Can a winter ski trip to “the edge of the world” reinvigorate a cancer-weary spirit?
By Robert Frohlich
You start out striding on groomed track from Yosemite’s Badger Pass towards Glacier Point, watching the world recede, thinking how appropriate it is after a year of heartache and turmoil to be soaking in only evanescent vignettes of backcountry along the wide trail. As society’s stress begins to rush away, things switch to a glow engulfed by one of the greatest spots on the planet where time becomes magically languid, if not, well, a fluid concept.
Yosemite in winter feels good. I mean like really good, like better than graduating off probation or noticing the laugh from a girl’s fingertip. At times it transcends any rational discussion, because, really, it’s a wonderland that’s anything but rational. Like Martin Sheen says in “Apocalypse Now” about the voice of Colonel Kurtz, “It really put the hook in me.”
It wasn’t just winter with less people, less chaos. Yosemite had put the hook in me as far back as my tent peg Camp Four days when my climbing partner Yellow Richard and I were regularly kicked out of the Ahwhanee late afternoons for poaching tea and cookies reserved for the guests staying at the hotel. Dirt bag scavengers were far from the exception. Even a retired President Herbert Hoover, returning from a day of fishing, once was tossed from the lobby by security for his inappropriate attire.
Anyway, my friend and photographer, Hank deVre, and I weren’t planning on anything Ahwahneesh – we were going sweaty and sweet, heading into the backcountry and out to Glacier Point.
It wasn’t exactly that simple. I’d declared a mission coming to Yosemite: To find more Mojo. Okay, not the kind of Austin Powers/Hugh Hefner less romantic more hedonistic mojo that prompts a whatever-feels-good approach to life.
Mine was more the slant of fallen earth Mojo – after a year of battling Stage Four cancer and enough infused chemo to light Las Vegas, I was in search of more strength. The leapin’ lizards, cherry gnarr-gnarr type that makes even the worst situations open into starbursts where chariots and white horses courageously breach the darkness and whose accompanying Milk of Magnesia-bright clouds make joyful sounds of singing children.
“What you looking for?” Hank had asked over tequilas the night before when I tried to explain my quest.
“Good juju, “ I said.
“Hey, man, right on, we’re going to need that!”
Glacier Point seemed as good as any place to find it. Like most things at the edge of the world, it holds power.
Arguably, the destiny and popularity of skiing in the Sierra Nevada became assured with the establishment of Yosemite’s ski school in 1928. Under the guidance of Swiss ski mountaineer Jules Fritsch, ski tours, jumping and instruction furnished an increasing number of enthusiasts who flocked to Yosemite. Fritsch and fellow instructors Gordon Hooley, Wolf Greeven and Ralph de Pfyffer led ski tours to such backcountry destinations as Mount Watkins, Snow Flat and Mount Dana, where ranger cabins were used as overnight bases.
One of the most popular treks was to the Mountain House at Glacier Point. Completed in the fall of 1930, it served as a prototype for the Ostrander Hut, constructed by the National Park Service in 1938.
Its lodge historically was a perfect launching pad to the vast reaches of the park’s backcountry. Cross country skiers still angle towards the top of Taft Point, Illilouette Ridge, or nearby Sentinel Dome, one of Yosemite’s prime landmarks and site of the Ansel Adams Jeffrey Pine, a fissured and gnarled tree that was inspiration to several of the artist’s notable photographs. With views of El Capitan and Yosemite Falls as background, the dome’s steep, protected north face affords excellent romps down trackless pitches that eventually drop off to the valley’s south rim.
I read somewhere that during the 1930s, Adams, with his young bride Virginia Best, visited snowbound Glacier Point on more than one occasion to get his freak on, remarking it was, “a world of surpassing beauty, so perfect and intense that we cannot imagine the return of summer and the fading crystalline splendor encompassing our gaze.”
Of course there is the slight problem of getting out there. Enthusiasts cross country ski to the famed lookout from Badger Pass, the park’s alpine ski and nordic area situated 23 miles from Yosemite Valley. Travelers carry their own pack and go at their own pace. Although the well-maintained, machine-groomed trail is intermediate in level, the arduous run tops out at 8,000-foot elevation before switchbacking to Glacier Point’s 7,300-foot vista.
It’s an “earn your turns” type of thingy that requires a bit of hoofing and a bit of uphill and a lot of sweating and panting over 11 miles through huge bowed stands of Red Fir. Think Tahoe’s Tallac or Jake’s Peak plus a little. Think walking from the bottom of Aspen Mountain to the Maroon Bells. Think about bringing a lot of water.
