Chapter 12 The Pear Lake Ski Hut Chronicles

.. By Joe Hilbers

While attending summer school at BYU I took a visual arts class and discovered in the school's film library a 16 mm short film produced by Luigi Fuggi, then the ski professional at Yosemite's Badger Pass. It featured the Ostrander Ski Hut located in the National Park and some skiing on Horse Ridge which looms above the front door of the Hut.

It was a long hot summer and with access to the film and a projector I watched it time and again. It showed a small group of skiers including Fuggi carving elegant christies from Horse Ridge. The background music was from Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor.

When once again a resident of California I learned that there was also a back country ski hut in Sequoia National Park called the Pear Lake Hut. With my interest in ski touring unabated I determined to make the trip into the Hut when time was available. I learned from the Sequoia Park staff that the Sequoia Ski Club stocked the Hut with supplies each Fall and that skiers using the Hut would pay for what supplies they used. Also that it was necessary to make advance reservations since the number of bunks was limited.

Mary and I had a son but with some planning my parents did the baby sitting and I had a weekend reservation for the Hut. It was early Spring when Mary and I left San Francisco on a Friday afternoon, drove to Sequoia Park and made a quick overnight camp with bears clanging garbage cans in the distance much of the night.

The next morning I contacted the local Park Ranger who gave me some verbal directions as to where the Hut was located. Unfortunately he did not have a map of the area with the Hut's location.

A side road ended at a snow drift and Mary and I put on our skis with climbers, shouldered our packs and bravely or naively set forth. The snow was untracked and I broke trail which was not difficult since the last snowfall had been modest in depth. The climb takes one through beautiful forest of both redwoods and pines and once we left the road we had only the uphill direction to guide us to the first ridge.

Unfortunately neither of us was in particularly good condition for such a trip with packs. It had been a few years since either of us had done any ski touring at all. By early afternoon it was evident that we could not reach the Hut since the top of the first ridge was still a long way off. So we turned around and enjoyed the downhill run back to the car which in itself was very enjoyable.

However the idea of going to Pear Lake Hut did not die. The next season I interested a group from the Napa Ski Club in spending a weekend at the Hut. Warren Mufich had been to the Germania Hut at Alta with me and it had been his first experience with ski touring. In this proposed trip his wife, Esther, was coming as well as three others including one other woman. None had been on a cross country trip before.

This trip occurred later in the Spring with a corn snow base. It was a sparkling cloudless Spring morning. Once again I checked with the Park Ranger who again gave me verbal instructions as to the Hut's location.

To say things did not start well would be an understatement. One man soon developed a blister on his heel although I had told all of them a simple prevention was a strip of adhesive tape across the heel. The women were not used to carrying packs which in truth only included a sleeping bag and personal items. And soon voiced in certain terms what they thought of ski touring. Progress was slow as we worked our way through the giant forest toward the first ridge.

It was late afternoon by the time the group neared the ridge. I decided to go ahead to definitely find the Hut. And here I went astray descending all the way down the hanging valley which lies between the first and second ridge when I should have just traversed the valley staying as high as possible.

The rest of the party stopped on the ridge as we lost the sun to a spring Sierra evening. I reached the creek that empties from Pear Lake and reasoned that if I followed it upstream I would reach the Hut. But the rest of the group was still on the ridge so I started the climb back up the Valley to join them.

In Warren's view here I committed the unpardonable sin. It has been his lifelong view that no situation good or bad cannot be improved on with some wine. As we started that morning Warren insisted that I full my canteen with wine. I had misgivings on this from the start knowing that on this kind of cross country trip "you do your work on water" to take a phrase from Kipling's "Gunga Din".

When I reached the Pear Lake stringer I decided to dump the wine and filled my canteen with water. Once I finally got back to the ridge and the rest of the party the first thing Warren asked me was for a drink of that precious wine. Telling him I had dumped his wine was the worst part of the whole weekend experience.

