Snow Camping – San Bernardino Mountains

This winter is bringing some good snow opportunities. So when another storm dropped a nice layer of snow on the local mountains Kevin and I did not hesitate to head out again. This time the focus was on camping in snow. I had never done it before and Kevin also has limited experience in it.

Both of us don’t have a complete set of full-on winter gear (sleeping bag, tent, heavy duty winter clothing), so we decided to camp not too far from the truck so that we could bale out in case one of us got into trouble (hypothermia). We initially aimed for Onyx peak because Kevin had camped up there before in some light snow and knew a nice camp spot that would work. When we stopped on the way out at Mill Creek Ranger station for last minute information we changed our plan a little. It sounded like our intended camp location might not be high enough for really deep snow and while looking at the maps I remembered nice flat spots on the ridge west of Onyx Pass. So we aimed for that.

Just before At Angelus Oaks traffic stopped and people were putting on chains. It seemed a little odd to us since the road was dry and the normal chain control point is in Angelus Oaks. The situation was a bit chaotic. I flagged down a slow moving truck coming off the mountain and asked the driver if this was the line for chain control, he said ‘No. No chains needed, just go’. So I pulled out of the line and passed all the stopped vehicles. At Angelus Oaks we were stopped at the actual chain control point. Requirement was chains for all vehicles except 4×4 with 4 snow tires. My off-road tires qualified and we were sent on our way. Traffic was heavy but moved and we reached Onyx pass without too much delay.

The parking area was not completely plowed and we picked a spot where we thought we would not interfere too much with any additional plowing. Then we geared up and headed across the street to start our hike. It was about 13:30. Since I had done the planned route last summer I took the lead. There is no actual trail even in summer, so just dead reckoning is the way to go. The going was tough with the deep, soft snow. After a while I was slowing down and had to stop every 10 steps. Kevin had been right behind me and I had been wondering how it could go so fast, turns out he had quietly been wondering what my problem was :). Well, he quickly found out when he took the lead taking off fast. It took only a few steps for him to fall back to the speed I had been going. At the same time I was surprised how much easier following was. Obviously we need more snowshoeing experience. There was a thick layer of perfect powder in which we sank  between 6-12 inches and in wind drift areas up to 2 ft with snowshoes on!

The thick, soft blanket of snow on everything with the sun shining on it was just magical. We used our frequent stops to marvel at these great conditions. After about 2 hours we reached the first area where the ridge has some nice flat spots and our first opportunity for a camp site. We had not even covered 1.5 miles. I had hoped we would be able to go 0.25 – 0.5 miles further for an even better area, but given our speed and the time of day we decided to camp right there. We did not want to be rushed into setting up camp since we did not know how well that would go. We selected a flat area and started compacting the snow by walking back and forth with our snow shoes. We pressed it down about a foot. Measuring with Kevin’s avalanche probe we determined that the initial snow depth was about 1m (3 ft). Next we setup our tents anchoring them with our hiking poles and ice axes. The light, short stakes that go with my tent did not work. Fortunately Kevin had some extra and we didn’t have to strap the tents down too tight as there was no wind at all and none forecast.  At about 16:00 the temperature started dropping quickly. By the time we were done and had our meal it was down to 20 F (-6.6 C), so at about 18:30 we crawled into our tents. In the morning our thermometer showed 18 F (-7.8 C) for the overnight minimum.

Since I only have a 32 F rated sleeping bag I double bagged: I used my regular bag inside an older 32 F rated bag. It worked well. Both of us used 2 sleeping mat layers under our torsos. We took a few items with us into the sleeping bags that made sleeping a little less comfortable than normal: stove fuel (the gas does not like the cold), water bottle (to have at least some liquid water in the morning), boots (slipping in frozen boots and starting out feet cold is no fun). Otherwise be both had very comfortable nights from a temperature perspective and we stayed in our tents until around 7:00 when the first rays of sun hit our camp. When we got out we got busy with starting breakfast and packing up. The movement coming with that kept us warm. After we were all packed we wanted to get some experience with snow layers and check the depth by digging down to dirt. So we dug a pit. It was fun to verify some of the theoretical knowledge about this stuff in person. Being more familiar with this stuff should help judging snow conditions on slopes where avalanches can occur.

At 10:00 we started our hike back to the truck. With about 0.5 miles to go a guy came walking up in our snowshoe tracks. He just wore regular boots taking advantage of our nice tracks. He told us he was on the way to Onyx peak and we had to tell him that he was not :), that Onyx peak was on the other side of the road. Once at the truck we dropped our packs and just grabbed some snacks and a bottle of water each before heading up the road to Onyx peak. Someone was in front of us and we followed their track. The snow was not as deep as the previous day, but it still took a lot of energy to cover the 3 miles to the peak. On the peak we saw some strange disturbance in the snow. Looked like a helicopter had landed. There were foot prints from the landing site to one of the buildings. After a short break we decided to head straight for the truck rather than following that long road back. It was a lot of fun to go down the slopes in the deep snow. A great reward for the tedious uphill slog. At the truck a guy with skis approached us, we had talked briefly with him and his friend while getting ready earlier. Turns out he could not keep up with his friends and decided to turn around. He asked as for a ride to his house a few miles down Hwy 38 towards Big Bear. It was out of our way, but we have been bailed out before by kind strangers so it was no question that we took him to his home.

The drive home was uneventful expect for extra slow traffic down Hwy 38 and the usual slowdowns on I-215. Overall probably an hour extra.

Another unforgettable memory was created and additions were made to our gear wish lists. The most pressing item for me are new winter boots since my 20 year old boots had a catastrophic failure. The rubber in the heel sole of one of them just disintegrated. It tear formed and inside there was just black powder from the rubber. We also learned a few things about hiking and camping in this conditions.

(Click on picture to enlarge/start slide show)

3 thoughts on “Snow Camping – San Bernardino Mountains

  1. Saved another lost soul in the mountains. I’m waiting for the REI discount for my Nemo bag before I sleep in the snow.

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