George R. Stewart Peak
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Donner Peak previously climbed Sat, Feb 3, 2007|
Mt. Judah previously climbed Sat, Feb 3, 2007
later climbed Sat, Mar 31, 2012
Mt. Lincoln previously climbed Sat, Feb 3, 2007
later climbed Sun, Apr 1, 2012
The lodge itself is a large stone structure with massive wooden beams and rising two stories, measuring perhaps 30ft by 75ft. Inside is one large room reaching to the roof, with sleeping lofts at either end and open to the main room. Two large fireplaces anchor the long sides and provide the only means to heat the structure. A small kitchen is located at one end and there are two bathrooms and two showers in the facility. The entryway was redone with a very out-of-kilter wooden shed wrapping around one side of the buildiing with a new entrance at a higher level. Inside this outer shed the walkway is lined with a winter's supply of firewood and the narrow path resulting has been christened the "Love Tunnel." The lodge, located next door to the Claire Tappan Lodge, can be rented at $25 per person per night to groups of ten or more through the Sierra Club. It made for a cozy group habitation and we all enjoyed it a good deal.
We skied and snowboard as a group on Saturday, but the snow was decidedly of poor quality, hard and unforgiving for most of the day. It was a bruising affair that ended with blisters on one ankle by the end of the day. A bit of drizzle in the last hour added to the discomfort. Since most of the scouts don't get to ski all that often, they were very motivated to continue skiing the next day. I was less so. Fortunately the structure was loose enough to allow me some leeway in the day's agenda. After our last roll call at the Sugar Bowl lodge, the other scouts and leaders headed out for the chairlifts, while I headed back to the car. I had to be back at noon for the next check-in time, but the outing I had in mind should easily fit into the intervening three hours.
There are three peaks just north of Donner Pass that I was interested in visiting on snowshoes. This is the original Donner Pass at the summit of Donner Pass Rd, not the Donner Summit on Interstate 80. I drove a mile back out of the ski area and to the pass where I parked along the road. The PCT crosses the road at this point as indicated by a nearby worn sign. There were a few cars parked here at this time, and the road was busy with cars filled with skiers coming up from Truckee and Donner Lake. I crossed the road to the north side and put on my snowshoes, then hiked up a short distance until the road was out of view.
It was 9:30a on Sunday, but this was the first time I felt I was in the mountains. Mind you, the group of scouts that I was with were a fine bunch and I enjoyed the time I was spending with them, but it didn't feel at all like a trip to the mountains. The absence of crowds, the soft look of untracked snow, the dazzling view of Donner Peak to the south had suddenly given me that feeling of Home that Muir and others have so eloquently described in writing over the past century and a half. I felt the cool air I breathed more intensely, the sun shone more brightly, the snow covering the hills had a welcoming feel that I don't get from a groomed run at the resort. There were plenty of ski and snowshoe tracks on both sides of the highway, but they were ones of the tribe, not of the crowd.
None of these three peaks are really much of a peak, but as they are named they fullfilled my inclination to have a destination in mind when I head out. My first stop was Mt. Stephens, a short ten minute hike towards the east. The summit has a dramatic front on the east facing Donner Lake, but from Donner Pass it is barely a bump rising above the surrounding terrain. There were some windswept trees I passed on my way to the summit. Though the air was mostly calm, the trees looked to have been frozen in place during stormier days. For such a short peak, it commands fine views to Donner Lake to the east and Donner Peak to the south. I dropped off the easy north side of the peak, then started a traverse northeast towards George R. Stewart Peak.
Descending from Stephens, I heard voices off to my left. I spied a group of six or seven, mostly women in a group about a hundred yards distance. They were exploring on skis around the area between Stewart to the east and Donner Ski Ranch to the west. As I began a traverse towards Stewart, first dropping to a drainage, then angling up and across a southeast-facing slope, the snow that had been in the sun most of the morning was soft enough for me to start punching through, even with snowshoes. Underneath was not a harder layer of older snow, but the manzanita and other shrubs covered by this first major storm of the season. Fortunately this was more an inconvenience and not a major problem, as I soon enough found myself on firmer ground.
It took about 25 minutes to get from Stephens to the summit of Stewart, the highest of the three summits on the morning's agenda, but this one was similarly easy with only a few hundred feet of additional elevation gain. Perched further east, Stewart provides a better view looking off in that direction where fog covered Donner Lake and the Martis Valley. To the north rose the three-pointed summit of Castle Peak. The best view was to the south with Donner, Judah and Lincoln summits arrayed in a line. The snowsheds cut neatly across the center of Donner Peak's North Face, while old Highway 40 serpentined up from Donner Lake to the pass on my right, a sublime fusion of nature and technology that somehow seemed fitting.
The third named summit was McGlashan Point to the south. It lies in the center of a large curve in the roadway, immediately adjacent to a large overlook area. It hasn't more than about 20 feet of prominence, the weakest of three weak summits. Of more interest is the old bridge next to McGlashan Point. This historic concrete bridge with a graceful curve in the roadway was built in 1925. I chose a route off Stewart that took me down and under this bridge to allow a closeup view and some pictures of it. By 10:45a I had crossed under the bridge, over the highway and then to the top of McGlashan Point. It has a fine vantage point for viewing both Mt. Stephens and Mt. Stewart. The fog was starting to dissipate some over Donner Lake, revealing the westernmost end of the smooth lake waters.
