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.

1 comment:

  1. this is awesome, rebecca! i love the narrative and comparison with the infamous trip #1 last year. i also can't get enough of those cool 3D maps your GPS software does of the route!