A little hardship makes for a ‘best ever’ Yosemite-to-Mammoth ski traverse

By Matt Johanson

Andy Padlo skis near Thousand Island Lake.

Photo by Matt Johanson

Four days into a 50-mile winter trek, our team reached a steep and formidable icy slope. We quickly recognized that this grade was our most hazardous obstacle so far, because to climb it we would have to risk a wild slide down an incline that would drop a skier several hundred feet below, and not at all gently.

Our four-man group – myself, my cousin Andy Padlo, our buddy Cliff DeYoung and his father Richard – was skiing from Yosemite National Park to the town of Mammoth Lakes, a trek we planned to complete in about six days.

Under a clear March sky on our fourth day, we approached 11,056-foot Donohue Pass, the highest point of our route. Once we reached it, a long, gentle descent would take us within striking distance of Thousand Island Lake. From there, we thought, one long day would take us to hot showers and a feast in Mammoth Lakes.

The icy slope was steep, but every other route to the pass was steeper, so there was little choice but to attempt it. Andy led the way toward safer ground, leaving only scratches on the hard ice that resisted every effort to gain solid footing on it. The rest of us cautiously followed, leaning into the incline, wishing we’d brought the ice axes and ropes that we left behind to save weight. That mistake could lead to a dangerous epic if a falling skier slammed into a tree or a rock in a high-speed heap.

Hut Full of Food and Beer

Mistakes and epic survival scenarios constantly occupy the minds of mountain travelers, especially in winter. Everyone makes mistakes, but nobody likes epics – except when they’re over, you’re still in one piece and you’ve got a riveting story to tell about a crisis averted. So the idea is to keep mistakes small, learn from them, and not let them spiral into trouble of epic proportions. We felt we had the experience (i.e. we’d learned from enough mistakes) to make the trek to Mammoth, the toughest winter outing any of us had attempted.

Cliff and Richard started the trip from Yosemite Valley, hiking and then skiing two tough days to reach Tuolumne via the Snow Creek Trail. This grunt of an approach features abundant trail breaking and an elevation gain of 4,500 feet. The DeYoungs and I skied this route in reverse on our first trans-Sierra trek three years earlier, but I found the uphill direction very unappealing.

Andy and I chose a slightly faster route to the hut from the east, starting near Lee Vining and skiing up Highway 108 over Tioga Pass. Skiers can make good time on this snow-covered ribbon of asphalt, but the 17-mile trek from the road closure to the Tuolumne Hut is no cheapie. After eight hours of hard labor, we arrived ready for a hot meal and a warm fire.

The DeYoungs reached the hut first and staked out our territory. The hut has ten beds and is available all winter at no charge on a first-come, first-serve basis. Another benefit of the shelter is the food cache area. Visitors can store food in the hut’s adjacent bin each fall for hearty meals in the winter. So besides the stove, lights and beds, we enjoyed a dinner of ground beef, mashed potatoes, cookies and very cold beer.

Members of the Yosemite-Mammoth team enjoy the view from the top of Donahue Pass.

Photo by Matt Johanson

‘Get Your Fat Ass on Skis’

Our schedule called for rest and recreation around the hut on the following day, and then a final weather assessment before we committed to ski to Mammoth. That leg of the trip worried me; the same route had denied Andy and me the year before.

We started from Mammoth Lakes that time. Our progress across San Joaquin Mountain was painfully slow. It was mid-April after a light winter and extended patches of bare earth forced us to hike in our clunky ski boots. We took our skis off time after time to hike through bushes and over talus, sapping our energy as well as our momentum. The conditions held us to a glacial pace for two days, until we called it quits and turned our blistered feet around. This aborted outing didn’t quite rate as epic, but it was no fun either.

A year later, a week of day trips from Tuolumne Hut sounded more attractive to me than another run on San Joaquin Mountain. Tuolumne has plenty of peaks to bag and there was little chance of an epic that way. The forecast we got via the hut’s pay phone predicted clear skies for several days. I also found some words of motivation in the hut’s log book, written by a visitor the previous year.

