I WAS DISTRACTED BY maniacal laughter coming from my partner. I turned and looked at a man transformed.
Andy and I had spent the last 16 hours gallivanting through the Eastern Sierra, climbing vertical ice and overhanging rock, pedaling down wind-blown highways and boulder-strewn trails; cross country skiing a 6-mile circuit of the the high-altitude Mammoth Lakes Basin, and linking freeheel turns from the top of Mammoth Mountain. Now, amidst the most civilized of the day’s venues, Andy clutched his golf club like a battle ax, passions aflame, and swung at the dimpled Grendel: the Black Knight clad in Patagonia. He smacked a spheroid 250 yards.
“Whoa, dude,” he said, nearly falling over in laughter. “I could get into this sport.”
Spring in the Eastern Sierra is a wonderland, but some years are better than others. April 1993 was one of them: the trend had been cold snow in the high country, 70 degree days in the lowlands. We knew we could easily ski powder in the morning and climb in shirtsleeves in the afternoon, but despite being Eastside stalwarts, neither of us had ever done it. So we resolved to pack an entire week of activities into one day.
At 4 a.m. on the morning of April 10, a clock radio shrilled, and I slapped snooze twice before stumbling off the couch. I choked down breakfast, met up with Andy, and we dragged ourselves from the gaudy village of Mammoth Lakes by 5. Wind-driven snow created a near whiteout as we drove north, and apropos of the start of any decent adventure, I silently wondered at the sanity of it all, the misery, whimpering, sniveling, and cramped muscles. I envisaged spindrift trickling off my chin, icy headwinds numbing my nether regions. I stifled my thoughts and sipped my Peets and fought off the impulse to retch.
THE ICE CLIMB: BRAD
I was stiff and weary as we hiked talus to the Lee Vining ice flow, the first leg of the adventure. I’d slept fitfully. The hastily packed rucksack on my back was an enormous, asymmetrical lump, and I swayed, tripped, and cursed as I tried focusing on the dayglo yellow plastic boots that seemed disconnected from my shanks.
When I looked up, Andy was far away, slipping up and over car-sized boulders. He had developed dexterity from a youth romping up icy peaks in remote corners of the world. He and his college roommate made an audacious ascent of Mt. Robson when they were college seniors. He made an early climb of the Great Trango Tower. He and his fellow guide, Kitty Calhoun, had suffered through 10 days on the north face of Thalay Sagar, wedged on portaledge while avalanches poured around them.
I picked up my pace but the yellow boats attached to my feet found a shifting piece of talus, and I went ass-over-teakettle, legs and arms pawing at the sky like some ungainly GoreTex-clad beetle and it took several agonizing minutes to extricate myself from the jumbled rock.
I eventually joined Andy at the base of the climb, and soon enough he was off on the lead. The first swing of his ax produced a pleasing thwunk as the pick penetrated without effort. He floated the one-pitch climb and I quickly followed. Pulling my ax from a particularly sticky placement, I smacked the adze on my forehead, causing a steady drip of blood to roll off the tip of my nose. We prepared for the descent, returned to the base of the climb, stuffed our packs and raced back to the truck. The crux of the ice climb had been the approach.
SKATING AT TAMARACK: ANDY
The PistenBully groomer hopped onto Lake Mary Road just as we too were about to set out. Our strides glided with ease and, in no time, we were a good ways up the road. Brad did the emotional pulling here on this leg, and I wheezed and poled to keep up with his pace (probably the same pace that’d won him the Tamarack half-marathon the week before).
“Rhythm, rhythm, pole and skate; one ski to the next.” I tried to recall some of Nancy Fiddler’s teaching tips as the hill eased up near Lake Mary. I swooshed down a hill, barely made the turn at the bottom, then puffed to the lake’s bubbling outlet and a great view of Crystal Crag and the Sierra crest.
The tour around the backside of the lake was smooth and fun. The wind in our faces was chilly as we tucked back down the road to our truck, where we chugged a huge volume of fluids.
ON MAMMOTH MOUNTAIN: BRAD
We were seated in the gondola, and a loud Los Angelino was braying about the killer conditions. His rant dragged on, but I noted his frequent use of the word powder. Could it be that good? We dared not get our hopes up.
We disembarked on top of Scotty’s, cranked down the pins on our tele rigs, and traversed to the Cornice. The wind was transporting granules of light snow leeward, and yes Virginia, there was powder. We linked turns through ankle-deep snow to the base, offering up the occasional primal scream of thanks to the winter gods who had graced us in springtime. Loathe as we were to turn our backs on such fine stuff, return to the truck we did, off to Phase 4.
THE ROAD RIDE: ANDY
It should have been one of the easiest legs of the day, to bicycle downhill from Mammoth to Long Valley, but I didn’t wear warm gloves and I had to ride with one hand in my pocket. On his borrowed, top-of-the-line Tesch, Brad cruised ahead of my one-handed riding on my old commuter Peugeot. It wasn’t till the airport that he looked back and realized he was riding alone.
