Powder Faces at the Powder Cabin
Words by Joe (@jomohardeman)
Images by yours truly
“Can you believe we're starting our adventure this time before it's dark,” said Jayson with his snowmobile and it's oversized powder track hanging off the back of his truck. “We will see about that”, I replied, staring at the dark sky streaming overhead. Thick clouds of powdery snow lightly fell through the air pushed by the 15 mile per hour southwest wind. Four feet of fresh snow with a week of sub-zero temperatures had transformed the Sierra into a true winter wonderland. We are off to a magical, hidden backcountry cabin. Deep in the woods, stocked with wood, dartboard (no darts), benches, a broom, two kerosene lanterns (and a shovel.
Once every decade or so, snow conditions in the Sierra “go off”. “I've been waiting four years for winter”, Jayson chuckled as we drew up our plan, which was simple: meet at his house, load the sled, throw gear in truck, go to the cabin. We'd been on enough adventures with each other that the fine trip details become meaningless. We crave change and flexibility, in fact, this is a necessity and one of many reasons why we adventure well together. By 4 pm, sixty pounds of gear and two humans were loaded on the Ski-Doo, charged for adventure.
The settled snow was absurdly deep and lighter than a momma duck’s down feathers. We navigated the thick, snow-covered forest, carefully choosing our route not get off course or get lost. This caution was mixed with the speed factor that helps with the other objective--don’t bury the sled. Forty minutes later after a slurry of powdery face shots, we located the cabin.
Over ten feet of snow disguised it as only a knoll in the forest.
We dug steps down to the floor boards and opened the door to our familiar winter home.
It was just how we had remembered. The particle board floor had been heavily eaten by the local rodents exposing the loosely spaced 4×12 floor joists. The walls are old 1x12 boards and the ceiling is open to a green corrugated roof. The cabin lacks insulation but is mostly air tight except for the woodpecker holes in the walls. We dropped our gear and immediately returned to the outdoor winter wonderland to build our playground.
The cabin sits in a long valley with a four-leaf clover configuration of bowls above and below it. The bowls are connected through bottlenecking tight sections which are waterfalls in the summer and pillow lines and natural doubles in the winter.
The wind had sculpted the bowls into large natural waves of buttery “pow”; It was snow-surfing heaven!
Snowmobile-powered shuttle runs quickly let us find our favorite sections of the mountain. A series of pathways were packed down around the edges of the bowls. We stopped the machine slightly before dark. We had made the perfect mini resort. Froth levels hit extremely high. This place was perfect; the snow was perfect--totally worth the four-year wait for winter.
We laughed our way down runs all night, hiking our boot packed trails over and over again.
We traded off with the “War Pig” (an epic, stubby, powder board made by Ride) and a hand-crafted snow surfer (a chopped and reshaped tail from an old broken board with asphalt shingles glued to the top sheet for added grip; There are no bindings.) Every run revealed a new valley, ditch, or drop that had been sculpted into a powder point-break style wave. It was an epic night .
The snow continued to fall fall lightly into the night. Perfect snowflakes drifted around casually in completely still air.
A raging fire was quickly stoked with aggressive amounts of kindling.
Ravioli boiled on the top of the woodstove in our Stanley Adventure All-In-One Boil + Brew French Press.. Side note.. if you have the Stanley Boil + Brew French Press,, water can first be boiled then pasta is placed inside the sleeve where the press goes. Boil. Pull the press and it becomes a strainer. The line between the last bite of ravioli and first moments of sleep blurred. The cold air was kept at bay by the warm fire.
When the door opened in the morning, a deep wave of absurdly light powder awaited our arrival.
Chocolate muesli, shuttle runs, and plenty of fresh pressed coffee filled the snowy day.
Temperatures stayed in the low twenties, and the winterland continued to evolve in spectacular fashion. The wind was up as was the rate of snow accumulation. As we were consumed with fun, the small window of time to leave the cabin began to fade. Our adventure was originally planned for one night; conditions decided a different course, as did the sled that wouldn’t start.
The pasta sauce which we had been too tired to warm up for the ravioli the night before, made incredible tomato soup. We toasted one of the three sandwiches I had brought. Our remaining food supplies consisted of a serving of muesli, an apple, and those two remaining sandwiches. It was easily one of the best soup--sandwich combos I have ever enjoyed.
A roaring fire crackled as hundred mile per hour wind gusts blew throughout the night.
When the cabin door was opened the next morning, a chest-deep tsunami of light powder exploded into the middle of the small cabin. It was unreal how much snow had fallen.
