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

Mt. Wilson, CA (5710’/4200′ elev gain/14 mi)

What an absolutely wonderful hike from beginning to end!  The only negative part was having to wake up at 4:30 to be able to park at Chantry Flats before all lots filled.  I actually arrived at 6:30 and the lot was already filled so I had to park on the side of the road…Oh well, what can you do? Life is still very good! Haha!  I went to Adam’s Pack Station to get an Adventure Day Pass and a delicious hot cup of coffee because my eyeballs were still sealed shut.  The white billy goat didn’t want to wake up and I know, felt my pain.

I embarked upon my trek at around 7ish and decided to hike to Sturtevant Falls to see the water flow.  The water crossings were very easy and uneventful.  I was amazed at how green and lush the vegetation was after so many years of drought.  It was an overcast, cool, windless day…Perfect weather for hiking!

After the falls, I took the Gabrielino Trail to Spruce Grove Campground.  This was the first campground I ever stayed at by myself.  It was a test to see if I liked to overnight camp solo.  Well, I guess, it was successful. I have been hiking pretty much by myself ever since…And hence, my trail name, Solo Yolo! There are so many people that feel that you should always have a partner when you hike in case something happens…My thought on this is…”What is going to happen will.” Just do your best to be prepared.  I have found that I thoroughly enjoy my solitude and will never sacrifice this opportunity in order to listen to others’ fears.  Come what may and I will deal with it. That being said, Spruce Grove is a fantastic campground, complete with two stinky outhouses and several flat pads with fire rings. There’s a nice year-around stream that runs behind the camp for water.  Great place to spend a night…

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After Spruce Grove, the ascent begins.  It’s not long before you reach Sturtevant Camp with it’s many small cabins, swing, hammocks, volley ball court, and recreation room.  Many people rent the cabins as well as Girl/Boy Scouts.  When I arrived, there was hot water for coffee and oatmeal…So very cool! I just had to imbibe in the offerings!

Nice refreshing rest to get ready for the switchbacks to the summit (Sturtevant Trail).  I loved the adrenaline rush as my heart was pumping and my sweat was pouring.  I’d stop to catch my breath for a minute here and there, but pushed forward.  I don’t know about you, but I do love the burn and the competitive nature of the climb.  The feeling is most certainly addictive.  Finally, after about an hour, I reached the summit.  I was welcomed with the view Mt. Wilson Observatory, as well as being above the clouds.

I was so excited upon reaching the summit that I had to hug a sign in celebration! Haha!

img_9879Time for the decent…I took the Mt. Wilson Trail to the Upper Winter Trail.  I was expecting all downhill, but was pleasantly surprised (NOT!) that there was a bit of incline with the Upper Trail (lol), but it wasn’t too bad.  The entire trail was beautiful, well marked, and clear for easy navigation.  My feet were sore, but my heart and soul were happy when I finally made it back to Adam’s Pack Station for a much deserved beer!  They have excellent grilled hamburgers as well.  Absolutely awesome hike and my first peak bagged of my Six-Pack of Peaks!!!

Stellar hike, stellar view, stellar exercise…Priceless! Happy Trails! ~Solo Yolo

Directions to Chantry Flats (Sturtevant Falls):

Take the 210 to Santa Anita Ave. and head north.  It is a very windy road, but a straight shot to Chantry Flats.  Make sure you arrive very early as the parking lot fills up by 6:30/7am on the weekends.  The entry gate is opened at 6am, unless there is weather/road condition closures.  Wilderness Pass must be displayed.  You may purchase a daily pass from Adam’s Pack Station for $5.  Annual passes will hopefully be available in February.

SoCal Hiker’s Blog of the Trails

Adams Pack Station

Sturtevant Camp

Info on road conditions/closures to Chantry Flats

Wilderness Pass Permits

John’s Meadow Overnight Snowshoe Trip, CA (7200′)

Nestled in the Southern California mountains of the San Gorgonio Wilderness, this short six mile trek provides you with the beauty and tranquility of the forest, solitude (during the winter only), as well as an awesome workout!

