Back-Country Skiers Take to Wintry Wilderness

Times Staff Writer

In search of solace following his divorce five years ago, Ron Grau took up backpacking and cross-country skiing. But the silence of the Sierra in summertime is frequently broken by hissing Coleman stoves. And the Nordic ski areas around Mammoth and Tahoe are increasingly infested with hot-shot racers wearing gaudy, elasticized suits.

Grau, a 39-year-old data processor from Pomona, finally found his cure in a sleeping bag in the snow.

Like Grau, an increasing number of Californians are discovering that serenity awaits those who travel away from lift lines and groomed tracks. Those willing to spend a night in a frigid tent, hut or snow cave find that the back country in wintertime constitutes what the authors of a book on skiing off-the-track called "America's wildest wilderness."

Across Frozen Lakes

On a recent Saturday, Grau skied across a series of five frozen lakes--Mack, Marsh, Heart, Box and Long. Saddled with a heavy pack, he labored in sun-whitened surroundings that at moments resembled the Sahara more than the eastern Sierra.

Crossing the last lake, Grau looked down to see water bubbling into the depression left by his ski pole. An unwelcome image came to mind: the falling-through-the-ice sequence in the film "Never Cry Wolf." Grau was at least seven miles from the nearest cleared road, and there was no Eskimo around to fish him out of the water--as one had rescued the character in the movie.

The ice held. That night, however, there would be 13-degree temperatures and tent-toppling winds to contend with. The 10,600-foot altitude would afflict members of Grau's party with headaches and lethargy. The next morning the ski tourers would don rescue beacons that emit electronic signals as a hedge against yet another potential hazard of winter travel in the Sierra--avalanches.

Yet all this was forgotten when Grau stepped outside his tent in the evening. The light of a half moon and stars, magnified by the ice and snow, cast an otherworldly glow on Bear Creek Spire and the surrounding jagged peaks. One skier observed that it was all as unfamiliar as the underwater vista that confronts a first-time scuba diver.

"The discomforts are not enormous," Grau said. "It's the price you pay to see this beauty."

The automobiles looked as if they were deposited by a glacier that swept down the canyon in a distant ice age. In fact, the collection of ice-flecked buses and bugs belonged to the staff of Rock Creek Winter Lodge, a communally operated way-station that is the jumping-off spot to what some consider the best back country skiing in California.

The lodge is snowed in all winter; guests and staff get in and out on skis and snowmobiles--thus the collection of vehicles, which gather snow until the Rock Creek collective disperses in the spring.

The cars were parked at the end of a plowed road eight miles from Tom's Place, a tiny community on Highway 395 nearly 300 miles north of Los Angeles. Although the sprawling downhill resort, Mammoth Mountain, is just a half-hour's drive up the road, the two ski areas couldn't be farther apart in terms of their attitude toward the sport.

Differences in Attitude

Downhill skiing is a social activity and a thriving industry; back-country skiing attracts self-sufficient iconoclasts who make do with 15-year-old Fisher skis and scrounged clothing, according to Rock Creek staffer Marty Hornick. When Hornick drove the snow-cat down to pick up a load of beer and guests on a recent morning, he was attired in a shredded, grease-splashed (from working on snowmobiles) bunting jacket and army- surplus wool pants.

This is not to say there are none who straddle the societies of Mammoth and Rock Creek. Guys like Hornick love to practice their telemark turns on the Mammoth runs; and many an alpine skier has been inspired to try three-pin (cross-country) bindings upon observing someone like Marty doing a poetic series of linked telemarks beneath the chairlifts.

On the snow-cat ride up to the lodge, Hornick warned with a sly smile that life at the lodge is different from what most people are used to. "Once in a while we get someone who expects the Hilton or a Mammoth condo," he said.

The slight inconveniences weed out comfort-seeking guests, Hornick said, leaving those willing souls of the sort the staff would prefer to be snowed-in with.

A Rustic Convenience

One rustic feature of a stay at Rock Creek is the unheated outhouse, which has been known to require guests in darkness to tunnel out of their cabins with a shovel, then burrow through drifts of snow to reach it.

Lodge owner Dion Goldsworthy and his partners were non-skiers at in 1979 when they stumbled into the canyon as part of a vague city-kids' dream to live in the mountains. Goldsworthy was living in San Diego, studying telecommunications. Janet and Mark Rantz were from Santa Barbara (Janet is still at Rock Creek). None of them had ever lived where it snowed.

