What do skiers do in a drought year when the snow is less than ideal and the groomers are looking much too tame? Re-live past backcountry ski adventures from bigger years, of course.
So it was no surprise to see a huge crowd spilling through the doors at Community Skis in Mammoth Lakes, Calif. this January when Howie Schwartz and Glen Plake presented their “Journey to the Black Divide.”
The Black Divide is a nearly 8 mile-long ridgeline buried deep in northern Kings Canyon National Park, separating LeConte Canyon and the Kings River from the Enchanted Gorge and Disappearing Creek. It boasts 4 peaks including Black Giant, McDuffie, Wheel and Devils Crags.
“We want to get you guys stoked,” Schwartz said to the packed house on Jan. 17. “So we can’t talk about this year. We have to go back to 2011.”
Until recently the 2013-14 winter season in California, including the Eastern Sierra has been plagued by drought, making on and off piste skiing challenging to say the least. In 2011, however, Mammoth Mountain Ski Area, and the surrounding town and area, recorded its biggest snowfall ever with 600 inches of snow.
The pair, Plake of freeskiing legend and Schwartz, owner of Sierra Mountain Guides, had taken a ski touring trip to the Black Divide in the Eastern Sierra from April 21-25, 2011. They emerged from the backcountry one day before Kip Garre and Allison Kreutzen headed in for their fateful ski.
Schwartz, a friend of Garre’s and Kreutzen’s, who had taken the video footage of the trip with Plake, said it had taken him all this time to complete the edits because he knew once it was finished he would have to talk about his friends, Kip and Allison, who were killed by an avalanche that same year.
The footage was broken into three segments, and the showing of the third segment was a world premier.
Schwartz, who’s company Sierra Mountain Guides, teaches and guides all aspects of climbing in the rock, ice, and alpine realms, as well as backcountry skiing, ski mountaineering, avalanche education and mountain trekking, used the opportunity to intersperse avalanche awareness lessons between the different segments of the video footage.
Schwartz explained that he and Plake had similar mental approaches to the backcountry ski trip and had skied carefully and conservatively. “We were never fixated on one objective,” Schwartz said.
The pair planned for weeks, watching the weather and waiting for the right window of opportunity. And even though they were snowed on a bit while out, Mother Nature was kind to them and they experienced neither avalanches nor other hazards. The closest they came to danger was the sighting of a bear some 200 yards away.
It was a trip of beautiful Sierra weather and epic turns. One clip showed Plake carving his way down the hill giggling like a child.
“I just can’t stop laughing,” he says to the camera.
Those in attendance left that night with the same giddy feeling one would have after a day skiing in fresh powder.
As Community Skis owner Michael Lish said, “Skiing is absolute.” And those goes for whether you're actually out there doing it, or sitting around talking about it.