In the Sierra Nevada, near Fresno.
With those words, I have summarized the two most-asked questions about his weekend. Was is cold? And where is this place?
This Memorial Day Weekend, I joined the “Senator, you are no Mount Kennedy” trip with Steve and Aaron as leaders. While I am an experienced backpacker, this was my first extended snow-camping trip. This caused me some anxiety when I got my pack together. In summer, I do know exactly based on temperature range what I need to be safe and comfortable without carrying too many pounds on my back. Winter, I am still on the steep learning curve. There was also a moment of panic when the weather forecast changed on the day of take-off, dropping by > 10 F to 8 F (-13 C) for one night. Lucky for me, my friend Magdalena saved me from the popsicle (ok, very uncomfortable night) fate by lending me her 0 degree sleeping bag.
It was a very stressful week, packing was done in spurts late at night. Finally I had everything together: clothing, tent, ice axe, crampons, plastic boots, food, stove, snowshoes … All in all, about 43-45 pounds. I managed to find Aaron’s house to meet up for the carpool, and off we went. I rather enjoy carpooling with Aaron. We usually have very deep discussions about everything and anything to pass the time. Friday night, we spent in our bivy’s at a NF Campground (Convict Flat). Those drunks loudly interrupting our sleep must have been the escaped convicts.
Friday, the 7 of us met up at Road’s End to get permits and start hiking. I admit I had some anxiety about hiking with a leader I had never met. I knew from hearsay that he was very experienced, but a good part of having an enjoyable experience also depends on personality fit. As so often, my anxiety was not justified; on the contrary, I got a positive surprise. On the hike out of Cedar Grove, there was one thing I did not do optimally, and another teaching opportunity. The leader was very good about picking it up and taught me two new skills. I really liked that, because what is the point of going on a trip with more experienced people if they let me continue my errors?
Unfortunately, I got another surprise. The 4000 feet ascend from road’s end is not easy, but based on previous trips I expected to be at about the same pace of the co-leader, or somewhere around the lower middle of the group for other peak climbing trips. I had done day hikes to 9,500 feet and 10k feet 3 and 5 weeks before, nothing out of the ordinary. Training hikes with pack up Diablo and Mission Peak in previous weeks were normal. Therefore, I expected based on previous experience:
- no headaches unless sleeping over 10k feet the first night
- no major change in appetite unless sleeping over 10k feet the first night
- Some shortness of breath
- overnight adaptation to altitudes between 10k and 11k
Fat chance this time. I slowed down and had shortness of breath at 7k already. No energy transfer to muscles. Headaches starting in the evening and getting worse in the morning, even though we slept just above 9k. It took me way more than 48 hours to adapt to 10k. And after the first night, I could barely stomach a hot chocolate for breakfast. Of course, I got my butt kicked and was the slowest of the group. F-R-U-S-T-R-A-T-I-O-N. And panic, because I am scheduled to do Shasta 2 weeks from Memorial Day!
There were some factors stacked against me. I had had three rough weeks at work with not much sleep. I was stressed about packing, gear, people. I was inattentive enough to forget my hiking poles, costing me lots of extra energy the first 3000 feet until Aaron gave me one of his poles (a truly generous man!). My new plastic boots took some getting used to; I also did not start in regular boots, because I did not know we could store them when reaching snow instead of carrying them all the way. And as Emilie said in a pep talk after the trip, sometimes you just have an off day for reasons you don’t know.
In any case, the next morning on our hike up, me and Derek were still on the slow side. After about 150 feet vertical gain, the leader and co-leader decided to have the talk with us. Nicely. They pointed out the obvious: neither Derek nor I were up to the three long hiking days to successfully stick to the peak climbing plan. The leader suggested an alternative approach, staying in Darwin Basin to climb Comb’s Spur and Hutcheson. I was disappointed in myself, but had to agree this was a very reasonable suggestion. We discussed meetup procedures on the way back, allowed for contingencies. The leader and co-leader also checked that we had maps, GPS, and they were confident in our skills.
