Type II fun: A horrible experience while you’re doing it, but rewarding after the fact. Examples include: mountaineering, bushwhacking, extended winter trips, etc.
A few weeks ago, in the last week or so of March, Aubrey and I completed a week long ski tour from Mammoth Mountain to Tuolumne Meadows, roughly following the PCT / JMT, and out over Tioga Pass.
Our adventure actually started 5 months before that, though, when we cached about 50,000 calories worth of food at Tuolumne Meadows Campground before the road closed for the winter. For decades, adventurous souls have (illegally) stashed food caches in Yosemite National Park in the fall so they wouldn’t have to carry it in come winter. Animals started figuring it out, and you can imagine the disastrous results. So, in the 1990’s, rather than crack down on people, the Park Service decided to provide a safe and legal place to cache food. We took advantage of this option and brought two buckets of food to Tuolumne Meadows and dropped them off in the dank, mildewy, metal food closet.
At the time, our plan was to ski in over Tioga Pass, spend some time in Tuolumne Meadows, and ski out to the Yosemite Valley. But, our plans changed – we decided to take on a more adventurous route, which would require less of a car shuttle hassle afterwards. We started out at the Mammoth Main Lodge – the ski area – and cruised past the downhillers while wearing our massive 60+ lb packs. We got some strange looks.. people wondered if we were going camping for a night. We chuckled, and replied, “yes, many nights!”
It’s not easy going from sea level, and being mostly sedentary (though we’d made an honest effort to get into shape), to ski touring at 9,000 feet with a heavy pack. It really didn’t help that aside from a day-trip or two this winter, the last time either of us had been skiing was 2-3 years ago! I don’t want to give the wrong impression, we’ve done a fair bit of winter camping and touring: a two-night trip in Garibaldi Provincial Park, two nights in the Tatoosh Range, and a night at Mt Seymour, and we experienced a fair bit of snow in Gates of the Arctic on our two week trip there. But this trip was a whole new level: 50 or so miles of skiing. If something were to break, or weather were to move in, it would be a significant challenge.
This sort of trip takes quite a bit of organization and preparation: food planning, route planning, emergency gear, weather watching, etc. We figured that sometime in March, we would get our opportunity. The first two weeks brought big storms with several feet of fresh snow, but by the beginning of the third week, the weather had improved. We gave the snow 2-3 days to settle, and then got underway.
Towards the late afternoon we were beat, having only gone a few miles. We set up camp, anchoring our Megalight in the snow with our snow bag anchors, only to spend an hour the following morning hacking them out of the concrete-like ice! This was the start of a truly trying day. We stopped for a water break, and somehow a nalgene slid away on the ice, smacking into a tree 40 feet away.. cracking into 3 pieces. I thought Nalgenes were supposed to be indestructible? I remember launching one (full of water) with a catapult in high school and it survived hitting the concrete after falling 100 feet! Must be the lack of BPA these days. We could have probably fixed it with gear tape and epoxy, but didn’t think it was worth the materials and time.
Later that morning our route traversed a steep and icy section, which we were glad to finally have put behind us when we discovered that we had managed to lose our sunscreen – probably forgetting to stow it away after the Nalgene incident. Losing your sunscreen on day 2 of a week long trip is never good. But when it’s a week long trip at 10,000 feet in the snow, with blinding sun, it’s downright dangerous. We couldn’t – mentally – go back. The traverse we’d finished was not something we wanted to repeat. We had two options: exit via June Lake (a route we hadn’t researched but knew was an option), or continue on. We did have an option for continuing: cover all exposed skin, except for our cheeks and noses, and liberally apply Badger Butter (zinc oxide) to our faces. In either case we still had a few miles to go, so we decided to put off the decision until the following morning.
The following morning our mood had improved, and our inReach told us that the weather was still looking good for the next 3 days. So, we lathered up with Badger Butter, and decided to go for it. Although we were “winter camping,” and it was technically still winter (but only 3 days before the spring solstice), daytime temperatures got into the 60’s. Being covered head to toe in black in those conditions is not comfortable, but we endured.
The next day we were finally getting into the swing of things. We made good time up the gentle approach to Donohue Pass, where we would face our first real unknown: how steep would it be on the other side, and what would the snow be like? While the skiing down into Lyle Canyon wasn’t exactly fun (it never is, when you’re carrying a big pack), it could’ve been far worse. We made it down with only one face plant each! That evening our appetites started to catch up with our activity, and for the first time we made some dessert after dinner: no bake cheesecake with coconut oil.
The next morning was one of the colder ones, with everything covered in frost. We did our best to pack up quickly; the promise of a warm ski hut lay only 8 miles away.
After a long slog, we finally arrived. At some point that day we realized that it was unlikely that we’d be the only ones at the cabin – it was spring break for many people, after all. And indeed, there were 13 people at the hut when we arrived! They were very welcoming of us, however, and despite there only being 10 beds, they offered to make space for us so that we could spend a night in a warm cabin, instead of our frosty tent.
The next day 7 of the people left, leaving the cabin in a relatively quiet state to Aubrey and I and three other skiers. We went for a little tour, and then relaxed while our quesadillas sizzled on the wood stove.
Later that day some weather rolled in, and overnight we got about 5 inches of fresh, dry, powder. Unfortunately, poor Aubrey had started feeling sick, so wasn’t able to enjoy the fresh snow with new friends and I. We skied up to Elizabeth Lakes and had two marvelous backcountry runs down a couloir and from the saddle of Unicorn Peak – a total of 2,000 feet of bluebird backcountry powder.. in the middle of Yosemite National Park!
The next day it was time to go. Our new friends graciously offered us a ride from the gate back to our car in Mammoth, which no doubt saved us a huge hassle of walking to Lee Vining and tracking down the 4-times per week bus that goes from Reno to Mammoth.
Unfortunately, thanks to a combination of long travel days, no major rest days, and conditions, etc. I didn’t really have any serious photographic opportunities. Still, experiences such as this are always worth the time and effort.
We learned quite a bit on our trip. And before we forget, we thought it would be wise to put it down in writing. And who knows, maybe a few of you readers can learn from our mistakes.
- Next time, we won’t do as much distance touring, preferring to spend our time in one or two locations to explore, ski, and of course, photograph.
- We also learned (or remembered) that it takes about 5 days for your body’s metabolism to ramp up. So although planning for 3,500 calories per day might be a good goal for a winter trip, it’s not until you’ve been out exercising and living in the cold for five days that your body will let you consume and process that much food.
- Late March in the Sierra isn’t really winter – we didn’t need as much fuel as we brought, and we had a few too many clothing layers.
- Traversing is a lot of work, next time we’ll do a better job of minimizing traverses.
- We should research (and bring maps for) alternate exits, just in case.
- We had a few things we didn’t need to be carrying – mostly too much food.
- You can find our gear list here (no guarantees as to its comprehensiveness): ski tour gear list
Bonus: Spring in the Alabama Hills
After our trip, we rendezvoused with my parents in the Alabama Hills for a few days. The flowers were out in full force, and, surprisingly, so were the mosquitoes. It was wonderful to relax a little in a place without snow for a few days!