Ski mountaineering pioneer Doug Robinson observed from a distance as his inept new neighbors were broken in by their first Sierra winter. A 40-year-old climbing and skiing guide who is president of the American Professional Mountain Guides Assn., Robinson was living in a cabin beside Rock Creek Lake at the time. He had come to the canyon seeking fine skiing on the advice of the late Norman Clyde, who is sometimes referred to as John Muir's successor as the grand old man of the Sierra.

Clyde's life style is something ski mountaineers still emulate. After caretaking vacant fishing lodges all winter, the man used to move to a base camp above timberline every May. "He'd get up early, hike up to a notch by Bear Creek Spire, wait until the snow softened, take off his nail boots, put on skis and sail down," Robinson said. "He'd get back to camp by noon and lounge around reading classics in six original languages."

Explorations Began

Robinson began exploring the snow outside of established ski areas in the early '60s. His homemade equipment consisted of bindings mounted on solid hickory army surplus skis. At that time, the only people doing back-country skiing, Robinson said, were "snow surveyors and a few eccentrics."

In the late '70s, the introduction of hollow fiberglass skis--lighter and more flexible than their forerunners--opened the sport to more people. It was now possible to get around efficiently in the back country on the same skis that were capable of a fast downhill run.

Dion Goldsworthy and friends soon found their rustic lodge had become headquarters for what some have called a golden age of ski mountaineering. With activities concentrated in the eastern Sierra and near Crested Butte, Colo., American skiers continue to conquer challenges that once seemed impossible. They tackle high and difficult routes, extreme slopes, and race from one point to another in record time. Robinson and Carl McCoy (son of Mammoth Mountain owner Dave McCoy) first skied the length of the John Muir Trail in 1970. Robinson's latest feat, which he'll attempt with Marty Hornick, will be to ski the High Route--which bounces along the crest of the Sierra from Mt. Whitney to Sequoia--in 24 hours. It's normally an eight-day journey.

By 1980, an increasing number of metal-edged backcountry skis with three-pin bindings were being sold in outdoors stores in Los Angeles and other urban areas. Apparel manufacturers came up with colorful, sturdy fabrics so that back-country skiers need no longer look like "someone who just stepped out of the Yukon," said Charles Walz, assistant manager of the Adventure 16 store in West Los Angeles.

Rock Creek began to fill to capacity of 50 people. And more guests began talking about trans-Sierra tours, which allow a skier to cross the range from east to west, or vice versa, in six to eight days. The word was that if you went with a guide, even a determined beginning skier could accomplish this romantic and difficult-sounding adventure.

As evidence that trans-Sierra trips are within grasp of almost anyone in good health, last spring 4-year-old George Wills became the youngest person known to have made the 6-day tour from Piute Pass to Rock Creek Canyon. His parents and his 8-year-old sister, Lucy, also completed the trip which was organized by Alpine Expeditions of Bishop.

Rock Creek staff specialize in easing people into the seemingly hostile environment of the back country in winter. The first step toward back-country travel may be a visit to the lodge to take a lesson and experience mild hardships.

From Hut to Hut

Next, some guests elect to try a guided hut tour. Guides stash food, drink and firewood at one of the three canvas-and-plywood huts the staff has erected in the John Muir Wilderness (their Forest Service permit states that the structures must be removed each spring.) Tour members carry only backpacks holding their sleeping bags and personal gear. Once at the hut, guests get to shed their loads and explore the highest peaks unencumbered, using the hut as a base camp.

More strenuous are the hut-to-hut tours in which packs must be carried daily, or the snow-camping outings for which skiers shoulder a heavy load of food, tents and stoves.

Almost no one ventures into the wilderness in winter for their first overnight without some apprehension, yet Goldsworthy said that "An awful lot of people, once they do that first tour, they're fired. There's a real sense of accomplishment--they not only survived it, they had a blast!"

While the guests scheduled for a three-day hut trip indulged in a final shave and wash at the communal hot water spigot on the back porch of the Rock Creek kitchen on a recent morning, the guides were inside cooking popovers, oatmeal and omelets to the beat of reggae music.

After breakfast, the eight ski tourers were issued heavy back-country boots, poles and metal-edged skis, gaiters (they keep snow out of boots), avalanche beacons, climbing skins (once made of sealskin, these items, now of nylon, enable the skis to grip while going uphill) and shovels, which were lashed to every skier's pack.

There was a long haul up the snow-covered road to the wilderness boundary, then they got into some true back-country skiing where the parallel tracks of the skier just ahead were the only sign of human presence.