Early in the morning we swam out of the toasty magic cabin and began hiking our favorite features under a bluebird sky. Whappa’
Leaving was a distant priority that ate at our minds like the hunger in our stomachs. The icy blast had absolutely plastered the world in brilliant white. The snowmobile had not been spared this plastering. Temperatures were sitting in single digits since the night. The blue sky had been there long enough to keep the temperatures low, and now the clouds with fresh snow had moved in.
The snowmobile did not start.
We consulted with our planned emergency contact, my concerned dad, and Google. The consensus was that the snowmobile was frozen. Possibly to much moisture build-up from not getting the engine hot enough to create evaporation before shutting it down the prior day. It was essentially a block of ice among other potential issues. The stove in the cabin has a lower oven which is powered with a separate stoking box. We filled the metal box with kindling, logs, and hot embers then placed it underneath the snowmobile exhaust. The heavy two-cylinder motor was pulled relentlessly while cables were massaged with warm hands and metal orifices were packed with boiling hot water bottles. She still would not start.
Down to one sandwich and after four hours of sled doctoring, the call was made; it was time to walk out of there. The frozen, dead sled would become a problem for tomorrow and the task of swimming out through the eight feet of fresh powder became our next focus. All right here we go: one last frantic, desperate pull of the rope, and unexpectedly the beast came to life. She was alive, but not happy, and in this snow, the lack of top-end with no power-band would mean constantly getting stuck.
Test laps around the canyons of the cabin confirmed this very quickly. As we dug an 8’ by 20’ by six foot deep hole to get the crippled, stuck machine out, we discussed our options in the -10 degree air and fading light. “It seemed like it was running better?” “Not really, but not worse, I guess.” “I mean, I guess it is okay . . .at least it's okay for one person.”
Off into the twilight, whirling snowstorm Jayson disappeared. Here’s a brief recap of his powder filled journey tot he truck:
I fought with the beast through the relentlessly deep pow. The sled was completely out of control, revving beyond comfort but no top end. I’d choke it to settle down the RPM’s but this became a fine line of not killing it and becoming buried.
Through a hurricane of face shots, close calls and only being buried twice, I made it back to the truck. I dug out the buried Tacoma, loaded the broken sled, grabbed new batteries for the headlamp and a frozen, half eaten tri-tip sandwich. It was roughly 8PM, super cold and pitch black dark. It was time to rally back for Joe.
The sound of his snowmobile faded away nearly instantly. The powder, wind and snow dampened all sound. It was beautifully quiet. I began the three-mile snow swim immediately after he left. I would follow the track, he would run as light and fast as possible, we see each other again as soon as possible. “Don't get off the track”--a great plan.
Travel in the snow was absurdly difficult, even in the track of the sled. The drifting at the top of the canyon was incredibly deep. The initial climb out of the valley was through seemingly bottomless snow drifts. The darkness continued to creep in and the snow was relentless. I started talking to myself, “Wow this is going to be a long walk--I guess it's more of a swim; just keep swimming, plowing through the snow and the freezing temperatures will not be an issue. Stop and the wet sweaty snow clothes will quickly freeze”. Stopping was literally not an option. This feeling, where you have already fully committed, feels so good; there is one option--keep going--keep going to stay alive.
At the crest of the ridge the sunset suddenly became visible lighting up the clouds purple and orange in spectacular strokes. The moon popped out from a clear portion of the sky. A downhill run of kneeboarding and penguin sliding on the snowboard covered more ground than the previous hour of labor. I was feeling good... and wet. The downhill run became flat; the pace quickly returned back to a crawl and my mittens were one solid ice chunk.
It was time for a vital break. I pushed hard, striped off the Backcountry polypropylene base layer, shirt, and jacket all the way to bare skin. The heat from one’s body combined with the sudden cooling of the fabric, freezes out the moisture. Get everything back on, now I'm shaking (this is expected), get those hands warm put them on your tummy. The burning was welcomed as my icy claw hands came to life. The cold digits tickling my stomach made me giggle. I put on my spare mittens and resumed. Step forward--oh, the snow doesn't hold, it breaks free down to my waist, I get a leverage push forward using my snowboard to swim and lift the next leg out of the hole.
One step at a time.
A mile and a half into the three-mile hike, a friendly light erupted out of the darkness. Jayson had dropped the sled at the truck and come back for my rescue. The sled had limped to the truck and was packed. Miraculously, the snowplow crew had plowed our access road; the truck was free! Jay had half a frozen tri-tip sandwich made by Smithneck Farms, Jay's family cafe in Sierraville, cut clean in half with a cold steel blade. It was delicious.
The pace picked up substantially as we followed his hard fought boot tracks in to meet up with me. We started laughing and joking: “Seems like an adventure you could bonk on,” Jay chuckles. “Yeah, lucky my friends don't bonk,” I responded. “Yeah or fall,” he volleys back. We both crack up while breathing hard under the strain of our new quickened pace.