“Can you believe we're starting our adventure before its dark,” I said enthusiastically as we loaded the sled in the back of the Tacoma.
“We will see about that”, replied Joe, staring at the dark sky streaming overhead.
Thick clouds of powdery snow lightly fell through the air pushed by the 15 mile per hour southwest wind. Four feet of fresh snow with a week of sub-zero temperatures had transformed the Sierra into a true winter wonderland. We are off to a magical, hidden backcountry cabin. Deep in the woods, stocked with wood, dartboard (no darts), benches, a broom, two kerosene lanterns and a shovel.
Once every decade or so, snow conditions in the Sierra “go off”.
“I've been waiting four years for winter”, Joe chuckled as we drew up our plan, which was simple: meet at my house, load the sled, throw gear in truck and go to the cabin.
We'd been on enough adventures with each other that the fine trip details become meaningless. We crave change and flexibility. In fact, this is a necessity and one of many reasons why we adventure well together. By 4 pm, sixty pounds of gear and two humans were loaded on the 2008 Ski-Doo, charged for adventure.
The settled snow was absurdly deep and lighter than a momma duck’s down feathers. We navigated the thick, snow-covered forest, carefully choosing our route not to get off course or get lost. With a ridiculous amount of gear and Joe riding cockpit (over the gas tank), I found this super challenging and really fun. This caution was mixed with the speed factor that helps with the other objective--don’t bury the sled. It’s like riding on water, if you throttle down, you’re going to get stuck. Forty minutes later, after a slurry of powdery face shots and a few minor miscalculations, we located the cabin.
There was over ten feet of snow disguised it as part of the landscape. It was no more than just another roller of powder amongst this magical forest. We dug steps down to the base of the front door and opened the entrance to our familiar winter home. It was just how we had remembered. The particle board floor is heavily eaten by the local rodents exposing the loosely spaced 4×12 floor joists. The walls are old 1x12 boards and the ceiling is lightly boarded then opens to a green corrugated roof. The cabin lacks insulation but is mostly sealed except for the woodpecker holes in the walls. Warped boards also create voids allowing a glimpse of the world outside. It’s nestled in a long valley with a four-leaf clover configuration of bowls above and below it. Joe described the playground as, “bowls, which are connected through bottlenecking tight sections that are waterfalls in the summer and pillow lines and natural doubles in the winter.
The wind had sculpted the bowls into large natural waves of buttery “pow”; it is snow-surfing heaven!”
We dropped our gear inside and immediately returned to the winter wonderland to build our playground. Snowmobile-powered shuttle runs quickly let us find our favorite sections of the mountain. A series of pathways were packed down around the edges of the bowls. We stopped the machine slightly before dark. We had made the perfect mini-shred as froth levels hit an extreme high. This place was perfect; the snow was perfect--totally worth the four-year wait for winter.
We laughed our way down runs all night, hiking our boot packed trails over and over again. We traded off with the “War Pig” (an epic, stubby, powder board made by Ride) and the hand-crafted snow surfer (a chopped and reshaped tail from an old broken board with asphalt shingles glued to the top sheet for added grip; There are no bindings.) Every run revealed a new valley, ditch, or drop that had been sculpted into a powder point-break style wave. It was an epic, powdery evening.
The snow continued to fall lightly into the night. Perfect snowflakes drifted around casually in the completely still air. A raging fire was quickly stoked inside the cabin with aggressive amounts of kindling. Raviolis boiled on the top of the woodstove in our Stanley Adventure All-In-One Boil + Brew French Press.
Side note: If you have the Stanley Boil + Brew French Press, water can first be boiled, then pasta is placed inside the press. Boil. Pull the press and it becomes a strainer. The line between the last bite of ravioli and first moments of sleep blurred. The cold air was kept at bay by the warm fire. When the door opened in the morning, a deep wave of absurdly light powder spilled into the cabin.
Chocolate muesli, shuttle runs, and plenty of fresh pressed coffee filled the snowy day. Temperatures stayed in the low twenties, and the winter land continued to evolve in spectacular fashion. The wind was up as was the rate of snow accumulation. As we were consumed with fun, the small window of time to leave the cabin began to fade. Our adventure was originally planned for one night; conditions decided a different course.
The pasta sauce which we had been too tired to warm up for the ravioli the night before, made incredible tomato soup. Wrapped in tinfoil, we toasted one of the three sandwiches inside the stove. Our remaining food supplies consisted of a serving of muesli, an apple, and those two remaining sandwiches. It was easily one of the best soup/sandwich combos we had ever enjoyed. A roaring fire crackled as hundred mile per hour wind gusts blew throughout the night.
When the cabin door was opened the next morning, a chest-deep tsunami of light powder exploded into the middle of the 15’ x 15’ cabin. It was unreal how much snow had fallen. We swam out of the toasty, buried cabin and began hiking our favorite features under a bluebird sky. Whappa!
