In the Trinity Alps, Hiking Stoney Ridge in the Snow

Photographs by James Montgomery. Click story links for more.

People keep saying it is going to be late in the season before hikers can get into the high country this year. Too much snow. Not being the type to take other folks’ speculations as truth, I decided to see just how high I could get before being stopped by the snow. To the Trinity Alps!

I left Redding early one June morning and drove to the Stoney Ridge trailhead. It is only about 50 miles; nice to have such places in one’s backyard. The road off Highway 3 is a bit steep, and still muddy in places, so I was in four-wheel drive after I left the pavement. Probably not truly necessary, but it is easier on the car and easier on the road.

I left the trailhead about 8:30 on a beautiful clear morning and ambled leisurely for about a mile through a section of logged-off private land. This part of the trail runs gently uphill; what we call “flat” in Trinity County. Enjoy it while you can.

At the Wilderness Boundary, the timber begins. So does the climb. The next two miles or so of trail is a series of switchbacks up the face of a steep slope. The trail is nicely laid out and well maintained, but it gains a lot of elevation quickly. Like 3,000 feet in three miles.

At the top of the climb there are a couple of flattish places for campsites, but I did not make it that far. I hit snow, as expected. At first it was just a little patch here and there, easily crossed. Then sections of the trail were covered, and I walked over snow to the open sections. Then the trail disappeared entirely.

There were still occasional patches of open ground, so I headed straight up, walking on snow. Perfect snow for hiking, snowshoes not required. The top soft enough for traction, but solid underneath. I hardly fell through at all, as long as I stayed away from buried bushes.

This is hard work, though. Less than a quarter mile of uphill climbing, and I was starting to tire. No resting places offered, not much open ground, and the word “inadvisable” began to run through my head. Should I head back down? No, look, there is a section of the trail, not covered in snow! Camp!

I am not the first one here, this year. At least two people have left a faded trail in the snow, climbing up farther than I will get today. The tracks are melted out, so I can tell little about the people who made them. Deer tracks indent the snow on the trail, and a bear has crossed the snowfield below camp very recently, as well.

Bivouac may be a better word than camp for this spot, but what a beautiful day I have lucked into! Sometimes the sun shines and sometimes it is covered by fluffy clouds. I nap in the warm midday sun, then set up camp, such as it is. A tarp on the trail and a small cooking fire on the hillside. It is hard to get a fire going, and hard to keep it going long enough to make coffee and a meal. It is June, but everything is still wet. Maybe I should have brought my stove, this time, despite the weight.

Weight is always the issue, now. When I was young, a heavy pack felt like a challenge. Now it feels like a burden. One item I seldom carry is a tent. Unless the weather is truly foul, a tent is a lot of weight to haul for the dubious benefit of not being able to look at the stars. The stars at 6,000 feet this night are glorious! It almost seems like a different sky, with so many lesser stars filling the spaces between those we can see from the valley.

I must be doing something right. In the morning I awake with that wonderful feeling of freedom and happiness that usually requires three days in the wilderness. I do not know whether it is the altitude or the solitude that produces this euphoria.

In my sleeping bag I await the warmth of the sun. Camp is lovely in the morning light, an island of clear ground in a sea of snow. I can see my familiar friends; Shasta Bally, Bully Choop, Monument Peak, Red Mountain, Granite Peak, and an unknown mountain, barely seen between Red Mountain and Granite Peak. The map tells me it is Middle Peak. I can see Trinity Lake as well.

For some reason, I get a hankering to climb Red Mountain and Granite Peak. Red Mountain would be basically just a hike, either up the bare south-facing ridge I can see from here, or up the north side, which would probably be cooler in the summer.

According to the map, there is a trail up Granite Peak from another trailhead. From the look of the contours, it is even steeper than the trail I just came up. At this stage of my life, I have no interest in technical climbing, but if it could be done with simple mountaineering skills, I would like to see the view from another peak or two.

There may be a better approach to these peaks. The trail from Long Gulch trailhead offers a longer, but gentler, hike. At any rate, it will be late in the season before it becomes possible. I do not know whether I have the endurance for either of these climbs, but I am quite certain I lack the stamina to do them on snowshoes!

Actually, snowshoes might be a useful item to pack this year, just to get past the bad places. My snowshoes are light, and they would be easy to lash to a pack.

When I awake, the snow is rock-hard, slick and treacherous. By the time I finish breakfast, the sunshine has softened it almost enough for good footing. I pack up and get ready to use my window of opportunity to walk out while the snow is soft enough on top for good traction, but before it gets soft enough underneath to fall through. Most of the ground up this high is covered with about three feet of snow.

On the way down, I stop at a sacred place, where the power of the earth can be felt strongly. Those who seek such places will recognize this one. Those who do not believe in such nonsense will see only an interesting spot along the way. Perhaps it is just the foolish delusion of an old hippie, but I do seek such places. For me, this is part of the reason to seek wilderness. God seems less elusive in the quiet places.

Going steeply downhill is hard work. My father, who was at least as experienced a woodsman as I, used to say that going downhill was harder work than going up. After years of pondering this notion, I have decided that I do not agree. Uphill is harder. However, there is a germ of truth in his words. Going steeply downhill is certainly harder than going gently uphill. My father was a wise man, and there are questions I wish I could ask him. In this matter, however, he was simply wrong. As I walk, I lean on my hiking stick and wonder whether he was just repeating a notion picked up from someone before him.

On this trip I have brought the same hiking stick I carried on my trip to Rush Creek Lakes in June of 2009. However, I have shortened it for hiking level ground. It was formerly 6 feet long; very handy in rough terrain, but unwieldy on more gentle hikes. I find I have cut it too short, though, as it does not always give me proper leverage in steep places. I shall look for another, about shoulder height.

On the flat below the switchbacks, almost back to the truck, I meet a pleasant fellow about my age, out for a day hike with a very friendly Boxer dog. The man is using trekking poles. You see more and more of them on the trails, these days. Perhaps one day I will turn to them. Whatever it takes to keep visiting the places I love!

This year, some of those places will have to wait. It is going to be late in the season before hikers can get into the high country. Too much snow.

jamesmontgomeryJames Montgomery calls himself a broken-down logger/garbageman who went back to school and got a law degree. His work is in senior services.  His interests include hiking, fishing, computers, kayaking, hunting and writing.

A News Cafe, founded in Shasta County by Redding, CA journalist Doni Greenberg, is the place for people craving local Northern California news, commentary, food, arts and entertainment. Views and opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of anewscafe.com.

James Montgomery

James Montgomery calls himself a broken-down logger/garbageman who went back to school, got a law degree, and worked as a nonprofit administrator, before retiring. His interests include hiking, fishing, computers, kayaking, hunting and writing. He is now serving as president of the board of directors of Empire Recovery Center.

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