I’M SCHLEPPING A 65-POUND PACK up Symmes Creek Gorge, playing Sherman to David Beck’s Mr. Peabody, helping him escort seven clients on a ski tour of California’s Sierra High Route. We’re just an hour into the first day’s climb of 4,000 feet, and I’m stressed, spent, and wondering why I agreed to be Beck’s Sherpa boy. He has asked me to attend to this small but potent group of Type-As from the flatlands whose collective enthusiasms appear to outstrip their wilderness savvy and overall fitness. I’ve already chastised a Brentwood gynecologist who was pissing in Symmes Creek (“But urine is sterile!”) and discouraged an overfed Silicon Valley engineer from racing a lithe Carson City anesthesiologist to camp. I figure I’ll be ostracized from the group before we reach the Sierra Crest.
Then I spy Beck casually strolling at the rear of the pack, the picture of guiding perfection, shepherding the members of his flock up and over some of the most imposing terrain in California’s Sierra Nevada. His charges are wearing plastic telemark boots and humping fifty-pound packs up a steep dirt trail on a 70-degree day in early May. They’re thinking of the tens of thousands of feet they’ll have to climb, thin air to which they’ll have to acclimatize, and icy slopes they’ll have to navigate in the days to come. They wear the slightly bemused expressions of those who have ordered their filet well-done, only to find it served up tartare –but they’re too proud to return the meat to the kitchen. Barring any unforeseen acts of the almighty, they figure they’ll pull off the ski tour of the Lower 48 because they are following William David Beck, the architect — the veritable Howard Roarke — of the Sierra High Route.
The High Route, after all, is his route.
Beck, 57, was working as a snow surveyor in Mineral King for Disney, paid to scope out terrain that was to be a downhill ski area, when, as he puts it, “I looked across the way and saw all that rolling upland, from the Tablelands to the Kern-Kaweah.” He and his buddy, Nick Hartzell, had hiked most of the route, and together they planned on skiing it.
It was just a matter of figuring out where to start. At one point they considered skiing over the top of Whitney (“the classic of the classics of variations,” Beck says) but decided on a more accessible trailhead to the north — on the East Side of the Sierra — that allowed them to reach the Tyndall Plateau in a straight shot. When finally pieced together, the route traversed nine mountain passes and meandered on plateaus above 11,000 feet for almost its entire length. The high point was an improbable 13,000-foot crease on what is arguably the most striking alp on the Great Western Divide: Milestone Peak.
When Beck, Hartzell, and Gary Kirk attempted the route in the huge winter of ’69, they found snow spilling from the Symmes Creek Gorge onto the floor of the Owens Valley. Undeterred, they clipped on their Head Standards with cable bindings and slogged up-canyon. They arrived at Anvil Camp where they were pinioned by four feet of fresh Sierra cement. They beat a hasty retreat. Finding no trace of their up-tracks, they mistakenly ventured into Shepherd Creek, a steep-sided canyon to the north of the 14,389′ Mt. Williamson. They heard avalanches shearing off of Williamson all day. “It was just a matter of time before one caught us,” Beck says. Fortunately, none crossed their path. Six winters passed before Beck and his friends attempted the High Route again.
IN MAY OF ’96, IT’S HARD TO IMAGINE skiing the upper reaches of the sun-baked Owens Valley. We drive them instead. And then we hike to Camp 1, Mahogany Flat, still a good three thousand feet below the portal to the High Route, Shepherd Pass. The next morning we hike past Anvil Camp, where we finally don skis and begin the thigh-crushing climb to the pass. The clients know what’s at the top: The Tyndall Plateau and a buffet lunch, graciously prepared by Beck’s inscrutable assistant.
I crest the pass well ahead of the group, and look beyond the gently down-trending terrain to the north and spot the Diamond Mesa, with its fetching south-facing couloirs, each one a potential first descent. To the south, I can make out the Bighorn Plateau, and the summit of Mt. Tyndall; around Tyndall’s south shoulder Mts. Russell, Williamson, Whitney, and Muir will soon come into view, 14,000 footers all. Then I look to the west, and spot Milestone Peak, with its unmistakable finger of granite. Tomorrow we’ll cross the Divide just south of that spire.
