3-Day Winter Mountaineering Course in the Sierra (Twin Lakes, Bridgeport, CA)

I’ve been winter snowshoeing and camping on many occasions, but this was the first time in eXtreme conditions.  The Sierra Mountains are as stunning and spectacular as they are relentless and unforgiving.  We are but mere specs in its vastness and power…As it very well should be.  

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Twin Lakes/Mono Village (Bridgeport, CA)

I had been looking forward to this trip for several months.  I conducted a winter equipment research, bought high quality gear, and tested it out in my local mountains.  Now, consequently, I’m in the poor house, and must sell my first born! 😉 It’s amazing how expensive gortex and waterproof gear are! Wow! Plus, of course, I purchased many items at the height of the season.  My lot in life! Haha!  Finally the weekend came.  I was a little nervous at the prospect of climbing, as I am a hiker, not a mountain climber, but I thought that this was a perfect time to fine tune my winter backpacking skills, as well as to broaden my horizons, and maybe, just maybe, find a new hobby.  You know what that means…More gear!!!  

I drove to Bridgeport, rather early the day before the trip, because I wanted to make it to my destination prior the snow storm and before Hwy 395 could close down.  I reserved a quaint cabin room at Virginia Lakes Settlement.  Virginia Lakes Settlement Motel is quite the find, and a precious little gem!  It has it’s own restaurant, motel rooms, and small cabins along side a small gently flowing creek.  It is only a couple miles from Bridgeport and half the cost of the lodging in town.  

I ate a wonderful meal in the restaurant, then hit the sack early so that I could be well-rested for my adventure.  Unfortunately, I had difficulty sleeping that night because I was so damn excited! I woke up to repack my backpack at 2am.  I know, crazy! I tried to figure out items that I didn’t need in order to make my pack lighter.  I am always amazed at how heavy winter backpacking is!  My backpack had to weigh between 50-55 lbs after I took out a few things. That’s it!  I am going to build a sled for next year’s winter excursions!

Finally, the morning came and I actually made it to the meeting place (Ruby Inn) on time! WhooHoo! Things were falling into place.  I met the two mountain guides (Joe/Ross) and the other clients.  The guides handed out gear and also checked to make sure we had what we needed for winter mountaineering.  After about two hours, we caravanned to Twin Lakes/Mono Village to embark upon our journey.

The first part was a meadow, very flat and extremely easy.  I said to myself…Oh, this is going to be a “cake walk”! Hahahaha…Not! We quickly crossed a log bridge, tested our beacons, and then it was up, Up, UP!  Switchback after switchback, up the ridge, we went. Tirelessly, we pushed.  Along the way,  we were like the hobbits with first, second, and third lunches.  A glorified, 10 minute stop here and there to drink, eat, and rearrange gear.  The guides were slave drivers! Hahaha! I can honestly say that all of us were working hard and huffing and puffing, even the guides!  One of my fellow hikers said that he went from a kid to an old man on the course of the trek to our camp.  I thought he meant that he was giddy at beginning, but he meant that he complained like a kid would, which was then transformed to that of the complaints of an old man! He provided me a great description of how he felt and many others, including me a “tad bit” at times! Haha! After several hours of postholing, slipping, sliding, digging in deep with every step in our snowshoes…We finally made it to camp! WhooHoo! I was so excited that I brought out my Rumchata in celebration.  The tribe was a little reluctant to try my milky goodness…But hey, all the more for me right?!!

We each picked out a spot for our tents and erected them.  Mine took quite sometime because of all the tie downs, which would become a problem on the last day.  I chose what I thought was a perfect spot, but hindsight…It was not the best.  Now, I know to pay closer attention to wind direction and choose a spot that doesn’t have a slope and is better protected by trees.  It’s all about the learning experience, right? After setting up our tent, bedding and living area, we dug out a kitchen and privy for our use for the rest of the trip.  The storm blew in by this time, so we spent dinner and the rest of the evening trying to keep warm.  Dinner (vegetarian mac-n-cheese) was good, but cold because of the outside temps.  Needless to say, we hit the hay early, plus we were going to get up a 3:30am, if the weather cooperated in order to climb Matterhorn Peak (12,267′).  Evening was uneventful, and as always, I tossed and turned.  I had never had a tent buddy who I didn’t know before, but he (Alex) ended up being a wonderful companion.  He never moved an inch at night, nor did he snore! Plus, we engaged in some damn good conversation.  He was perfect!  The wind howled all night and a fair amount of snow fell.  I had the feeling that we were not going to be able to summit the next day. Ahhhhh, the sweet feeling of being able to sleep in!  Priceless!!!

