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Dewey Point Snowshoe

I gunned the Highlander down Miner Road and smiled to myself as I noticed that the stoplight at the intersection with Camino Pablo was already green. A few minutes later I turned into the Orinda Safeway. As the three rucksacks in the back of the car testified, I was on my way to go backpacking with two of my best friends.

Kayleigh and Kelsey on the trail
Kayleigh and Kelsey on the trail

We strode boldly into the grocery store and began to select the food that would sustain us for the next few days. Pasta, tortillas, peanut butter, pancakes, and oatmeal made up the bulk of our haul. Half an hour and sixty dollars later, we were on our way again.

It was President’s Weekend 2006, and we had chosen this weekend to go on a three day snow camping expedition in Yosemite National Park. By a twist of fate, President’s Weekend would be blanketed by the winter’s biggest and coldest snowstorm. Unfazed, Kayleigh, Kelsey and I stubbornly refused to change our plans merely because of single digit temperatures.

My father, who loves the outdoors, took me on my first backpacking trip when I was five. Since then I, too, had become an avid addict of the backcountry. Over the next thirteen years, my own wilderness repertoire had grown to include several other backpacking trips, a few (rather unremarkable) ascents, and a month-long leadership training program in the northern Rockies. But I’d never led a trip before, nor had I used snowshoes. The responsibility of guiding my two friends through Yosemite in the middle of a blizzard was, understandably, weighing heavily on my mind.

“I hope we don’t die,” Kayleigh said helpfully.

“Well, some of our friends said they’d name something after us if we didn’t make it back,” Kelsey said, but with excitement rather than fear.

I thought about that for a minute. “Actually that would be pretty cool.”

“I think I went on this trip with the wrong people,” Kayleigh, who had never been backpacking at all before, murmured.

About four hours later, after a brief and unintentional detour on Highway 99, we arrived at the entrance to Yosemite. A small shack guarded the passage further along Highway 120. I turned to the ranger inside.

“Vehicle fee is twenty dollars,” the ranger said. “Where are you folks headed?”

“Badger Pass,” I answered. “Are the roads open?”

“Yep. You carrying chains?”

“Yes,” I lied confidently.”

“Well, have a good time.”

The ranger waved us through. I turned to Kelsey who was sitting in the passenger seat.

“I don’t have chains,” I began. “But this car has four-wheel drive and snow tires. I think we should be okay.”

“Yeah,” she laughed. “We’ll be all right. And you sounded assertive when you said you did.”

The drive into Yosemite Valley on Highway 120 is among the most spectacular sights in the world. As the road winds precariously along the side of the valley’s sheer walls, waterfalls explode from the cliffs on either side. On a clear day, the view down the valley includes, from a single vantage point, both the impossibly steep, massive face of El Capitan and the unmistakable silhouette of Half Dome. I had never seen Yosemite in winter, and the soft white dusting on the ridges and trees added an entirely new layer of magnificent beauty.

Kayleigh through the blizzard
Kayleigh through the blizzard

We reached the Badger Pass ski area and parked. I opened the trunk of the Highlander and began distributing the food. After some last-minute equipment adjustments, we strapped on our snowshoes and began trudging along a well-defined cross-country ski trail. The promised snowstorm had arrived, and we tucked our chins into the necks of our jackets as the unrelenting wind pushed icy snowflakes into our faces.

A few hundred yards down the trail we turned off the main thoroughfare and onto the Dewey Point Meadows Trail. Indistinct footprints of former snowshoers were the only indications that anyone else had hiked along this trail. Discreet numbered placards placed high on the evergreen trees that surrounded the trail marked its course through the wilderness.

At five o’clock we halted our march and turned off the trail to search for a campsite. We found a reasonably flat area in a small clearing and began to pitch the tent. Thankfully, the storm had abated, and we began cooking dinner in the absence of any chilly precipitation.

Our dinner that night was pasta with pesto sauce. I pulled a stove out of my pack and set it down on a poncho to protect it from the cold damp snow beneath. We got out the pasta and filled a pot with snow to melt for water. In a separate pan we mixed the dried pesto, oil, and water. I turned back to the stove and tried to light it, but no gas was coming out. I shook the gas container. It was definitely full.

Yosemite Valley
Yosemite Valley

I took a closer look at the stove. In the few minutes after we had set up the stove, some water had gotten on it and frozen solid. I rubbed my hands together and placed them over the frozen stove until the ice melted. On the second try the stove lit.

Unfortunately the stove was insufficiently powerful to boil the snow in our pot. It was also quite late, and the temperature was dropping quickly. Our patience was waning, and we were starving, so we threw the pasta in the water anyway. After several minutes the pasta, though far from done, was soft enough to eat. We draped in pesto sauce and the three of us dug in with a vigor. It was one of the best meals I’ve ever had.

A cursory cleanup was the only thing barring us from rushing immediately to the tent. Soon all three of us were huddled together in a heap. We played a delightfully awkward game of ten fingers and drifted off to sleep.

Though the frigid temperatures experienced by those intrepid individuals who insist on venturing into the mountains in winter cause ailments from frostnip to death, they also have their advantages. Between the hours of six P.M. and nine A.M., it is far too cold to be anywhere other than huddled in your tent. For three sleep-deprived high school students, this was a godsend. We awoke the next morning after a relaxing twelve hours of sleep.

