A light snow covered most of the hills and much of the desert floor around us. The White Mountains reflected clear in the waters of Mono Lake. It took us most of a day to drive down to here from the bay area, but in a setting as serene as the High Sierra in winter, who would rush?
We parked near the base of the Tioga Pass Road, still closed for the winter. We walked up the road for an hour or so, scouting out conditions for what we thought we’d ski up the next day. Of the small amounts of snow that had fallen this winter, most had melted off the asphalt, leaving it bare even above 8,000 feet. There would be no skiing here unless I’d be willing to huff my skis and boots on my back for four or five miles.
Fortunately, we ran into a woman who suggested that we drive up Rock Creek Road out near Tom’s Place. At the end of the plowed road, there’s a sno-park, she said, and the winter trailhead is at 9,000 feet. If any place would have skiable snow, it would be there. We made camp for the night a short ways off the road and went to sleep as it started to snow.
The next morning we drove down to Tom’s Place, ate breakfast there, then drove up to the sno-park. We packed our backpacks and began the hike up the groomed Rock Creek Road, me on skis, George on snowshoes. The weather shifted and blew, clouds rolling in and out over the Sierra crest above us, but it never quite snowed.
We made it to the end of the groomed road, hiked in for another mile or so, and made camp at the north end of Little Lakes Valley. We pitched our tents amidst some trees on the edge of a meadow. The Sierra crest towered above the other end of the valley, and to this view we ate our dinner and rolled into our sleeping bags.
The night was cold–probably the coldest night I’d ever seen. I didn’t sleep a wink, and neither did George. Draped in all of my clothing, cocooned in my zero-degree sleeping bag, I stared at the tent ceiling for most of the night, shifting around as cold spots developed and moved in the bag. The scenery was stark, immense, epic, but when the temperature keeps you awake through the night, camping has no more aesthetic appeal than a meat freezer. It was miserable.
George started packing up his gear around 5:00 in the morning. By 5:30 he was packed and hiking out, and at that point, I decided to pack up and leave as well. It was beautiful. I had to plunge my hands into my pants every couple minutes just to keep the frostbite at bay. My hydration bladder was frozen solid. I was tired, thirsty, cold, and frustrated. But when I turned around and saw the morning alpenglow over the Sierra crest, a reluctant smile crossed my face. This was all worth it.
I left camp after an hour of packing and taking pictures. I flew down the groomed part of the trail, barely stopping to take pictures. I got to the car, and George was just finishing unpacking. We loaded up the car, drove into Bishop, and bought ourselves some hot coffee. We had survived.