Winter Forgot Us

Chris Gaggia
Holiday 2012

I’m a dirt surfer on solstice dawn patrol, zigzagging up the trail to the Druid Stones on the great swell of the Coyote Warp, south of Bishop. Below me, the sunlight is making its long southerly slide up the Owens Valley, illuminating only a narrow swath of the valley floor and the long waves of alluvium shore break that have been closing out for thousands of years.

I should not be running so freely here. Not today. There should be snow – shin deep and daring me to a game of post-hole mumblety-peg with the rock-garbled singletrack below.

Winter forgot us: The Old Man was snoring in a hammock somewhere, the ground beneath him littered with hollow pineapples and gaudy miniature parasols.

First snow of the season drifted down in clumps that sank into the ground like sand crabs in the wash. October 6th. I snapped a self-portrait in the early dusting. Snow – more than any other weather phenomena – demands these souvenirs. The earnest testament of Look, I was here; it snowed.

It fell again in November, seemingly in earnest – even the arid White Mountains seemed worthy of their name. I ran with my friend Pablo through the pink and grey volcanic columns and drab cobble of Lower Rock Creek Canyon, the snow piling up the higher we climbed. It looked like winter was slamming the door on fall – beavers abandoned half-gnawed young aspens, leaving pale-as-bone branches rooting at odd angles into grey sky. Pablo and I exchanged goofy grins and hooted our way up the disappearing trail, feeling afloat underfoot and in spirit; higher and deeper into early winter, into the reclaimed adolescence that new tracks bring.

Then somewhere in that slow balancing exchange of dark for light a foul word was uttered: unseasonable.

The faithful pulled old skis from sheds and built symbolic pyres to Ullr. That no wide planks made the pile was a testimony to faith that the snow would come. December wore on and warmed up. Thoughts turned darkly to soaking the pyres with kerosene and striking a match. Or to tossing former-skiersturned-trail-running blasphemers into the bog. At least I hoped it was to be the bog and not the pyre. I cross a faint and dirty lattice of snow in the shade at 6,000 feet. Boot-lug doilies remind me of Boy Scout snow hikes in Southern California; we trudged up muddy fire roads in waxed-leather mountaineering boots, searching for a patch of slush to stomp through. Back then, a three-pack of tube socks and army-issue tropical wool pants hastily waterproofed with Thompson’s Waterseal protected against the silent killer. I was far more likely to burst spontaneously into flames or asphyxiate with my tent mates than die from hypothermia, but when you read every Jack London tale as a young man you appreciate the danger of winter, the value of bacon fat and dry matches.

The mementos don’t last for long. I move off the steeper northern exposures of the trail to the Druid Stones and climb through the gentler terrain connecting Rawson Creek to Coyote Flat, where even on the shortest days, light seems to stick to the sage and boulders like pinyon sap. I reach for zippers, shuck off gloves – it feels more like the year we hiked into Jepson Bowl on San Gorgonio to slash tele arcs through giant sun cups on the 4th of July, looking for either one last lark or an early start. We didn’t care which. Skis were skinny then, winter was fat: Like skiing down onto the sundeck at Mammoth fat, or trying to walrus out of a deep tree well fat.

I top out near 9,000 feet, cross the creek and wade through a loose tangle of thorns and rose hips. Three mule deer stare me down from a small aspen stand. Though they probably just want me to quit walking through their breakfast, for a moment I imagine we are sharing the secret stoke of being at a rare place in time.

Just beyond the creek crossing, a seeping spring has transformed into a pygmy glacier at least a hundred feet long and twenty feet wide. Barely a wallow in the fall, the opaque flow is slowly mowing down the brittle brown shafts of wild iris, like a great frost slug deliberately grazing towards the valley below.

I pull out my camera and take a snapshot of the ice and brown grasses, the light and shadow, the blank White Mountains beyond and the blue dome of sky – an earnest, poignant testament. Look, I was here; it didn’t snow, but it froze.

About the Author

Ultrarunner Chris Gaggia now frets more about the December Western States lottery than he does the snow pack, but still loves the sight of a hard-earned track down an overlooked pitch. He is a managing editor at Patagonia and lives in Ventura, California, with his wife, Shannon, and their children, Vivian and Jasper.