There was no doubt, Sunday was set to be the best day of the Eleven-12 season. The snowpack has been thin, but there had been more storms in March than any other month this season, so the base was as deep as it had been all year. It wasn’t deep by record standards, something we had been spoiled with last year, but it was max for the year, and one of the few serious storms of the season was predicted to come in right side up leaving a solid 18” up high with a coat of super light and cold snow for the final layer.
Rendezvous time was a casual 7am but the original plan to do Maggies was thwarted by CalTrans leaving a set of half a dozen cones across the pavement and a closed sign signifying the end of the road two miles from our planned parking spot. We knew Hwy. 89 wouldn’t be open past Emerald Bay, but it wasn’t even open to the parking pullout for Jake’s Peak.
So we turned back, found a new place to park and headed up Tahoe’s west shore slopes below Bliss Peak. We trenched a meanderthal track the whole way up and talked about how to save a few local small businesses and create whirled peas. No one cares about the peas and the business owners won’t listen to us anyway but it was fun to talk smack while earning our way to a glorious view of Desolation Wilderness to the west with an eagle’s view of Lake Tahoe beneath us to the east.
The line Eric Ongerth had in mind was a rib running due east from the peak, with a final drop just before it cliffed out to the north side and back to our skin track for a second lap. First we had to get past the steep opening pitch which rolled over and probably had a good meter of wind deposition on it. We both figured it could go, so I began with a ski cut just behind the crown. It didn’t move, but my gut said it would still sluff so I planned my first turns to run with it then swoop right and out of the flow.
With Kodachrome courage and an airbag trigger at the ready I dropped in, banked left, then right and pulled in above a pair of big trees beneath the rocks while the sluff I cut loose scoured a river of snow 30 feet wide and a foot deep that tumbled down and out of sight. Eric followed but nothing more moved. The pitch was still steep, but below 40° and the snow wasn’t slabby, so we leapfrogged with cameras until it was time to drop left and north.
After two turns I set up to capture Eric dropping in from below with Big Blue in the background. The snow was cold, dry, deep, and steep. Conditions could not be better. Eric made three deep turns then moved past the viewfinder, buried a tip, pitched forward and popped the ACL on his right knee.
In less time than it takes to snap your finger the second lap was scratched and the game plan shifted to basic survival. We still had at least 1500 vertical to go, the snow was getting crusty in the sun, and Eric was injured. He rallied, but realized very soon a ski on his right foot would inevitably make a bad situation worse.
So I carried the ski while breaking trail, setting a low angle path to the left that he could follow while he feathered his descents going to the right under his own power. It took a few hours, but he managed to get down without further damage. No complaints about his knee other than an occasional reflexive grunt to inevitable twists of the knee and a short quip at some of the breaks down low about how sore his good leg was. Otherwise he kept going on with his never ending dissertation on whatever the subject was at the time, which tended to center on speculating why it snapped and if that would have happened with tele gear. I’m skeptical that being securely fastened is necessarily safer. Eric leans that way too, especially today. Hindsight can be cruel.
On the drive home, speculation turned to an electronic trigger to release the binding based on biomechanical sensors. In theory, maybe, but in reality, right now Eric just needs a small miracle to get his knee fully operational. If you know an orthopedic surgeon who has a charitable heart for ski bums, drop a line.
For those who thought winter was over, unless you’re on the injured list, think again. If you are, as Eric says, time to get ready for the next challenge.