This was the last backpacking trip I did in 2014. I know I'm a bit late on posting it but school gets in the way of such things so why don't we begin..
In 2013 my friend and I decided to go out and do a New Years trip. We hiked into Desolation Wilderness up to Lake Aloha and spent a beautiful New Years there and celebrated 2014. In 2014 he convinced me to do Christmas instead of New Years so this trip was born. As the date was approaching I kept a watchful eye on the weather. It just so happened that Christmas Eve the Sierra got a nice little storm which made this trip even more special. But, little did we know starting out on the trail just how beautiful and cold it was going to be.
Day 1- Mammoth Ski Resort to Just Past the Minaret Vista Station
I woke up quite early in the morning and was greeted by a nice coating of snow on my Jeep and driveway in Tahoe. It was Christmas Day and the setting couldn't have been more proper! I set out to Mammoth to pick up my friend at the airport. His flight came in around 10 am, which was a bit late but it would do. We made our way into Mammoth where we picked up the snowshoes he was renting. After that little detour we finally made it up to Mammoth Mountain Ski Resort. What a glorious sight it was. The clouds were still swirling around the mountain and flakes were still falling! After getting all of our gear together we decided we might as well have a good lunch so we treated ourselves to a delicious meal at the Yoddler. I certainly enjoyed that along with the Hot Apple Pie beverage I got there. It was close to 3 PM when we finally started out on the trail, which needless to say was very late. This meant we had very little daylight to work with and the last thing I wanted to do was to set up a tent in the dark when it was severely cold. Speaking of the cold.. It was around 20 when we left the Ski area and flakes were still falling. I knew it was going to be a cold night, but I had no idea what it would actually feel like. We made good time up the smooth road up to the Minaret Vista Station. It was funny to think that I had driven up that road just 7 months prior in early June to do a 4 day trip. Now it was blanketed with a good deal of snow and there wasn't another person around. Light was fading fast so we turned up the San Joaquin ridge and followed the snowed over Jeep road that was covered with snow mobile tracks. This made for very easy travel. Soon I found a spot where we could pitch our tent and be fairly sheltered from any winds over the ridge. The forecast called for good winds and I knew that being on the ridge top itself wasn't going to be a pleasant experience. After setting up the tent we went up the ridge a bit to take some photos of the sun setting behind the Minarets. Wow.. what a view and what brilliant golden light. I will never forget that experience. It was frightfully cold up there. By my estimation without wind chill it was close to 7 or so and with wind chill I'm sure it was around -10. It was so cold the shutter on my camera was very slow and hardly could take photos! We quickly got out of there and started to make dinner. The wind was howling and my little jet boil was working hard. We used various things to protect the stove from the wind. We were cooking in my vestibule with ourselves stuffed into our sleeping bags. My friend ordered me a new North Face sleeping bag which I was trying out for the first time. It was rated to 0 degrees and this would surely be testing it's value! I also had a new Thermarest All Season pad which I hoped to keep all that cold away from me. Both were doing their job as we cooked dinner. After what seemed like forever we boiled the water enough to drop in our mashed potatoes and turkey meal. I figured since it was Christmas might as well cook something that I would eat on Christmas. I even brought Cranberry sauce but that turned into a frozen blob! Speaking of frozen.. The cold was coming on strong which meant everything was freezing, including my poor Nalgene. I kept trying to warm it up the best I could but nothing would stop the instantaneous freeze! It got to be such a burden that I resorted to drinking my Cinnamon Honey Whiskey that I brought along. At least that wouldn't be freezing anytime soon! When we finally finished cooking dinner and eating it the temperature read a balmy 8 degrees. At least we were protected from the wind. And it was howling outside close to 30-45 MPH. If you're following along that's a wind chill of -12 or so. We finally set in for the long cold night and knew that it would be almost a full 12 hours before we'd lumber out of the tent.
