Getting to the Plateau
Spring reflection in the Sierra
Words: Ryan Copenhagen
We made plans to go to the Dana Plateau early in the morning.
I got up at 5:30 and made it to Jason’s house by 6. Light comes through the windows this early because it is April. Coffee is on. It’s been a while since we’ve seen each other this early in the morning. Life has been happening lately. Girlfriends, jobs, family, weddings, funerals. Skiing is my job. On patrol I look out the window at the top of the ski area like the dogs look out of their cages. The backcountry is what calls us, but it’s been getting quieter now that we are getting older. Things catch up to us. Hangovers last longer, girlfriends get madder.
We make it to the power plant and start hiking in the shade. The sun is already beating on the slopes around us but we are in a gully that faces north. Behind me is the road that goes up to Tioga Pass. There is no snow on that side of the valley. It looks like Mongolia, at least what I picture Mongolia looks like. I sink through sugary snow and curse. I shouldn’t yell because it makes it harder to catch my breath.
The first hour is over and the snow is better for hiking. Pretty soon we are done with the first steep part and we put our skins on. I grab some shade and wait for Jason. Now that the traveling is nice we can talk. Conversation is normal for two 30-year-old ski bums: girls, Alaska, moving to Bend, Oregon. As we get closer, the line keeps getting bigger. Back to crampons. It’s getting steep. “God I hope the sun softens this windskin a little bit. Faak there are raised tracks in the chute.” The north wind howled a few days ago. But it doesn’t matter. The snow will be skiable and the day is perfect. No wind, but we don’t dare point it out to each other in fear of jinxing it.
We must be at 10,000 feet, I can feel it when I breathe in. Here comes the energy from some unknown place. My mind stops wandering; I focus on my breathing and my steps. I look backward and stab a hole in my pants. Shit. Look forward, hold on to the axe. The shadow slowly moves across the chute until everything is illuminated. Small bits of snow spill past us like sugar. Water starts to drip from the rocks that face east. It is so quiet I can hear it from hundreds of feet away.
I pull myself up the last couple steps. I wanted to be up here by noon. I look at my watch, 12:04 is good enough. We’ve made it to the plateau, I say with my tongue in my cheek and laugh at our plight. Yeah our life is really hard. People have been complaining about the snow this year. Well, there ain’t nothing wrong with this snow under my feet and it goes all the way to the car, so it must not be that bad.
I walk over to the top of Ellery Bowl because I’m curious. I know I could wait a week or so until they open the gate and drive to the lake. But there’s a lot that can happen in a week and I might not have time. I was talking to the Jaded Local the other night and he said, “Why would anyone hike from the bottom to ski the only run around here that we can car shuttle?”
Well, what are we supposed to do Hans? Stay home and drink coffee all day? Go back to school? Fix my car?
I look to the north. Plenty of snow on Conness and North Peak all the way down to Saddlebag Lake. Ellery bowl is in fine shape. The lake is still frozen. No snow on the road, I can see a piece of equipment moving a rock.
It takes me a minute to convince myself to make a turn at the top of the chute. I sure would feel a lot more comfortable if those rocks weren’t down there. But where’s the fun in that? I turn and stop. Then turn and stop again. I tell Jason that I’m going to see him at the bottom. I link some turns hoping to find my rhythm. I do. The sun has softened up the surface just enough. I can dig my edges in without skidding. Winter snow turns to soft spring slop. We ride the right side of the gulley like a wave, laughing and hollering. We find the last little chute that takes us to the snowfield above the car. Its flip-flops and high fives while we bask in the sun at the bottom.
Any day now the road will open, we will ski some more, the snow will melt, it will be summer, then it will be winter again. Nobody’s moving to Bend. December will be here before we know it and we will slowly climb again.
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