Californian Sierra: Snow patrol

Tamsin Leach feels the magic in every step as she straps on her snowshoes for a moonlit trek through the frosted firs and deserted slopes of California's sierras

T'was the night before Christmas, and out in the snow, we gathered by moonlight, all ready to go. OK, so maybe not that ready. Some of us were having problems with our snowshoes. Jen and Tammy, our instructors, took it in their effortless, loping stride, tightening buckles, twiddling ski poles to the correct height. Feels strange at first, they assured us, but it's very easy when you get the hang of it. Just like walking, only you float up on the snow. Ready?

Stumbling and breathing heavily, we were off, leaving behind the cosy confines of the Tamarack Lodge to venture out into the winter wonderland of the Californian Sierra, at the foot of Mammoth ski resort.

The best thing about heading to the mountains at this time of year is that it frees you from the tyranny of Christmas, and leaves you to enjoy all the good bits. You know, the bits people write poems and songs about - snow and pine trees and sleigh bells and laughter. Instead of a day of last-minute panic-buying, the scent of defrosting turkey and that creeping sense of desolation as everybody leaves town, we'd spent Christmas Eve on the slopes, whooping and hollering past skiing Santas and happy kids.

Now the rest of them were tucked up in our condo on the slopes, not exactly dreaming of sugarplums but downing margaritas, which is practically the same thing. And I was tripping over the hi-tech tennis rackets strapped to my feet, waddling out under a full moon into the deep and crisp and even.

Ahead of us was a family from LA, the two teenagers putting stomping distance between themselves and mom in her Christmas sweater behind, a group of young guys from Minnesota. One couple from San Diego were on their annual Mammoth Christmas trip; another, clenched in a semi-permanent embrace, were newlyweds. Taking full advantage of California's geography, they had got married on the beach just two days before, then driven five hours up the road to honeymoon in winter. Only Dave was out on his own, his wife preferring to spend the evening back at the lodge, in front of the fire. "I don't do cold," she explained, later, grinning brightly through her Orange County permatan.

By the time our little group had found their feet and climbed up to the Tamarack cross-country ski trails, I was stepping on my shoes less often and the hot sweat of starting out had subsided to a pleasant radiating warmth. And oh - the moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow really did give lustre of mid-day to objects below. "We never need to use lights," said Jen, as she leant on her ski poles and gazed at the impossibly perfect groomed tracks, sparkling brightly at our feet. "We run one full-moon cross-country ski trip and two snowshoe treks per month, November through February, and it's always bright enough - so long as it isn't stormy."

Onwards and upwards, winding along a dusky pathway through evergreens and out into a wide-open area beneath the rocky mass of Crystal Crag. "This is the old Mammoth mines area," explained Jen. "You can still see the ruins in the summer."

We crested a small ridge, and the world fell away. Far below, the Long Valley caldera stretched away to the east, pinpricks of light dancing from the few homes of those hardy enough to live on the stark, snow-dusted volcanic plain. Through the trees to the north, the town of Mammoth Lakes was blazing with holiday cheer; behind loomed the pistes, busy with Snowcats preparing for the Christmas hordes.

And above? Above was the cold, clear sky, moon and stars twinkling quite as brightly as on any glittery charity card. Eight hours away east, across a cacophony of midnight masses, under those same stars, the smallest of my loved ones were already stirring under the weight of stockings on their beds. The shared sky made the missing of them all the sweeter, and sent the festive cheese-o-meter off the scale; I don't think that I'd felt this genuinely excited on 24 December since I stopped believing in Santa Claus.

The trek back to the lodge was suffused with a feel-good glow, as our group headed towards Christmas Day - and, more immediately, to the cheesecake and hot eggnog waiting in the wood-panelled lodge. By now, the newlyweds were almost in each other's pockets; even the teenagers let up their pace, strolling along happily beside their parents.

Then all of a sudden: commotion. What to our wondering eyes should disappear but Dave, who dropped abruptly out of sight.

"Um..." came a voice from snowshoe-level, as we were still registering his absence. "I appear to have fallen down a hole."

His head was level with the ground, chin resting on the snow; his body fit the peculiarly square hole perfectly. Hands reached down to scoop him out - he was barely grazed, but slightly stunned. We all peered back into the earth, lighting the depths with our phones and gazing at the tangle of briars and roots that had caught his snowshoes and broken his fall.

Unexpectedly, for a group leader who had just almost lost one of her party, Jen was trying very hard not to laugh. "That's not a hole," she said, her eyes twinkling. "We're above the ruins of the mining village. I believe that's a chimney."

And so our night before Christmas drew to a close, according to the script, though Saint Nic was an ordinary old Dave, and he fell down the chimney rather more ignominiously than the jolly old fellow of the poem. Still, he was very good spirited about it all, and accepted his new role quite happily, regaling his wife back in the lounge with tales of our adventure.

He may have even exclaimed, as we drove out of sight, "Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night." At least, I like to think that he did.

With lines taken from Clement Clarke Moore's poem 'A Visit From St Nicholas'



The nearest airport is Reno/Tahoe, a three-hour drive from Mammoth Mountain. While there are no direct services from the UK, connections are available from Los Angeles with Southwest Airlines (001 800 435 9792; Los Angeles is served from Heathrow by British Airways (0870 850 9850;, Virgin Atlantic (08705 747 747;, United (08458 444 777; and Air New Zealand (0800 028 4149;; US Airways (0845 600 3300; flies from Gatwick.


Tamarack Lodge, Mammoth Mountain (001 760 934 2442; Cabins start at $151 (£84), self-catering; lodge rooms start at $90 (£50), room only.


Full-moon snowshoeing tours in 2007 are scheduled for 1, 3 and 31 January; 2 Feb and 1 and 3 March. The cost is $35 (£19) per person, including all equipment and post-trek drink and dessert, and they can be booked through Tamarack Lodge.


Mammoth Mountain, California: 001 760 934 0745;

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Bid / Tender Writing Executive

    £24000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: With offices in Manchester, Lon...

    Guru Careers: Marketing Executives / Marketing Communications Consultants

    Competitive (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a number of Marketi...

    Recruitment Genius: Marketing Executive

    £20000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This well established business ...

    Ashdown Group: Management Accountant - Manchester

    £25000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Management Accountant - Manchester...

    Day In a Page

    Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

    The secret CIA Starbucks

    The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
    Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

    How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

    The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
    One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

    One million Britons using food banks

    Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

    The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
    Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
    Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

    Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

    They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
    Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
    The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

    The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

    Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
    How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

    How to run a restaurant

    As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
    Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

    Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

    For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
    Usher, Mary J Blige and to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

    Mary J Blige and to give free concert

    The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
    10 best tote bags

    Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

    We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
    Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

    Paul Scholes column

    I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England
    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    The heptathlete has gone from the toast of the nation to being a sleep-deprived mum - but she’s ready to compete again. She just doesn't know how well she'll do...