Ice cold camping

A story about one expert camper and two idiots

The above shot is representative of snow camping but was not the writer’s campsite.

The above shot is representative of snow camping but was not the writer’s campsite.

For most people, myself included, camping is just a summertime thing. Even many avid winter sports enthusiasts prefer to spend their December and January nights indoors, in a hotel, lodge or, better yet, log cabin. Why would anyone go camping in winter? My preconceived notions about snow camping were that it’s an activity for wizened men with beards like yetis, digging out snow caves in whiteout conditions and shouting to be heard over roaring winds.

Joe Lane is a conservation biologist for the California Department of Fish and Game. His job is to monitor aquatic and amphibian populations in the Sierra Nevada. He lives in Bishop, Calif., but often leads weeklong expeditions into the mountains to count fish and frogs. So he’s a professional camper and the most legitimate mountain man I know.

He’s also a good friend and someone I don’t get to see as often as I’d like, so a winter camping trip seemed like an ideal get-together. We decided to meet in Bridgeport, Calif., about halfway between Reno and Bishop, and we recruited our friend Paul Hutchinson, a local musician and comedian, to come along, as well.

We had a tight schedule. Paul and I were able to drive down on a recent Saturday, but had to be back the following Sunday afternoon. We also had a vehicular limitation: We were driving down in an Audi A6—borrowed from my mom—a car with four-wheel drive and all-weather tires but low undercarriage clearance. It’s a great car for driving on snowy, rainy or icy roads, but it’s not an off-road vehicle.

Joe suggested we camp near Buckeye Creek, west of Bridgeport and near the border of Yosemite National Park. The camping area was sure to hit the sweet spot: at a high enough elevation that it was sure to have snow and cold temperatures, but with accessible road access, and plenty of legal free campsites, and since it was December, we’d probably have the place to ourselves. And here’s the kicker: There’s a natural hot springs next to the creek. If there’s anything you want during a winter camping expedition, it’s a pool of warm, relaxing water in which to soak your shivering bones.

So Paul and I drove down and met Joe at Rhino’s Bar & Grille in Bridgeport, where we started out the trip the way any good camping expedition should start—with pizza and beer. While we were eating, Joe suggested that for the purposes of this story I could just refer to him as “Professor Desert Dude,” a self-applied nickname about which Paul and I teased him for the duration of the trip.

Then we drove up to Buckeye. The last few miles of the route were on a dirt road, mostly covered in snow and ice. The Audi did fine, until we were about 20 feet away from the campsite. I was driving too timidly—I’m not very experienced with macho all-terrain driving—and hit a deep patch of snow and got stuck. Pain in the ass. There are few feelings in life as frustrating as putting the pedal to the metal, feeling the wheels spin, and not moving, just digging deeper into an unwanted rut.

We dug the tires out. With Paul and Joe pushing, I was able to first back the car up a little and then, after they ran from the front to the back, plow forward and free.

Joe did most of the work of setting up camp, all the while dropping pearls of wisdom before me and Paul. (I can’t speak for Paul, but I’d never before camped later than October or earlier than March.)

“I brought sleeping pads for you guys,” he said. “You always want to bring sleeping pads, because you want an extra layer between you and the snow. Otherwise, you’ll be very cold.”

Professor Desert Dude’s Rule for Winter Camping No. 1: Do not sleep directly on the snow. Or you’ll be very cold.

When we’d finished setting up camp, the sun was long gone. We decided to head to the hot springs. Joe estimated them to be about a little over a mile away on the road, but said he knew an off-road “short cut.”

After about 45 minutes following Joe through the dark and snow on his “short cut,” he told me Professor Desert Dude’s Rule for Winter Camping No. 2: “Sometimes it’s nice when you realize you might not be going the right way.” Great. We revised our course.

When we finally found the path Joe was looking for, Paul balked at the steep incline we were going to have to climb down to get to the creek.

“Are you serious?” said Paul. “That’s not a path; it’s a cliff.”

“It’s not that bad,” said Joe.

“Not that bad? Look at it! It’s like a black diamond!”

“Well, maybe you shouldn’t have just worn your fuzzy slippers.”

“I know. I really wish I’d changed into my snow boots.”

“What?” Joe was shocked. He’d been joking about the fuzzy slippers, but now he turned his flashlight, and Paul lifted his foot to reveal that he was wearing moccasins totally inappropriate for hiking in the snow. He’d brought snow boots but left them in the car.

“Why didn’t you change into your boots?” I asked.

“I didn’t think we’d be hiking this far,” said Paul.

“You’re going to get frostbite,” said Joe, sternly.

