February 2, 2019 · Eldorado National Forest
Check out the route in detail on AllTrails.
At 7:00AM on Saturday, February 2nd, our trusty driver KP and his co-pilot Stani made the rounds, picking up the crew for this trip (Sarah Freier-Miller, Dylan Harris, and Primus Lam) at our respective apartments. We began to make our way to El Dorado national forest, knowing that we were driving straight into an area under a severe storm advisory from the National Weather Service. We all wondered how this storm would affect our plans, but we were so excited for the trip that we carried on optimistically. We’d also agreed, though, that we’d prioritize safety and turn back if we needed to. We slowly transitioned from city to forest, noting the drop in temperature as we stopped for gas. We were all looking forward to making the turn onto Ice House Road. Most of us had never been on this road, but by name alone, all felt held the potential for great adventure.
We finally reached the turn and immediately started climbing. We watched as the rain slowly turned to beautiful, fluffy snowflakes, and the road became icy. Somewhat treacherous road conditions appeared when we were still 27 miles and 3,000 feet from our intended destination. We realized it probably wasn’t safe to continue too much further. Luckily, Dylan had researched the area and had a map downloaded on his phone ready to go. We parked the car not far from a trail to a different lake, and decided to try our luck there instead.
We exited the vehicles, and already there was about two feet of snow covering the ground. We geared up, and I started to hear a nervous voice in my head ask “are we really doing this? Are we sure we don’t just want to turn around? What if the weather gets really bad while we’re out there? What if I’m not really up for it?” but I trusted my group and knew that every time I’d doubted myself before but pushed on, I’d been happy I did. So I strapped myself into my snowshoes (actually I did nothing, KP kneeled down to make sure I got them on properly. Note to self: no more snowshoeing trips until I can successfully put them on myself!), threw my backpack on my back, and before I knew it, we were off.
We started walking, and very quickly found the trail turnoff that headed into the woods. I thought, hey, if conditions stay like this, I can totally handle it and I might even enjoy myself! The scenery was beautiful. Green pine trees dusted with a perfect coating of fresh white powdery snow surrounded us. The woods were quiet, as they usually are during winter, with the snow absorbing many forest sounds you’d hear in other seasons. My backpack felt comfortable, and snowshoeing isn’t that much different from walking when you really get down to it.
After about a mile of walking, we reached a fork in the road. To the right, we saw the lake stretch out before us, with a dam snaking around to the right. We decided to try our luck walking off-trail, along the left side of the lake. The terrain was quite flat, minus a few inclines, rocks, and creeks to step over. It was beautiful, in a severe way. As the clouds rolled in and the sky darkened, the lighting made is seem almost as if we were walking through a black and white photograph of a frozen lake surrounded by forest.
We found some picnic benches under the cover of a few trees, so we stopped for a hot tea and snack break. It was here that I made my first winter-trekking mistake. I felt so warm that I took my gloves off to fiddle with a few things in my pack and dust the snow off. When we started walking again, all of my sudden my hands started to burn with pain, even though I had my gloves back on. I started to panic. I had just gotten a taste of what happens when your body gets too cold, even for a short period of time. Up until this point, I’d been quite comfortable and warm because of the physical exertion, but now I began to worry slightly. What if the storm keeps getting worse and the temperature drops and we are too cold to survive? What if one of us breaks an ankle? Do we have cell service or a Satellite phone to call for help? What if I’m too cold in my tent tonight to sleep? What if so much snow falls that it covers up the tent and we suffocate? Yes, I know, it sounds dramatic, and triggered by one episode of very very cold hands. Luckily I called to the group, and Dylan whipped out some hand warmers for me to throw in my gloves. A few minutes later, I was feeling much better, and did my best to push my fears from my head. I knew that they would interrupt my ability to fully enjoy the moment. And so, we walked on.
As we continued to round the lake, after about 2.5 miles of hiking, we spotted a nice-looking campsite just up the hill from the lake. We decided to walk up and check it out. It had everything we needed: bear lockers that we could use to store our gear and protect if from the snow, a picnic table, bathrooms, and a nice flat area to camp on. We decided to drop our gear and continue snow-shoeing, to fully utilize the daylight we had left while also getting relief from our heavy packs.
Since it was so cold, staying active was the best choice. We started walking again, first up a nice wide road, and then Dylan decided we should get a little more adventurous! He took a left off of the road and we started to climb up the mountain through the trees. It was beautiful, and provided more interesting terrain than we’d found on the road. The trees looked perfect covered in snow, like a postcard. As we snaked our way up the hill, my anxieties came back. None of us brought a flashlight! What if we get lost and it gets dark and we can’t find our way back, we’ll freeze to death! Yet again, I had to silence these voices to enjoy the beauty surrounding us. Also, I trusted my fellow scouts. They seemed confident in the woods, and it wasn’t really fair to assume they’d lead us into any danger.
