Backstory: They Can’t All Be Gems

“I left my wallet in Elko,” Dan’s text message read. “I’m going to listen to the gods on this one and head home.” When Josh and I received the text in early morning, we hadn’t heard from the gods yet, so pushing on from Tahoe for a two-night, first-time exploratory mission to ski chutes in Bishop, Cali. felt right.


Illustration by Andrew Mullen

I had tried to source intel on the May ski terrain in the Bishop area, but I came up short. “Skiing? Yeah, I dunno. We didn’t get the dump like up in Tioga,” said the woman working at the Bishop climbing shop, referencing a late April storm. Dan and I had just blown right through the Tioga area, intentionally digging farther south along the Range of Light to explore the popular Buttermilks region.

We were headed to hallowed backcountry ground where even grizzled scraps can be good eating. Foothills scattered with granite boulders spread west from town. These hills meet skyward-sprouting peaks that hold crippling amounts of big-mountain terrain. The only problem was that most aspects were rocks and scree, brown to the peak. The northern aspects held snow in their alpine, non-sun-shining parts, but this was the dregs.

As we veered onto Buttermilk Road, I remembered a friend’s advice: “Get the most badass four-wheel-drive truck you can find and get as far out on the road as you can. That, or rally an old Subaru.”

After a few miles, Josh tried to power his ’95 Impreza through a nest of rutted boulders. We ricocheted up and over a bump, bottomed out hard and wheezed to a halt, dust spilling in the windows, coating everything. The left front tire sat as flat as Mono Lake. Were the gods piping up?

The off-camber road had the frame shifting on the jack’s tiny contact point, and once the donut was on, we parked and began walking.

A long, diagonal, snow-laced chute, one of Mt. Locke’s Wahoo Gullies, had been staring us down since we left Bishop. This feature becomes our objective and the only piece of terrain we could see that wasn’t laced with rock fields, although the width was difficult to determine from afar. It slowly grew closer, the scale of 13,000-foot peaks squelching speedy progress but drawing us onward.

At a Y in the road, we went right and the road dead-ended. The road we wanted was a loop, so we left the road and trudged through sagebrush and pines. When light failed, we fashioned camp from a tarp while the wind cracked branches around us.

The next morning, we plodded on, hiking over a succession of small ridges that took us back to the road, completing a fully avoidable detour. We declared camp and ditched our heavy items to get ski ready. We had now put in a day and a half to reach a place that was vehicle-accessible in a few hours—and completely barren of snow.

But when we finally reached some sweet and slushy granules at the base of the chute, the updrafts from the snow cooled our beet-red faces and optimism surged. The heat had kept the chute soft, and it would be wide enough for easy, short-radius turns, even through the crux. We booted onward.

With about three hundred vertical feet to the summit, the toll of the last two days hit. The classic “should we summit or bail” question came up. “With all the shit that’s happened….” Josh said. We were high enough. We’d have a bit of a ski even if we didn’t summit.

We milked the spring potatoes; the turns were predictably smooth, slippery and zippy.

Back at camp, we sat on the road and sipped tequila from a Gatorade bottle. A pool of purples and pinks exploded around us as the sun drooped behind the horizon.

Would we do something like this again? The tire, the heat, the wrong turns and the 20:1 dirt-to-snow ratio wasn’t really redeemed by a few mediocre turns. But the sunset argued its strong, silent case, and the enduring value of a kooky adventure added a secondary point.

“No doubt!” we concurred, and sipped a little more.

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