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I woke up at 630am, slightly angry because I had somehow snoozed my alarm at 5:45am and slept an extra 45 minutes. I have developed a special wakeup routine for nights spent in the back of my car in cold weather. First I awkwardly grope for my keys in the center console, with as much of my body still in my sleeping bag as possible. In this same position, I start the car and wait for the warmth to come. 5 minutes later I deftly unzip my seeping bag and get all my clothing on in one fell swoop before the cold can have its way with my bare skin. Then I open one of the back side doors and swivel around in order to get my legs out of the open door. Given that nobody else is around, I automatically unzip my fly and let the evening’s urine deposit fall on the ground…ahhhhhh. The next step is preparing the magic liquid…coffee. I walk around to the back of my car and open the hatchback, set up my dual burner stove and pour water into my pot. 5 minutes later I pour 2 cups of the boiling water into my thermos which contains a generous serving of high quality instant coffee (not the supermarket brand), and then pour in some creamer which I dirtbag (take lots of free stuff, usually condiments) from every gas station and/or supermarket I go into along the way. The coffee gives me energy to cook my gourmet breakfast, which varies, but on this trip consisted of plain instant oatmeal with honey drizzled on top, a banana, funky little yogurts I bought in Canada, a couple handfuls of Gorp, and half a liter of water with vitamin powder.


The morning light, dim and colorless, slowly began to drown out the stars as I slipped into my snowboarding boots and inspected my snowboard, which was in splitboard mode for my ascent up Lassen Peak. A man in mountain attire strolled by…the only other person in the parking lot at 7am. “Where you headed?” he asked. “Up,” I replied. “Me too,” he said. And so it was. We started cross country skiing at 8am, Collin with a telemark setup, me with my splitboard. He moved fast. We skinned (cross country skied with traction skins stuck to the bottom of the skis) through a forest of towering pine trees. The surface of the snow was smooth and gave just enough under our skis for good traction, but not enough to impede travel. About 1.5 miles in, I began to take more notice of what looked like a universe of twinkles playing on the surface of the snow. The early morning light threw shadows everywhere and added to an already intensely pristine setting. The wind was nonexistent and the temperature rose sharply with the sun, which was a nice change from the hand chilling 17 degrees that greeted me when I stepped out of my car to pee first thing in the morning.



Our ski tracks were the first of the day, and in fact the first of to be laid in the fresh snow on account of the weather system leaving Northern California only the day before. The same weather system which barraged me and my car on my way north, the same weather system which attempted to cast gloom on my Canadian vacation, but failed miserably. Now that weather system had given up, or perhaps just moved on to flatter land, where high mountains will not threaten to rob it of its precious moisture. Before long we were above tree line and were afforded an incredible view of Chaos Crags, which loom below and to the North of Lassen Peak, still clear of snow due to wind patterns, formed by volcanism less than a century ago. Beyond the immediate subpeaks of Lassen, Mt. Shasta appeared as a dim mass of rock and snow with over 4000 feet of glaciated glory above where the trees stopped. To the west, the trinity Alps dominated the horizon, short in stature but hardly in grandeur…a land best appreciated from within.



Directly above us, the Northwest face of Lassen Peak stood stoically below a fingernail moon and a cerulean sky. Its proximity and my excitement both belied the toil and punishment that awaited any would-be ascender. Its northern slopes held what little snow had escaped the wrath of the wind and were glazed over with plastic ice.



I found this surface to be incredibly hard to zigzag up despite the gripping skins on the bottom of my splitboard, so I strapped the board to my backpack and went straight up the 50 degree face in a direct line, kicking what little of my snowboard boots I could into the surface and putting all my weight on my toes. My calves bore the strain during this final 500 foot push to the top of the skiable snow. Sweat drenched every article of clothing I was wearing, and exhaustion began to rear its ugly head, but my perseverance was fueled by a continuous adrenaline rush. Thanks to my everlasting aerobic conditioning and the mental fortitude gained from enduring through much harder and more desperate mountain situations in the past, I was able to block all the pain from my mind. Instead my senses were tuned to the beauty which spanned to every horizon, and the thought of a downhill run through untouched snow and crisp forest. Collin and I both agreed that the snow above approximately 9500 feet was too thin to enjoy, and he stopped next to a peculiar vent of steam next to some exposed rock, where he built a shelf for the both of us to sit on and relax before we handed over the hard work to gravity.



