Ski Racer Daron Rahlves dives head first into the Sierra backcountry with snowboarder Jeremy Jones
Story and photos by Seth Lightcap
You’re only a virgin once so we had to go big. Especially considering the man of the hour.
The task at hand was to take former Olympian turned pro freeskier Daron Rahlves into the backcountry for his first overnight Sierra ski trip. Now, Rahlves had explored the backcountry near Sugar Bowl on Donner Summit, but he had never been winter camping, nor had he explored the towering peaks of the High Sierra. That all was to change when he accepted my invitation to join pro snowboarder Jeremy Jones and me for an adventure in the Sierra last January.
Of course, Rahlves is one of the strongest skiers on the planet, so despite his inexperience in the skintrack, this was not your average rookie outing. We needed a worthy challenge for the man with a mantle full of World Cup trophies. Knowing the scenery would blow his mind, the ski line a classic, and the approach pain inducing, the pretty lady we chose was the North Couloir of Feather Peak (13,240 ft).
The North Couloir of Feather fit the bill, as it’s no roadside attraction. The steep couloir hangs off the Sierra Crest like a spectacular frozen neck-tie seven miles behind and 6,000 feet above the Pine Creek trailhead outside of Bishop, CA. We had a three-day time window, good weather, and stable snow, so we hoped to summit and ski the line regardless of the suffering. Cinematographers Chris Edmands and Canyon Florey also joined us to document the sweat equity.
To share the story of our trip I’ve presented a handful of images that highlight Rahlves’ rookie experience. Did we sandbag the Olympian with a death march, or did he feel rewarded by sweet success? The photo captions tell the tale.
The approach to Feather Peak begins at the abandoned Pine Creek Tungsten mine behind Mt. Tom. Just above the mine the steep drainage constricts into a narrow canyon with holes of open water. The rocky terrain forced us to traverse across an exposed slope right above one of the raging water holes. Florey and Edmands (shown here) led the way through the crossing. With wide eyes, Rahlves sent the crux traverse without flinching. His legs marched a confident step despite the adrenaline in his eyes. No doubt he was used to the feeling of exposure but the methodical nature of climbing left him a longer time to think about it than usual. It was his first valuable lesson of the trip–slow motion situations in the backcountry are often the sketchiest.
Settling in to warm food and a small fire at our camp was a just reward after the strenuous approach. Climbing the windboard snow up the drainage had proven especially difficult for Rahlves, as his skins were too narrow and provided less than ideal traction. “That was quite the mental fight,” admitted Rahlves with a tired grin when we got to camp. “Climbing was a lot harder than I expected.” Hearing that I had to smile. Were we gonna see Superman suffer after all? Only time would tell. We planned on summiting Feather Peak the next day, but first we needed to get some sleep. The temps that night fell into the single digits. Rahlves’ first night out winter camping would be a bitterly cold one.
On day two we woke up with the dawn and didn’t stop moving for fifteen hours. The high point of the day was most definitely standing atop the summit of Feather Peak right at sunset. It was Rahlves’ first backcountry summit by leg power alone, and a new summit for the whole crew. Steep switchbacks up the apron, a 1200-foot knee-deep bootpack up the couloir, and 200 feet of fourth class scrambling to gain the summit were the technical lessons of the day. However, the real test was overall climbing endurance. Needless to say, we saw no suffering out of the former World Cup champ. Rahlves had broken trail for nearly half the approach and he was still in fighting form on the summit!
Dropping into the North Couloir our boards sliced into pockets of wind pack mixed with long open panels of glorious shin deep pow. The turns off the top were steep and sweet, though a tad dark. Upon reaching the apron we knew there was nothing in the fall line to worry about, so we turned off our brains in the fading light, and made wide open pow turns with our eyes closed. These blind turns were an out-of-body experience none of us will soon forget. We were flying down the mountain by feel alone.
Regrouping in the basin we clicked on our headlamps and began the two-hour tour back to camp. A vivid starscape lit the skintrack climbing back over Co Co La Pass. Dropping off the pass we milked more turns before chasing across several long traverses. Skiing by headlamp didn’t slow down Rahlves as he charged ahead descending the final benches. There was no denying Rahlves had crushed the day’s challenge, and that the strength of his tree trunk-like legs had trumped his inexperience.
Day three dawned clear and bright so we decided to climb an improbable line right above camp before packing up to head out. The line held multiple rock bands requiring near vertical climbing on the way up and mandatory airs on the way down. Busting climbing moves using ice axes and crampons was nothing new to Jones (shown here), but it was a different story for Rahlves. He had never climbed anything even remotely as technical. Watching him hammer home his first ever ice axe placements was a trip highlight as you could tell he was in awe of the power of the axe, and the potential of the tool for accessing rowdy terrain.
