Tuttle Creek Shakedown
A Winter Camping Adventure in the California Sierra
Tuttle Creek, California — when it comes to traveling in the backcountry, winter changes everything. Inviting Alpine meadows become frozen arctic tundras.
Short days leave less time for travel; snowy drifts make travel slower, more difficult. The same gear that keeps you in the lap of luxury in summer can fail miserably in a blinding winter storm. Pinned down by a raging Sierra blizzard, escape itself may no longer be an option.
Making the transition from summer hiker to winter mountaineer is not a casual adjustment. It is an evolutionary leap, requiring new strategies, new techniques, new equipment—and greater risk.
I had camped several times at the snowline's edge in Spring, and I felt I was ready to take the next step: a mid-winter overnight. Camping on snow would be a necessity for realizing many—if not most—of the descents I was hoping to ski in the Sierra.
The question was, where should I go for my first attempt? I like to think of each tour as a training run, a way to test and refine my technique, always looking ahead toward the next, larger challenge.
The key to becoming a proficient mountaineer, I believe, is to find situations in which you can experiment and even fail without suffering catastrophic consequences. Such small failures, bruising as they may be to body and ego, can prove far more enlightening in the long run than small or even large successes. Thus I wanted to find a place where I'd face real challenges yet also be close to my car in case things got out of hand. It would also be nice to be near bona fide skiing opportunities.
The Tuttle Creek Drainage, in the Southern Sierra near Lone Pine, seemed an ideal choice. Camping in Tuttle would put me within striking distance of one of the Sierra's big descents: Mount Langley's Northeast Couloir. At the least, I'd be getting valuable beta for a future ski attempt—or perhaps I could even take a shot right away if conditions looked favorable.
With drive-up access and an established trail, Tuttle Creek also offered at least the possibility of easier passage through the low, brush-choked gullies guarding the Eastern Sierra's snowfields. So, the plan was in place: it was time for an early-season shakedown cruise to test new gear, spend a night camping on snow, and scout Langley's north face.
Laid out on my apartment floor, my array of winter camping gear made it look like I was planning a small expedition, not a single overnight.
But I'd never camped on snow before, much less in deep winter, and I did not want to find myself under-equipped. Still, looking over that pile of gear, I was sobered by the thought that somehow, I'd have to find a way to carry all of it.
When I arrived in Lone Pine, it was a little strange to find the ranger station empty, closed for the winter—another sign I was entering new territory.
From Horseshoe Meadows Road, I took the well-named Granite View Drive, a dirt road that eventually branches off to the Tuttle Creek trailhead.
Mini-arroyos cut across the road as it wound upward, but my civic passed over them without incident.
Nonetheless, prudence compelled me to parked at the first turnaround, at approximately 6600', rather than venturing the extra 1/2 mile of 4WD travel to the true trailhead.
With few exceptions, low starts are the rule in the Eastern Sierra, and those extra thousands of vertical feet over dry ground are always punishing.
I killed the engine and stepped outside.
Despite being mid-day, the temperature was already alarmingly cold.
I packed everything as best I could, taking not one but two packs.
Phase I of the day's experiments began with me putting my smaller, Black Diamond pack on backwards, across my chest.
Theoretically, the front pack would counterbalance the heavier load of my Gregory Makalu. Theoretically.
I like my Gregory, even though I hardly ever use it.
It's a big pack, nearly 70 liters expanded, and at just under five pounds it's not exactly light.
But my Gregory will carry upward of sixty pounds without killing me, and sometimes in the backcountry that's as good as gold. Despite the heavy load I felt good, strong and able, as I marched up the sandy road into the Tuttle Creek wilderness. A half-mile or so up the drainage, the road ended at a small overlook.
From here, I had a good vantage from which to survey the two major forks of the Tuttle drainage. To the north was Mount LeConte, just shy of coveted fourteener status, with a fine-looking sweep of snow off its northeast shoulder. To the south was Mount Langley, my intended target, looking alarmingly distant, as if it had somehow moved back a few miles during the drive from Highway 395.
