Snow Camping Adventure (Part One)

Our group assembles in a dark parking lot at 5:00 am. Everyone is sleepy, but the excitement is palpable. For most of the Scouts, this will be their first snow camping trip. They have been hearing about winter camping for years, and now it is their turn to participate. It will be difficult, but they hope it will also be fun.

Scouts shift backpacks, snowshoes, food, and emergency clothing from vehicle to vehicle. It takes a lot of gear to go snow camping and the cars are very crowded. Every available space, including the tops of the SUVs, are covered with equipment. Eventually, the boys climb inside, nestle themselves comfortably among the packs and sleeping bags, and promptly fall asleep. The drive to Bear Valley takes about three hours and there is no talking along the way, only the voices from an early morning talk show on the radio. The sky lightens as wipers move back and forth to clear rain and eventually snow from the windshield. The weather is not good.

The SnoPark area is empty when we arrive, so the vehicles can be unloaded right next to the trailhead. Scouts pull on their extra layers of clothing and start a pack line in the snow. We dig in our packs for gloves and hats. Candy bars are distributed to increase our energy level. Boys struggle with their snowshoes because attaching the straps is difficult and requires strength. It takes about an hour to get everything organized.

“How far are we going to hike?” the youngest Scout asks nervously. He knows that hiking on snowshoes with a heavy pack is not going to be easy. “We hike until the weakest man drops and then we start building our snow caves,” is my answer. He looks at me warily, but does not respond. Everyone considers the implications and wonders if they might be the weakest man in the line. The sky is now grey and snow is falling steadily. Temperature is in the low 30’s.

Getting Ready to hike across the snow

Getting Ready to Hike

Everyone is cold because we have stripped off our warmth layer before hoisting our backpacks into place. The mood is serious and determined. Snowshoes are strapped tight to our feet. The leader gives the signal to start moving. We set off through the snow.

The oldest and strongest Scout is in front, breaking his way through the knee-high white powder. Six Scouts and four adults fall into line behind him, taking care to place their snowshoes into the path that is being created in front of them. The last man is called the sweep. He has the easiest time of it because the snow is packed down by the men in front. However, the sweep has to bend over and retrieve things that have fallen into the snow. Most often it is a sandwich or bag of cookies that have dropped from a ripped lunch bag that was stuffed under a strap on the outside of a backpack by shivering fingers.

Our leader stops every 50 yards to rest and look for the trail. There are blue diamonds on some of the trees to mark our way, but it’s easy to miss them because the branches are covered in snow. Mostly the Scouts follow the path of least resistance, which means that we are not making good time. Our trail snakes and weaves around the trees and rocks. A Scout accidently places one snowshoe on top of the other and topples sideways into the deep snow. The heavy pack and awkward balance makes it difficult for the fallen adventurer to get back onto his feet without help. Eventually he makes it back into an upright position. Everyone is getting tired.

After about a mile, the group stops moving. An argument has broken out. “Are we going in the right direction?” a Scout demands to know. The leaders try to reassure him, but exhaustion has taken its toll on their spirit. A few are starting to shiver. Slowly, everyone realizes that standing in the snow to debate our next step is a waste of time and energy. No one is happy, but everyone begins moving again. We are getting close.

From the back, we watch an adult leader pitch forward into the snow, the weight of his pack pinning him down. His muffled cursing is barely audible above the wind. The man rolls over and we see from the look on his face and the snow in his hair that he won’t be going any further. The weakest man has dropped. We have arrived at our campsite.

Scouts on Skis (and Boards)

We arrive in Arnold just before midnight after a slow trip through a sputtering snowstorm on a windy mountain road.  The boys explode into the mountain cabin like hornets, full of energy after the long ride.  They rush up and down the stairs, looking through the rooms and scoping out the accommodations.  Most are anxious  to claim a sleeping space because beds are in short supply and there will be competition to sleep in them.  Some younger boys just dash for the bathrooms.  The adults are outside unloading the vehicles in the snow. 

The cabin is large and comfortable.  The Troop fills it completely.  Scouts are on the top two floors.  Adults claim the bottom floor.  The leaders say a prayer that the Scouts don’t knock a hole in the wall or set anything on fire.  (There was a hefty security deposit.)  Boys are gathered in the television room upstairs, watching a movie on the VCR.  Adults are trying to sleep.  Eventually everyone settles in for the night.

According to the schedule, we should be up at 7:00 am so we can get to the lifts early.  Cooks start laying out cereal, fruit, muffins, and milk in the kitchen.  Everyone else is racing around trying to find their clothes.  Loud shouts fill the cabin.  “Who took my gloves ?”  “Anyone seen my long underwear?”  “How much is lunch going to cost?”  Youth leaders try to establish some sort of order but chaos and energy  overwhelms hierarchy every time.   It’s like herding cats, but eventually everyone gets into a vehicle and we are on our way.  The weather is cold but at least it’s not snowing anymore.

