face and funneled down the couloir to this point. But most of the talus is hidden underneath the snow. The snow here is a mix of snowfall and debris from the avalanches that have scoured the couloir this winter.
I try to remember when the last storm moved through. A month ago? A month and a half? It is a sad winter in the Sierra. It’s too dry. We need more storms. We need more snow. California needs water.
The slope is growing steeper. Ahead a thin layer of ice covers the snow. I stop at a rock sticking out of the snow. It is the last and highest exposed rock on the cone.
I sit down on the rock and strap on my crampons. The crampons forged from aluminum versus the usual steel. This design makes them lighter, but it results in a less durable crampon. They are also less aggressive than a rigid steel crampon. They are designed for flat and low angle walking on glaciers, but not the steep terrain that I am climbing today. But it is a sacrifice that I am willing to make because it eliminates a pound of metal from each boot.
Soon I will need my ice axes, but I decide to push a little further without them. Doing this, I feel less committed to the objective. If I take out the axes now, it will be a larger gesture to myself. That small action will state, “This is about to get serious.” So instead I trick myself to go a little further by saying, “I’m just checking it out for a future ascent. I don’t need the axes yet—the route doesn’t need that much commitment, yet.”
I continue my ascent up the cone, nearing the mouth of the couloir. The snow here is a mixed bag. I get a few good, solid steps. Then I fall into my knees and must wade up the slope until the top layer becomes strong enough again to hold my weight.
On a single route, I have experienced so many different types of snow that I have lost count. There are consolidated upper layers with an icy surface. There are spaghetti thin layers that break one after the other—pop pop pop. There is deep and dry powder as light as air. There is the wet and heavy stuff called Sierra Cement. And there is graupel that cascades down the mountain—it reminds me of the ice cream dots that I had at the zoo as a child. Each winter ascent is a symphony of experiences. The journeys crescendo across this fantastical substance that turns the world into a wrinkled white bed sheet of fun.
I find solid snow in a shadow and quickly kick steps that take me into the couloir where the wall suddenly closes in around me. I’ve only gone a couple of hundred vertical feet since putting on the crampons, but the slope is already steeper than expected. I feel the need to use the ice axes. So I stop again and remove my ice axes from the pack.
I look up. The couloir grows even steeper. Then it takes a sharp right turn. Beyond is the unknown terrain that I have sought all winter. I am now entering the maze of this great face. This face that looks down upon Bishop every day. This face whose wrinkles tell stories beyond the birth of the first human. This face that stands steady through every storm. This face that has watched countless sunrises, yet never seen a sunset. This face that knows more about life than any human will ever know.
I look anxiously at the turn. Yes, the couloir is steep. A fall here would send me tumbling to the boulders at the bottom of the cone a couple of hundred feet below. I must use both of my axes.
Committed, I move quickly to the sharp turn—to the unknown. I feel the excitement building, my pulse quickening.
“Will it go? Will it go? Will it go?” I repeat to myself while climbing.
Step. Step. Swing. Swing. Step. Step. Swing. Swing.
“Oh, yes!” The swing of the axes under my hands is pure glory.
The rhythm of the movement frees my mind and my muscles.
“Let it go. Please let it go. Let it connect to what lies above,” I whisper.
I want to keep swinging these axes hour after hour. I want to keep kicking these crampons into the snow all day. I want to hear the crunch-crunch crunch-crunch until the very end.
I want it to go.
I want to keep climbing deeper into the wrinkles of Basin Mountain. I want to understand more of this mountain that stands sentinel over me every day. From my bedroom window, it haunts and taunts my imagination. It inspires my soul. My pulse races but my hands are steady. When I bicycle to work, there it is in front of me, a carrot dangling just out of reach. It calls to me. It beckons me to this fortress of solitude—to home.
“But what if it doesn’t go? What if there is a wall too steep, too technical, for me to climb alone?” I begin to worry.
All morning I have searched for excuses not to climb the face. But now that I am here, I begin to fear that the mountain will tell me “No!” by placing an insurmountable obstacle in my path.
“Will it go? Please, let it go. It must go.”
I turn the corner and I see that it goes.
There is a rock band a few hundred feet above me. It looks tricky, but I know that I can climb through it.