The initial 400 feet of descent was more than decent, and while Collin turned hard and often as telemarkers do, I lightly rode my back edge over slightly icy crust and only turned about 3 times. We re-entered tree line through a wide and well curved gully. This was the most fun downhill part of the ride, like a half pipe with no lip. Then the terrain flattened out and for the next 15 minutes I cruised through trees until I slowed to a stop on a flat populated with trees that were very well spaced and incredibly tall. Bright green lichen grew all along the bark like a 1 month beard. That was the end of the “fun.” For the next 2.5 hours I followed Collin’s tracks through cross country terrain, struggling awkwardly to ski downhill with my faux cross country ski setup and one trekking pole because my other one had broken. This was pure punishment, plain and simple. The very forest that had enchanted my morning now succeeded in harassing me in the form of dense trees, icy shade, short visibility, and deep creeked gullies. The surrounding ridgelines prematurely set the sun, and my hopes of making it back to the car before dark became desperate. Panic was suppressed by the comfort of having tracks to follow and the headlight, whose presence I routinely reassured myself of by rolling it around in my pocket. But soon we hit a trail marked by reflective discs nailed to trees, which Collin recognized as a trail that would bring us right back to the car. This comforted me, but my spirit was instantly lifted when I suddenly emerged over a small hill to see the parking lot. Collin invited me to eat dinner and stay with his mother and father who he lives with along with his girlfriend. We arrived at their house no more than 20 minutes later and were immediately treated to an incredible home cooked meal consisting of vegetables from their garden and a fine fish stew. The warm dinner and easy conversation was quite a treat, especially since that morning I had imagined my day ending in my chilly car, drinking harsh coffee and eating canned chili before returning to my sleeping bag for a night of mediocre sleep. Their house is beautifully rustic, and after dinner we headed down to the dry cedar wood sauna which Collin just finished building. There I sweat out the days built up toxins and periodically went outside to cool off under an ice cold outdoor shower fed by the creek which runs through their property. Collin and his family are far from simple people, but they have managed to artfully construct a life of relative simplicity for themselves, grounded in self-subsistence, love and respect for each other and the land, and hospitality unmatched in my travels. That night I slept in their guest room, sore from a day of grueling adventure, tired from a trip of intense emotion, and more content than I had been in a very long time.

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Northwestern Enchantment

Posted by mountainroad Jan 10, 2008

With DiCicco and his roommates still sleeping, I packed my car and made some coffee for the road. I left Portland at 10am headed northwest. I drove through pounding rain which turned to sleet and then snow as the road gained elevation before descending to the Oregon Coast. I reached the small coastal town of Seaside, WA and drove my car all the way onto the beach where I planned to cook some breakfast and get some work done on my computer. The ferocity of the ocean was like nothing I had ever seen. 40mph winds and a looming storm front churned the water. As far as the eye could see, the ocean was a violent whirlpool of whitewater, constant and unrelenting. Sand dunes run up and down the coast interrupted only by massive bluffs where the merciless ocean wears away at mossy granite cliffs. The dunes are covered with long and dry amber grass which was neatly combed northward by a biting wind. When the sun was able to peak through, the grass was illuminated and contrasted beautifully with the dull pastels of the ocean, the stormy sky, and the gray sand. When it started to rain, I decided that I would continue driving up US 101 to cover some ground while being outside was not a good option. The massive storm which has been covering the American West for the last several days let up slightly when I reached the Cape of Disappointment. The cape is recognizable on a map as the small curlicue which juts out from the southern Washington coastline. Just south of the cape, the great Columbia River terminates at the Pacific Ocean.


2 days earlier, DiCicco and I drove east along this aquatic behemoth. We went hiking up to the top of the second highest year-round waterfall in the United States. This awe inspiring waterfall drops from a woody precipice over 200 feet to a pool below, where it creates a deafening roar and fine mist, soaking the throngs of day visitors mawing down king size candy bars and overpriced potato chips from the visitor center snack shop.  A small foot bridge crosses the pool at the base of the falls which flows over another lip creating a much shorter second fall before cascading the final 200 feet under the highway and into the Columbia River.  Here it becomes part of the 1.2 million cubic feet of water that eventually empties into the Pacific every second.


It was there that Lewis and Clark first spied the Pacific Ocean after crossing the continent, and it was there that I was reminded of far braver souls who struck out on far more raw adventures. I spent several hours hiking up and down the coastline along the tops of rocky cliffs and the shelter of secluded coves. This cutthroat fringe of continent is a far cry from the sandy beaches of southern California--greater in both solitude and magnitude despite being carved by the rage of the same shining sea. Standing below a weather beaten lighthouse far above the churning water, I could see the sets of 20-foot waves rolling towards the cliff base hundreds of feet below. A salty breeze wafted into my nostrils and I could smell the West, a scent that will forever lure the adventurous wanderer.



