We don't do hardcore winter camping and we definitely don't do full-on winter mountaineering (crampon, ice axe, etc.), but we love snow and a bit of an adventure in the shoulder season is never far off our minds.
After the dismal snow year of 2015, when we practically sauntered over snow-free Kearsarge Pass in April, we wanted to try again, this time with more snow. Almost exactly one year and one month later, the snow situation was very different. It was still less than what was needed to truly end the drought, but way more than the year before. I looked at snow charts and talked to the rangers at the Lone Pine Visitor Center. They had only sparse trail reports, but it sounded like we got a chance to get over the pass with snowshoes and/or microspikes.
In February, after bargain-hunting for a really long time, we finally got the snowshoes of our dreams, the ultra-light Northern Lites Elites. After taking them on a brief test drive in Kennedy Meadows, we couldn't wait to try them on a real trip.
Let's go to Charlotte Lake! We knew every place is be very different in snow, so we chose this route because we've been here before and I was confident I can find my way a bit easier than in some unknown place.
They opened the Onion Valley road in the middle of May, the weather forecast for the weekend looked relatively decent, and we made a decision: let's go for it, but if it looks dodgy, we'll stop or turn around. No shame in that.
Day 1 – L.A. to Onion Valley and Charlotte Lake
We got up early Friday so we can get the permit at the Visitor Center as soon as it opens. There were still no fresh trail reports from the pass, and the chance of thunderstorms for the next two days lingered around 20% - our least favorite forecast. We've seen both blazing sunshine and big storms at 20%.
Onion Valley had a bit of snow on the northern slopes, and from further below, the pass looked like it's covered in snow, but not much.
Not wanting to carry both microspikes and snowshoes, after some consultation we opted for the latter. We left the trailhead late, only around 10:45am, climbing on the dry trail towards the pass. Very soon, though, snow spots appeared and they got bigger and bigger.
Before Gilbert Lake, we were on almost fully blanketed terrain. Hiking shoes were still adequate and we made our way to the far end of the lake, taking a quick break on that big “overlook” rock. The lake was still frozen, but thawing rapidly. Old ski tracks crossed the ice, but by now it was way beyond the point where you could walk or ski on it (see the bottom of this article for before-after panoramas).
Flower Lake was frozen, too, and beyond lay the only part of the route that gave me serious concern: the steep section bypassing Heart Lake. We met somebody coming down earlier and she said it wasn't easy, but doable, and just as she reported, the entire hillside was covered. The snow was deep enough to warrant the snowshoes, so we put on the Neos overshoes and then snowshoes and decided to try and climb this very steep section with them. The Northern Lites are not for climbing, and we didn't have very much experience with them anyway, but they fared well.
The section was brutal, though. It took us almost two hours to get to the top, granted, we had a half-hour lunch break in between, looking down at Heart Lake. We took the snowshoes off here as there was a long snow-free stretch and the rest was well consolidated.
From the top of the steep part it took “only” another hour to Kearsarge Pass. The trail was mostly covered in snow, especially on the last part where it's not hard to imagine how a slide down towards Big Pothole would end up. The snow was medium-soft, though, giving good purchase and we carefully worked our way up to the pass, arriving there at 4:30pm. Wow, almost six hours for a 5-mile hike!
The land beyond the pass was gorgeous, mostly covered in snow and dramatic clouds gathering the in the west. I knew we had to hurry to beat the sunset to Charlotte Lake, but it was also obvious that the going won't be much easier from here.
The far side of the pass had little snow first, then we put the snowshoes back on a bit past the junction to the Kearsarge Lakes trail. Heeding the advice of a guy who just came up from the PCT (he said Forester Pass was a nightmare), we took the high trail.
The environment was gorgeous, but the going was really tough, especially having to decide which way to go. This part is tricky, if you drift too much to the left (south), you get cliffed out easily.
I was going to get some water when crashed through the snow, not realizing I'm on top of bushes. Almost hurt myself bad, but got lucky and nothing happened. We got some water, drank it unfiltered, and took a quick break.
Another section for concern was the exposed part of the trail above Bullfrog Lake, but it turned out great. Most of the snow melted on the steep, south-looing hillside, so we took the snowshoes off and except for one big snow bank, this was actually the easiest part of the hike.
It was past 6pm by this time and the snow started solidifying, so there was no need for the Lites when we moved through the forest down to the PCT junction. The sign that's chest high in the summer barely jutted out from the snow. Great thing to see!
From here, the going was easy, we just slid down to Charlotte Lake in 20 minutes. It was 7:45pm, the sun just set, the light was gorgeous. It was dead still, with nobody around. The only sign of people were two old ski tracks on the ice.
