Fri, Dec 12, 2003
How does one turn a class 1 walkup into an epic? Answer:
We didn't go into this adventure with the above list formally articulated, but I had a directive from Matthew via email that went something like, "maximize the mileage", which pretty much does the same thing. Mt. Lola is the highest peak north of I80 until one gets to Mt. Lassen, so it often has some pretty fine views. In the summertime it is an easy 5 miles to the summit on a well-used trail. Mt. Lola is the highest point in Nevada county and an SPS peak. As a bonus, Mt. Lola North lies a little more than a mile to the north, the highpoint of Sierra county. In winter it turns out to be a bit tougher since the access roads from SR89 are all closed to motor vehicles (except snowmobiles). We didn't know this going in, in fact it wasn't until we pulled off of SR89 after five hours of driving from San Jose that we were rudely awakened to this bit of info.
As we sat in the parking lot weighing our choices, we consulted our two reference books. Sutter's book claimed the drive in from SR89 to the trailhead is nine miles, Yamagata's book put it at something like five or six. From our crude ink-jet map it looked to be about 5 miles so we convinced ourselves that Sutter was just plain wrong. Turns out his mileage is correct for the directions he gives, but his route is circuitous and a bit confusing. Yamagata's is better in this respect, and Sutter's should not be used at all for a winter visit. So we guessed our ten mile hike just became twenty miles, but it wasn't yet 7a and it seemed we had plenty of time to do it.
The weather was plain crappy. It had snowed about 2 feet in the last 48 hours, but it didn't look like the storm was through yet. It wasn't snowing at the time, and we would only have a few flurries throughout the day, but the sky was heavily overcast and remained so. Cloud and fog mixed to provide only fleeting glimpses of the surrounding mountains, and we would have to rely heavily on our weak map and even weaker instincts. I asked Matthew if he had a compass (mine was lost) and he replied to the affirmative. When I mentioned my concerns about the visibility he offered to bring his GPS unit. "Great," I said, "bring it!" "Uh, do you know how to use it?" he countered. Neither of us used one enough to be even primatively profficient with the thing. Matthew knew enough on how to take a waypoint which he did before tossing it in his pack. "We'll figure it out if we need it," he commented wryly. "Yeah, I imagine when we're exhausted, fingers frozen, dark outside and nearly hypothermic, it should be easy enough to just figure out," I offered.
It was pitch black when we had first pulled into the plowed parking lot (a snowmobile staging area) off SR89, 25 miles north of Truckee. It took us some time to formulate a workable plan and then for Matthew to get organized. By the time we had our act together by 7:15a, there was no need for headlamps now that we plenty of daylight. The Little Truckee River runs west from here through a broad canyon that we would follow for the first several hours. The road provides snowmobile access to many square miles of Sierra National Forest, and we were happy to have the road well-packed by their tread from the previous day. We left our snowshoes strapped to our packs and simply walked down the road in our boots. This first five miles was going to be rather easy it seemed. We passed the first road junction after almost a mile and a half along with a series of many mileage markers found on the roadside. Most were marked with hundredths of a mile, a degree of precision that seemed both remarkable and annoying. We became very aware of just how far a mile was and what our pace was, and with a bit of mental math (there's plenty of time for that on a hike) we found that with our 3mph pace we could cover a hundredth of a mile in precisely 12 seconds. In a geeky sort of way, that seemed almost impressive.
Matthew was out in front for the first several hours, keeping a pretty steady pace that I just managed to keep up with. Though mostly compacted by the snowmobiles, our shoes would still sink an inch or so in the snow, and I mostly followed in Matthew's footsteps to reduce the amount of energy I had to expend. We passed miles of river and forest, sometimes opening up to meadows, mostly following the north side of the river canyon. After about 4 miles I began to look for our expected turnoff, but we didn't come across the junction until we'd gone past the 5 1/2 mile marker. I was beginning to think Yamagata had been optimistic...
When we turned down the less-travelled road our pre-packed freeway disappeared and we had only a few snowmobile tracks going our way, not enough to allow easy walking. So we stopped to put on our snowshoes before continuing on. A short ways past our turnoff we came to another junction that seemed to head out towards our mountain, and we turned left on the completely untracked side road. Trouble was it was heading east (back the way we came), didn't look to turn south anytime soon, and we couldn't match it to our map. Had we gone far enough west? Our visibility extended about half a mile, but we had no vertical visibitity due to low clouds and couldn't see where our mountain lay. We had given ourselves about a 50-50 chance of finding our peak when we set out, but I was mentally lowering our odds considerably at this point. After going only a hundred yards I grew uncertain and told Matthew I thought we were going the wrong way. Matthew was completely amiable and willing to follow whichever way I went it seemed, but he wasn't going to offer any opinion of his own on this one. We were lost.
