The Marmot ArrivesSupermarmot booked his flight to visit me back in November, when I was raving about the face-shot powder turns I was finding in pockets of the Tahoe backcountry. I promised him several snowstorms in the forecast ahead, so that when he did arrive, Tahoe would be entirely green-light. But in early December, no storms had come, and as Supermarmot looked out of the plane window at the barren wasteland surrounding the Reno airport, he silently cursed me to the grave.
Trying to salvage his vacation, I packed him in my Subaru at an ungodly hour of Saturday morning, poured coffee down his throat and drove him south on Highway 395. Because, you know, it’s totally snowy down south. 100%. Not a doubt.
The plan: an epic four days of backcountry adventure, including a multi-day, overnight tour and couloir conquering.
But there’s something we call the Fat Kid Syndrome that seems to manifest itself into any adventure Supermarmot and I ever aspire to together. (see trip report: "Seven Fingered Jack and... Fernwho?"). As soon as the going gets tough, we head for a restaurant.
Where's all the friggin Snow?
We didn’t have the clearest idea of which access road to take, so we guessed and bombed up as far up a dirt road as we could get… which was about a whopping 100 feet, because the Subaru high centered and we had to sheepishly back it off into a pull-out.
Like the good, fat little sheep we are, we saw footprints headed up the road, so we figured we were on the right track.
After eagerly skinning over miles of sagebrush broken infrequently by patches of snow, the road abruptly ended, giving us a glorious view of Bloody Mountain, and another road, that we apparently weren’t cool enough to be on, headed right to its base.
An hour later we were happily drowning our sorrows over our wasted day in two Safeway-rotisserie chickens, a bottle of wine and a soak in the Keough Hotsprings.
Restoring some dignityAt our campsite later that night, Supermarmot flipped through the pages of a backcountry ski book. “Eh?” he said, pointing his fat little thumb at a page. I took the book from him and read, Palisades.
The next morning we were at the trailhead at the end of Glacier Lodge road, dreaming of snow, glaciers, and couloirs. We packed three nights’ worth of stuff and ski gear, and threw our leftover food and a half-gone bottle of wine into the trailhead bear box.
As we passed the John Muir wilderness sign, I could just imagine the clueless summer backpackers who show up on a whim on a sunny Saturday morning, wanting to go experience nature. After busting their butts for miles up the trail, they’ll pass a sign saying, “YOU (yes, you) need a permit to pass yonder, or ELSE.” So they diligently walk back to their car and drive a half hour to Bishop to see about the permit, only to find out that it’s closed. In the summer, you have to put more planning into getting to sleep overnight in the woods than you do for your own retirement fund.
That’s why we wait until December, when no one’s around. Because no one else in a population of 40 million people in Cali & Nevada are stupid enough to think it’s time for touring just because it’s cold outside.
A couple of miles in, there was still no skinnable snow. Carrying a multi-day overnight pack with mountaineering gear, wine bottles, fine cheeses and a splitboard thrown on for good measure for miles isn’t on my list of favorite things to do. We crossed some backpackers on their way out and begged for some good news. “Oh yeah, there’s snow up past the seven lakes,” they said. “We were postholing like mother--.”
Grunting like a packhorse under my load, we took five breaks in as many miles before we reached Second lake. Along the way we kept ourselves entertained by asking eachother questions like, “Okay, if you could sleep with any professional extreme athlete alive, who would it be?” “What do you want to be your last meal on earth?” “If you were a jalapeño popper…”
The view made me forget about my aching back for about three seconds -- Temple Crag is one beautiful mountain. The lake was frozen solid (it would keep us up with its groaning all night). Supermarmot said, thoughtfully, “We should have just brought some ice skates.”
We set up our tent in a prime campsite you’d never have the guts to nab in the summer and started laying out the cuisine for the night… smoked salmon with dill and lemon, Irish Cheddar, cookies and Barefoot Merlot. Sunset came at 4:30, and we spent the next several hours shivering and trying to push an impossibly huge rock off of a cliff.
Skiing. Kind of.The next morning, the wind was howling. I struggled to light the stove, finally giving up and just throwing my packet of oatmeal in a pan of snow and stirring a bit. After stalling for a good hour or so, we pulled on only slightly lighter day packs and made our way toward the Glacier Trail, soon ditching the beaten path for the promising sight of continuous white stuff and postholed/skinned up to the Palisade Glacier.
“You call that a glacier?” Mr. I’m-A-Snob-From-the-North-Cascades-Where-There’s-Real-Mountains sneered. True… our Sierra “glaciers” do look kind of lame compared to the massive, lethal beasts of the north. But heck, if there’s a crack, it counts.
The U-Notch & V-Notch couloirs were just giant luge runs of ice over gaping bergshrunds (the only useful bit of information you‘ll get out of this trip report), so we pulled off the skins and fought the nasty, breakable crust down a fun couloir back to camp, where we sat around for another hour or so, shivering.
“Hotsprings?” David suggested. We heaved our packs back on and stomped our way back to the car, and drove over to the Keough Hotsprings for a final good pruning before cruising home to do things more appropriate to the conditions of the season. Like go swimming. Get an ice cream cone. Or just hibernate until it’s actually winter.