Jay Jensen, Jim King, and Pat Armstrong knew the Kern River snow survey route well. 40 years for Jensen. Around 35 years for King. 52 years for Armstrong. “One job, 52 years –can you believe it? One job!” joked Armstrong.
Per Jensen: A 100 mile loop. Typically takes 12 to 14 days. Seven cabins along the way. Start at Cottonwood Pass out of Horseshoe Meadows. Go as far north as Independence. Double back and go south as far as Olancha.
Along the way, the men collect data for three purposes – agricultural planning, flood control, and hydroelectric generation. They take core samples at various snow courses – courses that have been established since the 1930s. In each sample, the men measure volume and, more importantly, density. The water content in the snowpack. 4 trips a year – February, March, April, and May. One crew hits the Kern River route. The other crew hits The Passes – Kearsarge, Bishop, and Paiute.
The mode of transportation: skis. “We ski using either wax or skins to climb and then ski down,” said Jensen. Skin up the pass. Ski down the other side. Rinse, wash, repeat. They’ve figured out safe routes – lines that have never slid, and hopefully never will. “90% of avalanches occur during violent storms … if it’s a violent storm in high winds, it’s best not to travel during those days. You just hunker down in a cabin,” said Armstrong.
In this case, you hunker down in Tyndall Cabin, behind Mt. Whitney. For 8 days. Grateful that your buddy stocked enough beans, coffee, firewood, and wine to keep you occupied.
“We went on the 19th of Sunday [February], we traveled for four days, everything was great,” said Jensen. “On the fifth day, we measured three courses around [Tyndall] cabin. And on the fifth day, it snowed for 40 days and 40 nights. It was Biblical stuff.”
Fact checker, here: 8 days, 7 nights. 12 feet of snow. 6 feet once it settled.
“It wasn’t really a big deal in some ways because we had everything we needed,” said Jensen. The men take turns stocking the cabins in the fall. “We had firewood, we had propane for lights and cooking, and we had plenty of food… Typically, we would stay in a cabin for two nights. So, we’re really only six days over our normal plan. But it was just really heavy – really tough trail breaking.”
During their stay in the cabin, the crew made one effort to break trail up to Bighorn Plateau, which Jensen describes as “notorious for epics.” A moonscape that trends towards wind and blizzard. “Nobody’s ever been completely lost,” said Jensen, “but people have skied in circles up there because there’s no trees. So, that was kind of our nemesis – Bighorn Plateau.”
The day after breaking trail, they went back up to Bighorn and tried to reach Crabtree but had to retreat.
“We realized – it was about the middle of the day and we realized that although we were halfway there we had done a quarter of the work because we had broken trail in advance to get to there,” Jensen said.
They figured they’d reach the next cabin around midnight, so they called it.
When they turned around and began their retreat, the trail they had just broken had already filled back in from the snow.
They trekked through it, breaking trail again.
When they finally returned to the cabin, they decided it was time to hunker down.
Some days they shoveled. Down to the cabin’s one window, to let the light in.
Every day, they ate food. “We were sort of bored,” said Jensen, “so we ate a lot.” And they picked out the good stuff. “First come, first serve,” they figured.
“You put a ton of food in there… just for times like this,” said King. “You put in extra food and extra everything.”
“It took a lot of digging just to keep the door open,” said Armstrong. One morning, he opened the door to a little over a foot, maybe a foot and a half of light showing at the very top of the door.
“There was none of the chaos of civilization,” said Jensen. “A simple existence. We all got along. We’ve been doing it together for 40 years, at least.”
“I was with two really great people,” said King. It was an honor to be with those two guys. They’re first class.”
6 days into their stay, their boss started organizing an evacuation by helicopter. By the time the chopper came on the 8th day, the snow storms had cleared, and the men could have skied out and continued the trip. But, as Jensen said, there’s a window in which you’re supposed to take the measurements. By the end of their hunkering, the window was close to passing.
The boss could either pay Jensen, King, and Armstrong to hang out in the cabin, or he could pay for a helicopter evacuation. Typically, the men are anti-helicopter. “We have this sort of idealistic goal to always complete the trip,” said Jensen. He thinks this might be the first time they’ve ever had to be flown out because of something other than an injury.
Armstrong has a personal reason to hate the choppers.
One time, he and a park ranger had been on a trip together in the backcountry. During the trip, they heard reports of a missing person nearby. A helicopter flew to pick up the ranger so that he could go up in the air and search.
Armstrong wanted to ski out himself.
The park ranger, following park regulations, wouldn’t let him.
Armstrong got in the helicopter – he’s a pilot himself. He noticed a strong, west wind blowing as they shot out of the pass at around 200 miles an hour.
Armstrong thought the chopper was going to hit some air on the other side of the pass that would bring the whole craft crashing down.
He didn’t say anything.
“We hit that pass, and we dropped like a rock… the guy pulled the collective all the way on, pushed the throttle all the way… and we still just dropped,” said Armstrong.
They were headed straight for the rocks. 200 feet. 100 feet. 50 feet. The rocks got bigger and bigger and bigger and – the pilot pulled up.
“I don’t think we were 30 feet off the rocks and going in at 180 miles an hour,” said Armstrong. “Man, I really thought I was going to die right then.”
The helicopter came for Jensen, Armstrong, and King. Flew them out.
“There was no emergency,” said King. “I think people beyond us kind of – they weren’t panicking, but they were worried. And we weren’t worried. So it was kind of interesting how that played out.”