Snow, June, and California — these three words don’t exactly belong in the same sentence. But with “June-uary” in full swing this year, dropping record snowfall across much of California’s mountains, it was both a curse and a blessing.
My river camping trip, an annual birthday tradition, was a bust because with record snowfall comes record snowmelt — making the Kern River and Kings River unfloatable and unrunnable, not to mention freezing and unenjoyable. But the record snowfall also meant the Eastern Sierra Nevada was stuck in the middle of winter, even though we were going into the middle of June.
Not only was I intrigued by the rarity of snowboarding in summer — on several feet of real snow, not the barren crust left over from spring storms — I also wanted to explore the Mammoth Basin as the snow was starting to melt off the trails, before the summer vacation crowds descended on the area.
The weekend began with one of my favorite and frequent drives — Highway 395 — to the natural hot springs in the Long Valley Caldera. Scattered throughout the eastern half of the caldera, off a loop of unmarked dirt roads, are a handful of primitive tubs built into the earth and filled with geothermal water from the surrounding volcanic areas.
Usually they’re filled with old naked hippie dudes camping nearby, shootin’ the shit while splayed in all their “natural” glory. (I will leave the rest to your imagination.)
But on that Friday afternoon after scouting out the area, we were lucky to find an unoccupied hot spring tub, made of stone and concrete with steaming mineral water flowing from a pipe. It was one of the nicer hot springs with seats and stairs built around the tub, instead of just the typical hole in the ground as are most of the other springs. On top of that, we were the only people around all day. There’s nothing quite like a private and relaxing soak with views like these!
We grubbed and tubbed until close to dusk, then caravaned another 30 minutes north to the Mammoth Basin. At the base of the Sherwin Range under a skyline of snowcaps, we set up camp along the creek. Just a mile away was the trailhead for the next day’s hike up to Sherwin Lake, a little gem off the beaten path that’s less traveled than the nearby Mammoth Lakes.
The hike started out easy enough along a defined path. Then the trail quickly turned steep, switchbacking up the mountain for a couple of miles. We would eventually climb 1,000 feet in elevation to the lowest of the Sherwin Lakes at 8,700 feet.
The views were outta hand… snowy couloirs for days (weeks? months?!). I mentally calculated how much it would cost to buy a snowmobile and do backcountry shuttles in that epic terrain. (For now, a splitboard may have to do… sigh.)
We came across small patches of snow off the trail, prompting impulsive ice wars whenever we could scoop up handfuls (or snowball flinger-fuls) of crunchy snowballs.
By midday we reached Lower Sherwin Lake, a small and beautiful lake nestled between impressive granite peaks in a sage-covered valley.
It was still early in the day, so we decided to press on to Valentine Lake, a subalpine lake tucked into the John Muir Wilderness with another elevation gain of 1,000 feet. We weren’t sure if we could even access this lake at that altitude with the current snow levels, but we were feeling good and up to the challenge.
And as the saying goes — it’s not an adventure until something goes wrong.
At first we skipped across random mounds of snow for fun, amused at the novelty of finding all that snow lingering in the summer.
Then the random mounds of snow got bigger… and bigger…
Those big mounds of snow suddenly became big fields of snow…
And suddenly, we found ourselves on a technical hike in a vast snowy wilderness à la Bear Grylls, hopping across boulders and crossing over creeks, plodding through heavy snow that was thigh-deep at times. A little lost here and there — both in wonder and in direction.
We were starring in our own comedy of errors, with the frequent grunt and occasional scream as we climbed over spiky trees wanting to crucify us, and skated across sneaky patches of blue ice ready to take our knees out.
Our GPS guided us faithfully through the backcountry, but by the time our preset turnaround time struck, we were still 500 feet below and a mile away from Valentine Lake.
We were disappointed at not reaching the lake, but the thought of hiking down a snowy slope in the dark and becoming a 10-course meal for some wild animal was not exactly appealing. I’m also pretty certain that we were the first people to even attempt to hike up to Valentine Lake this year. Those crazy kids…
The hike up was slow and strenuous, but the hike down was fast… and strenuous. We looked like a herd of weeble wobbles as we glissaded (unintentionally, mostly) down icy hills riddled with sinkholes. In record time we found ourselves back on the Sherwin Lake Trail, our first time seeing dirt on the ground again in what felt like moons.
Wanting to make better time, we decided to forego the well-maintained — but longer — hiking trail, and have our GPS route us on a cross-country shortcut down the mountain to the trailhead.
Our GPS had a field day! We skidded down dirt slopes, bushwhacked through fields of manzanita brush, balanced across Indiana Jones-type logs over rushing snow-fed creeks, and wound our way through a spooky grove of gnarled trees.
As the light was starting to fade from the sky and the valley was coming closer into view, we finally spotted our cars at the bottom of the hill. In mere seconds we raced down the scree, threw down our bags, hugged and cheered like we’d just won Amazing Race.
Nine hours after we set off from the trailhead, we made it back without even turning on our headlamps, just minutes before the sun went down — that in itself felt like the biggest accomplishment!
After our little morning hike turned into a grueling all-day backcountry adventure, we should have just ended the weekend with another — and this time, much-needed — soak in the hot springs.
But maybe we were just gluttons for pain.
Or maybe a night of wine and s’mores around the campfire cures all pain.
Our final day of adventure started off with a sparkly morning. It was the warmest day of the weekend. We scarfed down some breakfast and packed up camp. Mammoth Mountain was calling to us.
I’ve snowboarded Mammoth on a spring day before, but never a “spring day” in June, and never a spring day with a base so deep — 10 feet of packed powder and corn snow, plus a couple more inches that had fallen a few days before.
We rode until our legs nearly collapsed – a feeling both so exhausting and so invigorating. Out of breath, under the hot sun, in a field of white with slush beneath our boots. It was a very Mammoth birthday indeed!