After about two more miles looping up and back through the forest, we made it back to camp. We decided to set up first. It turns out, putting a tent up in the snow is...exactly like putting a tent up on the ground! The only difference is, we used our snowshoes to pack down the ground so that we didn’t sink too much into the powdery snow. I will admit, though, my hands weren’t used to performing dexterous tasks in this climate. Everything felt more difficult. I didn’t want to take my gloves off, but setting up camp with my gloves on felt like I was wearing oven mitts. Most of us just did a little with bare hands, put our gloves back on to warm up, then continued the set up until we were done.
Next up, dinner time. It was only 4:30, but we knew a little hot food would make us all feel better. Everyone boiled water, and we used it to make tea and dehydrated backpacking meals for dinner. I have to admit, I was pretty impressed by how good my mexican chicken and rice tasted, knowing that about 8 minutes ago it had been freeze dried powders and chunks barely resembling food. That being said, almost anything will taste good after the snowshoeing in the cold
The sun set sometime between 5:00-6:00PM. We quickly cleaned up our dinner, making sure to leave no MOOP (I learned that this stands for matter out of place.) With the sun gone, the temperature dropped again quite quickly, and the warmest place for us was in our sleeping bags, snug in our tents. We settled in, and I turned to Dylan saying “well now what do we do? It’s only 6:30?” and he said, “sleep! We’ll want to wake up at first light, around 6:00AM, and trust me, you’ll probably be able to sleep 12 hours out here.”
I thought he was crazy. And then somehow I was also asleep about 10 minutes later. I will admit, it was not the most comfortable night of my life. I kept adding layers as the night went on and it seemed to get colder and colder. I dreaded having to put my icy boots on when I inevitably had to get up to pee. At some points in the night, I had to flutter my feet and find new hand warmers to stay warm.
But somehow, we did it! I slept most of the night, and though getting up to pee wasn’t that fun, it also wasn’t that bad. When Dylan said it was 6:00AM I was shocked. I felt a wave of pride wash over me. I MADE IT UNTIL MORNING! It’s all downhill from here!
I layered up to leave the warm (ish) nest of our tent, and finally pushed the snow fly out of the way to reveal a beautiful morning. The sun was out a bit more than it had been the day before, and Stani was running around chasing a stick like the happiest creature in the world. We decided to pack up camp first off, to get the hard stuff out of the way. I’ll admit, re-packing a backpack is slightly more difficult in the snow. Everything is wet and cold, your fingers aren’t working as well, and you just have to be more methodical about where you put everything down (you don’t want to put it down in snow because it’ll get even WETTER). That being said, it all got done, much more quickly than I’d expected.
The next 30-minutes or so might have been the highlight of the trip for me. In general, my favorite part of camping is the morning, after you’ve gotten packed up and organized, and you have a few minutes to enjoy coffee and breakfast before the activity of the day begins.
We ate, chatted, but didn’t spend too long dilly-dallying. In those temperatures it’s best to keep moving to stay warm. We packed up the last of our gear and headed out! We took a new route back, down the road through the forest instead of following the lakeshore. It was yet another beautiful day. It was wammer on Sunday, which meant that the only temperature problem we really had was over-heating. We made a few stops to pee, de-layer, and snack, but for the most part we just jammed. It was lovely seeing different terrain. I found myself able to enjoy the beauty, even though my body was starting to feel the effects of what was a pretty extraordinary weekend physically and mentally. I definitely had some uncomfortable moments trudging through the snow. But those were also mixed in by feelings of pride that we were so close to completing a trip I wasn’t sure, at the outset, I could handle.
I’d been so worried that the original road we’d parked on would be too snowy-icy to get back home on. But yet again, my fears were unfounded. We found the road in such good condition that we had to take our snowshoes off for the last stretch of the journey, because there wasn’t any snow on the road!
As we approached the car, we all let out hollers of joy. I think we all shared in the feeling of accomplishment about the weekend. We all came into it with differing levels of fitness and experience with snowsports, but I think we were all challenged in the right way. The drive back was practically traffic-free, and involved a stop for super burritos we all knew we’d earned. Oh, and more road snacks, and trading Stani around so that we could all get our share of lap cuddles.
Overall, this was one of the most memorable trips I’ve ever been on. I’m grateful for my fellow dece scouts Kyle, Dylan, and Primus, who were all extremely patient with my slower pace and inexperience with certain gear. I felt completely safe and supported the entire time. I think that’s what makes a great scout pack, and why I can’t wait for my next trip with Dece!