The Most Dangerous Part
Story and Photos by Mitch
"We gotta go
said Len from the backseat, his voice just this side of a yell,
but with his trademark amused tone somehow intact.
"I know, but we can't, LOOK!,
look up ahead, we've got to pick our moment."
As I was saying this, another massive
boulder, a third or more the size of our truck, crashed across
the road, and as most of the others were doing, bounced impressively
hard just once before continuing on into the deep canyon below.
"But we're gonna get hit just
sitting here," replied Len. "Maybe
we can back up," I answered, and Matt, riding shotgun, said
"NO way, look," I glanced into the rear view mirror
and saw a shower of somewhat smaller rocks raining down behind,
cutting off any chance of retreat.
We were trapped in a hellish maelstrom
of cascading large boulders and smaller rocks, ahead and behind.
I wasn't completely sure what to do, and the level of panic inside
my old Montero was palpable, and rising fast. One
thing I had realized almost instinctively: The boulders I were
seeing coming down ahead were absolute car killers. If the initial
hit didn't kill us all, getting swept thousands of feet into
Lee Vining canyon would surely finish the job. So we waited.
The morning hadn't started out like
this at all. After a moonlit night of music and good conversation
around the campfire, we awoke to a perfect Sierra late spring/early
As they had the previous night for
dinner, Steve and Len used a Dutch oven to cook a hearty breakfast
of country style potatoes, veggies and leftover steak, while
curious deer with velvety nascent antlers roamed the perimeter
of our campsite.
The roar of nearby Lee Vining creek,
swollen with runoff from an epic winter's snow, reminded us that
it was going to be a warm one. We knew we'd better get going
early if we wanted to harvest prime corn instead of overcooked
mush. And yet there was no hurrying, just four ski partners who
had been doing this together for more than two decades, quietly
going about their business while getting ready for an expected
fine day in the big mountains around Tioga Pass.
Matt and I prepared the truck, loading
skis and poles into the rooftop boxes, and everybody's packs
into the back. We had managed a nice, early start.
Heading up has always been one of
my favorite parts of a backcountry ski day, the anticipation,
out with good friends, partners I can and have trusted with my
life, and up into my favorite places on earth.
What a day it was! The sun was rising
higher in the sky behind as we began the short drive up State
Highway 120, also known as Tioga Pass road. We came around a
bend and I spotted a foot-long rock in our lane just ahead. "There's
another tranny killer right there," I said, making an unfunny
joke at Matt's expense. Earlier in the week, coming out of the
hot springs after a nice soak, Matt had hit a rock and pierced
the pan of his car's transmission. Before he even had a chance
to not laugh, my attention was drawn to something that looked
to me like a puff of smoke, poking out around the next corner.
Looking back, that was the warning I missed.
We were entering a portion of the
highway that had been cut into the middle of a massive, thousands
of vertical feet long scree slope with numerous gullies funneling
down to the roadway.
Over the years I've crossed this
stretch dozens of times, on skis, snowmobiles and by car.
I had seen evidence of recent rock
fall every time in the spring and summer, and on more than one
occasion I had even observed small gravel sloughs in progress,
and yet I had always made it through without any kind of close
Sadly, all of this (positive) experience
was obviously working against me when it came to interpreting
the warning I had just been given. We drove on. Hubris had raised
its ugly head.
road where it crosses a very large slope of scree. "X"
marks the spot where I first saw evidence of rock fall ahead,
in red is where we became trapped. Image courtesy Google Maps.
We came around the bend and I was
absolutely shocked to see that first rolling boulder, as mentioned,
roughly the size of the front third of the Montero, rolling down
the hillside above and across the road about 50 feet ahead. Somewhat
smaller rolling boulders were flanking this monster, and dust
and dirt were now flying all around us. Moving to the far side
edge of the road, as far away from the hill as we could get,
I jammed on the brakes and we came to a quick stop. For a brief
moment the four of us sat in stunned silence, witnessing the
awesome but deadly spectacle before us. "Oh my God,"
I said under my breath.
