Sierra huts an oasis for ski trekkers
By Matt Johanson
When winter arrives and snow blankets the Sierra Nevada, the backcountry becomes the domain of the hardy few, trekking under heavy packs, eating dehydrated food and sleeping in snow-staked tents.
But a different experience awaits visitors to public ski huts: comfortable cabins, soft beds and warm fires.
A string of huts beckons skiers along a spectacular trek in the Donner Summit area. The Sierra Club maintains four backcountry ski huts over a 30-mile line, providing shelter and comfort for both short and long outings. At just $10 per night, the price is hard to beat.
The huts are hot spots in many respects, if their log books are any indication.
"I came with my boyfriend, and I'm leaving with my fiance," wrote visitor Darcy Davis at the Benson Hut, six miles south of Sugar Bowl Ski Area beneath Anderson Peak. "What a wonderful place for a marriage proposal."
Her fiance, Jeff Anderson, was jubilant. "It worked! She said yes!" he exulted. "Welcome to the Anderson family on Anderson Peak."
Two-hour ski to hut
The Peter Grubb Hut is three miles northwest of the Interstate 80 Castle Peak exit. The easiest of the four to reach, the Grubb hut makes a good warm-up trip in preparation for longer outings. Most skiers will cover the mild route (well traveled and visible except after recent storms) in about two hours.
Like the other cabins, Grubb has mattresses, a wood stove, usually an ample supply of firewood, a collection of pots and utensils (bring your own to be safe) and a nearby outhouse. Bring your own sleeping bags, stoves, and shovels in case the door is blocked.
Paradise Valley, Basin Peak and Sand Ridge Lake are all moderate day trips from Grubb. For a tougher outing and the best Sierra view in the area, try 9,103-foot Castle Peak to the northeast.
The other three huts, each south of Interstate 80, are more challenging and less visited. Skiers can visit them individually, but to link them in a hut-to-hut trek puts them to their best use.
Benson Hut trick
Starting at Sugar Bowl, Benson Hut lies six tough miles to the south. To cut half that distance and avoid a 1,500-foot climb, buy a one-use lift ticket and ride with your pack to the top of Mount Lincoln. From Lincoln, follow the ridge southeast three miles toward Anderson Peak. Stay west of the high points and beware the cornices on the ridge's east side.
Benson skiers have documented a variety of adventures and sentiments in the hut's log books.
"We only have two and a half liters of wine left," a skier recorded. "People are starting to get antsy. Blood was spilled by a close-range snowball fight. ... WMD were banned when shovels were taken out of play."
"Can someone stock this place with beer?" demanded another.
"We ate the cook today," confessed a visitor. "At this rate, we will never reach the summit. My sherpa has taken an unnatural liking toward me."
"What doesn't kill you makes you stronger," wrote another visitor.
Onward, hearty skiers
From Benson, hut-to-hut skiers can proceed about five miles southeast to Bradley Hut. This will require some route finding, especially when recent snow wipes out old tracks; the peak known as Tinker Knob is a handy reference point. Bradley Hut is beside Pole Creek, about two miles north of Squaw Valley, or five miles from the junction of Highway 89 and Forest Road 8, where many visitors park.
Skiers can travel the 13 miles from Sugar Bowl to Squaw Valley in as little as a day. But using one or both huts, bagging a few peaks and skiing the bowls can make for a rewarding trip of three days or more.
For the truly adventurous, add Ludlow Hut to the trip and continue south to Echo Summit on Highway 50. This segment will take most parties five days from Squaw Valley in good conditions, with a snow camp before Ludlow and at least two after it moving south through the Desolation Wilderness. With 28 miles of trail breaking in addition to the Sugar Bowl-Squaw Valley segment, this is clearly a trip for advanced parties only.
Cabins in the woods
Besides the Sierra Club huts, other public cabins shelter skiers at good prices. Tuolumne Hut (free and 17 miles from Lee Vining) and Ostrander Hut ($20 per night and nine miles from Badger Pass) both beckon in Yosemite National Park.
Be careful, though, not to let ski huts' comfort and security erode your caution. Bad weather can make the shelters extremely difficult to reach, and avalanches have killed skiers in the Donner area during each of the last two winters.