We decided to strike back to the easier travelling road and continued west. After a time I spied a clearing through the trees on our left which I mentioned was probably Perazzo Meadow which we could follow across to our mountain. We came across a few signs indicating private property on the side of the road for the Weber Lake Ranch. We saw no building, but several signs, lots of wire fencing, and the big clearing through the lake covered in snow. After a bit more time (10a now) I suggested we take a compass reading. Where I thought we were still travelling west the compass showed us to be heading nearly north. Aack! A quick consultation with our map showed the only bend in the road heading north was near Weber Lake, several miles past our mountain. "Hey, I bet that's Weber Lake, not Perazzo Meadow," I said, suddenly enlightened. "Yeah, that would sort of clear up all those signs that read 'Weber Lake Ranch'," Matthew offered in reply. We both felt pretty stupid by now.
Holy smokes, we had gone way, way past our target. We formulated a new plan - strike off across Perazzo Meadow (several miles behind us) and climb the Northwest Ridge to Mt. Lola North, then on to Mt. Lola. We hiked back along our route for the required two miles before we were certain we had the meadow in front of us. It's no small thing either, some four our five miles long, but with our reduced visibility we had missed it completely on the way in. When we left the road we were perched about 200 feet above the meadow on the north side, so we had to strike off cross-country downhill through the thick new snow. It was hardly powder, more the Sierra cement variety, and each step was a good deal of work. At least it was downhill to start which made it not only easier, but fun, too! After about a quarter mile we came across another side road with snowmobile tracks that included the bonus bridge over the Little Truckee River. This was key and we gladly took advantage of it. Not long after crossing the bridge we had to leave the road since it was heading about 90 degrees from the direction we wanted.
As we started across Perazzo Meadow we got a taste of what we were in for. It was quite a bit harder travelling now and our pace slowed to maybe 1mph as each step sunk in anywhere from six to twelve inches. We had two small streamlets to cross which we did quite gingerly. I stepped down to the streambank and used my poles to test the snowbank on the other side - it collapsed in the stream that had been undercutting it, hidden to us. We backtracked and finally crossed at a place where the stream was frozen over, testing the ice with pole jabs in front of us just to be sure - wet shoes would have ended our adventure in a hurry. Halfway across the meadow Matthew asked for a lunch stop. I sort of looked at him with a "What do you mean by Lunch Stop?" look, but for the first time I realized he was a bit knackered. We'd been out four hours now and we hadn't even started the climb yet. It didn't seem like lunchtime to me, but I'd had breakfast before we started driving at 2a that night where Matthew hadn't. His body was telling him to eat where mine just said keep moving. The wind had started to pick up and we were exposed out in the meadow. We found a small forest of trees in the middle of the meadow where we stopped to get something to eat. I'd hoped the trees would shelter us from the wind some, but it simply whistled right through. Matthew unwrapped his cold pizza and ate two slices before declaring himself satiated. I ate a few NutriGrain bars and started to shiver while I sat there on my pack. It was getting colder.
Off again, we crossed the second small stream and then began the climb. From the topo it seemed the first part would be the steepest and hardest. It was certainly the steepest - nearly to the point where we would be concerned about avalanches, each step a great effort to lift foot and body upwards. Ever since we had donned our snowshoes Matthew had relinquished the lead. Where he had started off as the hare I couldn't keep up with, I was now the slow but steady tortoise with Matthew the even slower tortoise behind. It was hard work. Once we had climbed the first 500ft the angle did ease some, but still relentlessly upward - we had 2,500ft to go. The ridgeline we had come up to was cleared of trees, like a wide firebreak or a rocky outcropping. We couldn't tell if the clearing was natural or not, but it provided us some additional visibility upwards and aided in finding our location on the map. Another 500ft up and we took a break to get out some more clothes - the wind was blowing harder the higher we went. The windy ridge had the blessing of more compact, wind-blown snow, but it was also exposed and cold. We checked our map and for a short while I thought we might be only a few hundred feet from Lola North, an encouraging hope. But as we resumed our climb we found I had mistook the next ridge to our left for a different one, and we were quite a ways off still.