But wait! Above the rock band, the couloir turns again and disappears to somewhere unknown. And again the fear of the unknown creeps back into to my mind. What if I overcome the rock band, but above I find insurmountable difficulties? What if I must retreat?
All day I have felt that a retreat is inevitable. I know that it is coming. I think that the mountain is luring me deeper into its maze until the time is perfect for it to spring a trap and force me back down the couloir and into failure.
I look at each step, each swing of the ax, as one more move deeper into the retreat that I know is coming. I will fail at this ascent. How can I not? I do not deserve to be here! Look at this place. Humans are not supposed to be here. This mountain is a hallowed place. It stands as a sanctuary for the unrestrained wildness of nature. It is not a sanctuary for a human. Some mountaineers call it their church! No, this is no church for humans. This is a church for rock and snow. Ravens come to pay homage to the high power of the mountains and watch the folly of humans trying to leave our mark in their holy place.
“What are you doing here, human?” the raven cries. It circles menacingly above.
But I have friends among the ravens. And so I say to the raven, “One day I will be one of your kind, just as my friends before me. And I am not here to desecrate your sacred place. I am here to submit to this power—to the power of rock, snow, and wind. I give myself up to this power. It can do with me as it pleases. Death or life, the mountain chooses for me.”
The raven continues its flight across the face in silence.
I reach the rock band. Directly above me is a short section of overhanging rock. To my left are a series of lower angle ledges, but they look loose and exposed and the snow there is terrible.
I try to climb through the overhanging rock in the center of the couloir. I wedge my right foot and my left ax into a crack. With the other ax, I reach above the overhang and test the snow. It is soft and loose. Too thin to place the pick of the ax. So I scrape the pick through the snow blindly searching for a rock edge or constriction that I can use to pull myself over the lip. I find nothing.
I hear the clatter of falling rocks from above while I am finishing my search. I quickly duck under the overhang as the mountain sends down a small volley of granite baseballs. They whiz past my head, missing me by a couple of feet.
It is a warning, telling me what may await. But I feel the rocks were not meant to hit me. They are only a reminder to tread carefully through this hostile landscape where even dragons do not visit.
I remember that I am not wearing a helmet.
“Oh well. Just don’t get hit by a rock,” I tell myself.
I decide that the overhanging rock is too exposed. The footholds are scarce. And I cannot get my axes to bite into the loose snow above. A fall here would send me tumbling down the hard and slushy snow that I just climbed. And I feel very exposed to the few rocks that are falling.
So I traverse left to the ledges—after attempting the overhang, the ledges no longer look so exposed. I place the picks of my tools on the bare rock, wedged in cracks and hooking on narrow ledges. The front points of my crampons scrape on the rock as I search for good footholds and make strained movements upward.
While stepping up with just one point of each crampon resting on ledges no bigger than a bottle cap, I notice that my boots have loosened. They are too loose for precision. I must tighten them when I get past this challenging spot.
A few vertical moves and sketchy mantels get me onto a hummock of loose stones and fine gravel covered in one to three feet of powdery snow. The snow offers no grip for my axes or crampons. I must punch through it and stand on the loose rocks hidden underneath. They threaten to push me off-balance and send me back over the small ledge that I just climbed.
I struggle up the loose ramp to the safety of a large boulder. The downhill side of the boulder is overhanging, and I feel protected here from the rocks that might fall from above. I move a large stone to make a comfortable seat, looking down the couloir and out over the Owen’s Valley, then I melt snow.
Turning snow into water is a straightforward process. I fill the JetBoil cup about a quarter full with the remaining water from my bottle. I fire up the burner and add two handfuls of snow to the cup. Stirring the snow around with a knife, I watch the snow slowly melt. When all the snow is nearly melted, I add more and continue. This process repeats itself until the cup is full.
I don’t eat anything during my break. My stomach feels satiated. The altitude has probably decreased my appetite as well.
I utter aloud, “How high am I here? 12,000 feet?”
The topo map on my cell phone is hard to read, but 12,000 feet looks about right. That means that I have 950 feet more to reach the summit ridge and the top of the couloir.
After twenty minutes I’ve made enough water to finish the route.
