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Living and Writing in the Natural World

Snow Caves and Crampons

Yesterday we passed into the Small Cold interval in the traditional Chinese solar calendar, which with the succeeding Great Cold interval comprise the five weeks in the heart of winter. Here in the Sacramento Valley of northern California, it’s easy to maintain the habit of being outdoors that the Taoists of China and our own John Muir so heartily recommend—we rarely deal with snow or sleet. But if you’re in Maine or a similar place, or live at 8,000 feet anywhere, the outdoor life throws you some challenges in the winter. Embrace them.

Yes, embrace the challenges of winter. To shrink from your environment is to go the wrong direction. Sure, keep yourself warm and dry and housed well, but winter sports are there for your enjoyment. Several winters ago we left the valley and spent Christmas at Wawona lodge, at 5,000 feet in the southern portion of Yosemite. In a pelting mixture of snow and sleet we snow-shoed into the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoia trees. The sight of the immense snow-covered Grizzly Giant tree, over 200 feet tall and 29 feet wide at the base, remains one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever given my kids. Yes, we got wet and cold, but it was so worth it—and we had a dry room at Wawona to return to, with hot chocolate and rummy-cube to play with the kids (who always seemed to beat mom and dad).

The year before I had driven alone to the Mariposa Grove in November, and hiked to the center of the grove at the top of the mountain on which the grove is located. Sequoias are usually fire-scarred, and sometimes the base is hollowed out by the yellow demon. As I sat on the duff on the floor of one such hollowed-out giant, snow began to gently fall outside. A Douglas squirrel chirr-chirred in the distance, all else being quiet and achingly peaceful. The fifteen minutes I sat in that tree watching the snow fall as I munched on nuts and raisins were among the best minutes I’ve ever had.

Less peaceful was our ascent of Mt. Shasta with (experienced) friends several decades ago (sans kids). We had camped at Helen Lake about 11,000 feet in the snow. We rose early the next morning (easy to do, since we had slept so poorly in the cold), put the iron-tipped crampons on our boots, and began crunching our way up the ice and snow gorge toward the 14,000 and some foot summit. My wife’s rented crampons fell apart halfway there, and I thanked the gods for the lengths of tough rawhide I always carry in my pack. I jury-rigged the crampons back together, my briefly un-gloved hands aching with the cold. Another hour of slogging—take five steps, rest; take another five steps, rest—and we had passed the hot springs where John Muir had survived being caught by a snow storm a century ago by immersing himself in the boiling waters overnight. Another hour of slogging. The top, wind-blown and incredibly cold. Quick photos, hands again aching as soon as the gloves were doffed. Then down, down, down, to our waiting chalet.

Of course, less adventuresome winter sports are available. Growing up in Oklahoma, I never went skiing as a kid, and by the time my latter two kids took up the sport with their friends, my joints were too creaky to join them on the slopes. So I read a book and drink hot rum concoctions in the chalet while the kids race down the mountain—we’re all happy.

At the extreme end of winter sports, my friends Richard and Bill cross-country ski (or, these days, telemark ski) into the high-country wilderness in the winter. Routes that would take you days or weeks on foot in the summer are accomplished in hours or days on skis. You’ve got to be physically fit and you must know what you’re doing, but amazing trips over high passes and across whole ranges of mountains are possible on skis in the winters, especially if advance planning has stashed food and wood caches before the great white blanket transformed the high country.

It should be emphasized, though, that real adventures in winter high country have very small margins of error before fatalities loom. Small margins of error exist even in summer-time trips to the high country. During the winter, that margin of error shrinks considerably. But if you know what you’re doing and are reasonably fit, the challenges can be met and the consequent enjoyment is heightened. Another friend, Anne, hiked from Mirror Lake through snow up out of Yosemite Valley years ago with adventuresome colleagues, donned snow skis at the top, and swished toward Tuolumne Meadows. An unexpected storm engulged them before they reached Tenaya Lake. They constructed snowcaves and ice structures to ride out the storm, having plentiful provisions in their packs, and having dressed in the appropriate layers (polyester-type long-sleeve t-shirt, several layers of fleece, a Gore-tex water-proof jacket and gloves). Three days later, when the spent snow storm had turned to rain and everything iced up overnight, prudence dictated a return to the valley. Though the icy surfaces challenged the skiing ability of some of the group, they made it back.

I’ll admit the one thing I really, really dislike about outings in the snow is the process of applying chains onto the tires of my vehicle. After many winters of kneeling at the side of slushy roads wrestling with chains as semi trucks roared by five feet from my head, I finally wised up and as our latest in a long line of mini-vans gave up the ghost, I bought an all-wheel drive Subaru. Ahhh. Problem solved. Thanksgiving a year ago we zipped into Yosemite Valley over snow-covered roads with ease, and spent the day hiking along Merced River making snow-men and pelting each other with snowballs. And never was dad’s enjoyment marred by the prospect of putting chains on our vehicle.

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