In the mid-70s, renowned “dirtbag” climber Dale Bard decided to take his first backcountry ski trip — a big one, some 250 miles along the Sierra Crest, in mid-winter with friend and wilderness ranger Nadim Melkonian.
Over the next 44 days, they were pummeled by heavy snowstorms, narrowly escaped avalanche burial and courted starvation. But it was all part of a grand adventure, according Bard.
A fixture of Yosemite in the 1970s, Dale Bard became famous for both his bold climbing and his frugal lifestyle. Bard lived in a converted bakery van and sustained himself on peanut butter and potatoes for weeks at a time, earning kudos from Climbing Magazine for perfecting the “dirtbag” lifestyle. Though with first ascents of Half Dome’s Bushido and El Capitan’s Sea of Dreams and Sunkist routes to his credit, the climber wrote his name indelibly in the record book.
Bard describes in glowing terms a formidable ski trek that most would consider a grueling ordeal. With companion Nadim Melkonian, the 23-year-old outdoorsman set out to trace the John Muir Trail in January of 1976. Expecting good weather and fast conditions, the pair planned to finish in three weeks. But storms repeatedly pounded the skiers who survived multiple avalanches and dire food shortages on a journey more than twice as long as expected. —Matt Johanson
“We kept skiing, but all hell broke loose at Muir Pass. A huge storm nailed us and pinned us down for three days.”
When I was young and foolish, Nadim Melkonian and I took a fairly extensive ski trip through the mountains, about 250 miles. We had planned to go in the dead of winter, because I was a knucklehead and wanted a true winter ski tour. We did the High Route from Sequoia National Park to Yosemite Valley. We came in on the west from an area called Panther Gap, over the Sierra to Mt. Whitney, and then we grabbed the John Muir Trail, sort of, because of course you can’t see it in winter.
I wasn’t supposed to ski with Nadim, but his partner bailed out on him. Nadim was bummed and moping around. He had already cached all this food along the route. So on a lark I decided to go with him. I had no gear, so I went down to the mountain shop and bought everything I needed. At that time, I had an alpine skiing background, not any cross country skiing experience per se. The only downside was the equipment was so different. But once you know how to ski, you just go skiing. I got on a pair of Atomics, truly skinny, metal-edged skis I had to repair multiple times on the trip. We left on Jan. 20 and planned to take 21 days. We were gone 44.
At the time, Nadim was the Snow Creek Cabin ranger, which was most helpful. We got to use a lot of the wilderness rangers’ cabins along the way to stash our food. Every once in a while, we actually got to spend a night in a cabin, which was cool. We had one the first night, and one by Charlotte Dome, and another by University Peak. So for a while it was almost like hut skiing, and we got spoiled.
We made it over Forester Pass before we got nailed by the first storm. We were on schedule, moving fast. We thought it would be no problem to make 15 or 20 miles per day. Then once we got over Forester, four feet of snow dumped on us. We kept skiing, but all hell broke loose at Muir Pass. A huge storm nailed us and pinned us down for three days. We pitched our tent inside the John Muir Hut, a stone structure there which kept us out of the whiteout. But we were running out of food and had to get to our next cache.
More than 12 feet of snow came down in two days. We were breaking trail chest-deep. This is pre-GPS and we got totally disoriented in Goddard Canyon. It got dark and we were still in whiteout conditions. We set up our dome tent in a grove of trees. You could just hear the avalanches kicking down all around us. We heard this one come down pretty loud and the walls of our tent started getting spattered. An avalanche produces quite a gust of wind.
Later, Nadim looks at his watch. Even though it’s pitch black, he says, “Dale, it’s 8 in the morning.”
I say, “That’s ridiculous!”
We unzipped the door of the tent and there’s a wall of snow there.
What happened was the avalanche broke up as it hit the trees but still buried our tent under five feet of snow. We had to shovel the snow into the tent to dig out, and then we had to dig the snow back out of the tent again. We had just one small snow shovel so that took a couple of hours.
It was really hilarious and we kept laughing at each other. We were totally lucky and dodged a bullet. We were just far enough out of the avalanche’s path. As I look back on it, we should have died. Obviously we were idiots as far as avalanche awareness goes. The next day a second avalanche buried us up to our knees.
At this point, we were getting very close to not making it. We survived on one tea bag and half a stick of butter for three days. We were way off course and finally we had to break into this dude ranch. We were so hungry and when we broke in there was a jar of peanut butter on the table. Neither one of us could open it because our cold hands didn’t work. So we sat in the hot springs there and salivated over the jar until we had the strength and the coordination to open it.
