All photos by Tad McCrea
A cold blast of wind and nylon spanked my face inside the tent. From the comfort of our sleeping bags, it was hard to imagine motivating for departure. I felt an inkling of doubt. Was it too cold? Too windy? George rolled over as I fired up the stove. “Pretty rough out there, huh?” he lamented. “Yeah,” I agreed. “Heavy duty.”
We were camped on an exposed and snowy shoulder—two long, involved days from our car. In one tent was George Lowe and me, while Joel Kauffman hunkered down in his own synthetic cocoon a short distance away.
“Well, should we ski up there a ways and see if the wind doesn’t die down once we reach the crest?” Joel barked over the howling gale. “Seems like it’s blowing out of the southwest. We might get some coverage up there.”
A 38-year-old Exum Mountain Guide and alpine yogi, Joel has inspiring discipline and awareness in the mountains—and in life. We first crossed paths while guiding in the Pacific Northwest, both of us building lifestyles around a seasonal flow of migration that centered our climbing and guiding. Over the last decade, we’ve shared smiles and gotten gripped together from the Hielo Continental to the Himalaya. His words of affirmation were just what we needed.
“We might as well suit up and check it out,” I agreed, “Keep going ‘til it doesn’t make sense. Right?”
George grimaced as he pulled stiff, frigid liners over tired feet. “Even if we don’t get a chance to climb, I’ll still jump at an opportunity for a day skiing in the Sierra,” he said with a smile.
I hadn’t known George nearly as long as I’ve known Joel—we had only just met in person last summer around the Mount Whitney massif. But he had always been a role model of mine. Throughout his climbing career, he developed a reputation for technical, aesthetic lines in an alpine style that ultimately inspired my own climbing, and Joel’s, too. But George’s depth and identity extend well beyond his legendary climbing feats. A cosmic ray physicist by trade, George is also a hell of a skier and an even better father. At 75 years old, George is determined, witty and exudes a potent kindness that warms the room.
When an opportunity arose this past spring for the three of us to collaborate on a multigenerational new routing trip in the Sierra Nevada, we all cleared our schedules.
We initially had our sights set on a peak deep in the Great Western Divide called Milestone Mountain, but this past season marked one of the lowest snowpack levels recorded in California in 70 years. Due to a lack of snow coverage, we changed our objective to one that would involve shorter distances and have a better chance of holding snow on the approach. Luckily, the Sierra Nevada is one of the largest granitic batholiths in the world, harboring serpentine ridges that spill across the skyline; there is no shortage of good alpine granite here. Instead, we decided to attempt an elegant pillar along the Palisade Crest called Mount Jepson.
But as we rambled up the South Fork of Big Pine Creek with over-loaded packs, I’ll be real … I was a little nervous. Climate change and drought aside, I hadn’t expected anything like this—there was a lot more terrain to navigate with skis on our backs than we had prepared for. None of us had ever seen such little snow in the Sierra in April, and our plan had depended on a delusional vision of three dudes gracefully sticking it, gliding to the alpine pillar of our dreams.
“Well, we had a pretty low year, but once we get up above 10,000 feet it should be a bit more filled in,” I hoped out loud.
Hopping over streams and circumventing sagebrush, we came to a long, north-facing slope holding enough snow for us to slap on skins and start skiing.
After cresting a knoll, we finally gained a view of the Palisades and Jepson. The peak appeared to be in good shape, but when we tilted our gaze down toward the patchy, willow-strewn path ahead, we realized we weren’t going to make it to our proposed base camp in a day. “You don’t know ‘til ya go,” I thought to myself. Weaving our way through treed ledges and down ramps, we found a suitable nook beside some running water to pitch our tents for the night and regroup, miles from where we had planned to be.
It took another day of alternating between skiing and post-holing, and another night of sharing stories of lessons we unintentionally learned, before our objective came into view. Pink, peach and salmon light progressively illuminated the towering peaks above as we trudged heads-down through wind-whipped sastrugi and flurries of snow. We cached our skis when we gained the toe of the pillar. As anticipated, the force of the wind was deadened by the wall of granite.
“Well, at the very least, we might as well try and climb a couple pitches,” I suggested. “We can always bail if the temps don’t meet our standards.”
“I wouldn’t say no to climbing a couple pitches of fine Sierra granite,” George replied with a smile.
We launched up the initial corner system, thawing our hands with our breath. Two numbing rope lengths later, we broke into the sunshine and assessed the route above. We decided to aim for a long, sultry splitter hand-crack higher up the face. Joel handed me the rack with a Cheshire-cat grin and a head bobble. Above, we found hands that turned into a crystalline-encrusted off-width riddled with in-cut edges, then squirmed and stemmed our way up the walls of a snow-choked chimney without too much difficulty. Between labored, 13,000-foot breaths, we joked about how much harder this climbing must be than North Twin or how much bigger Jepson is than Latok I—peaks made famous by George and his cohort. Shaking out his gloved hands with a twinkle in his eyes, George turned upward. “What do we have here?”
“An offwidth!” I exclaimed.
“Oh, shit!” He muttered, excitement mixed with apprehension.
After six long pitches, we found ourselves freezing atop the blustery southeast pillar of Mount Jepson. Hooting and monkey calling, we quickly added what layers we could and shifted focus to the descent. We were wearing everything we had, but the piercing gales were relentless. We shivered as we swung our arms and kicked our feet in defiance of the cold, making our way back to what remained of the dying Palisades glacier.
While we rigged the rappels, George admired the speed of our descent. “I used to always be the one engineering the rappels,” he said approvingly. Even though I’m well practiced at this, I couldn’t help but feel honored by his support. To hear that George, someone I’ve looked up to as an almost mythic role model, believed in me left me glowing with pride.
Whether he knew it or not, George had laid out a blueprint for my climbing. But with each obstacle surmounted or hardship endured, those experiences steadily felt more like my own and less like trying to replicate the life of a hero. They also began to feel less about the climbing and more about philosophizing and sharing time with my partners.
Jepson wasn’t the original milestone we had our eye on—in fact, very little matched our plans—but with humility and trust we allowed the experience to unfold before us. It’s important to recognize that we can’t stay on the proverbial summit forever. There is a point where the next climb can’t be our biggest, or hardest, but if we allow it, each adventure stands a chance to be our best. For George now, the South Face of Devil’s Thumb may be too far and Everest’s Kangshung Face may stand too high, but he showed me that we can choose to embrace every climb with the same appreciation we once only ascribed to our pinnacle achievements.
Back on the snow, we stomped into our skis. Blades of Styrofoam ice protruded from the slope like the quills of a frosty porcupine, a product of steady wind and relentless sunshine. We linked one tentative turn after another as the sun vanished behind a violet tempest developing to the west. Gradually, we fell into harmony with the crust and gained confidence in our edges.
Chattering and sliding over crunchy blue snice, I stopped to catch my breath. With my camera out, I turned back to see George nimbly slashing to a halt with a chuckle. “Where did we just come from?” I asked him. He glanced back up to our route with a nostalgic smirk and said, “Too far, too high.”