He waited and offered me a wind-draft that I worked hard to keep up with. I finally thawed my hands by the time we cruised the old highway, laughing with a tailwind. We toured up the grade past Crowley and stopped to admire the vast panorama of mountains around us. The Sierra, the Glass and the White mountains — all were white with new snow. The breeze carried us to Tom’s Place, toward the lush smell of plants coming alive and the sound of spring runoff cascading down Rock Creek. A world we would soon enter on our mountain bikes.
THE MOUNTAIN BIKE: BRAD
As we pedaled through Tuff Campground, the sky was still gray and a chilly wind still blew. I wondered if we’d ever see the sun. I prayed that some rays might grace us yet.
We cruised the moderate first section of the well-packed trail, negotiated a tight, rocky pitch, and soared through a whoop-de-do, a small jump responsible for many a dislocated shoulder. We drifted down the dips, curves and ripples of the second section of trail as Lower Rock Creek pooled and spilled through the stream bed beside the track.
As we neared Paradise, sunshine splashed the trail, and by the third section of single track, we looked skyward and saw nothing but blue. Bees swayed down the trail, birdsong broke out in the huge old Jeffrey pines overhead, and the copper birch banking the creek flaunted their new leaves. We had finally entered the realm of spring in the Eastside.
I broke out of a reverie in time to notice that the ground ahead had become desperate, and saw Andy fly over his handlebars. I couldn’t react quickly enough and did the same.
Soon we rounded a corner to behold snow-capped Mt. Tom, the snow-clad summit pyramid tempting us with yet another adventure. Another couple of bridge crossings, and we pulled up into Paradise, where another truck was stowed for the shuttle to Owens Gorge. We were off to climb rock.
THE ROCK CLIMB: ANDY
The sun was sinking behind the Sierra as we scurried down into the Owens Gorge. By now, we were starting to feel the day. Brad pushed on and started up “Nirvana,” leading. He took his time, wisely, and after reaching the top belayed me up without incident. Then I had a decision to make. Could I finish this hard set of activities as planned, climbing one more steep, strenuous route? I had climbed the route (named “Expressway”) before, but never at the end of a long day.
I psyched up and led off, leaning this way and that to make the most of the tiny edges. Here it struck me how each of the activities we’d done were so different for the mind, let alone the body.
From the rhythmic, circular pacing of cross-country ski skating and cycling, to the alert-but-floating “letting-go” of downhill skiing and mountain biking, to the measured, delicate power of ice and rock climbing, our minds had had to make more adjustments between sports than our bodies did.
With the prudent use of another rest before attempting the final overhang, I pulled up to the anchor at top, satisfied that the hardest work of the day was over. Soon we were chugging out of the Gorge and driving to the Bishop Country Club.
THE DRIVING RANGE: BRAD
We knew the range closed at sunset, and the sun was on the horizon, just a few cars were parked in front of the clubhouse. Had we missed the window? Golf, was, after all, the most critical and counterintuitive activity of the day. I jumped to the asphalt before Andy brought the truck to a complete stop. He mentioned something about not being appropriately dressed for a country club.
“Andy,” I said. “This is Bishop.”
I dashed inside and found several patrons seated at the bar. As if on cue, they looked up from their beers and I felt six pairs of eyes giving me the fisheye, from the top of my headband to the hem of my climbing tights. The course was closed, and the good-old-boys were at the well. Yep. This was Bishop.
I begged our case to the head pro. When he understood our mission, he just laughed and plied us with a huge bucket of balls, a couple of irons and drivers, and told us to have at it.
Andy, who had never swung a club in his life, grabbed the wood; I snatched an iron. Based on what I could recall of my brief tutelage in the game many years before, I gave him a half-baked primer on how to hold a club. He ignored me, instead gripped the driver like a baseball bat. Slam. Bash. Uncontrollable laughter. Slice. Smash.
THE HOT SPRINGS: ANDY
Friends and hot water soothed us at Keough’s, stars shining bright above us. We discussed the day’s adventure, marveling at how we’d found the perfect conditions for each activity.
Soon the heat soaked in and Brad and I wondered if we would be able to stumble to bed. Our friends offered no quarter.
“You guys didn’t go backcountry skiing, rafting or kayaking? You didn’t trail run, play tennis or go fishing, and you didn’t even get on a horse? No windsurfing? No rollerblading? You used a car?
This is the dark side of the collegial outdoor community in the Eastside, or in any mountain town, bike or running club. Do something seemingly audacious outdoors, and be prepared to hear that years ago so-and-so did it in half the time.
We aikidoed the good-natured ribbing and admitted we hadn’t done it all, and hadn’t even tried, not by a longshot. We just had a blast. And a truly excellent romp through the Eastside spring.