I have a pretty terrible track record on snow camping trips. Before this weekend’s trip my record was 0 for 2.
My first attempt was with a few friends at an area called Meiss Meadow. We dug out snow trenches to sleep in, which we covered with tarps and laid down a blanket of snow on top for insulation. A couple of us had wet boots with no way to dry them out, and we couldn’t get a fire going to dry off. Luckily it was almost a full moon that night, so we ended up being able to hike out, and actually made it down to Jackson Rancheria early enough to hit their buffet. I remember it was eerily quiet, and the moonlight reflected off the snow bathing the whole scene in a cool, soft white glow. It was quite beautiful. I remember the buffet afterwards. It was quite beautiful as well.
The second time was near Carson Pass, hiking to a place called Winnemucca Lake. There were five guys total that time, but only me and James attempted to sleep in the snow cave. We found a snow bank that was deep enough to just dig directly into and spent a couple of hours digging out an awesome snow cave, complete with two raised beds and a cold well. We got into our sleeping bags and found that we were cold. Because we had gotten sweaty from digging out the snow cave, our clothes were damp, which made it hard for us to get warm.
Not too long after we crawled into our cave I had to go to the bathroom. As I took a leak all the warmth left my body and I started shivering uncontrollably. I knew I probably wouldn’t make it in the cave, so we ended up joining the rest of the guys in a tent. We spent the night as five guys in a three man tent, lying head to toe. There wasn’t enough space for all five of us to lay flat. I was between James and Dan. When they laid flat, I laid on my side, and when one of them rolled onto their side, I rolled onto my back for a while. I don’t think any of us really slept much that night, but we made it through the night, packed out and headed for that buffet in Jackson. Ah that beautiful life giving buffet. It was a beautiful sight again.
Third time is the charm right? So I knew by now that the key to staying warm is to stay dry. So this time around I made sure to pack an entire extra set of clothes to switch into before crawling into my sleeping bag. For this snow trip, in addition to some of the people I usually backpack with, I invited a couple of old coworkers from CalPERS, Dennis and Mary. I was very glad to have them around. Dennis had slept in snow caves before, so I followed his instructions in building my snow cave. The snow wasn’t very deep, so he told me to pile up snow into a large mound, which I would then dig down and into to create my cave. Given my track record in the snow, at times I wondered if this snow cave I was digging was actually going to be my snow grave.
The finished result was something that looked kind of like an igloo. I could tell that the insulation was pretty good– when I crawled inside it was eerily quiet. The walls of the cave completely blocked out any outside noise and prevented any wind from coming in. It was looking good so far. I laid down a tarp and sleeping pad, and set my sleeping bags inside for later. Digging the cave had made me hungry, so it was time to prep dinner.
Mashed potatoes, chicken and corn. Yummy. After dinner we made a fire using a fire log that Dennis had hauled in (no wonder his pack was so heavy). That fire made a huge difference, partially for warmth, but more as a morale booster for me. I still had some doubts about being able to spend the night in the snow cave, but the fire helped ease my mind a bit. If anything it extended the evening so that I didn’t have to crawl into the cave as soon as it got dark (which would’ve been like at 6pm).
I think it was around 9pm when I finally crawled into my cave to attempt to sleep. It was pretty cozy in there, wider than my body by maybe 6-8 inches in each direction, longer than my body by about a foot in each direction, and just tall enough for me to sit up. 9 o’clock is pretty early, but I was pretty tired from all the driving, snowshoeing and digging. That and I had a bit of wine which made me feel sleepy. Dennis had given me a heat pack which I kept at my feet and kept my toes nice and toasty. I was relatively comfortable sleeping in the cave, I only wished I had brought another sleeping pad. The part of my body that was on the ground was getting a bit cold, the insulation of my thin egg carton sleeping pad wasn’t enough to insulate from the cold snow, but it wasn’t so cold that I couldn’t sleep.
During the night I had this weird sensation that I had extra padding at my feet. But my feet were still warm with the chemical heat pack, so I shrugged it off and went back to sleep. Just before dawn I had to get up because I needed to take a leak really badly. It was still dark so I turned on my headlamp to check the time. 5:45 am. I made it through the night. I looked out at the entrance to my cave and realized what the extra padding at my feet was. It had snowed pretty heavily last night and snow had entered the cave. I made the rookie mistake of leaving my boots at the entrance to the cave, they were now completely filled. I decided that I would try to hold my bladder and wait until the sun came up to deal with this situation.
About an hour was all I could hold. Thankfully by then there started to be a little bit of light out. I emptied the snow from my boots as best as I could, dropped a toe warmer in each boot, and put my boots on as fast as I could and rushed outside. By then my bladder was basically about to explode, so I only made it about three feet outside of my cave. So as I made yellow snow I suddenly realized, “Ahh crap! My gear!” Some of it was buried underneath the snow, possibly right where I was taking a leak. Thankfully I missed, although not by much. My poles were maybe a foot away from that yellow patch of snow.
Nobody else was up yet, so I ended up walking around a bit to warm up. Not too long afterwards everyone started to get up. It was still snowing out so we made the decision to skip breakfast, pack up quickly, and try to hit the brunch buffet in Jackson. With a snow cave I didn’t have a tent to pack up, so I helped Dan pack up his tent. Snowshoeing out in the fresh snow was pretty tiring. Dennis and I took turns blazing the trail through the fresh snow and we ended up getting to the car pretty quickly. When we got to the car we found that the cars were snowed in, and it looks like we would have to do a lot of shoveling to get them out. Right then I looked out at the highway and saw the CHP snow plow. I hurried out to the highway and flagged down the driver. He came in and plowed out the road for us. That snow plow saved us. Otherwise we would’ve had to shovel out a few hundred feet worth of parking area to get our cars out. With the parking lot plowed, we only had to shovel a few feet.
At this point I thought the adventure was pretty much over, but it turned out that the drive back was an adventure all on its own. First off, Raymond was driving a minivan without chains. That’s crazy. Even with my all wheel drive Subaru I ended up slipping and very nearly crashing into a parked CHP SUV.
When I saw the parked CHP car I hit the brakes. I felt the feedback in my brake pedals from the ABS engaging, and my car started to slide over to the right. There was nothing I could do, none of the steering inputs were working and there was no traction at the wheels, so my car slowly slid into the embankment of snow on the right side maybe 10 feet behind the CHP. Luckily I hit the snow slow enough that there wasn’t any damage to my car. When the CHP moved out of the way, luckily there was enough traction with the AWD that I was able to pull away without any help.
Thankfully we all made it to the Jackson buffet in one piece. When we got there we found out that Raymond’s minivan had apparently spun out. Luckily they didn’t hit anything. In retrospect when I think about the weekend, I realize we were lucky in so many ways. But at that point all I could think about was stuffing my face at the buffet. That beautiful buffet again.
The rest of the pics I took are here-
2011-01-29-30 – Silver Lake Snow Backpacking