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
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).
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 . . . .
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
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.
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
We finally made
it back to the trailhead; frozen down to our toes. Miracle
of miracles....my 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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