Mt. Judah 3x P300 PYNSP / PD

Sat, Mar 31, 2012
Story Photos / Slideshow Map GPX Profile
previously climbed Sun, Jan 10, 2010
later climbed Wed, Jan 2, 2013

My first Sierra visit this year was on a ski trip with the Boy Scouts to Sugar Bowl in the Donner Pass area near Lake Tahoe. It had been a dismal year for skiiing and snow in general, but recent March storms had brought new snow to the area and more was forecast for the weekend. We stayed at the Hutchinson Lodge off Donner Pass Rd, about a mile from the ski area, arriving late Friday night. Built by the Sierra Club in the 1920s, this rustic lodge is a deal - $25/person, minimum of $250, per night. The Sierra Club still maintains the lodge and rents it out to large groups. Heating is from 2 wood-burning stoves which need to be stoked continuously to keep the place warm when the temperatures outside drop below freezing. Though there is no bedding provided (or beds), there are plenty of sleeping pads for cushion and the place can easily accomodate 25 persons.

Saturday was overcast and cold in the early morning, turning to blizzard conditions by afternoon. Wind gusts were up to 30mph on the lower slopes, closing the chairlifts servicing the tops of the mountains and making it tough on the remaining ones that operated. While the Scouts were out skiing and snowboarding, I donned my snowshoes to cruise around ski area for my bit of exercise. In the morning I hiked up to the top of the Mt. Judah chair, following through the trees, taking pictures of several of the Scouts that I came across on their way down the mountain. The snow was thick and heavy, making snowshoeing a tough workout. Walking on the groomed slopes was easier of course, but I avoided these where I could to keep out of the way of those coming down the slopes. As the upper chair to the top of Mt. Judah was closed, I had the upper 400ft of the mountain to myself. The West Slopes are quite steep and in the trees, so at least I had little wind while I was making my way through the deep snow.

Once I reached the ridgeline on the Sierra Crest the trees and deep snow gave way to high winds, icy conditions, and horizontally blowing snow. The summit is located at the south end of the half mile ridge and reaching it turned out to be an enormous effort. The winds were blowing in excess of 50mph at times, knocking me down and threatening to blow away anything that wasn't secure, including the ski poles I clutched tightly to. The new storm had reached the Sierra from the Pacific Ocean and began to unleash all its fury, pelting me with ice crystals blown over the crest. My pants were simply the same thin hiking pants I use regularly, and though I was warm enough while moving, the sharp stabs of the ice crystals sweeping against my legs felt like so many needles being driven into my skin. I had to lie down with my back to the wind during the strongest of these gusts to protect my legs. Standing up again proved another challenge. Visibility dropped to 10-20ft, though without goggles I couldn't look into the storm and was nearly blind in trying to follow the ridge. Everything was white and blowing snow. I used my GPS to navigate to the summit, though it was difficult to manage it without losing gloves or poles in the process. Without knowing the nature of the terrain, I was worried that I might accidently fall off one of many small cliffs that I knew to be in the area. My camera was fairly useless at this point and moisture would have it out of action most of the day.

It occurred to me while I sat huddled somewhere near the summit trying to read the GPS, knowing that there were no ski patrols looking out for me, that this could be an easy way to turn a simple outing into an epic. I tried to use the direction of wind to navigate by, keeping it on my right side so that I could find my way to the pass south of the summit after I had reached it. What I didn't realize was that the wind was shifting directions as I hiked along and I soon found myself heading 90 degrees from my intended direction. A map would have been useless in such conditions - there was no way to keep it flat long enough to look at it - but a compass could have kept me out of going down the wrong canyon. I did have one with me for back up, but thankfully the GPS was much easier to use and kept my blunders to a minimum. Eventually I found my way to the saddle I was looking for between Mts. Judah and Lincoln (which also happens to be the pass used by the emigrant wagon trains back in the 1800s), and then back towards the ski lodge. In all I spent about an hour on my own in the blizzard, a small experiment in surviving the fury of nature in a well-contained exercise. I imagined that had I been in the High Sierra under such conditions, I would have found myself in more serious straits - probably why I avoid this range for most winter months.

After warming up at lunchtime back in the Judah lodge with the Scouts, I ventured out again in the afternoon with the tempest still raging. Not wanting to wander into the worst of it again, I avoided the treeless ridges and kept to the northern boundary of the ski area, playing around in the trees and ever deepening snows. The other adults and most of the Scouts were done with skiing by early afternoon, having had enough of the difficult conditions. They were eagerly awaiting my return (I got back at 3:58p for a 4p deadline) so that we could all return to the Hutchinson Lodge for dinner and less trying activities...


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This page last updated: Thu Apr 5 09:01:26 2012
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