This past weekend marked some of the first snow since the last big storm in November, and I was fortunate enough to be invited on a snow packing trip with my friends Scott and Daisy, her dog Gabriel, her sister Mariah, and Mariah’s friends Dan, Scott and Kyleen. These last are four fifths of a group that goes on regular backpacking trips and “Ass Kickers” to push the limits of their lightweight packing expertise and endurance. They were all very welcoming and only teased us a little for how heavy our packs were 😉
The heavy snowfall was a welcome change from the weeks of dry weather that we’d been having in Ashland, and had us all very excited to be out snow camping for the weekend! So with packs loaded (weighing in from 24 to 50 pounds), and aboard everything from snowshoes to cross country skis to a splitboard, we set out to trek the 6.2 miles to the shelter at Fourmile Lake, just East of Mount McLoughlin. The snow fell fast and wet all the way to the lake, making speedy travel a challenge indeed.
The first two miles or so went by pretty smoothly, until somewhere along the way I tweaked a muscle in my right leg, which gave me trouble for every step of the remaining four miles. This, combined with a heavy pack, challenging conditions, and the inherently slower pace of even the OP’s finest MSR snowshoes put me well behind the majority of the group. Fortunately Gabe and Daisy were kind enough to hang back and keep me company!
Daisy, Gabe and I finally made it to the lake just before sunset, when we were greeted by Mariah (getting ready to come looking for us) outside of this sweet little Forest Service hut! This simple wedge of tin and lumber was heated by a burly wood-burning stove and was well stocked with lumber. Daisy’s solar-powered lantern and a handful of large candles illuminated the hut nicely, and the paint can full of nails by the door gave us plenty of options for places to hang our wet gear. While “spacious” wouldn’t be the first word I’d use to describe the little hut, there was room enough for our ragtag group and it was warm and dry – couldn’t ask for much more than that!
Dan is both a wiz at packing and a master of backpacking desserts. He’s built quite a reputation with stunts like packing ice cream in for miles on dry ice in the middle of summer and he certainly lived up to his good name on this trip by carrying in a 3 pound chocolate tuxedo cake with layers of moist chocolate cake, fudge, and cream. Quite possibly the greatest backpacking dessert I’ve ever had, and I think the rest of the crew would heartily agree!
We had set up a couple of tents when we’d first arrived at the hut and now that we’d all put ourselves into solid food comas we decided to turn in for the evening. The storm raged all night long, alternating between snow and and rain. Every few minutes we could hear a gust of wind working it’s way through the treetops on it’s way to the tent, where it buffeted against the walls and whipped the fly around violently. Fortunately, our “stakes” (boards, poles, and snowshoes buried in the snow) were quite effective and stayed put through the stormy night, although the howling wind and constant assault of rain and snow on the tent did make it tough to get much shut-eye. The storm eased off towards morning and we finally started to get some solid sleep after fashioning earplugs out of TP, but we were soon pulled out of our sleeping bags by the sunshine and enticing offer of leftover cake for breakfast.
In addition to packing in three pounds worth of cake, Dan had also carried in a cleverly designed Igloo-maker that the group had purchased for their last snow camping trip. I’d been hearing about this device for a few days and was excited to give it a try! The dense, wet snow that we had seemed to lend itself well to this packing-based style of igloo-making, and between us, the project took just a little over two hours, including two guardian snow people!
Gabe kept watch while we worked on the igloo, and every once in a while he’d go check in with Scotty, who was out ice fishing on the lake.
Scotty had packed in a large metal ice auger, a pole and a tackle box, and had hit the ice as soon as we got to the lake on Friday. He spent Saturday out drilling holes in the ice, which was about 13 inches thick, and Saturday night we found him out in the dark – still fishing. For all this dedication, he didn’t get any bites, but as he said on Sunday, that’s why they call it fishing, not catching.
The igloo was 8 feet in diameter, and our whole group fit comfortably when sitting down. The thick walls of packed snow deadened all sound from outside of the shelter, and did a great job insulating from the cold air outside. I had never built any kind of snow shelter before and was impressed with how quickly this one had come together (with the right tool) and with how effective it was. Sleeping in the igloo that night was an exciting treat, and was surprisingly comfortable. It was extremely warm inside at first, and wasn’t until the wee hours that it started to feel a little cool, but it sure was quiet compared to the night before!
Sunday was a bluebird day if ever I’ve seen one, and the snow was crunchy and firm. Some snowmobilers had come in on the road the day before, leaving a trail of packed snow that made walking much easier – I decided to forego the slowshoes and just hoof it on the way back to the trailhead, which worked out pretty well. A couple of miles in Mariah suggested pulling the skins off the bottom of Daisy’s splitboard, and we took turns riding down the skin track in ski mode. After a handful of sketchy moments caused by heavy packs, a narrow skin track, and loose heels, we decided to pull off the bindings, put the two halves together and board down, which was way more fun! Even with the pack, the low angle, and the pre-determined route formed by the skiers ahead of us, sliding down on that p-tex put a big smile on my face, and Daisy’s as well. Whether it was the new splitboard, the snow, the people, that wonderful pup sometimes known as Babriel, or all of it combined, it seemed like she had a pretty good birthday weekend!
My first snow camping experience turned out to be a blast! I made some new friends and got to spend quality time with some familiar ones. It was great to actually get out and play in the snow after such a dry winter, and I couldn’t have asked for a better group to go with. I learned a lot about traveling and camping in the snow, and realized there were quite a few things I could have gone without to make my pack that much lighter – knowledge that I’ll put to work during my Mountaineering class outing to Mount Ashland this coming weekend. And as cool as it is to be able to camp right in the snow, that sweet Forest Service hut gave me some dangerous ideas about building a little cabin of my own – but that’ll have to wait a while with our big adventure coming up in just a few weeks!
Keep doing your snow dances!