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later climbed Fri, Feb 15, 2002|
It was 10:30a when we left the house, and it started snowing lightly almost as soon as we were on the road. The drive took most of an hour, and by the time we had reached the higher elevations around 7,000 feet it was snowing heavier and windy. We drove up and down the road to Bear Mtn (Highway 207), looking for the best place to park where we would be out of the way of the snow plows that were already at work. We settled on the large lot near the top of the hill used to park the unused ski area shuttle busses. We packed up our stuff, mostly clothing, some water, and energy bars, strapped on the snowshoes, and off we went across the road and into the snow.
We climbed upward, skirting north on the ridge around the highpoint at 8,195 ft. The snowshoes sunk in only a few inches, as little snow had yet acumulated, and the walking was relatively easy. In fact, nearly ideal conditions for snowshoeing. We noticed that already about four inches had acculmulated on the ground from the new storm, and today would have also been a good day to ski. We avoided the highpoint in traversing the ridge to avoid the greater winds that were blowing higher up. The slope of our traverse became greater, and I eventually chose to take the ridge anyway over the ankle-twisting of a traverse. Within 20 minutes of starting, we went from near-ideal conditions to "exciting" as we battled a wind blowing unimpeded across the ridge. The storm was definitely upon us.
We could see north across Horse Canyon/Round Valley to Mt. Reba and the high ridge to the east. Mt. Reba was on the western edge of the ridge, and a higher point simply named "Reba" was at the eastern end, less than a mile apart. The clouds were just at the ridge level so that we could see portions of it, but not the high points or behind it. Our route ahead was pretty clear: we needed to decend a ways into the canyon, and then climb Mt. Reba's southeast face all the way to the summit. The ridge we were on came to a rocky end, and we needed to descend gingerly around some rock bulges into a snow-filled chute. At about 30 degrees, it would have made a good black diamond run of about 50 yards, but on snowshoes we were more hesitant to jump in. After a descending a short distance to determine there was sufficient snow for a safe glissade, I took the easy way down (on my butt), and Ray followed behind me (after making sure I wasn't going to hit a tree or get buried in an avalanche).
Below the ridge and in the trees, the wind was suppressed and things seemed much calmer. We descended leisurely at a much more moderate angle to the bottom of the canyon, exerting almost no effort. We commented how much more popular this sport would be if one could catch a shuttle back to the top again! We were having a very fine time now, having been out a little more than an hour. It was past 12:30p, and now it was time for the big climb up to the summit. The southeast face isn't terribly steep, but it's very consistent all the way to the top, maybe 20 degrees. The snow here was more windpacked and varied, a few inches in some places, eight or more inches in others. In 40 minutes we reached the top, or at least the ridge along which Mt. Reba lies. The wind up here was ferocious. The snow was driven horizontally with tremendous force, and it was impossible to face into the wind (which had been blowing at our backs on the climb up). It was very difficult to talk to each other, but I managed to signal to Ray that I needed to stop to put a face mask on. At first I planned to walk down the lee side of the ridge to get out of the wind, but found I was walking off towards the edge of a considerable cornice. That would not do, so back on the ridge I huddled as best I could behind a boulder while I removed my hat and donned the mask. I'd neglected to bring a pair of ski goggles, but I had glasses that in conjunction with the face mask kept most of my face protected. Even still, I had to hold a glove up on the side of my face when walking perpendicular to the wind to keep the snow from stinging the side of my face. Ray had neither goggles nor face mask, and consequently suffered that much more.
I knew the summit was to our left, or west, along the ridge, and Ray followed as I headed off in that direction. I carried my poles in one hand while the other blocked the brunt of the wind against the side of my face. Visibility was quite low, maybe 50 yards, but enough to keep us going in the right direction. Ice began forming on my eyelashes and eyebrows, making it tougher to see. I had to stop several times to pull the ice off my eyelashes, as did Ray as well. I noticed that he even had a small patch of ice about the size of a half dollar sticking to his cheek. His skin must have been quite cold to let ice form there. Just as I was reaching the small rocky top of the summit, Ray called me back. What he was saying I couldn't make out as he was about 10 yards behind. When I returned he said he'd had enough. His face was too cold and he needed to go down. "But that's the top!" I replied, pointing to where I had been standing a minute earlier. "Oh, Ok." was his response, and we both walked the remaining distance, danced a little jig, and hurried back along the ridge whence we'd come. There were no summit photos as I had little desire to bare my hands under such conditions, and besides with the blowing wind, there would likely have been little in the picture other than little white dots streaking by. It was 1:30p when we turned to leave.