The terrain in either direction looked fierce: steep, brush-choked, bordering impassible without a trail. I was glad to see an established hiking trail leading up from the parking area. I'd never been here before, but given the quality of the trail, it seemed reasonable to assume I'd have easy hiking all the way to the snow.
Into the Willows
I don't want to overstate the case, but having a good trail beneath your boots can make a huge difference. Unfortunately, less than a mile later, my excellent trail veers off uselessly to the north.
My intended route—toward Mount Langley—is blocked by a creek, a frozen waterfall system, and a maze of bare willows. Complicating matters is a patchy coverage of variable-crust snow, too inconsistent to switch to skis. Footsteps heading through the willows; that appears to be the only option.
Into the willows I go, following the footsteps of my hopefully-not-misguided predecessors. The sun has now gone beyond the spine of the Sierra to my west, and the shadows are deep with cold.
I make my current elevation near 8000 feet, with an estimated two thousand feet to go to reach camp. As I battle the snagging willows and the shifting snow, my innovative experiment in backpack placement soon loses its novelty.
The pack against my chest has shifted its weight to my shoulders, and its straps keep sliding off. The front pack also seems to interfere with my Gregory's waistbelt, so that the main load on my hips shifts subtly to my shoulders as well.
Both packs and certainly the skis attached to them catch repeatedly in the willows as I push-press myself through, stepping into boot tracks through hard, crusted snow.
Higher and higher I go, eying the approaching sunset with growing concern.
How long to that first bench, I wonder? Less than an hour, surely, if I can just find a good route. This side of the valley is apparently fertile ground for some sort of low shrub with reddish bark and round green leaves (edit: Manzanita). The plant seems to undermine the snow wherever the two meet. With increasing regularity, I break through the crust, sinking down into shrubby snowy depths, from which I must struggle to pull my legs out.
My summit pack now swings freely around my neck, my lungs are heaving, and the sky is darkening. Across the creek, I see a rising trail cutting across the snow, either boot holes or skin track. That's where I want to be, but I've missed the crossing.
For now, I'm trapped on the north slope, with UP the only option. I try to maintain a delicate dance on the surface of the snow crust, walking on eggshells despite my heavy packs to keep from breaking through, finding protruding rocks to step on, always tacking back toward shrinking patches of dry ground, but this is a futile battle. The hell bushes, as I've named them, keep getting thicker, the snow weaker.
As the sky continues to darken, I break through the crust again, flounder again in waist-deep fluff, pull myself out again, exhausted. Fighting off a growing sense of desperation, I look above—high above, to where I hope to camp. At least another five hundred vertical feet.
Looking down, I am surprised to see red drops beading on my fingers. The rough edge of the crust has sawed my skin on that last fall. I take a step, licking fresh blood from my fingers, and plunge again through the crust, back down into the snow's hoary underbelly. Doubt rises as I look up. I'm still a long way from the bench. The sky continues to darken. The air is piercingly cold. At this rate, falling step after step into deep snow, I could be hours away.
Blood, Sweat, & Tears
What is it about these Eastern Sierra approaches? Do these mountains not want to be skied? What sort of madman's stage is this place?
I am floundering in deep snow, repeatedly wrenching my legs from the hell-bushes' clutches, battling the summit pack which swings freely around my neck like a wrecking ball, jabbing at my jaw. I pause, considering my options. Obviously, I have to switch to skis and skins to ascend this slope.
There is no other choice. I'm waist deep in snow, in hiking boots, on a 30 degree slope, entering twilight, and somehow I've got to switch to skins.
I wallow though the snow, looking for a section free of Hell Bushes, where hopefully I'll find crust hard enough to stand upon.
Next, I remove both backpacks. If I drop anything here, it may well slide all the way down to the bottom of the drainage. I pull my ski boots from my pack carefully, then search for ski socks. My bare feet feel the sting of freezing air.
Dare I allow myself some hope? With skins and skis, I should get to camp before dark. I snap in to my bindings, pull both packs on—and then nearly slide straight down the hill. My skins can't find purchase on this crust, which for some reason has the consistency of miniature ball bearings.
