It was soon apparent that the wind that had made me wobble across the plateau had also managed to keep the snow nice and hard. That’s just how it goes sometimes. Not stopping long enough to think about the consequences of a fall, I took steady and deliberate steps following the line of my ascent. Focusing on one step at a time, keeping balanced, and trusting the crampons occupied my attention until the slope again eased at the shoulder of the mountain. The minutes of intense concentration already blurring as my mind radiated relief to meet the heat rising from the softening snow. It had taken me longer to get down than get up, like some stupid cat stuck in a tree. Here, 500ft below and leeward of the summit, conditions were drastically warmer. I stripped down to my fleece, wiggled my toes back to life, took a deep breath, then began plunge-stepping with gusto back down the throat of the mighty couloir.
The surface was warming quickly in the sheltered solar oven of snow and rock, which made the going easy and most enjoyable. Mysterious and threatening in the dark, the light had transformed the couloir into a slope I recognized might be an awesome ski descent. The mental transition from alien to familiar feature was not totally warranted considering the added risks that backcountry snow travel has over a resort, but relating my situation to a known comfort zone put me a bit at ease.
As enjoyable as the plunge-stepping was, I kicked off my crampons to give glissading a try. The snow was still too slick to let loose, but I made it down the main 1,500ft part of the couloir in 30 minutes, well under half the time it took to get up. Or at least it would have been if I hadn’t lost my camera along the way. D’oh!
I reached for my camera to capture my impressive butt track, but I was horrified to find my hipbelt pocket empty. That I keep my camera in an open hipbelt pocket (it’s in a case too of course) has never been an issue over literally thousands of miles of backpacking, but clearly this is not adequate security for self-arresting. Considering that it could have scattered over literally acres of snow and rock, I consider myself lucky that it was waiting for me at my last stopping point merely 150ft up-slope like I had absentmindedly placed it there. Stubborn as I was in my exhaustion, I made this bonus ascent harder than it needed to be by keeping my crampons in my backpack. Slippery work! Who knows how high I would have climbed had I not found it? Glad I didn’t have to find out. The last half mile and 1,000ft to camp blurred by in a haze of relieved exhaustion. 15 minutes later, 9:07am, back in camp.
By 10:20am I was packed up and suitably recharged for the knee-crunching descent back to the desert. Retracing my steps was easy on the firm-again snow, then back on the trail. Trees brought welcome respite from the sunblasted world above. As I was already on it, following the trail all the way to the Ashram was an easy matter with no navigational difficulties. It was clear to see where I had made my mistake the day before, climbing into the brush when I should have stuck close to the creek. Now I know. Now you know.
With a 15 minute break at the Ashram to eat something and rest my trembling quads, I cruised across the creek one last time then out into the scrubby desert onto the dirt road. Hot and dusty, just like yesterday. Except hotter and dustier, it seemed. The last mile along the road was just one of those marches that never ends, toes crunched into boots that are a quarter size too small. But it did end and I was happy to see my noble Xa gleaming in the sunshine. 12:52pm. Plenty of time to get a softserve cone from McDonalds in Lone Pine. Well-earned, I think. Feeling good. Awesome trip. Good summit. Feeling good.