Mount Tom (#45)
Day 38, Mount Tom
Mt. Tom is one of my favorite mountains in the world. Towering 10,000 feet above the Owens River Valley, it is the undisputed King of the Bishop skyline. Tom is unapologetically massive, and just might be the biggest peak in the Sierra, in terms of sheer mass and girth. To top it off, it is covered with great ski lines. In the right conditions, 8,000 foot descents straight from summit to desert are possible.
Today would be my third day on Tom this winter: in January, I skied the South Face from a few hundred feet below the summit, and later the SE chute, which provided an excellent descent from the summit all the way down to 6,000 feet (a total of 7,600 feet of skiing, one of the longest runs of my life!) Today, my route was Elderberry Canyon to the North Ridge, which would provide a “modest” 5,000 foot ski descent and a long, moderate ridge scramble.
I drove towards the huge mountain, sweeping granite buttresses slipping in and out of view, obscured by residual clouds from the recent storm. I crawled my van as far up the narrow, steep road as I dared, then precariously parked at the last switchback before the entrance to the canyon.
I was fully in the clouds now, and inhaled the glorious scent of the desert after rain as I entered the narrow, steep-walled canyon. Humid air is a rarity in the arid Eastern Sierra, and I reveled in the wonderful dampness as I climbed ever higher.
I felt strong and fresh, and when I reached snow I found great booting conditions: firm snow underneath with a couple inches of fresh on top for grip. I set a fast pace, climbing 2,000 feet per hour, double my usual slog of late.
I pushed ever upwards, occasionally catching glimpses of the towering walls above through the shifting fog. As I gained elevation, the fresh snow deepened, promising an excellent ski.
Higher, the canyon abruptly ended in the towering head wall, and I opted to take the far right option: it was the most direct and lowest angle route to the ridge, and I was wary of instability in the new snow. As I neared the ridge, the sun beamed through a gap in the clouds, illuminating a glorious, wintery scene of sparkling, snow-covered rock.
I left my skis at the top of my line and began the long, airy climb to the summit. The north ridge of Tom isn’t particularly technically difficult, but the unstable, snow-covered talus made progress slow and taxing.
Many times I stumbled, misjudging the angle or stability of the hidden surface. The clouds continued their swift dance -- one moment they would soar away and leave the sun beaming down on wide-open views of the surrounding snow-covered peaks and valleys, the next they would come rushing back in, reducing my world to nothing but a few steps ahead and behind.
I find climbing in the clouds to be a wonderful treat. It adds another layer of life, movement, and majesty to these incredible landscapes, making everything seem especially mysterious and epic.
After hours of tedious ridge walking and countless false summits, I finally found myself perched in the familiar alcove of rock, the flanks of the mountain falling away in every direction.
A wall of fog obscured all but one slice of the view, gazing out towards the valley so far below. I didn’t linger long, as I was eager to get down to the skiing. I retraced my steps exactly, fully immersed in moving smoothly and efficiently back down the ridge.
I slipped into a wonderful state of calm, empty-minded focus. Nothing existed beyond the next step.
Back at my skis, I quickly transitioned, eager for the great turns below. I carefully slid into the top of the line, wary of a wind slab but finding nothing but soft, stable pow.
I started linking turns, slowly at first to get accustomed to the snow, then gradually accelerating until I was swinging huge, fast turns back and forth across the face. The sun was at my back, and my shadow was cast down the slope ahead of me, plumes of powder silhouetted with each turn. I whooped with glee, savoring each soft, blissful carve. As the canyon flattened, I turned to admire the perfect set of turns, then continued down.
Over the next 1,000 feet of skiing, I experienced the most perfect transition from powder to corn: as the powder got shallower and heavier, the surface below rose up from underneath, perfectly softened by the afternoon sun. The shift was gradual, almost imperceptible. Without ever noticing a change, I found myself digging my edges into great corn down the lower canyon.
After a bit of rock-stepping and schwacking (it wouldn’t be ski mountaineering without it!) I rode the dwindling strip of snow to its bitter end. I walked back out the mouth of the canyon in the warm afternoon sun, feeling wonderfully satisfied, but simultaneously itching for another great day in the mountains. On to the next!!
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