Are you kidding me? I am forced to put most of my weight on ski poles to avoid taking that nasty slide down. I have to get off this aspect. It is a long, sketchy traverse to the creek, but fortune smiles at last, and this part of the creek is well covered with snow bridges. I rush across, not daring to breath until I'm safely into the forest on the other side.
The snow shifts to deep, sugary snow, but this is no ordinary powder. Destructive metamorphosis has worked its dark magic.
The snow has the cohesive quality of flecks of glass. At this angle, my skins just fluff about, sliding freely backwards, sideways, any which way but up. I slam my foot with each step, trying to set a platform in this rotten, bottomless junk. By stomping and pushing desperately off my poles, and traversing low back and forth, I am able to gain elevation, but oh so slowly, and at great cost of energy and spirit.
I reach a tiny, treed gully where the snow has formed a quirky, hollow crust that cracks and thumps as soon as I step on it, and for a moment I'm hopeful my skins will bite. Instead, I this time do fall backwards and slide downhill. I catch myself quickly, but my abused leg cramps. ACK! I can see the bench just above me now, perhaps only fifty vertical feet, but at this rate it may as well be a mile.
Back to the so-unsweet sugar snow I go, fighting now not only the snow but also my legs, which threaten to cramp every time I try to wrench my skis out from the one to two meter depths of the snow. I am traversing away from the bench, and I realize I can't make the kick turn for the final traverse to the camp. My legs and the snow won't allow it. Am I going to spend the night here, fifty feet from camp, because I can't move?
My solution instead is to straddle a small fir, hoping to use it as a pivot point to turn around. Instead, of course, my downhill ski gets trapped deep within the tree's well, and my other leg cramps for good measure. My imaginary audience is perking up again. This is high entertainment.
I resort to the simplest of solutions: I flip my bindings off with my ski poles, flip my skis around, floundering in the bottomless snow, and manage to snap back in going the opposite direction. No points for style, but with a final, lung-searing push, I make the bench and prepare to set a crash campsite.
My Kingdom for a Cook Pot
Night has fallen. I stomp a pitiful tent platform and quickly set up my tent, not bothering to try to stake it down. My hands are freezing. My feet are wet.
I switch over to thick warm wool socks and crawl into my sleeping bag. This accomplished, I pull my candle lantern out of my pack, fish around for a lighter, and try to light it. For a scary minute it looks like the lighter won't go, but then a sickly flame appears.
The lantern's glow is welcome but depressingly dim, enough to let me to see the formidable cloud coming from my mouth with every breath.
Dinner is overdue, as is a cup of hot tea, but I'm wary of trying to cook inside my tent, especially with the floor so uneven, and I'm unwilling to step outside into the biting cold.
The dilemma is nicely solved when I abruptly discover I've forgotten my cook pot.
I've forgotten my cook pot.
I repeat this several times in disbelief, each time hammering in a new realization. No cook pot=no hot drinks. No hot dinner. No dinner at all, actually. And—drum roll, please—no way to melt snow to make water. Luckily I've still got a little water in my Nalgene bottle—a liter and a half, maybe. But it's nearly frozen solid. No Cook pot! It's a huge mistake. A deal-breaker. Enough to get me kicked out of the local mountaineer's union.
I fight to twist off the frozen top on my water bottle, break through the scrum of ice, and take a drink of icy-cold water. That done, I put the frigid bottle into my sleeping bag, wincing as the cold presses into my hip. That'll make a lovely sleeping companion. As for my growing hunger, I gnaw some frozen walnuts and iced-over ham, the sum total of tomorrow's snack lunch. That's all there is. Really. And now, the long night begins.
The Long Night
Things are different in winter. Quieter. Colder. Mistakes are amplified and thoughts of vulnerability whisper in your ears. I'm dehydrated and hungry.
I drink a healthy portion of water mixed with ice, rationing the rest for tomorrow. As for the hunger, there's nothing to be done about it. I take a final look outside: the stars are brilliant diamonds against black. The night will be clear and cold. With my lantern still glowing, my tent is a yellow beacon against the night—a fine photo opportunity.
I sleep fitfully, drifting in and out, waking to moonlight, endless moonlight, and ice. Everything inside my tent is frozen solid...
