Ice Caves

Lake Tahoe Travel Blog

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On a remote, jagged set of cliffs not far from Lake Tahoe, some rather peculiar caves are hidden beneath the landscape.   Mountain bikers pass near them in the summer, and skiers enjoy the surrounding slopes in winter, both oblivious to their existence.  They are known in local lore simply as the "ice caves".  Relatively few people have ventured inside them, and I was lucky enough to discover them courtesy of a friend who visited the caves fairly often.  When she told me on an August day that we were going to the ice caves, I envisioned holes in some dirty glacier-like ice on some north facing slope high up in the backcountry.  I was unprepared for what lay in store.

      We reached the cliffs by driving a maze of Forest Service roads and then climbing on mountain bikes to complete the last few miles.

  Descending into an ever-narrowing chasm that looked like a mine shaft blasted out of the shale, we stopped on a ledge to add clothing.  Our t-shirts and shorts were replaced by full winter gear; fleece jackets, shells, heavy gloves, and beanies.  Though it was a balmy 70 degrees up top, my friend warned me that down below was a whole different story.

      She had also warned me that the entrance was claustrophobic, but even so warned it still gave me pause.  Before me was a tiny tunnel that wouldn't accommodate any fatties.  The only way to navigate it was a slow belly crawl headfirst into the unknown.  Turning on my headlamp, I dove in and found that the tunnel ran for about ten feet before opening up into a room-sized chamber.  From there a series of tricky descents through similarly narrow spaces led to a lower chamber that was breathtaking.  Ice covered the floors and coated the walls.  The temperature hovered around 30-35 degrees, and the ice apparently maintained itself year round.  We were in a giant natural freezer.

      I couldn't help but wonder if the Washoe Indians had known of this place and made use of it.  The unmarked walls gave nothing away.  For the virginity of our surroundings, we could have been the first visitors.  Turning our lights off, we enjoyed as perfect a calm as one could imagine.  Ironic, I thought, when carloads of people were cursing the bumper to bumper summer traffic not twenty miles away.  No traces of light reached down to where we were.  You could let your eyes adjust for hours, and still, total blackness.

      On the way out, I noticed that most of the little tunnel ways connecting the chambers were formed by giant boulders precariously wedged on top of one another.  On some, no more than a half inch of a two ton slab was all that held it in place.  The caves were thrilling, but I was also aware that a mild earth tremor could make them a tomb.  For this reason, as well as my own selfishness, I gradually abandoned offering to show them to others.  Also, not many people in the midst of glorious Tahoe summers seem interested in crawling deep into an icy, dark, dangerous hole in the earth.  Me, I've never been more at peace.

PrissyT says:
WOW! This is really interesting! Those ice designs are really pretty!
Posted on: May 05, 2008
alitoronto says:
Nice blog! The only ice cave I've been is the one in Romania:Scarisoara.
Great experience!
Posted on: Feb 11, 2008
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photo by: Airmiles