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A solo ski tour provides a large dose of backcountry medicine
Story and photos by Leonie Sherman
If you love the mountains you need a pair of skis. And if what you love about the mountains is the crystal clarity of the air and how your heart and mind mirror that stillness with just a short immersion, you need a ski tour. Solo.
It took five seasons on skis before I had the courage to tackle a simple overnight ski tour on my own. Even then only the loss of my steady ski companion spurred me on. After cramming more exhilaration, challenge, and satisfaction into 24 hours than I often cram into a week, I’m making a solo ski tour an annual ritual.
I don’t consider myself extremely skilled or experienced, so for my first solo tour I chose a mellow route up a high alpine valley and back. Normally I prefer loops or through-hikes, but animals and trees all slow down for the winter, so I do too. Being high and wild in the Sierra Nevada in February isn’t about doing anything in particular, it’s about being somewhere and really sinking into that place.
For the lazy ski tourer, there is no finer route than out of Virginia Lakes, six miles from Conway Summit on Highway 395. On a good year the road may be plowed to just shy of 9,600 ft, where you will find cell phone reception so you can place a mandatory safety call. Enticing bowls and steep chutes tower over the parking area and the views only improve as you make your way up valley.
Wind howled across the land, so I huddled in the calm and comfort of my rapidly cooling car to double check the contents of my pack: as many layers as I can wear, a sleeping bag rated twenty degrees colder than I expected the night to be, a thick book, enough fuel to melt a cubic yard of snow and enough food to power a team of hungry lumberjacks. I always bring a jar of Nutella; it may freeze solid, but that single container has over two thousand calories of protein and fat.
They say the first step is the hardest and that goes double for solo ski touring, but once I hoisted my pack and strapped on my skis I fell into the soothing rhythm of kicking and gliding into the unknown. Snow squeaked under my skis, revealing the much cursed Sierra cement. Carving turns on the pristine slopes was out of the question, but that hard surface provides ideal conditions for touring.
Lacking the tracks of those who had gone before, I was not brave or foolish enough to ski across alpine lakes so I skirted edges and hugged a forest belt, picking a route with no glory, just easy travel. But where one valley pinched off into a small chute, laziness triumphed over reason; I didn’t want to loop back and survey the terrain for an easier route so I glided forward, contouring up an increasingly steep slope until faced with a short couloir.
I know all the skiing maestras bomb down these chutes but I found the biggest challenge of my ski tour in getting up the damn thing. I kicked a zig zag up the couloir, plastered with styrofoam snow and just twenty feet wide at the base. My skin track quickly devolved into side stepping as the sides narrowed and the chute steepened. When I could no longer fit my skis across the couloir I removed them and strapped them to my pack.
It all made sense at the time, but soon I was climbing rotten rust colored rock in tele boots with forty unbalanced pounds swaying on my back. About ten feet off the ground I found myself clinging to a dubious hand hold and wondering about the wisdom of my choices. I pushed that futile thought from my mind and turned my attention to the task at hand. When I finally topped out I vowed to find a different route for my return journey.
I glided past frozen lakes over gently rolling terrain until the fading light signaled time to establish camp. Pitching a tent in snow means you can stomp a level platform almost anywhere, so shelter and early morning sun become premiums. Faced with relentless winds, I chose a sheltered spot and pitched my tent nestled up against a line of struggling white bark pines.
It’s easier to stay warm than get warm, so I ignored the sunset igniting the western skies with flaming strands of orange, rose and violet, inflated my sleeping pad and crawled into my sleeping bag. I was fortunate to learn ski touring survival skills from accomplished mountaineer Bill Pilling. As sixty mile an hour winds roared outside our tent one evening Bill turned to me and said “When you’re a ski mountaineer, there’s only two positions you should find yourself in. You’re either skiing, or you’re lying down inside your sleeping bag.”
Comfortably ensconced in my fluffy cocoon, I turned my attention to calories and hydration. Though I love my home cooked dehydrated backpacking meals, I’m painfully aware of the amount of snow and fuel required to produce a measly cup of water, so in winter I bring food that doesn’t require rehydration. I also bring hot cocoa, emergen-Cs and bourbon, so adequate hydration is a pleasure not a chore. I melt enough water to fill my bottles the night before and put one of them in my bag so it won’t freeze.
Camp chores took hours, but eventually there was nothing left to do but settle in for the longest night. The wind died down, so I left the tent door open, stuck my head out and stared at the sky. Contemplation of the stars kicking and wheeling overhead on a clear winter night is remarkably consuming. I tracked the moon in its slow journey across the sky, scribbled in my journal with icy fingers, read about a hundred pages of my book and slept fitfully before grey bled into the night, signaling the beginning of the next day. A weak chorus of birds heralded the morning.
My friend Mike studies birds obsessively. One morning he told me ornithologists are still not certain why birds greet each day with a song. Some theorize they are singing their hearts out because they didn’t get eaten through one more perilous night. The dawn chorus may be a celebration of survival, Emerging from thirteen hours of lying in a sleeping bag at ten below triggers a similar feeling: exaltation at the return of the light, profound gratitude for the rising of the sun. That single precious moment of pure joy may be worth all the attending hardships.
Normally I would stay in my sleeping bag for breakfast and tea, but a sunny ledge overlooking the broad sweep of the valley beckoned. I hastily packed up my belongings-amazing how much quicker it is to take down camp than set it up- and abandoned comfort and warmth for a breakfast with a view. My stove hissed as I surveyed peaks marching into the distance and a vista that stretched all the way to the muted browns of the Owens Valley. Oatmeal never tasted so good.
An alternative to my sketchy couloir presented itself in a smooth bowl that would provide yelps of turning joy for a confident skier under optimal conditions. I strapped my skis to my pack and kicked steps downslope. Two hundred vertical feet of bulletproof wind crust ten miles from the nearest human didn’t seem like an ideal spot for perfecting my tele turns.
Some scientists predict that in fifty years the Sierra will be snow free. Without steady snowpack, there won’t be adequate water for California’s rapidly growing population. The catastrophic implications of such rapidly shifting weather patterns will render the lack of ski touring options insignificant.
All the more reason to seize every skiable moment we can. As you lie on your deathbed, you won’t regret the work you missed so you could frolic in our dwindling snow. Each storm brings another reason to rearrange your priorities so you can enjoy some winter wonder while we still have it. Carpe Skiem!