And did those skills get tested! The day started harmless enough. Derek and I took our time to get over the ridge into Darwin basin. On the way, we spotted a slim marmot, rabbit tracks and a coyote track. We picked a nice, flat campsite on top of a little ridge near a lake with water access at the base of a tree. The sun was shining, we put up our tents, spread our ear on a warm rock to dry, and lounged about on a nice afternoon. This lasted until 4 pm, when within 30 minutes sunny laziness was chased away by ominous clouds and a fierce wind. We each dove into our tent not to re-emerge until the next morning.
I remember waking up from sleep in intervals, looking at my tent stakes and wondering about how much wind load my tent could sustain. I must have been 30 mph wind with gusts up to 40 mph at least. The gusts lifted the outer tent walls at times and blew in cold air. Now and then I shook the snow off my tent. I had some power bars and electrolyte drinks; cooking dinner in this howling wind was out of the question. I wondered how Derek was faring one tent over, but gentle snoring told me I did not need to worry.
The next day around 10 am, the storm let up for a few hours. Just enough time to get up, use the non-existing facilities, cook brunch, and stretch our limbs. About 4 inches of snow had fallen so far. We took a look at the weather and decided not to attempt Comb’s Spur. The risk of getting lost in a whiteout was just too high, not to mention the fresh powder load on solidified base on the 40 degree slopes. We contemplated Hutcheson, but it never cleared up enough and then around 1 pm, the weather turned bad again. We both took a 3-hour nap to awake to another 4 inches. When I fell asleep, it had been fairly warm. My shoulders were out of the sleeping bag, my head uncovered. By 4 pm it had cooled down, and I woke up shivering. Putting on my cap and pulling the sleeping bag over my head stopped the shivering within a minute!
At 4 pm Sunday we emerged again for 2 hours to clear our tents from snow and ice, move about and get a look at the situation. I had to remove some of the snow away from the base of my tent to allow the tent to shed snow. The sitting area I had dug in front of my tent was filled back with snow drift. We had to beat a retreat soon though, because the warm, heavy clouds started dumping snow again. Sometime later on Sunday night it stopped snowing, but the temperature took a nosedive. When I knocked off the snow and ice off my tent at night, my face was sprayed with ice crystals. While I was warm in my sleeping back, it was quite fascinating to note how calorie intake regulated my perception of being warm. Every few hours, I ran short of energy supply. The result was that every time I moved, goosebumps ran across my skin despite being tucked in, cozy and warm. Sipping electrolyte drinks took care of the goosebumps, despite the water itself being near freezing.
We woke up at 5:30 pm on Monday. Water bottles in our tent were mostly frozen, even those with electrolyte solution. I measured 16 F (-10 C) in my tent, which meant it must have been around 8 F (-13 C) outside. Brrrr indeed! By now, we had spend most of the last 40 hours in our tents and were more than ready to move. Peeking out of the tent, I saw the sun rising to a gorgeous day, as it is usually on the day I have to leave the backcountry.
We cooked breakfast and packed our stuff. My sleeping back had a small layer of ice on the outside. Both the inner and outer tent were coated with a layer of ice; some from snowfall, some from the condensation. Well, and then there were the tent stakes, solidly frozen into the compacted snow. Derek and I decided to wait the 30 minutes until 7:30 am, when the sun would hit our campsite. I have not been so cold since waiting an hour for the bus in freezing winds on a Washington DC January morning! My toes were icy cold despite the warm boots. Finally the sun arrived, and we proceeded to extract the stakes with the help of our ice axes. It took about 45 minutes to get our tents free, de-iced as much as possible, and packed up.
