Secret winter enshrouds the summit

A trio of Coulter pines bends beneath its burden of snow on Juniper Trail.

The world I knew was gone, obliterated by an ocean of white and wind. Visibility was down to 30 yards. Ice crystals finer than grains of sand, driven by currents swirling from the southwest, struck my face. I lowered the brim of my hat a notch, turned and looked east. Home was 10 miles across the foothills and 3,800 feet down – I assumed. Since my watch read 6:57 a.m., I also assumed sunlight was beginning to flood the East Bay with the dawn of Feb. 14, 2009. But that world was gone, no match for the white and wind on the summit of Mt. Diablo.

There’s a winter that’s kept secret from most East Bay folk. It’s not the winter we see from afar once or twice a year when our communal mountain gets dusted by snow, metamorphosed for a few days – if we’re lucky – into a vision of alpine splendor. We gaze admiringly at that distant winter and snap our photos till rain and sun dispel the reverie. But when the mountain is wreathed in another form of white – the cloud factories that engulf Diablo’s Summit and North Peak like a sea surging over volcanic islands – inside those cloudworks is forged a secret winter: pale and severe.

My alarm had gone off at 3 a.m. and I’d taken a look out the window. High in the south, a half Moon was slipping behind scattered swift clouds like a soldier dodging enemy fire, advancing from cover to cover. The hike was on. A hundred minutes later I pushed off from the Donner Canyon trailhead. In the southwest towered the silhouette of Eagle Peak. Bald Ridge rose due south against the backdrop of a crown of mist clarified by moonlight. I traced the mist southeast as it condensed to obscure the upper elevations of the Summit and North Peak. A breeze with a hint of menace funneled down the canyon, inspired me to unscrew my flask and grab a swig of bourbon. Perhaps the wind would gather strength and drive the clouds from the mountaintop.

At the 1,700-foot level of Meridian Ridge the first patches of snow began spattering the trail’s shoulder. The Moon was still with me, drifting in and out of tendrils of vapor that rose and dissolved like steam from a kettle. Only when I made the turn east toward Prospector’s Gap did I begin to lose the Moon behind the wall of Bald Ridge. Vega burned hot white high overhead, nearly bright enough, I fantasized, to navigate by. Northeast, the horizon skirting Olympia Summit betrayed the subtlest paling of blue. I checked my watch. Less than an hour till sunrise.

Wind-whipped ice razors stream from buckbrush on Summit Trail.

I came to the final assault of the gap and found snow I could sink my feet into. The trail’s rocky outcrops normally make its long and steep track slow going. But 2 inches of tacky snow smoothed over the bumps, allowed me to sail up through the bottom of the cloudbank to the saddle between Diablo’s twin peaks, 900 feet below the Summit. The wind had gathered strength but was not driving the clouds from the mountaintop as I’d hoped. The mountaintop had seized the wind and was twirling it around its head like a rodeo artist his lariat.

I cut right and let North Peak Trail’s narrow course hoist me across the warp of the Summit’s east face. The snow had deepened and the drop-off to my left into the impenetrable white was sharp. I reined back my pace. At the trail’s first switchback I caught a faceful of ice dust ricocheting off rock and tree. The foliage was straight out of sci-fi. It had rained up here before the mercury had plunged. With nowhere to run and hide, the wind-whipped moisture had been frozen, like the victims of Pompeii, in mid stride. Spreading sideways from a thousand stems of buckbrush glinted blades of ice like barbers’ razors.

Farther up, bracketed by the Summit Trail’s sheltering chaparral, I spotted coyote track laced with blood and wondered who was doing the bleeding – the predator or some prey spirited away in the lethal sanctuary of jaws. The prints peeled off into the manzanita just below the summit of the Summit. I turned north toward the home stretch and in two minutes planted my hiking pole, flaglike, in 4 inches of snow at 3,849 feet above sea level. No more up to go.

I stood in a world of limitation: no tourists would be motoring to the Summit today. The only track up here would be made by predators and prey, the tire tread of park rangers and cleat pattern of hikers. No sweeping panoramas would be gained – no sight of the Sierra or Farallons or Lassen. No sight of anything more than 30 yards away. I had caught a glimpse of our secret winter, but what secrets it had revealed to me – beyond its severe indifference to my comings and goings – I can’t say. I pulled my pole from the snow and began my descent toward the world I knew.