Professor Desert Dude’s Rule for Winter Camping No. 3: It’s not enough just to bring the appropriate footwear; you have to actually wear them.

We reached the bottom of the canyon. The creek looked beautiful, the rushing water reflecting the moonlight and the stars.

“Where are the hot springs?” I asked.

Paul Hutchinson (in long johns) and Joe Lane warm up with a cup of coffee.

“Oh, they’re on the other side of the creek,” said Joe. “We’re going to have to cross it. Go ahead and take your shoes off and roll up your pant legs.”

I couldn’t believe that the guy who not five minutes before had been cryptically warning about frostbite was now advising us to forge a freezing mountain stream in December, at night, barefoot.

“It’s going to be really, really cold, but then we’ll only be about 30 meters from the hot springs,” said Joe.

Just then, as I was pondering Joe’s reason for using the metric system—probably just to confuse me—Paul piped up: “Hey guys! Sorry! I lost the water bottle.”

“It’s OK,” said Joe. “I brought another bottle.”

Professor Desert Dude’s Rule for Winter Camping No. 4: Always carry your own water.

Joe crossed the creek first and, despite his slow, cautious steps, nearly slipped when the water level suddenly changed depth from ankle to knee. Paul went second, and splashed around enough to thoroughly soak his clothes, especially his rolled-up-to-the-knee pants. And he dropped a sock, which was quickly carried downstream.

“I’m taking my pants off,” I announced before my attempt.

“Well, that is your go-to move,” said Paul.

Taking my pants off proved, as it so often does, to be my best decision of the night.

Crossing the creek involved taking one careful step at a time, using feet that felt like shards of glass about to shatter with each step. It was excruciating, but exhilarating, and getting into the hot springs afterward, going straight from deathly cold to brilliantly warm, was invigorating.

After we’d soaked for a while, letting our bones and skin relax, sipping from a bottle of whiskey I’d brought along, talking about women and music and old times, I said, “Man, I am not going to want to go back across the creek after this.”

“Oh, we’re going to take the road back,” said Joe. “There’s a bridge a little ways upstream.”

“You mean we didn’t have to wade across the creek?”

“Nah, I just figured I’d make you guys work for it a little so you’d appreciate the hot springs more.”

Professor Desert Dude’s Rule for Winter Camping No. 5: Make ’em work for it.

We hiked back along the road, which was much easier going than the off-road route we took coming in. We felt fresh and strong after the long soak. After we got back to the campsite, Joe announced that he would make some miso soup for us. He got out his Coleman stove and began heating up some water. He lit a single candle, which we sat around like it was a giant bonfire.

When the water came to a boil, Joe said, “OK. Go get your cups.”

“Oh shit,” I said. “I forgot to bring them.”

When we’d been planning the trip over the phone, Joe said he’d bring most of the gear, but he told me, “Bring cups. Write that down. Bring cups.” (Professor Desert Dude’s Rule for Winter Camping No. 6: Bring a cup.)

I did write it down, but then promptly forgot.

Paul started laughing. “This story is going to be about one expert camper and two idiots.”

So we shared Joe’s cup, passing it around like the whiskey bottle. It was just an instant packet, but because of the setting and temperature, it was the best miso soup I’d ever tasted.

Before we crawled into our tents, Joe showed us a valuable trick. Professor Desert Dude’s Rule for Winter Camping No. 7: The hot water brick. Boil some water, put the water in a bottle, seal it up tight, and put that in your sleeping bag. It’s like a heat-generating Teddy Bear.

I slept pretty well, though I woke up in the middle of the night to a series of sounds that my sleeping brain first interpreted as a litany of car alarms, then a rally of howling dogs, before finally identifying it as a conversation among owls.

“Those were great horned owls,” said Joe the next morning. “You can tell by the call. It sounds like, ‘Who’s awake? Who? Who? Who’s awake? Who? Who?’”

In the morning, Joe made coffee, and we debated the best route to drive away from camp: Should we drive back the way we came or drive forward past the hot springs? Both routes would lead toward Bridgeport, but we were concerned about which would be safer, and we didn’t want to get stuck again. We decided to take the known route back the way we came. Paul drove the first bit past the spot where I got stuck, which he took at a much faster clip than I had, and plowed right through the treacherous area. Then we headed to Bridgeport, breakfast and modern plumbing.

On the drive home, Paul and I talked about how great it was to see Joe, and what a fun, refreshing trip it had been, even though it had only been for a night. It felt good just to get out of town, even though we only traveled a couple of hours away from home. One of the best things about living in Reno is that it’s such a great town to get away from.