Shelter from the storm

The Sierra Club’s huts near Lake Tahoe offer refuge from the snow—if you can find them

The trees, like the trail our writer was trying to follow, were buried after the recent snow storm.

The trees, like the trail our writer was trying to follow, were buried after the recent snow storm.

Photo by Brendan Fletcher

The cabin sounded really nice when my boyfriend first told me about it.

We’d be there, just the two of us, hiding out in a little hut in the middle of Tahoe National Forest with the snowflakes whirling around us. Outside it would be night, dark and cold, but we’d have a fire crackling in the main room and cook our dinner of soup and pasta on our camping stove and drink our wine.

But then he revealed more information. There wouldn’t be any electricity and the toilet would be outside. If the first floor of the cabin was buried under snow, we’d have to climb in the top window, and we’d be sleeping on the floor in our sleeping bags. I’ve done worse, much worse, mind you. I’ve been stuck at the top of Mount Kenya vomiting from altitude sickness. I’ve been stuck in Peru vomiting from altitude sickness (sensing the pattern here?). And I’ve been hanging on to my tent for dear life in a gale in Alaska. So camping in Peter Grubb Hut, one of the Sierra Club’s backcountry cabins, at the harmless height of 7,000 feet, roof and walls around me, would be a piece of cake.

To get there, however, wouldn’t be such a piece of cake. The hut is 3 miles from Interstate 80, and the only way there in winter is to either snowshoe or cross-country ski along a trail with an elevation gain of 1000 feet. Because we got a late start leaving Sacramento, we thought it would be wise to stay at the Sierra Club’s main lodge, Clair Tappaan, for the night, and start snowshoeing to the hut early in the morning.

Clair Tappaan Lodge was built in 1934 by a group of Sierra Club volunteers. Approximately 12 kilometers of trails nearby serve the beginner and intermediate skier, while the Club’s four backcountry huts in the Donner Pass area, each located about a day’s journey from a trailhead, are more of a base for backcountry enthusiasts.

The Lodge is located on the old Donner Pass road a few miles’ drive from the Soda Springs/Norden exit off I-80, and is remarkably easy to miss despite its immense size. About 100 feet from the road, up a very steep path, it is protected in a pocket of tall fir trees that tower above the building. Inside, it’s a rambling maze of a place that reminded me of boarding school—long tables in the dining room where everyone eats together, and tiny rooms with bunk beds and thin mattresses. For $43 per adult, or $26 for kids, you get a bed, three hearty meals (including a packed lunch if you take to the hills for the day), and free rein of the building, which includes a living room and fireplace, games, library, hot tub and ping-pong table. And you don’t have to be a Sierra Club member to stay there, either.

Photo by Brendan Fletcher

Meals at the main lodge are taken together, served at designated times, and every person must carry out a chore for each day they stay. Chores include taking out the trash, helping with the cooking, setting the tables, or basically anything that makes the communal experience more enjoyable for everyone.

Up to 140 guests can stay at the lodge, but fortunately for us we went during a slow time and enjoyed sharing the place with just a handful of others. We arrived in time to help with making the salad for dinner, and sat in the kitchen while Lloyd the cook put together a feast of tasty clam chowder, pasta and vegetables. Sure enough, just like boarding school, the 6 o’clock bell summoned the other guests to join us.

If you want absolute peace on your vacation, if you’re looking for the sort of place where you can skulk around unnoticed and avoid all physical and verbal contact, then please, please don’t go to Clair Tappaan. Likewise, if you feel the desire to intrude on the peace of others, dominate all conversation and incessantly argue inane points, then I beg of you, please don’t go to Clair Tappaan.

This lodge offers the experience of getting to know strangers, of communicating with them, helping each other, creating meals, cleanliness and calmness together. It offers the chance to return to the comfort of your childhood home, to sit in the place of nourishment that is the kitchen and carry out whatever chore you have the responsibility of doing.

The communal dinner ended with repeated trips to the dessert tray for ice cream (another perk of being one of only a few guests, I’m sure), and after a while spent in front of the fire with some wine shared between four of us, it was time to go to bed. By that time, the corridors had that distinct old-fashioned ski lodge feel that every crack to the outside world was letting in icy air. We went back to our two-bunk closet (I use the word literally) and unpacked our clothes. The lodge doesn’t provide bed linen, pillows or towels, so it’s absolutely necessary to bring your own, plus a warm sleeping bag and thermal underwear.

We woke to the sound of a bell. It was 7:30 and breakfast would be in half an hour. I’d been given mixed messages about how long the snowshoe hike to the hut would take—one person said two hours, another said five—so I made sure I ate everything that was offered to me (that was my excuse, anyway). Hot oatmeal, scrambled eggs, fruit, potatoes and tea. I took to my daily chore of dish drying with an enthusiasm that I’m sure my partner wished I had at home, and marveled at how ready people are to help despite this being their vacation.

To get to the trailhead, we drove up one exit to Castle Peak, parked, and walked back under the bridge to a snow-covered road going uphill. Last weekend’s storm had already started, and there wasn’t even a clear path to follow. But we had a map, compass and all the essentials for a backcountry hike, so we strapped on our snowshoes and started walking, our backs to Boreal, away from all the people and the hum of ski-lifts, from the inflated prices and the endless lines.

The backcountry huts are positioned about a day’s trip away from each other, so it’s possible to do an entire loop in about a week and stay in them all. They are bare, rustic and simple, but offer shelter and warmth to 15 people each. Guests have to bring their own food, camping stove and sleeping bag, and bedding is just a mattress pulled onto the floor in one common room. At $8 a night they are an absolute bargain. Understandably, they are also extremely popular, and it’s necessary sometimes to book months in advance if you want to stay a specific day. During the week, though, it’s possible to have the entire place to yourself.

The trail to Peter Grubb was described as “easy” in my guide book, though walking through fresh deep snow with visibility about 50 feet, high winds and no clear path to follow is never easy.

The snow had draped the fir and pine trees with a thick white covering and they looked like a bunch of kids on Halloween, white sheets pulled over them haphazardly, eye holes cut out where branches poked through, and their arms raised like sleepwalkers trying to scare us.

By the time we ascended the steep hill onto the ridge, my fingertips were getting numb and the wind was blowing tiny icy arrows into my eyes. I turned to see my footprints disappear within a matter of seconds under the snow, and realized how easy it would be to lose all sense of direction when all you see around you is white. It wasn’t until we began to sink into hip-deep snow (one of the things that snowshoes are designed to avoid) that I really wondered if we should turn back or not.

My experienced outdoorsman companion assured me later that at no time were we ever in any real danger, but I’m not so sure that I believe him. I couldn’t feel my fingers. I was sore, tired, scared and just plain annoyed. The weather was so bad that we were sure I-80 would close (which it did), and we had to get back to Sacramento the next day, if for no other reason than to get this story out and encourage you all to explore the isolated, beautiful, yet harsh and potentially dangerous backcountry of the Sierras.

I scowled at my companion when he convinced me that we really had to turn back, but I knew it was the smart thing to do. After all, we are going back in the first week of January. Maybe then the sun will be shining for us. But for now, the fire, food, wine and little backcountry cabin all to ourselves will have to wait for another day.

I glanced longingly in the direction of Peter Grubb Hut one final time, called through the wind that I’d be back there in January, and out of the valley we walked. Maybe not the ideal end to the story, but hey, at least I didn’t vomit.