Once again our climbing effort paid us back a hundred fold. The views of the Sierra crest added countless lines to our to-do list and the turns on the way down were tremendous. We ripped pow, wind buff and sun softened cream to within 200 yards of our tents. Packing up to head down to the cars, Rahlves was already fired up for the next backcountry mission. “We’ve climbed and skied way more gnarly stuff than I imagined,” said Rahlves. “The trip has definitely exceeded my expectations. Where are we going next?” Three long days of climbing, two cold nights in a tent, and Rahlves was ready for more. So much for sandbagging an Olympian. This rarefied rookie had led the charge, and opened his eyes to a whole new world of skiing in the backcountry.
Three All-Day MTB Epics from Bishop to Tahoe
Story and photos by Seth Lightcap
Though the dirt is decent and the rocks are wicked fun, one of the best things about mountain biking in the Sierra Nevada is the fact that there is a trail for any occasion. Whether you only have an hour to cruise or you have all day and are looking for an ass-whupping, there are countless ride options.
Finding a Sierra destination for your average three-hour ride window is easy. Chances are you’ve already spent an afternoon or two on a few great ones. But what about those dawn to dark days? Where would you pedal if you had 12 hours to burn and were allergic to riding laps?
Here’s your answer. Check the specs on the three all-day epic rides profiled here. These rides are adventure testpieces that will challenge your legs, lungs, and navigation skills with big mileage, high elevation, and tricky route finding. Don’t expect your average ‘cross the dam and head into the woods’ endeavours as all of these point-to-point routes cross rugged alpine terrain via some improbable pathways. Due to the distances, these rides also require car shuttles, so read on, feel the stoke, and inspire your friends to join you on the journey.
The Coyote Flat Traverse: Bishop to Big Pine
The Coyote Flat Traverse is no doubt Type II fun. How else could you describe a 35-mile sufferfest that climbs 3,000 feet over an 11,000-foot plateau and includes more sandy doubletrack and hike-a-biking than singletrack? That said, this grand tour from Bishop to Big Pine is a spectacular adventure, well worth the pain if only for the glacial views and the chance to rip rarefied singletrack from the High Sierra to the Owens Valley.
This radical journey should only be attempted by strong riders with a keen sense of direction as route navigation is by far the crux of the trip. Your pedal payment won’t be the only sacrifice as the ride requires an hour car shuttle in both directions. Don’t be put off however. Just prepare well and roll with good company.
The car shuttle begins in Big Pine where you can leave a vehicle along Glacier Lodge Road. Cruise back to Bishop and make a left on W. Line Street (168), then a left on South Lake Road 13 miles later. Park at a turnout on South Lake Road just past Bishop Creek Lodge. The ride starts about a quarter mile up the paved road where you’ll make a left onto the first obvious dirt road and cross a creek on a gated bridge. The road looks like a private driveway but it’s a Forest Service easement.
Follow the road past a home then veer left and begin climbing as the road contours up the side of the valley. After grinding up 3,000 feet in six miles you’ll be greeted by stellar views as you reach the top of the plateau. At this point a map will be key as you’ll need to navigate the jeep roads across the massive Coyote Flat. When you pass a marked landing strip you’ll know you’re on the right route.
About a 1/4-mile past the airstrip you’ll reach a critical junction. If you head left you’ll climb up over a saddle and descend fast moto-banked jeep roads for about 15 miles back to Big Pine. This alternative route stays on dirt longer but misses out on the technical singletrack that awaits if you stay right and follow the original route.
If you hang right you’ll begin trending southwest following a road along a low-lying ridge until it dead ends at a hunting cabin. Riding out behind the cabin look for a faint horse trail that crosses a creek just after a barbed-wire fence. From here get ready to hike-a-bike a fair bit as the singletrack trail gets loose and steep as it climbs and meanders across a high meadow that overlooks the Palisade Glacier. After a couple miles of on/off climbing, the trail will drop sharply into rowdy technical switchbacks that cross another meadow or two before descending into the Big Pine Creek drainage and finally to trail’s end at Glacier Lodge. Zip down Glacier Lodge Road for nine miles back to your car.
Do not underestimate this 35-mile adventure. It is long, arduous, and extremely remote. Getting temporarily lost is probable, if not guaranteed. Prepare for a 12-14 hour day on the saddle. Following the route description in Mountain Biking Mammoth, a guidebook by David and Allison Diller, will vastly improve your odds of success as would bringing a GPS. The plateau is quite exposed so dress accordingly and abandon plans for the ride if you wake up to mixed weather. It’s also worth noting that there is a short cut variation to this ride that will take you back to Bishop after gaining the plateau. This route drops off to the north after 11 miles.
