Saturday, I skied down Lookout Peak into the setting sun. Ahead of me, Karen Davis turned carefully on the hardpack, her silhouette knee deep in a ground blizzard. Like liquid nitrogen, the whirling crystals traced the furious pattern of the north wind, glowing yellow with the sun's dying rays.
This beautiful sight highlighted a three-day ski trip into the Sierra Nevada southeast of Bear Valley. Karen, John Langbein, Eric Simpson, and Lin Murphy accompanied me on an unscouted trip toward the Dardanelles, a prominent row of volcanic cliffs west of Sonora Pass.
Under sunny skies we trudged up Highway 4, dodging snowmobiles and playing tag with another group of Sierra Clubbers who were skiing north to Carson Pass. At Pacific Grade summit, we said goodbye to them-and to the snowmobiles' infernal buzzing and fumes-and plunged into untracked snow in the upper basin of Pacific Creek. We camped at the broad, wooded saddle between Henry and Lookout Peaks. It was only 4:00, and the latter mountain, the tallest in the area, beckoned with the promise of unobstructed views.
John, Karen, and I shed our packs and headed up. Above timberline, the winds howled and the soft snow hardened. A short scramble up the summit rocks let to great views of the Ebbetts Pass area and a long stretch of the Sierra crest. On the descent, the sunset was lovely, but the snow was not easy to ski- ice, wind-sculpted sastrugi, breakable crust-you name it.
Next morning we skied down into the huge drainage of Highland Creek. Fears of an icy descent evaporated as we encountered soft snow among the trees. Steadily we glided through the snowy forest, soothed by the regularity of the snow-blanketed trunks, charmed by the unending variety of Nature's details. Corridors among the trees opened and let us in, revealing their hidden, pristine beauty. Near Hiram Meadow our progress slowed as the creek narrowed to a gorge. Here we skied a convoluted course along the west bluffs.
At the base of the Dardanelles, a sobering discovery: barring our path was Highland Creek, looking much more like a river than anything. We could wade it, but it was now clear that our planned itinerary would be almost impossible to do in 3 days. We abandoned the Dardanelles and headed back up into the high country.
We chose a spectacular campsite on an open hummock at 8000 feet. The elusive Dardanelles filled the southern horizon. John, Karen, and I tested the corn snow below camp and enjoyed a fun descent of about 500 feet. Later, huddled around our hissing stoves, we compared the quirks of ski partners past and present, and I amused my friends with bird call mnemonics. Their favorite was the olive-sided flycatcher, whose 3-syllable song sounds like the expression: "Quick, three beers!"
On the third day, we skied toward Bull Run Peak and dropped our packs at the base of the best ski slope-on the southwest side. This slope also offered a possible route through the volcanic cliffs that ring the peak's summit. We climbed with care-the final snow slopes were quite steep and just starting to soften. Almost magically, a steep class 3 route through the cliffs rewarded our probings, and soon we were scrambling across two pleasantly exposed narrow sections of the south ridge and on to the flat summit. Views from the top encompassed Round Top and Freel Peak to the north all the way south to the three chimneys and the distant fang of Tower Peak. On the descent I lost several style points when I accidentally trundled a big boulder from the cliff. It bounded down the stove 50 feet to the right of Karen.
From this mountain, our route back to the cars was not trivial. We skied over the top of a neighboring peak, then down some steep bowls to Bull Run Lake. A lovely swooping descent along the headwaters of the Stanislaus River brought us to several more miles of scenic yet laborious skiing along its more gently sloping pitches. We spent 20 minutes trying to find a crossing over one tributary creek. I've never seen such steep banks: thought the channel was only about 5 feet wide, the snow rose vertically on both sides for about 10 feet, impossible to descend or jump across. Similarly, one log bridge we saw earlier was layered with a rib of snow 8 feet thick! At last we found a snow bridge and continued our trudge.
We were all tired now, driving our grimy, weary bodies toward the setting sun. We left the roaring waters of the Stanislaus and headed for a pass southeast of Lake Alpine. Snowshoe tracks led us to the road, and we reached our cars at dusk.