Monday, March 17, 2008

08March15 – Donner Summit with Ed & Eva



















It always seems odd to be getting dressed in ski clothes with the flowers blooming and the spring time morning aroma hanging in the morning mist. The bags are all packed by the door and the open cooler is patiently awaiting its payload of goodies to help us make it through the ordeal ahead. We jump in the loaded car as others are grabbing their morning papers and headed off to work – except instead of driving west into the City, we drive east towards the mountains and the rising sun.

By 11:30, the temperature has dropped 30 degrees, there is over 15 feet of snow carpeting the winter landscape, and the cold wind is buffeting us and the car as we strap on the final layers of outerwear and ski gear in preparation for heading out into the blizzard for the day. At 6,500 feet, the clouds have lowered and have completely engulfed us. Heading north from Route 80 at the Norden exit, we follow the forest service road, untracked north towards Andesite ridge. The storm continues to swirl around us but the skiing is excellent. This is always the way, here in the Sierras – the best snow always in the eye of the blizzard. The trees are loaded with a fresh blanket of snow that already was sitting on top of the precipitation from two weeks ago. Along the steeper slopes I can sense the distinct sheer layer where the new snow sits atop a sun baked crust which in turn protects a very well consolidated springtime snow pack. In the gullies the accumulation is greater, and beneath the trees where the forest floor has been protected from direct sun, things are much better held together and consistent.

We’re already right at the ridge by 2:00 but the blizzard decides to drive us back below tree line. We traverse along just below the wind line at the top of the ridge seeking out this glorious ski line back to the meadow below. Here the large trees are widely spaced, with few small branches at eye level. The surface is consistent, except for a few open areas in exposed meadows where the wind has played havoc and left its well baked ridges. Finding the way would be easier from the top of the ridge, but the wind slab and pelting snow crystals just 50 feet higher makes that way a second choice. Soon we are linking turns and long traverses down the mountainside and remembering why it is we trudge so doggedly up the hill in the first place.

Saturday morning it takes us at least ½ hour to dig our way out of the house to the parking pad above, where another 20 minutes frees the car from its overnight entombment in the fresh snow. The almost windless morning has left a sparkling crystalline coating on the unblemished slopes. After parking the car by the Ice Lakes Lodge trail head we immediately head off-trail down the county road following the drainage from Serene Lake to the American River thousands of feet below. A quick turn off the road takes us to the old bridge, now almost completely obscured by the heavy snowpack. We are breaking trail slowly but it does not matter. Its quiet in the woods this morning, not even the woodland creatures have ventured out to leave their tell-tale tracks in the snow. Once or twice we cross pine martin tracks, but otherwise the woods are silent. Within 30 minutes we rejoin the trail system having bypassed both the climb and rapid decent of the Sunnyside trail. The storm returns in stages along with segments of bright sunshine. We continue out to Moriah Point with a short tea break at the warming hut just as the grey sky explodes into a full snow fury. We continue on past the warming hut as the weather front passes and get a glorious view of White peak and the Royal Gorge before turning back. I zip the flaps and drop about 1,000 feet off the point, the smooth snowy blanket tempting me unrelentlessly to continue downhill. In the snowy recesses of the back of my mind I am thinking that with each turn down the slope I‘ll need to heave myself back up through the drifts to the ridge above, but I can’t stop. Eventually the trees close in on me and there are no more turns free without a tree pruner so I stop to catch my breath. Pulling my skins out of the pack I radio up to the rest of the group that I’ll be along shortly and they head back to the hut to wait for me out of the storm.

Sunday breaks cold and clear with air temperatures in the mid-20’s. We follow the route of the old Sterling Canyon trail, breaking trail up the steep mountain slope. The views and at each turn are astounding as we gain elevation. We stick to the tress to avoid the biting wind which is building in from the southwest. I wonder why the resort has abandoned this trail in favor of other more benign routes. Perhaps it was harder to groom, or perhaps it is just like all the others, but in route finding on our own, and making smaller more considered turns closely following the bends and folds of the terrain it feels more intimate. We cross the main trail briefly, then continue up the ridge to Lola’s lookout. Now the wind has built to a furious roar and we carefully pick a route protected now from the north. The accumulation and drifting of snow on the ridge show a testament to the regular scouring by the relentless wind. The volcanic outcroppings along the ridge are brutally cracked and shattered by eons of abuse by the water and wind. None-the-less, we continue upwards drawn by the blue patches in the sky and the dramatic scenery. Now, on the ridge we are no longer protected and mercilessly the winds saps our heat. Still we trudge upwards. Occasionally stopping because the wind is preventing any more forward motion. At one point Edgar is blown off his footing and lands in a drift. Eva ducks and huddles, back to the wind, not knowing how to move forward. We make a quick decision and duck back into the trees on the leeward side of the slope and are almost immediately relieved of the wind’s strain. Hoods down we can converse again without yelling. Taking a quick survey of the terrain, we pick a good line and descend back down the mountainside through the open meadows and widely spaced trees. The snow is good here, light and consistent. In only a few minutes we are back on the lower trail and duck into another nearby warming hut for lunch.

Sadly after lunch we point our skis downhill and by 2:00 are back art the car, unstrapping packs, mittens, and gear like western gun slingers entering a saloon. By dinner we are back in the land of blooming trees and lush green hillsides. Again, it seems odd to be shuttling loads up the flower lined staircase to the house wearing mud encrusted crusted boots from the mountains. I empty my pockets onto the dresser with the detris of a weekend out – half finished bags of M&Ms, crumpled maps, loose peanut crumbs, and occasional small bits of woodland vegetation, having hitchhiked in the folds of my coat and cuffs of my pants.

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