For my first winter retreat with Gaia GPS, we ski and snowshoe on record Sierra Nevada snowpack to spend two nights in a hut at 8,000 feet. It’s bound to be good team building.
We are assembling aside what looks like a snowy hillside but is actually a massive snow pile at the Castle Valley trailhead just off Interstate 80 near Soda Springs, California. Eight of us from Gaia GPS will spend the coming two nights in the Peter Grubb ski hut a couple miles up this valley and over a ridge.
We stayed last night at the Clair Tappaan Lodge after traveling from all directions. “Lodge” made me think of something with a parking lot, private rooms and perhaps spa, so I was left wondering as I trudged through the dark and snow up a forested hillside from where the Uber driver, Maurice, had to leave me at the side of a road hemmed in by high snow walls after driving 45 minutes from Reno.
I was cheered to find the hidden building a hundred yards into the trees but stymied again at lights turned low and nobody around. I flipped through materials around the rough hewn notice board a few minutes looking for late arrival instructions before a young lady in a bathrobe appeared, offering to help.
I am the only one on snowshoes instead of skis. I guess I never took up snow skiing for the same reasons anything goes untried — lack of interest and opportunity. I don’t remember it ever coming up as a kid. Windsurfing … there’s something I did learn because it was offered at summer camp near Coeur d’Alene. That doesn’t do much for me today.
And so I’ve come expecting I’ll be the slowest, prepared to reassure the others I don’t mind being behind, as often I am when stopping for pictures of moss or curious rocks. So far, though, the rental skis and crusty snow handicap the others enough to keep me in the pack.
Alex, our token Belgian from Canada, is pulling most of the food on a makeshift sled. It’s a configuration he’s testing for the kinds of longer distance, cross-country ski trips some of his friends have done. It’s a bit funny when the sled tries to drag him into snow chasms and tree wells.
The Sierra Nevada Mountains, like Boise, had a banner snow year. But here that’s a whole nother order of magnitude. It’s like nothing I’ve seen. The Uber driver Maurice said there’d been thirty feet of snowfall up here over the winter. I believe it. The walls of snow around the streets in Soda Springs are still ten and fifteen feet high. It’s like being in a maze.
Working from home hasn’t been as strange for me as some anecdotes would have it. An upstairs room furnished with the usual office accoutrements makes a typical workday experience at the end of a stairway commute. I’m sure introversion also helps.
Because we all work from homes scattered around North America, retreats and trips are the only times we see each other in person. Technology does a lot to fill the gap, allowing continuous text and video chats throughout the day.
Gaia GPS is generous and a bit brave to provide excursions like these. In the summer we bring along our families for a retreat with similar outdoor emphasis, last time in Rocky Mountain National Park. I guess if you don’t survive the trip then you weren’t cut out for the job.
I don’t know what Jesse’s strained expression looks like. I probably never will. Going up and down mountains on skis is what he does over lunch break, I imagine with the same sort of knowing smile.
I barely discern the hut when it comes into view. I looked up a picture beforehand but here I see nothing like that. Where’s the hut? I hadn’t listened very seriously when Jesse said we’d probably have to get in through the second floor, and even that might be lower than the snow level.
I guess many ski huts are configured for second floor entry in winter months. Not skiing means I just haven’t noticed it.
We can hear Jesse chopping wood in the darkness below. The courtesy of offering assistance is suspended while we slowly unbuckle and lay out gear to establish our places on the floor.
“I hope he’s also making coffee,” I joke.
A wooden ladder descends into cave-like gloom through a square hole cut in the painted plywood floor. Maybe it will be more inviting when we hear a crackling fire.
“Do you want coffee?” Jesse asks buoyantly when finally the rest of us start down the ladder. “Just bring me your cup.”
I guess he really was making coffee. What a good guy.
The ground floor has two picnic tables, a stove and a few cupboards. Wooden trays are hung from the ceiling to store food away from rodents. The floor is old concrete, uneven and cracked. The air is a little musty. Its one window, though many feet below snow level, has been partially cleared, allowing in some light but not enough to dispel the gloom. For that we rely on the hut’s four solar powered bulbs.
Ashli and Andrew each know enough guitar to make us wish there was someone along who could play a whole song. In lieu of a sing-along, Aileen regales us with tales from the guest book. One set of guests left an entertaining, Alice-in-Wonderland fantastical account that Jesse describes in one word: “mushrooms.”
