Christmas is almost here and 2016 is rapidly coming to a close. It’s difficult to believe I’ll soon be starting my 13th year of sharing my wilderness adventures with Sierra Star readers. I dug back into my files and decided to share my original adventure that was published in the Sierra Star on Jan. 14, 2005 - Stranded at Mono Hot Springs.
What was supposed to be a three-day adventure turned into a seven-day survival story. A group of 10 people and one dog, three of whom are residents of Oakhurst, departed on Dec. 29, 2004, for Mono Hot Springs. We wanted to share Christmas and New Years in the wilderness.
Mono is located 16 miles beyond Huntington Lake on the north side of Kaiser Pass. During the winter months the only access is by snow cat or snow mobile.
Kaiser Pass can accumulate 25 feet of snow at 9,200 feet. On our day of departure, everyone was excited for this new wilderness experience. The snow level was above normal for this time of year. Huntington Lake was enjoying the extra snow pack and Kaiser Pass was at a depth of nine-plus feet. The forest service had started their grooming of the road, which made our travels much easier. We could then occupy our time skiing behind the snow cat or just enjoying the scenery from inside.
Witnessing this single lane mountain road during the winter, as it skirts around these steep mountains, is an adventure within itself. Distant views open up into an enormous valley which reveals the western views of the Minaret Mountains. Finally we crossed the bridge spanning over the San Joaquin River and arrived at our destination; Mono Hot Springs. We settled into our individual cabins and prepared ourselves for our remote winter experience.
The next morning we awoke to over 10 inches of new snow. A few of the guests commented this was the first time they wore snow shoes to a restaurant. The snow continues all day, and by evening the accumulation was over 20 inches.
At this point in time, this new snow did not offer a problem for the snow cat or snow mobiles on departure.
When we awoke the following morning, the storm added a total of three feet of fresh snow. This could be a problem. The fresh powder will make tracking for our machines difficult, and there’s the possibility of another 48 hours until the powder settles before our departure. Even though we had enough food for 24 days, our guests were concerned because they had commitments back at their homes and were anxious to depart.
With storms raging all around us, cell phone service was impossible that day. Shaver Lake had high winds with the winter storms, and fallen trees knocked out power lines. Finally after 36 hours, our phones started working. The forestry informed us that the pass was much too dangerous to cross with the accumulation of eight feet of new snow. They estimated three to four days before they could attempt to clear the pass.
Finally we made contact with a helicopter service at the Fresno Airport and they said when the storm cleared they would fly in and drop us off at Sierra Summit Ski Resort, which is now called China Peak Ski Resort. All we could hope for was the sky to clear within the next few days. Meantime we cleared the deep snow from the parking lot to give the helicopter clearance to land. Three days later the chopper arrived. Delays caused by the winter storm forced him to land twice, once in Shaver Lake and once again at Big Creek to wait for an opening to continue.
Then on Jan. 5, at 8:45 a.m., skimming over the tall pine trees was that bird of paradise arriving to take us back to civilization. Sierra Summit cleared a landing area on their snow-covered parking lot and ferried us to our vehicles at Huntington Lake.
We had another surprise at the Huntington Lake parking area. Our vehicles had disappeared and were buried under four feet of snow. We spent the next two hours shoveling snow to release our frozen modes of transportation. Now we did have some luck - even after being buried for six days under four feet of snow, every vehicle fired up.
What few hardships we encountered were satisfied by the exciting views from the helicopter flight, skimming over the trees while climbing from 6,350 to 9,200 feet. Looking down into the freshly deposited snow, I witnessed fresh game tracks from deer and their much larger predators. For years I have driven the remote wilderness road to and from Mono, but this was my first experience looking down into the same area. Even though there were moments I felt our adventure would be extended for extra days, our risk factors were minimal and the scenery around us could make one forget their problems.
Also, I’ll never forget that once in a lifetime experience of a helicopter ride. You bet I would take this journey again.