After returning to my car, I picked up highway 101 and continued North through hail the size of golden nuggets, which managed to put a decent sized crack in my windshield. I stopped in a small cafe and treated myself to a steaming bowl of white clam chowder. As darkness descended from the East, I returned to Interstate 5 and charged on towards the Canadian Border, anxious to settle into a hostel bed which awaited me in Vancouver, but sad to be bidding farewell to a country that despite its current standing in the eyes of the world has enchanted mankind for thousands of years with its diverse landscape and opportunity for adventure.

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I am sitting in a coffee shop in Portland, where I am staying with an old college buddy for the next two days before I reach Vancouver, where I will shred some gnarly powder on the slopes of Whistler and drink deep from the cultural keg of our maple leafed neighbors to the North.  On The evening of January 1st I left from San Diego around 6 p.m. and by 2 a.m. I had reached Shasta City, CA 750 miles to the North.  The next morning I woke up around 10 a.m. and did some work from my car with Mount Shasta dominating the view out my windshield.



At 2 p.m. I gave into the call of the wild and strapped on my snowboard boots, broke out my new split snowboard and stepped onto the snow which covered all the terrain around me except for the cleared road from the town and a parking area with bathrooms. The road goes higher, but is not maintained in winter and has become a well-trodden trail packed tight with snow and very crusty. This road serves as a southwestern boundary line to guide backcountry descenders down to their cars.  The snowboard splits vertically into cross country skis and allows a backcountry snowboarder to ascend without the need to carry their board, boots and bindings. 


By 3:30 p.m. I had gained approximately 1500 feet of elevation over about two miles. Turning back to look down the western foothill slope of Mount Shasta, I admired the Trinity Alps, which span to the western horizon.  My position above tree line afforded me a view all the way East to Lassen Peak, which is another Volcano in the lush southern cascades of Northern California.  I felt a little rusty maneuvering through the pines and firs over crusty snowwhich makes sudden turns difficultbut I had incredible fun and am extremely happy with my new and now beloved gear.  The splitboard has potential to become the new MVG (most valued gear) in my ever expanding quiver of backcountry toys. 


After sliding all the way back to my car, I cooked myself some mashed potatoes and beef jerky and hopped back behind the wheel for a 350 mile push up to Portland, which would allow me to spend the night in a bed rather than the back of my car. DiCicco, my friend from college, greeted me in the light rain and chill that I have come to associate with the Pacific Northwest.


My decision to drive from San Diego to Canada was the end product of myriad calculations, both practical and romantic.  Based on current gas prices, driving the approximately 3500 miles roundtrip costs little more, if not the same price as a plane ticket.  Then there is the comfort of having my car and all my gear that I can bring.  There is also the fact that I can do my job from anywhere granted I have Internet and telephone access.  But the main reasons for driving rather than flying stem from the many facets of a wanderlust that has characterized my life for the past several years. 


Driving all over the United States is like slowly running your hands across the bare skin of a lover.  There is an intense satisfaction in getting to know the rise and fall of the land, the transition from arid desert to lush forest and back again gives one the sense that real travel is at hand.  Going from wide open rural country to bustling metropolis alerts one to a domestic war that has been raging in the minds of mankind throughout modern history.  That is the war between city and country, between a life of rugged individualism and societal conformation.  Whether ‘tis nobler to survive by reaping the fruits of the land itself or to pave the earth with modern society, convenience, and the inherent stress that accumulates alongside the grit and grime of large cities and satellite suburbs.  Avoiding the latter is becoming an increasingly futile task, requiring an active resistance to the octopus of material agents whose survival depends on our submission to and immersion into its world of shameless consumption and disposal. Modern society has stripped humans of the instincts and resolve required to live off the land and has installed in place a clumsy and innocent reliance on the very things that took away our survival skills in the first place.


Fear and desire continuously conspire against a gut feeling to abandon the trappings of this material world, including the car I am traveling in, the computer on which I write these words, the coffee shop I am sitting in, and the lattice of fiber optics and invisible waves that allow me to express these ideas to you instantaneously.  I will probably never completely turn my back on cities and technology, for the simple reason that I am afraid.  I am afraid by doing so I might lose touch with friends and family, with current events, with certain comforts that are ingrained in my life and appear necessary to my survival.  So I must live with this internal battle between two completely different notions of a simple life. It is the necessary war.

