If old habits die hard, as the saying goes, then new ones are still lounging pool side sipping Bloody Marys.
The snow is gradually abating. We are consistently traveling toward lower elevations. The trail has led us out onto the northern Sierra Crest. Its the opposite end equivalent of those windy desert hills east of the Paiute Mountains. Back when we were looking forward to the hot fudge brownie sundaes that we never made at moms. We can pretty reasonably follow the trail most of the time. As we found out today, however, trail schmail is still the rule of thumb.
Sonora Pass was our big project of the day. The guide, or “The Book,” to us, suggested that the steep exposed traverses on the south side of the pass were dangerous in the snow bound early season. It was a daunting comment as I had already shipped home my ax and boots. The old tennies just don’t seem to hold an edge on twenty-five degree hard pack and ice slopes. There was the lackluster option of descending down to a lake and road hiking back up to meet the trail past the steeps. We kind of grudgingly looked at this alternate route as our best bet.
Surprisingly, the red volcanic slopes seemed to be shy on snow as we approached the turn off to the descent. Maybe, “Snowbound early season,” finally didn’t mean us. At Dyl’s suggestion we decided to do the traverse. I was utterly sick of laboriously traversing snow. Every foot step is a small jolt as weight put forward pushes the leg down through the crust to sink an ever mysterious amount. That is if you are lucky to have snow that soft. Often it can form an impenetrable crust that can only be cautiously clung to ever ready for a slip to body sled ride. My uphill leg was killing me as it bears almost all the weight. Really, I wanted to take the descent not to play it safe but simply to get away from any encounter with the damn white stuff. It was truly maddening to me after so long. But, silently begrudging, I followed Dyl’s lead. I am sure we are often at odds with each other over this and that. A lot of restraint is necessary in such circumstances. We do not need to be arguing.
The slopes weren’t so steep and the snow on the south side of the ridge was sparse. As the Ridge line turned North south and we crossed to the east side we were once again slogging along. Finding ourselves a fair way above what looked like a “pain in the ass” traverse to a gap, we clambered op to a saddle to seek out an alternate route. A thousand foot vertical cliff drop to some glacial lakes was off the west side. Looking north, we surveyed the ridge. An incredible spine of cliff split the ridge into the trail traverse, requiring a significant descent, and a prospectivly dangerous broken rock band out above the big death drop. The west side looked kind of questionable; yet, it was right there and talus, not snow, covered. We scrambled up some rock, the beginning of the ridge dividing cliff band, and nervously set out across the loose rock slope. I stayed high contouring along the base of the rock trying to maintain some sort of hand hold at all times. Dyl took a lower, but more direct route. He was about fifteen feet below me. Fifteen feet below him was a jagged line of rock and a great emptiness. An airplanes view of a snowy valley. The talus under our feet was anything but stable. Each foot step sent a wave sliding down the slope. I silently watch ed Dyl, on all fours slowly sliding down a chute perhaps ten feet from sky. He stopped, clambered back up and, a little too confidently remarked, “You never slide very far on this sort of stuff.” The cliff spine above and the edge below gradually pinched closer together. It was too close for my comfort; so, I scrambled up to the top of the diminishing backbone. It was really the best route and I was pleased with my discovery. A faint game trail and deer scat here and there reaffirmed that it was the safest option and that it really was no discovery of mine.
Meeting the trail, beyond the cliffs, we gradually wound down to highway 108 at Sonora Pass. This pass is different from those of the last seventeen days. Its for cars, not people. It stuck me later, and Dyl at the time, that this was, with the exception of Tuolomne Meadows access road, the first pavement the trail has crossed since Walker Pass hundreds on miles behind. Looking north the hills are rounder, there isn’t much snow and, I suspect as a result, we will be crossing many more roads in the days to come.
Pioneering, once again, our own route up and over Sonora Peak: we glissaded down below 10,000 ft.. We will not go above that elevation again on the way to Canada. We both verbally said our good-byes thinking of days ahead with no sun cups. The snow has certainly been our teacher, and bully, over the last two and a half weeks. On one hand I will look back on the high mountain trek nostalgically. On the other I wish I had myself on the way up Cottonwood Pass with me now so I could slap me. After all the painstaking bumbling and plodding I cringe to think of that day as I first saw the pitted out snow. Dyl told me they were called “sun cups.” I excitedly commented on hoe “neat” they were. Well, the grass is greener on the other side and we are there now.