Buried Alive Under Three Feet of Snow… The Adventure Trek Series

The snow at Donner Summit this year hearkened back to earlier years when I spent a lot of time in the winter at Serene Lakes near the summit. California’s drought had gone, at least for this year, and deep snow had blanketed the mountains. Given that a fair amount had already melted, this late spring photo from Serene Lakes provides an idea of just how deep it had been.

 

I am trying to slip blogging in between my summer of backpacking adventures. It isn’t easy. Right now our guest bed is covered in gear as Peggy and I prepare to head out again. REI is beckoning: new hiking boots for Curt and walking poles for Peggy. I’ll post, catch up on blogs I follow, and respond to your comments between trips. Many thanks.

Today I will provide a break from my petroglyph series with another adventure trek tale, this time a cross-country ski trek. I took the photos I am featuring this May right after my trip to Carmel/Big Sur. All were taken in the area where we did a training trip for the trek.

 

This post takes us back in time to the early 1980s. A friend of mine and her family owned a cabin near Soda Springs on the crest of the Sierra Nevada Mountains near Donner Pass off of Interstate 80. The cabin was located close to a pair of small scenic lakes that Mark Twain had named Serena and Dulzura. Together, they were known as Ice Lakes. Between 1870 and 1927 they were harvested during the winter for their ice, which was then shipped to San Francisco via the nearby Central Pacific Railroad to keep things cool in an era before refrigeration.

Serene Lakes looking serene in mid-May. Much of the lake is still covered.

The development of the lakes as a resort area led real estate moguls to change the name to Serene Lakes, which isn’t surprising. Would you pay more for a home located on an ice lake or a serene lake?

I spent considerable time there in the winters. Some of the world’s deepest snow has been recorded in the region. In the winter of 1982, the cabin literally disappeared beneath a blanket of white. Getting into it involved climbing over a 20-foot embankment of snow and entering through the second story. Sometimes it would snow so hard that our vehicles would disappear overnight. We would stake them out with bamboo poles. This wasn’t so we could find them, however. It was to keep the huge snowplow with corkscrew blades from eating them for breakfast.

Imagine this Serene Lakes cabin buried under snow and you have an idea of just how deep the snow can get at Donner Summit.

Before John Slober created the Royal Gorge Cross Country Ski Area with its hundred plus miles of groomed trails next door, it was a great place for back-country wilderness skiing. We would strap on our skis at the cabin and disappear into the pristine wilderness, an absolute winter wonderland. We even tried winter camping. It’s an incredible experience but you have to be prepared for some unique challenges. The Sierras, which are friendly and forgiving in the summer, have minimal tolerance in the winter. Storms can sweep in with high winds and zero visibility. Hypothermia is always a lurking danger. Avalanches are a real possibility. There were no trails to follow, and no people. Naturally I loved it.

One of our favorite ski trips was following the Soda Springs Road, shown here, down to the American River. It was this wonderful downhill ski for several miles. The bad part came when we reached the bottom. We had to turn around and walk back up on our skis. Ski tracks can be seen in the snow.

I hiked down the road for a ways in May, remembering spring skiing in shorts and a T-shirt.

This is Red Fir country.

And Jeffrey Pine, as this pine cone attested to.

Serena Creek, still bearing Mark Twain’s name, flowed down the canyon beside Soda Springs road and cut a path through the still deep snow.

The rushing water reminded me why early season backpacking can be dangerous. This isn’t something you would cross. The metal looks like someone’s roof that had escaped.

Water from a small dam on Serena Creek was flowing over the spillway.

The lake behind the dam provided a reflection shot.

Serene Lakes provided another opportunity.

My enjoyable experience with backcountry skiing and winter camping meant that I had to create a 60-mile Cross-Country Ski Trek through the Desolation Wilderness so I could do more. If you have been following my blog, you will know that I had created the Trekking program as a fund-raiser for the American Lung Association so I could spend more time in the woods. I’d filled my summers with backpacking and bicycling but didn’t have an excuse for escaping in the winter.

