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An Ionian Ski Journey

A former BW intern hits the slopes for some early summer skiing


Scylla. Charybdis. The Three Sirens. The Black Giant. The Enchanted Gorge. They're mythical names. They're also names of features on a map of King's Canyon National Park high up and deep in the heart of the Sierra Nevada in eastern California. They're jagged, black mountains and a deep, rugged gorge in or around the Ionian Basin, and they may be the most remote place in a massive mountain range.

It's May and four of us--me, Todd, Dave and Ryan--are seven days into a 12-day ski tour, a self support backpack trip traveling on telemark and Alpine touring skis and crossing 12,000-foot passes with 75-pound packs. We're five hours north of Los Angeles and four hours down the road from Reno, Nev. We plan to enter the Ionian Basin the next day to set up a base camp and ski. Todd claims it's a skier's paradise.

I ask him where the names came from and he tells me. We have time. As we sit on a house size block of granite alongside ice covered Martha Lake watching storm clouds roll in, Todd tells me how Theodore Solomons named most of the geographic features in the area while surveying in the 1890s. When Solomons climbed to the top of the Goddard Divide--the wall-like ridge separating the Evolution Valley from the Ionian Basin--he looked down on a landscape so harsh, so dark and foreboding, he thought of Homer's Odyssey and named the mountains with the epic poem in mind. Solomons then turned the high sierra route east, around and away from the Ionian Basin.

I'd been lured out here before, summoned by what I'd seen on a map. I camped in the Evolution Valley, just north of the Ionian Basin at a lake named for John Muir's daughter, and I made a pilgrimage to the Muir Hut--a stone building shaped like an igloo perched on the saddle of 12,000-foot Muir Pass. I had planned to ascend the divide and catch a glimpse of the Ionian Basin but a dwindling amount of time and energy turned me away.

This time, we enter the Ionian Basin the next day. Clouds sock in the basin, making everything bleak. I can't see the mountains above us and the wind howls while hard snow pelts my face. Everything appears blank and we set up camp at what seems to be the first flat spot, but it's so white, we can't tell.

The next day, we find that we're camping on 3 feet of snow on top of the creek draining the lake. The storm hits and it turns into a long night of bracing the tent, holding the frame during the biggest wind gusts. I don't sleep, and I don't even think about going outside to relieve myself until nearly 2 a.m., when minute gaps of quiet begin to break up the wind. Mainly, I lay there miserable, wishing I wasn't there.

The Ionian Basin is beating me down, reminding me that I'm hungry because we couldn't cook dinner in the storm, that I'm cold, that I'm uncomfortable, that I'm three days from the road and that if there's one spurt of wind that takes the tent to its breaking point and it tears open, I'm screwed. I'm wishing I had heeded every warning--the lower back pains before the trip, the self doubts climbing passes with a heavy pack--and taken any of those opportunities to turn around while I could. I'm wishing I hadn't journeyed out to the Ionian Basin.

The sky turns blue by daybreak and I see the appeal of a skier's journey to this basin. From camp alone, two high peaks with steep consequential terrain tower over us. And a nice, big face--much like a double black diamond run in a ski area--slopes off the east ridge of Mt. Goddard. Ionian is not your typical alpine bowl-like basin. It's filled with rounded mounds of rock, some as tall as a 1,000 vertical feet, all of them skiable with chutes, bowls or low angle slopes. There are no trees around us, just black metamorphic rock jutting out of the snow pack. It's a simple landscape, open terrain and snow, and it's easy to decide what to do.

We split up and ski. Todd and Ryan go explore the basin and catch a glimpse straight down the gut of the rugged Enchanted Gorge. Dave skies laps on Mt. Goddard then circles over behind Scylla for a few more runs. I choose a line above camp, a nice 1,000-foot straight shot that starts somewhat steep and mellows quickly. The snow is smooth and wind buffed.

Our best skiing comes our second day when the four of us climb Mt. Goddard. The view from the summit is legendary. The peak sits west of the Sierra Crest and at more than 13,500 feet, it's taller than anything around it. You can see everything in the Sierras--all the way up to Yosemite, Banner and Ritter near Mammoth, the Palisades, and south toward Whitney. The ski descent is big, open and quick--the most appropriate way to leave the top of a mountain.

Later, I sit in camp listening to Todd and Dave tell tales of horror of summer trips through this place, scrambling through the boulder fields that surround all the lakes. I glance up at Goddard, the giant pyramid we climbed a few hours earlier, and my eyes follow the rough and craggy divide that reaches off it. I glimpse at all the dark rock and at the broken summit of Scylla behind me and I realize the snow eases the raggedness of this place with no trees. And once the snow is gone, there are no meadows. Just black, black rock, heaps of it everywhere.

In a way, it's the wasteland of the Sierras. I imagine some higher being that created these mountains scraping away at the Evolution Valley, Martha Lake Basin and LeConte Canyon until the granite mountains and glacial valleys are polished and clean, beautiful and picturesque and then dumping out the unwanted tailings into the Ionian Basin for it to sit in piles for eternity. Thinking of it that way, I'm glad I didn't catch a view of Ionian two summers ago. Like Theodore Solomons, I may have turned back and never returned.