I look back to Shepherd Pass. Beck has taken to the rear, and he’s engaged in a running colloquy with several of the team members. Rather, it’s more of a monologue – part stream of consciousness, part encouragement, part advice. Like a wolf that sniffs the air and knows, Beck is in tune, in touch, omniscient. I notice how casually he’ll make suggestions to his clients, easing them into a quiet and confident state of grace. All the while he trudges up the steep pass, the elder statesman of the route, and easily the eldest skier out here by a good 15 years. A skier from another group watches Beck climb, turns to her partner and says, “That guy’s an animal.”
Animal or not, he is an enigma, this Beck. He’s a “come as you are,” hunkerdown ski boho with a quick and charming wit. He’ll slide out of his decrepit, brittlebrush-polished Subaru wagon, sidle over to you, and serve up a non-sequitur that you’ll go along with because he delivers it with a smile and looks to you for confirmation. All the while you’re wondering, even if you’ve known him for years, whether he remembers your name. Eventually, he’ll aim those epicanthic peepers at you (the same ones which earned him the moniker Mr. McGoo), throttle down his focal plane, and deliver a pronouncement of such pith to convince you that you’re not only willing but are honored to follow this man across the wilds of California.
He’s worked as a rigger, firefighter, woodcutter, snow surveyor, nordic ski instructor, ski patroller, trail builder–pretty much the standard mountain town fare. But he’s got a gentlemanly, erudite demeanor that distinguishes him from many in his hardcore trade. His classic Ski Touring in California (now out of print) is chock full of wisdom on how to take to the woods on skis. He’s a crackerjack naturalist and salts his dialogue with lessons about the environment. He teaches a series of outdoor classes at Tahoe Community College. And the wondrous thing is how he’s managed to roll those skills into a life that is the envy of every coastal desk jockey in the Golden State. The man skis for a living has for his entire adult life.
Back in the days when Beck first strapped on touring skis, there were few who made winter forays across the Sierra. But Beck had founded the Sierra Club’s Nordic Ski School at Clair Tappaan Lodge in Norden and had directed the Alpine Meadows Nordic Ski School for two winters. He had a steering effect on then-ski mountaineering upstarts Doug Robinson and Carl “Peanut” McCoy, who skied the Muir Trail straight through, and later on Allan Bard and Tom Carter, who established the still unrepeated Sierra classic, the Redline Traverse. Later it was Sierra Ski Touring, the guiding outfit Beck ran for years in Mammoth Lakes, and currently runs out of South Tahoe, where he taught telemark turns and skied folks into the hinterland long before it was known as “backcountry skiing.” And Beck took to the high mountains as a minimalist, touring around the back of Whitney to the Kern on the super skinny sticks. He knew that he’d use the same light gear when he returned to the High Route.
So when Beck and Hartzell, along with their new partner, Bob Couly, skinned up Symmes Creek in April of ’75 to attempt the High Route again, they wore Fischer Europa 77’s with 75mm rattrap bindings, and flimsy Kikut boots — gear that would seem ethereal to current-day ski mountaineers. Though the climbs were arduous, no storms plagued them: the weather was hot and dry from the east side to the west. Their gear was borderline for early morning boilerplate and late-afternoon slop, but perfect for late-morning corn snow. The trio crossed the range in five days.
Despite the high-pressure ridge and miles of corn, the tour was no cakewalk. “We worked hard, especially getting over Coppermine Pass, which was heavily iced and corniced from recent storms,” Beck says. “The best part of the trip was skiing from the Tablelands, down the Marble Fork of the Kaweah River, and into the red firs and bluebirds of Sequoia National Park.”
Since that first crossing, the High Route has become de rigueur for any backcountry skier, anywhere. It’s become a sign of a backcountry skier’s social standing: if you haven’t skied the Sierra High Route, you just haven’t earned your ski mountaineering bona fides. I was once driving through the midwest on a cross-country trip and stopped at a climbing gym in the flatlands of Pontiac, Michigan. I struck up a conversation with a local, who happened to have skied a bit in the west. When he heard I was both a Californian and a backcountry skier, he asked (with a bit of an edge), “Ever done the High Route? ” I was glad to say I had.
Beck’s painfully aware of how popular his route has become; he sees it every time he guides it. He groans when we run into other parties. I hear him apologizing to his clients and to the gods for too many tracks on a slice of wilderness he remembers as untrammeled.
