Friday, February 27, 2009

Trip Report: Sierra Club Snowcamping Training Group 5 Trip 2— Carson Pass to Winnemucca Lake

February 20, 2009: Friday hiking in pleasant weather conditions towards Winnemucca Lake with Round Top peak in the background.

Last weekend I went on Group 5’s second trip of the Sierra Club’s Snowcamping Training Series. Originally we were supposed to go to Lassen, but due to a good amount of snow during the week the avalanche danger was rated as “extreme” and the weather forecast was for more snow, so the plan was changed to Winnemucca Lake near Carson Pass.

This trip started out sunny and mild. The first day for the hike in was warm and no wind to speak of. But Friday night late the winds kicked up. Saturday morning was sunny, but by early afternoon the sky had turned a mean gray and the wind gusts were getting wild. Saturday evening the gusts got so bad that they completely obliterated one of the tarps covering the snow kitchen. Sunday morning we woke up to white out conditions.

February 22, 2009: Sunday morning hiking out back to the trailhead with low visibility. A few wind gusts almost knocked me over and I’m no feather.
Snowcamp Stats:
  • Dates: February 20 – February 22, 2009
  • Location: CA, Sierra Nevada Mountains, Eldorado National Forest, Mokelumne Wilderness, near Winnemucca Lake
  • Mileage: ~4.5 mi round trip
  • Elevation: +/-450´; lo pt 8,595´; hi pt 9,055´
  • Trailhead: Carson Pass Sno-Park
  • Sno-Park Lat/Long.: 38.69498062, -119.989357
  • Sno-Park Facilities: porta-potties, trash bins, no water; parking permit required.
  • Winter Trail Route: cross-country, loosely following the Pacific Crest Trail south towards Winnemucca Lake and Round Top peak.
  • Route Type: out and back.
  • Trail Terrain: semi-popular cross-country route; rolling; mild ascent to Winnemucca Lake; altitude makes it feel harder.
  • Campsite: an exposed plateau north/ above Winnemucca Lake with sparse Juniper tree cover.
  • Why go?: views down to Caples Lake and surrounding peaks Red Lake Peak, Round Top, The Sisters, Black Butte, Elephants Back. Non-technical climb up the south side of Elephants Back.
  • Caveats: Wind is a problem here, as I experienced first hand and learned after the trip second hand.
  • Website: Eldorado National Forest Winter Recreation
  • Wilderness Permit: Mokelumne Wilderness
  • Parking Information: Sno-Parks California OHV
  • View my photo album.
The white haze at the surface is spindrift. Even though this morning was sunny we were still getting “snowed on” due to the wind picking up the loose surface snow and throwing it around.

Spindrift is Not Your Friend

I was first introduced to the word “spindrift” unwittingly through my friend Mary, who is an actress, and sometimes does productions with the Pacifica Spindrift Players. One time buying tickets to see her perform I got curious about the name so I looked up the term— SPINDRIFT: spray blown from the crests of waves by wind. Also, blowing snow or sand.

For our purposes I’m talking about blowing snow—one of the reasons why most three-season tents with their generous mesh inner walls are not good for snowcamping (or camping in Death Valley during a wind storm, but that is a another discussion).

The first night, in the middle of the night, the wind kicked up—I would guess 30+ MPH gusts. Despite being snug as a bug in my 0 degree Marmot Teton mummy bag, I kept getting rudely awakened by ice cold spittle hitting my face every time a gust would come by. I cinched up my sleeping bag hood and pulled down my beanie and pulled up my fleece neck gator, so only a sliver of my face under my nostrils was exposed, but the freezing spittle still managed to find skin.

My tent window Saturday morning with a lovely view.

Damage Control

In the morning, I rose to find a nice layer of finely sifted snow blanketing me and everything else inside my tent. I shook everything off as best I could and launched a campaign of spindrift damage control. First, everything inside my tent including my sleeping bag got tossed in plastic bags. Second, my sleeping pads got flipped upside down so the snow would collect on the waterproof bottom and not on the surface I would be laying on. Third, I would construct a windbreak composed of snow blocks (see picture below).

