Friday, January 17, 2014

Backcountry Ski Trippin'

I'm new to snow sports.

Until the past couple of winters, my experience in the snow amounted to some sledding as a child and chaining up my '98 Mustang in college to get access to a snow-covered peak for a hike.

But the boyfriend is a snowboarder and, over the course of the past couple winters, I've learned how to get down a mild blue-square run and acquired all kinds of snow gear: the appropriate layers, snowshoes, waterproof boots and a complete snowboarding setup. 

Last weekend we put it all to the test by hiking in to the Benson Hut, a Sierra Club shelter three miles south of Sugarbowl and about six miles from Donner Pass. Our friends had, smartly, left a day earlier and made the five-mile hike from the ski resort parking lot in during idyllic conditions. 

The boyfriend, a buddy and I weren't so lucky. 

The only precipitation the Sierra has seen since the first week of December rolled in Saturday morning as we got geared up for the adventure. We cut off two miles of hiking by riding chairlifts up to the top of Sugarbowl, a cheat method that almost immediately knocked me out of the game because I didn't know how to snowboard with a 25-pound pack on. 

Kindly, the boyfriend carried both our packs (what a stud!) and we made it to the top of Sugarbowl, AKA Mt. Lincoln, elevation 8,400 feet. 

It looked like this: 

Yikes. Visibility was basically nothing. Winds whipped us, threatening to blow away stray gloves as we got our  gear organized and used a bike lock to chain our snowboards together between some boulders (for protection against blowing away, not theft). 

Then we hiked.

Three miles, even backpacking at altitude, should be nothing. We were able to hug the ridgeline enough to avoid getting lost (normally, it's a simple ridge hike and the path is visible throughout). But no one was having fun. Our buddy, hiking in Sorels with Yaktrax post-holed through the soft new snow. Once the boyfriend and I strapped on our snowshoes, we kept them on -- even when that meant crossing the rocks of wind-blown, snow-free saddles in the snowshoes. 

We hiked for two hours to reach the hut, quite off of the 30-minutes-a-mile pace we had accepted as the slowest we would possibly go. The boyfriend and most of the crew already the hut had made this same trek five years prior (one of them loves doing this trip as a birthday celebration) which also helped us find the way.

The hut was a welcome sight, nestled just below the peak of Mt. Anderson (8,500 feet). 

We spent the afternoon and evening sipping whiskey, making fajitas and enjoying the company of friends while it stormed outside. A few brave skiers in the group took their skis and skins out to test the fresh snow. I can't imagine being good enough at snowboarding to get a split board and skins and ski in the backcountry, but props to those who do. Resort skiing feels adventurous enough for me.

In the morning, we awoke to more snow and panoramic views. 

The return hike, with the sun shining and epic views surrounding us, felt like a walk in the park compared to our adventure the day prior. To avoid the snowboarding-with-a-pack debacle, get a little more cardio and ensure the guys got to a sports bar in time for the Niners game, I handed off my snowboard to a friend who had hiked in without one and chose to snowshoe down the ski runs with the boyfriend's sister. This added a little over two miles to our hike and was possibly the most pleasurable part of the weekend. Happy skiers paused to ask us about our adventure before zipping down the mountain. We trotted on.

The Benson Hut is open to the public for day use and as an emergency shelter. You also can book the hut for overnight stays and volunteer to maintain it (one of our friends does this, which is how we got hooked up with the hut). It's part of a network of huts on the Sierra Ski Trail in the Lake Tahoe area. Each are about a day's ski apart. 

After visiting, I'd love to go back in the summer. 

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