A white curtain of snow obscured my view of a sparse pine forest and the towering mountains bordering Donner Memorial State Park. The temperature on that January morning had dropped below 30, and the forecast called for one of the biggest snowfalls in decades.
The prospects of nasty weather excited me. I strapped on my snowshoes in a snow-packed parking lot off Interstate 80, about 4 1/2 miles southwest of Truckee. I was prepared for anything. Blizzards. Avalanche. White-out conditions. Isn't that the kind of thing that forges character and marks great adventures?
My destination was the Lost Trail Lodge, a hike-in lodge about four miles away, in a valley south of Donner Lake, bounded on three sides by Sierra Nevada peaks.
I learned about the place the previous winter from a ranger at the state park. The secluded chalet, I was told, is untouched by paved roads, phones or electrical lines, accessible only by snowshoes or cross-country skis.
Getting there: Lost Trail Lodge is a four-mile journey by snowshoes or cross-country skis from the Donner park gate near Donner Pass Road and Interstate 80. In the summer, guests can hike, mountain bike or take a four-wheel drive to the lodge. Address: 8600 Coldstream, Truckee, Calif.
Cost: $79 per person per night or $1,180 for the entire lodge. You must bring your own food.
About the lodge: The lodge is open year-round and has seven cabins and a loft, with a total of 20 beds. Three of the cabins have Jacuzzi tubs and all have fire-burning stoves.
Reservations: (530) 320-9268, www.losttraillodge.com.
These hike-in lodges have gained popularity in recent years, as outdoor enthusiasts try to escape the increasingly intrusive grip of cellphones, BlackBerrys and Wi-Fi. Similar lodges in Tennessee; Montana; Alberta, Canada; and along the Appalachian Trail in Georgia do brisk business.
I grew more excited as I learned about the lodge. My previous few out-of-town trips had been cushy: warm hotels with room service and heated pools. I ached for adventure, something dangerous, an adrenaline surge. The lodge, surrounded by miles of snow and forest, sounded just right. I was possessed by the spirits of Jack London, Henry David Thoreau and Christopher McCandless. I was heading into the wild.
In the parking lot behind a gas station, I checked my supplies and equipment and waited to join the other weekend guests for the two-hour trek to the lodge. Guests must bring in their own food, so I crammed my backpack with freeze-dried soup, bags of granola, power bars and a flask of whiskey. (Who knew? I might need the booze to act as anesthesia for a backcountry amputation.) All guests had to sign a liability waiver before beginning the hike. Anything could happen out here, and access to medical help was limited.
But I realized quickly that the Lost Trail Lodge would not be the Jon Krakauer adventure I had anticipated. The first hint came when David Robertson, the owner of the lodge, roared up to the parking lot in a snowmobile, offering to carry the heaviest supplies.
What sort of supplies, I wondered. Axes? Firewood? Bear traps? No. The guests started loading the snowmobile with boxes of red wine, beer and five cooked pizzas.
I came here looking for an "Into the Wild" experience. Instead I got "Into the Mild."
Robertson's snowmobile tore up the trail with a roar, the smell of pizzas and fuel exhaust wafting in the chilly air. In a staggered line, about 30 guests and I followed a snow-packed trail, past frosted Jeffrey and lodgepole pines. About half of us, including me, made the hike on snowshoes, the other half on cross-country skis.
The snow fell steadily. For more than two hours, I listened to the crunch, crunch, crunch of my snowshoes grinding away on the glistening snowpack. We marched past frozen ponds and towering pines, bent under the weight of snow heaps. After nearly three miles, a motorized roar filled the air. A Southern Pacific locomotive sliced between snow-crusted trees, along mountain railroad tracks, sending a spray of white into the air.
The bitingly cold hike ended when we crossed a small wooden bridge over a frozen creek and came to a clearing. The Swiss chalet-style lodge was nearly hidden behind a stand of snow-covered trees. Inside the glass-pane front doors, sofas and cushioned chairs furnished a big, comfortable living room, centered on a large river-stone fireplace. A black iron stove burned warm inside the fireplace.
The decor: American ski lodge meets country flea market. Knotty pine planks covered the floors, and animal skins, elk heads, snowshoes and skis decorated the walls. Power was supplied by a diesel generator, solar panels and hydroelectric generators turned by creek water. There were no hard-wired phone lines and only spotty cellphone service.
The rooms were rustic but spacious, with thick quilts on the wood-frame beds and wood-burning stoves to stave off the cold. The most luxurious rooms included a small Jacuzzi made of river rocks.
Most of the guests were members of a local chapter of the American Alpine Club, a group of tough-as-nails outdoor adventurers. These are the kind of folks who sit around comparing death-defying rock climbs and mountaineering adventures. The group had been meeting here annually for three years. On the living room floor they dropped coils of climbing rope, 40-pound backpacks and ice-caked snowshoes.
After hauling in the climbing gear, they formed a bucket brigade to carry in the libations. Someone handed me a box of Negra Modelo beer. Then came a box of Sierra Nevada beer and then a case of Charles Shaw wine.
