(The author sold this story to mountainzone.com as an ‘overnight ski trip with kids’ travelogue but at the last moment the kids were not allowed to go because the leader had been misinformed about the age requirements for Sierra Club trips. Their headline: “Grand Dame of the Sierras.”)
DONNER ‑- If your idea of a dream ski vacation includes an apres-ski lounge where you put your feet up in front of a 72-inch HD football game while cocktail waitresses in bunny suits refill your hot toddy, then Clair Tappaan Lodge is not for you.
The Sierra Club’s 70-year-old mountain retreat near Donner Summit in the Northern California Sierras bills itself as “rustic.”
I recently visited the monstrous lodge, a living history of the club’s change from an outdoor appreciation and exploration club to a political lobbying group. It sleeps 137 member and nonmember guests alike.
Shared bath, bunks and meals sounded to me like a good way to save money while creating a foo-foo free weekend experience for the kids.
The $47 per night adult fare includes 3 meals. Guests bring linens and do one chore per day. I wouldn’t say it’s a bargain, but the history lesson and eclectic mix of fellow guests are priceless.
My husband had been hoping we could all join him on an overnight ski trip into one of the club’s exclusive huts located in the Tahoe National Forest, but unfortunately our boys, both under 13, were too young and wouldn’t be allowed to go.
This meant I would get the kids and my husband would get to join a group of 14 other snowshoers and cross-country skiiers to trek into the Peter Grubb hut, located three miles into the wilderness from a trailhead next to I-80.
Arrangements for a list of area programs from children’s cross-country skiing to “Rails and Trails,” a popular local history tour, are made through Clair Tappaan staff.
An avid downhiller, I chose to see the positive side; this would be an opportunity to give the boys some quality Mom-time and Dad wouldn’t see the lift ticket receipts.
We pulled up to the lodge just west of Donner Pass Friday night at 6:15. We were late for dinner.
It was a steep hike to the front door…through rained-on snow. The elevation of 7000 feet was 6000 higher than my oxygen level.
We all grabbed gear and started up.
The front door was welcoming; a key had been left in it. Inside a hand-lettered sign implored me to lock the door behind me. The left-in key suggested humans were not the target thieves.
Other ground-level doors (some on the second floor for when snow is really deep) had barn style locks meant to keep out bears, one of whom had actually made it into the main hallway of the lodge just last week, I would learn from staff later on.
A steep set of stairs led us to another door, from which we emerged to the fantastic smells of Mexican food being self-served family style to 30 or so guests seated on benches in a school-cafeteria style arrangement. We were immediately greeted warmly by a rosy-cheeked youth straight out of Hansel and Gretel, who turned out to be the lodge manager.
Other guests made room at a table with no solicitation and we were soon gulping soul-warming corn chowder with just enough picante for my nine-year-old to be able to slurp it up.
That evening my husband built a fire and listened to a retired astronomist recant his effort during a recent “work party” to unearth the floor of the wood room from its 18 inches of wood chips.
The living room of Clair Tappaan Lodge is very spacious, both vertically and horizontally. Entirely wooden, the interior walls answer the question of what to do with those ancient skis in the rafters of your garage. Tack them to the walls with hemp ropes to create a 70-year-old ski lodge look. This room was the original lodge, built by volunteers in 1934.
My seven-year old appeared briefly between ping-pong sets, and studiously hammered out “Jingle Bells” on the piano. A group playing cards across the room began to sing along ‑ to my son’s enormous pleasure.
A white-haired, dapper, Steve Devoto, who was to lead the ski trip tomorrow arrived well past dinnertime. He settled into one of the pillowed wooden settees and began telling me about visits to this place he had been enjoying since 1955. Then another man of the same description, somewhat younger, entered the room.
“Hey Roger,” Steve greeted, “are you missing a black strap off your pack?”
“Yeah, I am,” Roger confirmed, with a look of wonder.
“I brought it to three paddling classes but I haven’t seen you,” Steve said.
Roger thought back and concluded that Steve had been carrying it for a year, only to learn that Steve had left it in the car.
“I wasn’t going to bring that thing up here,” Steve said, referring to the hike to the lodge’s front door.
“It must weigh a gram,” Roger retorted.
Steve laughed then Roger launched into black strap memories.
“That thing saved Jean,” he began, recalling a snowshoe trip in blizzard conditions, during which an elderly man had life-threatening snow shoe issues.
A German-accented woman entered and Roger was eager to make her the trip leader instead of Devoto, owing to her accent, if nothing else.
After a basement check on the pony-tailed twenty-something guy who seemed entertained by improving my boys’ ping-pong skills (I never did learn his name,) I perused the library. A table bore a flawlessly assembled puzzle, the kind I figured kept someone busy for at least two full days.
Several decades of National Geographic Magazines yellowed the shelves amongst log books that document visitors’ adventures in the area . . . almost a century-worth. Wilderness reference books, novels, and adventure books crammed the many other shelves. A magazine rack gave clues to the interests of the discriminating visitors to this place. Sierra Magazine, of course, but also AARP’s mag, On Earth, Alaska, Mother Jones, Utne, Astronomy, Americas and the New Yorker. I easily spent two hours reading these as well as logbooks from mountain peaks along the Sierras, some dating to the 1930’s.
Then I checked on the ping-pong lesson again, still going strong. I asked a few questions of the ponytailed guy so patient with my boys. He is an electronic engineer in Silicon Valley up for the weekend by himself. Is there a better role model for my kids? I don’t think so.
A photocopied Eulogy of Justice Clair Sprague Tappaan (1878-1932) tacked to a bulletin board in the hall gave clues to the nomenclature of the place. It described “Tap’s” love for the mountain wilderness as well as “his dramatization of the jovial spirit.”
Deciding the boys are safe with the geeky guy, I head for our room.
In contrast to recently remodeled community bathrooms, our beds reminded me of my own college low-budget tour of Europe. Five bunks creatively installed in our narrow room offered mattresses atop patched springs obsolesced by recycled plywood. Pillows with “you put ’em on” pillowcases atop were the only other offerings.
A warped board-slash-shelf along the opposite wall could almost be reached without getting out of bed. Single brass hooks, a two-foot hanger dowel, a twisted hanger and a dusty mirror completed our accommodations. A back door provided the fire escape I was instinctively looking for.
In the morning I would find the door led to a back porch overlooking a sledding dreamscape: A gentle slope of mature forest with no underbrush, encircling an open meadow.
This lodge, the location of the first mechanized ski lift ‑ a rope tow to the top of Signal Peak continues to catalogue history.
Among guests I met over the weekend were an “information activist” from Berkeley (still not quite sure what this means) as well as a retired photographer who described what it was like to work with Ansel Adams in his lab.
And my husband’s ski adventure?
The trip leader had forgotten his food (but had remembered the two bottles of wine.)
“Lots of people on the trail,” he reported, including a team of search and rescue snow mobilers on a training exercise. Post-trip email chatter included mention of snowshoe hare tracks, brilliant stars and kudos to a brave tenter. …and that’s about it.
Clearly the wildlife adventure experienced inside the lodge exceeded my husband’s outside it.