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Grunion Run  March 2011

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Taking the High Road  February 2007

February 2007  
Taking the High Road
by Cameron Walker

A winter trek into the backcountry reveals Yosemite's hidden majesty

We first found Yosemite’s quiet side in a meadow on our way to Ostrander Hut. After skiing up a wooded slope—the snow-hugging fibers on the bottom of our climbing skins making the uphill easy—we emerged into a snowfield ringed by Jeffrey pines. With only the wind brushing against the pine needles as background noise, we could take in everything: the sharp blue of the sky, the butterscotch smell of the pine bark and a sunny rock that looked like the perfect spot for lunch. We looked at each other and grinned. Then we shrugged out of our heavy backpacks and started digging through them in search of the jar of peanut butter.

Along with sandwich fixings, our packing list for the nine-mile ski trip to Ostrander Hut, in Yosemite National Park, telemark skis, climbing skins and headlamps. Chris and I had avalanche beacons in case the snowpack was unstable, a camping stove and sleeping bags in case we get stuck outside the hut in a nasty storm, a cribbage board in case we got stuck inside the hut in the same foul weather.

The plan, with all this gear, was to spend two nights at the hut, which would give us a full day on each end to ski there and back, and another to explore the snowy backcountry. Then, we would recover in grand style for a night at the Ahwahnee hotel, the venerable lodge on Yosemite’s valley floor.
We’d both been to the park several times before, but always in the height of summer. Separately, we’d hiked Half Dome, seen Yosemite Falls as it began to ebb in the dry season, strolled the paths that ran beneath the valley’s best-known sights. It may sound brassy, but we felt like we knew the place. Yet every year, we’d flip through the pages of our Ansel Adams calendar and gaze at a different kind of Yosemite, the black-and-white photos of snow-covered pines, of El Capitan with winter clouds behind it—a mysterious place that hinted at a quiet magic.

John Muir, one of Yosemite’s early protectors and the founder of the Sierra Club, gushed over the area’s winter charms. “The glorious crystal sediment was everywhere,” he wrote after a snowfall in 1872. “From wall to wall of our beautiful temple, from meadow to sky was one finished unit of beauty, one star of equal ray, one glowing sun, weighed in the celestial balances and found perfect.” We’d just gotten into backcountry skiing that winter, and were looking for a trip to test our ski legs. And so, together, we went in search of Yosemite’s winter glories.

The snow gleamed around us after we finished off our sandwiches. Legs already weary from the morning’s ski, the sunshine lulled us into a nap as we curled up against our backpacks. After a little rejuvenation, we set off again, following a single pair of ski tracks through the woods.
It could have been the food, the warm day or the lingering drowsiness, but that was about the time our packs started feeling heavy. And we were only about halfway to the hut, with the steepest part of the journey still to come.

Of course, the trek into Ostrander Hut could make any pack seem heavy, no matter what’s inside. Getting there takes most people a full day over terrain that gains as much as 2,100 feet in elevation.

On the hut’s Website, skiers have posted tales of adventure about their trips in and out of the hut. The route is marked with reflective decals and yellow 1937 California license plates nailed high in the trees. But snowstorms and darkness can make the markers tricky to follow. Every day, the hutkeeper radios in to the ranger station at Badger Pass Ski Area, where skiers start their journey, to find out how many people are skiing in to the hut. Once night falls, the hutkeeper may set out with a headlamp to find late arrivals.

Even experts can get turned around. Howard Weamer, who has been Ostrander Hut’s primary hutkeeper since 1974, was on his way into the hut during a storm just before Christmas in 1984. He was carrying a 24-pound frozen turkey and a heavy base radio. “I had absolutely nothing worthwhile,” he says.
Along the way, he lost one of his climbing skins and picked up two other groups of skiers who’d gotten turned around. When they got within 200 yards of the hut, Weamer says, they couldn’t find the trail markers and realized they had been circling back onto their own tracks. The other skiers decided they’d camp for the night. Weamer gave it one more go and caught a flash of a single trail marker in the light of his headlamp.

“Getting lost,” Weamer says, “can happen to anybody.” As a result, the hutkeepers recommend that skiers bring in enough gear to spend the night outdoors, in the event that bad weather settles in.

On our way in to the hut, however, the skies were the brilliant blue that fills most spring days in the Sierra Nevada. Soon after we set off from the Badger Pass ranger station on a mid-March morning, the sun started to blaze through the trees. We peeled off hats, gloves, and finally, jackets, stuffing everything in the top of our lumbering packs.

The first section of the trip follows the groomed cross-country ski tracks on snow-covered Glacier Point Road. A few miles down the road, two different trails branch off toward the hut. The first option, Bridalveil Creek Trail, turns off from Glacier Point Road after four miles. The second way, Horizon Ridge Trail, turns off the road seven-tenths of a mile later.