Nearly lost in the hustle and noise was our host, Robertson, a slight, 57-year-old man in loose jeans and a pointy knit beanie. While the other guests moved like scurrying ants, he sauntered about like a monk with a hangover and a 5-o'clock shadow.
It was hard to believe our slow-moving host once headed a powerful water agency in Lake Tahoe, used his savings to buy 2.5 acres of forest land and built a 3,700-square-foot lodge out of river stones and pine lumber. How did the guy in the ridiculous knit cap figure out how to power the lodge with 35 kilowatts of electricity and not tap into a municipal utility?
During my visit, Robertson continued to impress me as a man of many skills.
After a dinner of pizza, pasta and shish kebab (everyone cooked what they brought but shared), Robertson distributed musical instruments that were strewn around the lodge: guitars, mandolins, banjos, tambourines and a massive upright bass.
You don't know how to play? No problem, Robertson said. Put your finger on this fret and pluck, he told a guest.
At Robertson's direction, I strummed a series of chords on a guitar while another guest plucked at a bass. Robertson picked out a melody on a mandolin. (Yeah, he can read music as well as an electronic schematic.) With a little coaxing, he orchestrated something that passed for music.
Later, the guests broke into chatty groups throughout the lodge, and Robertson sat down at an upright piano in the living room. The piano had a tinny, barroom sound, like something you'd hear in an Old West saloon. Robertson made that sound by pushing metal thumbtacks onto the piano's felt hammers. He played a few melancholy bluegrass tunes while everyone sipped wine by the warm glow of the wood-burning stove.
The living area slowly emptied as guests wandered back to their rooms, most adjoining the main lodge. Because he had overbooked, Robertson put me in a tiny one-room cabin, heated by a wood-burning stove, about 50 yards from the lodge. Sleepy from too much wine, I stumbled out into the snow to my cabin. "Maybe I'll come across adventure tomorrow," I thought.
The smell of bacon and sausage filled the lodge early the next morning. I stomped in to find the members of the American Alpine Club scurrying about, hauling crampons, ice picks and ropes for an ice climbing adventure. The destination was a 150-foot frozen waterfall about three miles away. The plan was to scale it. I ate a quick breakfast and grabbed my backpack.
The sky was pale blue and the sun sparkled off the freshly fallen snow. For two hours we marched over the snow, in single file, until we reached a clearing at the base of a towering cliff. An aqua-blue frozen waterfall draped over the gray overhang. The climbers called the waterfall "code red" but no one could explain why. In the soft powder we began to erect tents for a base camp while the two best climbers circled around to the top of the cliff, where they secured a top anchor rope. The rope dropped to the bottom of the cliff so that ice climbers could attach a harness for the climb.
The sound of ice picks digging into the frozen cascade echoed off the cliff. I watched the climbers take turns scaling the waterfall. I wanted to climb the giant icicle -- it seemed like the adventure I was seeking -- but I didn't have crampons and, honestly, I was more interested in heading back to see what Robertson had in store for us next.
Back at the lodge, new guests sat around the fireplace, two men and a woman with a Dolly Parton hairdo. They were tonight's entertainment, a Tahoe-based band called Westwind. Robertson brought the band in on a diesel-powered, four-track snowcat.
After a dinner of salad, pasta and garlic bread, I poured myself a glass of wine and found a stool in the crowded living room. We were crammed on sofas and chairs in a circle around the band, instruments and microphones propped in front of the fireplace. Robertson's 150-pound Great Pyrenees dog, Opie, staked out the best spot, at the foot of the musicians.
The trio belted out such tunes as "Blue Kentucky Girl" and "Acadian Angel" in a style they called "two-step Americana" but sounded like bluegrass to me. As the band played tragically beautiful songs, Robertson strummed along on a guitar, other times a mandolin and once on the stand-up bass.
Sometime during the band's second set, the lodge suddenly went dark. The light of a half moon outside cast a silvery glow through the windows. But within minutes, Robertson had the diesel generator roaring and the lights back on. No one seemed surprised by the electrical interruption, least of all Beverly Wilson, an interior decorator from Berkeley who was sitting next to me. "The lights go out, there's no cell service," she said. "It's just beautiful."
By the last morning of my stay, my hunger for adventure had dissipated with untold glasses of red wine and hours of live fireside music. I felt as spoiled as that big, hairy Opie.
A few of the Alpine Club members rushed around the living room, packing ropes and crampons, with plans for more ice climbing. Not me. I'd had enough fun for one weekend. I strapped on my snowshoes and tossed my backpack over my shoulder. The sky was overcast, and another storm threatened. If I pushed myself, I thought I could finish the four-mile trek to the gas station parking lot in less than two hours.
That's when Robertson stopped me and said: "If you hurry, you can get a ride back with the band on the snowcat."
A 30-minute snowcat ride or a two-hour snowshoe hike?
Hardship and adventure can be overrated.
latimes.com /losttrail Life at the lodge Go online for more photos of the Lost Trail Lodge.