Leaving was a distant priority that ate at our minds like the hunger in our stomachs. The sled had issues starting the night before and as much fun as we were having, we needed to shift gears. The icy blast had absolutely plastered the world in brilliant white. The snowmobile had not been spared this plastering. Temperatures were sitting in single digits since the night. The blue sky had been there long enough to keep the temperatures low and now the clouds with fresh snow had moved in. Once again, the snowmobile did not start. We poured our last grinds of coffee into the Stanley French press as we gathered our thoughts and warmed our hands.
We consulted with our planned emergency contact, Joe’s Dad and Google. The consensus was that the snowmobile was frozen and the spark plug wires were shot. The stove in the cabin has a lower oven, which is powered with a separate stoking box. We filled the metal box with kindling, logs and hot embers, and then placed it underneath the snowmobile exhaust. The theory was to warm the sled, thaw out the inners and hopefully break the big ice-cube lose. The heavy two-cylinder motor was pulled relentlessly. Joe massaged the cables in an effort to get some friction going. They were so frozen and stiff that they needed to be manually pulled back and forth from within the engine bay. He then packed every metal orifice with boiling hot water bottles. She still would not start.
Down to one sandwich and after four hours of sled doctoring, the call was made; it was time to walk out of there. The frozen, dead sled would become a problem for tomorrow and the task of swimming out through the eight feet of fresh powder became our next focus. All right here we go: one last frantic, desperate pull of the rope, and unexpectedly the beast came to life. She was alive, but not happy, and in this snow, the lack of top-end with no power-band would mean constantly getting stuck.
Test laps around the canyons of the cabin confirmed this very quickly. As we dug an 8X20X6 foot deep hole to get the crippled, stuck machine out, we discussed our options in the -10 degree air and fading light.
“It seemed like it was running better?”
“Not really, but not worse, I guess.”
“I mean, I guess it’s okay . . .at least it's okay for one person.”
This was our discussion as we gathered what thoughts we had to come up with the best plan.
Off into a whirling snowstorm and into the twilight, I fought with the beast through the relentlessly deep pow. The sled was completely out of control, revving beyond comfort but now top end. I’d chock it to settle down the RPM’s but this became a fine line to not kill it and become buried. I ventured off course at one point, picking my way through tight trees, unable to stop but also unclear of my location.
Eventually, I found the route and managing to get stuck only twice, made it back to the truck. I dug out the buried Tacoma, loaded the broken sled and grabbed new batteries for the headlamp. It was roughly 8PM, super cold and pitch black dark. Joe’s batteries had died in his headlamp so his return was dependent on following my track. I immediately began the hike back to return for Joe.
Joe’s experience (swim) was a bit more action packed than mine. Here is his version after we separated.
“Jayson disappeared with a sled full of gear. The powder, wind and snow dampened all sound as the roar of his snowmobile faded away nearly instantly. It was beautifully quiet. I began the three-mile snow swim immediately after he left. I would follow the track as fast and as light as possible. “Don't get off the track”--a great plan.
Travel in the snow was absurdly difficult, even in the track of the sled. The drifting at the top of the canyon was incredibly deep. The initial climb out of the valley was through seemingly bottomless snow drifts. The darkness continued to creep in and the snow was relentless. I started talking to myself, “Wow this is going to be a long walk--I guess it's more of a swim; just keep swimming, plowing through the snow and the freezing temperatures will not be an issue. Stop and the wet sweaty snow clothes will quickly freeze”. Stopping was literally not an option. This feeling, where you have already fully committed, feels so good; there is one option--keep going--keep going to stay alive.
At the crest of the ridge the sunset suddenly became visible lighting up the clouds purple and orange in spectacular strokes. The moon popped out from a clear portion of the sky. A downhill run of knee boarding and penguin sliding on the snowboard covered more ground than the previous hour of labor. I was feeling good... and wet. The downhill run became flat; the pace quickly returned back to a crawl and my mittens were one solid ice chunk.
It was time for a vital break. I pushed hard, striped off the Backcountry polypropylene base layer, shirt, and jacket all the way to bare skin. The heat from one’s body combined with the sudden cooling of the fabric, freezes out the moisture. Get everything back on, now I'm shaking (this is expected), get those hands warm put them on your tummy. The burning was welcomed as my icy claw hands came to life. The cold digits tickling my stomach made me giggle. I put on my spare mittens and resumed. Step forward--oh, the snow doesn't hold, it breaks free down to my waist. I get leverage, push forward using my snowboard to swim and lift the next leg out of the hole. One step at a time.
A mile and a half into the three-mile hike, a friendly light erupted out of the darkness. Jayson had made it back. We both sat back in the snow for our fist break since we had left earlier. Jay pulled out a half a frozen tri-tip sandwich we got at on our way up at Smithneck Farms. It’s his parent’s delicious café in Sierraville. We cut it clean in half with a cold steel blade. Frozen, smoked tri-tip had never tasted so great.
The pace picked up substantially as we followed his hard fought boot tracks. We started laughing and joking: “Seems like an adventure you could bonk on,” Jay chuckles. “Yeah, lucky my friends don't bonk,” I responded. “Yeah or fall,” he volleys back. We both crack up while breathing hard under the strain of our new quickened pace.”