The fire below hasn’t done a lot to warm the attic space. We hunker low into our bags for the real test of company camaraderie. Who snores? Who rustles around in their bag? We’ll soon find out.
The morning brings rain. After coffee and a hot breakfast, we count out lettered tiles for rounds of Bananagrams. There’s no data service down here beneath the snow so Aileen takes evidentiary pictures of Andrew’s questionable words after we’re avalanched by his “peel” calls.
Some of us snuggle back into our bags for some reading, me included, before the rain breaks. Then the expert skiers, Jesse and Alex, set off for some peaks while others on skis find a hill to play on. I strap on the snowshoes and my photo belt with a first goal to find a spot where I have phone service to check in with home.
I follow Jesse’s and Alex’s tracks up a small ridge. I send Jessica word of my continued survival then turn toward a windswept knoll below Castle Peak.
I am the oldest of the team by a decade. The youngest in our group is just a few years older than my daughter Laura. It can be weird if I think about it but in practice we’re just people, uncategorized. And I’m not objectively old but I’m within those few decades when it seems a person can choose to act old or not, can choose to attribute ailments to age or inactivity. Me, I know aches and extra pounds are simply from sitting too much. Gotta keep moving, old or young.
I get a different sense of time in California’s backcountry than I have in Idaho, like we’re having a turn at an amusement park then must step aside for others to have their turn. Part of that is just the fact of renting space in a hut, which would be the same anywhere, but some is because of the surrounding rules, fees and facilities necessitated by so many visitors.
Maybe “California” is too broad. It may only be the tourist trappings around Lake Tahoe. In any case, it raises my awareness of the challenge of ensuring quality experiences for everyone accessing public land, experiences I think are important to advance our wellbeing as people and as a society.
It is fairly easy in Idaho. Go do your thing for as long as you like. You may not see another person let alone having to take turns.
The snow is frozen up here. It crunches underfoot. A steady wind drives waves of dry snow across the hard surface. I pull my hat low to keep it on my head.
Before I heard Jesse talk about avalanches as a patroller and backcountry skier I wouldn’t have thought twice about marching to the sharp snow edge at the top but now I content myself with the view some ways back.
I really like it up here in the biting wind and sunshine where ice sparkles on exposed rocks — everything so pure. I’m especially glad to be feeling well. Every person in my family back home has been sick the last month, missing school, staying in bed all day, threatening my record of a year without sickness. I felt a tad crummy last Thursday and took an emergency nap to get back on track.
A common use of photography is to visualize things that escape normal notice. That can mean things too big, small, fast or slow for normal perception — sort of the scientific domain. Or it can mean the opposite — things so common we’ve stopped noticing them.
Some photographers are adept at finding abstractions of light, shadow and shape in everyday life. You might see the intriguing patterns in their images before you realize you’re looking at a simple shaft of light across the side of a building or on a leaf.
I don’t have the vision of the great photographers but I still enjoy hunting for those visual treasures among the mundane.
I trudge and sometimes slide my way down from the knoll then set up for a group photo in the day’s last good light while we all still have our snow gear on. Go Team.
We get up a little early the next day to make time for our Reno departures. There is some question about what to burn and what to haul out. I don’t weigh in since the candidate criteria are already much stricter than what I learned in Idaho where burning was according to (or rather in violation of) Hume’s law, deriving “is” from “ought” — if it is burnable then it ought to be burned.
Snow is falling fast as others finally clip into skis and me into snowshoes. There has been some trepidation about the outbound descents on cross-country skis. Jesse offered tips involving pizza and fries, which sound delicious. The fresh snow should help matters with better traction and softer landings.
What little I can see through the fogging camera viewfinder has us looking like polar explorers leaning into a blizzard. Jesse cuts trail, providing a line we can follow without having to look up.
Photo by Jesse Crocker
Aside from a couple frozen bindings, the trip out is less arduous than feared. We’ll probably make our flights.
Snowfall diminishes once we’re over and descend from the ridge. Jesse and Nathan forge ahead to ready the vehicles while the rest of us make our way back down the valley. Near the end, we pass a large group of what look to be high schoolers with a few lucky chaperones heading to find their own adventures at Peter Grubb Hut.
A few hours later, after lunch with Alex and Jesse in Reno, I find myself peering out at sunny skies through a fuselage window and am struck by how the dislocations of modern life can make our experiences seem surreal. In a snowstorm one moment, seated on a cushion hurtling through the sky in the next — it hardly seems possible.