Bridalveil Creek is slightly shorter and has less elevation gain; the Horizon Ridge trail has views of Yosemite’s peaks and more climbing. The difficulty of each route changes based on snow and weather conditions. “If the weather is good, I would go Bridalveil Creek,” says Marcus Libkind, author of Ski Tours in the Sierra Nevada, a three-volume series of ski-touring books and the chairman of the nonprofit Snowlands Network. If the powder’s deep, he skis Horizon Ridge. “While you climb higher,” he says, “the advantage is that you ski on the road that’s groomed for longer.” Libkind skis out to the hut every year; his most recent trip was with his 13-year-old daughter.

The potential views from Horizon Ridge drew us toward the longer route. An hour after lunch, we started reaping the benefits while climbing the 1200 vertical feet to the crest of the ridge. Several times, we pulled out the map and compass to figure out what peaks we were seeing. The cluster of three granite domes, with 9,092-foot Mount Starr King the tallest of the trio, drew our attention first. The sharper peak of Mount Clark, with fingers of snow running down one side, appeared in the distance. And seemingly close at hand, another granite dome that looked familiar, but was hard to place among the throngs of white-capped mountains.

We checked the map: Half Dome. It was a view we’d never seen—the rounded shoulders of the dome instead of its sheared face—and, with the two of us all alone on the ridge, it seemed that the view was meant just for us. You might think this ridge would be a good spot to propose.

That’s what else I thought might also be coming along in Chris’ backpack: an engagement ring. We’d been together for nearly five years and had been talking about getting married for a while. An adventure in the Sierra Nevada, the mountains that we’d spent so much time exploring together, seemed prime for a proposal of sorts.

But when Chris took off his pack at the top of the ridge, what he pulled out instead was his camera. The one he brought was an old point-and-shoot; the digital one, with the self-timer, was inside a jacket back at our house in Truckee. To get shots of us together, we had to be creative. I took a photo of Chris with the mountains in the background; after the shutter clicked, he bent down and drew a line in the snow next to where he stood. Then we switched places. Our plan was to cut and paste the photos together once we got home—a low-tech Photoshop job with scissors and tape.

We spent so long at the top of the hill that, once we finally decided to start skiing again, our packs felt light. But once we skied down into a small saddle and started up the final climb, we realized how far the sun had dropped. By now, six hours in to our trip, my legs started rebelling. Halfway up the steepest climb on the route—known as Heart Attack Hill— I was ready to ditch my backpack and everything I’d crammed into it. Chris, who’d hiked the whole 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail and who never seemed winded when we ran, started feeling dizzy.
We stopped and pulled off our packs, and spent long minutes eating all of the chocolate chips out of a bag of trail mix. The shadows of the trees on the snow grew longer. We tugged our packs back on and started climbing again.

At last, the trail reached the top of the hill. We kept following the markers through the trees. Just as the pink alpenglow started to fade from the hillside, the glowing windows of the hut appeared, right on the edge of a lake.

Both the rustic hut and the lake, at 8,507 feet, were named for a 19th century sheep rancher who built a cabin nearby. In summer 1940, the Civilian Conservation Corps started hauling in materials for the hut along Bridalveil Creek and then up the same hill we climbed with a tractor and an orchard cart. Workers used granite from the glacial moraine, where the hut now sits, for the walls.

From the porch, built from the same granite, skiers can take a few steps down to the lake or gaze up at the rocky buttresses and powder-filled slopes of Horse Ridge. Twenty-five skiers can sleep on the hut’s bunks and mattresses, six solar panels run a few light bulbs and the hutkeeper’s radio, and the 125-gallon water tank that feeds the kitchen is filled with lake water.

We had stayed at several huts on hiking trips, and even at a few ski-in yurts, so we thought we were professional hutgoers. But when we opened the front door to see the feast that another group of skiers has set out on the long tables inside—bottles of wine, plates of steaming food—we realized that when it came to the Ostrander Hut, we had a lot to learn. After unrolling our sleeping bags on a pair of mattresses in the hut’s second story, we boiled water for our pre-packaged backpacking meal in the small kitchen and watched the others eat. We were already planning another trip and the delicacies we’d bring next time.

The Ostrander Hut seems to do just this--lure people back year after year, or even more permanently. Weamer, the longtime hutkeeper, came to the Yosemite Valley in the early 1970s to work on a doctorate in geology and aesthetics, studying how 19th century tourists described their first views of park. During his first winter at the hut, he packed in a 10-volume set of John Muir’s works and set up an old door in front of a north-facing window to use as a desk. But somehow, the hut took over; Weamer didn’t finish the dissertation, but has skied and taken photographs all over the Sierra, and written a book about the hut and its history, The Perfect Art: The Ostrander Hut and Ski Touring in Yosemite.

It’s easy to see the appeal. The place has the feeling of a scaled-down sleepaway camp. There are plenty of activities: skiing, strolling, and even skating—the hutkeeper keeps a dozen pairs of ice skates on hand for when the lake freezes over. At night, skiers play cards, read, or stretch out on the bunks while the stove hums away. Outside the hut, a star-packed sky dazzles: it takes a moment to reorient to familiar constellations—the Big Dipper, Orion—when they’re surrounded by the hundreds of other stars visible on a dark mountain night.