But there's no way I'm going outside with a camera, no way I'm getting out of my sleeping bag, even.
I put on every bit of clothing I've got: shell jacket and pants, double long underwear, fleece jacket, gloves, hat, double socks.
I blow out the lantern and lie back. The darkness is absolute.
Cold presses up from below despite the combination of two sleeping pads. I've closed the door and the ventilation window of my tent, hoping the temperature inside will stay near freezing. With the drawstring pulled tight on my 15° down bag, I'm just on the edge of shivering. There is nothing to do but try to sleep, wait out this long darkness, wait for the glow of dawn to spread from the east and cheer the landscape.
It is soon apparent there will be no sleep for me tonight. The cold air against my face, the cold seeping up from below, the cold water bottle against my hip, the wetness of my breath on my sleeping bag, the not-quite-shivering tremors through the muscles of my back, all will conspire to keep me wide awake all night long.
I lie with my eyes closed, breathing deeply to keep the oxygen in my blood, waiting. Hunger creeps in, adding another voice to keep me awake. The sky lightens, and for a moment I foolishly think dawn is coming. But no, it is the bright spotlight of the moon. I envision my cook pot, sitting at home in my closet. Hours creep past. Or has it been that long?
My sleeping bag grows crinkly with ice. The temperature inside the tent is falling, falling. My feet are cold. The tent is just a little too short; the bottom of my sleeping bag brushes the wall no matter how I shift. I pull the drawstring of my bag tighter, so that only my nose pokes out. Got to keep my breath off the bag, keep it dry.
All of this is a test, in a way. A 15° down bag with Pertex. A single-wall Epic fabric tent. My clothing. My gear. All of it—and me!—is being assessed by the most ruthless of judges, and I'm taking notes, taking notes, as one by one, things are found wanting. A violent, involuntary flinch startles me. Was I asleep just now? The glow in the sky is still the moon, just the moon. What time is it? What's the temperature?
I know what I want to see. I want to see the roof of my tent turn yellow as the sun breaks upon it. Not this nebulous gray of moonlight and darkness. I'm tempted to get up, put on my boots and skis, and start skinning uphill, an uber-alpine start to stop this awful waiting. Though they're inside my tent, however, my boots are certainly frozen.
There...I was asleep for a moment. I'm sure of it. I shift around again, thinking I've drifted off my insulating pads, but no, they're still beneath me. It's just the cold coming through. The moon is still up, still providing that fake glow. How long can this night go on?
More fitful sleep, drifting in and out, waking to moonlight, moonlight and ice. Everything inside my tent is frozen solid, covered in frost. I'm so glad there's no wind. Thinking of the pioneers now, trying to get through winter in leaky cabins in Montana, lying in bed in endless darkness, hungry and cold, just like me. Only they have cause to wonder if they'll make it to dawn, and if they do, there's another long night just around the corner.
Would a fleece blanket help? How can anyone make themselves comfortable under these conditions? How, indeed? Wait...there it is. The roof of the tent is starting to turn yellow. Oh, thank god. Dawn is coming. My long night is nearly over.
A Short Tour
I am relieved to see the sun approaching, but now I'll have to contend with those icy ski boots. My feet, despite two pairs of socks, are very cold.
Inside my tent, frost and ice are everywhere, along the entire length of my sleeping bag, coating the ceiling of my tent, running in lines along my jacket (yes, inside my sleeping bag) as well as my hat, and on both sides of my sleeping pad. On the bright side, wearing all my clothes to bed makes leaving the sleeping bag's warmth much easier. Breakfast, of course, will not be served.
And pulling off my thick socks, standing in the tent's entrance, and trying to put on my ski boots becomes an unexpected ordeal.
The boots are so cold I can't put them on—the plastic is too stiff to allow my feet in.
I struggle and struggle to get the right boot on, at last succeeding, but already that foot feels dangerously cold. The left boot is even worse. My foot will not go in, no matter how hard I try.
Now I'm hoping around on one leg, one foot already nearing frost nip, the other on its way.
I feel panic rising, but then an idea strikes me: I pull out the boot's liner, put my foot in, then try to step into the boot. The liner makes it halfway and gets stuck. I fight the damn boot for another few minutes before discovering some interior flap (purpose unknown) has flopped the wrong way.
