all words and photos by Kyle Cummings (check out his instagram for more great photos: Kyle’s Instagram)
It was officially only a week into summer as the first heat wave of the season began to scorch the Southwest. With temperatures expected to breach triple digits, hordes of inland weekend warriors embarked on their annual invasion of the cooler coastal cities. The westbound highways started crawling with cars, air conditioners cranked to the max, and trunks packed with last season’s rusty beach chairs and dusty boogie boards. Shit man, they’re coming! I needed to get out of here. Despite the bleak snowfall in the Sierra this winter, I wasn’t ready to call it quits just yet. And what better way to stay cool than to play in the snow. So I tossed my pack, tent, and Jones split into the back of the truck and cruised past the traffic inching its way toward the beach. Heading northbound on 395 toward Tioga pass, tunes blasting, I had a smug grin on my face just thinking of schralping a few more turns.
The infamous “Mo-Mart” in Lee Vining is bustling with Yosemite tourists this time of year, but it’s the rendezvous spot arranged by Colin (cbalke), another splitboarder from the bay area who was as eager as I was to milk the last bit out of winter. Social networking is a funny thing; this was the third time this year meeting a fellow splitboarder I’ve only known on Instagram, all of whom turned out to be rad and amazing people. We both grabbed a pint of IPA and shared a few stories of stoke from the peak of our season before heading up Tioga pass to Saddlebag Lake.
With our tents strapped to our packs and splitboards A-framed on the sides, we got a few funny looks from the out-of-towners stepping off the water taxi as we stood there anxiously waiting to board. After plopping our heavy packs down on the deck, we cracked open a fresh can of beer for the short cruise to the far side of the lake. Thoughts of dropping into the classic Y-couloir on Mt. Conness, our mission the next day, raced through our minds while the captain tried to convince us how good the fishing was. But we weren’t there to fish, we were there to shred.
It was only a short trek to the far side of Greenstone Lake where we set up base camp — the generously flowing Conness falls with North Peak towering behind it in plain sight from from our tents. Even if the snow coverage sucked or the sun cups were big enough to swallow us whole and we couldn’t get any turns at all, this view alone was already worth the trip. However, it seemed as though we had accidentally crashed the world mosquito convention; they swarmed and attacked with ferocity despite slathering an unhealthy amount of deet on every bit of exposed skin. But they became less noticeable as Colin and I continued to exchange past experiences of powder and gnar over a couple more creek-cooled beers. As dusk approached, a thunderstorm chased the setting sun behind North Peak’s east ridge illuminating the clouds with a fiery orange hue.
“Yo! Kyle! You awake?” Colin beckoned from his tent. It was half past six in the morning and all I could respond with was a zombie-like “What? Yeah, erm, I’m up!” expecting another hour and a half of slumber. I sat up in my warm cocoon of goose down and squinted out the mesh window of my tent; the tip of North Peak glowed golden in the rising sun. Coffee. I needed coffee. The water in my jetboil started to bubble as a young curious deer frolicked among the boulders near base camp. I knew right then, this was going to be an epic day.
Boards on our backs, we made our way up the short steep ridge past Conness falls swatting through clouds of blood-thirsty mosquitoes. The deep blue-green glacial lakes finally came into view and the snow-patched cirque of Mt. Conness reflected upside down across the mirror surface. It took a bit of careful creek crossings, rock hopping, and sketchy scrambling to reach the upper snowfields. As Colin booted up the first steep face of snow, I glanced over to see half a moon floating in a perfect azure sky; with the sun cups and boulders strewn across my peripheral, for a brief moment, I was convinced we had left planet Earth.
Finally, leg muscles fatigued, we reached the foot of the couloir. Excitedness was short-lived and quickly washed away by the reality of the quad-cramping stairmaster we were about to endure. Sweat poured down our faces and the sun burned the skin of our arms as we slammed ice axes and kicked steps up the steep chute with our crampons. Step after step after step, monotony mocked us while we winced, panted, and cursed our out-of-season endurance. At last! The first glimpse of Tuolumne Meadows and Yosemite Valley appeared through the small rocky notch of the summit. We both roared a manly “YEAH!” and slapped a stinging high-five.
A well-deserved break was in order, and a quick photo-op ensued. Puffy white clouds littered the sky above the granite towers jutting up from the valley below. As much as I would have liked to stay on the summit and daydream, the mission was only half done. I put on my game-face as Colin strapped tightly into his bindings. Ice axe in hand, he bellowed out a loud “WOO!” and heel-turned into the narrow couloir entrance. His hoots quickly faded and he disappeared behind a strip of boulders further down the face. The pucker factor was high but my adrenaline dwarfed it; I belted out “DROPPING!” and slid off the summit lip following Colin’s tracks. We leaned hard into our edges and sprayed smooth summer slush on the skyscraping rock walls with every turn. The snow was perfect, for this time of year at least.
Exiting the couloir, the sun cups became deeper and the clouds above us thickened. We traversed high-line across the snow field and our calf muscles cramped and begged for mercy absorbing the bumpy chunder. The eastern sky now filled ash-gray, and rolls of thunder faintly echoed through the valley below. After navigating down the last remaining finger of snow peppered with rocks, we reunited with Conness Lakes. The wind picked up, sprinkles of rain dotted the water’s surface and a flash of lightning lit up the dark sky. Shit! We had to get out of there! Surrounded by water and conductive granite underfoot, our pace quickened. The rocks became slick with rain every step we took, but our tents were in sight as we hastily descended next to the roaring waterfalls.
We both swooped a can of beer out from the cold creek and threw our packs to the ground. By the time we could kick off our muddy boots and scramble inside the safety of our shelters, a deluge had unleashed in its full fury. Hail the size of marbles pelted the ground and tested the strength of our rainflies. Deafening claps of thunder ripped through the air and shook the earth beneath us. So there I sat, dry and warm, peeking out the window of my tent sipping a cold brew with a huge smile on my face. Mission accomplished.