The Context: Learning to Wake Up Earlier and Get on the Road
THE MOVIE: The Half-Asians Climb the Sierras
So Andrew and I (and for an explanation of the title, we are both half-Chinese), went to sleep with our alarms set for early morning... very early morning. We, or Andrew in this case, learned that alpine starts generally meant starting early, before sunrise. For him, an early morning start, apparently includes a long shower and preening in the mirror, and it was that very thing that got us started too late to make a successful summit bid on Mt. Rose two days earlier. So I made sure I put my alarm on full blast, soon to wake up to the sonorous tones of my Pearl Jam ringtone. So around 4 am, I dragged Andrew up, and the two of us, tired, but excited threw our packs into the car and drove off into the early morning fog surrounding Reno and nearby Washoe Valley. Getting to Tahoe was quiet, granted we were driving on Interstate 50, the "loneliest highway in America," but it just made getting to our destination a lot easier. Through the dense morning fog, we finally began to see the lake, popping in and out from the grey curtain that shrouded seemingly everything, but as dawn approached, the fog slowly began to burn off, and things became a bit less eerie. We enjoyed a little irony passing through Heavenly Village, watching people emerge from their comfortable hotels with their skis--all we had was a little tent.
The Arrival... and the First Problem
One of the main access points to the base of Freel Peak is a one-lane road off Oneidas St., a suburban road in South Lake Tahoe. Getting to the end of the road was not problem, but once we got to the one-lane access road, we hit our first snag. The local ranger service closed off the road, apparently what happens after the first heavy snowfall there, and the area became a snowmobile heaven. Tread tracks crisscrossed the snow everywhere. So we decided to ditch the car, and parked it next to a burnt out snowmobile, which we affectionately dubbed the "ghetto snowmobile." We were not relishing this new complication, since it added an extra two and a half miles up a seemingly endless incline, slowly ascending the passes between the mountains... and did I mention we were hauling 50 pound packs, too? Great for our chiropractic health. But the day ended up being perfectly clear, so we were rewarded for our increasing elevations gains with more views back towards Lake Tahoe. But, eventually, after a lot of wasted time just getting to the trailhead, we finally reached the armstrong pass trail, and within an hour and a half, we arrived at the base of the mountain that would lead us to the summit ridge. The only problem? There was still another 2500 ft. to ascend up a 55º-60º mountainside. Of course, there was not real trail to see. We had been reliant on the snowmobile tracks for an easy guide towards out destination, but the next section of the climb required entering territory the snowmobiles obviously could not go. And, of course, none of the trails were visible considering everything around us was covered in about 3-3 1/2 ft. of powder. So left to our own devices, we decided to do our own routefinding, a decision which led us straight up towards the summit ridge--a decision that our quads would despise us for...
Ascending, Lacking of Time, and Making Camp (at high altitude)
Ascending was an interesting business. the pitch of side of the mountain got increasingly steep, forcing us to scramble on occasions in the deep snow. We didn't anticipate anything technical, so we had no ice axes or crampons... just snowshoes and trekking poles. At some points, the grade became too steep to continue straight up the mountain, so we had to traverse to find a new path to ascend, costing us valuable time. however, the more we made our way way north along the mountainside, the longer the ascent was, since moving in that direction put us closer to the summit and increasing the distance we had to climb to reach the summit ridge. Climbing this grade for hours felt like an old Hanna-Barbara cartoon, in which the background keeps getting recycled. The trees around us looked the same, so we, only half jokingly, worried that we were on some sort of incline outdoor treadmill, not making any progress up the mountain. Finally, the trees began to shrink until they were tiny, sinewy shrubs, and we finally had an affirmation that we were approaching the summit ridge. I suddenly became one-track-minded. I pushed out ahead of Andrew until the grade finally began to shrink, and I found myself standing on the summit ridge, 10,500 ft. in the air and a little less than a half of a mile to the summit. But now we realized our second snag: the extra two and a half miles on the approach and climbing in 3 1.2 ft powder with 50 lbs. packs cost us valuable time. We originally intended to make the summit and descend to Star Lake on the opposite side to make camp. All these setbacks, however, forced us to make camp on the summit ridge. So we found a place nestled within a patch of relatively densely packed shrubs (dense for that altitude, anyways), with a convenient opening on one end to put up the tent. As the sun began to set, we made camp, taking in the 60-mile view into the California Sierra Nevadas. Clambering into the tent for dinner, we soon got a surprise, a storm that rolled in over the mountain. Andrew and I spent the night listening to 60-65+ mph winds rush up and over to summit ridge, slamming our tent wal each time. We tried building a snow wall around the tent, but the snow was too loose and powdery to be of much help.
Summit Day... Without a View
We woke up that morning to find that the storm was still hanging over the top of the mountain, so we decided to move out, still set on making the summit. Our boots, which we had left outside had filled with snow from the storm... perfect. After an hour of packing up, we re-equipped and began our final push to the summit. The winds became even more fierce, and we watched the loose snow blow over the summit ridge like water. The incredible 60-mile view we had the previous day was non-existent. Visibility had been reduced to about an eighth of a mile. We could still see the sun behind the clouds, a silvery disk behind clouds we could actively watch whizzing by. Crossing the saddles became a little dicey, as the winds got more intense there and we occasionally had to dig in against the wind. We toyed with the idea of possibly trying to find a route just over the leeward side of the mountain, but drop on that side was very steep, in some place closer to vertical for the initial few feet on that side of the mountain. But finally we reached the base of the the giant rock pile that sat atop the summit. We dared not climb it in those crazy conditions, since it would require dropping our gear at the base and climbing up the rocks, which were intimidatingly large, especially when looking at them in a storm. But we made it: 10,881 ft. We decided to take out our cameras and document a little bit to bring some footage home, and with a little hope that the storm might begin to move off and let us raging the view and climb the rocks. No such chance. After mulling around the rocks for a little bit, we decided to retrace our steps across the summit ridge and descend beck to the clearing where the snowmobile tracks ended. And, as you can imagine, descending a 60º slope ends up being more like an adventure in learning how not to fal flat on your face into deep snow. But after an pretty speedy descent, we made it back to Armstrong Pass Trail. We looked back, and we were in disbelief. It was sunny again (but still a bit windy), at least where Andrew and I stood at that moment. The summit of Freel Peak still had clouds around it, but they were blowing off like steam from a boiling pot--with the same speed we watched them fly by us when we were back at the summit.
We finally retraced our path back along the trail, along the closed-off access road until we found Andrew's car, just as we left it, sitting right next to the Ghetto Snowmobile. After two days of long climbing in a storm, we were ready for a couch to rest on, a shower to warm up in, and adequate shelter to be lazy inside.