Man vs. Manzanita: Snow Camping and Lessons Learned13 min read

This past weekend I was out with Miles and some friends for my first overnight ski tour.  I’m going to walk you through the weekend blow by blow, because I think it’s a great case study about how all the lessons you learn in the outdoors become more important as the level of complexity and commitment increases.  Making good choices is more important when climbing than hiking. Mistakes are more consequential for overnight trips than day tours. Winter reduces your margin for error, and storms remove it entirely. This trip gave me ample chances to reflect on a lot of what I’ve learned in three years of outdoor adventuring.  Let’s see how this went down.

Setting the stage

Lifestyles of the rich and the famous here, but I was only just getting back from a ski trip the day before we were due to leave for Tahoe.  Needless to say, my trip planning for the weekend was at an all-time low, second only to New Year’s Eve, 2015. This brings us to lesson numero uno:

1.  Get it packed the night before

It’s always bad news when you’ve got a full backpack, a duffel, and a spare stuff sack filled with gear loaded into the car for a backpacking trip.  This resulted in me being The Guy exploding his pack in the parking lot of a South Lake Tahoe strip mall Saturday morning during our coffee stop.  Don’t repack at the trailhead, don’t forget your gear, get it packed the night before.

“But John,” you say, “why is the coffee shop open if you’re getting an alpine start?”  Yeah. Well. Alpine starts go out the window when you need to pick up a rental touring setup for a member of your group.  Fortunately, the amount of time it takes to rent backcountry skis and skins matches exactly with how long it takes me to unpack and repack a full 60L pack.  About that rental gear:

2.  If you didn’t pack it, check it

Full credit to Miles on this one.  “Let’s put on the skins now, to make sure they fit” was the smartest play of the day.  We pull the skins out of their bag, and discover the last gumby who used them had ripped the tails out by the rivets.  It takes a lot less time to roundtrip to the rental store (or your gear pile) from the parking lot than from the trailhead.  If you didn’t personally pack a piece of critical gear, make sure you check it before you depart. You always check a rap anchor you didn’t build; check your gear pre-trip too.

Trailhead time

At a highly disreputable hour, we finally embarked from the Inspiration Point trailhead on Emerald Bay.

Can you tell which of us has done this before?

Our loose objective was to crest the saddle north of Maggies South Peak, make our way to Azure Lake, set up camp, and ski northeast aspect of the ridge between Azure and Dicks lakes, that I think was called Janine’s.  We’d return to camp, sleep, get some more laps in the morning, then pack up and retrace our route out, hitting the eastern aspect of Maggies on our way out. Spoiler alert: I knew none of this when we left the trailhead.

3.  Know your route, have the topo

You put a lot of faith in your partners whenever you leave the trailhead without knowing the details of your route and without a map or topo of some form.  There’s a reason navigation tools are prominent in the 10 Essentials. You should always aim to be able to navigate yourself to both your objective and your trailhead.  If circumstances don’t permit this, be aware of the additional risk you’re taking on.

Fortunately, nothing so dire waylaid our group.  We just got lost (ahem, experienced a route-finding crux).

4.  There’s always a route-finding crux

And since only one member of our group knew the route or the objective, we weren’t able to discuss or double check the decisions that got us off route.  The impact of getting lost was losing our Saturday afternoon laps.

5.  Always have a back-up goal

Note that I’m talking about goals and not plans here.  Back-up plans are a fantastic idea, but we’ll get to that in a bit.  Back-up goals are a philosophy I picked up a few years back from a hazily-remembered talk by a police officer.  She said when you’re out on patrol, your goal should never be to come home in one piece. Because if you fail your goal, that’s it, you’re dead.  No chance to try again, no opportunity for improvement. Always set your goal to be something you can fail at and still be okay. Back-up goals help with this.

At this moment my own goal is reaching the ridge above

On a recent aid trip to Pinnacles, my goals looked like this:

  1. Climb Los Banditos
  2. Get in aid experience on lead
  3. Climb
  4. Hike
  5. Catch up with Brooks on a roadtrip

The first goal didn’t end up happening (we audibled for Bill’s Bad Bolts), but I still had a great day, achieving four out of my five goals for the day.