At around 10 am, we were up on the ridge again, taking a 2nd breakfast break in the sun. My sunscreen had started to melt: too late to prevent a minor sunburn on my nose, but early enough to prevent serious trouble. Derek and I chatted a while, contemplating climbing Hutcheson. On he other hand, we wondered about the other five climbers. We doubted they got to climb a peak, although we thought they were probably gutsy enough to make a go for Kennedy. We tried guessing how long it would take them to reach our meetup side vs us climbing Hutcheson when we noticed snow-coered, deep boot and ski tracks on the ridge. Wait a minute! When we came over the ridge Saturday, the snow was solid and the tracks only two inches deep. There was only one conclusion, since it had stopped snowing around 7 pm the night before: the five must have come through before us, most likely on Sunday afternoon!
We immediately packed up and started the 1000 feet descent to our meetup point (Friday night campsite). The descend through a foot of fresh powder atop frozen/slushy base down a steep hill was challenging.Each of us logged about three falls. My first one was so memorable, I chuckled about it all the way down to the parking lot. Imagine me, loaded with heavy pack, on snowshoes, with a hiking pole. My right snowshoe snagged onto something hidden under the powder. Remembering the leaders lesson, I immediately shifted my weight and bend both knees to land on my shins. That maneuver caused the momentum of my pack to take over, and I did a nice forward somersault downhill! It must have been quite a sight!!! It all went incredibly fast as well, but I found my self-arrest reflexes to work quite well. As soon as I was able, I turned on my belly and dug the elbows in.
The second and third fall were a bit scarier. I was still on snowshoes on the second fall, where my foot slid under me and I went down with one knee bend. All I could think of was my friend Emilie tearing her ACL in a similar maneuver just weeks before … but my knee held. Sigh of relief. By the third fall, I had switched to crampons. That one was bad luck; I stepped on a rock hidden under powder. A fall with crampons on is always dicey because of the danger of catching on something, resulting in ankle damage. Because of the slushy snow by now I slid only 5 feet, but I was a bit too slow in getting on my knees and crampons out of the way for my taste. Next time.
At the meet-up site, Derek and I stopped at the tent platform Monique, Sandrine and Kevin had dug three nights before. Suddenly Derek noticed a plastic bag stuck in the bark of a tree. The leader had left us a message! Our suspicion was confirmed; they had bailed early, and were far ahead. We pushed on at a reasonable, safe pace. At Upper Tent Meadows, we spotted Monique’s ski tracks, telling about fresh powder fun. Soon the crampons could come off. At lower tent meadows, finding the river crossing and trail proved a little bit of a challenge. The following 2,800 feet down were easy, trail switchbacks with an amazing view into King’s Canyon and the surrounding mountains.
While hiking down, I was wondering about the reception we would find. Angry about us not bailing earlier? Anybody still there? Somebody hiking up to meet us? What we found, at 4 pm, was the trip leader and Kevin. We swapped our stories; as we thought, they had gotten close to their Saturday destination, but decided the weather would not allow them to climb and therefore they had hiked out Sunday. Monique and Sandrine had taken off to pay a visit to the gigantic Sequoias. Aaron was on his way to Cedar Grove to check in with my SPOT recipient as to our whereabouts. I send an ok message from the parking lot pronto …
Soon, Aaron returned with two cold beers. He was visibly relieved to see both of us happy and healthy. So relieved, that instead of giving the beers to the leader and Kevin, Derek and I were the beneficiaries 🙂 Derek and Steve took off. Kevin went back to cross the Sierra with destination Onion Valley. And Aaron and I packed everything in Aaron’s car to head back to our respective homes.
Lessons learned? Many. I know now how it feels to suck physically on a mountain. I have gained a lot of confidence in my winter camping skills after weathering a storm Derek rated as the 3rd worst he had spent outside (Canadian and scout leader speaking here!). My gear was adequate to the task. I met people I had long been interested to meet. I made new friends. I learned a lot of new skills, and caught up on A LOT of sleep. And yes, I had a lot of fun spending time in my beloved mountains.