By now it was dusk and all decided that we would bivouac on the ridge. Fortunately it was Spring and a completely clear evening. In fact they had already built a rather weak fire by the time I got back to them. It was a quiet evening. The girls had already had their say on the whole ski touring concept. And we were all tired from a strenuous day. We cut some boughs to place under the sleeping bags and retired.

The ridge did have the advantage of catching the first sun of another fine Sierra morning. The decision had already been made the night before that the rest of the weekend would be spent skiing back to the cars and home. We did wait until the Spring sun worked its magic on the corn snow softening it to just the right consistency for a good downhill run.

This adventure did not make me particularly popular with the women at the time. And I don't believe any of this group ever again did any cross country skiing. However for me the challenge of Pear Lake Hut was still there and must be met.

In 1955 I was transferred to Los Angeles to manage Industry Publications' Southern California office. And it happened that my old touring companion from BYU, Jim Wegner, was now a Southern California resident as well. He was assistant administrator at a L.A. Hospital.

This presented another opportunity to get to the Pear Lake Hut. So that next Spring Jim and I made arrangements to use the Hut. At the time Jim was driving a Pontiac convertible and that was our transportation that weekend. Mary now had two sons to care for.

After the usual checkin with the Park Ranger on Saturday morning we were on, for me at least, the now familiar track through the Forest and on to the first ridge. We had typical Sierra spring weather, cloudless skies and corn snow. This time we crossed the hanging valley, went over the second ridge, and below us was the Hut. As I recall we arrived in early afternoon and were soon settled in at the Hut. We had the Hut to ourselves that weekend. To go with supper I made a successful pineapple upside down cake from the supplies at the Hut.

Above the Hut is Alta Peak which makes for a fine ski climb and viewpoint for the splendid Keaweah range towering to the east while below is the ice covered Pear Lake. On this particular trip we did not stray far from the Hut. We settled in planning to ski out as soon as the corn snow softened Sunday morning since we only had the weekend.

Sunday was another picture perfect day. We did our housework at the Hut and then climbed the second ridge above the Lake. The snow on the traverse across the hanging valley still maintained its overnight hard surface and Jim slipped taking the skin off one bare arm in the fall. It wasn't serious but it did look nasty with blood oozing from a few particularly deep cuts and scratches. We decided the best treatment was to leave it as it was, open to the fresh air and mountain sunshine. The ski run from the first ridge back to the car was, as always, great fun.

However things were not looking good for Jim's Pontiac which had its cloth top shredded in the back end. At first we thought there had been a break-in but there was nothing in the car to steal.

We were required to check at the Ranger Station that we had returned from the Hut and took the opportunity to also report the damage to the Pontiac. The Ranger quickly pointed to Park bears as the culprits. The only thing in the car was an empty thermos that had held coffee for the drive Friday night.

The Ranger explained that bears associated coffee smell with food when they ripped the convertible top. While this was taking place there were quite a few onlookers and hearing the words bear attack quickly looked with horror at Jim's bloody arm. No one said anything but the glances kept alternating between the shredded convertible top and Jim's arm. Rather that spoil a good story when the onlookers returned home we did nothing to enlighten them to the true facts of the matter.

This adventure, which we considered a success, certainly called for more trips into Pear Lake. So the next year we again booked the Hut on a three day weekend. This time the Ranger informed us another group of four skiers would also be using the Hut. It was still winter and we would have powder snow instead of a spring surface. This was good news to Jim remembering the "bear mangled arm' of the previous year.

We arrived at the Hut on a Friday afternoon under threatening skies indicating perhaps some fresh snow that night. A couple of hours later the other four skiers arrived providing a totally unexpected but pleasant surprise.

Among them was Sandy Stewart. Sandy and I were classmates both at Aptos Junior High and Lincoln High School in San Francisco. I had not seen him since graduation. Now he was an attorney in Monterey which is where all four were from.

We were a convivial group and it promised to be a fine skiing experience and it was. We did get some fresh snow that night but it cleared the next day so most of us climbed Alta Peak for a great run in new snow.