Benson Hut had been fully booked during the weekend I had my reservation there last February, but in the wake of an avalanche death a week earlier, my companions and I found the shelter nearly empty. We did find a somber warning left behind by the Squaw Valley Ski Patrol: "Don't underestimate the power of the mountains if you travel alpine terrain in winter. Avoid tragedy like what happened here on Feb. 20, 2005."
Avalanche danger is greatest during heavy snow and for 48 hours afterward. Stay away from all steep slopes during these times unless you're trained in recognizing avalanche hazards and the use of avalanche beacons.
Skiers who exercise precautions, though, enjoy tranquil meadows, gentle streams, crisp air, and snow-covered trees and granite peaks. In a state of more than 30 million people, here is a pristine California that few will ever see.
Matt Johanson co-authored the recent baseball book, "Giants, Where Have You Gone," available at giantsbook.com.
IF YOU GO
• Tips for beginners
Wear warm clothes (avoiding cotton) and carry weather gear even if the forecast is clear. Don't forget sunglasses, sunscreen, a wide-brimmed hat for sun and a wool hat for cold nights. A few insurance items will help you overnight in the snow if necessary: a tent or bivvy sack, a warm sleeping bag, and Thermarest or other air mattress. Carry a stove and a snow shovel. GPS devices are helpful, but do not replace a map and compass. If weather threatens, don't worry about losing your deposit; just stay home.
Contact the hut coordinator at the Sierra Club's Clair Tappaan Lodge, P.O. Box 36, Norden, CA 95724 (530-426-3632 on weekdays from 9 a.m.-noon). Visit http://www.sierraclub.org/outings/lodges/ctl/.The club charges $10 per guest, per night. The huts book up quickly, especially on weekends, so plan ahead.
Winter visitors to the huts need either backcountry cross-country skis (not track skis) or snowshoes. A set of backcountry skis, boots and poles starts at about $400. Snowshoes start at $150. Try rentals before buying.
Retailers include Sunrise Mountain Sports in Livermore at 2455 Railroad Ave., 925-447-8330, sunrisemountainsports.com and Marmot Mountain Works in Berkeley at 3049 Adeline St., 510-849-0735, marmotmountainworks.com. Each also rents tents, sleeping bags, crampons, avalanche beacons and other winter gear.
(Make sure you have a reservation before you go)
Peter Grubb Hut: Take the Castle Peak Exit of Interstate 80 and park in the Sno-Park area near Boreal Inn. You need a parking permit, available at the inn for $5 per day or $25 per season. Follow the snow-covered forest road north of the freeway. Within a quarter mile, a snowmobile track splits off to the west, and skiers and snowshoers continue northwest, on the route marked by tree-mounted orange triangles. The three-mile route gains 800 feet to a saddle between Castle and Andesite peaks. Descend into Round Valley. Topo map: Norden 71/2' quad. GPS: N 39-15.693, W 120-17.803.
Benson Hut: Park at Clair Tappaan Lodge or Sugar Bowl. Ascend (watch out for downhill skiers!) or take the ski lift to top Mount Lincoln. Then proceed south toward Anderson Peak. The six-mile route gains about 1,500 feet to the hut at 8,350 feet. Topo map: Norden 71/2' quad. GPS: N 39-22.073, W 120-22.051
Bradley Hut: Park on the wide shoulder where Forest Road 8 meets Highway 89. Follow FR 8 for five miles, gradually gaining about 1,500 feet to the hut at 7,550 feet. Topo map: Granite Chief and Tahoe City 71/2' quads.
Ludlow Hut: Park at Sugar Pine Point State Park or, when possible, at the end of Rubicon Avenue. Ski six miles up McKinney Creek to Richardson Lake, gaining about 1,000 feet to the cabin at 7,400 feet. Topo map: Homewood 71/2' quad.
• Weather: Check the National Weather Service forecast at http://www.nws.noaa.gov. Call 800-427-7623 for a Caltrans road report.
• For more information: Visit the Sierra Club's Web site at sierraclub.org/outings/lodges.
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Discussion about winter adventure sports in the Sierra Nevada mountains including but not limited to; winter backpacking and camping, mountaineering, downhill and cross-country skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing, etc.
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