At Bear Valley, our SUVs are guided into parking spaces facing newly plowed piles of snow.  We struggle into our ski clothes and pull out our equipment.  It takes a while to hobble awkwardly across the parking lot in our ski boots, fill out the forms, buy lift tickets, pick up maps, set some ground rules (meet no later than 4:00 pm), and make sure the snowboarders actually put on their wrist protectors.  A few lucky adults move quickly to the chair lifts with boys who have their own equipment and are ready to go.  They are promptly whisked away to begin their first runs of the day. 

Scouts trying to stand on skis

Scouts at Bear Valley

Everyone else gets in line to rent their skis or snow boards.  Most also want to get signed up for lessons because it is their first time.  An hour later, we are all finally on the snow and ready for a little fun.  The boys  taking lessons walk off to find their instructors.  The rest head for the nearest slopes.

Our little group had lessons last year, so we leave the lodge and head toward the beginner’s lift a hundred yards away.  Progress is slow.  There are four Scouts, but only three are actually upright and moving forward at any given time.  One after the other, boys lunge forward and then collapse into the soft snow.  And just when one works his way back to his feet, another falls sideways.   Again and again and again.  By the time we cover the short distance and make it into the short lift line,  all the Scouts are covered in white snowflakes from head to toe.   

The line moves forward and two boarders in front get whisked away by the chair lift.  A couple of Scouts scramble to take their places in front of the moving chair.  The chair lift swings around and comes up behind them just as the Scout on the left drops his pole.  He bends over and reaches for the pole, but gets hit in the butt by the chair lift.  He falls sideways, and collides with his buddy.  With arms waving, they both fall down, but one immediately leaps back up to see what happened.  The aluminum chair scrapes the knit hat off his head and continues up the mountain. 

The attendant jumps to turn off the lift and pull the two Scouts out of harm’s way.   After a little cajoling, everyone is back in line with their poles and hats.  We all make it onto the lift this time without major mishap and ride to the top of the greenest slope in Bear Valley.  (Ski slopes are color-coded as to difficulty.  Green is the easiest.)  All four Scouts tumble out of lift chair at the top, fall to their knees, and crawl away so they don’t get run over by the people in the next chair. 

Eventually, all four are standing unsteadily at the top of the Ego Alley run, adjusting their goggles and hats, taking deep breaths, and moving their feet tentatively.  Eventually, they bend their knees and start moving slowly but surely down the hill.  It’s not pretty to watch, but three of the Scouts make it all the way to the bottom without falling.  (The fourth boy has an equipment problem.  After his binding is fixed, he takes off in pursuit of his friends.)  With their confidence more or less restored, there is no problem with the chair lift next time and they ski happily for the rest of the day.

Scout gets up after falling down

After a tough Black Diamond run.

A command post has been created in the dining area, a kind of ground zero for tired and wet Scouts.  By the middle of the afternoon, most of the Troop is crammed around a couple of tables drinking hot chocolate and peeling off wet clothes.  As they come in from their last run, each Scout steps around a pile of jackets decorated by colorful gloves, scarves, and hats.  When everyone is accounted for, we collect our things and head for the cars.  Dinner has to be cooked and cabin clean-up duties must be assigned.  Then a short night’s sleep (interrupted by loud talking, laughter, and the occasional banging of something thrown across the room).  In the morning we will get up and do it all again.

Bear Valley is a popular ski/board destination for Northern California Troops.  From the East Bay, the drive time is only about three hours and there is seldom the traffic jams you see in Tahoe.  They have a good merit badge program and  discounts for Scouts who rent equipment.  (Both must be arranged ahead of time. )  The ski area is a little on the small side, but the variety of the runs will satisfy all but the Black Diamond skiers in your group.

Fall Backpacking in the Ventana Wilderness

The coastline between Carmel and Big Sur is among the most beautiful places in the entire world.  The ocean views are staggering and the road is an engineering marvel.  Most incredible, the incessant ocean swells continually slam into the partially submerged rocks and send enormous plumes of water heavenward, creating a constantly changing but breathtakingly beautiful, natural fountain.  From the pink glow in the darkening sky, we already know it’s going to be a good weekend for backpacking.

In Northern California, there are only a few good places for backpacking in the Fall (unless you like snow) and the Monterrey area is one of the best.  The area provides hundreds of trails (many overgrown and unmaintained) and lots of scenic views and interesting history.  A huge fire ripped through the Ventana Wilderness area a couple of years back, but the rangers have just reopened the trails to backpackers.  Our group, consisting of four well-traveled Scout Leaders,  is anxious to see the destruction – and especially the rebirth – of the forest.

