Backpacking into snow country to start the new year is a rare opportunity
By Leonie Sherman

My friend Chicory thinks the saying, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade,” is the dumbest thing in the world.
“Lemons are great,” he explains. “That’s like saying, ‘When life gives you money, spend it.’”
So when life gives you a ski season without snow, what do you do? Go backpacking, of course.

The author and the Ritter Range bask in "Juneuary" sunshine. Photo by Daniel Kangas

Tales of Iva Bell Hot Springs deep in the John Muir Wilderness had enticed Daniel and I for years. This legendary primitive spa is 20 miles from the nearest trailhead, at 6500 feet on Fish Creek, all of which made it an undesirable summer destination for us. This year, thanks to the incredible drought and record warm temperatures, we figured it would be the perfect spot for a backcountry New Year’s celebration.

“We’d like a permit for three nights,” we told the ranger in Mammoth. “The first night we’ll be at the hot springs at Red’s Meadow, the second at Iva Bell, and the third either at Purple Lake or back at Red’s.”
“What a great idea,” the ranger enthused. “They took the cover off a few weeks ago so you’ll be able to soak in the springs. And you’ll have the place all to yourselves. No one else has requested a permit.”
We shivered the night away at the trailhead and by morning five others — a group of three from the Bay Area and a pair of brothers originally from San Diego — had joined us with similar ideas.

Daniel and I set off slightly ahead of the crew, and despite a surprising amount of snow, were on top of Mammoth Pass within an hour. We took an extended snack and knitting break there and began what we imagined would be a mellow cruise down to the resort.

The most striking feature of the beginning of the 2011-12 winter season was surely the lack of snow. But back at the end of November a tremendous wind storm ripped across the Sierra from the east, with gusts of 150 miles per hour reported over Tioga Pass, knocking out power lines as far south as Lone Pine.

The carnage from that storm, even in sheltered valleys of the Eastern Sierra, can best be described as devastation. From Mammoth Pass to Red’s Meadow we did not see a single footstep of trail. Lodgepole pines, red firs and Jeffrey pines with diameters up to 10 feet were sheared off in jagged splinters and lay stacked on top of other trees, presenting a multi-story maze through which we had to find our way.

Daniel and I are good sports about life’s unexpected surprises and we enjoyed tiptoeing across fallen trunks, clambering over stacks of deadfall and crawling through root balls. The 6.5 miles from the trailhead to the springs took us about seven hours, and by some miracle we emerged from the forest 100 feet from the hot springs where the two brothers were already soaking.

None of us wanted to attempt the 40-mile loop over Duck Pass, so we decided a day trip to Iva Bell was the best compromise. We’d get to see the springs and be spared the agony of schlepping our gear 13 miles there and 13 miles back.

A frigid post-party dawn start was beyond consideration, so our group reconvened around nine o’clock the next morning. We set off prepared for a long day of walking. What we got instead was a short day of scrambling over fallen trees. The first three miles of what we hoped would be a 26-mile day took us almost two hours.

“I hate to be a killjoy,” I said, “but this is going to suck on the way back, in the dark.” We had all gathered 15 feet in the air on a downed red fir to discuss options. “I don’t see this getting any easier. And that ridge right up there looks pretty cool.”

The brothers decided to press on. We wished them luck and guessed we would hear them stumble into camp near midnight, having not reached their objective. The group of three turned west, while Daniel and I headed east up Crater Creek.

For seven hours in the January sun, we practiced our climbing skills on steep slabs, fourth-class ridges and tightrope tree walking. We told stories and discussed botany, climate change, early Sierra explorers, the demise of our country and species. We gazed in mute wonder at the frozen spectacle of Rainbow Falls and a few other unnamed crystal cascades.

We returned to camp in time to watch the sunset from the hot springs. I sang a few songs as the sky faded from a purple blush to a moonlit star-speckled night. A fire crackled back at camp, where the group of three offered us a beer. Nobody even mentioned the lack of a ski season.

The next morning one of the brothers awakened, groaning that he felt like he’d been run over by a truck. They had gotten to within a mile of the springs before they encountered a monstrous stretch of downed trees, abandoned hope and turned around, straggling into camp at 11 p.m.

Mercifully there is another way out of Red’s Meadow. Minaret Summit Road is normally bustling with RVs during the summer and snowmobiles during the winter. This January it was a peaceful clear ribbon of asphalt, and we all got to enjoy 10 miles of stress-free walking before taking advantage of Mammoth’s free shuttle system to return us to our cars.

The holiday week saw thousands of frustrated tourists haunting the cafes and taverns of ski towns like South Lake Tahoe and Mammoth Lakes, complaining bitterly. If you came to ski, the season was a disappointment. But if you come to worship at the altar of the mountains this season has been glorious. As Rumi says, there are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.