Sunday, February 24, 2008

08Feb22 Alpine Meadows to Squaw Valley

(You can double-click on any image to enlarge it) The predicted winter storm materialized with a big bang this weekend. We snuck out early on Friday and skied north of Route 80 at Donner Pass - just off the snow park permit area at Norden - along Andasite Ridge. I was breaking trail the whole way, off the main ski trail, but it was glorious to be all alone in the woods with a fresh blanket of light snow covering weeks worth of melted and icy Sierra cement. My heart was pounding and I was gasping for air, but it was as if a strong cord was attached to my core and pulled me upwards. After each short break to catch my breath, I would be re energized and trudge off again in search of animal tracks and some recognizable feature which would permit me to know really where I was. Once we reached the more widely spaced trees on the watershed boundary it all came back to me and I was overwhelmed with a flood of memories from past trips to the same area. Once we reached our turn-around time, we skied fresh tracks off the ridge to the west, then followed the snowmobile trail markings back to the car.

On Saturday, we left right from the Alpine Meadows parking lot and began the ascent up to the saddle adjacent to KT-22 - hoping to drop off the north side of the ridge into Squaw Valley and shuttle back to Alpine with our friends Steve and Angela who were at Squaw for the day. About 45 minutes into our climb we encountered a film crew shooting an Ad for Sony in the back country - and as it turns out - on private land managed by a firm called White Wolf. Click here for their slide show The owner drove his snowmobile down to meet us and explained how the area is kept track free for film crews and that we'd need to turn around. After some friendly conversation while he subtly scoped out our back country skills, preparedness, and gear we explained we thought we were on forest service land and were headed for 5 lakes basin and the saddle. We showed him our threadbare map full of annotations from previous tours with estimations of the current ski area boundaries - all of which are not shown on the topo maps. He then explained there actually was a permitted trail crossing on the property for those who had been "informed" about 3/4 mile further down the road. We skied out his access road, walked back to the parking lot, repositioned our car and started up the mountain once again.

It was an amazing climb through the open rolling alpine terrain. We were cognizant of the copious quantities of fresh snow and picked our route carefully, sticking to the ridges and avoiding the terrain traps. White Wolf has started building a lift up the back side of KT-22, but the lift poles are the only evidence of that effort this time of year. We hit the shoulder just as we were instructed and found a trail sign attached to a lift pole. From here, we could easily see the remainder of the route into the lakes basin, and from there up through a stand of large fir trees to the saddle. All the while, KT-22 was looming over our right shoulder. The cliffs were already wiped clean of fresh snow, and the wind had been depositing cornices on the opposite side of the ridge. As we reached the lakes, the storm front hit, the wind picked up, and we were engulfed in a near white-out. We hunkered down in the tress for a standing lunch and spot of tea, then zipped all the flaps, put on goggles and climbed the last 25 yards to the saddle. From here - we could see nothing. As we removed our skins ("ripped leather") in the howling wind, we tried to study the almost worthless Squaw Valley trail map I had brought along to help us navigate the terrain after crossing in from out of bounds. Diane properly identified the proper saddle where we had crossed over and thusly discerned that were were standing directly above a cliff band, which in these conditions I very much wanted to avoid. Traversing to skiers right (east) we followed the trees along the edge of the the precipice and the terrain slowly opened up into a broader bowl. Staying to the edge we used the trees as guide posts and slowly felt our way through the clouds and swirling snow to lower angle terrain, and eventually to the remnants of a groomed trail. Now we were surrounded by similarly blinded skiers and snowboarders making the best of a difficult situation. As we continued to ski downhill, we dropped below the cloud base and then easily followed the ski trail to the Squaw Valley village base.

This tour has got to be repeated again in clearer weather. The views were stupendous all the way down to Lake tahoe, even though we only caught them for a glimpse.

Sunday morning found us even more buried in fresh snow. We dug out the cars and headed home. Route 80 was like the arctic with 60 mph gusts blasting clouds of snow across the highway. We crept along at 20 mph all the way to Applegate on the west side of the mountains where the chain control finally ended. Even though the drive home was 6 hours it was still aprt of our adventure and we had a great time.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

08Feb10 – Sierra Summit with Ross

Even though last weekend was probably epic ski conditions, it was definitely looking like a epic driving odyssey, so we opted to go skiing this weekend instead. Ross had agreed to meet us in the mountains, which dictated that we go to Sierra Summit east of Fresno to split driving times more equally. Driving up into the foothills above Fresno, past Millerton Lake, the recent developments are transforming the landscape. A major casino at Table Mountain along with an associated golf course has triggered housing, road widening, and a spattering of roadside establishments where previously we could previously just see cattle and coyotes. An obvious advantage is that the road is great all the way up to snow line, and there is no real “crush time” from a casino – it seems to me once people go in, they never come out. There are only snow park permitted parking and limited commercial development in the National Forest on Route 168 above the unnamed hamlet of Prather.

