The storm pounded our shelter for hours, reminding me of explorer Jedediah Smith’s survival epic that occurred not far from here.Matt Johanson
Hail and icy rain pelted us as we hurriedly pitched our flimsy, floorless tent atop the snow. Tired and cold, my companion and I crawled into our sleeping bags around 5 p.m. to tough out a long and stormy night.
Our objective was to trek on cross country skis from Highway 4 to Highway 108 via Spicer Meadow Reservoir and the Dardanelles mountains. We planned three days to make the 25-mile journey.
Blue skies and grand scenery greeted us on the first day, though both disappeared in the dark clouds that enveloped us on our second one. The storm pounded our shelter for hours, reminding me of explorer Jedediah Smith’s survival epic that occurred not far from here.
Smith and two companions attempted the first crossing of the Sierra Nevada range by European Americans in May of 1827. They struggled to find their way through the rugged mountains and nearly perished in a fierce snowstorm.
“During the night the storm increased in violence and the weather became extremely cold,” Smith wrote. “We were uncertain how far the mountains extended to the east. The wind was continually changing and the snow drifting and flying in every direction… Our poor animals felt a full share of the vengeance of the storm and two horses and one mule froze to death before our eyes.”
While our plight didn’t truly compare to that, there were more similarities than I would have preferred. Like Smith’s party, we were somewhat disoriented (though not lost), surprised by the journey’s difficulty and unsure of how it would end.
Visible from both Highways 4 and 108, the Dardanelles summits in Stanislaus National Forest appear majestic and inviting from both directions. My cousin Andy Padlo and I have enjoyed multiple outings in their vicinity over the years, so the prospect of connecting the roads by traversing the range appealed to us both. Doing so under our own power in winter would make it a unique adventure; we don’t know of anyone else who’s done so.
Forest roads pass within a few miles of the volcanic peaks and cover about 80 percent of the route we planned, leading us to expect fast progress. That held true on our first day when we enjoyed glorious weather and excellent views of the snow-capped mountains.
Starting from the Spicer Sno Park area near Bear Valley, we followed Spicer Reservoir Road for several miles, crossing Bloods Creek and the North Fork of the Stanislaus River. Later we crossed the frozen Spicer Meadow Reservoir and camped pleasantly near its south shore.
Conditions became more difficult on the second day as we left the security of the forest road. We broke trail up and over the saddle between Whittakers Dardanelles and Dardanelles West, intending to drop down onto another forest road that parallels the Middle Fork of the Stanislaus River.
Then a chill wind blew in low clouds that limited visibility. We navigated by map and compass for a while, until we lost the map. Andy used his phone for reference, until its battery died. At least we still had a compass, which is probably what Smith used.
Steep, rocky terrain required us to take off our skis and trudge along in places. Soon we found ourselves looking at Donnell Lake, which was scenic and impressive but off route by miles. We followed the Stanislaus upstream for a few hours in search of our forest road until the sun dropped and temperatures fell. As the storm worsened, we called it a day and dug in for the night.
Rain and hail battered our tent, sounding like sizzling steaks, and normally Andy would serve up a backcountry dinner just that appetizing. Tonight, though, we were in “survival mode” and simply too tired to deal with assembling the stove and cooking. We downed a few energy bars and water (ice cold, of course) to sustain us instead.
Smith’s expedition endured a tougher ordeal in 1827. “Night came and shut out the bleak desolation from our view but it did not still the howling winds that yet bellowed through the mountains bearing before them clouds of snow and beating against us cold and furious,” he reported.
“It seemed that we were marked out for destruction and that the sun of another day might never rise to us,” he wrote. “But He that rules the Storms willed it otherwise and the sun of the 27th rose clear upon the gleaming peaks.”
Likewise, we awoke to better conditions and found our elusive forest road early on our third morning. That eased our passage and relieved my anxiety as we skied the final miles beside the Stanislaus, crossed a bridge and joined Highway 108.
Smith and his companions survived, later cresting the range near Ebbetts Pass. Our journey concluded near Mill Creek Campground, where we waited in the freezing rain beneath a tarp until our ride arrived.
“Are you having fun yet?” asked Lynn (Andy’s mom) with a laugh as she pulled up.
We did have fun, though our short outing packed more adventure than most people would have enjoyed. But I find that overcoming a few challenges on the way makes an outing more rewarding. So do learning and connecting with the history of a beautiful and treasured wilderness like the Sierra Nevada backcountry; one’s footprints (or ski tracks, in this case) become an extension of the story.
As Andy reflected, the enjoyment comes from “extending beyond ourselves, making a few miles, taking breaks sitting on our packs with all the mountains around us, and the freedom of limited obligations.” In addition, the payoff at the end includes “a beer, warm shower, and coming back to life… there’s no way to feel the joy of taking off those heavy boots but putting them on in the first place!”
— Matt Johanson authored the new book, “Sierra Summits: A Guide to 50 Peak Experiences in California’s Range of Light.” His writing can be found at www.sierrasplendor.com.