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John’s Meadow, San Gorgonio Wilderness, CA

The trail starts off of Jenks Lake Road West of Highway 38 in Angelus Oaks.  Make sure to carry cables/chains because the parking area is off a dirt road that may not be plowed.  The actual trail is hard to find in the winter. Go past the trailhead signage about a 100 yds where the dirt road begins to steepen and veers to the right.  You’ll see a sign for John’s Meadow if you’re on the right trail.  Not many people venture out on this trail during the winter, so odds are you’ll be making fresh tracks!

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Fresh Tracks!

Although I had my Delorme InReach, I enjoyed following animal tracks much of the way to camp.  I followed deer, coyote, rabbit, and bear tracks, something that I would most likely not have seen during the summer months.  I probably should’ve followed my map a little more as I did some steep sections and went through some shrubs, a little problematic with snowshoes! I cursed a few times or so! But hey, it’s the journey that matters, right?!! I think…

Right before camp is Forsee Creek.  It’s basically the only water supply during the summer months.  Crossing the creek is a little treacherous in snowshoes as there’s snow and ice covering the stream.  I grabbed a handful of bushes and propped my poles on logs and rocks to cross.  I probably should’ve taken off my snowshoes, but I was too darn lazy and confident I could make it across.  Thankfully, I didn’t fall in!  It wasn’t deep, but had freezing water with logs and rocks that would’ve been difficult to get out of.  Plus, being wet in the winter is a sure path to hyperthermia. Needless to say, I made it safely across and patted myself on the back for my success!

Less than 1/4 mile more is the glorious John’s Meadow.  Actually is not all that glorious, but very pretty, pristine, and you’re all alone, which makes it absolutely wonderful!  You can camp pretty much anywhere that you can find relative flat ground and away from hazards.  I was amazed at how much growth had happened since my last winter trek here.  I couldn’t camp in my same spot, but did find an area close by.  I stamped out a flat area with my snowshoes and made my condensation channels (as I have named them) for my tent.  I erected my North Face Assault 2 4-season tent, and had my Rumchata, Vodka, Malibu Rum “Boat Drink” to celebrate setting up camp and enjoying my solitude.

The evening was amazing with it’s absence of wind, dry temperatures, and a waning crescent that allowed for brilliantly bright stars to be gazed upon.  As always, I hit the hay shortly after eating and going through my normal nightly routine.  I was pleasantly pleased that absolutely no condensation built up on the walls of my single-walled tent.  WhooHoo! Life is good without darn condensation drips.  Although I probably shouldn’t say this, but I do pride myself on having an iron bladder during the night! I will, at all costs, refrain from having to get my clothes and boots on in order to go out of the tent, into the darkness of the forest, to take a tinkle…After all, there might be ANIMALS out there! Haha! But alas, nature called, so I had to acquiesce to its request! That was the only negative to the entire night.  The evening was just about perfect! 😉

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Good night! Sleep tight!

I am not an early riser, as my family and friends well know, even though I do wake up early.  I took my time getting up, performed my morning ritual of brushing teeth and making coffee.  I’ve always bragged about my $35 MSR stove special from Big 5, until this time.  It is a propane canister stove, and unbeknownst to me, freezes during cold temps.  I took the same stove last time, but I cooked in the vestibule of the tent, so it was warmer, and I didn’t have any problems.  Well, I had to shake it every so often to keep the flame going because the gas was freezing…Don’t mess with a woman and her coffee, let me tell you!

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Morning view through the tent vestibule

I broke camp and made my way back to the trailhead.  The journey back was a lot easier because it was easier to follow the trail going back and I didn’t make so many arduous climbs or bushwacking through shrubs.  Again, the weather blessed me with sunshine and no wind.  I never saw a soul the entire trip, postholed, made fresh tracks, followed animals, and had a starlit evening.  This is what life is about…Enjoying nature and getting in touch with your soul.  Now it’s time for Mexican Food! Buena comida and well deserved!!!

Happy Trails! ~Solo Yolo

Directions to trailhead: Hwy 38 to Angelus Oaks.  Turn right on Jenks Lake Rd West.  After about 1/3 mile, turn right again and go a half mile to Forsee Creek Trailhead parking.  A Forest Service Adventure Pass must be displayed.  Use the San Gorgonio Wilderness/Big Bear Lake topo map for this area. Wilderness permits available through Mill Creek Ranger Station (909) 382-2882.

Mill Creek Ranger Station

San Bernardino National Forest Home Page