Winter finally arrives in the Sierra, and excitement gives way to grueling workout

Posted Feb. 01, 2012, at 6:41 p.m.

SIERRA NATIONAL FOREST, Calif. — Don’t care what it says on the calendar. Tuesday was the first real day of winter.

In late November, I pulled my cross-country skis out of the closet and tuned the edges in eager, hopeful anticipation of early snowfall. Then came one of the driest Decembers and early Januarys on record. And so my skis sat in the garage. Each time I saw them leaning against the wall, my heart sank a little.

Cross-country skiing has been one of my favorite outdoors pursuits ever since I went off to college and Mom and Dad were no longer paying for lift tickets. But it’s pretty tough to ski in the backcountry when there’s nothing but dirt and rocks.

Then came last weekend’s storms, which brought the first significant snowfall to the Sierra Nevada. I eagerly anticipated every weather update and snow report. Two feet? Three feet? Four feet? I was antsy with anticipation. Lying in bed at night, I’d imagine myself gliding across the snow and carving perfect turns in fresh powder.

Good weather was forecast for Tuesday, and so my preparations began Sunday night with a fresh coat of glide wax, which reduces friction between the base of the skis and the snow. I even applied a second coat Monday night, just for the heck of it.

Three feet of fresh snow covers the Eagle Trail, part of a network of cross-country ski and snowshoe trails located on Tamarack Mountain in the Sierra National Forest between Shaver and Huntington lakes.

I had already decided to ski the Coyote Loop, part of the network of cross-country ski and snowshoe routes on Tamarack Mountain off Highway 168 between Shaver and Huntington lakes. (A Sno-Park pass is required from November through May.) On weekends, the parking lot is packed with sledders and snow frolickers, but I wasn’t surprised to have the place to myself when I rolled in Tuesday morning.

Tamarack Mountain received almost 3 feet of snow from the storms, compared to 2 feet at Huntington Lake, between 2 and 3 feet at China Peak and 4 1/2 feet atop Kaiser Pass. Not a huge dump, but enough.

Those blissful visions of me gliding effortlessly across freshly fallen snow continued, up until the point when I carried my skis over to the trailhead.

There were no tracks in sight, neither ski nor snowshoe, meaning I’d have to break trail the whole way. Ugh. Hadn’t counted on that.

But, still, it was a gorgeous day, nothing overhead except sunshine and blue skies. Fresh snow clung to every tree branch. So I snapped into my skis and set out.

Right away, it was tough going. Instead of gliding across the snow, like the image in my mind, I was sinking into 3 feet of powder. The two coats of glide wax did little to prevent snow from sticking to the bases of my skis, especially when crossing sun-exposed areas. And when skiing beneath snow-loaded trees, small shards of snow and ice constantly rained down on my head.

It usually takes me about 2 1/2 hours to ski the entire 6-mile Coyote Loop, a fabulous trail that provides scenic vistas of Shaver, Huntington and Red Mountain. But not on this day. Not when every stride feels like pushing a blocking sled.

After 45 minutes of this, my fleece beanie was soaked in sweat, while muscles in my upper and inner thighs that hadn’t been used since last winter barked like leashed German shepherds. Several times I removed my skis to scrape off the stuck snow, but it wouldn’t stay off. Minutes later, it was back to slogging.

At least it was a gorgeous day and I was breathing clean air. But progress was painfully slow, so I opted to abandon my planned loop for something shorter. Turned out to be a wise decision, because it took me more than 31/2 hours to cover some 4 miles.

I returned to the trailhead exhausted and chuckling to myself about how the fantasy of my first day on cross-country skis turned out to be so far removed from reality.

Before heading down the hill, I drove over to China Peak, where fresh tracks covered the mountain’s steep, rocky face. Mark Sullivan, the resort’s bar manager, told me it was the busiest mid-week day of the season, with skiers and boarders reveling in the fresh powder.

Why fight it? Next time it snows 3 feet, I’m buying a lift ticket.

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