The Ruin of Discovery or Exploration in the Information Age Part I: Winter.

As I stand here watching snow fall from one of the bigger storms we’ve had here in a few years, I think about discovery and what that might mean in this age of information. Recently I have been contact on two separate occasions regarding Sierra Nevada “beta” (the ongoing buzz word for “information”). One, regarding summer, was from a fairly well known “adventurer” which I will speak about in Part II. The other was from what I assume to be a younger skier from the State of Washington.

The latter is interested in skiing a long route through the Sierra high country. His first inclination was to ski “the” SHR (Sierra High Route). Having skied the route I suggested that while there are some good sections, there are many places where a higher more elegant line can be followed, especially on skies. Shortly thereafter he contacted me again asking this time about “the” Red Line. This, and the summer inquiry, got me thinking: what is a cross country route? It’s not as if a route follows a defined path. Not like the JMT (John Muir Trail) where there is an established and maintained tread and signs marking the way. But rather, a route is a concept and followed, hopefully, by an experience. It is a self drawn line on a map, either physically or mentally. It is the exploration that goes into seeing if that route goes. It is the terrain, the lay of the land the condition of the snow; it is the culmination of all that goes into it and all that comes out. In short it is discovery, and in this age of “real time” adventures, endless descriptive blog posts, social media and GPS waypoints, discovery can be challenging.

Above I purposely put the in quotations, to call out the fact that there is no “the” when it comes to cross country routes unless of course one is referring to their own line. The SHR in no more “the” route than Mt Whitney is “the” mountain, the same can be said of “the” Red Line. There are as many “Red Lines” and “Sierra High Routes” as there are ski manufactures, probably more.  Case in point, most of you that are skiers probably assumed SHR above was referring to the Sierra Haute Route, the ski line. Summer hikers were thinking Roper’s Sierra High Route. It was the latter, the line that should be referred to as RSHR or Roper’s Sierra High Route.

The name Red Line was published in Powder magazine in the mid ‘80’s. That name was applied to a certain route that Carter, Bard and Cox etal had pieced together along the Sierra Crest. It was in reference to the red line that the USGS had applied to the Sierra crest on some maps as well as the concept of red lining the “fun” meter (the red line on a meter usually indicates the maximum safe output of whatever the meter is measuring). For others it was the color felt pen we used to draw our route.

Long before the name Red Line was applied, there were many that simply referred to a ski along the Sierra Crest as just that, “a ski along the Sierra Crest.” The first to do this was a snow surveyor on a busman’s holiday. Over the course of three months in 1929, before there was a red line on a map or felt pens, Orland Bartholomew followed his own “red line.” He skied solo from Mt Whitney to Yosemite several years prior to the completion of the JMT. Others like Robinson, Beck, Long, Crljenko, Harrington and many more, followed their own red lines over the years, myself competing a 28 day traverse of the crest with Rob Russel in 1981. Eventually that red line followed the crest from well south of Whitney to Sonora Pass. We went on to ski Red Lines through every named divide in the High Sierra: from the spine of the Ritter Range to the length of the Great Western Divide. I don’t think any of us in 70’s or 80’s had the pretense to think our line was “the” line, but rather “our” line. It was never about following others footprints or ski tracks as the case may be, but rather to explore our own ideas, physically, mentally and experientially. Additionally we loathed the idea of a Sierra Ski guide book and I’m sure several of my past partners are cursing them from the grave.

I certainly understand why people research their trips and I in no way want to sound disparaging, (I’m happy to share information on a personal basis). People have limited time or even perhaps limited desire, to see if a route “goes”. But if you wan’t to explore and find your own personal Red Line, close the books, pick up a map and a pen, and give Google a rest.

Mark Long pegging the fun meter in the early ‘80’s

Mark Long pegging the fun meter in the early ‘80’s