My knowledge of winter camping was somewhat limited, unfortunately. I went out and bought lots of books. I also had the good sense to recruit two experts in winter camping from the National Nordic Ski Patrol, Paul and Diana Osterhues. It would be their job to provide us with training and leadership. They were very serious people. Smiling was not allowed until after we were aware of the dangers that faced us.

As part of our training we had to do an overnight trip. I volunteered the cabin as a starting point. Our group skied out about three miles through a thick fir forest with steep terrain to reach camp. We learned a lot. My first lesson was that when you fall over backwards in soft snow with a 60-pound pack on your back and long, skinny skis on your feet, it is difficult to get up. You develop instant empathy for turtles. As a kid, I had turned over a few and watched them struggle to roll over. Now it was my turn, a little Karma in action.

I also learned that heavy packs have minds of their own when it comes to negotiating downhill turns— especially if they are external frame packs, which is what I had at the time. I would zig and it would zag. Not good.  On one particularly steep, curvy hill, Paul and Diana planted themselves at the bottom to see which of us would crash. It was quite entertaining. I made it, but just barely and without grace.

Our problems were minimal in comparison to a woman on a later Alaska Ski Trek, however. She had to pee and went searching for the perfect hiding place. After selecting what she believed was a secure bush, she lowered her pants, squatted, and initiated the process. The only problem was that her skis were aimed downhill and decided to do a little skiing on their own, right down to where her friends were waiting. It was a very unique and cold way to get caught with your pants down.

Paul and Diana eventually got us to where we were supposed to camp and gave us assignments; we had to build emergency shelters to sleep in that night. Several Trekkers decided on building elaborate snow caves and a couple of guys with construction experience opted to create an igloo. I went for a trench on the theory that in a storm my objective would be to get out of the weather as quickly as possible. Although I don’t care for the analogy, my new home looked a lot like a grave. The snow shelter was seven feet long, three feet wide and four feet deep. It took me 15-minutes to complete. I topped it off with my ski poles, skis, and a ground cloth— and then got out my stove. Within 45 minutes of the time I arrived in camp, I was enjoying a hot cup of soup and hassling the folks who were making more elaborate shelters.

With the arrival of evening, we all disappeared into our various homes. Being outside in the dark and cold makes a warm down sleeping bag more attractive than an ice-cold spring in the desert. I blocked my entrance way with my backpack and shimmied into my mummy bag which was resting on an ensolite pad. After reading for about twenty minutes, I drifted off to sleep in my cozy little tomb. And it was cozy. Snow provides great insulation. Ask a Husky.

I didn’t wake up until the sun was providing a dim grey light the next morning. The first thing I noticed, besides being warm and cozy, was that my skis and ski poles were bent under what could only be a considerable amount of fresh snow. It didn’t take much imagination to picture the whole shebang falling in on top of me. It reminded me of my grave analogy. How do you put on clothes and shoes in such conditions? Carefully. Once dressed, I tentatively pushed on my door/backpack. Tentative didn’t work. So, I shoved with some of the emphasis one might use if he awakened to find himself buried alive. The pack and I emerged from under three feet of new snow. I felt like a reprieved ground-hog as I looked around and saw the bright sun beating down without a cloud in the sky.

There was no sign of anyone else. All 15 people had disappeared under the snow!

“Um, leaders,” I announced hopefully in a loud voice, “we may have a slight problem out here.” I wasn’t going to budge out of fear of falling in on top of someone.

“Mmmph, mmmph,” I heard in a muffled under-the-snow response. Then a head came bursting out of the snow about twenty feet away from my hole. Then another and another. If I’d had a foam rubber bat, I could have played whack-a-mole. Soon, everyone was accounted for and no one was hurt. We had all slept happily through the night. It was a great testimony for emergency snow shelters and great training for our ski trek.

Since I was in the area this past May, I decided to spend some more time wandering around with my camera. Following are some of the results.

Lake Van Norden, which is right next to Soda Springs, is no longer a lake. It was drained. But this year it looked like a lake to me! The mountains on the left are home to the Sugar Bowl Ski Resort.

Another photo. I liked the way the icy bank was reflected.