For this tour, my goals were the following:

  1. Get a dedicated ski lap in on Saturday and Sunday
  2. Ski a line without my overnight pack
  3. Learn how to snow camp
  4. Do my first tour on my new skis, skins, bindings, and boots

Even though we lost out on getting good turns in Saturday, I managed to hit thee out of four goals for this trip.  Those of you with more experience probably noticed something on that last goal. “New boots? He decided to go on an overnight tour with new boots?”  Yup.

6.  If you feel a hotspot coming on, take care of it.  Immediately.

There is almost never a situation where you should wait one more mile, or until lunch, or until the next ridgeline before you address a problem with your feet.  Call a pause, take off your boots, and apply moleskin. If you want to dispute this advice, I’ve got a matching pair of blisters on my heels that go halfway through my feet and they’re fairly persuasive.

Miles taking point on moral despite my foot-related grumbling

It’s all uphill, then downhill, then uphill from here

Back to the tour.  We finally make it down to the ridge above Azure lake, and choose our campsite.  We set up tents, drop our overnight gear, and strike out with an hour of direct sun left to try and find a path to Janine’s.  Forty minutes later, in the fading light, I stand above the entirely cliffed-out shore of Azure Lake and see no way to get up to Janine’s.  Whelp. There goes our Plan A tour for Sunday.

7.  Always have a back-up plan

Oh I fed you, baby birds.  This one should be common knowledge for anyone who’s taken an AIARE course before, but then again, all of these should be obvious from the armchair.  In the event that your primary objective is infeasible, you should aim to have a second (and third) objective before you head back to the parking lot.  This helps mitigate human factors. If the alternate to plan A is plan B, not plan Parking Lot, you’re less likely to force plan A in the face of exhaustion, poor weather, or dangerous avy conditions.

Well, it looks pretty skiable from this angle!

On this tour, plan A was the northeast aspect of Janine’s.  Plan B was to lap the east aspect of Maggies. Plan C was to lap the moderate, west-facing slope of Maggies.  We were okay bailing on Janine’s because our second option, plan B was still some pretty good skiing.

When the sun goes down, the layers come up

Once we ruled out Janine’s, we headed back to camp.  Miles started on dinner, and I tossed on my puffy. Without removing my damp baselayers or socks.

Some of us were happier about reaching camp than others

8.  Layers first

We picked up this lesson initially from our Shasta expedition over the summer.  When you’re travelling in the mountains, you should adjust your layers first whenever you stop.  Layers first, then water and food, and finally sunscreen or any other futzing around with your gear.  I was lazy, and didn’t want to have to take off my boots more than once (especially with my by-now-massive blisters).  As a result, I spent most of the evening around camp getting colder and colder in damp socks, until I was consciously thinking of sitting with my legs pressed together so I wouldn’t lose unnecessary heat from my femoral arteries (protip- this works, you lose a lot of heat through the insides of your thighs).  Fortunately, I wasn’t going to stay cold for long, since I had an ace in the tent.

Home’s looking cozy – our three season Big Agnes held up well despite overnight temps in the low 20s

9.  Buy Nice or Buy Twice

I nearly went into this trip rocking my Sierra Designs 15-degree Backcountry Bed for my sleeping bag.  My logic went something along the lines of “well, my bag is rated to 15 degrees, and the forecast says it’ll only drop to 24, and I don’t really want to buy a new bag, so…”  Fortunately, I had friends who told me that was a really dumb idea. Which is why I had a super-cushy -10 degree Western Mountaineering bag and two sleeping pads for my sleeping system.

A Quick Aside on Sleeping In Winter If You’ve Never Done This Before

Here’s a rapid-fire distillation of sleeping wisdom I’ve received from people who know a lot more about this than I do:

  • Add 10 degrees to your bag’s rating to get to the lower band of where you’ll be comfortable (for the average male, at least).  Always plan your sleep system for 10 degrees below the forecast as a buffer. So, if the weather report calls for a low of 40 overnight, a 20 degree bag or warmer will keep you comfortable.
  • You want your bag to fit close: dead pockets of air will cool you down.  At the same time, you want space inside your bag for the next day’s base layers (socks at a minimum), your flashlight, toiletries, and a few Nalgenes.
  • If you’re right-handed, get a left-zip sleeping bag
  • When winter camping, if you inflate a pad with your breath, the moisture from your lungs can freeze and cause the pad to delaminate.  Happened to Miles. For sleeping pads, get a foam one and go with two pads. This will let you reuse your summer pad and the foam insulates your inflatable pad and prevents it from freezing.  You can also use the foam pad as a seat around camp to keep you from freezing your ass off.

