Hail and icy rain knocked us over as we hurriedly pitched our weak, bottomless tent on the snow. Tired and cold, my companion and I crawled into our sleeping bags around 5 p.m. to survive a long and stormy night.
Our goal was to hike cross-country skis from Highway 4 to Highway 108 over the Spicer Meadow Reservoir and the Dardanelles. We planned three days for the 25 mile trip.
Blue skies and great landscapes greeted us on the first day, although both disappeared into the dark clouds that enveloped us on the second day. The storm hit our shelter for hours and reminded me of the survival epic of researcher Jedediah Smith that happened not far from here.
Smith and two companions attempted the first crossing of the Sierra Nevada by European Americans in May 1827. They struggled to find their way through the rugged mountains and were nearly killed in a violent blizzard.
“During the night the storm increased in violence and the weather became extremely cold,” wrote Smith. “We weren’t sure how far the mountains stretched to the east. The wind changed constantly and the snow drifted and flew in all directions … Our poor animals felt a full share of the storm’s vengeance and two horses and a mule froze to death before our eyes. “
While our plight didn’t really compare to it, there were more similarities than I would have preferred. Like Smith’s party, we were a little disoriented (though not lost), surprised by the difficulty of the trip, and unsure of how it was going to end.
Visible from Motorways 4 and 108, the Dardanelles Peaks in the Stanislaus National Forest look majestic and inviting from both directions. My cousin Andy Padlo and I have taken several trips to their area over the years. The prospect of connecting the streets by crossing the range appealed to both of us. Doing this on your own in winter would make it a unique adventure. We don’t know anyone who did that.
Matt Johanson and Andy Padlo set off on a three day ski tour. (Courtesy photo)
Forest trails run just a few kilometers from the volcanic peaks and cover around 80 percent of the planned route, so we can expect rapid progress. This was true on our first day, enjoying lovely weather and excellent views of the snow-capped mountains.
Starting from Spicer Sno Park near Bear Valley, we followed Spicer Reservoir Road for several miles, crossing Bloods Creek and the North Fork of the Stanislaus River. We later crossed the frozen Spicer Meadow Reservoir and camped comfortably near its south bank.
The skiers were preparing for a night in the snow. (Courtesy photo)
The ski route led over the North Fork of Stanislaus. (Courtesy photo)
Conditions got tougher on the second day as we left the safety of the forest road. We broke the trail across the saddle between Whittaker’s Dardanelles and Dardanelles West and wanted to drop onto another forest road that runs parallel to the central fork of the Stanislaus River.
Then a cool wind blew in deep clouds that blocked the view. We navigated with a map and compass for a while until we lost the map. Andy used his phone as a reference until the battery ran out. At least we still had a compass that Smith probably used.
In steep, rocky terrain we had to take off our skis and trudge along in places. Soon we were looking at Donnell Lake, which was scenic and impressive, but miles off the route. We followed Stanislaus upstream for a few hours in search of our forest road until the sun went down and the temperatures dropped. As the storm worsened we called it a day and dug in for the night.
Donnell Lake, a distinctive landmark, helped skiers correct their course.
Rain and hail hit our tent. We were too tired to assemble the stove and cook, and drank a couple of energy bars and water (ice cold, of course) to feed ourselves instead.
Smith’s expedition saw more severe ordeal in 1827. “The night came and closed the bleak desolation from our view, but it wasn’t still the howling winds that roared through the mountains, carried the snow clouds in front of them and beat us cold and angry.” he reported.
“It seemed like we were destined to be destroyed and another day’s sun might never rise on us,” he wrote. “But whoever rules the storms wanted it differently and the sun of the 27th rose clearly on the shining peaks.”
We also woke up to better conditions and found our elusive forest road early in the third morning. This made our passage easier and eased my anxiety as we drove next to Stanislaus for the last few miles, crossed a bridge, and drove onto Highway 108.
Smith and his companions survived and later climbed the range near Ebbetts Pass. Our trip ended near Mill Creek Campground, where we waited under a tarpaulin in the freezing rain for our ride to arrive.
“Are you having fun yet?” Lynn, Andy’s mother, asked with a laugh as she pulled up.
We had fun, although our short excursion was more adventurous than most people would have enjoyed. But I find that overcoming a few challenges along the way makes a trip more rewarding. Learn and connect with the history of a beautiful and cherished wilderness like the Sierra Nevada hinterland. The footprints (or in this case the ski slopes) become an extension of the story.
As Andy mused, the pleasure lies in “stretching beyond ourselves, taking a few miles, taking breaks with all the mountains around us on our backpacks, and having the freedom of limited commitments.” In addition, the payoff at the end includes “a beer, a warm shower and the resuscitation … there is no way to feel the joy of taking off those heavy boots, just putting them on first!”
Matt Johanson wrote “Yosemite Adventures: 50 Spectacular Hikes, Climbing, and Winter Hikes” and “Sierra Summits: A Guide to 50 Top Experiences in California’s Light Spectrum”.
Cross-country skiing outdoors
If you find our journalism valuable and relevant, please consider joining our Examiner membership program.
Learn more at www.sfexaminer.com/join/