Almost everybody else had a spindrift problem, even the snowcave dwellers, as we all misjudged the direction of the wind. It was predicted to come out of the Southwest. Unfortunately, the wind decided it wasn’t going to be pigeonholed and it would come out of whatever direction it damn well felt like—which was every direction.

My tent post construction of wind wall/ spindrift block with upside down Nalgene.

The “W” Word and I’m Not Talking George W.

In the context of camping, my dad hates wind. It is the one weather condition he finds miserable and I tend to agree. Therefore nobody in his camping party is allowed to call it by name. He is superstitious about it.We call it “the double-u word”. To utter the w-word is to taunt the weather gods and anger them. Last weekend, we must’ve really pissed ’em off.

During the group morning shelter fortifications, several people banded together to tie up some tarps to cover the snow kitchen. All was well until in the late afternoon as we were gathered to prepare our evening meals a giant gust came through and ripped one of the weaker tarps to shreds. It tore the grommets straight out. Everybody jumped up to grab an end of the remaining tarps, but efforts to stabilize them where in vain and they had to be taken down.

At this point the weather gods decided that the tarps were not satisfying enough. They decided it was a good time to make me slip on an icy spot in my down booties and twist my right ankle.

My tent window Saturday afternoon covered in spindrift

The Princess and The Pea

It wasn’t the worst sprain-job I’ve ever done on an ankle, but it did make a popping sound, which disturbed me. I’m just glad it wasn’t my left ankle. The left is kinda screwed from being sprained too many times.

The leaders sent me to my tent. I felt like a child being grounded and I was acting like one too (it didn’t help that my lower back was painfully acting up the whole trip either). Our medical leader wanted me to elevate and ice my ankle, but the idea of putting a baggy of snow against my skin whilst shivering in my tent sounded irrationally horrifying. At this point I was a little off my rocker. Finally we struck a deal and I would only have to ice it for half an hour. The upshot was that I got my soup and dinner served to me in my tent like a little spoiled princess.


My tent window Sunday morning is somewhere behind a not-so-thin layer of slushy wayward snow.

A Nylon Ripstop Snow Globe

Saturday night the gusts would reach 50 MPH (I checked the weather history after I got home). I could hear the gusts approaching before they hit as they whipped up the valley through the trees. I imagined a rabid gang of faceless phantoms flying past my tent as it would shudder and flap and the abrasive sound of ice granules would scrape harshly against my rainfly and then subside.

The snow-wall/windbreak I constructed wasn’t as helpful as I had hoped. Since the gusts would change direction throughout the night I probably should have built a four-foot wall surrounding my tent, but I had constructed a variable height wall—only two to three feet high on the west side and north sides and one foot high on the east and south sides of my tent figuring that side would need the least protection.

Spindrift made it inside my tent anyway (I shudder to think how badly if I had not made the wall—see the picture above). Throughout the night I would knock off the collected snow from the mesh body so that my hot breath could escape, and in theory, wouldn’t condense and create rain from the inside. However, when I did this even more spindrift would fall on my sleeping bag and melt. At one point in the night the gusts calmed down for a bit and thus the trapped air inside of my tent got “too warm.” With no ventilation near the roof (I had closed the vents) collected snow on the top of the mesh melted and dripped all over me.

When the sky began to lighten, I was more than happy to pack up and leave.


Packing up Sunday morning in the snowstorm.

Post Script

Besides spindrift, the other reason why a 3-season tent is not always a good idea for snowcamping wasn’t really an issue this time—that reason being heavy snow-load, the weight of lots of falling snow bearing down and bending the poles or tearing the tent fabric. The actual snow falling this trip was only a few inches overnight and the wind wouldn’t let it collect thickly on top of my tent (on the inside obviously a different story).