The Black Canyon of the White Mountains
OK, so this one isn’t exactly in the Sierra but rather looks out upon them. The White Mountains are the massive and under-appreciated range that looms to the east of the Owens River Valley outside of Bishop. Though well-known as the home of the Bristlecone pines, the oldest living things on earth, few people recreate the sprawling escarpments of the White Mountains as they are hard to access and not quite as picturesque as their High Sierra counterparts to the west.
Riding the Black Canyon is a top-to-bottom thrill that drops from the brushy ridge crest to the streets of Bishop, a 4500-foot plummet over 10 miles. The route starts on singletrack as it traverses into the canyon but soon joins a rocky old road that winds down the mountain. You’ll want fresh brake pads, wide tires and a couple extra tubes for this one as the narrow road is undeniably loose and ridiculously fast.
A Black Canyon descent begins with a long shuttle up to the top. The best place to leave your car is at the end of Warm Springs Road, a road found a couple miles south of Bishop off Hwy 395. Follow Warm Springs Road for approximately seven miles and park at the first major intersection. Head back to 395 and drive south to Big Pine where you’ll make a left on SR-168 going toward Westgard Pass. After 13 miles on SR-168, make a left on White Mountain Road and continue until 1.1 miles past Grand View Campground where you’ll see an unmarked dirt pull-out on the left. Park here.
The trail starts as a northbound dirt road leaving the back of the pull-out. Pass the first faint road heading left but take the second left that quickly becomes a singletrack trail. The trail traverses across a few drainages before dropping into the Black Canyon after a couple miles. The bottom of the canyon is marked by a major intersection with a road, at which you’ll take a left and start ripping downhill. The route is obvious from here as you stay on the main road as it drops another seven miles through alternately lush then rocky, barren terrain. Hang on tight and don’t let the Sierra views distract you too much as the loose trail surface demands attention.
This ride is notorious for flat tires, especially if you have XC rubber on your bike. Throw on wider tires for better scree surfing and bring two tubes per person PLUS a patch kit. A mile-by-mile route description can also be found in the pocket-sized guidebook Mountain Biking Mammoth, a very worthy addition to your trail pack.
Spooner Summit to
Mr. Toad’s: Lake Tahoe
The details don’t lie on this ultra-mega Tahoe Rim Trail link-up: 40 miles, 6300 feet of climbing and 7043 feet of descending. Whoa!
This ride requires some serious gusto but you get paid royally for the pain as you’ll travel through remote Tahoe high country before descending one of the most famous trails in the region, Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. Other than a few intersecting portions of paved road, the entire ride is on perfect singletrack with several hyper-fast sections.
The route is locally known as the “Super Punisher” but it’s doable for mere mortals if you get an early start. The first 12 miles from Spooner Summit to Kingsbury Grade are a perfect warm-up as it climbs awhile then descends awhile leaving you well-balanced for the big push up to Mr. Toad’s. The climbing on the back half is also broken up fairly well providing opportunities to rest. A quick dip in Star Lake at the base of Freel Peak is also not to be missed.
The shuttle drop-off for this ride is at a OHV parking lot just outside of South Lake Tahoe. To reach the trailhead go south on Hwy 89/50, take a left on Pioneer Trail Road, then a right on Oneidas Road. Park at road’s end. Head back into South Lake Tahoe and drive east around the lake following US 50 to Spooner Summit. Park along the side of US 50 at the Tahoe Rim Trail parking lot.
Rolling onto the trail the route is straight forward as you follow the Tahoe Rim Trail for 12 miles as it climbs and descends about 1800 feet to the intersection of Hwy 207 (Kingsbury Grade). Once across 207 the route follows Tramway Drive up to Heavenly Ski Area where the Tahoe Rim Trail picks up again.
The next 15 miles of the route are the physical and mental crux as you climb over 3000 feet up to Freel Pass (9,700′). Dropping off Freel Pass, the pain eases for a bit as you descend awhile before climbing another couple miles to Armstrong Pass (8700′).
Five miles after Armstrong Pass you’ll reach the Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride turnoff, also known as the Saxon Creek Trail. Bust a right and muster some energy as you have another five miles of fast and technical singletrack to rally down to the car.