The break was too long, and the state of suspended fear and anxiety has eroded my confidence.
What awaits me up there?
Will I have to come back to this same place in a few hours, retreating from another unknown obstacle?
I can’t postpone the inevitable any longer. I tighten my boots and crampons, stuff everything into the backpack, and start climbing again.
Movement feels good. Movement removes the doubt from my mind and silences the ego whispering in my ear. With movement, I forget the problems of the world below. I forget about how much I hate my job at the hospital. I forget about the images of my fallen climbing partner that haunt my waking dreams. I forget the drama of Bishop below. I forget my friends. I forget my family. And I forget myself.
I have lost everything, yet I have found something.
Fine grains of snow fluff off above me and trickle down the steep slope in mini-avalanches. The snow makes a tinkling, scraping sound as it slides and bounces away.
Sssschhh … tink tink tink.
The sound is so light, so airy. The sound is like the snow itself. I feel as though I could scoop the sound up in my hands and gently place it in a pocket to keep forever.
Is this what I would sound like if I were sliding down this couloir?
Snow is graceful when it falls, no matter the condition or place. It is always graceful. Elegance is in its nature. If we humans want to learn to be elegant, to be civilized, then we should watch the snow fall.
I am pure focus. The slope keeps getting steeper. Forty-five degrees. Now sixty.
My consciousness is split between my feet, my hands, and my head. Each part operates independently yet in concert with the others. Bishop and the world fall away behind me—the blurry backdrop of a portrait.
The snow here is a hard slush—a thin coating of slush over an icy base. The ice underneath the slush is bullet hard. My crampons do not stick into the ice with the first kick. Sometimes they stick only to the slush, giving me the false assumption that the foot is solid. But it is not.
I step up on a what I think is solid footing—the front points of my left crampon embedded in the ice. With all of my weight on these two aluminum points, I lift up my other foot. But the points are not in the ice.
For an instant I find myself sliding down the slope. Sssschhh. Then the points of my right crampon catch on a bump in the ice and I come to a stop.
This happens several times. I kick my crampons into the ice with more force to try to get a better bite, but the brittle ice only breaks away in big chunks that tumble down the couloir. With each swing, I bury my axes deeper into the ice because they are the difference between life and death, failure and success.
I round another corner in the couloir. Just above me is a large and steep snowfield—the convergence point of several gullies. And above that, I see the entrance to the feature that first drew my eye to the route—the deep cleft in the upper third of the face.
The mountain looks as though Thor took an ax to it.
This upper couloir is incredibly narrow—more so than I imagined. The entrance is only an arms width wide. And the rock walls tower hundreds of feet above either side!
This is a gate to some other world.
Am I supposed to be here? Do I have permission to pass?
This is the last third of the route. I am moving quickly! Speed is good. But the difficulties look harder above. There is a steep section of rock and snow just before the entrance. And there is another small cliff above that. Both of these cruxes have massive exposure over rock slabs and boulders sticking out of the snowfield.
And it is steep! So steep!
I don’t meditate on these difficulties for long. I throw myself upward.
The snowfield turns out to be deep powder. I fall into it up to my chest. I struggle to take a step up, but I cannot move forward. The snow is too soft to give me any grip at all. It pushes me back.
How is this possible? How does this powder stick to such a steep slope? Why hasn’t it sloughed off like the rest of the route? Maybe it is waiting for me before it begins its last journey down to the basin 1,200 feet below.
I try to move sideways and slightly up. But this does not work either.
No! This can’t be the thing that stops me. I will not allow it to force me into the retreat that I once wished for before the journey began, that I knew was certain a thousand feet below. I must continue this fantastic struggle in the unknown land.
So I begin to swim through the snow and up the slope. I lay flat on my stomach and paddle my arms and legs like a frog.
It is working! I can’t believe that it is working!
Slowly I move up until I come to more consolidated snow where I can kick steps again.
Above the snowfield and guarding the entrance to the upper couloir is a tall band of steep rock. This is the first gate of two that will allow me passage into the place that has lingered in my conscious and unconscious dreams.
What will it be like in there? Can I get in? Will the mountain allow it?
