Route Finder: A mud season mission to ski California’s 14ers in the Sierra Nevadas
May 5, 2017
April showers might bring May flowers, but they also bring us May powder. The last few weeks have been awesome, but they have also been a bane. To me, spring is all about getting up high and bagging peaks — this is one of the few times of the year when I have an agenda in the mountains.
Lately, though, getting up high in the Colorado alpine has been a dicey proposition. With spring storms comes a lack of visibility and heightened avalanche hazard. Goals have to be put on hold — or you can just take a road trip to greener (and bluer) pastures.
On the road
Speaking of mountains with better weather, it's early May and I'm sitting in a coffee shop in Lone Pine, California, having just skied Mount Langley (14,026 feet), one of the state's 14ers. With all the weather back home, the road started to call to me, and a quick check of the forecast at ranges around the West showed me a week or more of high pressure for the Sierra Nevadas. (It also showed a week of snow back home in Summit.)
My mind was made — time for new tires and an oil change. I got another set of the Cooper Discoverers, and then got a bunch of grief from the tech at Jiffy Lube for the color of my oil. "But I thought you were supposed to change the oil every 20,000 miles." Right? With the truck running a little better than before, I jumped on the highway.
The road cleanses the mind. As the miles pass, the mind begins to relax, thoughts flowing like a river between the conscious and unconscious. With each new horizon, you take your thoughts to a new place. The trip mirrors your mind: it all comes down to where you were, where you're going and where you are. Driving a thousand miles or more not only brings you to a new place physically, but mentally, and maybe even spiritually.
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Want more from local backcountry guru Fritz Sperry? Read on for his thoughts on the "mud season of the soul" in autumn
New peaks, same sensation
It's funny, though — you're going to do the same thing that you were doing at home: skiing. New mountains to play in have a strong lure. When you top out on that first summit and look around at the possibilities, it's with a sense of wonder you don't get from the local hills you know like the back of your hand. New ranges offer that possibility, that feeling of wonder.
Yesterday in the Sierras, I couldn't help but feel at home and out of place at the same time. The place smells different than home. The trees are all generally the same yet completely different — their detritus on the forest floor looks nothing like the hills back home. The rock is different, as is the snowpack. These peaks are bigger than ours, not better just different, and that difference is appreciated. It seems like a copy on a grander scale.
With so many options, a quick trip to the local mountaineering shop seemed in order. I wanted to get a glimpse at the peaks through the stories of locals. It was time to question them about trailheads, the state of the snowpack and everything else: Are the trailheads I need to access these peaks open? What's the story with permits? Is there enough snow? This year, at least, I knew the answer to the final question: yes, and then some. The Sierras had one of the biggest snow years in history, enough so that Squaw Valley is open for business on July 4 and Mammoth Mountain is staying open until August.
A life of ascension for a life of descent — this is what it comes down to. We seek to speak of our lives with high purpose, and the concept behind a life of ascension is one of high morals: to strive for higher places is a noble feat. We skiers, however, take a slightly deviant twist on this notion. We might want to take ourselves higher, and we do, but our whole purpose is the downhill ride after the ascent. A life of descent might not sound noble, but the creamy corn or bottomless powder makes it all worth the struggle of getting to the top, wherever the top might be.
After an adventure afar, I'm looking forward to getting home for familiar local corn.
Fritz Sperry is a skier, author, photographer and artist who has skied extensively in the Colorado backcountry. He's the author of: "Makingturns in the Tenmile-Mosquito Range," and "Makingturns in Colorado's Front Range, Vol. 1," both available from his company, Giterdun Publishing.
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