I am drawn to this place. Regardless of snow condition, whether it be powder, heavy wet, crusty, icy hard, corn or mashed potato snow, I come here for spiritual rejuvenation and solitude. The mountains become my cathedral, the wilderness my church, and oh, did I mention fun. Yes, fun. In this place of spectacular beauty and magnificent mountains it is possible ... no, even likely that fun will occur. I suspect, judging by the number of users, that others feel that way too, although it's not often put into words. People allude to it and do little verbal dances around it but the hymns are silent and no one is standing on a rock sermonizing. The place speaks for itself.
This is the best back country skiing in Alpine County and perhaps one of the best in the Sierra. We've parked at Carson Pass trailhead and placed our snowpark permit on the dash (available locally at the Alpine Chamber of Commerce). Boots on, skis in hand and packs secured we climb up on the snow and step into our skis.
This trail is suitable for beginners who feel comfortable on their skis as well as advanced skiers who can choose more challenging routes and slopes. The first 200-foot traverse a steeply treed slope, usually with a slight down and up - it depends on snow depth and who makes the trail first. I've seen people look at this section and announce that they're going somewhere else. Persevere, it gets easier and if you're on snowshoes you'll have no problem. The trail continues, trending south, climbing slightly through a mixed conifer forest and then descending to a drainage thickly forested with mountain hemlock.
Begin climbing, southwest now and re-enter a mixed forest of lodgepole, western white pine, hemlock and whitebark pine. Note the difference in bark between young trees and older trees. Older conifers acquire a tinge of orange or red and the bark becomes furrowed or plated. Lodgepoles, however, maintain their fine textured bark with only a hint of orange to go with the yellow-gray while old hemlocks are a deep reddish brown. Up slope, climbing out of the drainage, are fine examples of western white pine with spreading crowns and cinnamon bark divided into large plates. According to the forest service the largest western white pine in the U.S. is growing just a few miles from here.
As the trail jogs south, unseen beneath our feet lies the Mokelumne Wilderness boundary sign, continue climbing, level, then descend slightly to an open area, up a switchback and contour south for a long gentle route to a divide north of Winnemucca Lake. We have been following the Pacific Crest Trail, buried beneath many feet of snow, but earlier, as we climbed out of the hemlocks, the Pacific Crest Trail diverged up and to the east eventually crossing the crest just north of Elephant's Back, that dark mound to the left that looks, well, like an elephants back. We are now on part of the old Tahoe-Yosemite Trail, which may or may not have actually existed, depending on who you ask. A dedicated bushwhacker could still band-aid together a patchwork of trails and get to Yosemite this way but the Pacific Crest Trail is a better choice.
On this gently ascending traverse, we swish between isolated clumps of whitebark pine, a major food source for Clarks nutcrackers who cache the seeds in thousands of different sites and actually remember where they put them. Caches that are unused may sprout and form new trees Ð this symbiotic process is the usual way in which these trees reseed. Whitebarks are easy to identify Ð a short, 20-30-foot tree, often growing in clumps, with light gray to whitish bark, short green needles, and like other white pines, in bunches of five. In the Alpine County Sierra, whitebarks are the high altitude tree, generally growing only above 8,500 feet on up to the treeline where they become dense isolated waist-high thickets in response to severe conditions.
Ahead, Round Top, with serrated ridges extending east and the Sisters to the west, presents a magnificent view. Further west is the Carson spur, showcasing Thunder Mountain and Thimble Peak along its northwest-southeast axis. Volcanic eruptions beginning 20 million years ago deposited much of this darker and reddish rock, mostly andesite, between here and Sonora Pass to the south. Contrast this rock with the occasional granitic type rock you've been skiing over. North through Meiss (say mice) Pass is Mt. Tallac on the southwest shore of Lake Tahoe. Nearby Red Lake Peak and the Freel Peak formation are part of the Carson Range that forms the eastern divide of the Tahoe Basin.
A short climb to the crest would reveal numerous peaks and ranges stretching around to the east and southeast, including Hawkins Peak, Markleeville Peak, Silver and Highland peaks as well as Mt. Patterson in the Sweetwater Range and Mt. Grant on the southwest shore of Walker Lake. Back to the west, on a clear day, the coast ranges are visible and on a recent outing snow could be seen on the highest peaks.
Over the divide and at about two miles is Winnemucca Lake, frozen and snow-covered, lying in splendor beneath Round Top. It's a good place for lunch. From here there are many choices depending on your ability, snow conditions and weather. Tracks of other skiers will point the way to the most popular spots but feel free to explore in any direction that looks inviting. Or, just retrace the route to the trailhead Ð it's mostly downhill (how many times have you heard that before?) and a pleasant run on skis.
Several points of information: the steeper slopes, especially northwest through easterly aspects, are avalanche prone.
If you plan to be on these slopes, carry beacons, ski in a group, know the snow and check conditions prior at www.sierraavalanchecenter.org.
During the days ahead, avalanche hazards will shift around to more southerly slopes in response to solar radiation and warmer temperatures. Bring the essentials. Map, compass, water, food, shelter (space blanket or large garbage bag), wet weather gear, signaling device (whistle, mirror), sunscreen, sunglasses, knife, first aid kit, waterproof matches and candle are some suggestions.
Know how to use each of these items. A GPS is fine if you really need to know exactly where you are but won't point rescuers to you, whereas a relatively new lightweight satellite tracker called Spot will. Check the weather the morning of your trip. It's available online at the NOAA's Reno site. Click on the backcountry link in the forecast section. Lastly, leave no trace. Pack out everything you bring in and be considerate of other wilderness users. And mostly, enjoy a section of high country that is so different from everyday experience that you may find yourself spontaneously smiling.
n Jim Donald is a Markleeville resident.