The idea hatched with an abrupt 5:30 Sunday morning wake-up, followed by a check of the day’s forecast: nothing but blue skies.
If I’m going to make it up to the snow at all this year, today has to be the day.
That was the thought that motivated me as I boiled water for coffee, pulled on some long underwear and placed my long-neglected skis, boots and poles into the back of the truck. And inspired me as I left Clovis and drove east just as the sun climbed over the Sierra, illuminating the line of peaks and bathing the morning in light.
Reaching Prather, I discovered I wasn’t the only one with a similar plan. I joined a convoy of cars and trucks bound for China Peak as we snaked along the narrow highway and then onto the four-lane section of Highway 168, where chain control greeted us below 3,000 feet elevation.
Not what you’d expect in a drought year.
Motoring along at 25 mph over snowy, icy roads, and leaving plenty of room for other traffic gives you time to take in the scenery. Seeing every tree in sight coated with fresh snow makes everything seem fresh and alive – even all the dead ones.
At Tamarack Ridge, about 11 miles north and east of Shaver Lake, I left the convoy and turned into the Coyote Sno-Park trailhead to some of the area’s best cross-country ski trails.
It was 8:30 a.m. Mine was the only vehicle in the parking lot.
Considering there was hardly any snow on the ground a week ago, the amount I did see was impressive. Another foot had fallen overnight, on top of the 3 or 4 feet from previous days, and I was the first to step into it.
Breaking trail felt like a privilege, though I almost felt guilty for disturbing such a perfect blanket of white. Overnight temperatures must’ve dropped into single digits, because the snow was light and powdery. No sign (yet) of the sticky, porridgy Sierra cement.
Every stride brought me deeper into a winter wonderland. Other than snow-loaded tree branches occasionally relieving themselves of extra weight, the only sound that could be heard was my own breathing.
Typically I ski the Coyote Trail, a loop with views of Kaiser Ridge, Huntington Lake and Shaver Lake. That wasn’t happening today. Besides breaking trail, I'd also have to find it. Fresh snow covered all the blue trail markers.
Instead I headed up the Eagle Trail, which travels a road bed and is simpler to follow. Normally this five-mile up-and-back to a vista overlooking Shaver Lake takes me about an hour. This time, having to displace fresh snow with every stride, the going was much slower and required loads more energy.
This was not the cross-country skiing you see in the Olympics, with groomed terrain and pencil-light freestyle skis. It was a trudge.
After a couple miles of breaking trail and climbing hills, the combined forces of gravity and heavier, denser snow conspired to sap my energy. Instead of gliding along, I had to stop every couple hundred yards to catch my breath.
Nearly two hours in, and the overlook still a half-mile away, I veered off the Eagle Trail and headed toward a nearby ridge with open views. This was as far as I was going to get. I sipped water, ate an energy bar and some dried mangoes and took in the scenery.
My goal was to experience the snow in another drought year. Mission certainly accomplished.
The way back wasn’t much easier. The more the sun came out the more the snow clumped to the tops and bottoms of my skis, adding extra weight to every stride. Just as I started having to make more frequent rest stops I heard voices in the woods. They belonged to a young couple from Visalia skiing in the opposite direction, and in my tracks, followed by a trio from Fresno.
“Where were you guys this morning when I needed you to break trail?” I kiddingly asked the person leading the second group.
“Waiting for you!” James Yan answered with a laugh.
I sure was happy to see them. Five extra pairs of skis packing down my tracks did wonders for my barking legs and hips.
By the time I got back, the parking lot was full of families sledding down the hillside and snowboarders that got turned away from China Peak. On the drive down the hill, every lot and turnout was crammed.
Everybody loves a snow day. Some get in deeper than others.