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Ski of the Week: Fear of Falling: A simple ski unexpectedly turns into a game of Russian Roulette

February 24, 2012

The ski trail, such as it is, up McGee Canyon after the trail levels off. Horsetail Falls is too far away to see clearly but it is near where the trail turns to the left. Photo/Wendilyn Grasseschi

What was I thinking?

Climbing up McGee Canyon, the snow was sticky, heavy, sticking to the bottom of my supposedly nonstick skis, clumping two inches thick until I was waddling like the proverbial duck.
 
Combined with the steep grade and a recent bout of asthma, I was the furthest thing from an elegant, lithe skier as I puffed and huffed my way up the backcountry trail into marble-rimmed McGee Canyon. 
 
The wind was blowing in hard and sharp, a wet winter storm crashing over the backside of Mt. Baldwin and Mt. Aggie, the dogs were running like wolves across the heavy snow, everything moving fast and swift and wild.
 
Except me.
 
Clud thump, clud thump, clud thump. Each ski weighed 10 pounds. Clud thump, clud thump. 
 
The bare and barbed rose bushes grabbed and caught and laughed when they let go, a little bit of lycra and nylon now theirs. Willows weighed down with snow sprung free when my skis caught them, flinging snow into the air and my face. The dogs woofed and spun and barked, free like dogs are meant to be.
 
Clud thump, clud thump. Even with a brand new coat of the most recent generation of waxless ski goop, I couldn’t shake the snow. The snow conditions were simply changing too fast; temperature and humidity and sun whirling in and out of stasis every five minutes. 
 
It was one of those days when any normal human being would have turned around by now, or gone somewhere else—magnified by the fact that this year the Eastern Sierra was at about 33 percent of normal for snowfall. 
 
Sage, willows, rocks, and brush littered a trail normally five feet deep in snow, making the ski a giant obstacle course. But I had spent the past three weeks too much indoors and I was pent up, cranky and foggy, seeking the clarity only a wild windy day in one of the Eastern Sierra’s wildest canyons can bring. Time was limited and I couldn’t drive to another ski.
 
Besides … what’s not to love about concrete skis? It’s just more exercise, right?
 
Clud thump. Clud thump... each step was like climbing a stairmaster with weights. The wind blew in warm and wet and the bold, big snowflakes whipped and whirled. Far above me the tall, tall mountains disappeared into the mist. The sun, gold-grey behind the thick fog, shimmered on the melting snow on the granite rocks and glinted off the creek just below the trail. Spring-hungry jays and ravens crackled and barked and the wild, wild wind tore at my clothes and hair. It really didn’t matter if my feet were earthbound; my soul was not. 
 
Finally, after another mile, I reached Horsetail Falls—my destination today—one-and-a-half long and exhausting miles in from the trailhead.
 
Horsetail is what it sounds like; a high and delicate waterfall, fan-shaped, cascading down a sheer marble cliff, tumbling to earth through willow and alder and aspen and rose, before crashing down the hill into McGee Creek and then out to the Owens River.
 
I stopped and bent down, awkward in the skis, which caught and clutched at the willows and rocks. It’s a ritual I’ve never missed after 20 winters here hiking and skiing this canyon. I cupped my hands and drank the ice water, felt it burn and scald, exploding the last remnants of the civilized-life-induced fog. 
 
Only here and one other place do I do this; drink the Sierra water unfiltered. I know it’s a risk, but no matter. After a childhood drinking mountain water unfiltered, it’s a luxury I must still hold, or forever leave behind all thoughts of innocence. 
 
The day was darkening and the wind crashed through the higher elevations. It was time to turn around.
 
I scraped the thick snow off my skis with a piece of ragged sagebrush wood and dried the skis with my gloves, then applied another layer of goo, hoping against hope I wouldn’t have to walk all the way back to the car. 
 
I started the ski back, the dogs swirling with wild joy ahead of me. It was a gradual grade, dropping about 500 feet in the mile and a half. I aimed the skis downhill and kicked off.
 
And then I knew—I was so in trouble.
 
In the past 10 minutes while I was basking at the waterfall, the snow has changed once again. Ten minutes before, it was thick and slow and uneven in temperature. Now it was spring corn snow, each grain of snow a perfectly round ball bearing.
 
That meant fast—very, very fast.
 
I just applied a new layer of goop. Great.
 
The trail was narrow, too, not made for the crucial snowplow maneuver that is so critical to slowing down a pair of cross-country skis. 
 
The trail was lined on both sides with rocks and sage and willow and alder—all exposed in this drought winter.
 
Off trail was worse; there was no consistent snow cover except on the trail.
 
Damn.
 
But down was home and home was where all of this had to end and I so didn’t want to walk it all. I scraped off the extra goop and hoped it would help.
 
It didn’t.
 
The skis gave me a half second of grace and then they took off, flying like a skier’s version of Russian Roulette, skidding down over snow and sage and rock, skimming up one side of the trail and then the other as I tried desperately to slow the headlong flight down the hill.
 
I’m a good skier—a strong skier—but this was something else. The skis picked up speed, faster and faster and I couldn't help it; I hit the ruts, the dog prints, the old ski tracks, and a few stubborn snowshoe holes (how skiers hate snowshoe tracks!), all of it. There was nothing elegant going on here; I tucked and crouched and rode with the grace of an elephant, whooping and yelling at the dogs to get out, get out of my damn way. One didn’t and I straddled him—one ski on each side, whooshing over him, gone before he could even look around to see what happened.
 
I continued my headlong flight down the hill and it didn’t get better, it got worse. The elevation didn’t help because as I dropped, the trail had less snow and more exposed obstacles.
 
Finally, speed transcended control and there was nothing for it. I eyed the trailside flying by and found a relatively obstacle-free spot. 
 
I threw myself off the trail—the time-honored fanny-plant coming to my rescue. I flipped up out of the fall, skis caught in brush, righted myself, and got back on the trail. 
 
Only to do it again.
 
I crashed down the trail, using the tips of the exposed mint-green sage every possible place to slow the skis down. When there was no other option, I threw myself off the trail again, sliding on my hip, missing the creek below me by a few feet.
 
By this time, the absurdity had sunk in and I started laughing like a delirious child at each crash landing, the dogs silly with glee as they licked my face. My sister Robyn did the same thing behind me and we alternated: whoop, scream, fanny-plant, repeat—two ping-pong balls on a headlong rush down the mountain.
 
If anyone ever saw a candid camera shot of the whole thing, we’d never live it down; blackmailed for life.
 
And then, of course, it started to snow; thick flakes obscuring the sun, the wind whipping snow into my face, blinding me. My insane speed didn’t help visibility either.
 
Finally, the trailhead appeared in the fast-waning light. I skidded to a stop at the information board, grabbed all four dogs in a big hug and sat down on a big granite rock, laughing, legs shaking.
 
In all my years of skiing out here, I’d never seen the snow turn so fast or been trapped between such narrow trail walls with no exit options. I’d never skied so fast so out of control, fallen so much, eaten so much sagebrush, missed so many rocks, straddled so many dogs, and flown over so many branches and springs and logs.
 
I can’t wait to do it again.
 
Go on. 
 
Get out there.

Getting there:  McGee Canyon is nine miles south of Mammoth Lakes on U.S. 395. Take the McGee Creek exit and head straight up the mountain to the west, toward the McGee Campground. You can drive about a mile (as of now; conditions could change), then park and walk and/or ski to the trailhead, another two miles. The fun begins there.

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