Ski Touring Ascent of Tamarack Peak (not)

You’ll get Entwives, Golden Eagles, President Hoover and plenty of mistletoe instead.

My intent today was to write about my first backcountry ski touring peak climb of Tamarack Peak near Tahoe. Crappy to nonexistent snow, at this time 1-2 inches of snow/ice covered by 1.5 inches of new snow total, caused all but the trip leader and myself to cancel on the trip. Nobody wanted to pull out their rock skis? Come on, folks!Louise and I are passionate enough about getting into the mountains that we will still go, but Monday/Tuesday instead to avoid traffic. We still have not quite figured out what we plan to do, but between ice skating, nordic, peak climbing with the help of Yaktrax, we should have plenty of fun at altitude.

Admittedly, this time of year is probably the most difficult season to be in the Sierra Nevada. Snow cover strongly depends on the number and strength of early winter storms in combination with whatever melt cycle happens in between. Passes open and close somewhat unpredictabl. The cold is not too bad given our southern latitude, but somehow sub-freezing temperatures are a lot more fun to hang out in if there is lots of snow coming with it. Nights are long, and unless you are a comfortable introvert capable of entertaining yourself for 14 hours a night stuck in a single-person tent, it can be boring. There is only so much sleep to catch up on. Personally, this all does not bother me too much. I am passionate (or nutty?) enough about the outdoors to enjoy it anyway. Besides, adversity does not only cause very intimate knowledge of your outdoor buddy’s personalities, but also create a good library of stories to tell later.

All was not lost, though. Now blessed with a wide open Saturday, I chose to go for a long training hike with the Loma Prieta Day Hiking Section. They are a fun, diverse group, suckers for hiking up steep hills, and rarely bother with hikes less than 16 miles and >3500 feet. I think a 3C is the lowest rated hike I have ever spotted on the schedule. There may be some, but they are definitely fewer than the occasional 5Es showing up! I really like their hike rating system, and recommend adoption for meetup groups or other outings with friends so folks know what to expect.

The hike rating system is as follows:

1 = Less than 5 miles of total distance
2 = 5 to 10 miles
3 = 10 to 15 miles
4 = 15 to 20 miles
5 = 20 to 25 miles

A = Less than 1000 feet of total elevation gain
B = 1000 to 2000 feet
C = 2000 to 3000 feet
D = 3000 to 4000 feet
E = 4000 to 5000 feet

Yesterday’s trip was my first to Grant Ranch County Park on the foothills of Mt Hamilton in Santa Clara County. We started hiking at 8:30, with the ground still frozen. Soon enough though, the fleeces, hats and mittens came off, and most of us where in T-Shirts. We saw some California Buckeye trees, looking dead and barren since August. I collected some, but not enough, seeds for home decoration.  The first two hours we were accompanied by  cattle, some of them running along at impressive speeds and agility. One black cow decided to be the hike leader for about 10 minutes, setting up a good trot about 50 feet ahead of the group. She faithfully led us to a watering hole, but we declined. Cow-patty hopping was challenging enough :-)

Watering hole

We crossed one lower ridge to discover a grove of ancient Valley Oaks. Some of them must be 500 years old, with trunks of 6 feet in diameter. Lisa, our biggest tree fan in the group, was in 7th heaven. It is impossible to capture the presence of those trees in a picture, although several of us still are optimistic enough to try. Sassan’s pictures will probably come out best; he is an excellent photographer. The trees spurred us to talk about Lisa’s and Brian’s wedding. They have found the oak to get married under, but are still looking for a suitable officiant. From here, the conversation meandered into paganism. To my surprise, I learned one of the hikers knew Starhawk personally. But then, given where I live and the diversity of folks I hang out with, it shouldn’t have. I just leave you with my best 2D attempt of a magnificent oak growing out of a rock. Or maybe we did find the missing Entwives after all.

Valley Oak

After we left the Valley Oak Grove, we spotted three Golden Eagles circling on the ridge above us. They must have found some carcass or prey. Big raptors are always fun to watch, especially if I am smart enough to bring along my binoculars like I did on this trip! Soon after we watched the Eagles, Brian went of trail to climb a small knoll with a rocky outcropping. He very convincingly told us that this was the very spot where President Hoover retreated to re-build his life after having been voted out of office. My face must have been a mighty question mark, because people now started filling me in on local history. Joseph Grant, owner of this huge ranch which is now the State Park, was not only a rich political supporter, but also close friend of Hoover. After leaving Washington DC, Hoover spend large stretches of time on the Grant Ranch, before resuming his new normal life.

Next, the hill! What a perfectly shaped Jeep trail up to the ridge it was. Jeep trails run in straight lines between high and low points, because they can deal better with steep terrain than sideways tilt. This particular road featured sections of steadily increasing steepness with short, flat stretches in between to catch your breath. The last hurray before the ridgeline seemed vertical looking at it head-on. If this was rocks not road, it would probably be rated Yosemite Class 2?

Day hikers: we love hills!

After lunch, we hiked further along the ridge with a nice view on Mt Hamilton with the Observatory on top. We spotted a kestrel, very few other humans, some bikers headed up the road to Hamilton. With easier terrain, warm sunshine, and a brisk pace, the conversation started flowing.  At some point, we asked ourselves two questions: (1) Do you kiss when you hike under mistletoe outdoors? (2) What controls mistletoe from spreading uncontrollably, i.e. is there a natural enemy? As hikers speed up and slow down, the conversation partners change. Sometimes, I found myself between groups, mulling over my own thoughts, enjoying to be in company while being in my own world at the same time.

Mt Hamilton with the observatory, visible for the 2nd half of our hike

As we reached our 16th mile, the sun started to go down, temperatures dropping. Around 17 miles as usual, my feet decided they would be perfectly happy to bring this hike to a close. They did not have to wait long: 18 miles, 3875 feet and 7 1/2 hours after take-off, we had our customary beer, chips and salsa in the parking lot.

PS: Update on Kaizen to Become a Stronger Mountaineer

Two weeks in, so far so good. The day hike felt very good. Waking up the day after, I was neither stiff nor sore, just felt the exercise in my legs. Hiking speed was good, hills need a bit of speed-work though. I went running twice, the second time back to an easy cruise speed of 10 minutes per mile. I have had one really strong Bikram Yoga practice. My office chair went out the office to be replaced by an exercise ball. It definitely cheers up people who come into my office to see me happily bouncing on my big purple ball while I do my work. Sitting on a ball makes me feel better, I feel like someone released the chains to let me flow more freely. Mornings have a renewed push-up routine before showering now, crunches to be added in the next days. Given that it is Christmas season with plenty of junk food and sweets around, I have been doing very well in portion control and steering toward healthier choices. There have been setbacks: Sundays in general and workdays around 4 pm are the challenge times. The musical winter solstice celebration at my church helped as well, reminding me to appreciate and welcome the darkness. My newfound kindness toward winter makes winter treat me more kindly as well. Namaste!

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2 Responses to Ski Touring Ascent of Tamarack Peak (not)

  1. Aaron S. says:

    Q. Do you kiss when you hike under mistletoe outdoors?
    A. Yes.

  2. Pingback: Castle Peak (NorCal) and Tenaya Lake skating | Stories from inside the shell

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