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WEEKEND ESCAPE: HIGH SIERRA

Snow Bound

When winter comes to a rustic retreat in the back country, the only way in is on skis, snowshoes or snowmobile

March 12, 2000|DAN BLACKBURN

TOMS PLACE, Calif. — Morning sunlight scattered off the ermine summit of 13,748-foot Morgan Peak, warming the crisp air as my waxed cross-country/telemark skis glided over the snow-covered road. Rivulets of sweat formed on my forehead, dribbling sun block into my eyes. Minutes earlier, a snowmobile loaded with luggage had roared past me, making short work of the two-mile-plus trek to the lodge; I was taking the more leisurely approach.

My destination was worth my efforts: Rock Creek Lodge, set in what pioneering Sierra mountaineer Norman Clyde called the prettiest canyon in the eastern Sierra.

In winter, when the snow falls deep enough to block the road, the only way to get to Rock Creek Winter Lodge is on skis or snowshoes or by snowmobile. I chose to ski in because it would help my body adjust to the 9,000-foot altitude and allow me to savor the canyon.

I've been visiting Rock Creek Lodge, on the edge of the John Muir Wilderness in the Inyo National Forest, and skiing the surrounding back country off and on for more than 20 years.

Winter snows came late to the Sierra this year, twice delaying my trip. But when one storm after another dumped snow by the cloud load in late February, I rushed to pack up my ski gear. Rock Creek Canyon usually gets its share of snow and more. In fact, in late February the avalanche hazard was too high in the back country to risk skiing there, but the area around the lodge was safe. Assuming normal weather this spring, conditions everywhere should settle down comfortably, and the lodge is expected to remain open at least until the end of April.

I left on a recent Friday, driving five hours from Los Angeles and spending the night in Bishop, about 30 miles southeast of Rock Creek Lodge. Saturday morning I called the lodge to confirm that the Sno-Cats were running--in case I wanted to load my luggage on one, something most guests prefer to do. They were, so I drove up U.S. 395, turned west at Toms Place and headed up winding Rock Creek Canyon Road to the east fork of Rock Creek.

About seven miles up the well-plowed road, I parked my car at the state-maintained lot for a $5 day fee (a season pass is $25). Beyond the lot lay the unplowed road leading to Rock Creek Lodge. Stepping into my ski bindings, I began the leisurely uphill stride to the lodge. The grade is gentle enough, but a beginner cross-country skier may want to hitch a ride on a lodge Sno-Cat.

It wasn't long until a sign pointed the way across a wooden bridge that spans rowdy Rock Creek. Cabins soon appeared on my left, scattered among the snowdrifts and lodgepole pines. Then, to my right, the weathered wood lodge appeared, smoke rising from the chimney. I felt a sense of homecoming when I saw it.

The old, one-room lodge house has been expanded over the years to provide a casual check-in area, a small store with T-shirts and snacks, ski wax, rental skis, boots and poles, maps and other essentials. It was built in 1926, part of a planned alpine ski area and fishing resort to be called Little Switzerland and funded by a group of Hollywood outdoors enthusiasts. But it was overshadowed by the popularity of Mammoth Mountain 25 miles to the north. The lodge languished for decades until a collection of wild, woolly back-country skiers, guides and friends reopened it in 1977 as a wilderness cross-country ski base.

John Moynier, a guide, skier, writer and photographer who shared in the lodge's resurrection, called it "a commune where, instead of growing vegetables, we grew back-country skiers. Rock Creek is still run by people who have a love for the mountains."

That's one of the main reasons I keep returning. The staff members are welcoming and highly skilled skiers. Marc Vernon, a 28-year-old who was a ski racer in Canada, has led the lodge's cross-country ski school for the last five years. Classes are offered for skiers of all levels on the nearby meadows and hillsides. There are about nine miles of groomed cross-country trails around the lodge and, for skilled skiers, miles of untracked open spaces in the back country.

During the coldest winter months, the snow comes as close to powder as the Sierra ever gets. In spring, more granular "corn" snow appears--"ego snow," skiers call it, because it is so easy to make turns that even a novice skier can look really hot.

I checked in and asked for one of the smaller, modern cabins, mostly out of curiosity--in the past I've always toughed it out in the older cabins. In the '70s, the accommodations were decidedly rustic. Wood-burning stoves in the cabins usually went out during the night, and sleeping bags rated to zero degrees were necessities. The trek to the outhouse over an icy path was a challenge.

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