Saturday, March 15, 2008

Winter Crossing of the Sierra

On March 8th, Wendell Doman and I set off from Squaw Valley to cross the Sierra on snowshoes. We were going to follow the Western States Trail to Robinson Flat and then head to China Wall where Sara Spelt and Aaron would meet us. It was there on the Foresthill-Auburn Road that the snow-plows stopped their plowing. It would be almost 40 miles of snowshoeing and take us over 17 hours.

Not many have crossed the Sierra in winter - only a few in the 20th and 21st centuries. People often think of the Donner Party debacle in 1846, which took place in fall, not winter. Still, if you’re well prepared, in good shape, and know what you’re doing, it can be an enjoyable, safe, and memorable trip. It was for us.

We arrived in Squaw Valley around 4:30 am on Saturday, March 8th, and prepared our gear. After I filled my bottle at Plumpjack, we headed to the bottom of the ski-lift and started our ascent for Emigrant Pass at 5:18 am. Even though the first four miles were straight up the mountain, an elevation gain of 2,550 feet to 8,750 feet, it wasn’t that difficult since we followed the well-groomed service slope. It started out dark, but by the time we reached the pass the early morning light had cracked the black sky. Lake Tahoe lay below decked out in grays and blues. The weather seemed like it would be quite fine during the day (it would reach a high of 50 or so), but at the pass the strong wind made it very cold. We looked over the pass and saw the snow covered mountains in the distance. It looked daunting and inviting. It promised a whole lot of fun.

We descended the steep slope, heading right toward the saddle where we would join the Lyon Range. It was here that the angled slope would torque our ankles continuously for the next few hours. It tripped over my snowshoes a few times in this section, but other the frustration, it was rather soft falling in the snow. It just took a lot of effort to get up in soft snow.

One of the truly comforting aspects of our trip was that I didn’t really have to consider directions or know where I was going much. I simply followed Wendell’s tracks. He has done the crossing twice before and is a stellar orienteer. Even when I lost a sense of how we were getting from Lyon Ridge over to the Red Star Ridge, I knew Wendell did. We stayed fairly close to the Western States Trail, but often we struck through trees and I lost sight of Wendell. Still I could simply follow his tracks. It was peaceful, quiet, and still. The snow was only broken by rabbit or deer tracks.

Having been out in these mountains in summer it was a real treat to see them in winter. Especially memorable was when we approached Cougar Rock, a distinctive Western States 100 landmark. The pictures below show me ascending it. That last ledge was quite an effort. It’s the one area that’s harder in winter than during the race. And later we headed up Elephant’s Trunk, which was probably the steepest and longest soft-snow ascent of the entire trip.

Another treat was getting five bars of reception on our cell phones from Cougar Rock and eventually Robinson Flat. I was able to call Sarah and Pete to tell them where I was. It’s good to share, after all.

We reached Robinson Flat at about 5:00 pm. From here it’s a 14 mile haul down a snow-covered paved road. Snow-mobiles and back-country skiers had been down the road in the last few days. So we set out, still not seeing anyone in the next five-plus hours. I especially enjoyed walking in the dark of the night, looking at the bright stars fill the sky. On the hill-rises you could also see the bright lights of the Sacramento.

As much as I enjoyed myself the whole trip, I was so glad to see Sarah and Aaron – and the car. I needed to get out of my snowshoes and sit down for a bit. The last few miles down the long road I thought about how lucky I had been that day to have such an adventure with such fine weather. Thanks to Wendell for leading it, and taking all the pictures posted here.


Tracy J. said...

Oy!! How excellent is that, you look just as you did 20 years ago on our Dewey Pt. trips, though probably fitter and faster now! Tracy

James said...


i'm jealous! what an adventure. i've only gone a few mile on snow shoes but now you have me considering crossing the olympics in the winter!

have fun and i hope diablo went well this weekend, what a great place ti run!