I hear rockfall somewhere on the face. It is not where I am climbing, but it is big. I must get out of here. The geological clock—the clock of weathering, expansion, and contraction—is ticking, and with it my life. I can hear the hands moving.
Tick, tick, tick.
The rock band is about 40-feet tall. A thin layer of water ice three feet wide runs over the left edge. I start up the ice with no further thought.
The alpine ice is steep—eighty degrees—and I must climb above a precipitous granite slab. If I fall here, I will hit the slab and slide down the consolidated snow into the boulders below. If I fall here, I die.
The first swing of each ax lands perfectly in the ice. Thunk.
“Amazing. Absolutely amazing,” I whisper. Thunk.
Raw joy floods my heart. I hold back the tears. Thunk.
The ice ends at a rock ledge, but the last few feet of ice are in poor condition. The ice here is showing signs of too much time in the sun. It is soft and flaky. As I move my axes higher, I must swing several times to get the pick to stick solid. With each swing, I break off large chunks that shatter on the rocks below me.
I am at about 12,500 feet. For the first time this day, I notice that breathing is harder than usual. I struggle to pull the thin air into my lungs. Bishop is at 4,148 feet—over 8,000 feet below. The need for oxygen slows me down. Exhaustion reaches me faster. I must place each ax pick and the front points of the crampons with care.
“Focus,” I tell myself.
I kick each crampon into the ice until it gets the full bite of the entire length of the front points.
My feet cannot slip here!
I move only one appendage at a time. The other three must stay connected to the ice. This is my safety. I am my belay.
At last, I top out the ice and scramble up to a rock outcrop where I sit and catch my breath.
My legs feel almost shaky. They are not there yet, but they could be. Fear and fatigue have driven them to the edge. I let them rest for a few minutes while I drink water.
I have to keep reminding myself to drink plenty of water to prevent my muscles from cramping. If a muscle in one of my legs cramps up then my circumstances will deteriorate quickly—and I will be the only one to blame. I must take care of my body, and the mountain will take care of everything else.
While resting, I notice another couloir leading out of the snowfield below. This other couloir goes to the left. It is huge.
“What!?” I exclaim.
How could I have missed it?
I am confused. This other couloir is bigger and more obvious than the one that I am climbing to, but I was so focused on the direct line that I missed it.
“Is that where I am supposed to be!?”
I glance at the gates that have been my fixation for so long. It looks like they lead to the ridge. But is it the same line that I spotted from the ground? I begin to think that it isn’t—that I am on another route. And a more difficult one!
Doubt, there you are again.
I pull out my topo map and look at my location on the mountain.
The topo shows only one couloir here! Then what is this other couloir!? And which one am I heading into!?
I curse at the US Geological Survey.
I do not want to reverse the ice. It is too dangerous.
I must follow the path that the mountain lays out for me. I must let it guide me. This is its face. Here, I am a guest. I must behave that way. I will follow where the mountain leads.
I find hard snow above the ice. I laugh. Here I am in yet another place where a slip would be fatal.
“Don’t slip,” I tell myself.
The hard snow makes for smooth climbing, and I quickly gain the next cliff.
Here I am, at last, at the gate to the very heart of the mountain. Yes, Thor laid down his hammer, picked up an ax, and with a single blow cut this gash in Basin.
Who are you Basin? What did you do to draw such wrath—such anger channeled from the energy that powers the fabric of the universe?
Loose rocks piled around a few wedged chockstones define the rock band.
“Do not fall,” I repeat. How many times have I said this? I do not know. I have lost count and ceased to care. My mind and my body seem to keep floating up the mountain—how can I argue with that?
Finally, I pull over the last rock and look up to find myself in the object of my fantasy.
I set my axes in the snow and stretch out my arms to touch the rock walls on either side. The walls swirl upward all around me. I am here. So this is what I have gazed at for so long.
I see myself sitting on the curb outside of the hospital lab, hiding near the generator, eating lunch, and staring up at this exact place.
I hear the tink-tink-tink of a small rock falling. I cannot dodge anything while in this slash in the rock. The mountain will decide my fate, and this place is a testament to that fact.
The steep snow under my feet and axes and the thin air in my lungs force me to take frequent stops. I am breathing harder than anywhere else on the route. Beads of sweat collect under my fleece hat. I take it off and stuff it in a pocket.