For those of you who like perspective shots, the Southern Pacific Railroad next to Soda Springs, provides one.

Historic Donner Summit is just a couple of miles up the road on old Highway 40— the Lincoln Highway, the first road to stretch all the way across America.

This historic photo on display at an overlook just below Donner Pass shows a car making its way over the pass circa 1929/30.

I don’t think Quivera, our small RV, would have liked the road, or fit. The backdrop is a peak bordering Donner Pass.

The Transcontinental Railroad, completed in 1869, crossed over Donner Summit before Highway 40. Snow sheds, the dark line you see, protect the railway from the heavy Sierra snows.

A historic photo of the Central Pacific Railroad, later to become the Southern Pacific.

The scenic overlook below Donner Pass, provides this view of Donner Lake. It was down at the far end that the Donner Party was caught in heavy snow in the winter of 1846-47 and resorted to cannibalism for survival. I started a couple of three-day bike treks from the park and told the Trekkers that their dinner on the first night was mystery meat stew.

Another photo taken from the same location in 1942. I wasn’t born yet but I may be in the photo. Can you spot me? The photo is my mother. She and my father were on their way back to Oregon after a quickie wedding in Reno. I’ve sometimes wondered if I was the reason for the hurried trip.

I found this plaque amusing, or make that a bit shocking. Read it through if you can and then let me know your thoughts on the last paragraph.

Not very clear, but definitely worth looking at, this photo shows wagons making their way over Donner Summit. The early pioneers were a hardy bunch!

And finally, this gorgeous bridge built in 1925 and located next to the scenic overlook, which is just off to the right.

Another view.

NEXT BLOG: I’ll return to the Three Rivers Petroglyph site and some rather slithery rock art.

 

25 comments on “Buried Alive Under Three Feet of Snow… The Adventure Trek Series

    • Finding routes to accommodate horses, wagons, trains, cars and trucks across the Sierra Nevada Mountains were challenging, Dave, and often involved drama. Keeping the roads open in winters also a major challenge. –Curt

    • Thanks! The first backpack trek I led in 1974 started from Squaw Valley, Cindy. (It may have been fairly close to you experience?) I’ll be backpacking through the Granite Chief Wilderness behind Squaw in a few weeks. (Maybe) The snow certainly reminded me of the early 80s! –Curt

  1. It has to be at least 47 years since I last saw snow like that, Curt!! Can’t believe there is actually a photo of the wagons on Donner Pass – fantastic treasure there!!

    • The photo had to be taken at the very beginning of photography, G. There was a lot written by early pioneers about the difficulties faced when crossing the country by wagon train, but few things capture them better than that photo. –Curt

  2. I don’t even know where to start! Like Sue, I laughed at (and half freaked out about) waking up and seeing everyone pop up from under the snow. I found the old photos and the history of some of those early voyages as awe-inspiring as ever (HOW did they do it – I can’t imagine). I loved the photo of your mother. And I marveled at so much of the scenery, the reflective lakes, the awesomely deep snow, the trees, etc.

    • Well thanks, Lex. 🙂 I am with you on the pioneers… a step at a time, I expect. Being buried under the snow was a one time experience for me. I suspect if I did more winter camping… Later that spring when we did our actual trek, the biggest danger was sunburn! Not that things couldn’t have changed in an instant. My winter camping in Alaska was more about the extreme cold and the wolves howling at night! It’s a beautiful are around Donner Summit— and the snow only adds to the beauty. Thanks. –Curt

  3. “..heavy packs have minds of their own..” Just a little bit 😉

    I’ve never seen Donner Pass, only heard of it.

    During my teenage years I lived in the Pacific Northwest. One night we had 9 feet of snow. Seeing these photo’s reminded me of that. Alaska had even more when I was in the USAF.

    Stuck out in this, a way to survive is to dig into the snow and let it become insulation. A little candle helps keep you warm (always used to carry one just in case).

    • Nine feet… definitely the type of snow that can make cars and houses disappear! And you are absolutely right, Ted. Snow makes excellent insulation. Thanks for commenting. –Curt

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