February 5-6, 2022. Carson Pass to Winnemuca Lake & Return 6 miles, more or less
Snow camping! When I think about donning on Snowshoes, lugging a very large backpack and heading to the mountains in the winter, it thrills me. It is something that you either love or not. My husband says I’m crazy but I’m just crazy about the mountains. And the reality is, this is not for everyone. A cabin with a fire roaring and a Hot Toddy sounds like an end to a perfect winters day. To me, well, I like hiking into the mountains so I can hear nothing but the sound of my snowshoes crushing across a winter blanket of snow, or gazing over the rocky precipices and knowing that most likely, I’m the only one out here.
Many years ago, I went Snow camping on Mt Jacinto. I was with a friend who knew much more than I and set me up for success. We had all the right gear, great food and a positive attitude. We rode the Aerial Tram just outside of Palm Springs to the Mt Jac Trailhead, then headed towards the peak. My friend had all the training, map and compass ready at hand, and we ventured over fields of snow all day. We made it to the base of the mountain, set up camp and then, the snow began falling. And it never stopped snowing, all night long. When we woke in the morning, it was a Winter Wonderland with about 2-3 feet of fresh snow. We never made the peak that day. We packed up and with no physical landmarks due to the continuous blinding snow, we followed a compass bearing. A few hours later, we arrived at the Tram and survived a Southern California winter storm! It was terrifying but also exhilarating. This was my introduction to Snow Camping 101.
Fast forward some thirty years, I knew with my desire for long distant hiking, I needed to be able to handle all elements that come my way. Snow, sleet, sideways rain, and all the wonders that Mother Nature can pack. I signed up with the Sierra Club Snow-Camping Division and learned that I really was clueless when it came to camping in the snow. There is much more to it than pitching a tent, and making it through the night alive! They taught me about trenching, snow caves and igloos, about cold wells that trap freezing air away from your shelter, and building walls that help mitigate wind blowing into your little abode. There was training in gear selection, deadman’s which are not what you think but actually securing your tents or tarps, without stakes, but to sticks and string, building a community kitchen so you can share meals, conversation and libations. It was a wealth of information by seasoned instructors, that I soaked up like a sponge. I take these pearls of wisdom with me as I head out yearly and camp on a snowfield.
Last weekend, a group of friends secured a permit and we snow camped near Carson Pass along the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). The weekend weather was idealistic. Blue skies, little wind and no snow in the immediate forecast. We snowshoed’ in a mighty mile or two. Yes, you read that right, not many miles but the beautiful part of snow camping, you don’t need to walk far to find the perfect camping spot! We headed into the trees looking for some flatter spots with protection from a random wind gust. We promptly pitched our tents, dug our trenches and built walls of snow around our sites. The guys worked on building a group kitchen and sawed blocks of snow for a table including suitable bench seats for our tushies, as the gals went hiking! We headed up the ridge line to Winnemuca Lake and were a bit taken back by the lack of snow. The lake was frozen, or it appeared to be anyways. I didn’t test it out as I had no plans of cryotherapy this day! The big rock outcroppings were bare of snow and lacked the dusting that I would hope it would have for the month of February. In Northern California, we had a banner December and accumulated much snow but January came, and not a drop of precipitation. Not a single snowflake and nothing in the future forecasts. Even with the lack of deep snow, it still is truly spectacular as you gaze up the passes and marvel at the grandeur of this area.
We headed back to camp and complimented the guys on their expert carpentry skills. We all pitched in with finding wood and started a fire that kept us toasty for the next few hours. When starting fire on snow there are a few rules. Start with a base of green pine needles, something that protects the dry wood from the icy snow. Then light a match and watch it burn. This keeps the fire roaring as it slowly melts into a large deep fire pit or hole in the snow. We shared hors d’oeuvres which was dinner and drank limoncello and spiced cider with Fireball. It was a splendid evening until the sunset and the temperature dropped to 15 degrees. That’s not a typo! It was frigid. By 7pm we were all in our respective tents snuggled for a cold winters nap.
My tent-mate Natalya was new to this snow camping business but she was an old hat to cold weather. She was born and raised in Russia and life was harsh when it compares to our warm soft upbringings in United States. But she knows there is no such thing as cold weather, just poor gear. She was a great partner; sleeps soundly, moves little and doesn’t complain, however cold it may be. I, on the other hand, tossed and turned all night long, slept poorly, but was toasty warm. I love my sleeping bag, my down pants and booties, my smartwool long johns, and my audio books. When you can’t sleep, put on a book and it will lull you to bed before you know it. We were in our tent for twelve hours! Luckily, there was much to talk about, share and plan for future trips. Natalya will be one of my friends who will hike a portion or two of the Appalachian Trail this spring with me. She loves the Lord and had actually prayed that God Almighty would bring her a friend that liked to hike. Answer to prayer for both of us! We have much in common, love the great outdoors and share an adventurous spirit. God brought me a great hiking partner indeed!
The following Sunday morning, we woke up before rigor mortis set in. We had our continuous cups of coffee and boiled much snow to make more water for coffee. The fire was lit again and we huddled around to thaw out from the morning temps. The sky was cloudless making the morning colder than ever but once the sun rose, we would have a picture perfect hike out. Everyone was in good spirits and started packing up for the hike back. We collapsed our tents, filled our holes and prepared our site for others incase they stumbled upon it. There is a golden rule: leave your place better than when you found it. Fill in your holes and pack out your trash. It doesn’t get much simpler than that! Just before leaving, we prayed for safety and thanksgiving for the beautiful weather and fellowship. We accomplished our mission, spending a cold winters night in the mountains and now it was time to moved out. On the way back, we ran into a few day hikers. Some with dogs, some on skies, and many with smiles from ear to ear. It takes a special person to spend the time to prepare themselves and walk into winter! But if you ever get the opportunity to embark in such a time, embrace it. The snow covered mountains are a blessing from heaven above and truly are magical! Such a place and time as this to travel the mountains and to taste it’s beauty.
As we returned to the comforts of our homes, we asked each other, why do we do this? Some agreed that it helps them to be more aware of Gods provisions. Their homes and careers, families and friends, our cushy lives. Others like me desire to disconnect, to hear and truly see Gods glory upfront and personal, to know Him deeper and respect His creation.
As I prepare for my trek this spring, I ask God for favor. To give me faith so that I may trust in the process, knowing that this will be difficult. Yet knowing that I can do all things as long as he allows me. In the weeks to come, please pray that I stay healthy and fit. That our Lord protects me as I persevere, to be all I can be, both physically, mentally and spiritually.
2 thoughts on “Winter Camping”
I love winter camping with you – vicariously 😉😆.
I’m convinced that had my first experience back packing been with someone knowledgeable i would enjoy it today. Sadly…. On the other hand my first experience bike touring was great and so here i am today – looking forward to a summer tour in Oregon and the San Juans.All good 😊
I love your blogs. Please keep them coming ❤
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