Even though the hut seems far removed from the rest of the park, let alone the world, this quiet existence is often under threat. Weamer says he’s “always a little bit nervous” about Ostrander’s long-term survival. At the moment, the person in the park superintendent’s seat is an avid skier and hut supporter, Weamer says, but “it takes people of goodwill in the right places, and there’s no guarantee that will always be the case.”

When we woke up the following day, the other skiers were on their way out the door in hopes of getting a long day in the backcountry. They had many options, from doing laps on the 600 vertical feet beneath Horse Ridge to a day trip out to Buena Vista Peak.

After an hour enjoying our oatmeal and the hut, silent except for the stove working away, we climbed a mellow slope on the east end of the lake. We pulled off the skins and linked curving turns down into the trees below. Several runs like this and we retreated into the hut for peanut butter-and-honey sandwiches and another stint by the fire.

In the afternoon, the sky turned a steely gray. News of an incoming storm crackled over the hutkeeper’s radio. We wanted to get outside one more time. Even though the snow showed no sign of moving, we pulled out our avalanche beacons to practice with so we’d react quickly if one of us ever did get caught in a slide. I buried mine and Chris found it within a few moments. I had more trouble with the search; I circled and circled around the spot where he had hidden his beacon for long minutes before I pulled it out of the snow.

Just to make sure we didn’t carry our shovels in for nothing, too, we used them to build a ski jump on one of the hillsides, then took turns going off it. Chris snapped a few photos of me from the ground level to make my airborne inches look more death-defying. When I hiked back up to the jump, Chris dropped down on a bent knee and rooted around in his backpack.

“What?” he asked, seeing me watching. He snapped down the cable bindings on his boots and stood up again.

In the hut that night, rumors about the storm circled around the bunks. The next morning, we woke up early so that we’d have enough time to ski out if the storm hit. Another group had taken off before dawn to beat the weather; at 7 a.m., when we left, the sky was clear, but the snow was hard and shiny with ice.

Scared of skidding and being dragged down by my heavy pack, I eased down through the trees, trying to find rare patches of softer snow.

By lunchtime we were out on Glacier Point road. I hadn’t taken any falls, but every time I sunk into a turn, my boot bit into my big toe. Once we got back to the car, just after two, I pulled off my boots and slipped into my clogs with relief. With my feet propped up on the dashboard, I looked up at the slopes of Badger Pass and the clusters of skiers gathered on the hill. We’d gotten the Yosemite of Ansel Adams’ photos after all.
As we drove back down into Yosemite Valley, I worried that the peaceful, romantic idyll was over. The valet waved at us as we pulled into the Ahwahnee’s parking lot, as people and bags were rushing in and out of the doorways. We ducked and drove away to find a parking space a good distance from the hotel’s main entrance.

Chris pulled on a pair of clean pants while sitting in the driver’s seat, while I slipped a long skirt on over my long-johns. We wanted to fit into our elegant surroundings. The Ahwahnee, which opened in 1927, is a gorgeous lodge with a granite façade and concrete poured and dyed to resemble redwood boards and beams. Inside, the rooms are luxurious and cozy. In the Great Hall, two fireplaces flank a room filled with overstuffed chairs and couches in geometric, earth-toned patterns—the perfect place to read, play chess or recount the day’s adventures.

After showering, we relaxed for a while in front of one of the fires. Then we started to make up for our poor choice of backcountry food. We clinked glasses of champagne while sitting at an outdoor table at The Ahwahnee Bar. Later that night, room service brought up a wineglass full of chocolate mousse and whipped cream. We ate it on the balcony of our room, which looked out on a snow-covered wall of granite—and once again, we felt like we’d gotten a private showing of the park. Chris pulled one of the emergency candles out of our first aid kit, lit it, and stuck it on a small table between us. But instead of talking about getting married, we talked about how tired our legs were, how great it felt to be so tired, and, once we started in on the chocolate, we didn’t talk very much at all.

The storm we worried about never materialized. Before we left the park, we took a walk just after sunrise on the path to Yosemite Falls. The sun was streaming over the valley’s granite walls and the pathways leading to the base of the falls were nearly empty. We took more photos with the ancient camera. First, I stood in front of the falls. Then I dropped a pine needle into an X next to where I stood. Chris stepped in, and I took a photo of him in front of the white mist.

We still have the photo of the two of us in front of Yosemite Falls. A piece of tape holds the two halves of the photo together, and our shoulders almost line up. The falls appears as a single band of rushing water. It’s no Ansel Adams, but I like it anyway.

On my next trip into the Ostrander Hut, I’ll have a better idea of what to pack. I’ll be sure to put in a digital camera and a bottle of wine--and ditch the badly fitting boots. And I’ll always make room for an avalanche beacon, no matter what the snow’s like. You see, the next December we took the beacons out on another snowy hike to practice. It still took me too long to find the one Chris had buried, but when I dug it up, I found a handmade ring box attached by a piece of string.

Copyright 2007, Cameron Walker.  All rights reserved.