We retraced our steps along the ridge, and then headed down the southeast face a bit to the east of where we'd come up. We headed for a clump of trees that looked to offer the first bit of protection and might give us a chance to catch our breath and collect our wits. Damn, it was cold! As hoped, the trees provided a small buffer, and we were able to relax a bit. Ray explained how his face had gotten so cold it went numb and he had begun to worry about it. He had feeling in it again now, but it was still quite cold, and he still had a patch of ice of his face. I had developed a cold a few days earlier and my sinuses were quite congested. With a constantly runny nose, the face mask had made things rather ugly under there, uncomfortable, and downright gross if one thinks about it. I was glad to get the mask off and clean my face up, and at least we were protected some from the wind now.
Not really thirsty, we decided we should have a drink anyway, and found that the water bottles were half frozen with a ring of ice around the inside wall of the bottles. We packed up our stuff and headed down, a pleasant stroll through eight inches of fresh snow. The slope grew steeper near the bottom of the face as we were funnelled into a creek channel. I gave up trying to negotiate the steep slope awkwardly in the snowshoes and chose to glissade the last 60 yards or so. This was surprisingly pleasant, even with the snowshoes still on my feet, and despite the rock hiding under the surface that I bounced off, leaving a small bruise on my thigh. Ray followed right behind and it seemed we had things well under control as we collected ourselves and continued down to the right.
It was now important to cross the relatively wide canyon bottom and begin the climb back up the other side. The wind was shifting directions, still blowing hard as we hiked through the trees in search of our shoeprints from the outward journey. We had neither map nor compass with us, as we had expected this to be a short and easy out and back hike. In the brunt of the storm, it was impossible to tell where the sun was and visibility was reduced to several hundred yards at most. So all we had to rely on for navigation was our inner sense of direction (as in we knew we had descended Mt. Reba behind us), and our knowledge of the topography from studying the map beforehand. Ray had only spent a few minutes looking at the map earlier and was relying on me to have absorbed the necessary information. I had studied it for quite some time over the past several days, so I felt I knew the lay of the land pretty well. The canyon we were presently walking across drained down into the Mokulumne River, for example, and walking down that canyon would be about the worst mistake we could make. We would find ourselves several thousand feet below the ski area and the nearest humans, and it would likely be impossible to follow the river canyon downstream under such conditions. All my navigation efforts then, were geared towards keeping us from heading off in that direction (west to northwest).
As we started climbing the other side of the canyon, Ray began to wonder about where we were headed and finally asked if we shouldn't be heading 90 degrees clockwise. I was surprised. "Where do you think Mt. Reba is?" I asked. He indicated a position 120 degrees off from where I believed it lay, and I fairly scoffed at this suggestion. "No way, it's over there!" I corrected. "Oh?" This had the effect of making Ray completely doubt his sense of direction and defer to my judgement, as he commented that he doesn't usually have a good sense of direction. I on the other hand "knew" we were heading in the correct direction, an upward traverse to the right which would bring us back to the original ridge we had travelled in from. In fact, Ray's sense of direction was better than mine, and Mt. Reba lay closer to the direction Ray had indicated than it did to mine. This had us now travelling more SSE than SW. I remained convinced I was right because we continued to follow a traverse up to the right which pretty much was what one would expect to get us back to ridge. But somehow I underestimated a large gap in the ridge and followed an upward traverse in a clockwise direction around to the other side of the ridge without even suspecting a change of direction. From the profile one can see that as we were coming off the peak we went down to the bottom of the canyon and head up the other side, in what looked to be a retracing of the outward trip. But we didn't come across our old tracks, and the ridge we climbed up to didn't look so familiar. But in a snowstorm, who could tell?
