(This is my ongoing project, to write about my favorite mountains, the Carson Range of Northern Nevada. Someday I hope to write a book about this region, and I hope to use these entries as a way to think through the project.)
Today I was thinking about various aspects of the Carson Range, how I usually see the range as a backdrop for recreation. Usually, my own recreation. I’ve skied (Diamond Peak, Mt Rose, Mt Rose Meadows, Spooner, Carson Valley), I’ve snowshoed, I’ve swum at Tahoe, ridden my mountain and road bike, hiked, kayaked, drunk beer at various locations, to include the Alibi Brewery, the Borderhouse, eaten good food, watched a movie (Tin Cup at the Brockway Theater), camped, backpacked, attended a history conference (business, yes, but mostly fun). So many recreational experiences.
I started to think about this innocent view of the range, but began to realize how naïve this impression was. It’s like thinking that life is free of disease simply because we have great drugs. Simmering beneath the veneer of what we think is a gentle reality, is in fact, danger. The same applies to this mountain range. After all, these mountains are entirely contained within some type of challenging environment. At its lowest reaches, it is still high elevation, around 4,000 feet, and in a desert. At its highest, the range towers over 10,000 feet in elevation. Every elevation and every aspect of the range presents danger of some sort. Fire, landslides, snowstorms, mudslides, starvation, mountain lions. People can get lost in this range. It’s not a simple up and down like some basin and range mountains. The Carson Range is misleading in that there are several ridges running north and south at various points throughout. Just outside of Carson City, if one were to hike due west up this remarkably steep range, one could ascend the crest. But when you got there, you still would not see Lake Tahoe. To the west lie two more ridges, which the intrepid hiker would have to traverse before glimpsing the cobalt blue waters of Lake Tahoe.
All this is to say, I should consider the dangers this range presents to humans as well as the recreational opportunities that form the bedrock of so many of my childhood memories. I don’t have a true story of danger, but I experienced something just outside true danger when I snowshoed along the base of the range near Reno. I remember beginning this hike in the afternoon, shortly after getting off work. I thought this would be no problem since I’d been on this trail numerous times. I began and was in high spirits for the first hour or so. For some reason, inexplicably to me now, I failed to recognize how quickly the sun went down in the wintertime. This is one of the oldest clichés in the book. An experienced hiker overestimates his/her ability and fails to properly account for the dangers that abound. This was me. I’d been there numerous times, was in great shape, had excellent equipment, and was close to home. And yet…..
I failed to recognize how quickly the sun would disappear and how thoroughly the darkness would close in around me. I also failed to recognize how quickly I would lose the trail when there was snow on the ground. It’s relatively easy to follow a trail on dirt, even in the absence of light. It’s an entirely different situation, however, when snow covers every inch of ground without a bush or a tree on it. Once the light was gone, hundreds of potential trails presented themselves to me. At first, I didn’t realize the danger I was in. I was able to keep to the trail pretty well. But I began to grow more concerned as the minutes passed and the light was disappearing faster than I was used to. In what seemed like only 10 minutes, it went from dusk to complete darkness. And I was still at least four miles from my vehicle in the middle of the forest. I quickly realized that I had lost the trail and I wasn’t going to find it again. Not without expending much needed energy, anyway. It wasn’t worth the cost. I had to think quickly on my feet at this point. Luckily, the weather was with me, aside from being in the low 20s. It wasn’t windy, nor cloudy, nor snowing. Furthermore, I was not completely in the middle of nowhere. I could see the highway off in the distance. I knew that if I got to that, I could walk back up the road and to my car. The problem was getting to the highway.
I initially thought this would be a simple task. Just walk straight to the highway across open ground. The issue with this open ground, however, was that it was a) snow covered, and b) underlain with manzanita. If one is not familiar with manzanita, it is a remarkably stout little bush, one that grows in a most twisted and gnarled fashion. My dad once told me years ago that the State of California offered a reward for anyone who could find a piece of manzanita that was over a foot long and straight. Now, I’m sure this was apocryphal, but it demonstrates the point well. In my case, this was problematic since snow falls on top of this plant, and creates the illusion of solid ground. Unfortunately for me, this was not the case. The snow falls on top of the thicket of manzanita, forming a solid blanket, but underneath remains a good foot or so of open air. I quickly found this out as I began my emergency exit toward the highway. Every step I took, my foot would settle on top of what I thought was the ground, only to punch through and fall another twelve inches or so. Then, I would have to extract my leg, along with a giant snowshoe, from the tangle of manzanita. Not only did this slow me down greatly, it also inspired thoughts of supreme anxiety over the possibility of breaking an ankle.
This was perhaps the only time in my life where I had to truly wrestle with panic. I was alone in the dark in the middle of a forest, with a real chance of sustaining bodily injury. And these were only the rational thoughts! Never mind the images of mountain lions, sasquatches, and serial killers that crept into my mind as well. It gave me a new perspective on the various tales of survival I’ve heard through the years. If this was scary for me, then what would it have been like for members of the Donner Party?
It took me around 45 minutes or so to finally get to the highway. Despite the treacherous terrain, I took comfort in the sight of cars speeding along the motorway. I was attempting to get to the Mount Rose Highway, the main route between Reno and North Lake Tahoe. I finally got there and was actually struck by how less safe I was walking along this highway than I was trapesing through the frozen wilderness. Car after car sped by as I trudged along the shoulder of the highway. It was just so loud. The wet street surface, combined with intermittent spots of gravel, and the car engines winding up to deal with the incline created a level of volume that completely unsettled me.
After 20 minutes of hiking along the highway, I finally made it back to my car. The county park had closed for the night, and I was that one guy whose car remained in the parking lot after hours. I let myself out and locked the gate after me, drove back to my house, and made myself some dinner. It was only about 7:30pm when I got home, though it seemed like it could have been midnight, given the level of light in the air. I spent the drive home and evening processing my experience, considering the level of danger I had really been in. I regaled my students with tales of my hike the next day, some of whom expressed genuine concern, others who thought their teacher was a bit of an imbecile. The jury is still out on that one.
At any rate, I have often thought about that evening during my life, and have considered it in the context of people like Snowshoe Thompson, a man who literally skied between Carson City and various communities on the west slope of the Sierras, a trip of some 90 miles, multiple times throughout the winter. That was truly harrowing. Or the loggers and herders who worked in the high country of the range during the 1800s. They were engaging with that range during a time when there were no safety mechanisms. No easy egress to a well-traveled highway, no access to waterproof jackets and pants, no cell phone communication. It was this near miss of mine that first prompted me to realize that the Carson Range isn’t simply some gentle collection of mountains, meant merely to serve as the backdrop to someone’s recreational ambitions. No, they present great danger to those humans who have entered their valleys, peaks, and forest.