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~~Last updated August 2002 ~~

Story of One Very Nasty Night on Freel Peak

Many years ago, before I even had my own horse, friends of mine were asked by the Tahoe Rim Trail to help pack out trail tools on horseback. The section of trail had not been finished to Star Lake, yet, and the tools had been stashed at the terminus of the trail construction.

During the trail building season, the tools were left out there to be used as trail parties needed them, but now it was early November and the trail building season was at a close. Leave it to my friends to volunteer to retrieve these tools, just as our first winter storm was approaching!

We towed a 4-horse stock trailer from Meyers, over Luther Pass, and started up Willow Creek Road. This is a dirt logging road that goes from Hope Valley, five miles past an old crystal mine towards Armstrong Pass.

Right off the pavement the road climbs steeply and the old two-wheel drive truck we were hauling with couldn't make the first hill. We had to unload the three horses. Patrick drove the truck on and Alison and I rode bareback and ponied the third horse five miles to the trailhead. At the trailhead, we packed up the horses with personal gear, camping gear, food, etc. Taking longer than expected, darkness enveloped horse and rider over Armstrong Pass. The night was lit by the brightest stars ever seen. The lights of South Lake Tahoe were brilliant. I found out how well horses can see in the dark! Alison was riding her palomino, My Alibi, and I could see him glowing in the dark, but Patrick was riding his dark brown Mustang mare, Sassy, and even though I was right on her tail, I couldn't see her! By the way, this was the first time I had ever been on this trail, and had I known that the ground gave way steeply to my left, several hundred feet down to Fountain Place, I would have questioned my friends' sanity (although I usually do, anyway).

It was now pitch dark. We rode steadily along the trail until we crested the saddle above High Meadows then began searching for a place to camp for the night. We didn't know exactly where the tools were stashed or where the trail would suddenly end a few miles short of Star Lake. We knew the trail had not been completed all the way to Star Lake so we were prepared to camp anywhere. The weather man had said that a storm was approaching but it had been a wonderful Indian Summer and the last thing on our minds was snow! However, the winds had picked up, so we needed shelter from the icy blasts. At 9,000+ feet, there isn't much shelter around. We did find a handy clump of Hemlock trees growing together. These trees curved out from their bases and arched gracefully up and locked together at the top! A natural refuge! We dismounted, set about unpacking, and set up camp.

The intensity of the wind picked up. Sharp ice particles stung our faces; freezing our noses. A nearby fallen log produced a wonderful fire to warm our chilling bodies. The horses were fed, picketed, and had turned their tails to the wind, the fire had warmed our evening meal, and the tent had been pitched in the middle of the tree shelter. This tent was a three-man dome tent. Not very big, especially for two women, one man (6'2"), and one very large hound dog named Gretchen! As we all settled down exhausted and intent on a good night's sleep, the wind picked up (we later found out it was blasting at 60 - 80 miles an hour!), and the dome tent would literally flatten down to our faces with every gust! The trees moaned fitfully, swaying incredibly back and forth. I looked out of the tent to check on the horses (they were fine) only to notice that one tree in our group was dead and leaning at a precarious angle over our tent! My mind raced to the logical conclusion that the tree would fall, we would all three be pinned underneath, our bodies found in the spring! Each wail of the wind would bring a panic attack. Patrick was spinning a whole yarn about how it might pin and crush our legs, but not kill us, so we'd slowly starve and freeze to death on the side of Freel Peak . . . .

I could not believe how loud the wind could be. I was petrified! Then, just as I thought all must be okay: the tree is not going to fall on us, the storm won't get here until tomorrow, and we'll all be okay, I suddenly see sparks flying by, glowing outside the tent wall. What? I thought we put out the camp fire! I jump up and unzip the tent door. Embers fly past my face. I wearily struggle out and without any extra water to put out the flames, I grab handfuls of snow and start stuffing it into the log. Black smoke whipped around in the wind, the coals sputtered and died and I went back to the tent. But alas, the occupants of the tent had made good my departure, spreading themselves out wall to wall. Gretchen decided my sleeping bag was more comfortable than the tent floor. Patrick was actually snoring! Hey! What about the wind, the tree, the sparks? I hate always being the responsible one! I sighed. I knew I wasn't getting any sleep this night. But how much longer could it be? We didn't even get riding until dusk. It must be half way through the night already.

That was the longest night of my life. The wind continued to howl, the trees continued to sway, the sparks continued to fly by. I alternated praying with trying to put out the fire. Every time I stuffed snow on it, the snow would just insulate the coals. The coals kept alive under the snow and they leapt to full might when the snow melted and the wind whipped up again.

Daylight came slowly. Bodies struggled forth from the tent. Angry, grey clouds scudded wildly past writhing in agony. I could relate. Freezing blasts of wind and pellets of ice assaulted everything. We hastily decided: tools be damned, we're gettin' outta Dodge! We packed quickly: a cold bagel breakfast choked down; mostly tossed to Gretchen.

Cowboy boots held the cold in. Dusters flapped back, exposing legs clad in denim, slowly getting wet. We had to ride into the prevailing wind. Stinging hail, snow and ice pelted unmercifully. Cheeks turned fiery red; soon to become numb. The horses' ears were laid flat back; their eyes narrowed to slits. Yes, we were one miserable crew.

We finally made it back to the trailhead; frozen down to our toes. Miracle of husband had seen the weather turn nasty and was waiting there with a thermos of hot cocoa. What a life-saver! We warmed our bones and counted our blessings!

I really don't know what became of those trail tools stashed among the granite on the way to Star Lake. But, since my initial introduction to the Tahoe Rim Trail, I have enjoyed many, many wonderful (and warm) miles on this glorious trail.

By the way, extreme weather can strike at any time in the High Sierra. Go prepared!

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Created by: Deanne Del Vecchio, of Tahoe Design
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Site Originally Created October 24, 1996. 

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