By 3p I was beginning to entertain serious doubts and let Ray know I no longer had a strong opinion that I knew where we were headed. This seemed important for me to convey, for so long as Ray continued to believe I knew where we were, he would continue to suppress his own doubts. We had reached the top of the ridge and were following along, but of course it was in the opposite direction now. Ahead of us the ridge continue upward, higher than we had remembered descending on the way out. I still believed we were heading in the proper direction, possibly that we had simply managed to climb it too far to the east and would take a bit longer on the return. By 3:30p we should be at the car if the return took an equal time as the outward journey, so this all still seemed plausible. I sketched out the rough topography in the snow by way of explaining our position, and Ray did not offer an alternative. He was pretty tired by now and so not really following my entire explanation - mostly he wanted to be done by now. He asked if I had some beef jerky and I replied that I had left it in the car. This produced an incredulous look that silently screamed out, "What a moron!" I hastily produced a handful of NutriGrain bars and gave him a couple, which seemed to appease him. I didn't feel bad though, because Ray hadn't brought water or food of his own, and hadn't asked me to cover for him beforehand. We drank some more water, and afterwards I suggested we might want to keep the water bottles inside our jackets - we might need the water a good deal more later, and having it further freeze up would hardly be helpful.
Somewhere in all this I had to relieve myself of the previous nights meal, and there was little chance I was going to make it back to civilization soon enough. Thankfully I had brought some toilet paper, but in a driving snowstorm I found things difficult enough. I found a modest amount of protection behind some trees, and with Ray laughing and my underside freezing, I hastily did my business. I had to keep the snowshoes on (or I would have sunk to my waist in the snow) which kept things quite awkward, but somehow I managed. Afterwards, Ray continued to be amused, and we were still just as lost, but I felt quite a bit more serene nonetheless. Even if we found ourselves digging snow caves later in the evening, I wouldn't have to repeat that particular performance.
At 3:30p we found ourselves still on the ridge, and we could now see that ahead the slope went higher still. Something was definitely amiss and it was time to reckon with it. I knew if we were headed in the wrong direction we could wander for dozens of miles into the Wilderness. That would be death. Ray suggested we abandon the ridge and head down the canyon to our right. If that turned out to be Horse Canyon, we'd be heading down to the Mokulmne River, also certain death I felt, which is why I had kept to the ridge top up till now. But now I had begun to believe we were travelling south instead of west, and it was probably Poison Canyon to our left. This I knew emptied out to Highway 207, the same road we had taken off Highway 4 on the way in. I wasn't certain, and I still had serious doubts, but it seemed we were making no progress on our present course.
I readily agreed with Ray's suggestion, and we headed down the canyon. Up until this point I had been convincing myself that I knew where we were going, at most just a bit off. Now I had to admit to myself that I didn't really know where we were. This was more than a bit unsettling. Instead of knowing that every step was getting you closer to home, it was possible that each step was taking us somewhere unknown, possibly further into the Wilderness. If we stopped now and turned around, might not that be better than heading off in an uncertain direction, making it far more difficult, maybe impossible, for searchers to find us? This seemed to make every forward step more sluggish as the doubts constantly swam around inside our heads. We had two hours left before the sun would set, and no doubt if we didn't find our way out by then, things would get a great deal more serious. I pondered the seriousness of our being lost. How stupid that we didn't have a compass. It occurred to me that a measure of one's "lostness" might be made by seeing how much one would be willing to pay for a compass. I reckoned it was worth about $100 at this point, and would happily have paid that much even for the type you might get from a cereal box. Thinking ahead, I estimated that the same compass might fetch $10,000 from me around 5:30p or so.
The snow was well over a foot deep by now, and every step took considerable effort. I still had sufficient reserves of energy to keep going for another three or four hours if necessary I felt, but I wasn't so sure about Ray. We'd been at it for four hours now, and it'd been quite a workout already. He kept up though, much better than I had expected, partly because he was able to follow in my steps which required less effort, but he was likewise in pretty good shape. I was also impressed that he was maintaining his composure quite well under the circumstances, and we both managed to behave civilly, and even produce a little humor sometimes. A few hundred yards off the ridge I slowed down and turned to find that Ray was some ways behind. He had stopped to clean off his eyelashes which had accumulated enough snow to obscure his vision. He slipped on a few of the steeper portions, twisting his ankles sideways and falling over. This caused him to swear furiously, cursing the snow and everything it touched (which was pretty much everything). I completely missed this outburst, and only learned about it later, because I was too far away to hear him. It was probably a good thing I missed it as I would have begun to worry considerably more - I've never seen Ray behave so, and would have found it totally out of character - a sure sign he was only minutes from beating me to a bloody pulp.
