Whiteout Wandering

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We started onto the trail enthusiastically, some of us just having met, and all of us entering into the cold wilderness right out of the warmth of our vehicles. It was sunny, and so were our dispositions. We were all brought together by a love of the outdoors and shared connections in Berkeley, so we all shared similar world views, making for easy conversation.

“I actually used to be a search and rescue skier in this area,” one of our group said. And my friend had a Garmin tracking our route for portions of the trek, so we were pretty sure of ourselves as we powered forward, away from the Boreal ski resort where we left our cars. It still wasn’t particularly easy-going – all of us were degrees of youthful and fairly athletic, so we kept a decent pace and occasionally had to push through new packs of snow.

If you’ve never had to push through new snow on foot before, I can tell you that even with snow shoes, your feet sink down about two feet with each step. The snow shoes then collect snow on the way back up, making for a weighted-stairmaster experience even on flat ground, which is compounded by going up or downhill.

We reached our predetermined campsite as the sun started to set.  We all tamped down a portion of snow that would act as a wind and snowfall barrier for our tents over the course of the evening. Also, it created a hard enough surface to actually put the tents onto. Overly confident in our work, my partner at the time removed her snow shoes, and promptly sank waste-deep into the snow, filling her boots with ice shavings. She put back on her shoe shoes, and fought the feeling of frostbite by the fire for the remainder of the evening.

We also created a dining area by sinking a circle into the snow, with the center acting as a table, and the sides as a bench. We put the fire in the middle, and ate dinner and drank a little, and patted ourselves on the back for making good time on the way there, then retired to our respective tents for a well-deserved night’s sleep.

We woke up with the sun the next morning, and found a fresh powder over our tents. We started heating breakfasts and coffees and teas, consistent with our left-leaning palates. Just then, a man emerged from the trail leading farther into the forest. He was rugged-looking, by himself, and seemed to be in a bit of a hurry, but was happy to stop for some hot coffee. In exchange, he offered up his eggnog, which was still surprisingly a liquid, on account of its incredibly high alcohol content.

“You guys should really start packing up,” he said.

“Why’s that? We’re not that far off from where we started. Should be a quick hike out of here,” our “guide” said.

He responded by pulling out his radio, and clicking it on.

STORM WARNING… WHITEOUT CONDITIONS… IMMINENT DEATH… GET THE FUCK OUT OF THERE…

The woman’s monotone voice came in loud and clear, so we thanked the wild man for the info, bid him adieu, and began our tipsy packing as quickly as we could. We started the hike, and quickly realized that the altitude, morning alcohol, fresh powder, and steep uphill portions of this hike were not going to make things easy on us. Shortly after, the whiteout conditions the woman mentioned kicked into gear.

We were in a single file line, trading off the lead position (it’s harder at the front, as you’re the first to pack down the snow), and very slowly making our way back to our cars. My glasses fogged over every few seconds, and icicles formed on my beard and in my ringlets of hair. We were never more than a few feet from each other, but it was still difficult to make out the people in front of you.

We continued like this for a few hours, then the gentleman immediately in front of me turned to me, “I feel like we’re not going the right way.”

“Yeah, I’ve been checking my compass every now and again, and I’m going to go ahead and agree,” I responded. He and I were the only ones who brought compasses. I don’t recall why the Garmin wasn’t doing this job for us, but it wasn’t. We were following the rescue guy. Well, it turns out he hadn’t been up in that area for over a decade.

“Let’s go to the top of this mountain, then we’ll be able to see if we’re on the right track!” he yelled back at us through the flurries of snow. We were tired, and not particularly interested in a steep climb, but it was our best idea for the time being – we were quickly losing daylight.

We neared the top, and lo and behold, the lights of the ski lift could be seen through a five second hole in the cloud cover. And wouldn’t ya know it, it was in the exact direction that the two people with compasses had been quietly pointing toward for some time.

Reinvigorated by knowing where the hell we were going, we started in the direction of the lights. We realized we weren’t going to make it by nightfall, so we made camp for the second (and unplanned) night in a clearing between some trees, balancing the benefits of having wind cover against the concerns of snow-laden branches falling on us as we slept. There was still laughter and joviality in the face of generally shitty conditions.

The next day, we started off early. We were no more than half a mile from the cars, but there was no way of knowing that the day before. We got hot cocoa from the resort, and my partner sat in the car enjoying it while I lie on the frozen pavement fumbling with the chains for the tires – my cold fingers only responding to fractions of the instructions they were given.

Finally off the mountain, we stopped at a cafe for one of the most satisfying burgers I’ve ever eaten, and warm apple pie (not a euphemism). As the color returned to our cheeks, we laughed at our stupidity, and talked optimistically about when we might do it again. So far we haven’t, but we’re still degrees of youthful.

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