Looking up the hill above our position,
Len shouted "We gotta go
GO!" and this is when
I replied, not calmly at all, "We have to pick our moment."
With that shower of boulders now
blocking our way back, and smaller rocks rolling down all around
us, I knew Len was right. We were like sitting ducks, and it
would just be a matter of time before a big one took us out.
Still, the way ahead looked like certain death, so, studying
the hillside intently with my head and neck stretched out over
the dash, I maneuvered the Montero back and forth in about a
20 foot, relatively quiet space, trying my best to see and dodge
Mother Nature's missiles of destruction. By this time we were
mostly beyond panic and all the way back over to awestruck, shouting
like we were on the scariest amusement park ride ever. "Oh
**it," and "Oh ****," along with more 'we gotta
get outta here' type stuff, most of it barely registering above
With that shower of boulders blocking
our way back, and smaller rocks rolling down all around us, I
knew Len was right. We were like sitting ducks, and it would
just be a matter of time before a big one took us out. Still,
the way ahead looked like certain death, so, studying the hillside
intently with my head and neck stretched out over the dash, I
maneuvered the Montero back and forth in about a 20 foot, relatively
quiet space, trying my best to see and dodge Mother Nature's
missiles of destruction. By this time we were mostly beyond panic
and all the way back over to awestruck, shouting like we were
on the scariest amusement park ride ever. "Oh **it,"
and "Oh ****," along with more 'we gotta get outta
here' type stuff, most of it barely registering with me above
I continued to study the hillside.
Looking above and barely in front of us, I witnessed a most remarkable
sight: The gravel around a very large boulder was washing down
all around it, and then this car-killer rock seemed to begin
to shake, I flashed on the old "Earthquake" ride on
the Universal Studios Tour, but none of these boulders were made
of painted foam rubber. Moving the Montero back maybe 15 feet,
I never took my eye off of the shaking rock, and then it let
loose. This one turned out to be another hood-sized boulder,
and it too rolled down and bounced once, landing about 10 feet
directly in front of us, before continuing on its way down the
A dense dust cloud enveloped the
truck, amid more shock-and-awe generated shouts. I couldn't see
a thing, but my mind was calculating our chances
I had seen our moment just before this last, oh-so-close boulder
had hit the roadway
a break in the action? Wrong or right,
it was time to go. I punched it as hard as I could, accelerator
pedal to the floor and the automatic transmission manually shifted
down. The old truck's well maintained engine roared to life as
we blasted through the dust cloud and came out the other side.
Shifting, the gas pedal still firmly pressed to the floor, we
charged up the downhill (wrong) side of the highway. Dodging
a few final rocks, at last we were clear, our brief but terrible
it, you got us out of there," Len said, patting my shoulder
from the backseat and joyfully adding, "I'm glad you didn't
listen to me." Matt was offering up something about us having
done well and working together. After taking a few deep breaths
and getting myself somewhat back under control again, I just
shook my head and said "we were really, really lucky, that's
all, I couldn't see a damn thing at the end there."
We proceeded up around another bend
and pulled over to a spot where we could look back down on the
From a distance it didn't look as
bad as we had expected, the shower of rocks that had blocked
our retreat was visible on the road, but the humongous boulders
ahead that had caused me to stop, wait and pick our moment had
mostly all continued on across the highway.
Cars were stopped at each end of
the slide area, and strangely, the scene now looked relatively
peaceful. It had seemed like the sliding wasn't going to stop
until the whole mountain had come down. My fast racing heart
rate finally began to subside.
This is hard
for me to look at, 3+ weeks later. We were trapped dead center
in this blowup from the photo above. Check out the near car-sized
boulder below the road, center-left!
