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Lost Trail Lodge: the faint call of the wild

You can go ice climbing or cross-country skiing, or just kick back and enjoy the company at this isolated lodge.

February 22, 2009|Hugo Martin

TRUCKEE, CALIF. — A white curtain of snow obscured my view of a sparse pine forest and the towering mountains bordering Donner Memorial State Park. The temperature on that January morning had dropped below 30, and the forecast called for one of the biggest snowfalls in decades.

The prospects of nasty weather excited me. I strapped on my snowshoes in a snow-packed parking lot off Interstate 80, about 4 1/2 miles southwest of Truckee. I was prepared for anything. Blizzards. Avalanche. White-out conditions. Isn't that the kind of thing that forges character and marks great adventures?

My destination was the Lost Trail Lodge, a hike-in lodge about four miles away, in a valley south of Donner Lake, bounded on three sides by Sierra Nevada peaks.

I learned about the place the previous winter from a ranger at the state park. The secluded chalet, I was told, is untouched by paved roads, phones or electrical lines, accessible only by snowshoes or cross-country skis.

These hike-in lodges have gained popularity in recent years, as outdoor enthusiasts try to escape the increasingly intrusive grip of cellphones, BlackBerrys and Wi-Fi. Similar lodges in Tennessee; Montana; Alberta, Canada; and along the Appalachian Trail in Georgia do brisk business.

I grew more excited as I learned about the lodge. My previous few out-of-town trips had been cushy: warm hotels with room service and heated pools. I ached for adventure, something dangerous, an adrenaline surge. The lodge, surrounded by miles of snow and forest, sounded just right. I was possessed by the spirits of Jack London, Henry David Thoreau and Christopher McCandless. I was heading into the wild.

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In the parking lot behind a gas station, I checked my supplies and equipment and waited to join the other weekend guests for the two-hour trek to the lodge. Guests must bring in their own food, so I crammed my backpack with freeze-dried soup, bags of granola, power bars and a flask of whiskey. (Who knew? I might need the booze to act as anesthesia for a backcountry amputation.) All guests had to sign a liability waiver before beginning the hike. Anything could happen out here, and access to medical help was limited.

But I realized quickly that the Lost Trail Lodge would not be the Jon Krakauer adventure I had anticipated. The first hint came when David Robertson, the owner of the lodge, roared up to the parking lot in a snowmobile, offering to carry the heaviest supplies.

What sort of supplies, I wondered. Axes? Firewood? Bear traps? No. The guests started loading the snowmobile with boxes of red wine, beer and five cooked pizzas.

I came here looking for an "Into the Wild" experience. Instead I got "Into the Mild."

Robertson's snowmobile tore up the trail with a roar, the smell of pizzas and fuel exhaust wafting in the chilly air. In a staggered line, about 30 guests and I followed a snow-packed trail, past frosted Jeffrey and lodgepole pines. About half of us, including me, made the hike on snowshoes, the other half on cross-country skis.

The snow fell steadily. For more than two hours, I listened to the crunch, crunch, crunch of my snowshoes grinding away on the glistening snowpack. We marched past frozen ponds and towering pines, bent under the weight of snow heaps. After nearly three miles, a motorized roar filled the air. A Southern Pacific locomotive sliced between snow-crusted trees, along mountain railroad tracks, sending a spray of white into the air.

The bitingly cold hike ended when we crossed a small wooden bridge over a frozen creek and came to a clearing. The Swiss chalet-style lodge was nearly hidden behind a stand of snow-covered trees. Inside the glass-pane front doors, sofas and cushioned chairs furnished a big, comfortable living room, centered on a large river-stone fireplace. A black iron stove burned warm inside the fireplace.

The decor: American ski lodge meets country flea market. Knotty pine planks covered the floors, and animal skins, elk heads, snowshoes and skis decorated the walls. Power was supplied by a diesel generator, solar panels and hydroelectric generators turned by creek water. There were no hard-wired phone lines and only spotty cellphone service.

The rooms were rustic but spacious, with thick quilts on the wood-frame beds and wood-burning stoves to stave off the cold. The most luxurious rooms included a small Jacuzzi made of river rocks.

Most of the guests were members of a local chapter of the American Alpine Club, a group of tough-as-nails outdoor adventurers. These are the kind of folks who sit around comparing death-defying rock climbs and mountaineering adventures. The group had been meeting here annually for three years. On the living room floor they dropped coils of climbing rope, 40-pound backpacks and ice-caked snowshoes.

After hauling in the climbing gear, they formed a bucket brigade to carry in the libations. Someone handed me a box of Negra Modelo beer. Then came a box of Sierra Nevada beer and then a case of Charles Shaw wine.

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