Sunshine. It seems like its been forever. Blue and gold mornings certainly have a different feel. Last night, as we sipped hot chocolate, Brandon told a story about spending weeks in the winter wilderness of Colorado. He said that the only thing to do when you’re cold, wet and miserable is to pray for a day of sunshine. I know all of us were praying devoutly that evening. The trees released bombs that sent frozen shrapnel ricocheting off nylon walls, but we kept hoping for a clear morning. Mercifully, it came, and were it not for the rays of sunshine that now bake our tent, this expedition could have easily been over.
|Brandon hanging sleeping bags in sunshine near Diamond Meadows.|
Sunny powder pillows are solar ovens that we use to dry our gear. Sleeping bags, boot liners, and wool socks drip from clotheslines. Before today, the only way to dry our socks was to put them against our skin—hang them over our shoulders or from the elastic band of our underwear—and cover them with dry layers. Body heat eventually sucked the wetness from the cloth and the socks would be wearable, but at the expense of great discomfort. We used the same technique for our boot liners, slipping them on our feet as we crawled into our sleeping bags at night. Moisture initially dominated, but after hours of shivering, warmth seized the imbalance and we were able to steal some much-needed sleep. This sunshine could signal an end to those excruciating nights.
|Guide Gloves with a dusting of fresh powder.|
But even with the sun, our expedition is in a precarious state. The Anderson glacier is still six trail-miles and 3000 vertical-feet away. The summit is at least a long day of climbing from there. In the summer, those distances would be easy, but with the deep snow conditions and our heavy loads, it could take us another week to reach the top. The avalanche danger is currently extreme and its impossible to tell how long the descent and exit will take. We’ve been watching distant slopes on the Brothers and in the Dosewallips valley slide all morning, and the terrain ahead is anything but low-angle. We have five days worth of food and fuel left, enough to sustain several ski tours towards the base of the mountain before we will be forced to retreat along the same difficult terrain we came in on. Our team discusses strategy over instant oatmeal and coffee.
|Brandon and Jenna collecting water from the Dosewallips River.
“Do we all agree that at this point we have no chance of making the summit?” I ask, staring into the sugary gruel in my bowl.
Everyone nods. “I think going for the summit would basically be suicide,” says Brandon.
“But we can still salvage the trip,” interjects Joss. “We can still do some skiing and we should try to get as close to Anderson as we can with light packs.”
“Yeah,” says Freya. “There are lines all around us and, who knows, they’ve probably never been skied.”
“Damn right!” I say.
“I think we should get our gear dried out this morning, do some skiing around camp this afternoon and tomorrow, when the snow’s consolidated some, go for a tour towards the mountain,” says Brandon, and this time hesitant smiles accompany our nods.
Just like that, our summit bid is over. Some might call this a failure, but after many years spent exploring mountains, oceans, rocks and ski slopes, I’ve learned that there are many different types of success.
There is a powder-loaded log in the marshmallow glade above our camp. It’s a natural kicker that, with enough speed, will send a skier flying into a soft landing right next to our kitchen. I desperately need a reminder of why we are here. Who cares if the line is only 200-feet long? That’s fifteen seconds of unadulterated bliss.
|Leif enjoying the glades near camp.|
It feels weird to have my heels locked after so many miles of skinning. I wonder if I even remember how to ski. My teammates watch expectantly from below. I tap my poles together over my head, point my skis downhill and push off. Five turns later I’m rocketing towards the log. A powerful thought goes through my head just as my skis reach the edge: I’m about to crash. Sure enough, the log launches me into the backseat and I fly through the air like a poorly thrown Frisbee, wobbling and falling fast. I land directly on my rear end, sending a mushroom cloud of frozen mist into the sunlit air. I’m completely buried. My goggles are filled with snow. All I can hear is laughter. Brandon, Jenna, Joss and Freya are cracking up. I clear my glasses, pump my fists into the air and let out a triumphant hoot. Digging myself free, I pop out of my skis and get ready for another lap. “Who’s with me?” I ask. Nobody can imagine a better way to spend the golden afternoon and we ski until dusk rakes coals into the sky, until an invisible owl hoots the words goodnight.
|Brandon playing on the natural kicker near Diamond Meadows.|
There are many different types of success. We are exploring deep wilderness that very few people will ever experience in the winter. Beauty and solitude like this are hard to find, yet we have found it in our own backyard and we still have four more days of powder and brilliant scenery to enjoy. You can be absolutely certain that we’re going to make the most of it.