Winter Backpacking for the First Time

Backpacking San Jacinto State Park above Palm Springs in the Winter

Just thought I would share an experience I just had this morning, I was invited by a few friends from a California photography forum to go winter backpacking, something I have never tried. I was pretty excited to hear this but I didn’t have all the gear. I’ve been slowing collecting the gear for a while now, it can be a huge chunck of change to pick it all up at once. Long story short, only Eric Good wanted to go. I can’t blame anyone for not going, it’s been snowing for days non stop up there. Eric had the equipment that I did not have so the only thing that kept me hesitant was the cold, getting lost, and avalanches, the usual stuff a mind could conjure up.

There is a tram that will take you up to 8,500 ft above Palm Springs from cactus to clouds. There is also a trail if you are really serious, it has a gain of 11,000ft. Looking out the windows of the tram it was almost like flying through the mountains and clouds. With all the snow the visibility was only a few hundred feet, you could see the beautiful and rugged terrain of one of North America’s most steepest inclines. Gliding through the atmosphere with granite spires and monoliths rising into the stratus cloud and coming only a few feet from the tram so you can really experience what the side of the mountain is really like. You could lose yourself just by looking out of the window for a few seconds.

We got off the lift and the hand rails heading down were completely covered, woo hoo, that ‘s about 4 feet of fresh snow. Skis would have been nice, I had enough wait but a little more wouldn’t of hurt. We snowshoed almost a mile before setting up camp in round valley or somewhere near it, there was not a soul around. At this point it was still snowing too much to scout out a place for morning photography.

At 6AM I looked out of the tent and the clouds were gone and it snowed about an extra foot. I grabbed the camera and one lens, my tripod would not open, the threads were frozen shut, this usually happens when it gets wet and freezes, should of kept in the tent at night. Lever locks seemed to better in this cold enviroment. I found this very limiting but having broken a tripod in the past trying to get it to work so I didn’t chance braking this one. My only choice was to shoot a foot above the ground with the tripod sinking into the snow. Eric and I both went our seperate ways exploring the area for photographs.


I had no idea that this ridge was so close to camp, I can see why some people only return with tree photos from snowshoeing trip. This was the case for me since that was all I found at the time when the light was at it’s best.


The view from my extra short tripod.

For a first time I don’t recommend snowshoeing through 4-5 ft of frest snow, it can become very exhausting. I have snowshoed with just camera and it was a lot easier. I was layered up pretty well so my torso was warm the whole the time and my -20 sleeping bag kept me toasty through out the night. My fingers nearly froze most of the time on this trip while taking pictures, I use mitten flaps when it’s dry out but this time I used goretex gloves with fleece liners so keep that in mind. I did have a hard time getting used to all of this, it is a completely different experience adding the backpacking equipment. I can see how one might find it to be a miserable experience but just the fact that I was experiencing something new again was enough keep me happy. Seeing so much untouched fresh snow heading off into every direction at first light is so worth all the hard work one has to do get there, with or with out a tram. I will definitely try this again before the season is over, of course throw in a little extra cardio into my weekly routine.

Cliffs on Mt San Jacinto


Condensation got me at the bottom of the mountain, not a great idea to whip out the camera when going from 25 degrees to 60 degrees. If this happens to you just place your camera back in the bag and don’t open it up as soon as you get home, let it sit for a while.

*This was not a pretty picture show so stayed for some of those in the next post.

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8 Responses to “Winter Backpacking for the First Time”

  1. Richard Wong Says:

    Sounds like quite an experience Steve, despite the difficulties. I haven’t been up the tram though my mom has in the snow and says it is pretty nice up there. I’ll have to check it out when it thaws out.

  2. Ed Heaton Says:

    Great story Steve and a life experience!

  3. DragonFly Says:

    LOVE the snow ladeneded bark photo. Such an adventure.

  4. Aleks Says:

    Sweet! Now you’re ready for igloo camping with me and trust me it’s almost luxurious compared to tents! ;)

  5. Steve Sieren Says:

    Thanks guys.

    Aleks, I could imagine the elevated roof?

  6. Mari Lynch Says:

    Caught this in my CalParks Twitter feed…thanks for beautiful photos, Steve. Not an experience I’ve had–yet!

  7. David Leland Hyde Says:

    Wow, you are really getting out there, or maybe it is in there. I have been busy working away on the computer. I am jealous of such fine adventures and photographs.

  8. Steve Sieren Says:

    David, one of the first quotes that ever grabbed me was at a sign at Kearsarge pass trailhead.

    “I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.”
    — John Muir

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