We arrive at an almost empty Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park after dark and get our pick of first-rate campsites.  The Pine Ridge Trail, which connects with the famous Sykes hot springs, runs a few hundred yards from where we sleep and there is a plan to be on this trail at first light.  (All we have to do is get up before dawn.)  The diligent Park Hosts drop by before breakfast to make sure the $35 camping fee is paid and tell us that Condor sightings are increasingly common along the coast. 

We load Beardsley (the name of our trustworthy Toyota Sequoia) and drive down to Big Sur Station, about a mile south on Highway 1.  Our leader secures a stove permit and confirms the overnight parking rules ($4 per vehicle per night at the trailhead).  Walking away, the Ranger points out three dark images circling high in the sky.  California Condors.  A good omen.

The trail to Sykes is difficult, especially for beginners.  There are very few flat stretches and almost every step is either going up or down a steep hill.  (About 5,000 feet elevation gain and loss over the 23 mile round trip.)  There are few places to pump water.   For much of the way, steep drop-offs (in some places actual cliffs) border the path and because of the fire, much of the trail is damaged or obstructed by fallen trees, especially over the last three miles.  As an added bonus, hikers must cross the Big Sur River right at the end, within site of the small and crowded camping area.  (Bring your water shoes.)  However, the hot springs and party atmosphere are big attractions, so despite the difficulties,  Sykes is always full of young hikers looking for a fun break from their college studies.  (Many bring alcohol to enhance their enjoyment.)

The best place to spend the night is Barlow Flat (8 miles) with a day hike to Sykes (about 3.5 miles each way).  Barlow Flat is nicer than Sykes, quieter, and possessed of more level,  open space for pitching tents.  There is a also great swimming area where the Big Sur River deepens along a sandy turn.  (Big groups can cross the river to find a private meadow that will hold an entire Venture Crew.)  There are even wilderness toilets nearby.

Since it is late in the year, darkness comes early to Barlow Flat.  Our tents are under a grove of tall redwood trees, which block out the moon and most of the stars.  Fires are prohibited.  So we sit in the deepening shadows, increasingly shrouded by the same primordial darkness that you experience in deep caves like Moaning Cavern.  It’s pitch black.  Someone turns on a flashlight to check the time.  Almost 7:30 pm.  The camp stove is soon lit and noisy blue flames provide a small fragment of artificial daylight until the fuel runs out a short time later.  It’s getting cold.  Time to crawl into our sleeping bags until morning.

The hike back to Big Sur Station is spectacular!  Traveling west, we are facing the ocean and see it often, framed against the rugged, green hillsides.  The river roars far below us, and it appears regularly as we move up, down and around on the steep trails.  Even now, in early November, the sun shines brightly and the temperature stays in the mid 60s.  The effects of the fire are noticeable, and in some cases remarkable, but they do not diminish our enjoyment of the experience.  There are few better places for late-season backpacking than Ventana Wilderness.

Many first-time visitors to Sykes cannot find the hot springs because they are so far away from the camping area.  To get to the hot springs, cross the river and turn left.  Go a few hundred yards and then cross back over the river and turn right.  Make your way along the river for about a quarter of a mile.  Sometimes the going is difficult and you will be walking through poison oak.  Just when you think you might have missed them, the smell of sulfur  is noticeable.  Keep going for another fifty yards and you will find three hot springs.  The largest will hold four adults comfortably, but sometimes more people have to be accommodated.  The water is usually a tepid 100 degrees.  Nudity in and around the warm water is common. Don’t forget your towel and boots because it’s a long walk back.

Hiking Through Yosemite

There is no place in the world like Yosemite! Whether you are driving around the Valley, wandering through the giant sequoias in the Mariposa Grove, drinking lemonade at the Wawona Lodge, climbing Half Dome, looking out from Glacier Point, swimming in Tenaya Lake, or backpacking in the high country, every visitor owes a prayer of gratitude to John Muir and all the other people who helped preserve this unique wilderness. (Sadly, the average visitor to Yosemite sees none of this because they drive in and out of the Yosemite Valley in just one day and many never even leave their vehicle.)

This year our crew decided to start our backpacking trip at White Wolf, hike down to Pate Valley and up the Grand Canyon on the Tuolumne, past Waterwheel and La Conte Falls, into Glen Aulin, and on to Tuolumne Meadows. These places are legendary among backpackers Continue reading

Cycling Through Napa

It seemed like a good idea at the time. After finishing off another 50 mile ride as part of the cycling merit badge program, a Scout suggested that we try something harder. “Like what?” Maybe we should try to ride 100 miles in a weekend. And off we went.

Thanks to Willy the map maker and John the Venture leader, we soon had a route that would take us through the wine country in Napa. Eight Scouts signed on to the plan, plus three adults. Everyone was stoked for the adventure, and there would be fighting amongst the adults over who got to ride Continue reading