Cuyamaca Peak February 2013 Trip Report
True Winter Camp
© February 2013 Adam Helman

Note Mouse-click images for enlargement.


As noted in my October Cuyamaca Peak report I shall return to Denali in June. Not wishing to spend gasoline on another 1,000 mile journey to and from Flagstaff (for colder overnight temperatures), I am pursuing multiple trips to Cuyamaca Peak for both a review of winter camping methods and to snowshoe with sled and a full-size pack. For all of these desirables the peak's 6,512 foot summit and an area surrounding the campground parking lot, some 1,650 feet below, are deficient substitutes for colder venues - venues that sadly cost a lot more to reach. A tradeoff.

This is the season's third journey to Cuyamaca Peak, and the first one with sufficient snow at the campground elevation for a "real" snow camp. Two weeks ago I "pretended", going through the same motions as if there were snow on the ground, including an overnight camp. I chose the best weather day in several. and anticipate this time no issues in that regard as well. The forecast includes a 10% chance of precipitation and an overnight low of 23° F (-5° Celsius).
The weather forecast prior to departure.

A fourth trip to Cuyamaca Peak is realized two weeks later, Monday the 25th,
replacing a peak climb with afternoon sledding and crevasse rescue practice.

Trip Details

I arrive at 11 a.m., park in the main lot and walk the complicated campground road system noting that no sites have been plowed free of snow. I select site 5, return to my car, and park it on the asphalt (blocking traffic) alongside the site.

It takes one hour to shovel snow from a pair of parallel paths long enough to accomodate the wheel base, having noted that six tennis shoe lengths separate the left and right tires; and a minimum of eighteen lengths for the distance to be shoveled.

The campground manager arrives by golf cart, expressing appreciation for my efforts as the last group was towed after parking atop snow. I remind him of my obligation to "pay thirty dollars" at the campground entrance kiosk soon enough. Soon enough he does a U-turn (as I am blocking the road) and returns to other chores.

Dirt tracks from shoveling snow.

I have no intention of paying so much for camping when I am not using any services - no bathroom, no pump water, nada. It's a Monday and I am the sole patron. Hence there is no "competition" for campground space - making the "market value" of my campsite all-the-more petty. Mind you, I am happy to pay what I perceive as the value to me of using the camp facilities. In light of the above observations, thirty dollars is an absurd amount indeed - and I pay nothing at all, figuring that the manager will not be checking the kiosk to verify I've actually paid.

Not having planned on an hour just for parking my vehicle I am now concerned about remaining daylight for hiking to the summit and returning before darkness. So after erecting the tent I remove several pounds of stuff from the pack and use it as ballast within the tent - so "killing two birds with one stone" as the saying goes.

I now hike uphill with snowshoes and trekking poles, the double plastic boots no longer so ungainly as it was the other week when worn on dry ground.

About two-thirds way up a vehicle approaches with four small "caterpillar" tracks replacing tires - perfect for going on snow, and with two park staff members riding uphill in classic "lazy ass" style.

It takes about 1 hour 40 minutes, considerably longer than the other week's 1 hour 12 minutes. The combination of plastic boots and snowshoes requires a lot more energy per unit distance than just hiking. Still, that's about 1,000 vertical feet an hour.

rime ice
Rime ice near the summit.

I leave pack and snowshoes at the flat communication building area and scramble the final 20 vertical feet to the tippy-top. It's already 3:15 p.m. so I hurriedly eat my French roll with Irish Dubliner cheese, Lite Miracle Whip and romaine lettuce - departing a bit after 3:30 p.m.

The descent is rapid enough - nearly as fast as with summer gear - returning to camp (thank goodness the tent is standing!) around 4:45 p.m. I continue in pretend mode by offloading stuff into my tent for the night. I have triaged items into a stuff sack for just items that only get used in the tent; dry clothing in a plastic bag that get swapped for damp clothing after activity (this will be a dedicated stuff sack on Denali); a stuff sack for extra clothing used the next morning.

Eyeglasses, headlamp and climbing harness are special cases. Regular eyeglasses might be worn in the relatively dark hours of early morning while in-motion, yet are essential for inside the tent. I want the climbing harness available inside the tent for putting on the next day (with supple fingers), yet it could be wet and thus improper to place in a (dry clothing) sack. The headlamp is simply not taken onto Denali, yet essential tonight beginning soon after sundown.

I am trying to make winter camping exercise details something I am so used to
performing that it becomes automatic - like brushing one's teeth in the morning.

