The winter of 2003 will go down in our history as the season of chilly nights. With season passes to Kirkwood and an itch to spend some nights outside, we convinced ourselves that snow camping near Carson Pass was the perfect way to get plenty of time at the ‘Wood and still get some backcountry nights under our belts early in the year. While I had some experience with snow camping, having spent 3 or 4 nights in snow caves on Mt. Hood, this was an entirely new experience for Jody.
Over the course of the winter, we spent 5 nights camped at two different spots near Carson Pass. Both areas are pretty popular destinations for cross-country skiers and snowshoers. Despite the popularity among day-trippers and the proximity to Highway 88, we never saw a soul out there past sunset. Since we were usually skiing on Saturdays, we wouldn’t leave Kirkwood until about 2:30 or 3:00. It was always fun to see the looks on people’s faces as we shouldered packs at 3:30 and headed away from the trailhead. Both of our regular camping spots were no more than ¾ of a mile from the trailhead, which made the hike in (and out the next morning) pretty fast. If we had more time, it would have been great to explore both areas more extensively and camp a bit further from the trailhead. But given the fact that we were usually skiing Saturday and Sunday, long hikes in and out weren’t really in the cards.
Each of our five nights was a very distinct experience and can be summed up with some easy titles. Below are some quick notes from my journal for each of our trips.
1/4/03 – The First Night
This was an eagerly anticipated night. We used the Megamid for the first time and tried to dig out a pit beneath it. The snowpack was not deep enough and we wound up with a funky floor plan that wasn’t very comfortable for either of us. We carried in minimal water with a plan of melting snow for cooking and drinking water. We soon realized just how long it takes to melt snow and bring it to a boil. For future trips we decided to haul in more water since our approach was so short. We realized this wouldn’t really be an option on longer trips. Overall, the trip was pretty successful. The temperature at night was on the warmer side and our sleeping bags did a fine job keeping us warm, despite the discomfort of our sleeping arrangement.
1/11/03 – The Windy Night
We returned to the same area, but found a new spot and decided to pitch the tent directly onto the snow after stomping out a platform. I experimented with burying the tent stakes, deadman style, in a bid to make the tent pitch a bit more secure. The inside of the tent has a ton of room when pitched directly on the ground. We decided that the pit wasn’t really necessary unless you were staying put for a few days and really needed a larger basecamp-style shelter. The extra time spent with the tent stakes was rather fortuitous, as the wind picked up and howled through our campsite all night long. Unlike a regular tent with a floor, the only thing keeping a Megamid from blowing away in high wind is the stakes. While the stakes may have kept the tent from blowing away, they did nothing to help with the spindrift that blew under the tent walls and covered us by morning. Overall, this was not the most comfortable night ever spent outside.
1/18/03 – The Full Moon Night
We returned to the same spot as before and proceeded to build a bombproof shelter, complete with securely anchored stakes and a windbreak around the perimeter of the tent, should the weather turn sour on us. We were applying learnings from our first two trips. This being our third trip, we had by now perfected the menu for a simple snow camping dinner: a big pot of Velveeta Shells & Cheese and some instant mashed potatoes with bacon bits. Snickers bars for desert. We had a beautiful full moon that night and enjoyed a long snowshoe walk around the meadow near our campsite before turning in for the night. The clear sky brought chilly temperatures and the mercury dropped to somewhere around 10 degrees overnight. Despite the cold, we both enjoyed the night and slept comfortably. However, the next morning, I was surprised to find that my contacts were frozen solid in their solution!
2/8/03 – The Really Cold Night
With three nights under our belts, we strutted out to the same spot as the previous two trips and promptly got our butts kicked. By the time we went to bed at 8 PM, it was 7 degrees outside. When we woke up the next morning at 7 AM, it was 0 degrees. Our best guess is that the overnight low was somewhere around -5 to -10 degrees. Most of the night was spent shivering away in our 20-degree bags, which, up to this point, had proven quite comfortable in most conditions. It was another uncomfortable night.
3/15/03 – The Best Night
We were pretty certain this would be the last snow camping trip of the year and I wanted some good pictures for our Fundamentals of Snow Camping guide. About 24 inches of fresh snow had fallen and we were disappointed to find that our regular trailhead had not yet been plowed. As such, there was nowhere to park our car. We turned around and headed back up the hill to a large Sno Park that had already been plowed. Although breaking trail in the fresh snow was tough, we were able to find a beautiful campsite within a short hike from the car. After setting up camp, we enjoyed the late daylight and spent some time taking pictures of the area. By our fifth night we had dialed in the best way to set up the Megamid and were feeling pretty well seasoned as snow campers. Our reward was a very comfortable and restful night before our last day at Kirkwood for the season.