Our tent after the first night
Our tent after the first night

When Kelsey and I pushed open the flap, following a brief flurry of snow as the night’s collection sloughed off of the tent, we saw a strange sight: the sun. We stepped out into the forest. The blue skies, however, misrepresented the ferocity of the snowstorm the previous night. Fully a three quarters of a foot of new snow rested on top of our tent.

Kelsey and I woke Kayleigh. We had a quick breakfast of oatmeal and then broke camp. As we began the day’s march, the sunny weather continued. I swapped my ski goggles for sunglasses. During a water break, I searched through the top of my pack for some sunscreen.

The three of us at Dewey Point
The three of us at Dewey Point

“If either of you want some sunscreen,” I said as I pulled the tube from my pack, “you can’t have any.” The sunscreen had frozen solid overnight, and no amount of squeezing could coax it out of the bottle.

An hour later, we reached Dewey Point, which, in fair weather, has a dazzling view of Yosemite Valley. By the time we arrived, the clouds had closed in again. We sat down on a rock that overlooked an abrupt drop down into the valley to eat lunch. As we ate, the clouds constantly shifted in their opacity, giving us surreal views of the mountains and trees beyond. We packed up our lunch things and continued hiking, this time on a different trail to complete a loop back to the parking lot.

Back at the parking lot
Back at the parking lot

Having learned an important lesson from our unsuccessful attempt at cooking the previous night, we stopped hiking much earlier on the second day. We set up camp a few hundred yards east of the trail. This time I used our backup stove to cook dinner, which was quesadillas. Though the backup stove was not nearly as easy to use, it turned out to be much more powerful than our primary stove. Consequently cooking dinner and melting snow for drinking water went quite quickly.

We cleaned up our kitchen and retired gladly to the tent. Kelsey broke out a large chocolate bar and split it with Kayleigh and me. I began reading stories out loud from Jon Krakauers book Eiger Dreams. Adventure novels are always a good choice of reading material for backcountry journeys because, no matter how bad things are for your party, you can probably find a story about someone who had it much, much worse.

When we awoke the next morning, snow was falling lightly. We made pancakes for breakfast and then threw our packs on our shoulders for the final time. After we had been hiking for about an hour, we met a pair of cross-country skiers poling their way up the trail. They remarked that the trailhead wasn’t far; they measured the distance in yards rather than fractions of a mile.

Soon we were back on the main ski trail. From there, it was a short quarter mile back to the parking lot. When we reached the car, we gleefully threw our packs in the trunk, hugged, hi-fived, and rushed into the heated dining room of the Badger Pass Ski Resort. Unfortunately, I had noticed on the walk from the car to the ski lodge that a sign on the road leading out of Badger Pass had changed. When we drove in, it had said,”Carry Chains. 4WD with Snow Tires OK”. It now read, “Chains Required—All Vehicles”. We stopped a passing ranger to ask him about it.

“Well, do you have chains?” he asked.

“No. The sign said four-wheel drive with snow tires was okay when we drove in,” said Kelsey.

“All right,” he responded. “Where you broke the law was not carrying chains. You cant drive out of here without them until the chain requirement changes. We got more than three feet of snow this weekend. There’s a shuttle you can take down into the valley.”

The ranger drove off. We looked at each other.

“Any ideas?” I asked.

“There’s a sport shop at the ski lodge. They probably sell chains,” said Kayleigh.

Kelsey and I went to the sport shop while Kayleigh called her father from the pay phone in the lobby. He had threatened to contact the Park Service and initiate a costly rescue mission unless Kayleigh reported to him that she was still alive by noon on Sunday.

Meanwhile, our bad luck continued in the sport shop. They didn’t have chains for my tire size. The clerk offered to call down to a larger shop in the valley and have the chains put on a shuttle that would come up to Badger Pass that afternoon. We thanked her profusely. Kelsey bought the newest issue of Cosmopolitan, and we passed the three hours until the shuttle arrived by reading the magazine to one another.

The shuttle from the valley laboriously coughed and choked its way up to Badger Pass. I bought the chains, and the three of us spent several minutes trying to affix them to the tires. Finally, we started the drive home.

Bridal Veil Fall
Bridal Veil Fall

Everything went smoothly except for one small issue. About halfway down to the valley from Badger Pass, the chain on my left rear tire flew off of the car and almost all the way across the road. I pulled over and began jogging back up the road to retrieve the chain. It had landed about three quarters of the way across the road, in the other lane of traffic. As I reached it, I noticed a minivan listing slightly out of the downhill lane and into the (empty) lane for oncoming traffic. It was headed right towards my chain. I waved and jumped up and down, but the minivan continued its course. There was a sharp crack! as the minivan mutilated the chain.

The van stopped. The woman in the passenger seat looked at me and shrugged. Then the driver hit the gas and the minivan sped off down the road. I picked up the chain and saw that the weight of the minivan had crushed one of its connectors. When I returned to Kayleigh and Kelsey, I just threw the ruined chain in the trunk with our packs, and we continued down the mountain with only one chain.

Sunset over Yosemite valley
Sunset over Yosemite valley

Unexpectedly, our delay also had a positive effect. As I drove down Highway 120, with Kelsey still reading to us from Cosmo, the sun began to set. We reached a turnout and I pulled the car over. El Capitan was pink with the light of the departing sun. For several minutes we simply stood and gazed at the stunning sight; the pink clouds surrounding the harsh granite dusted with soft white snow, and the valley full of trees with their own covering. As I watched the sun set with my two friends, I couldn’t think of a better way to end the trip.