As we continued down, I was relieved to find the slope lessened. From the map I knew that the route down to the Mokulumne River grew considerably steeper, so I became less concerned that we were heading off in that direction. But exactly which direction we were headed was far from understood. We knew that Highway 4 ran roughly east-west, and Highway 207 ran roughly north-south. If we were headed west, we'd hit 207. If we were headed south, we'd hit 4. Any direction between those or somewhat outside those headings would also get us back to one road or the other. But if we were heading east, we might travel for days without finding our way out...
Ray enjoyed hiking in the flats of the canyon, at least in comparison to the ridge travel. I am always nervous following a creek under such conditions for a variety of reasons. We had seen previously that water was flowing at the bottom of the creek. Should we fall in and soak a boot, that would make things all the more urgent. Little creeks have a way of funneling into steeper canyons and that can make travel all the more difficult. And snow accumulates more heavily in the lower reaches, so it is generally slower travelling along the creek. On we plunged. Deep, deep snow, each step up to our knees in the snowshoes. I could hardly imagine what it would be like trying to walk in only our boots. We never talked openly about it, but we each considered the possibility that we might spend the night outside. Would we be able to build a snowcave? The prospect didn't seem to bother Ray to the same degree it did me. I am quite terrified by the prospect because I don't think I would be able to survive a night in such conditions. I have poor circulation in my extremities that makes me get cold quite easily. At rest, blood often stops flowing to my fingertips in temperatures as high as 60 degrees. You can see the top half of my fingers are actually white and they are as numb as if they'd been submersed in ice water. What chance would I stand in a snow cave, at best with temperatures around 40 degrees? I thought how it would have been a good idea to actually camp out in one under less pressing conditions, to know just what conditions I could endure. Quite possibly I was about to find out the hard way.
We stopped now and then because we heard engine noises. Cars? That was quite reassuring we exclaimed. But then I noticed they lingered on more like a twin engine aircraft. Ray didn't believe this. Afterall, who would be out flying in such conditions? I suggested they might be flying above the clouds, or even through them on IFR. I also noticed that the wind off the ridge to our right could sound suspiciously like a car at times. Out in front, I imagined I saw a plowed road ahead through the trees. This got me quite excited until I realised it was just a shadow on a snowbank that made it look dark. This happened a second and third time, and each time I got just as excited, only to be let down. I so badly wanted to see that road that I found I could turn any dark patch into a believeable road. At least for a few seconds. On we went, through the forest along the creek on almost level ground. Now and then we could swear we heard cars. I slipped in the snow and lay there instead of getting up. I sat very still and listened intently for something I could definitely say was a car. Only the wind whipping irratically through the trees could be discerned. I told Ray I didn't think we had heard any cars at all, but Ray didn't believe that (later we found we were so far from the road that there was no chance we had heard any cars).
We'd been off the ridge for 45 minutes now, and all we found in front of us was more trees, and of course more snow. I remarked to Ray that I had two walkie talkies with me, the ones with a supposed range of two miles. I've never gotten anything close to that unless it was line-of-sight, but it was certainly better than having a cell phone, as those don't work up here. We thought about what we might do with them. Flip through the 14 channels declaring "Mayday!" or "Help!"? What if someone could hear us? Would they believe us? Would it do anything to help someone locate us? We couldn't really say where we were, and could just as likely kick off a search several miles from where we really were. It was a driving snowstorm and there was no way a search by air could be initiated. Shouting would hardly be effective with the wind howling. And what if we turned out to be a hundred yards from the road? That could be seriously embarassing... We decided to defer until later the use of the radios.