We traipsed to the far end of the lake, to our usual camping spot near the bear box. It was “taken”, meaning buried under 3-4 feet of snow. A bit further back we found a very nice, level and dry spot and set up the tent in the thickening darkness. We were tired, having hiked around 8 miles in 9 hours, but in high spirits. It wasn't even terribly cold.
Before dinner we needed to get water. Of course, we didn't want to waste fuel to melt snow, but the lake was frozen well, with very only few good spots to access the water without risking sliding under the ice. Em said she heard water running in the vicinity, and after looking around a bit, we discovered a stream under the snow, running fresh snowmelt to the lake. It was exposed in a few places, especially right next to tree trunks, meaning we could now easily get water and there was no need to filter it.
Dinner was very pleasant, the temperature dipped to around freezing, but there was no wind and our bodies still produced internal heat from the hike. We even took our usual walk after dinner, this time walking west on the lakeshore to enjoy the view.
The night was spent with a sense of accomplishment, cuddling comfortably on the winter mattresses (Thermarest Neoair Xtherm) and the Nunatak bag.
Day 2 – Charlotte Lake
We slept in like college kids after a party and woke late, albeit sans headache. By the time we emerged from the tent, it was almost 9:30am. The weather was great, brilliant sunshine, only wisps of clouds in the sky, no wind. There was nothing for us to do, other than having fun around the lake.
After a long, leisurely breakfast, we went for more water, then took a slow walk towards the inlet and crossed the creek to the other side. It was a bit tricky, as most of the creek was covered with snow and it was hard to tell where it won't break.
Then back to camp, lunch, and a shower. The water in the little shower bag warmed up only slightly since the morning, but it was bearable, we both enjoyed washing up a bit in the snowy and sunny environment.
Despite having slept well the night before, we still took a nice nap in the late afternoon. It's rare I can do any serious sleep during the day, but this time I conked out, too and we only woke up after 6pm.
Really cool, multi-layered lenticular clouds appeared in the east. These clouds are not uncommon in the mountains, and we really like them.
It was time for a long sunset walk to the east end of the lake. We crossed the creek, again being careful not to break through. The creek rushing into Charlotte Lake is pretty big there, getting swept under the thick snow and ice would certainly be fatal.
Thick fog rolled in after dark, giving the place a really spooky appearance. We walked to get some water and marveled how different everything looks. I know quite a few adults who would be scared to death to walk around in this dark fog with only a flashlight and who-knows-what in those thick shadows behind the trees. It's an innate dread that's hard to overcome. I remember clearly how it took me until my early teens to get rid of childhood's instinctive fear of dark. Anyway, we were comfortable and had fun. It wasn't even so cold with the fog and clouds – a starry night is always much colder than a cloudy one as clouds trap some heat.
We stayed up until past 10pm before cozying up in the tent again.
Day 3 – Charlotte Lake to Onion Valley and L.A.
When we got up in the morning at 6am, the night fog left a nice layer of frost on everything. We wanted to get a relatively early start, knowing how slow we're moving in the snow and there still being a small chance of bad weather in the forecast.
For now, the weather was perfect again, sunny and calm. Like always, it took us over two hours to get our stuff together and get going, meaning we left camp at 8:15am. Going was easy on the hard snow, the Neos overshoes are not slippery and they protected our hiking boots from moisture. In half an hour, we climbed the first hill to the PCT junction. From there, it was a bit tricky to find the perfect route to the high trail. Our tracks from two days ago melted in many places, but they were still visible some of the time, so we followed that, plus once or twice I consulted our GPS breadcrumbs left on the way in, making sure we're in the correct place.
Compared to coming in, it was a breeze. By 9:20, we were on the high trail above Bullfrog Lake. Around 10am, we took a snack break and encountered a curious pika who kept checking us out from the safety of his talus field. A bit further up somebody pitched a bright orange Mountain Hardwear tent in the snow, looking really great.
Almost unbelievably, 11am found us on top of Kearsarge Pass. The weather still looked great, with only a few small clouds in the distance.
The sketchy part of the snowfield above Big Pothole was negotiated carefully, but the snow was already melting, the chances of sliding down were very slim. We even saw the telltale marks of somebody having fallen a bit earlier, and from the skid marks it was obvious that the hiker stopped without self-arrest measures after a slide of less than a foot.
Needless to say, the steep section around Heart Lake was still no cake, but of course it was much easier then coming up.
A bit after noon we stopped for lunch break on the big rock on Gilbert Lake's west shore. The ice has melted significantly, but the old ski tracks were still visible. Two marmots were running around in the snow, playing hide-and-seek with each other.
Despite the long lunch break and then the slower descent in the snow, we arrived back at the car at 2pm. The storm in the forecast never materialized. We were really happy, having done something new and hard and enjoyed it to the fullest. I don't think real winter expeditions will ever be our kind of bread, but can't wait to do this type of snow adventure again.
Take a look at all the pictures in the full gallery.