In conclusion, no more two-night snowcamping trips until I get some better, lighter, 4-season gear and that requires having a job. I also need to increase my fitness level so I don’t get run down so easily in the cold. Gear-wise, primarily I would like a light yet snow-resistant single-wall tent; light down-insulated pants (not the fleece pajama bottoms I’ve been using); and also warmer winter boots that don’t constrict my circulation, so that my feet stay warm while relaxing around camp while providing some ankle protection (the down booties are cozy but slippery and non-supportive).

Without the above improvements, I mentally can’t shake the idea of becoming the next “Ice Man” discovered thousands of years later perfectly preserved frozen to death with the look of terror still plastered on my face. But, then again there is global warming to consider, so I would probably just end up a putrid defrosted mess.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

White Out

Originally uploaded by bondgurl
Snow camping is not playing in the snow. It is not being a little kid and having your parents bundle you up in whatever warm clothing you own, mostly cotton except for that acrylic beanie your aunt crocheted, making a beeline for the local mountains which received a once-every-couple-years dusting of snow, your dad finding a pull-out with a good slope and plopping your butt into a plastic baby bath tub or tractor tire innertube and pushing you down a hill, flying and crashing you go with plastic pieces flying everywhere and belly-laughing and your younger cousin starts crying even though she is not hurt. And then your parents scoop you up, dust off the snow and fill you with hot cocoa from an old glass-insulated Thermos that rattles when you shake it and you are happy and filled with wonder at the white stuff from the “safety” of a warm van, hoping that it will snow again next year.

Snow camping IS a lot of work, even just sitting idly. In fact that is probably the hardest—just staying warm while sitting in your tent alone. Psychologically there is nowhere to go except right where you are. If the weather turns bad, you better have confidence in your equipment and a positive attitude. That’s hard to do if you are feeling bad before you even start a trip.

I've learned something about myself this season: if I’m experiencing any mental anxiety before the trip (including that which is unrelated to the trip) it will only be magnified during the trip. The cold can bring out all sorts of mental demons and infect one’s thinking. In other words, snow camping is not an escape. It’s a cold, hard punch—a wake-up call to get yer sh*t together.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Trip Report: Sierra Club Snowcamping Training Group 5 Trip 1 Rematch

February 1, 2009: Group 5, Trip 1, Sierra Club Snowcamping Training Series on top of Andesite Peak elevation 8,219’ with Basin Peak in the background on the left and Castle Peak on the right.

A couple years ago I had read somewhere that the local chapter of the Sierra Club offered training in snow camping skills. I thought, “Wow, how fun! I bet I would learn a lot of additional survival skills too.” But the image of snow that was running through my mind was like that of a small child seeing snow for the first time from within the protection of a warm car — pretty and fluffy and soft — completely disregarding the “burning cold and wet” reality. So, I signed up.

For last year’s first trip was forecast a bit of snow and wind. We went out anyway. It is good training to deal with less-than-ideal weather — that is the point isn’t it? Well we got more than a bit. We got two to three feet of snow overnight, cold temperatures, crazy winds with accompanying wind chill. We got white-out conditions. We got a blizzard. In fact, this is the weekend that two skiers got lost nearby and landed themselves on the news here and here.


Me digging a snow trench on my very first ever snowcamping trip last year February 2, 2008.

Photo credit: Ted Pekny/Shonna Moodie.

The following events highlighted last year’s trip one, my first ever snowcamp: Because I was so cold, and tired, and queezy, I went to bed at about 7:00pm. After my body heat reluctantly warmed my sleeping bag and trench (a sleeping ditch dug into the snow) I finally fell asleep around 1:00am.

Some time shortly after dozing off, three assistant leaders were sent out to find and unbury me. Because all traces of my location were wiped out by the heavy snowfall they ended up standing on my “roof”. I heard scratching noises. In a half-dream state, I thought it was a bear. I heard voices. I saw my roof suddenly sag deeply. I yelled at them to get off the barely supported tarp, but they could not hear my voice muffled by deep snow and howling winds.