It's aleady sunset now, 5:30 p.m., as I call mother to let her know I'm fine. However I am quite hungry, having only consumed 900 calories thus far the entire day and yet have already burned 850 calories to shovel snow for an hour and ascend the peak. So my energy level equals that of having eaten 50 calories on a "normal" day (one without vigorous activity) from 8:20 a.m. (when I arose) until sundown over nine hours later.

My supper food is a pint of Spaghettios, requiring no water to boil. I add three "buffalo" chicken wings for protein and all the leftover parmesan cheese from home. Within less than a minute of enjoying the first 3 or 4 mouthfuls I feel warmer (it's near freezing and I am only wearing one scanty layer for my legs); and my fingers are placed so close to the stove flame that I barely avoid burning the liner gloves worn.

Near the summit during lunch break.

However it's not enough calories, all-told, given that I must endure subfreezing temperatures for twelve hours. To made good most of the difference I have a "mini Cozy" candy jar with contents slowly consumed through the night hours, eating nearly the entire contents by 5 a.m. There are semisweet chocolate chips, "corn candy" (little triangular pyramids of sugar dyed orange, yellow and white), plenty of cashews and a pair of white chocolate confections from a gourmet assortment at home.

Email is checked after entering the tent around 6:30 p.m. Then I read about the earliest ascents of El Picacho del Diablo, highpoint of Baja California, as a photocopy provided by Art Janssen of Page, Arizona. It's most unwieldy reading these unbound pieces of paper, their backsides also photocopied, while the entire compendium is inside my sleeping bag. I read one-half the material, consuming 90 minutes, and decide to conclude at home where this mess of loose paper will be easier to sort-out.

From around 8:45 p.m. to 10:30 I watch two episodes of the series "Everest - Beyond the Limit" on a new DVD player received as Hanukkah gift from my parents.

candy jar

Now it's late enough that sleep is feasible. Yet I have a very poor time, with all manner of stuff inside the bag as part of the simulation - inner rubber boots within a breathable shopping bag (so they don't freeze stiff overnight), two jacketed one-liter water bottles and jacketed urine bottle. Gloves are on my groin to dry out, while both smartphone and car keys are inside a zippered pocket currently worn as second layer for my torso. Headlamp is also in the sleeping bag, positioned so I don't turn-over and accidently switch it on.

However the main issue is cold toes. They are neither numb nor even tingling - just a bit cold - yet enough to make their presence known. I can wiggle them. I have switched into dry socks, the pair used this afternoon drying at the foot of my sleeping bag. However the dry socks are not sufficiently thick - so I place the afternoon's pair over them ... and my toes remain cold. I suspect the problem is that the latter pair are still slightly damp when I replace one of them with a bootie those five toes do not get warm because the dampness was transferred to the sock underneath.

It's now clear that I have to maintain at least one pair of dry, heavyweight socks just for night use - likely two such pairs.

I don't sleep more than an hour before waking up and having more candy - a long night with very low quality sleep.

summer-weight tent

I plan to arise at 6 a.m. by first light, the alarm chirping at 5:55 whence I begin the thankless set of chores to dress and break down camp. These items are ingested - vitamin pills, aspirin, Diamox (in 'pretend' mode) and a pill of the amino acid lysine (antiviral, also not actually eaten). Anti-fogging chemical is applied to my eyeware, while also liberally using lip balm and sunscreen lotion.

Damp clothing, drying overnight atop the sleeping bag's base are placed into the plastic clothing bag; having worn the fresh, dry clothing overnight. The seat harness is put on before wearing a heavy outer pants layer that, with side-zippers, will be removed before moving out.

Damn plastic boots are again worn. I am not temped to eat breakfast and just want to get going. So I stuff all of those sacks and my sleeping bag into the backpack, break down the tent and then place everything back into the camper shell. The entire affair consumes 1.8 hours. I most carefully back-out of the campsite and use the (snow-free) asphalt road grid for exiting the campground.

I am so tired that it's dangerous driving without a nap for one hour at a Park-and-Ride lot 20 miles from home.

Back home by around 11 a.m. I set out to dry innumerable items, my sleeping bag hanging from the shower doors. The tent interior has accumulated debris from multiple previous uses and should be cleaned soon enough. Email is checked.

By 1 p.m. I sleep again for one hour and then eat a sizeable meal with barbecued beef ribs as the main event - nearly 2,000 calories. At bedtime, around midnight, I sleep clear through to late morning without even turning-over in bed - I was simply exhausted from the previous night's poor quality sleep.

The lesson learned from this short excursion -