Looking up I can see the V of the top of the couloir. Hundreds of vertical feet remain between us.
As I move closer to the top, doubt slips back into my mind. I still fear that the couloir below the ice—the couloir that I overlooked—is the actual route. If that is the route, then where does this lead?
“Please, don’t let it take me to an isolated tower. Let it go to the summit ridge,” I pray.
I also fear that it might lead to the summit ridge. What would that mean? From the beginning, I assumed failure and retreat. But success? I do not know how to handle the success of this journey.
I can do nothing but move upward.
The struggle in me becomes harder as the strain of the climb takes a heavier toll on my body. I often stop to catch my breath. Despite this, I keep pushing myself to the brink of collapse.
A battle rages within me. It started in the back of mind, but now pollutes my heart, my gut, and my muscles. My voice manifests that battle as I release an anguished howl that echoes up the walls and into the abyss above.
My ego is screaming, “Success!”
But my soul shuns success. My soul does not care. My soul wants only to be in this magical place between stone and snow, protected from the wind and protected from everything in the valley below. The memories and worries that haunt my mind and soul from day to day are quiet up here. The ghosts become friends again—horrific phantasms of the night no more. They do not bother me here.
But this ego—this ego! It followed me here.
And so this battle between ego and soul becomes a tempest. I swing the axes faster. I kick steps harder. I am running up the slope. Warm tears form in my eyes, but they are cold when they reach my cheeks.
I cannot breathe. I cannot run anymore.
So I stop.
I stop in the middle of this place where the difference between life and death is insignificant—where I am nothing. I close my eyes and lean my head against the snow—my hands still gripping the axes—and I say, “No. No more.”
The cold of the snow against my bare head clears the confused string of thoughts rampaging in my brain.
Oxygen. I breathe.
The cobwebs in front of my eyes fade away.
An eternity passes. My breathing returns to a regular pace. My thoughts become coherent.
The ego did not know it while chasing me here, but this is the perfect trap. Here demons are slain.
My hands loosen their grip around the axes, and I feel the fear leave my body. My mind is silent and at peace—the battle within quiet. This time I know that the truce will last to the top. I will finish the route on my terms.
In return for completing the route, I promise myself that I will have a drink at the brewery in Bishop. I feel the warmth of the drink inside of me. Friends line the wood tables—climbers and skiers making plans and sharing adventures. I can’t hear a word over the bluegrass band, but the energy there is strong, and anything is possible.
With this promise, I take the next step up the couloir.
A gust of wind rushes down and slams into me. The summit ridge is near. I know it.
After another band of rock, I take the last steps to stand on a narrow saddle between two of Basin’s false summits. These are final gendarmes guarding the path to Valhalla. The heart of the High Sierra stretches out in front of me—a hidden paradise where countless possibilities disappear into the horizon.
“Yes, heaven.” The roaring wind grabs my words and whisks them away.
I collapse into a pile of rocks. The beauty, of where I have been and where I am, overwhelms me.
“Thank you,” I whisper to the mountain.
The summit, at 13,181 feet, is about fifteen minutes away—an easy scramble. After that is an airy traverse on exposed rock. Then a 1,500-foot glissade down the East Chute will take me back to where I started in the basin.
Now I sit on an abused couch on the second floor of the old house where I rent a room. Art fills the house—paintings on silk and canvas of the mountains and the power they hold. Rich colors swirl off of the painted ridges like spindrift and fill the sky. Outside, the wind chimes sing in the oak tree—the only of its kind left in Bishop—and the pines. I look out at Basin and the other mountains. I look at the routes I have climbed and the routes I have yet to climb. I see features that I remember from my ascents—and I smile. And I see features that I have overlooked—and I smile.
Lately, I have spent lots of time on snow—on hands, knees, feet, and skis. I dream of snow. I have flashbacks to the textures and shapes of snow that I have experienced. I imagine the snow of the future. I fantasize about the snow of the ice ages—of the Pleistocene glaciers that carved the valleys of the Sierra. The snow as a part of me. Just as I need air and water, I also need snow.
How many words do I know to describe snow? I know too few. I want to learn these words.