Here's the evidence of a trip into the backcountry that took less than 24 hours...and what a spectacular whirlwind it was.
Kyle invited me along with Vickie, Erin, and Sandor to spend a night at the Peter Grubb Hut in the Castle Peak area north of Donner Summit. Erin had booked the stay in the hut in July, with no idea of what the weather or snow would hold (we got lucky). Kyle and I were the only downhillers, so we skinned in while the others snowshoed.
I admit to kinda freaking out throughout the day Friday about not getting on the trail earlier (planned to leave Reno at 5pm...). We ended up starting on the trail at 8:30 that night, and in hindsight, it was the best thing we possibly could have done. It was 15ºF when we started, but it was a crisp, clear, and mostly calm night under a just-past-full moon.
Being on skins gave me extra time in the group scenario, so I made ample use of my tripod. For the photo geeks, most of the following shots were wide-open (f/3.5), long exposure (30"), ISO400, and with the mirror locked to eliminate any vibration. Turns out that 30 seconds is long enough to streak the stars a little bit...
Near the start of the trail
Orion peeking over the trees
Heavily loaded tree
As we cleared the flats and the heavily wooded spots, we got our first views of Castle Peak in the moonlight.
Southern slopes of Castle Peak
Something like two and a quarter miles from the car, we were just uphill from Castle Pass and where the trail splits to go NW and down to the hut or NE and up to the summit.
Another southern view of Castle
Hold very still
Group shot done, we dropped down towards the hut as the wind started to pick up. I made another stop for more night photos.
The moon and a soft ridgeline
The moon and a fluffy tree
As both my hands and the camera started to complain, I noticed that it was down to 10ºF and that it was getting windier by the minute. Time to get to the hut.
Peter Grubb Hut is maintained by the Sierra Club, and it's pretty bare-bones. There's a wood stove, cabinets, a countertop, a couple tables, an outhouse, and a solar panel that feeds a couple lights, but that's it. It sleeps 15 upstairs (ground level during the winter), and the common areas are downstairs (ground level during the summer).
While the hut is fully booked for the winter, the other folks who had it booked for Friday night didn't show up. When we got there a little after 11pm, we discovered that we had it to ourselves! That's cool, but it also means that it's 10ºF inside the hut, too.
Starting the fire in the Grubb Hut
Late night light in the hut
By the time we got the fire rockin', some food in us, and amply warmed up, it was after 1am...I bedded down just after 1:30. The wind had picked up a lot, and it howled throughout the night.
I wanted to get up for first light for more photos, but when I cracked my eyes open at 6:15, it was still howling outside. Not cool. The forecast was calling for the winds to die down eventually, and by the time we were all up, had the fire restarted, and got breakfast down, it was a little calmer outside. We had some visitors at the hut that morning in the form of a school trip from the Bay Area that was snow camping nearby, so we hung out with them for awhile and then loaded up.
View from the front door of the hut
Peter Grubb Hut
Erin, Sandor, and Vickie were planning to hang out at the hut for the morning and then snowshoe back to the car (we had two cars, so they wouldn't be waiting for us); Kyle and I strapped the skins back on and headed uphill. We left our big bags at the hut, traveled light, and hit the snow at about 10:30am.
Kyle skinning up Castle
Southern slopes of Castle during the day
About halfway up the western ridgeline, Kyle looked back, said "that looks like fun," and kept going. I saw what he was looking at and kindly suggested that he go rip a turn on it if it looked good..why the hell not?
"That looks like fun"
I set up the shot while he peeled his skins off and headed to the top of this little play area. After some hand signals between us, Kyle decided on a line and tore it up.
Kyle up top
Kyle runs the gut...
...and romps the turn out
Smiling like a fool
Once back, he kindly suggested that I get up there and have some fun, too. There were two good lines left. I went back and forth between the two, decided on the skier's right line, then the cornice broke away on top of that one, so I regrouped for the skier's left line. As I dropped in to the right of the line, another piece of cornice broke away and ran down the fall line.
My focus on the intended line (not a life-or-death one) wavered until I knew that my safety (a couple notches higher on the life-or-death scale) was under control...
"Um, did that just break?"
Salvaging the line, kinda
Wondering what's next
It was not at all how I wanted to ride the thing, but that's OK. Safety first, kids.
Our business complete, we strapped skins back on and headed up once again. Higher up was ample evidence of how windy it had been the night before.
Big ice spikes
We made the summit easily and surveyed both our options and our time. There were some tasty lines on the eastern face of Castle Peak, and we'd be able to ride one of these lines (that went the wrong direction from the hut) and skin back out in time.
There was one in particular that was speaking to us, so Kyle set up with the camera near the peak while I rode down. We discussed the safety consequences of having some distance between us, but the circumstances were manageable and we agreed on a plan.
Worth every cotton-pickin' second of hiking...
...and out the bottom
After Kyle skied down and we got set back up for skinning, time was becoming dear, so we booked it back up. I broke trail up to the top, we regrouped for downhill riding, and we rode to the meadow that the hut is in. Back at the hut, we quickly repacked as necessary and made tracks. Between the net elevation loss back to the car, not having snowshoers with us, and being out of time, we got back to the car in about 50 minutes, arriving at 5pm.
Long story short, it was a surreal moonlit hike in, a cold and windy night, and a day of amazing snow and amazing lines to ride. I feel like I've gotten some good mid-winter licks in on the eve of our trip to Ireland, as spring snow likely awaits us upon our return.
If you've made it this far, you won't mind if I wax poetic for a moment. I'm frequently aware when we're out in the backcountry of just how lucky we are to be doing something so pure and simple. There's a unique sense of peace and tranquility that the winter snowscape (storming or not) bestows upon us, and it's more than once that I've found myself overcome with, well, goodness when I've been out there. If you take nothing else away from my account, please take my supplication to make the most of your abilities while you can, and to take advantage of the great outdoors, wherever you may be.
It's the days I've spent hiking through the snow and making big turns on untracked slopes that I've felt the most at ease in my life - complications, worries, and unsavory thoughts give way to dragging my arm through a laid-out toeside turn as my view of the future, downhill, is blurred by the uplifted sugary snow crystals and refracted sunlight in front of my face. The future, downhill, is rushing towards me (or, relativistically, I'm rushing towards it...that changes things...), and my path through it is determined by the conglomeration of the clear moments and the blurry ones alike.
As my focus hones in, time slows, colors fade to grayscale, my pulse and breathing become prominent fixtures in my awareness as the neurons and synapses instinctively process trees (mostly bad), rocks (good or bad), chutes (good or bad), and what the snow's doing underneath me (good or bad). One turn links to another and another; the unity of mind, body, snowboard, and mountain becomes imminent. Once it's over (and all at once, at times oppressively), time regains its normal pace, colors re-saturate, and sensory perception beyond the task of snowboarding is re-enabled. I've been left standing there on the snow, wondering "did that really happen?" Damn right it did, and I'll chase those fleeting moments of wholeness for the rest of my life.
Time to pack...
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