One of them ended up collapsing the roof. All of my gear was now buried in snow and wet. I was cranky and ungratefull. I whined, “But I was warm!” I was removed to a tent. My new tent partner was having a panic attack. We anxiously waited for morning. I proclaimed to never do snowcamping again.

Morning came. We packed without breakfast. We began the hike out. We were sinking up to our thighs and falling in tree-holes. We were on a steep hill. We heard a deep “WHoOMPF”. I panicked. I fell over. I was helped back up. We got our asses off that hill. We could have triggered an avalanche. We got back to the cars. They were buried. We began to dig...


Returning to our cars last year February 3, 2008.

Photo credit: Jesse Costello-Good.

Fast foward to 2009. I am now privy to snow’s evil deception, it’s come-hither looks yet lethal bite. So what do I do? I sign up again.

I’ve gone on four more snowcamping trips since that first trip, three being with the Sierra Club—each mostly dominated by sunny skies and mild weather. Last weekend, I went out again with Training Group 5. Even though I “graduated” last year, I rejoined the training groups because they offer plenty of opportunity to try out new techniques, experiment with different gear choices, and practice navigational skills in the context of a supportive group with designated leaders and assistants.

Snow Camp Stats:
  • Dates: January 31 – February 1, 2009
  • Location: CA, Sierra Nevada Mountains, Tahoe National Forest, Truckee Ranger District, Castle Peak/Round Valley Area
  • Mileage: ~8.5 mi round trip
  • Elevation: +/-1,674´; lo pt 7,185´; hi pt 8,219´
  • Trailhead: parking at Donner Summit Sno-Park near Boreal, trail starts on the other side of I-80 north of the overpass.
  • Sno-Park Lat/Long.: 39.33956146, -120.3453979
  • Sno-Park Facilities: porta-potties, no water; parking permit required. Other facilities at Boreal ski resort
  • Winter Trail Route: Forest Service Road 80-50/Castle Peak Rd along Andesite Ridge through Castle Valley, Pacific Crest Trail at Castle Pass through Round Valley, bits of cross country here and there.
  • Route Type: figure 8 lollipop loop.
  • Trail Terrain: mostly compacted snow—heavily traveled route, some cross country/trail breaking if desired; mild climbing through Castle Valley then steep over pass, then mild through Round Valley. Ascent of Andesite Peak steep from northwest side and steep decent on east side.
  • Campsite: north end of Round Valley, below Basin Peak
  • Why go?: Travel through some fir forest and plenty of open exposed areas with views of Donner Pass area, Castle Peak, Andesite Peak, Basin Peak, and more; nice alpenglow opportunities; near Peter Grub Hut if you don’t want to snowcamp (hut reservation required). Dogs allowed.
  • Caveats: Popular = lots o’ people; Exposed areas can be very windy. Dog poo along the trail! Snowmobile area nearby (potentially noisy).
  • Land Manager: Tahoe National Forest, Truckee District
  • Parking Information: Sno-Parks California OHV
  • View my photo album.
me castle peak
The porch at Crystal Springs Inn, Alta, CA—our excellent pretrip accomodations for 2008 & 2009.

Group 5, Trip 1, Wash, Rinse, Repeat?

Like last year, we all met the night before at the very affordable Crystal Springs Inn in Alta, CA—a labyrinth like Victorian bed & breakfast owned and operated by the very fun JoAnn Blohm. And also like last year, we regrouped the next morning at the same Sno-Park next to Boreal. But that is where the similarities end.

Unlike last year, the weather forecast was for sunny skies and warm temperatures. (Note: After returning home I checked the weather history. It would get up to 50 degrees F this day.) So, we headed north towards Round Valley near Peter Grubb hut in the Castle Peak area of Tahoe National Forest which was about four miles in with ~1,140 feet of elevation gain and ~400 feet of loss.