Do note that the comfiest sleeping bag in the world won’t prevent you from waking up in the middle of the night because your tentmate brought crunchy sleep snacks to bed…

But Soft!  What light through yonder tent-flap breaks?

Morning dawned warm, and I ditched my puffy before I finished my oatmeal.  However, I made sure there were a few layers I didn’t drop:

10.  Sunburns are for amateurs

On our Shasta trip, we noticed our guides all had super dorky-looking hooded longsleeves that they wore constantly with baseball caps and sunglasses.  I asked one of them about the fashion choice; he responded that he literally couldn’t afford the sunscreen he’d need if he wore short sleeves and had an exposed neck.  We quickly emulated our guides, and noticed the single-biggest increase to outdoor stamina I’ve ever experienced.  Short of staying hydrated, avoiding sun exposure is the numero uno thing you can do to increase your performance in the outdoors.  In the blazing Sierra sun, I made sure I had long sleeves, sunglasses, a baseball cap, and a buff at all times. Do it right, and you only need to apply sunscreen to your hands (don’t forget the hands), nose (don’t forget the underside), and face.

After a slow morning re-packing our campsite, we got on skis and began the trek up to Maggies.  Maybe 15 minutes out of camp, we heard voices. Soon after, we saw another group heading towards us.

11. Tracks do not imply intelligence

These poor souls were also seeking fresh lines on Janine’s. They’d made the mistake of following our tracks to nowhere, dropping well below the ridge they should have stayed on.  Here’s the kicker: they’d been here before!  However, the temptation of switching their brains off and following our tracks was too great to resist.  Now, they faced a skin back up 600 vertical feet to regain the ridge they knew to follow.  “We figured you guys knew something we didn’t,” said one of them.  Don’t be a lemming, and think twice before following tracks.

We set off on a parallel course to these other lost travelers, and try to regain the ridge ourselves.  Although coasting through manzanita bushes made for quick progress on our descent, we chose a more roundabout line that kept snow beneath our skis.  Around lunchtime, we finally topped out on Maggies to blue skies and a stunning alpine inversion on the lake below.

Somebody call Maxim

We dipped down onto the lightly treed slope on Maggie’s southern aspect for some downward vertical, but the skiing so rough that I was prompted to say I wouldn’t ski it again even if the terrain were lift-operated.  Well, Mr. Picky-Pants, back to the northern aspect we go, and a descent to Granite Lake below.

Fully loaded for the descent to Granite Lake

I had time for a full 3 turns in soft, fresh, untracked snow before I hit a covered root and pitched forward (with my full pack on).  Luckily, the brief glimpse of backcountry bliss was worth the bruised elbow that stayed with me for the next three weeks.

When we returned to the level of Granite lake, we saw that Saturday’s warm temperatures had not been kind to the snowpack.  There was more exposed rock and plants than snow, and we had to pick a delicate path between them

Conditions turned our ski descent into a boot descent

12.  Eventually, they all become rock skis

Well, not too delicate anyway.  I was consoled, as I skidded over my third boulder, that although my skis were still in their first season, that I was taking part in the time-honored tradition of slowly turning new and shiny planks into rock skis.  At the end of the day, the gear’s meant to be used, so try not to baby it too much.

Around 4pm we finally descended to the sno-park to the sound of happy, sledding children and freezing parents.  It had been a hell of a weekend, but we managed to make it in one piece. I got a lot out of this trip, both from the chance to get fresh experience snow camping and overnight touring, but also as a reinforcement of just how valuable the wisdom from that experience can be.  Happy trails out there!

Some people spend their whole lives in search of views like this



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