As I plodded along, I found a single fence post, barbed wire running from the top of it down into the snow. It looked old. Ten years? Fifty years? More? It didn't really tell us we were near civilization, just that we were sometime in the past. At 4:30p we came across what seemed to be half of our salvation - a water tank. A large one, enough for a small community. Surely we were on the right track. All we had to do was head downhill and we must certainly come across the homes that it services. A few minutes later I spied a summer cabin, boarded up for the winter. We let out a shout and our faces broke out in grins. We were safe now. The worst we'd have to endure was breaking into someone's cabin for the night. While it appeared to be boarded up quite well, we had little doubt that desperation would make it a cinch to get into if needed. We continued on, seeing several more cabins, and we followed what must have been the road into the homes. Ten minutes later we found ourselves a real road.
The road was unplowed, but there was evidence of snowmobiles using it earlier in the day. We guessed this was the dirt road that winds up Poison Canyon from Highway 207 to near the top of Mt. Reba. It was nearly level where we joined it so it wasn't clear in which direction to travel. Ray started to head left and I started to head right, and we stopped and both came to the realization that it wasn't obvious. I suggested I go out a bit to the right to see if it was more obvious around the next bend. I went off for a hundred yards or so, but still couldn't tell, but the road seemed to continue flat in this direction. Ray followed. In a few minutes I came across a sign to the side of the road that read: Lake Alpine, 7,303 ft. I laughed. It was immediately clear that we were on Highway 4. We had not come down Poison Canyon at all, but something I later found was called Bee Gulch, another ridge over and to the east of Poison Canyon. We were about a mile from where we had thought we were. All the doubts now dissolved as having our location known and fixed was a major relief. We still had a ways to go, but it was just a march now, and the way known.
As we continued, we found fresh cross-country ski tracks in the road, a number of them veering off the road to cabins nearby. Even though they don't have vehicle access in the winter, a number of these cabins were still close enough to the Snow Park to allow the owners to access them in the winter. Clever, I thought. Ahead in the distance about 200 yards I spotted someone just moving out of sight around the bend. We had about a mile to travel back to the Highway 207 turnoff and then about a mile up the road. I figured if I caught up to the person ahead of us before he reached the Snow Park, we might get him to give us a lift back to our car. That would save us the dangerous hike up the highway in the snow and failing daylight. Off I went at a steady pace, leaving Ray behind. The road from Lake Alpine up to the Snow Park is uphill a few hundred feet, and tiring. But I slowly gained on the skiier ahead. He had two dogs with him that were having a ball running back and forth across the road, playing in the snow and chasing each other. When I was about 20 yards behind them they spotted me, and curiously came up to check me out. They were quite friendly. I petted them, talked to them, and off they ran back ahead. The skiier had still not spotted me as I came up behind him greeting him just as we entered the Snow Park area.
Dave did not seem the least bit surprised to hear me although he was the last skiier to return that afternoon. We chatted briefly before I asked Dave if he'd be able to help us out, to which he readily agreed. Dave looked to be in his mid 20s, and drove an old Toyota pickup with a shell on the back. Hailing from Berkeley, he had been skiing up at Bear earlier in the day, and came here to give the dogs some exercise, who had spent the day waiting for Dave in the truck. Dave opened the back of the shell and got out some bowls for food and water to feed the two large dogs. In the back was a good deal of camping equipment and an ice chest. Ray caught up to us and Dave offered us a couple of Chech beers. Ray and I thought we'd died and gone to heaven. Not only would we not have to spend the night in a snow cave, but we'd found an angel, and one that had beers, to boot. It was 5:20p now, and boy what a difference the last hour had made!
Dave threw some stuff from the front into the back to give Ray and I some room, and the dogs very obediently jumped in the back when commanded. As we drove up Highway 207, we found that Dave planned to spend the night in his vehicle, something he was apparently quite used to. Ray and I were quite impressed by the minimalism Dave displayed, and we offered to let him join us for the night back at Ray's cabin. Dave was grateful but declined, preferring the solitude of the Snow Park lot. When we got back to our car there were seven inches of snow that had not been plowed from the auxillary parking lot we'd used (fortunately the wind had blown a good deal of it off, or we'd have had over a foot of the stuff). Dave let us out at the road and waited until we were certain our vehicle would be able to get out (three cheers for four wheel drive!), and off he went.
It took well over an hour and a half for Ray and I to drive the 40 miles or so back to his home. "It's good to be alive," Ray commented. I could hardly have agreed more.
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Mt. Reba
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