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Epiphanies on Mt. Sill

Posted by mountainroad Jul 12, 2007

The three of us (Nate Ricklin, Albert Lin, Gil Weiss) left the San Diego area at around 6am in Albert's new shiny red Mazda hatchback. We scarfed an IHOP breakfast somewhere on I-15 and managed to make it all the way to the Mojave Desert before getting pulled over by an officer of the law. As soon as the cop stepped up to the window, Albert unloaded every possible excuse he could think of, from, "I just spent all my money on this Turbo charged red rocket," to, "We're poor grad students." The cop let us off with a warning and 2 hours later we filled out a permit at the ranger station in Lone Pine and hit up the local market for some final supplies. Albert decided to eat a hard-boiled egg, which might have been a bit past its prime to say the least. There was only one thing that could counteract the rotten egg and settle Albert's gut enough to hit the trail; a shot of whiskey. So we moseyed on into the local saloon where some locals were celebrating 1pm with highballs. The bar tender was nice enough to fill up our water bottles. She told us she preferred beer to water and called us all "honey." From there, it was another 30 miles to the trailhead West of Big Pine, which we reached around 1:30pm. There we were greeted by the Miss USA of park rangers. She was a goddess in Khaki and the last woman we would see for 5 days.

We Followed the North Fork of Big Pine creek (click here to view the map) through sweet smelling pine forests dotted with granite boulders. Mountains of scree and talus dominated the view at points where the forest opened up. We reached a flat area between Second and Third lake around 6:30pm. There we set up our first camp about 200 feet from the trail and within earshot of the creek. I soon discovered that I had left my sleeping bag at home and would be spending the next 4 nights shivering. Albert and Nate went to catch some fish for dinner and I took the camera and explored the area up-river towards Third Lake.

Third Lake sits below the west side of Temple Crag, which boasts the longest sustained vertical walls in the Palisades Region. That night we picked at some under grown fish which Albert caught with his fly rod. After the nearly full moon had come out and drenched our campsite in moonlight, I read aloud from Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles and then snuggled inside my bivy sack for a long, cold, sleeping-bagless night.

I awoke to the sound of Albert and Nate preparing their breakfast. I was happy to feel the warm sun thawing my frozen body. After some coffee and soupy oatmeal, we packed up our stuff and began to hike to our high camp. As the forest petered out, we caught glimpses of the massive rock and ice amphitheater that is the Palisades. We took a break in Sam Mack Meadow, which is a little more than a mile from the edge of the glacier which rests in the enormous bowl beneath the Palisade crest. The meadow has a wide, slow-moving stream of freshly melted glacier water. I soaked my feet in the frigid shallows and admired the way in which water and bedrock had conspired to create this all too perfect resting spot. A light breeze kept the mosquitoes at bay long enough for me to doze off slightly in the warm sun. After an hour we hit the trail for the final hike and scramble up the ridgeline of the moraine which was marks the farthest edge of the now receding Palisades Glacier, the largest in the Sierra Nevada. Here we found an area which we believed would be blocked from the winds and set up our camp at around 4pm. There were several small pools of melt-water in the surrounding rocks where we could collect water for the next 2 days and there was, what at first seemed to be, a perfect wind-blocked ledge which we could use as a kitchen. It turns out another person had used our new kitchen as a bathroom and had left a scantily rock-covered turd, which Nate stepped in and then dragged through the snow that was melting into our drinking water...yum.

From the talus ridge which separated our campsite from the glacial basin, we could see the entire Palisade crest from Mt. Sill at the Southern end to Thunderbolt Peak at the North. Below this 2 mile ridge of 13000-14000ft peaks was the waning Palisades glacier. The glacier is clearly receding and even though it was still early in the season, areas of exposed rock could be seen all over...scars of global warming. At the base, there is a lake of murky turquoise water, rich with minerals carried from the rocks by the melting rivers which flow under the glacier.

Camping above tree line in the Palisades without a sleeping bag can test the limits of the body even in the relatively warm Sierra summertime, but before the evening chill sets in, nature puts on a stupefying light show which makes the cold dark night seem like a very small price to pay for a chance to witness such wondrous sights. Shadowsbegin to creep up the glacier and consume the base of the range. After the sun disappears from sight behind the westward horizon, its light continues to illuminate higher peaks, giving the impression that they are glowing on their effect known as Alpenglow. Even after the last peak is cast in dark silhouette, light from the setting sun hits the bottoms of clouds, and on the night before we set out for the summit of Mt. Sill, the sunset flooded the evening sky with a psychedelic blanket of colors.That night I read aloud from The Martian Chronicles. As Albert and Nate listened to Bradbury's fantastic descriptions of Mars' bare rocky mountains and dusty plains, images of the High Sierra surly helped to fill their imaginations. I finished reading at around 10pm and we soon dosed off to the sound of creaking ice and nippy mountain breezes rustling our Gore-Tex housings.

