Desolation Wilderness: A Fourth of July Blizzard
July 4th hiking in Sierras
Sue and I checked out of the motel in South Lake Tahoe and put on our packs. It was about a two mile walk along the lake to the point where the trail began to climb into the Sierras. It was the third of July, and it was a beautiful, sunny, and warm California day. The path along the lake was busy with people strolling and biking in the early morning air.
Wearing T shirts, shorts and jeans, we reached the end of the shoreline where the road begins to climb to the west. Sue looked up and pointed to where we were going, high above us in the snow. The trail wound its way skyward providing magnificent views of Lake Tahoe below. We made it to the crest of a glacial col before sunset and set up camp just below the top, a spot that overlooked a broad glacial valley below.
Then it started to rain…and blow. The wind was shrieking as it tried to carry our tent and us away. Our little dome tent twisted 90 degrees and laid flat on top of us most of the night. We were both afraid that the stakes we had wedged between rocks would pull out sending us flying into space. They had been placed to keep us dry if it rained, not to save us from flying. At dawn we were still there, and the wind had subsided. The rain had settled into a cold, steady drizzle.
We began our descent into the forested valley, crossing several ice cold mountain streams, sometimes taking off our boots to keep them dry. Instead of summer clothes, we now wore the sweaters and wind breakers we had brought for the cold mountain nights, never imagining we would need them for hiking.
We reached the place where the trail began its ascent on the other side of the valley. It crossed bare rock marked periodically by ducks, piles of rock placed by previous hikers to show the way. Without them, there was no way of knowing where the path was. After we had climbed about 500 feet, the gentle rain turned into a gentle snow. What fun, hiking in snow on the 4th of July! We were still wearing our sweaters and windbreakers and were not overly concerned.
As we continued to climb, however, the gentle snow turned into a blizzard. We could no longer see the ducks and lost the trail in the blinding snow. At the top of the ridge, visibility was reduced to about two feet. We knew from the map that there was a lake nearby on the right and a cliff into the valley just feet away on the left, but we couldn’t see either the lake, the cliff, or the trail. We did something we never did and stopped for a hot lunch in the shelter of a very large, hollowed out boulder.
We got out our stove and boiled water for some pasta, coffee for warmth and assessed our options. We were grossly under dressed for the conditions. We couldn’t see where we were going, and while we knew roughly where we were, we didn’t know where the trail was. We had plenty of food and fuel and could set up camp where we could ride out the storm. Unfortunately, we also didn’t know how long that would be or how many feet of snow we would be under. We could be trapped in the snow for several days. We decided to try to descend the ridge on the other side where it should be raining.
We put on our packs and started walking. At least we were moving away from the cliff, but we still couldn’t see where we were going. Then, after about 20 minutes of hiking, we stumbled on to a duck. We had found the trail. Two hours later we had reached an elevation where there was just a cold drizzle and we set up the camp for the night.
The next morning it was still raining. We couldn’t go up into the snow and sitting in a cold rain for another day didn’t sound like fun. Instead, we let the weather flush us out of the mountains.
If we had camped at the top, we would still have been up there huddled in our sleeping bags and trying to keep the tent from collapsing under the weight of a summer snow. Instead, we were huddled in a motel room during a cold rain on the fifth of July. Oh well, Mother Nature decides what will happen.