Inside the ranch there was a 55-gallon drum full of food sealed up for the fall. We opened it up and resupplied and that enabled us to get to our next food cache. If we hadn’t made it to the dude ranch, I think it would have been pretty critical. I left a note with my address saying what we had done and to contact me for damages. I left $10 I had with me. They saved our asses so I figured it was the least I could do.
Ten more feet of snow dumped while we were there. Finally the weather cleared and we left the ranch. Then this helicopter came cruising by us. There were a lot of rescues going on in the mountains at that time because the storm caught a lot of folks unprepared. The pilot held a hover and asked, did we want a rescue? We said, “Hell no, we’re fine!” By that point we were absolutely determined.
And so we went on to our next food cache, which was 20 feet down in the snow. We dug down and got that and kept on skiing. In a way, I hated it when we got to a food cache. It bummed me out because I’d have a beautiful light pack, and then when we got the food, I’d have to carry 45 pounds again. But every cache had a little treat, like Oreos or M&Ms, so we knew we’d get something special and that made us happy.
On a tour that long, you get used to it, kind of like big wall climbing. You get up in the morning and ski until dark. At the end of the day, you make camp and do your chores and go to bed. Then you get up and go again. It’s like a 9 to 5 job.
We were caught in more storms and whiteouts after that. It was a pretty epic year. We ran out of food again. We managed to come in behind Mammoth Lakes. There was another hot springs area that had a cabin, and we broke into that and got more food. There was a pay phone there and though we had no money, I called collect and luckily reached my girlfriend Janet. By this time we were 20 days late and everybody thought we were dead. So she was glad to hear from me although she was mad at first.
We got nailed by a horrendous storm on the back side of Mammoth and contemplated skiing out. I looked at Nadim and said, “We’ve been fighting for this trip the whole time, and there’s maybe 45 miles to go.” He looked at me and we agreed to keep on going. We wanted it and by that time we had skied almost 200 miles. What’s another 45? It seemed like a mere pittance. We were just three days from Tuolumne even with the trail breaking we had to do.
The weather broke and we had some blue bird days. Finally we hit Tuolumne Meadows. We were out of food again but knew of the wilderness post up there. We really surprised the rangers there when we pulled up. “Where are you coming from?” they asked. When we told them, they looked at us like we were nuts. Anne Macquarie and her husband Chas took such good care of us. They made us this wonderful meal with fresh bread. We stayed two days there. We were in heaven and didn’t want to leave.
“At this point, we were getting very close to not making it. We survived on one tea bag and half a stick of butter for three days.”
Then we just skied back into the Valley. It was very surreal when we got a little bit below Snow Creek Cabin. When we put our skis on our packs and hiked on dirt, that was a very interesting thing after so long in the snow. And it was just weird to see people again. I went to see Janet at the restaurant in the Valley where she worked as a waitress. By this time I was sub-100 pounds. Everyone looked at us like we were ghosts or something. Janet dropped everything and ran over and put a wet one on me in front of the entire restaurant. Then she sat me down and fed me. I had a craving for hot chocolate and whipped cream. I must have had ten cups of that stuff in a row!
Next spring, I’m in Yosemite and I got a letter in the mail from the dude ranch people. The note said they were glad to help out and they returned my $10!
I never looked at it as life-threatening. It was something where we persevered. Nadim was a good partner to hang with, real solid. I learned a lot about skiing and became a better skier. I was such a knucklehead back then. I thought I was invincible, so I did stupid tricks all the way through the trip in steep, scary bowls. I look at those bowls today and there’s no way I would do that again.
As I’ve told many people, I don’t plan an epic. I didn’t plan this to be an epic. Sometimes you’ve just got to work through it. It was just a good adventure and fun to be out there.
Ironically enough, Dale Bard, the one-time self-described “idiot of avalanche awareness,” is now the chief operating officer for Ortovox USA, a leading maker of avalanche transceivers, shovels, probes and backpacks. Though known mostly for his impressive rock-climbing exploits, Bard is also a talented skier who ticked some fearsome first descents in the Eastern Sierra, including the classic Cocaine Chutes above Tioga Pass. And yes, he’s the brother of the late Allan Bard, a well-known mountain guide who died while climbing the Grand Teton in 1997.