We awoke at 3am and ate breakfast under the pale glow of a full moon. The snow which lingered throughout the Palisades reflected the moon's rays and clearly defined our planned path to the summit. By the time we began moving at 4am, the moon had set below the Palisade crest and forced us to move by headlamp over large rocks which constantly shifted, threatening to slide down the slope on which they balanced and bring us down for the ride. After about 1/4 mile of this tedious travel, we reached the glacier, strapped crampons to our boots and donned ice Axes. By the time we reached the Bergshrund, sunlight was bathing the tops of the surrounding peaks and pushing the shadowy curtain of night downwards. The Bergschrund was about 10-15ft deep but we found a solid snow bridge over which to cross. This put us on some 3rd class rock which we climbed for 20 minutes to gain the ridge between Mt. Gayley to the east and Mt. Sill to our west. We put our crampons back on for the final stretch of steep snow and ice before moving on to the Swiss Arête which is the prominent east ridge that leads to the Summit of Mt. Sill.

It was 7am when we took the 60 meter rope from my bag and put our climbing shoes and harnesses on. Donning a traditional rack of rock-climbing gear, I began to lead the first pitch of the Swiss Arête. I lead the first 2 pitches of the climb which were relatively easy and consisted of 4th class scrambling and sections of 5th class climbing that I would rate from 5.5 - 5.7 in range (Yosemite Decimal System). Nate lead the 3rd pitch including the infamous "step-around move" while Albert and I huddled on a small, exposed ledge from which Albert belayed. The "step-around" move involves rounding a corner with about 1500 feet of open air below and although the move itself is not very challenging, the exposure is enough to get the butterflies flowing in your gut. Albert lead the last 2 pitches and we emerged onto the summit of Mt. Sill at 830am.

The top of Mt. Sill is a blocky ridge which drops to the North and ascends back upwards to the Summit of Mt. Polemonium and the other peaks on the Palisade crest. In the mountains as in life, pinnacles often pale in comparison to the route which leads to them. This is not to say that the summit of Mt. Sill was not impressive...quite the contrary. The entire breadth of the Sierra could be glanced by simply turning my head, with its myriad ridges, seemingly bottomless canyons, deep blue lakes, influential rivers, and daunting peaks. But there was something anti-climactic about standing at the top of that mountain. There is nothing specific I look for at the top of each mountain I climb, but I always end up finding the same thing; more mountains to climb. The actual climb had satisfied my urge for the time being, but seeing the vast Sierra Nevada fueled an insatiable hunger that might never be satisfied. Suddenly my life felt like that U2 song, "I still haven't found what I'm looking for." Perhaps mountain climbing has become a way for me to recover all the beautiful things I have lost. Perhaps it is the manifestation of my search for truth. Perhaps I expect to find a clue which will lead me towards the meaning of life, but all I ever really find are more mountains to climb.

The route off the Summit of Mt. Sill seemed far more perilous than the climb up. Ledges of loose rock and vertigo inducing exposure categorized our trek back down to the snowfield. We followed another climber who had ascended the mountain via a different route and apparently knew the way down, because we sure as hell didn't. We got back to our camp sometime around 2pm. The sun, which by this time had become "the death star" had dehydrated us and tanned our exposed hides. I crawled into the shade of Nate's tent and slipped into an afternoon daze. I slept in the tent that night to avoid the wind, and dreamt of my next adventure.

The next morning we woke early and after a hearty breakfast, leisurely hiked to Fourth Lake. Here we set up camp no more than 30 feet above the dark water (this lake is fed by snow melt which has a lower mineral content than glacial runoff and is therefore clearer and darker) on a dry rocky outcrop. We spent the day recounting our adventure, fishing for rainbow trout, and climbing the walls around the lake. That night we warmed ourselves with the last of our whiskey and passed around the victory pipe. I once again read aloud from The Martian Chronicles and then we lay on the ground in silence, making up our own constellations in the cosmos and letting our minds wander farther than our tired feet could ever carry us.

The next morning, the Palisades was perfectly reflected in the still mirror that was Fourth Lake. After much oooing and ahhing, we ate breakfast and hiked back to the car. As Albert sped south along 395, I watched as the Sierra Nevada receded into the Mojave Dessert and thought about adventures past and those yet to come. There is no greater metaphor for life than climbing mountains, and in my opinion, there is no better way to spend your free time.



Gil Weiss

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Member since: Jul 12, 2007

There's no greater metaphor for life than climbing mountains. These are my experiences. They're tales of friendship, climbing, and the search for truth and beauty. Click on the links to see pictures and learn about places and terms.

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