Day 2- Explorations of San Joaquin Ridge
The plan today was to summit San Joaquin Mountain. But when we woke up around 7 or so it was far too cold to even think about getting out of the tent. I believe the thermometer registered around 7 or so and I knew that the plans of summiting might not come to be. After waiting at least another hour or so for it to warm up we finally got out of the tent and I built a small alcove for my Jet boil so that it was sheltered from the wind. We had a warm breakfast of oatmeal and were soon on our way. The sun was out and shining brightly making for a blue bird day. The wind was sporadic but once we gained the ridge proper there was no shelter to be found and its full force was upon us. We ambled around for the entire morning and early afternoon along the ridge and made it around Deadman Pass itself. At that point on the ridge the winds were the strongest and I’m fairly certain we were in -20 - -30 wind chills! I was using a new down jacket that was designed for the summer but I also brought along a thick winter jacket that did its job well. On occasion I’d feel a nip of cold though and knew that this was some very serious cold we were facing. We saw a few people that day and quite a few snow mobiles racing around the ridge. The views were absolutely surreal all day staring into the Ansel Adams Wilderness with the Minarets and Ritter and Banner guarding the landscape. On the other side the spine of the Sierra was visible for miles with is snow clad monarchs rising up into the heavens. It was a sight to remember. Mid afternoon we pushed back to our campsite and began the always fun process of boiling snow for water. This time I dug an actual hole right in the vestibule area where I dropped my stove into. Now it was fully protected from the wind which was howling again. My poor little stove was struggling as the temperature began to plummet. The Jet Boil I use is an upright canister and I’m definitely going to get an inverted canister for when it turns this cold. Although it did fine and never stopped heating my water the added benefit of an inverted canister is the peace of mind I could use in these temperatures. It was around 7 PM or so when the thermometer reached its lowest of around 4 degrees! That was the single coldest temperature I've ever been outside in and with wind chill it was likely around -25 or lower. And for the Sierra this was exceptionally cold. No doubt if we were on the ridge it would have been far worse and utterly miserable. Dinner was eaten and whiskey was drank as the water froze far too quickly again. I stayed fairly hydrated during the day but one the sun set and the cold seeped in it was impossible to keep my Nalgene from freezing. I’m going to have to invest in an insulating sleeve for it for these temperatures. I've been several other winter hikes where temperatures were reasonably cold but nothing like this. I made some tea and soon stuffed a warm Nalgene into my sleeping bag so that I could have water for the morning. Right as last light faded there was a snow shower that blew through and created very low visibility outside. It was a fitting finale for our last night out in the snow. Just like last night we were in the tent by last light and didn't come out until after 8 am which was a complete 15 hours in the tent so were once again in for a very long cold night.
Day 3- Back to Mammoth Ski Resort
When we awoke we found the thermometer to read slightly higher than the previous morning and we actually got out of the tent earlier and started packing everything up in decent time. The early morning is by far the hardest part as it’s still quite cold and things must be packed up and of course my hands were numb and impossibly frozen. Even a temperature difference of a few degrees made a huge difference on how much better everything felt. It’s hard to believe but there is a large difference in comfort from 6 to 10 degrees. After an hour or so we were all packed up and on our way out. We quickly made it back to the Ski Resort and had lunch once again at the Yoddler. We took the gondola up to the top of Mammoth Mountain and enjoyed the fantastic views there. By mid afternoon we were back at my Jeep and made our way into town where we enjoyed beer sampling at Mammoth Brewing Company. My friend and I decided to watch the last Hobbit movie in Mammoth before he headed down to our motel in Bishop. After getting to Bishop and checking into our motel we enjoyed a delicious Mexican meal. While it was cold in Bishop it was nothing like what we experience the past few days up in the mountains. We slept soundly that night on a bed where we didn't have to worry about staying warm.
Day 4- Back to Tahoe
It was my last day with my friend so we said our goodbyes as I drove him to the airport in Mammoth. I only get to see him a few times a year and we usually try to do 1 or 2 short backpacking trips a year. This one would definitely be a memorable one we would cherish for our years. I still had several hours of driving to Tahoe. As I pulled back into my driveway in Tahoe 4 hours later I looked back and realized we had made it! We braved and survived the cold that the Sierra had treated us to. I think I’ll be trying to avoid such severe cold spells for a little while now as I've definitely had more than my fair share!
Hope you all enjoyed our Christmas Adventure. We have plans in 2015 to either do Christmas or New Years again so till then..
Discussion about winter adventure sports in the Sierra Nevada mountains including but not limited to; winter backpacking and camping, mountaineering, downhill and cross-country skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing, etc.
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And here are some photos:
Never put off a backpacking trip for tomorrow, if you can do it today...
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Nice report and photos. Thanks for posting!
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