After we'd climbed 1,500ft the conditions were growing more miserable and we were growing more tired. I wondered if my heavy mittens would be able to keep my fingers from freezing. I had an inner pair of wool mittens and so far they were keeping my fingers pliable. My toes had hours before gone numb making my feet little better than stumps with snowshoes attached. They would be alright - it was the pressure from the straps that was cutting circulation there. But my fingers worried every time I removed a glove to retrieve the map or take a photo. Matthew was slowing down further and I found myself cursing him under my breath to keep up. He had done nothing to create fault, but it felt better to have a target for venting, and at the moment it was him. Matthew commented that this was now officially his hardest outing ever, even surpassing the 18hr marathon South Guard dayhike. It was hard, but it didn't seem that hard to me, and we'd only been out six hours to boot. Much of the difficulty was probably related to Matthew's relative inexperience on snowshoes, with only one other outing. It was certainly much harder than a typical summer climb and my calves were feeling the extra workout.
In the past I'd always avoided rocks when using the snowshoes to reduce the wear and tear the rocks and dry earth would subject them to. Now I couldn't find enough windswept gravelly areas to walk across. It was nice to be able to walk and climb with less effort, but these sections didn't seem to last more than a hundred yards or so. When we joined with the Northeast Ridge after another 500ft of climbing, we had both good and bad fortune. The good news came in the form of a snowmobile track, a rider having ridden up from the Northeast Ridge. This made following our route much easier. The bad news was that the wind was howling even stronger, over 30mph, probably closer to 40mph. I could no longer venture into my hip pack for the camera for fear my fingers would not re-warm. It wouldn't have mattered much as there wasn't much to photograph other than ourselves being pelted by blowing snow. After almost 2,500ft of climbing from Perazzo Meadow, we finally topped out on Mt. Lola North, really just a small bump on the North Ridge of the higher Mt. Lola. I scouted around the area looking for all the possible highpoints and any evidence of a register while Matthew struggled to catch up. Not finding anything amongst the rocks, I ducked down on the leeward side of the hill into some trees in an effort to get out of the brunt of the wind. It worked, and I started to feel relief from the desperation that grips me when confronted with a relentless wind for such a long period of time.
Matthew joined my amongst the trees and we had a snack while figuring out what to do next. We had reached one of our objectives, the highpoint of Sierra County, but Mt. Lola, the main object, was another 400ft higher and more than a mile further. By now my fingers were all numb. The wind, cold, and elevation had combined to overcome the thermal insulating capabilities of my mittens. I asked Matthew what he wanted to do, knowing that I'd have to say turn back even if he voted to go on. His reply was as much a suggestion for retreat as I've ever gotten out of him even when he's dead tired, something like, "I wouldn't mind if we turned back now." And so we did. Mt. Lola would wait for another day, though I don't know if it will be a winter one.
Once decided, I wanted to get back pronto, while Matthew seemed sluggish. He wasn't feeling too great, and we both knew that lower altitude would help, so I used that to try to prompt quicker action. In due time we climbed back out of our partially wind-protected enclave, back into the fierce winds on the ridge. But now we were going downhill and this made all the difference in the world. We struck off following what we could of ours and the snowmobile tracks. It didn't matter much on the wind-blown ridge since the snow wasn't very deep. When the tracks headed downhill on the northeast side where we'd first picked them up, we were once again in the trees, out of the wind and in the deeper snow. But the snowmobile tracks were the equivalent of a boarded walkway across a swamp, allowing us to make good time across them.
The tracks brought us in due time down to Cold Stream Canyon, but we left them when they turned south away from our exit route. We saw two snowmobiles down below in Cold Stream Meadow doing donuts, running amok, and generally looking to be having much more fun than we were. I don't know if they spotted us hiking down the hillside, but they left before we got to the creek and the meadow, and before we could find the tracks they made getting into the canyon. Where we'd left the tracks the hillside was steep, so descending through the steep snow was not terribly difficult, in fact it was rather fun. We came down to the 4x4 road shown on Suttle's map, but there were no tracks to be found on it. It would be an arduous 4 miles or so back to the main road if we had to cut tracks ourselves the whole way. There didn't seem to be much option (it was possible the snowmobiles we saw entered the canyon from the south, so going out to the meadow to find their tracks didn't seem likely to be fruitful) so we turned north and followed the road on the west side of creek. It was tough going, but at least my fingers had warmed back up with the extra workout. Matthew followed in my tracks some 30 or 40 yards back, happy to have someone packing the snow for him, though not as nicely as the snowmobiles do. And for my part I was starting to think this next four miles was going to take another four hours or worse. After about 15 minutes of this, and constantly scanning through the woods to the other side of the creek, I caught a glimpse of what I thought were tracks on that side. I stopped and waited for Matthew to catch up and asked his opinion. He was happy to imagine they were tracks as much as myself, so we convinced ourselves it was worth a creek-crossing to find out.
