Zeal for Freel

13 Dec 1998 - by Aaron Schuman

In summertime, Freel Peak is a stroll in the park, a lark, a day hike from the edge of town in South Lake Tahoe to a nearby high point. How ordinary! On December 12, 1998, we set out to make Freel Peak an adventure.

We parked our cars at the corner of Oneidas and Chibcha, in Myers, a suburb of South Lake Tahoe. I looked over the crew for the outing: Scott Kreider, Noriko Sekikawa, Jim Curl, Tom Curl, Rich Leiker, David Harris, Stephane Mouradian, Patricia Kroeni, Jonathan Claman, and Tim Kutscha. Kelly Maas was the leader, and I was his assistant.

We picked up a thirteenth trip mate, an eager golden retriever who apparently lived in one of the nearby houses. She started up the trail with us, stayed with us for two days, attaining the summit and returning home. (Who can imagine what pets do while their people aren't paying attention? I think my cats spend their private time on the phone with their stockbroker, trading securities and amassing a boundless fortune.)

The 1940s era topo map showed a confusing tangle of unpaved forest service roads, but the reality was that there was one obvious main route and a number of conspicuously smaller spurs. We followed the road for five miles to a location named Fountain Place. The snow on the road was firmly packed by snowmobiles, and we crossed it quickly and easily. Fountain Place is shown on my street atlas as a town, but we didn't see any buildings there, not even the ruins of a hunter's cabin.

Tom's old leg injury was hurting him, and so he and his brother Jim spent the night in Fountain Place while the rest of us pushed on ahead.

We left the road and headed north, up an unnamed drainage. David, a geyser of energy, walked out in front, trampling down a path with his snowshoes that the rest of us could follow more easily. About halfway up to the summit ridge, we found a flat spot, and set up our tents on the snow.

The sun set early, and by five o'clock, we were sitting by our small campfire under a dazzling blanket of stars. It was December, and the night seemed to last forever. When dawn finally melted away the last of the shooting stars, we arose, and discovered that a wind had come up and some clouds were moving in. I hoped we could still get to the mountain top, but I resolved to watch the weather closely to make sure we didn't get trapped in a storm.

Leaving camp set up, we hustled up to the ridge. As we ascended, familiar sights hove into view: Round Top and Pyramid Peak were first, followed by Lake Tahoe, Heavenly, Tallac, Dick's and Jack's Peaks, and Mount Rose. But then, as the clouds gathered, the scenery began to disappear. Jim overtook us, having skied up alone from his lower camp. After we passed timberline, the wind howled. Spindrifts the size of skyscrapers towered over the north flank of Freel. The wind-stripped upper slopes were about half bare of snow. We kept our snowshoes on anyway, because where there was snow, we wanted the snowshoe cleats to grip the shallow, polished, wind hardened crust.

Someone standing beside me shouted over the roar of the gale, asking how fast I thought it was blowing. I had no idea, but I had to lean hard on my poles just to stay upright. A gust knocked me down. As I was laying on my side on the scree, with my back to the wind and snowshoe edges dug in to keep me from sliding, I glanced up the slope and saw Stephane and David laying in the same exact pose. When the gust abated, we got up and climbed higher. Another gust lifted me off my feet. I hit the ground running so I wouldn't fall down. Running in place while sailing like a human boxkite, wearing snowshoes, is harder than it sounds! We gathered on the summit, at 10881 feet, the highest point in the Tahoe Basin. We didn't linger.

Descending, the raging wind was in our faces, laden with pinhead sized ice crystals. I buried my cheeks in the crook of my elbow. Tim wore a neoprene face mask, with only tiny holes over the nostrils and mouth. That was a piece of gear we all needed for this climb.

Noriko was still struggling up the slope with Kelly as we hustled down. She accepted some good advice, and retreated back to the timber while Kelly sprinted for the top. Even though Noriko didn't go to the summit, she deserves credit for the toughness, confidence and determination she displayed on the mountain.

Back at camp, I saw that my tent had lifted off its stakes and blown a short way before catching on a tree. Stephane showed me how he had dug small holes for each stake, and then turned the stakes at oblique angles and buried them. Extracting the stakes was a chore, but his tent stayed put.

Down below, the weather was milder, and we hiked out easily. Tom was waiting for us by his car. He had passed the day pleasantly in town, nursing his sore leg, sipping a beer and watching televised football at a cafe. Scott knocked on a few doors until he found where the retriever lived. We savored the moment, an exciting finish to a great year of mountaineering.

Steve Eckert adds:

The IMax film should be even better!

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