Tuesday, May 8, 2012

4 days, 1300 miles, May 3-6

Trips that combine wilderness adventure with the niceties of city living always intrigue me.  I love the duality of the two seemingly disparate lives - rafting some class III rapids, then eating at a Michelin starred vegetarian restaurant.  Or maybe a frenzy of crowds, learning, partying and visual effects goodness at SIGGRAPH followed by eating almost only cheese and bread while living in my 1 person tent at Squamish and climbing for 3 days.  These four days had that contrast along with massive non-road-trip-rule-breaking mileage.
Getting some work done in LA
Thursday morning started with a hectic drive and thinking I'd miss my early flight to Burbank.  7:00am seems early as hell to someone like myself who gets up after 8:30, but apparently, droves of people are awake AND driving at this rather painfully early hour.  I walked into the terminal just as they started boarding, which was reassuring, although it did require running and a delayed departure to keep my anxiety levels in check.  Before I knew it (damn these LA flights are short) I was sitting at a spare desk in a dark end of a cubicle typing away, demoing software and hanging out with coworkers I don't see in person very often.  The day went fast, and I had an awesome dinner and good whiskey with my coworkers before crashing hard.
Winning the wedgie!

Friday started with more demos and a bit of actual coding before proceeding to the main event.  I've been extremely lucky to have been involved with some amazing projects at work, which have garnered a good amount of attention due to fantastic artists using my software.  Thus, a bunch of us won an award, and had a luncheon party complete with great food, pointy glass thingies (ahem, called a "wediges"), and fascinating conversations with the CEO.  I was jazzed and excited about my current project afterward, and got a bit more work in before boarding a plane back to San Jose, driving to Justin's in Redwood City, reuniting with my stashed gear, and driving 6 hours to Lassen National Park.  Yep, that last sentence involves around 500 or so miles of travel.  We arrived at Hat Creek Campground early Saturday morning at around 2:30am.  We were tired, and I had been snoozing on and off in the car, catching glimpses of a conversation I guess I was having with Justin, although my contributions were weak acknowledgments and what was likely incomprehensible jabber.  Needless to say, we slept in.

Must. Sleep.
Saturday morning we both knew we were going to take it easy.  We got a bit of a warmup in near Lassen along the park road.  It was nothing special, but got us on skins and brought our heart rates up a bit.  All said and told, we did maybe 700 vertical feet and a few miles.  Afterward, we checked out some potential packrafting in the area, ate bad food at a restaurant in Burney, and got to bed early with the yells of a group of obnoxious old guys partying alongside a rented RV in the site next to us.

We awoke at 6:00am on Sunday to a car blanketed in ash from those damn campground neighbors.  We both slept well, which was lucky since Justin and I both knew how intense this day would be.  Lassen Peak was our goal, something we had summited without skis in 2008.  It was while trudging down the soft mid-afternoon slopes on foot that I witnessed backcountry skiers scream past me in ecstatic joy, carving beautiful turns into the same snow I was fumbling on.  It planted the seed that backcountry skiing was the best way to do mountaineering, even though at the time I hadn't skied more than a few times in the past 10 years.

Lassen Peak in its full glory!
It was a long trudge on skins through the woods ending with rewarding views of the massive summit in a clearing.  The Northeast face beckoned with its steep untracked corn snow and we skinned for a while, eventually stopping to take a break and eat on a rock outcrop.  We tried to continue skinning, but decided it was too steep when it was too late and had to carefully switch to crampons and axes while precariously perched on steep snow.  The remaining slog was uncompromisingly steep and relentless front pointing up roughly 1500 feet of 30-45 degree snow.  My lightweight gloves were causing my fingers to get painfully cold, and my stomach wanted food, but we couldn't stop for fear of falling or dropping our packs or ourselves down the steep slopes.  The skis caused massive instabilities, and I was grateful for every moment I could put my heel into a small recess in the snow to catch my breath.
Steep and tiring snowfield

We were happy to reach the summit ridge, but it was only after almost getting blown off by a massive gust of wind that caused me to press my body carefully against the steep slope, gripping my axe in fear.  We found respite from the strong cold winds, relaxed and ate for a while, then headed up to the summit block where we were met by a group of three ready to descend.  Justin took one look at the descent and decided to head to the ridge and take video, but only after some adventure fluting and music video filming.
So it was just me on the summit block.  I organized gear, threw my skis into alpine mode and edged towards the cliff.  I calmly gripped my poles and peered over the edge.  It was a 55 degree slope for about 100-200 feet, covered in slick, icy snow.  There was no room for error as a fall would mean careening down the slope completely out of control.  Much to my surprise, it didn't phase me since this was the toughest pitch I have ever considered, and the solitude of the remote backcountry summit was unfamiliar and isolating.  All anxiety was gone and all my pain from the ascent was replaced with an overwhelming adrenaline rush.  I didn't see Justin on the ridge taking photos, but it didn't matter.  I was ready, so I took the drop.

I slid down the first 30 or so feet until I had to make a turn.  I threw in something between a timid jump turn and a snowplow and immediately accelerated FAST.  I had to dig my edges in to stop, but it felt stable as I released a large amount of sluff.  I made another turn soon after, releasing even more sluff.  Now, I was in comfortably maneuverable terrain, so I made a confident turn at speed, only to be hit by the wave of snow I had knocked loose.  I rode through, and was free, and on a continuous 45 degree pitch with good corn snow.  I threw down turn after turn, watching the clear path of beautiful snow pass by.  I stopped after 1000 feet, took a breather, and did another 1000 of awe-inspiring steep snow until I reached some rocks.  I whooped in joy, quickly took my skis off, and went to the rocks, reclined, closed my eyes, and relished my wonderful and preciously earned turns in solitude.
One very happy adventure-blogger!

Justin and I met up at the rocks, exchanged superlatives about the pitch we had done, and threaded turns down the remaining 1000 feet of steep skiing.  This lead to low angle tree skiing on wet mid-afternoon snow all the way back to the car where we packed up, and drove back to home.

It was a long and eventful four days that had no shortage of good lessons and fun despite me being on the verge of biting off more than I could chew.  Skis on your back makes front pointing with crampons hard and frustrating when you need to save energy to enjoy the descent.  I can't wait to ski down Lassen Peak again, even if it isn't attached on the end of a wonderful trip to LA to collaborate and hang out with my awesome coworkers.

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