The sheer distance of this journey demands respect, let alone the fact that you climb 6000 feet over the 40 miles. That’s a lot of pedaling giving you ample opportunity to do stupid things like flail shifting gears and rip off a rear derailleur. Be patient climbing and don’t hesitate to put a foot down before you tie your drivetrain in a knot. The rocky sections of Mr. Toad’s are also quite challenging so keep your game tight in the last five miles. Finishing a 40-miler with a broken collarbone would put a serious damper on your day.
In the land of little rain and scrubby sagebrush, a climber morphs into gardener to find some roots
By Bruce Willey
June, the finest month of all, the earth in full tilt soak of the sun. Late afternoon light spills over the Sierra Crest and under the lenticular clouds. I’m sitting under an unknown grape, a vine with a trunk the girth of a large man’s thigh. It might have been planted when this house was built in 1918 … or not. Then again, there are always a lot of surprises with this old house that my wife and I bought this spring in downtown Bishop.
And this being a magazine with adventure in its title, perhaps it best to mention, there’s been a lot of that too, sometimes enough to rival any epic I’ve found on the rocks or in the water. Colonies of subterranean termites occupy my dreams at night; tearing down a wall to find a secret door leading to what might have been called a water closet at one time occupies my day. All the while, between framing up a wall or painting another coat of primer, I yearn up to the High Sierra, unable to decide whether I should be slinging an ice axe or a framing hammer.
But it’s the garden that has proved the biggest adventure of all and the reason we added “fixed rate lock,” “APR,” and “impound account” to our limited financial (in every sense of the word) vocabulary. When we saw the house we were sort of unimpressed. It was small, shoddily built, and smelled of 91 years of humanity. That is until we laid eyes on the big backyard sporting fruit trees and a long abandoned garden plot overrun by relentless Bermuda grass. We made an offer after mulling it over for three weeks only to discover another real estate idiom: 60-day escrow.
With the summer growing season fast approaching this meant only one thing. In order to get a garden growing we would be forced to become trespassers. The owner lived out of the area and we asked if we could simply water his property. He agreed. We watered in accordance to our agreement but we also hand weeded out a 40-by-25 foot plot, hauling four pick-up loads of the insidious grass to the dump. Meanwhile, a block away where we rented a small studio, we planted seedlings in plastic containers and peat pots.
Sierra climbing legend and skilled building craftsman, John Fischer, came over to look at the place we intended to buy. He shrugged at the visible dry rot, the leaning walls, the squeaky floor, the mounds of earth out back. He was silent for a while, not a good sign since we were planning on hiring his expertise on the work we would no doubt get in over our head. Finally he said (and I quote him loosely since there is no way to verify exactly what he said because John tragically died June 5 after hitting a deer on Hwy 395; Ed. Note: Look for a tribute to John Fischer in our September issue), “You probably know the story of French climbers Lionel Terray and Louis Lachenal, mountain guides in Chamonix who became itinerant farmers to make ends meet. Most days found them looking at their hoes then up to the high peaks then down at their hoes again. They looked at each other, dropped the hoes and grabbed their packs and headed up into the mountains.”
By the time escrow had closed beginning of May the garden was planted. Yet John Fischer’s underhanded but wise metaphor rang in my head. The only way to solve it I figured was to install an automatic-drip system with a timer. That way we could go into the backcountry for at least four days and still have a well-watered garden. Problem solved, we headed off to Vegas for the 17-pitch classic Epinephrine in Red Rocks. When we returned, scrubbed and scabbed by the notorious chimneys, the plants had grown twice as fast than if we would have been staring at them each day. Funny how that works.
So, a couple months since we have become Eastside farmers, reckon it’s time I take you on a garden tour from where I’m sitting. I moved from the unknown grape to under the cherry tree and feel rather like Bacchus with my wheat beer and a mouthful of fresh plucked cherries. Much like a climber who finds pleasure in doing a good route again just to show it to another climber, there’s not a gardener I know who doesn’t want to give a tour around the rows of vegetables and herbs so lovingly tended.
We’ll begin in what I’ve dubbed the Midwest ode to monoculture — corn, sunflowers, and soybeans. Monsanto isn’t welcome here, so they’re the only crops that hearken back to my paternal genetic roots in North Dakota. The only thing missing is wheat waving in the wind, which partly explains the hefeweizen in my hand. Next year. But I’m most excited about the corn seed I scored from an organic seed company. Propagated from a 4,000 year-old Anasazi Indian archeological site, I’m hoping this blue, yellow, and red kernel sweet corn will tap into North America’s rich agricultural past before white men like me arrived. Maybe I’ll even have some psychedelic visions after eating it and I’ll chip petroglyphs into the rocks I’ve pilfered from Bishop’s Tablelands (where many glyphs are found). But this is no doubt also the thinking of the white man in me. If all else fails at least I’ll deserve some federal farm subsidies for growing this much corn.