The creekbed was lined with several feet of heavy, unblemished snow, with the creek gurgling and burbling its way down the meandering center, about half of the creek covered, the rest under an untrustworthy layer of snow. We edged our way down to the side, then I stepped across hesitatingly, testing the footing with both my poles and lighter taps with my snowshoe before I was ready to commit. Then I started with a lunge so that my momentum might carry me to the other bank should the snowbank give way underneath. It held, thankfully. I climbed up the steep bank on the opposite side and waited for Matthew to join me. We waded through the deep snow to what turned out to be the snowmobile tracks we'd suspected. Whew. The hard part seemed behind us though we had many miles to go still, and it was now almost 4p.
We followed the tracks north for a mile, then east as they left Cold Stream Canyon and followed a northeasterly course. It was starting to get darker and we could hear the snowmobiles on the far side of the Little Truckee River roaring by, likely heading back home for the day. We weren't really sure where we were, but we knew we had to head north and east, mostly east. When we got to a trail junction we paused. I expected the right turn to lead to Independence Lake to the south, and so bet on a left turn. Matthew's compass showed the left turn to be heading west, so we went right instead. Good thing we had a compass or we would have ended up back at Perazzo Meadow again. After another mile it was too dark to see adequately, so we stopped to get out our headlamps. We also packed up our snowshoes, betting that the tracks were firm enough to walk on as we had done in the morning. It also started snowing lightly, and would continue to do so on and off the rest of the evening. For the next three miles we had no navigation issues, just heading generally east. We kept hoping for a bridge to take us over the river, but none presented itself.
It was completely dark when I came to another junction. This one had heavy tracks going in all directions. Matthew was several hundred yards back now, I couldn't see the light from his lamp. I sat down in the middle of the junction, turned off my headlamp, and waited. It was eerily quiet, the last of the snowmobiles had made their way out some time ago. Oddly, none of them had crossed our path the whole day - they were always somewhere off on another road or trail, but never on the road we travelled at the same time. I sat silent as Matthew finally made his way to the junction. He looked around, then back at the ground to see if he could follow my footprints in the muddle of snowmobile tracks, wondering which way I'd gone. He stopped, backtracked, then followed my trail to within about 5 yards of me. I growled like a bear to try and spook him, but I was either a terrible bear immitator or Matthew was just too tired to be scarable by now.
We found the four-way junction confusing, not matching our map which showed a three-way junction. The compass added to the confusion, as it showed the left turn (which seemed the most likely to lead to a bridge across the river) to be heading almost due west. We started off in the northeast direction, but I had doubts after only 50 feet or so. We talked some more and decided to take the west-heading route. I was sure the bridge would appear in the next quarter mile or so, otherwise we would come back and take the northeast route. A quarter mile came and went, and doubts crept back in. We kept going. We were closer to the creek now, and soon a bridge appeared. Standing on it and peering down to the creek below with the light of our weak headlamps, it was impossible to tell which way the creek was flowing at this point. Good thing we had a compass with us or we might have been wandering about all night since we had few other good clues.
On the other side of the bridge we climbed a short ways to a junction with the main road that Matthew recognized from the beginning of the day. I had forgotten the junction signs altogether though I had taken a picture of them. It was a little more than a mile to go, and we couldn't have been more thankful. As we started to leave two bright headlamps attached to snowmobiles rode up coming from the trailhead. The leader slowed down and asked if we were OK, to which we signalled affirmatively. They then sped off, out for a night ride it would seem. We arrived back at 7:15p, 12 hours after setting off. "Tired" would be one way to describe or little epic, but exhausted would be more accurate. We drove back to Truckee and got a room in town, not wanting to drive the additional hour to South Lake Tahoe - we would tackle that drive in the morning when a good night's sleep and some daylight would make it more enjoyable.
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Mt. Lola North
This page last updated: Thu Apr 3 07:24:43 2008
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