“I was told over 300 people skied it the year the third edition of my book came out,” he says, while we’re skiing along. “You’d think that people would realize there are so many other great routes across the Sierra.” True enough, I think. But none of the others has the pedigree or panache conjured by the same name as the most famous ski tour in the world: the Chamonix to Zermatt Haute Route. Fortunately, Beck’s shame is fleeting. It’s quashed by his pride of ownership, which waxes with each day of the tour. Even on this, his 24th crossing.
“Well Brad, how do you like the High Route?” he asks me about three times a day, with a grin, eyes crinkling.
“It’s wonderful,” I say. And it is.
I look over at him as we cruise the downs of the Tyndall Plateau. An enormous MontBell pack juts from his spine, but its heft does no harm to his skiing; he carves wide-stance telemark turns with masterful dynamism and flow. He’ll pull into camp after prodding the last sheep home, and repair to the kitchen, and by the ingenious use of spices and condiments, he concocts a masterpiece. I’m satisfied that Beck’s mastery with an XGK is matched only by his skill on skis.
Mealtime on a Beck tour isn’t just an opportunity to replace calories. It’s a time for re-grouping, storytelling, with Beck at center stage. He’ll latch onto a subject innocently enough, but before you know it he’s tracked over five disparate themes without so much as a segue between subjects. We’re content to listen and occasionally pitch into the conversation as the sun slowly sinks below the Great Western Divide.
Day Three dawns cerulean blue, and we’re off across the Tyndall Plateau, down to the Kern, and up into the entrance of the Milestone Basin. Beck leads the way, and not just for us. One group is shamelessly tail-gaiting us. Other, less-experienced trip leaders ask Beck for advice. Beck helps them, turns to our group and shrugs it off with a look that again seems to say, “sorry for the crowds.”
BY THE TIME WE REACH THE FOOT OF MILESTONE PEAK, the group is beat. They’re not psyched for the long slog to the pass. Beck, in his quiet, unimposing way, nudges them along, easing them up and over. We top out on Milestone Col at sunset, slog down the encrusted cement of Milestone Bowl, and make camp on a rock outcrop. Most are too tired to eat. The Kaweahs glow red to the west. The trickle of our snowmelt stream quiets with the cold.
The next two days fly by. We cross the steep ridge of Colby Pass and then contour high above the snow-entrenched Kern-Kaweah River. We skin up a couloir on the western flank of Triple Divide Peak into a white-out, clouds creeping up the corn-studded contours of Cloud Canyon. We set up an early camp by Glacier Lake, and Beck, like a beneficent uncle, gives us leave to play. Several of us ditch our packs and succumb to the pull of the canyon. The snow is smooth as quicksilver, and we’re tempted to ski clear to the Roaring River, but we don’t because the climb back to camp would be arduous, and we’ve got a long day tomorrow.
The next morning, Beck rousts us early, and we cross between the crest and Lion Col to gain the slopes climbing to Coppermine Pass. I chop steps down the icy west side; once we’re over we continue to contour around the top of Deadman Canyon. Again, we shed packs and jump on corn for a thousand feet before we continue our climb to Fin Pass. It’s up and over, and then more and ups and downs until we’re on a spine of snow with views of Valhalla’s surreal granite domes to the southeast, and Alta Peak to the west. The Tablelands stretch to the north.
It’s the last evening of the tour. Tomorrow our trail will meander through Table Meadows, and along the Marble Fork of the Kaweah River until running into Pear Lake, and the eponymous backcountry hut. Then it’s a half ski, half hike to the parking lot at Wolverton.
We’re perched on a globe of granite large enough to accommodate the evening’s revelry. Food and drink flow, and we’re slightly drunk on camaraderie and single malt. Beck is in rare form. He’s facilitating the conversation like Jung, doing his stream-of-consciousness ramble, covering subjects with preternatural speed and skill. The conversation takes a turn to the metaphysical: alien abduction theories, the Bermuda Triangle, past lives.
Beck’s guiding has a touch of the magic, too. He’s ushered us all across this ribbon of Sierran splendor, and he’s allowed each of us the freedom to experience our own High Route. We’ve all gained something, left something behind. I’ve shed my cynicism like old skin. I’ve made new friends.
Soon the sun drops, the last story’s been told, and most of the others have wandered off to sleep.
Beck turns to me and asks, “Well Brad, how did you like the High Route?”
“It was wonderful,” I say. And it was.
Brad Rassler is the founding editor of Sustainable Play. He lives and works in the Tahoe Sierra.