Next we move to what we call the salad bowl, another ode, but this time to the Salinas Valley, a hop down the 101 from Santa Cruz where I got my gardening chops started in the first place. Here we have lettuce, arugula, broccoli rabini, chives. Only thing missing is the artichoke and the Brussels sprout to round out the geographical metaphor. Again, next year. Given that Bishop has not a wisp of cooling sea fog, I’ve placed an arch of PVC pipe draped in shade cloth to make the leafy lettuce think they might not exactly be sweltering under the summer heat and bolt (or is it revolt?) into flower before wilting.
A row down, we arrive at a row of bean poles with of course beans climbing and writhing up the string and wire. That’s what they do best. Garlic covers the edges along with New Zealand spinach, Swiss chard, and watermelon radishes—green on the outside, deep red on the inside. I suppose it’s a good name but I hope they still taste deeply like radishes.
Then the ubiquitous tomato row next door crowned by a tarragon bush that I left from the previous owners gardening wisdom. Apparently these two plants are companions, the marjoram keeping pests away and providing a nice flavor to salads. At the end of the tomato row—mostly heirlooms and a cherry toms— is a small watermelon patch that has suffered then recovered twice now from late season frosts.
A row down and we arrive at the root crops—beets, carrots, sweet potatoes, and more garlic. Some of these seedlings were devastated by earwigs, especially the carrots. Which is why I hear the grating sound of my wife cutting plastic bottles with a dull knife to fit over the plants. She seems to think the earwigs will have a more difficult time climbing up the smooth plastic. With organic gardening if it works 20 percent of the time you might as well call it a triumph as long as you have another method—companion planting, attracting helpful insects to eat the not-so-helpful pests and the like—taking a another 20 percent swath. Most times, though, you just find a healthy resignation at nature’s persistence both in favor of your efforts and the one’s you can’t avoid.
Last we arrive at the hot feet row, the dancers of the garden, the squash, the sweet potatoes, the crook-necks and Kumi-Kumi squash (a native Maori squash). I thought of growing some zucchini but thought better of it after hearing my uncle’s yarn: “The only time we lock our doors in Maine is during zucchini season.”
I’ve had to ask myself what does this all mean? Well, it’s decidedly in line with the slow food movement. Though we haven’t bought a vegetable from Von’s supermarket in three weeks, living as we are on lettuce, broccoli rabini, radishes, beets, and chard, we would have starved while we watched our seedlings turn into proper, edible plants. Now each time we eat there’s an overwhelming hint of the good earth that we toiled in. Gardening, we’ve found is the slowest food movement out there and sometimes the slowest is the most satisfying.
Wendell Berry, one of the first great food and gardening writers, wrote that “the corporations will grow, deliver, and cook your food for you and (just like your mother) beg you to eat it. That they do not offer to insert it, pre-chewed, into your mouth is only because they have found no profitable way to do so.”
I’d like to think we are not growing our own for political reasons or we think it’s the end of the world. But maybe we are in some ways. There are definite tangibles that I can’t explain away with a gardening bias. We’re climbing harder, filled with more energy. The taste is different, too, drenched with flavor and I suppose if I were a meat eater it would be akin to eating something that roamed freely rather than slaughtered on a factory farm. The vegetables have a fibrous zest, almost a gamey aspect to them. And if I prevail to discuss what comes out the other side with the hopes you are not having lunch, my bowel movements have gone from G-flat sharp to G-major with Mahleresque proportions and even profundity helped along by a good book.
But we’ve all become bone-tired of another gardening article eschewing the virtues of growing your own while making a stab into the heart of big agriculture/petro-chemical industry. Yes, it’s the right thing to do probably, if you can find some land and some precious time. The good thing is the country is shifting slowly in the right direction. There’s an organic White House garden to replace the solar panels that Reagan ripped down. People are beginning to question what and if it’s food they are eating. We see more and more organic vegetables even in places like Wal-Mart. Farmer’s markets bring it all down to the local level with a garden of your own being as local as it gets. It’s mainstream and turning into a veritable movement.
But food politics and movements seem far removed from this garden. The plants could care less (or do they?). A little water (thanks LA Water and Power), good soil, a loving pat on a leaf now and then is all they require. Time to put down the hoe, then. The mountains are calling.
Thanks to their automatic-drip system, writer Bruce Willey and his wife Caroline Schaumann can sow seeds and multi-day climbing adventures all at once. You can read more of his fertile words at www.brucewilley.com and witness his camera work at www.plumephotoproductions.com.