I re-flop the flap, push the liner in half-way, step in, and step down. My foot slips into the boot with ease. At last, I feel like I've done something right. But both feet are now stiff and painful with cold. I snap into my ski bindings, ready to start hiking, but suddenly stop. Wait. This is madness. My feet are too cold. If I don't do something right away, I'm risking frostbite.
The boots come off, and I get back into the tent, back into my sleeping bag. For a good half hour, I try to warm my frozen feet in my hands. Slowly, ever so slowly, my feet warm up.
I pull my liners out of both boots and put them on inside my sleeping bag. Another half hour or so, and my feet are relatively warm, as are the liners. That accomplished, I ski a short way up the drainage, perhaps a thousand feet vertical, to the next bench, where I get a closer look at Mount Langley's east couloir. Unfortunately I can't tell if the couloir is continuous or not, I'm not willing to climb any farther to find out.
Though I suspect the overall avalanche risk is low today, I don't care for the vibe of the snow. This area obviously gets scoured by wind. Scattered pebbles and granite flecks are strewn across the thin, wind-blasted snowpack, which consists mainly of hollow, icy crusts that crack and creak as I skin across them. I'm careful to stay away from angled, open areas, anything that looks like a slide path.
At long last, the sun arrives. Its warmth feels wonderful, though the air remains bitingly cold. I take a short break, chomp my remaining frozen walnuts, then make a quick, skittery-chattery ski descent back to camp.
The Last Crossing
The sugar hoar that made for such a difficult ascent the night before makes for a reasonable descent this morning. The cold snow skis a lot like powder.
I could call this fun, winding my way down through the trees, if it weren't for the heavy pack on my back, which makes every turn a cautious affair. I find the pack's weight makes it difficult to stay forward on my skis. With each turn, the weight drags me back on my tails.
Compared with the weird, wind-blasted slabs above, however, this is easily the best skiing of the tour. I have only one last challenge today: get back across Tuttle Creek.
If I can do that, I know it's a just quick bushwhack to the trail, then an easy walk to the car.
But first, the creek must be crossed.
I find the traverse line I missed yesterday and decide to follow it, wanting to stay on snow as long as possible. A few turns later, however, I discover that my predecessors have crossed the creek at a snow bridge that no longer exists.
I'm trapped on the south side of the creek.
The trail, the car, and the Carne Asada plate in Lone Pine are achingly close now, but the creek looks impassible. I side-slip alongside, looking for an alternate crossing. Somewhere below me is that waterfall system—no hope of crossing there.
If I descend too far, I'll be forced to climb back up, and that's a dark possibility indeed.
I find a thin finger of snow, some 6" wide, stretches across the two meter wide creek. I move closer to survey it. The narrow snow bridge seems to rest on a branch, though I can't see how wide it is.
The snow isn't frozen, but neither is it powdery, somewhere in between, of indeterminate strength and consistency. The angle of the slope is such that I can ski on one ski over the creek in one quick schuss, provided the snow bridge doesn't fail.
If that happens, I fall two meters into icy water rushing over boulders. I take a swig of water and think things over.
Just do it, I think.
I ready myself, raise my ski poles to push forward—and stop... If the bridge fails, which way do I want to fall? Upstream, I decide, meaning I ski it on my right ski. One push, if all goes well, and I'm over to the north side of the creek, minutes away from the trail. Again I hesitate, imagining the fall, with a 50 pound pack, into the creek. Alone. I back up, unwilling to take the risk.
There is nowhere left to go but down into the creek itself. I keeping my skis on boulders, dirt, branches, snow, whatever will keep my feet out of the water. And in the end, it is that same branch that nearly dumped me into the water that I use to pull myself up the snowy opposite side of the creek. I collapse there, in a sunny patch, and this trip, I know, is over.
My first time winter camping has been full of surprises. I hate to imagine my report card. But, I've survived, and I've learned a great deal in the past 24 hours. This information will no doubt be of great value for future endeavors. But for now, I think I'll just hurry to the car and crank up that heater!