As a result one should be in a bit of shape (we thought we were), but being sort of nordic track greenhorns, it took Hank and I over four hours through thick forest to get to the final steep switchbacking part of the trail. Be ready for a bit of hand-to-hand combat on this section. Metal edges help. Too bad Hank didn’t have them as it was really a hoot watching him splatter from time to time, cursing his pack which had in it about 50 pounds of camera equipment and a toothbrush.
It took another half-hour to arrive at the ski hut. Immediately Hank and I noticed small twangs and moans pulsing up from Yosemite Valley like campfire smoke. It’s 3,200 feet from the valley floor to the southern rim rock of Glacier Point and the walls were singing. New snow glistened from Half Dome, the Royal Arches and Yosemite Falls.
“Gad, plenty of mojo out here,” says Hank breaking out the camera gear.
In a manner of speaking he was right.
An expiring brown, ray-less glow had brought the day near its end by welding earth and sky together. The land dripped with unstained life. The scenery was so otherworldly it seemed like wandering through a window into a prehistoric earth that wore the aspect of an unknown planet. It was a kingdom of cool – smiling, silent, grand, mean and savage – all with an air of whispering: Come and find out.
The coppery twilight retired slowly and darkness hung nearer the earth.
And there, in front of the hut’s retreat, was Bernie, Bernie Rivadeneyra, the hut host.
It’s kind of serendipity that Bernie, originally from Mexico City, works at the hut rather than some Swiss or Scandinavian skimeister from the old country. He reminds you more of a giant pony-tailed Leo Gorcey out of “East Side Kids,” but a hell of a lot funnier. His immediate friendship raises the vibe and creates an easy, relaxed tone. He’s been hanging and working in the park since 1985, and climbs and skis and is as gracious as that smooth dude on those Dos Equis beer TV commercials.
“You get lost or something? It’s nearly dark,” he laughed, taking us inside for a tour of his cozy digs.
Once known as a Spartan outpost, without water, plumbing and heat except for a wood burner crafted from an oil drum, the historic ski hut underwent remodeling and redesign by notable Tahoe architect Henrik Bull during the summer of 1997 as part of the park’s $3.2 million restoration of Glacier Point services.
Winter adventurers are greeted now by a 3,200-square-foot timber and stone lodge that boasts a kitchen, common room and bunks for 22 guests. A new compost toilet system, ventilated heat and cushy furniture complement windows that reach upward past huge lodgepole eaves.
“The place has a luxurious feel to it. There are no phones, TV or video games. People come out here for various reasons. Some enjoy kicking back, reading and maybe taking a short snowshoe walk to the point. Others enjoy ski touring. It’s pretty outdoorsy around here,” explained Bernie.
At night, guests are dished hearty casseroles at communal tables where conversation mixes in amongst bottles of wine and desserts. Aside from Bernie, Hank and I, there were only a few other guests; three Brits and a guy who kept bragging that what took us close to five hours to ski took him only two (“I hate him,” Hank whispered). Evening strolls on snowshoes to Glacier Point revealed moonlit views and a jagged horizon of snowy ranges. One by one guests bed down in the hut’s European-style dormitory.
The next morning I arose early to watch the setting moon.
The sun hadn’t quite broken out of the dreamy foliage of morning and all was still: the blanketed dells, ridges and granite domes. No sound. Something almost creepy hovered over the motionless surroundings. The landscape had a fierceness that made the Alps look tame.
There is a small stone fortress built in the 1920s that guards the actual Glacier Point lookout. I noticed the fellow who’d bragged about skating the 11 miles in two hours. He was probably doing yoga, but he looked more like he was praying.
Maybe he was praying not for his deliverance alone, but for mine, too, for our mutual enlightenment. Maybe he embodied the form that transcendent figures assume these days. I felt unaccountably cheered that this guy was a sort of postmodern angel, complete with caption for people too dense like myself to know a vision when they see one.
How could it be otherwise? Many people wilt when their lives have been gutted. I’d refused to wilt. I’d been given a second life. In my first life I tried to do everything expected of me and had failed somewhat. Now in my second life I’d try to attempt things not expected of me.
I carried that notion around for the rest of my ski trip in Yosemite. Carried it right out of there into Yosemite Lodge. It may be the nature of transitions that they are imperceptible, but as Hank and I drove back to our homes in Lake Tahoe I knew I could mark one moment when I found strength. For the spirit, the road to Glacier Point is never closed.
Robert “Fro” Frohlich is a well-known Tahoe-based journalist for newspapers and magazines. He has published two books:” Mountain Dreamers: Visionaries of Sierra Nevada Skiing” and “Skiing with Style: Sugar Bowl 60 Years.”