TOM'S PLACE, Calif. — In search of solace following his divorce five years ago, Ron Grau took up backpacking and cross-country skiing. But the silence of the Sierra in summertime is frequently broken by hissing Coleman stoves. And the Nordic ski areas around Mammoth and Tahoe are increasingly infested with hot-shot racers wearing gaudy, elasticized suits.
Grau, a 39-year-old data processor from Pomona, finally found his cure in a sleeping bag in the snow.
Like Grau, an increasing number of Californians are discovering that serenity awaits those who travel away from lift lines and groomed tracks. Those willing to spend a night in a frigid tent, hut or snow cave find that the back country in wintertime constitutes what the authors of a book on skiing off-the-track called "America's wildest wilderness."
Across Frozen Lakes
On a recent Saturday, Grau skied across a series of five frozen lakes--Mack, Marsh, Heart, Box and Long. Saddled with a heavy pack, he labored in sun-whitened surroundings that at moments resembled the Sahara more than the eastern Sierra.
Crossing the last lake, Grau looked down to see water bubbling into the depression left by his ski pole. An unwelcome image came to mind: the falling-through-the-ice sequence in the film "Never Cry Wolf." Grau was at least seven miles from the nearest cleared road, and there was no Eskimo around to fish him out of the water--as one had rescued the character in the movie.
The ice held. That night, however, there would be 13-degree temperatures and tent-toppling winds to contend with. The 10,600-foot altitude would afflict members of Grau's party with headaches and lethargy. The next morning the ski tourers would don rescue beacons that emit electronic signals as a hedge against yet another potential hazard of winter travel in the Sierra--avalanches.
Yet all this was forgotten when Grau stepped outside his tent in the evening. The light of a half moon and stars, magnified by the ice and snow, cast an otherworldly glow on Bear Creek Spire and the surrounding jagged peaks. One skier observed that it was all as unfamiliar as the underwater vista that confronts a first-time scuba diver.
"The discomforts are not enormous," Grau said. "It's the price you pay to see this beauty."
The automobiles looked as if they were deposited by a glacier that swept down the canyon in a distant ice age. In fact, the collection of ice-flecked buses and bugs belonged to the staff of Rock Creek Winter Lodge, a communally operated way-station that is the jumping-off spot to what some consider the best back country skiing in California.
The lodge is snowed in all winter; guests and staff get in and out on skis and snowmobiles--thus the collection of vehicles, which gather snow until the Rock Creek collective disperses in the spring.
The cars were parked at the end of a plowed road eight miles from Tom's Place, a tiny community on Highway 395 nearly 300 miles north of Los Angeles. Although the sprawling downhill resort, Mammoth Mountain, is just a half-hour's drive up the road, the two ski areas couldn't be farther apart in terms of their attitude toward the sport.
Differences in Attitude
Downhill skiing is a social activity and a thriving industry; back-country skiing attracts self-sufficient iconoclasts who make do with 15-year-old Fisher skis and scrounged clothing, according to Rock Creek staffer Marty Hornick. When Hornick drove the snow-cat down to pick up a load of beer and guests on a recent morning, he was attired in a shredded, grease-splashed (from working on snowmobiles) bunting jacket and army- surplus wool pants.
This is not to say there are none who straddle the societies of Mammoth and Rock Creek. Guys like Hornick love to practice their telemark turns on the Mammoth runs; and many an alpine skier has been inspired to try three-pin (cross-country) bindings upon observing someone like Marty doing a poetic series of linked telemarks beneath the chairlifts.
On the snow-cat ride up to the lodge, Hornick warned with a sly smile that life at the lodge is different from what most people are used to. "Once in a while we get someone who expects the Hilton or a Mammoth condo," he said.
The slight inconveniences weed out comfort-seeking guests, Hornick said, leaving those willing souls of the sort the staff would prefer to be snowed-in with.
A Rustic Convenience
One rustic feature of a stay at Rock Creek is the unheated outhouse, which has been known to require guests in darkness to tunnel out of their cabins with a shovel, then burrow through drifts of snow to reach it.
Lodge owner Dion Goldsworthy and his partners were non-skiers at in 1979 when they stumbled into the canyon as part of a vague city-kids' dream to live in the mountains. Goldsworthy was living in San Diego, studying telecommunications. Janet and Mark Rantz were from Santa Barbara (Janet is still at Rock Creek). None of them had ever lived where it snowed.