I turned my attention south, crossing the highway again and then climbing up to investigate the snowsheds on the flanks of Donner Peak. This was the first time I had peered into the sheds and I was surprised to find that they are no longer used (by trains, anyway). The tracks have been removed and snow partially fills their entrances. Evidently, the maintainence of the sheds and the removal of snow became burdensome to Union Pacific and they dug longer, deeper tunnels below the old ones which were abandoned. I walked through the shorter of two tunnels, then followed up the drainage left of the longer tunnel to make my way west up towards Donner Pass. The roadway rises above the true pass, so I went in search of the historic pass among the trees south of the road. I didn't have much luck, though. It splits several times, somewhat confusing to locate and I sort of lost interest in the effort. I came across the Overland Emigrant Trail sign where a couple were putting on some odd-looking waffle snowshoes. They were made entirely of plastic and had no claws for gripping hard snow. They said a friend had found them in his garage when he moved into his home, so they didn't know where they'd come from, and I'd never seen such shoes before. But for what they planned to do (hike south along the PCT for a ways), they were quite effective.
I turned north and headed back to the car, only a few minutes away from this juncture. Another party was starting out, writing "Brian" in the snow with arrows at the trail junctions. I would run across them again later. I drove back to Sugar Bowl in time for the noon-time rendevous with the scouts. We had lunch, they told stories of hard, icy conditions on the slopes, did a count off, and headed back out to the slopes in groups. I decided to hike up to Judah and Lincoln in the afternoon before the next roundup of the group at 4p.
I neglected to take my camera for this second part of the day, but having already climbed the peaks already, I didn't bother to go back and retrieve it. I followed outside the boundary of the ski area as best I could, following north around the runs and through the trees. Shaded for much of the day, the snow was firm and easy to snowshoe on. When I reached the north shoulder of Mt. Judah, just north of the top of the Judah chairlift, I realized Donner was only a Short traverse around Judah to the north so I decided to add it to my itinerary. I spotted a party of 4 or 5 atop Donner and they spotted me, then shouting to me as if in recognition. On the ground I recognized the unique waffle pattern left by the plastic snowshoes - it looked like they had managed just fine. It took about ten minutes to traverse the tree-covered slopes to Donner Peak. The other party, a group of young folks in their twenties, was walking around, eating lunch, and generally enjoying the fine views and warm sunshine. They asked me if the peak had a name, evidently having just wandered about on snowshoes looking for fun places to visit - I liked their style. During our brief chat I suddenly realized this was the same group that I had seen a few hours earlier. Brian was another member of their party that had failed to meet them at the TH as planned. They had though I was he when they were shouting to me earlier. As if on cue, he showed up about ten minutes behind me. He was young, shirtless, long hair flowing wildly behind him. Ah, to be young again.
I bid them farewell and headed up to Mt. Judah, a moderately steep slope heading up the Northeast Ridge. A skier was skinning his way up just ahead of me and I was surprised that he was able to gain altitude at nearly the same rate as I could on snowshoes. We met up at the summit where the newest chairlift terminates on the north end of the long ridgeline. To a backcountry visitor, the chairlift seems an abomination to a once peaceful summit. Only a few skiers were traversing the summit ridge in search of skiable terrain. The conditions were too icy for most to enjoy it and I doubt these few were going to come back for a second dose.
I followed the ridgeline up and over the higpoint of Mt. Judah located at the south end of the ridgeline. From there I continued down to the saddle and then up towards Mt. Lincoln. It was impossible to avoid the ski area entirely at this point, so I kept to the southern edge of the run off Mt. Lincoln as best I could. Halfway up I came across two of the scouts on their way down from the summit, having spied me (a snowshoer isn't hard to spot, looking out-of-place) on their way down. We chatted briefly before I continued up. I cut left before reaching the summit, traversing the East Face of Lincoln to approach the summit from the quieter Southeast Ridge. I went up to the top and then turned east to the ski patrol hut located on the west end of the summit.
I briefly considered continuing on to Mt. Disney, but I had only an hour and a half to get back and was pretty sure I would use up most of that time on this spicey traverse across the top of the Palisades. Instead, I dropped northwest onto the open, but empty ski run called Silver Belle, west of the chairlift. The snow was steep and icy, heavily moguled, and was in awful condition for skiing or snowboarding. Just fine on snowshoes, however. I made my way down, then stuck to the trees when I reached the traffic-filled runs lower down. I went past the bottom of the Lincoln and Christmas Tree lifts and wandered through the residential area below them to make my way back to the Mt. Judah Lodge.
Though not exactly a wilderness experience, I enjoyed the outing very much and was happy I had decided not to snowboard that day. The scouts reported that the snow never softened much the whole day and in fact had gotten worse in the afternoon.
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Donner Peak
This page last updated: Sat Jan 23 11:12:17 2010
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