MT. LYELL (13, 114') April 6-9, 1974

At the time, I was in and out of school, with various minimum wage jobs, and of very low income with near zero assets. The local Sierra Club chapter had been running Easter week snow tours, the first that I attended in 1972. Then, we snowshoed from about Chambers Lodge on the West Shore of Lake Tahoe to Camp Sacramento, bagging Pyramid Peak and Ralston Peak, with a failed attempt on Jacks Peak. In 1973, we skied or snowshoed from Yosemite Valley through Tuolumne Meadows, and then to Mammoth Mountain.

So, in 1974, we were to ski Mt Lyell, the highest peak in Yosemite National Park. My Super 8 movie camera had broken, and I was not allowed to take the family camera since it was expensive and not mine to use. The leader, Roger, then ordered, "no cameras," since they would slow us down. My pack weight was to be about 45-55 pounds, as this is a winter backpack trip. I had started backcountry skiing in the previous December, with Bonna skis and Silvretta bindings, 14 pounds total on both my feet. A primitive wood ski set-up, but the cable bindings would release in some falls.

We carpooled in one car to the trailhead at Silver Lake on the June Lake Loop, CA 158. Day one, we backpacked our skis and gear up the trail, then came to snow. It is a pull up to the reservoir at the top of the old cog railway, but we got there and started to ski. I used wax and poles to get me up there, then it was an easy glide over the frozen lakes. The Rush Creek drainage is nice touring, gentle terrain, and we had bright sun. Pushing on, we came to a good camp somewhere along the way. There were four of us, the leader, his son, his son's friend, and me. This was not an official scheduled trip, since we didn't want beginners and there would be snow climbing. We had a rope, ice axes, and crampons, with a class 3 peak to climb.

The second day, we skied onward. Crossing over Donahue Pass, we dropped down a bit on the north side, and skied up toward the peak. Passing under some potential slide areas, I was glad that I was with a group. The leader didn't have great judgement, and we had no avy beacons or similar, but then we are at our own risk, as agreed. Finally coming to a nice, flat, open area at about 12,000 feet elevation, just under the Lyell-Maclure saddle, we set up camp.

I remember the sub-freezing, cold night, one of the coldest that I have slept during. I had a down jacket, heavy wool sweater, wool shirt, and a spare, dry, cotton T. Heavy-duty wool knickers on my legs. My booties didn't do the job for my feet, so I had to drink warm liquid heated from my Bleuet stove to keep me warmer. The sky was filled with bright, big, stars, an unforgettable moment. Gladly, there was little wind.

The next morning, the 8th, we had our summit bid. I was feeling good, and wanted the peak. Clouds were coming in, and I led the way, coming to the headwall to the west of the glacier. A choice frozen snow slope led up to the main ridge, me using my points and trailing my 11mm rope for the others to tie in. They seemed to be of the mind to turn back, since a storm was approaching. They followed, and Roger caught up with me on top. I looked for a register, but only saw the fantastic views. Mt. Ritter and Banner Peak stood out the most in my memory. This was my biggest photographic regret, no camera then, for my greatest accomplishment in ski mountaineering.

The wind was picking up. We started back down, and I found a class 3 section to climb down on rock. I was to remember this series of moves, some decades later, on my second ascent in July, 1988. Packing up camp quickly, we began our ski down. It began to blow and snow, and I did turns as the others used their survival technique. I was enveloped in white out conditions, then my ski binding cable snapped. I had to stop to replace the cable, and lost time. Skiing again, I could see nothing. I felt a "whoomp," thinking at first that I had been hit by an avalanche. I had fallen on my side! You have no bearings in the weather, with zero visibility.

Managing to continue skiing down, I knew that I had to climb back up to Donahue Pass. The others had gone far ahead. I missed the right pass, but saw the group waiting below me. They had left me for dead, but gave me a chance by waiting instead of heading on. If I had broken a leg skiing, I certainly would be toast. We skied down a bit to a large basin, with scrubby trees, and decided to camp. It was night shortly, and we started a fire in a tree well. We were packing our poop, so wanted to burn it all, one reason for a campfire. The tree branch caught on fire, so I tossed snow on it to put it out. That nearly extinguished our fire, but we had enough spare wood to keep it going, and have some heat for the night. The snow blew around us as we stood there, chatting with each other and speaking of old times. We had done the peak, and were back together.

It snowed some six inches that night, so we had good powder to ski down. All we had to do was to get back east along Rush Creek and back down the cog railway track to our car. We broke trail, and being experienced and strong ski tourers, made it to the trailhead before dark. The others weren't in a very good mood, as my ski inadvertently hit one tourer on his head as I forgot that I was carrying it on my pack, horizontally. Nothing serious, but a point of complaint. We loaded our skis and gear on and in the car, and motored back home. The others aren't peak baggers, so weren't inclined to think much of this. We had no great difficulties, with mainly miles to ski, and only class 3 to climb. Only then three nights out in the winter backcountry.

Other chapter tourers also said that they had skied the peak, albeit in May, by them. I have no idea. I went back to do the east ridge in May, 1988, but we encountered a snow storm, and the other weren't good climbers. Few people get to ski to the top of the highest peak in Yosemite, and in the 1930's, it was a big Club accomplishment. We actually didn't ski from the exact top, but I was satisfied with an ascent under winter conditions. I put a trip in the chapter schedule to ski it again, but had no takers. Getting my summit photos in July, 1988, I look back at this to see it as a life work, the culmination of my backcountry skiing, then. As then we left no trace, many may doubt that we had done this. It was true Sierra mountaineering!