It was one of those “seemed like a good idea at the time” things.
We were halfway to the top of Tioga Pass, an iconic and striking road connecting Mono Lake and Yosemite National Park and climbing 3,000-feet over seven miles. With skis, food, camping gear and warm spring snow, the stars were aligned for a glorious spring ski mountaineering trip.
We had enough gear to necessitate a small trailer, while the rest of the equipment was neatly stuffed into overflowing backpacks. This would have been awesome had we been in a car, and not on bicycles. If the trailer was being pulled by an engine, and not by our legs. If the backpacks were on the roof rack, and not on our backs as we pedaled bikes, made in the mid-90’s, up the endless incline.
Tioga Pass was still closed for the season. The road was covered in rockfall and the GPS-navigated snowplows had just finished clearing the majority of the heavy spring snow. No cars meant no people, and no people meant steep couloirs and steep mountains to ourselves. We ditched the car at the lone gate closing the road to begin a sluggish combination of pushing and pedaling our bicycles up a road that, covered with snow, would be a black diamond run at a New York ski area.
Abe and I have a collective 6,000 miles of country-crossing (solo) bicycle touring experience. We’re used to heavily laden bicycles, mountain passes, and pedal-borne discomfort. But not with heavy backpacks, and not with freaking skis. The weekend was destined for steep mountains, sweaty touring, and tough riding before we even stepped into bindings.
This wasn’t biking to the coffee shop, across town, or even to the local ski hill. This was excruciating exertion, a mile of effort with each pedal rotation. The trailer would topple over; a road-width traverse would go wrong; or we’d somehow manage to cut each other off even though we were, literally, the only people on the road. One of us would stop to drink water and wouldn’t be able to restart his bipedaled beast. Sneezes resulted in a mess of camping gear scattered across the road and ski poles stuck in spokes. We were an absolute disaster. Setting up our tent a few hours later, Abe and I were curious how we’d find the energy to skin 15-mile days and ski in unavoidable do-not-fall zones.
But like any skier in our position, we were hiking toward the base of North Peak’s North Couloirs before sunrise. One full-blown spring slush slog later, we glared up at steep, narrow, snowy, albeit short chutes. They were what we’d come for, and why we had endured a heinous bike ride the afternoon prior.
We booted and skied one and then another. Couloirs A and C, according to the creative guidebooks. They were perfect: steep, skinny, and sheltered spring snow. Crampons stuck with precision. Snow stayed where it belonged. We couldn’t find another person if we looked.
Bear tracks didn’t make the hike back to camp any shorter or relaxing. At the tent, drying clothes on warm asphalt that would, next week, provide parking for thousands of family vacations on an open Tioga Pass, we looked toward the pass’s highest mountain, Mt. Dana.
With a trailhead a few miles away, it was good we love nothing more than biking in ski boots during the pre-dawn hours. Less than 12 hours after returning to camp from North Peak, we were booting up the long ice fields of Mt. Dana. The 360-degree view of Tuolumne Meadows, Mammoth Mountain, Mono Lake and Yosemite National Park from the summit momentarily vindicated not only our miserable bike ride, but our lives, entirely dedicated to these moments.
Thousands of feet of spring corn, combined with a lot of walking over huge rock fields, and finally a few miles by bicycle, put us back at our tent. Squeezing brakes with white knuckles down the entire pass was, debatably, more difficult than climbing it.
Typically, “it seemed like a good idea at the time” implies that the idea ultimately wasn’t. This time, though, it couldn’t have been a better one.