June 13, 1997 - We were on the final leg of a 10-day backpacking trip in the Emigrant Wilderness Area, Sierra Nevada. The weather was warm, however it was an unusually heavy snowfall that winter and to our delight, we found the lakes above 9,000 feet still mostly frozen. It was absolutely beautiful, and we only saw 2 people the entire trip.
We'd spent 3 nights at Emigrant Lake, 3 nights at Emigrant Meadow Lake and it was now time to move to Kennedy Lake before heading back home. There are 2 possible routes to take; descend the steep trail from Lost Lake, or climb up and over Big Sam and follow Kennedy Creek down to the lake. I had never climbed Big Sam before, so that swayed our decision.
We broke camp at EML by 8am and hiked cross country to High Emigrant Lake. The ground was still covered in snow which had begun melting in an endless sea of sun cups. Hiking was slow and difficult, being forced to choose between navigating around the rims of the cups or continuously hike up and down straight through them. We were both wearing hiking boots and gaiters, but they were sufficient to hike in as the snow was packed hard.
We finally reached the base of the mountain where the switchbacks begin their assault up the south side of Big Sam. This is actually an old dirt mining road that is no longer in use. With the southern exposure, the road was mostly clear of snow and it was an easy and uneventful climb to the summit. We topped out at about 10:30am.
When we reached the summit, it seemed as though the jet stream was blowing right through us. The air was crystal clear, but the winds were freezing cold and blowing 40-50 MPH. We put on every layer of clothing we had, snapped a few pictures, then headed for the descent route on the north side.
The first obstacle we encountered was the descent into a steep snow covered cirque just NW of the summit. Fortunately, it appeared more intimidating than it actually was. We found good traction in the snow and glissaded safely down the slope. The jeep road had all but disappeared under the snow, but the route leveled off and the hiking was easy for 1/2 mile or so.
The second obstacle we encountered stretched my tolerance for risk to the very limit. The dirt road had been bulldozed into the side of the mountain, which when covered in snow, presented us with a very steep snowfield to cross. To make matters worse, the snow here was completely frozen unlike the softer snow in the bowl up above. To complicate things even more, we could see that the snowfield ended in a cliff 100 feet below us...! A slip here could be fatal, and we did not have crampons, ice axes or rope with us. (This was not intended to be a technical climbing trip.)
My friend and I sat and pondered the situation for a while and finally agreed that it would be too dangerous to cross bearing the weight of our packs. However, we both felt more comfortable doing it without packs.
Our solution was to cross the snow without packs, then drag our packs behind us using our bear-bag lines. We each had a make-shift ice axe for some limited protection. (I used a stick. My friend had the ever-lovely orange poop shovel.)
I can tell you, that patch of snow was alarmingly steep and slick. I said more prayers during that brief crossing than I usually do in a year. We fortunately made it across the snowfield without incident.
Of course, when we tugged on the lines, gravity swung the packs down below us like a pendulum. We then simply pulled them back up and everything was fine. TIP: Make sure your pack is tied securely and buttoned down well.
We crossed one more snowfield in the same manner, and it was smooth sailing after that.
Lessons learned? None really. The route up and over Big Sam is a dirt road. We did not expect to encounter anything remotely steep hiking on a road. You can't possibly carry every single piece of safety equipment with you that you are not expecting to need or use. I admit, crossing the snowfield unprotected was nerve-racking. However, we both had confidence in our ability to do so safely. Had we not, we would have turned back... Would I do it again...? I already have. :-)