The hut was partly concealed in the trees above Long Lake. Minutes after the group straggled in, the guide from New Zealand, known as S. P., had the wood stove going and water on for tea. He dragged out beach chairs and positioned them in the sun. There the party rested, gazing at the light slipping off Mills, Dade and Abbott peaks. The hut was in shadow by 3:30 p.m., and anyone not out keeping warm by skiing or digging an avalanche pit (a device to test the snow conditions and so, the likelihood of avalanche) soon retreated to its relative warmth.

Michael Hodgson, director of the Wilderness Outings program for Adventure-16 predicts that hut-touring is the thing that will popularize back-country skiing because the shelters, crude as they may be, alleviate the cold and discomfort associated with snow camping; and they eliminate the need to carry heavy loads into the backcountry.

Huts have been appearing here and there in ski areas throughout the country in the last few years. Perhaps the most elaborate hut system under construction is the Tenth Mountain Trail and Hut System, a planned series of 10 huts that will dot the 80 miles between Aspen and Vail, Colo.

Popular in Europe

Such hut systems are immensely popular in Europe where skiers are likely to encounter a human mule train, said Goldsworthy. In reputation, at least, the Sierra High Route is rapidly taking on the popularity of the French Haute Route from whence it got its name. But Golds-worthy said it's unlikely that hut skiing in the Sierra will develop to the extent that it has in Europe because here there are vast tracts of designated wilderness where no structures or motorized vehicles are permitted.

Winter is the element that's most likely to keep back-country ski congestion at bay, according to Charlie Robinson, recreation officer for the Mt. Whitney Ranger District of the Inyo National Forest. The Mt. Whitney area receives heavy use in summer, "but once it snows there's hardly anybody around," said Robinson, who is Doug Robinson's younger brother.

Shepherds Pass, the gateway to the popular High Route, is within Robinson's territory, but the number of users still aren't great enough to interfere with the area's big horn sheep population or other wildlife. (Interference with winter wildlife habitat has become an issue in Yellowstone National Park due to the influx of day skiers.)

Although the prospect of camping in the snow deters many potential users, "It's not necessarily difficult and you can really be comfortable," Goldsworthy said. Compared to winter travel in the Rockies, or European ranges, the Sierra is "heaven for getting around in," according to guide S. P. The weather is most likely to be kind, and there is the least risk of avalanche in these mountains.

(Avalanche consultant Norm Wilson says that two-thirds of all avalanche victims are back-country skiers and snowshoers.)

Skip Reedy of the Tahoe Nordic Search and Rescue Team agreed that back-country skiers normally are well-prepared for adversity. Reedy, 42, said the rescue team formed 10 years ago when local people observed that as cross-country skiing became more popular, "eventually someone was going to run into trouble."

Downhill Skiers

To their surprise, the team has spent most of its time hunting for lost downhill skiers. Downhill skiers tend not to carry extra clothing, and act under the mistaken belief that if they just keep heading downhill they'll eventually come to a lodge. A lost Tahoe area skier would have to go downhill all the way to Auburn or Placerville, 50 or 60 miles away, before he found help, Reedy said.

Occasionally, back-country ski tourers do get in trouble and one recently died, said Reedy, who owns the Tahoe Nordic Ski Center. It was about a month ago that their team of community volunteers searched for three cross-country skiers who had set off on a three-day tour. When one member of the party had equipment problems, his brother and a friend skied on ahead. The lone man attempted a shortcut, made a 180-degree wrong turn, and ended up in the Desolation Valley Wilderness.

Rescuers followed his track up a stream bed, and found that he had crossed the chest-high water several times. They found him dead from hypothermia at 6:30 in the morning.

What he did wrong, Reedy said, was to split off from his group. He carried inadequate gear; and he kept going rather than retracing his steps.

Socks on Nails

There wasn't much chance of hypothermia in the Long Lake hut. Damp socks hung on the nails around the top of the hut to dry while the wood stove pumped out warmth. Other nails held pots, pans, a grater, colander and coffee pot. Rock Creek guides make much of mealtime. Dinner by lantern light included pasta with pesto sauce, wheat garlic bread, red wine, and S. P.'s own Christmas pudding with hard sauce for dessert.

In the morning the tourers collected their dry garments while a frittata simmered on the stove. Someone hiked down to a flowing stream to gather water.

"Most people I know think a vacation means going to an expensive hotel and being waited on hand and foot," said Colleen Rice, as she pulled on her ski boots in preparation for a day of exploring the high alpine bowls. "I think that'd be boring."

This was Rice's first overnight in the snow. A 29-year-old adaptive physical education teacher from Westminster, she was already plotting her next step into the backcountry. She's contemplating a trans-Sierra tour this spring, she said, "if I can just figure out how to keep my feet warm."

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