Because of the weather and avalanche danger, we were able to sleep in and have a relaxing breakfast. After breakfast, we put on our snowshoes, with ice axes and shovels in hand. The guides lectured us about avalanche awareness, finding a buried beacon, and the importance of getting to a victim within 15 min. if possible.  We also learned how to self-arrest and build snow shelters (snow trench and snow cave).  It was a very productive day and I learned a wealth of knowledge about backcountry winter camping/hiking.  The day was cut short because the brunt of the storm moved in.  We climbed in our tents at around 4pm. The guides delivered our dinner to the tents.  The dinner was absolutely delicious (salmon/sun dried tomatoes/walnut/parmesan cheese pasta).  The meal was hot and succulent.  Hands down, it was one of the best meals I’ve ever had in the backcountry.

That night, the winds were hellacious and the drifting snow sounded like waves crashing against the tent.  A couple times the wind became so severe that I thought I was going to become Dorothy and find myself in the land of OZ.  Again, it was a restless evening.  At 7am, the guides came through and told us that we needed to tear down camp quickly because the storm was not letting up and blizzard conditions were forming.  Over 100 mph winds were recorded on some of the Sierra peaks later that day!  I had to dig myself out of the tent because of the snow drifts and new fallen snow.  Because of the location I picked, as well at how deep we dug the stakes, it was very difficult to retrieve them.  We had to dig quite deep to get them out.  I learned to pick a spot that is a little more sheltered and not to bury the stakes quite so deep.  I had to ask others for help to get the tent torn down, because everyone was standing around waiting  for us.  It was a pretty stressful moment with the wind, snow, and time constraints.  Because of trying to get to lower elevation quickly, we did not make breakfast, and worse yet…No COFFEE! Ugggghhhh, this woman does not do well un-caffeinated.  But alas, I did survive.

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Stormy Sierra Sunset

We left camp and encountered white out blizzard conditions, until we hiked to a lower elevation.  It was a very hard snowshoe trip out because of the deep powder.  We were slipping along the side slope and sinking in…Even the guides were having a tough time.  The lead guide mentioned that he loves guiding people, but that he never would have gone mountaineering on a day like this.  Unfortunately when you make advance reservations, you have no idea what kind of weather you will encounter.  I was unable to capture photos of the blizzard because of technical difficulties (batteries) and time constraints, but it was definitely “Nature’s Fury” out there!  I’m glad that I picked a wild weather weekend…It gave me the skills and confidence to be able to handle severe weather in the future.  Weather can change in a moment and it’s always beneficial and necessary to be prepared.

By the time we got out of the weather and into the trees, we were soaked inside out.  All of us were thankful when the cars and civilization came into view.  Even though the weather didn’t cooperate, the trip was exciting and the knowledge I gained will aid me in my future endeavors.  All of the people on the trip were wonderful and very helpful!  What a awesome experience it was!  I’d do it again in a heartbeat.  My only complaint was that I wasn’t able to learn any climbing or crampon techniques…I guess that leaves something to learn and experience for next time!

Happy Trails! ~Solo Yolo

Guiding Company Critique:  The Intro Mountaineering Course I took was through International/California Alpine Guides.  Overall, the rating I give them is 6/10.  The paperwork, prior to the trip, was streamlined and flawless.  The company and the lead guide called me a week before the trip to touch base and answer any questions I had.  The guides were very personable, and  knowledgable about avi training and winter survival.  I am confident that they would have been adept at teaching me climbing techniques as well. Some of the negatives were that the guides (company) weren’t as well prepared as I would’ve wanted (forgotten items and gear not tested before the next trip) and the equipment, which other clients borrowed, was quite old and in need of repair.  I had all my own gear, so this was not an issue for me.  Some of the items forgotten were: climbing rope, batteries for headlamp, tent vestibule poles, shovel, ice axe, coffee filters, etc.)  Granted, many of the clients requested a lot of gear, but a thorough check by the hired guide company of the equipment and supplies should be of paramount importance.  Other clients I have spoken to say nothing, but good things about this company.  This might have been a rare occurrence, but one that left me a little dissatisfied. There are many guiding companies in the area, which I will list below.  This is not an exhaustive list, but one to start from.  Do your research and choose one that fits your needs and whom you feel comfortable with.

International Alpine Guides

Invaluable Resource: Ned Tibbits, Director at Mountain Education, Inc. is extremely knowledgable of the area and wilderness safety and skills.  His company is based out of South Lake Tahoe and provides clinics in the Sierra as well as WA.  His focus is long haul hiking and being able to be successful in the backcountry for periods of longer than 30 days.  He comes highly recommended and a must for people wanting to thru-hike.  I am planning to take a course through his company, even though my longest planned hike will be the JMT.  I follow him on FB, and he is an invaluable resource.

Mountain Education, inc.

Trip information:

Lodging: Virginia Creek Settlement

Directions: Bridgeport to Mono Village

Mono County Tourism: Horse Creek Trail

Great Eats: Rhino Bar and Grille

Other Local Alpine Guides:

Sierra Mountain Guides

Sierra Mountaineering International

Alpine Skills International

SWS Mountain Guides

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