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.


  1. i really enjoyed reading about your trip. it actually sounds like a lot of fun! great story, thanks for sharing!

  2. very nice....we hiked round top peak one december 31st...snowing....spent the new year on top of the midnight the sky cleared...the wind stopped...lots of stars..drank a bottle of of the best new years of my life...great area.