Continuing up, and still in a kind of shock that stayed with
all of us for days, we agreed that any plan we might have been
entertaining to climb Mt. Dana and ski the Solstice run would
best be put off for another time. "How about something mellow
and um, not steep, suggested Len. "That was just what I
was thinking." Along with the shock came an almost euphoric
feeling at having escaped with our lives by the skin of our teeth.
It was a feeling like you get after skiing something steep and
a little worrisome, only times ten.
We ended up climbing into the area
around Solstice and chilling for awhile. I took my light rig,
Excursions and waxless skis, and I tried to work off the stress
by sprinting up.
We were very happy to be alive.
Matt even ended up skiing naked for a bit on the way down, which
is always weird and funny.
We laughed and joked about the first
time I filmed him doing this, on a full size VHS camera I packed
into the backcountry (that ought to date it!), and his comment
when we watched the tape that night in the little lodge at Saddlebag
Lake, "Oh man, I look like Ron Jeremy," he'd said,
seriously dissing and perhaps flattering himself all at once.
At the end of our aborted tour,
we had to cross the slide area once again. I reminded myself
of all the times I had driven across this part without a problem,
but remained more than a little apprehensive, as we all were.
We made it through without further incident, snapping a few pictures
along the way, without stopping. There were big gouges in the
roadway, and lots of loose rocks to the side, but the highway
had been cleared.
I realized for the first time why
there were no guardrails or even warning signs here: rocks and
boulders needed to be able to do just what we had seen them mostly
do: Cross the road unimpeded and continue into the canyon. I
also noted one very large boulder that had not made it across
and that had apparently been too large for the loader or cat,
or whatever it was the road workers had used. It had simply been
pushed to the side.
A few rocks that had apparently
fallen after the road had been cleared were also lying about.
As we headed down, passing cars
on the way up, I envied their drivers for their probable innocence,
perhaps even clueless-ness, to the danger ahead. I know I'll
never see another fallen rock, on or alongside a mountain highway,
in the same way again. I've already relived the experience in
this way several times. I guess this is a good thing. As they
say, any bad thing that doesn't kill you makes you stronger and
The take-away here is if you see
any sign whatsoever of recent activity, like that puff of 'smoke'
I foolishly ignored, immediately STOP, look around and reevaluate.
Interestingly, I invariably do this in avalanche terrain while
traveling over the snow, but just as can happen on skis, hubris,
that kind of excessive self-confidence borne of repeatedly having
rolled the rock-avalanche dice over the course of nearly forty
years of mountain driving and never once having 'em come up snake
eyes, had obviously set in.
Another take-away: After a close
call with the avy dragon a few years ago in which he and another
of our partners took a long ride, Big Tim had memorably said
afterward, "The drive up is still the most dangerous part."
I have been on a small sailboat in a raging nighttime storm,
running down 35 foot waves, bigger than the boat, pretty much
right in the exact middle of the Pacific, and I've had two close
calls with the aforementioned avy dragon, and yet I don't think
I've ever been nearly as close to death as I was behind the wheel
on this recent day. The drive is indeed the most dangerous part.
The four of us were rolling along
past a beautiful mountain meadow, almost back to camp. The windows
were down, sunroof open, and it was a warm, absolutely delightful
late afternoon. We could see the road and the scree slope above.
Bob Marley's "Redemption Song" was
Every morning since I've been
waking up even more glad than ever to be alive, and feeling really
alive. The payoff, I suppose, in the risk/reward equation.
And that too is a very, very good thing.
playing on the Montero's thumpin'
stereo, and maybe that's why I said to the boys, "Wouldn't
it have been something, after all these years and all we've been
through, if we had been killed this morning and died together?"
Steve, our 'elder-statesman' who
had been remarkably silent throughout the entire near-screaming,
panicked ordeal, quietly said, "I would have been okay with
"Me too man, me too."
And yet more than anything I want
to stick around, to eventually walk my young daughter down the
aisle, to be with my family, and just to see what's going to
happen, but there are a lot worse ways to depart this life than
with great, longtime ski partners, heading up for another amazing
day in the big mountains.