(By the way, The ranger is pleased to have you leave car pooled cars at the ranger station parking lot for the weekend if you wish to carpool up to the higher elevations. )

As we climbed up the mountains, the snow just kept getting deeper and deeper. Once route 168 ends and the road becomes simply Lakeshore Rd, the pavement seems to end as well – replaced with a thick uneven coat of ice and snow. Both the Sierra Summit resort and the Lakeshore resort offer RV camping at significantly reduced rates – even including electrical hook-ups. With day time temperatures approaching 50 deg. F, camping out in the RV would be no problem. It was still going below freezing at night, but with prudent heat management in the camper we could have easily camped.

The drive from Oakland to Sierra Summit is about 4.5 hours – just about equal to the drive from San Luis Obispo. There are plenty of snow park permit areas along the highway, and it looks like wonderful ski terrain from a number of locations.

As it was, we made our reservations at the peak of the snow storms and opted for a small heated cabin with two twin beds, a bath room, and a kitchen at Lakeshore Resort. The resort has a Saloon, a general store, and lots of what appears to be partially operational snow related machinery scattered about. The snow banks had claimed all sorts of other machinery but there was apparently adequate horsepower to keep the snow gullies open between the major structures. Our cabin was mostly buried. There were all matter of snowmobiles scooting about and I imagine that they constitute the bulk of the resort’s winter income.

The ski resort is a small affair with a base above 8,000 feet and 8 lifts. It is very family friendly, with lots of picnic tables and a large terrain park. There are no high speed lifts, but that keeps the slopes relatively uncrowded. Most of the open slopes are groomed, and what is not groomed would be fantastic in powder conditions. We had to wait until later in the day to venture off piste, as the boiler plate was impenetrable until then. Click to jump to Sierra Summit Ski Resort

We are here at the very end of a remote highway in the belly of the high Sierra. From the summit there is no other development to be seen. The air is clear and quiet once away from the rumbling base of the resort. There are regular over flights of ravens and at the slope’s edge animal tracks are visible – perhaps seeking out the crumbs dropped off the chair lifts.

Driving back down the mountain we drove past Shaver lake which had not frozen over. The docks were still in place which leads me to believe it rarely freezes over. It did seem odd seeing the totally abandoned marina. Along the water’s edge my camera’s long lens pulled in the details of animal tracks.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

08Feb02 - Big Basin State Park

After spending a few days at a company off-site retreat in Aptos, we headed into the mountains east and north of Santa Cruz to explore in Big Basin State Park. To get here from the Bay area, drive down 880 to 17 going west, over the mountains, then jog west on 9 and you'll loop around and hit the park.

Diane stayed home, and I made this trip with my work associate and friend Caspar Harmer, who is visiting from Australia.

This whole region was heavily logged in the past, but 100 years have allowed the forest to regain it's balance, and there are still some giant trees to be found.

We've been getting steadily pelted with rain for the last two weeks, so the minor brooks were creeks, the creeks were streams, and the streams were raging rivers. There was many trees down across the trails, but they were still easy to follow. In one spot, the trail passed up and along the waterfall's cliff face cresting over the edge - a normal dry path beside the quiet woodland stream. On this day the water had lept over the river's banks, and had expanded across the brink just to the edge of the carved stone steps of the trail. Luckily there was a cable hand rail to give us courage to proceed.

Once we left the ranger station (and its roaring fireplace), we put on our rain gear and headed up the mountainside in a full downpour. The rich greens and reds of the verdant forest floor were accented by the glistening of fresh rainwater. The heaviest of the rain was deflected by the forest canopy. There were mushrooms and fungus popping up all over adding gum-drop like accent colors to the mix.

The summit ridges of these coastal mountains are covered in sand and crushed sea shells - having been the floor of an ancient sea, which has since receded when the land uplifted.

On our way to the park, we passed through the quaint town of Felton, which boasts the tallest covered bridge in the country. It was indeed a very tall bridge, and I can only presume it used to support teams of horse drawn wagons carrying the over sized timber down to the rail spur for milling.

Our second day was spent exploring Henry Cowell State Park, a similar tract of land just down the road from Big Basin on Route 9 near the town of Felton. Throughout the day as we wandered among the giant Redwoods, Doug Firs, and Madrone and spying the moss covered remains of the monster tree trunks, we could hear the forlorn wail of a steam locomotive announcing its arrival and departure from some long ago abandoned logging settlement. We imagined the forest crawling with lumberjacks, sawing the wide trunks of these 2,000 year old trees in teams of two - often taking several days of full time work to get through a single trunk. We imagined the steam engine wail mixing with the tree's unspoken wail, as its' hard fought existence through forest fires, droughts, and the swirling winds of civilization were so unceremoniously terminated for the benefit of some gold rush inspired endeavor. We began to feel like the steam engine's whistle had been swirling around in this forest even though the engine itself had ceased to pull itself along the railway for over a century. Upon returning to the parked car we discovered, there actually WAS a steam engine operating, carrying tourists on daily trips through the redwoods - Roaring Camp Railroads. We had just missed the departing train, but this might be just the way to manage a one-way mountain bike shuttle trip next time we return.

Big Basin State Park

Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park

Roaring Camp Railroads