There was one exception. One of Sandy's companions had a bad back and the touring effort had not helped. Bart claimed the only thing that would help was traction. So before leaving for our climb to Alta Peak we tied his feet to one end of a bench and then tilted the bench so his head was slightly downhill stretching out the back.

I have often wondered what someone wandering into the Hut would have thought seeing this poor creature stretched on the rack so to speak. Was it KBG torture or was someone trying to wring from the victim where the gold was buried?

When we returned he was still in the same position and afterward, when freed, claimed it had really helped. This was the only remarkable occurrence on this trip. The next day we had some sun and cloud and the prospect of untracked snow back to our vehicles.

It was about 12 years before I again saw Sandy Stewart. And I will digress here to tell how the meeting occurred. My family, Mary, Jeff and Brian and I were skiing Squaw Valley on an Easter holiday. Brian was about 13, or junior high school age at the time. Brian jumped onto a chair in front of me and rode up the mountain with a stranger. I was about two chairs behind. At the top the stranger turned out to be Sandy Stewart who remarked "Gee I looked at that kid and said to myself, I went to Junior High with someone who looked just like that."

The next year Jim and I again made a trip into Pear Lake. And again we went at the end of winter while we still had good snow. This time the Ranger neglected to tell us that we would be sharing the Hut with another group of skiers.

Our trip in was uneventful, no fresh tracks, and we settled in for a quiet evening. We were in our bags sound asleep when about 10 p.m. the door flew open and a solitary skier staggered into the Hut. He explained that they did not know where the Hut was actually located and the rest of the party, two men and three women, were strung out all over the mountain. He was completely exhausted and looked it.

So Jim and I climbed out of our warm sacks, got dressed, lighted the two Coleman lanterns at the Hut and set out to find the lost group.

Much like looking for "Cloe", with much shouting and waving of lanterns we finally got all to the Hut. Fortunately it was a fine clear star filled night, cold but still. Everyone was very cold so some hot drinks were prepared, beds assigned, introductions made, etc.

By the time all were settled it was well after 1 a.m. The next day Jim and I and a couple of the men climbed Alta Peak for the ski run but I don't believe the women set foot out of the Hut all day. As one who had missed the Hut twice myself I could sympathize with these people who I believe hailed from Berkeley. However the next morning Jim and I left early for the run out not wishing to get involved with THEIR exit.

That was our last trip to the Pear Lake Hut. The next year Jim and I turned our attention to the Ostrander Ski Hut in Yosemite. It is located in the back country above the regular ski area, Badger Pass. I wrote earlier how the 16 mm movie I viewed time and again at BYU depicted the Ostrander Hut and the slopes above on what is called Horse Ridge.

So we made advance reservations and planned it as a Spring trip. The Ostrander Hut worked on a different principle. It had a Couple acting as hosts and you could either bring and prepare your own meals or have them prepared and served by the Hosts.

We decided to bring and prepare our own food., We had corn snow for a surface and getting to the Hut was simply a matter of following the SnowCat tracks since a Cat was used to bring in supplies and occasionally guests as well.

The hosts were a middle age Couple. The man was just about the most talkative person I have ever met. He never stopped. Jim loves conversation and as I recall the two of them talked far into the night. I took refuge in my sleeping bag.

I had a movie camera along and the next day we climbed Horse Ridge for picture taking and skiing. It had been clear in the morning but afternoon clouds came up from the Valley and we soon had a fine squall of what I have always called "ball bearing snow", round particles that resemble hail but are much lighter, The squall passed and there we were sitting on top of Horse Ridge with a wonderful surface of about three inches of new snow. Just enough for picture christies for the camera.

The original film had nothing on us. However it did have pretty girls waving to the skiers from the balcony of the Hut. This was sadly missing during our stay.

The next day we packed up making our good-by to the garrulous host as brief as possible. The Cat track was lightning fast and staying out of its ruts took great care as Jim learned, unfortunately for him, with the camera recording it all.

That was our last Hut trip. Personal lives were moving on. Mary had our sons on skis and Jim was now married and at a new position in Northern California.

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Last Update:9/3/99

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