Sierra Nevada Mountains
February 15, 2017
President’s Day weekend always brings scheming and excitement for two dirtbag teachers with a rare 3 days off. We were hankering for a snow trip, so we set our sights on the Sierra Nevada. We looked at the map and pinned down the closest high country still accessible by road, and near enough to hot springs: Leavitt Meadows on the Eastern Sierra. The map showed that Leavitt Meadow and Lane Lake trailhead was not too far off HWY 365 on route 108, but we still weren’t certain of road conditions as we turned west off of HWY 365. Signs declared a military base of some kind, but the road was plowed, so we continued, crossing our fingers for a clear road to the trailhead 5 miles away. The clear road ended 4 miles in, where we parked at a self-registry kiosk and made small talk with the Nordic skiers and snow-shoers who were out for the day. Knowing we really weren’t supposed to leave our truck parked there, we left Gus Gus with some trepidation, and cold, snowy conditions.
We had a mile snowshoe until the trailhead turn-off, which we reached winded and cold. As hiker trash with honed senses for finding shelter, we quickly sniffed out a bathroom and took refuge in the overhang as the worst of the snow came down in blankets. After 20 minutes of hand rubbing and a bowl later, we braved the still falling snow and headed for the wilderness. We crossed Levitt Creek on a wooden footbridge with snow piled so high that it came inches away from reaching the hand-railing. One wrong step on the snow and we could end up in the creek 25 feet below.
As we slowly moved up the meadow, the air was crisp, cool, and supremely quiet. We followed no tracks but broke trail, and we were feeling the burn in our legs and lungs. After what seemed like half a day, we began to look for somewhere to camp. We headed back toward the river for easy access to the crisp Sierra water and found a flat spot under a patch of Douglas Firs. The trees provide extra protection from the snow, and it’s the closest we’ve come to living in a hobbit hole. The sun was setting quickly, and it was getting colder by the minute. We stocked up on water, made a warm meal of mac and cheese, and cozied up in our sleeping bags.
We laid in our bags making plans for our day hike the next day, hoping to get to Lane lake 5 miles away, when suddenly there was a loud noise of something hitting the tent, accompanied by shaking. “ANIMALS!” Trailbride yelled, sitting straight up with a start. Nope, it wasn’t animals, just snow falling off the tree branches and landing on the tent. It took another three or four times before Trailbride relaxed and remembered it was just snow, and not….ANIMALS.
The next morning we woke up to clear skies. We leisurely made mountain mocha, a concoction of instant coffee, powdered milk, and cocoa, and put on our cold boots and gear. We were headed for Lane Lake, a mere 5 miles away, excited to be only carrying day packs. Breaking trail in snowshoes makes 5 miles feel like 10 or more. We slowly moved up the valley, following nothing but the contours of the mountains and river. With the sun reflecting off the pristine powder, surrounded by wilderness and nowhere to be but in the present moment, it was hard to not take a break every fifteen minutes. We eventually made it to a lake, wiped and ready for lunch. As we sat down for a snack and took out the map, we quickly noticed we weren’t at Lane Lake, but rather its neighboring sister Roosevelt Lake.
We ate our chicken wraps with gusto, made simply with foil pouch chicken and tortillas, and they satisfied our cold, calorie-deprived bodies as we debated over whether to go a little further to Lane Lake. We decided against it, having satisfied our need for adventure for the day, and we headed back to camp, eager to read the latest High Country News we brought with us.
We made it back to camp much quicker than we thought we might, both because it was more downhill and we had already broken trail, so we had some extra daylight hours to take advantage of. With so much fresh, beautiful snow it would have been wrong not to make a snowperson. We quickly put our childhood skills to the test and began rolling a ball and looking for accessories. All those years of Chicago-land and Utah winters prepared us for this exact moment. Within 30 minutes we had created a very large, adventurous-looking snowperson, reminiscent of someone you might find hanging around the lodge in Park City.
We made dinner as the sun was setting, and quickly got into our warm tent. A few more rounds of Trailbride screaming, “ANIMALS!” and we were sound asleep in our winter wonderland. We woke the next morning, packed up camp, and headed back to what we hoped was Gus Gus, and not an empty space where Gus Gus was once parked. We followed our path back out, making much better time than when we came in. We were almost running on our snowshoes when we saw the kiosk in the distance, eager to learn of Gus Gus’ fate. Turning the corner, Cope let out a yelp of excitement and reassurance. Gus Gus was still there. As we approached the truck, it was clear that something was on the windshield. Sitting safely inside the pickup, we gladly read a stern warning from a national forest ranger about overnight parking near the military training base down the road.
Cold and a little damp, we headed toward Bridgeport, excitedly anticipating the natural hot springs that sit on public land just outside of town. We knew it would be busy on a three-day weekend, but weren’t quite prepared for the L.A. hipster crowd that trickled in just a few minutes after we began to soak our sore, chilled muscles. We shared a bowl with our new hipster friends, periodically pulling up clumps of sulfurous mud and clay from the bottom of the hot spring to rub on our tired shoulders. We sat elbow to elbow, thigh to thigh in the tightly packed tub. “Man, I’m glad no one is in here naked, like the old dude in the tub over there,” said a 20-something-year-old gal in trendy horn-rimmed glasses, immaculate make-up, and a scarf tied around her neck. She was almost certainly lamenting the fact she couldn't lug her typewriter into the tub to prove her “hipsterness.” At that comment, Cope took it as his cue to stand up, wearing nothing but his birthday suit and holding a bottle of bourbon. “Well, it’s time for us to move along.”
With talk of another winter storm on the horizon, we quickly packed into Gus Gus and headed for the quickest way back over the Sierras. Within an hour, snow was falling at an incredible rate. The roads became slicker by the minute as we climbed up the mountain. With a max speed of 25 mph, and with white knuckles in the whiteout, we crawled past cars in the ditch near Kirkwood ski resort. It was Sunday afternoon, and the forecast showed no signs of easing up. If we didn’t get over the Sierras then, we’d be stuck. Cope drove like a wild man, but vigilant and steady. After 5 hours of crazy road conditions, we reached the western slope of the mountains, and rode the valley back to our cabin in the redwoods, grateful to be alive, rejuvenated, and home.