Like casual tourists in Central America glancing upon a bird, most of the travelers along California’s Highway 395 see indistinguishable pyramid forms along the roadside – the present mountain looking something much like the one before it. The skiers and mountaineers on this same stretch of road, beneath the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada range, see things much differently. Much like beak markings and eyerings to keenly attuned ornithologists, each sharply rising peak and mountain complex expresses its own unique character, through fanged basaltic horns or jagged orange-speckled headwalls, stout ferruginous buttresses or worn gray couloir walls. These aesthetic qualities strike arousal and desire within the hearts of those who gaze longingly, those who fantasize about tangos with these sultry temptresses – to wrap their fingers around the firm blocks along the ridgeline, to stand atop the highest splinter of sharp stone, to jump into the silky snow adorning smooth curves of the mountain’s bosom, and dance all the way to the bottom.
Driving toward the town of Mammoth Lakes from the north, one peak, above all others seen from the highway, captivates the attention of those with lustful mountain fantasies. A tapering white strip trails down from the sharp apex of the pyramid, cradled by pale red lips that buckle the knees of men who dream about sliding in between her deep couloir walls. This peak is Bloody Mountain.
Franz Klammer moved to California from the Northeast in 2009. It was here that he found a part of this country that reminded him of the Alps of his Austrian homeland: the Eastern Sierra Nevada. For three years he explored and adventured in this area, finding new peaks to climb and ski, until life took him back to the Northeast. Forlorn with heartache, he scheduled a return to the area, irrespective of the conditions. I, along with AKBruin and three others, agreed to meet him and share in pilgrimage back to this mecca. Three days before our trip, our snow god Ullr smiled upon us and brought not only a low-wind coating of fresh snow, but an intense mass of cold and stable air that occupied the mountains for several days after the storm. On the night of my arrival, Franz and I agreed that the auspicious conditions and very stable, clear weather forecast meant that we could seek out any objective our young spirits coveted. Consensus was unanimous: Bloody.
At 6 AM the sky was void-black and the air temperature at the turnoff for Sherwin Creek Road was -7 F. When we had climbing skins on our skis and started up Laurel Lakes Road, in the rising light, the atmosphere measured -5 F. There was some solace taken in such a small victory, a positive movement, as we ground our teeth through the bone-crushing pain in the digits of our fingers, ascending in our down jackets and warmest gloves. Assertions that California mountaineers are soft are based in truth.
An hour into the tour, the cold air no less oppressing, we caught our first good look at the north face of our objective. What scale. The couloir stood well above us, its towering red walls filling our field of view, but we also knew that its entrance was still miles away. What would 2,600 vertical feet of cold, deep powder in a 45-degree steep couloir feel like? I went back to being an adolescent, seeing large, naked breasts and being stunned. Arousal and intimidation twisted together and pulsed through my viscera. Onward.
As we skinned along the mining road a glancing ray of the rising sun finally caught the ridge between Laurel Lakes and Valentine canyons, giving us hope that some sliver of warmth would soon reach us. We finally caught a short rest and bathed in sunlight at 10,000’. Psychologically, we were buoyed, but the temperature barely creeped into positive numbers. We had already ascended 2,700 vertical feet but were only halfway to our mark, and with scant heat with which to catalyze our next set of effort.
Despite the lack of warmth, the sun and ridgeline approach allowed us to at least begin to take in the full magnitude of the place that surrounded us. Layers of jagged ridgeline and steep headwalls stood in every direction, with the 13,000’ conjoined peaks of Ritter and Banner standing prominently in our view. Other sirens wailed from afar: Wood, Dana, Excelsior. We were wandering through a giant garden of desire, reaching out toward one of the more tempting fruits.
After 7 hours, 5,500’ of ascension and over 5 miles of travel, Franz and AKBruin crested the ridgeline together. This was the moment that we, collectively, knew that this was actually going to happen, that this fantasy would actually play out. We would ski and snowboard the Bloody Couloir.
The perverse thing about temptation is that there is always something more seductive and alluring around the corner. Standing at the top of the Bloody Couloir is like going to the prom with the cheer squad captain – svelte, alluring, nubile – and then meeting her college-graduate sister – articulate, refined, more physically developed, much more difficult to court, and much more intimidating. We turned our eyes away from Red Slate Mountain and focused attention on our date.
Time slowed down as Franz traversed over to the Couloir’s entrance. We could feel our collective heartbeats pulsing together through the snow, bounding slowly but intensely. Ba-boom. Ba-boom. Ba-boom. Franz gave the thumbs up and then disappeared into the mouth of the Couloir.
Franz’s first ski cut released a gentle wave of wind-affected slough, three inches deep, through the Couloir. Beneath this upper layer sat perfect, dry cold powder. The temperature in the Couloir was still negative. Franz dropped and turned. Thicker, faster slough, deeper snow, puffs of vapor jumping from his skis up to his waist. By the sixth turn, the powder cloud was fully enveloping Franz’s body just below his field of vision. At the 12th turn a giant wave of slough caught up to him and pulled his skis 20 feet down the face of the Couloir before he escaped it and let it pass through. Deep. Steep. Scary. He was only a few hundred feet into the Couloir, with over 2,000’ still left to descend.
Franz made a couple more delicate turns down to where the alternate entrance met with the main couloir. The very slight reduction in slope angle and wider berth was just enough to release inhibition and work the Couloir with unbridled rhythm. Speed, heroic turns, face shots, massive couloir walls, endless powder. Fantasy and reality blurred into a surrealistic experience. Was this really all happening, inside this vixen of a Sierra classic?
“Oh my fucking god.”
Is there anything else to be said once you’ve had the ride of your life? How long had it gone on? Minutes? Hours? All sense of time and reality became warped. Franz radioed back to the top and told us he was ready to die, ready to go to Heaven. The Couloir was clear and ready to take in the next of us innocent boys.
By the time it was my turn, fourth in line, the main entrance was sloughed and worked enough that I opted for the untracked alternate entrance on the skier’s right. With little hesitation from the top, I was completely blinded by every third turn, the spray of powder coming off my board’s edge fully enveloping my body and head. As a regular-stanced snowboarder, this line was like paddling into a right-breaking, glassy endless overhead wave. The Couloir kept opening to the right, allowing me to avoid my slough by working from left to right, making cutback top turns and deep toeside bottom turns. I ignored my disbelief of the cold crystals spraying my unmasked face and focused on turn after turn after turn. 2,000’ below where I started, I shot out onto the apron at the foot of the Couloir, dizzy, drained and gasping for oxygen. Unbelievable.
We laughed together at the bottom, not quite clear of what had just happened, or what we had done – only sure that it was momentous. Along the entire exit, I continued to laugh aloud in hysterical awe and disbelief. Really? REALLY?
The experience was so powerful and moving, and also confusing. How could something be so good, so blissful, be allowed? Should we have felt contentment? Righteousness? Affection? Gratitude? Guilt? It almost felt wrong to have it so good, but it also felt right, and amazing.
As the sun set over the Eastern Sierra Nevada and White Mountains we knew that this was not just another day coming to end. We knew that tomorrow, when the sun rose again, things would be different. We would still go back to our lives, wives, kids, and jobs, and probably none of those other things would really be affected. But we would always have this one very personal experience, impressive and special in comparison with everything else. Things had changed.