Conversely, last year in the deep unpacked powder of a blowing snowstorm, we only made it one-and-a-quarter miles with only 200 feet elevation gain/loss to arrive at Flora Lake, south of the same trailhead in about the same amount of travel time.

Our fearless leader Shonna at the crowded trailhead getting ready for a group map check.
me castle peak
Me with Castle Peak in the background on the left. It was so warm on Saturday at one point I proclaimed, “This sun is brutal!”

A Snow Kitchen Dance Party

After setting up camp and a little relaxing in the remaining sun, we gathered around the snow kitchen to cook our evening meals. I noticed Rob was digging around in his pockets with a mischievous grin on his face. Out came an orange iPod Nano and a teeny tiny set of folding speakers. He had a surprise for us. Rob cranked up the volume:

“Snowshoes and solitude
is what we dream of.
World of wind and water
to explore.
Keep a fire burning
in our shelter...”

Les Stroud a.k.a. the Discovery Channel's Survivorman apparently is also a musician and the above lyrics are from his song “Snowshoes and Solitude”. Rob had made us a special snowcamping play list.

Shortly thereafter, somebody broke out some whiskey, another some rum, another some bourbon, next thing we know we are shakin’ our down booties and doing “The Hustle”. At one point we had a conga line going through the center of the kitchen, an official “Hustle” demonstration, yoga practice, air guitar/ banjo/ fiddle contest, and several group sing-a-longs.

Chris and Shonna dancing in the snow kitchen.

From 0 to 30 MPH in 8 Hours

Warmed up from the dance party, I decided it was time for bed a little before 10:00pm. Crawling into my tent I noticed thousands of little ice crystals had formed on the inside and outside of my tent rainfly. This didn’t concern me too much as long as they didn’t decide to shed themselves and melt on top of my down sleeping bag. I checked my little zipper-pull thermometer. It was just a hair over 10 degrees F (low teens) inside the rainfly.

The ice crystals did not last long as a breeze kicked up just before midnight and with it the temperature actually rose. I rechecked my thermometer and it was about 20 degrees F. I performed my usual backpacking insomnia routine as the wind slowly picked up and the hours ticked by. My emergency-blanket-cum-ground-cloth was driving me nuts flapping and crinkling in the now gusty wind. My thoughts turned to those in the group that camped out in the open with no cover and hoped they were doing ok as I tucked the loose e-blanket corners under and burrowed into my zero degree bag.


Inside my REI Half Dome 2 HC Tent in the “minimalist shelter” configuration using just the rainfly and footprint—no tent body.

The sky began to lighten, and I crossed my fingers that the wind would calm as the sun rose over the ridge. Alas, the wind was insistent on continuing in spite of the day. Resignedly I got up and began the process of feebly lighting my stove and not trying to burn my braids off like the night before (we won’t talk about that). It took three tries but I got it going and soon much-welcomed hot cocoa would fill my gullet. (After getting home Sunday night I checked the weather history and wind gusts were up to 30 MPH.)

As the bright sun rose higher and we began the hike out, I was now thankful for the wind as it tempered the heat generated during our uphill slog. Our leaders the night before decided we would take Andesite Ridge and do a little bag of Andesite Peak — my first winter “summit” (a puny one but you gotta start somewhere right?).

On the decent of the ridge, and to hook back up with the main trail through Castle Valley, we basically went cross country straight down the east facing side of Andesite Ridge below Andesite Peak which was pretty fun, like running through a giant marshmallow pillow.

Being Superbowl Sunday, there was little traffic on the trail and on the road so we made pretty good time with a stop for dinner at the brewery in old-town Auburn. I had a well-earned order of fish ’n’ chips.


The view of our camp location from Andesite Peak, 8,219´. Basin Peak is the tallest point in the background.