From the input BurritoPackingNV got about what kinds of trips we would like to do this year, Mark Yakushev suggested a snow trip. He had a trip in mind, so why not. Lets put it on the calendar and see who shows up. Mark lives in Scotts Valley, CA but escapes to the Tahoe Basin when his schedule allows. He joined us the first time for bikepacking Desert Creek. He is an active member of our group even though he lives so far away.
Mark was familiar with fat biking in the Lake Tahoe-Nevada State Park. He knew popular trails get well tracked by cross-country skiiers, snowshoers, and hikers producing a narrow bootpack that is a great singletrack to follow by fat bike. Since we had a long dry winter the bootpack would be perfect!
Mark posted the event with a great route in mind (outbound on RWGPS, return on RWGPS). I have visited Marlette a handful of times in the summer and fall, first approaching via the Flume Trail then coming up from Spooner Lake but I haven’t visited the park in the winter. Mark’s route had us looping Spooner Lake then making the climb to Marlette. The climb to Marlette is a challenge on dirt. I was planning on hike-a-bike, but hey, I would be doing it in one of the most beautiful places in the world and in the shared suffering of friends.
Doug Artman, Marc Pfister, Mark Yakushev and I met in the Spooner Lake parking lot. I had stopped at the bottom of Kings Canyon Road to see if climbing up to Spooner Summit was an option. Kings Canyon Road is the old route to Tahoe before US 50. It is a fantastic mountain bike ride and thought with its southern exposure it might be mostly melted out. We had had a significant snow storm of lake effect snow just days before. After a few miles the snow proved to be too much. Who knows how much or how little hike-a-bike it would take to get through but it was an unknown I was not ready to deal with. Once I was at the Spooner parking lot I gave the bootpack leading to Spooner Lake a try, it was pretty soft.
We met a fellow mountain biker who was on a LaPierre full-suspension fat e-bike. It is an impressive machine for sure. He gave us some trail-beta that I could mostly follow. Once he left, I mentioned to Doug, his beta was worthless. His machine could power him through deep snow as was evident by the build-up on his rims.
And then we were off. I must say, it is nice to be on a trip where someone else is the leader! I think everyone got a little squirrely in the first few hundred yards. But once we were on the bootpack going around the lake, the going was good. I really appreciated the slightly more aggressive tread on my Vittoria 26×4.8 Canolli tires. I could feel them dig in and push my bike up the steep bits. We were in the trees below Tahoe blue skies riding on an ephemeral surface at the whim of the weather.
Around Spooner Lake we made the short approach to the climb. Very quickly we discovered we weren’t going to be riding much. It was warm and in direct sunshine. The snow was wet and soft. Finding traction on the slopes was not happening. The fresh snow hadn’t seen the traffic necessary to give us a bootpack. That’s all right, pushing bikes is a matter of when, not if. We chatted with skiers and snowshoers, they were polite, not treating us like crazy people for pushing loaded bikes through the snow. We questioned our choices, would it be easier to be on skis or snowshoes and carrying our gear in backpacks? For me the answer is, I will always choose pushing my bike, but for the others, maybe not.
As we crested the summit the bootpack became completely buried. Few had gone through to Marlette since the last snow fall. We decided to make camp rather than fighting the snow beyond Marlette. It had been a full body effort to get to where we were. Now it was time to make camp. In looking at how the kiosks were buried I guessed we were in about 4′ of snow. I dug in a little over a foot, about 1/2 was soft fresh snow from the week’s storm and the rest was granular and consolidated. I was not going to be able to pitch my tarp tent without considerable more effort so I decided with the weather forecast I was going to be able to sleep under the stars. I changed into my dry layers and leisurely went about lounging and making dinner.
Doug and Mark had freestanding tents, very smart. Marc used his ultralight freestanding tarp, by pitching just the footprint and rainfly to his tent, also very smart. We all went to sleep as the sun set. It was a calm night, the clouds moved through giving a partial star show.
We woke to a beautiful morning, broke camp, packed up and made our way to the trail in eager anticipation of our ride out. What were the conditions going to be? They were good! It was a challenge to stay on the narrow frozen track but we made our way to the parking lot in no time. We stopped for photos, we got squirrely if we left the track, but we got back to the vehicles too early for our planned burrito stop, T’s Mesquite Rotisserie. We finished the trip at Tunnel Creek Station Cafe for breakfast. I can recommend the breakfast burrito. I went to T’s after for a second burrito, they are that good.
We don’t seek out the on-snow overnighter’s, so for many of us there is a learning curve. I definitely have spent my winters on cold trips with light snow and moderate stormy conditions. My set-up for these types of outings is solid. But for this trip I felt like there was still a learning curve. My footwear was the biggest mistake. My waterproof Keen hikers have been perfect all winter paired with DeFeet Woolie Boolie socks. For this trip they were too low for the amount of hiking in soft, wet snow. I should have worn a 10-11 inch pac boot. My soaked socks froze during the night but I brought a dry pair for the next day. I slept well despite sleeping under the stars. I started with a mylar space blanket, then I had two sleeping pads, a Z-rest and Pacific Outdoor Equipment inflatable (15+ years old). I slept in a Patagonia Hybrid sleeping bag, wearing a Outdoor Research Helium jacket. Over the top was a Sierra Designs 35o quilt. I used the hot water bottle trick for the first time as I wanted to make sure I had warm feet.
Doug slept in his Black Diamond Firstlight tent and in a 0o down bag. He wasn’t pleased with his boot choice but was manageable with neoprene socks. Things he wish he had; shovel, and stove board for stabilizing stove while cooking on snow. His windscreen worked in a pinch. Doug is an experienced mountaineer and it shows in his bikepacking.
Marc slept under his Nemo Hornet 2P tent, just the foot-print and rain fly. His sleeping bag was a 20o Sierra Designs Cloud 800 backed up with a homemade synthetic quilt. He wore Vasque Arrowhead boots, out of production, but lightweight and waterproof. He could have worn a vapor barrier sock under the conditions. Marc used a combination of 3 sleeping pads, 2 closed cell foam, 1 inflatable.
Mark slept in the MSR Advanced Pro 2 person tent, though he considers it is a 1.5 person tent. He slept in a Marmot 15o bag on a Nemo inflatable pad. His secret weapon is his Sea to Summit pillow, “so much better than a rolled up jacket.” Mark wore the 45Nrth Wolfgar boots. These are cycling specific winter riding boots, compatible with two bolt cycling cleats, flat pedals, and utilize a glass impregnated outsole for traction on ice. Mark said the removable liner improves their ability to dry from day to day. The only downsides were weight and cost.
While you can find plenty of recommendations for staying comfortable and safe on a winter trip, little comes close to the gear lists of four widely experienced bikepackers and their critical evaluation of what they used. Learning from each other and personal experience is the best advice. Mark chose a great route for cutting our teeth on winter bikepacking. We discussed how we might go about finding more remote routes on forest service or BLM roads that get either the traffic or maintenance to create a passable surface. Winter is not over, for some it is just beginning.