Life + Outdoors » Off the pavement

Trinity Alps Rambles

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When some of us think of the Alps, we envision long waits in our cars as fire crews remove logs that have trundled hundreds of feet down to the 299 from blackened hillsides that lead up to the vertiginous slopes of the remote Wilderness Area. What the uninitiated don't know is that the Alps are pure magic ...

With over half a million acres of some of the most scenic landscape in the country, it is no small wonder that the Trinity Alps are the crown jewels of the California Wilderness Areas. If you have not been to this wonderland you should be flogged mercilessly.

Many of us who crave wilderness perspectives have stories of our summer and early fall sojourns - scrambling up steep passes and granite ridgelines, our gaze spiraling past tiny snow patches, cirque lakes, boulder fields, sugar pine stands, golden eagles - perspective falling away from 7,500 feet to the blue edge of a convex horizon. Eastward, the white-tipped Shasta pierces the ethers with its wreath of lenticulars, Lassen stabs skyward, the last vestige of the mighty Cascade volcanoes ...

But have you been to the Trinity Alps in winter? When alabaster white cloaks the gray granite ridges and the sun burns overhead? When your coalescing breath is your constant companion, and the sound of melting snow from the overhead boughs of snow-bobbled evergreens sounds like great avalanches roaring into you? Have you followed huge paw-prints of bear or mountain lion into the backcountry - or, better, have you followed them only to discover, as you return, that they have been following you?

Here is my advice when the winter weather offers a sunny reprieve. Throw a rented pair of snowshoes into the car. Set the alarm for 4 a.m. and head for a sunrise in the Alps. You might choose the Canyon Creeks trailhead and drive as far as you can get before the blanket of snow stops you at twilight. Park. Strap on the snowshoes, clip on the camera bag and start hiking up the snowy road for a day trip that will blow your mind.

If you can get to a trailhead that promises quick elevation gain, so much the better. Leave the river drainage and head up toward the peaks with spindrift swirling off their desolate summits for views down the tight canyons. From snowy saddles gaze down to the rolling lowlands of the Coast Range that are shrouded in morning fog, or painted deep emerald with a finite infinity of temperate chlorophyll.

So why go here? What could possibly be appealing about half a million acres of uninhabited and unincorporated Federally Designated Wilderness? Why waste a productive day spending 5-plus hours driving heinous riverine highways and spending a day's worth of food money on gasoline to welcome frostbite to your already overworked digits? Seen one sunrise, you've seen them all, right?

Maybe the history will entice you. Gold mines? Boomtowns like Dedrick in the back of beyond - the 19th and even 20th century Wild West at your frost-nipped fingertips, perhaps ...

While at a trailhead parking area, waiting out weather on a trip to the Alps some years ago, I met Miner Max. Wild-eyed and somewhat inebriated, he shared some wild tales that I scribbled down into my journal:

"The Trinities have a big basin underneath that fills up and flushes the gold out, so that the claims on lower Canyon Creek never tap out as they get replenished ... The Indians traveled 12 miles through a cave system to reach the other side of the Trinities. The local tribe 'mysteriously vanished' around the 1860s. Abducted by aliens."

(More likely they were massacred is my guess, as that seemed to be the popular tactic in those days.)

"They got B.W.F.'s over there - 'Biologically Weird Fuckers.' The Forest Service didn't tell you about that?" he asked, incredulously. "They are monstrous, huge orange salamanders, found only in that canyon, they say."

I envisioned a nasty, slimy, gila-monsterish thing waiting in the shadows to latch on to my ankle. "How big are they?" I asked.

"Oh, at least 8 inches. That's huge for a salamander!"

It was then that Miner Max realized he had only empties rattling in his Keystone 12-pack box and made for the sliding door of my VW van, and his escape.

Yes, crazy, curious history, rusting away and visible in the numerous creek crossings as you head up Canyon Creek to Upper Canyon Creek Lake - still virulently active further downstream.

The night before the gnarliest climbing ascent of my life I had my first and only certifiable out-of-body experience. We had our sights on Stone House Buttress ... full of kitty litter chimneys and decapitating loose blocks along 800 feet of a vertical granite sluice ... the severity unknown to us until we were committed on the route. This climb awakened me to the power of a Wilderness Area, especially the Alps.

I later discovered that the Alps is jointly used as a vision-questing area by four Northern California Native American Tribes. For them, the Alps is sacred and holy, neutral ground for those wanting to be healers, tribal doctors. This is easy to see if you spend some time there. So a word to the wise: Approach the Alps with reverence and respect, and you won't be disappointed.

Author's Note: In winter and spring the snowy slopes of the Alps can be heavily avalanche-prone, meaning death and destruction for all in their path. Know where you are, and calculate your odds by putting risk points over potential rewards, then divide by the number of days you think you have left on Earth.

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