“Get out of your gas-guzzling SUVs and get your fat ass on a pair of skis, you average American,” the skier scolded his readers. “You can do better.” When I saw the author of this get-tough prose was none other than my longtime friend Cliff, I knew I’d have a hard time backing out of the Mammoth run. I could only hope that attempting the punishing terrain of San Joaquin Mountain again, not to mention the other as yet unknown challenges of the route, wouldn’t be a mistake we would all regret.

Stuck in ‘Cement’

Skiing south down Lyell Canyon along the John Muir Trail was supposed to be flat, easy and scenic. We had to settle for one out of three, as clouds obscured our view, and the heavy, sticky snow made progress slow and difficult. They call it “Sierra cement” for a reason. Did we bring enough wax? Fearing we hadn’t, we tried to stretch our supply as far as possible, though that meant dragging pounds of clumping wet snow beneath our skis for miles. This mistake, which became apparent as we committed to reaching Mammoth, did not fill me with confidence.

Camping in the low point of a canyon, which traps cold air like a pool of ice water, is a mistake we had made before, so we intended to climb part of the way toward Donohue and pitch our tents in warmer climes. But we underestimated the Sierra cement clinging to our ski bottoms. We might as well have been dragging anchors. The setting sun forced us to stop for the night just before beginning the climb to Donohue Pass, at more or less the exact cold spot we had planned to avoid. So we flattened the powder and dug in as best we could, climbing into our sleeping bags before the temperature plummeted.

A blue sky greeted us the next morning with the promise of a sunny day, but before the sun arrived, clear skies meant frigid air. Our thermometer read 0 degrees Fahrenheit. Tearing down camp and gearing up as quickly as possible, we raced against the numbness creeping into our hands and feet. We skipped breakfast, frenzied as we were to get moving and generate body heat, though Andy heated up some dried milk that we eagerly gulped down.

“Right now, I think I’d drink a cup of warm yak piss,” Cliff remarked through chattering teeth.

Snow clumps continued to grow beneath our skis, but we eventually reached Donohue’s final approach (only four or five hours behind schedule) and turned our attention to the icy slope.

Richard DeYoung powers his way toward higher ground and snow.

Photo by Matt Johanson

Under heavy packs, we kicked our skis down hard with every step to gain as much traction as possible and allowed extra space between each other on the dicey ascent. The last thing we wanted was one falling skier to knock down or injure two or three others.

Before long, we all reached the pass without incident. An exciting view of nearby Mt. Lyell and Banner Peak greeted us. To our amazement, so did hundreds of butterflies, the first living things (besides trees and each other’s stinky bods) we had seen in several days.

After snapping a few victory shots, we shoved off on the long downhill run that reminded me why we had come. I don’t mind climbing hills and hard work, but after averaging one mile per hour for the previous day and a half, I was ready for something fun, like gliding effortlessly down a three-mile slope. Instead of more cement, we found much faster snow. Completing the crux of the trek lifted the spirits of the entire team.

Deadman Blowing

A few additional challenges marked the trek’s last two days. Richard skied cautiously after a fall left him with a strained hamstring; we should all have such problems when we’re 64. Then, after camping near Thousand Island Lake, we negotiated a steep slope beyond its east shore that caused some anxiety but no avalanche slides.

Our return to San Joaquin Mountain was as grinding as I’d feared. The icy southwest slope is hard and slow to traverse; it defeated our hopes of reaching town on the fifth day. Instead, we built our last camp within sight of Mammoth’s lights and ski lifts, and Andy made the team a soup flavored with all our leftovers: chicken broth, garlic, tuna, cranberries, rice and buckwheat. “Here’s your ration, sailors,” he said, as he filled our cups. Ravenously, we licked them clean.

Three miles from town, the last obstacle is Deadman Pass, known for winds that are frequently strong enough to blow a dead man right off it, and perhaps even a live one. We estimated the gale blew into our faces at about 60 mph. Even keeping our feet was a challenge here, and forcing our way through it took much of our remaining strength.

But an hour later, we glided into the Mammoth Mountain Ski Resort, bursting with pride even as downhill skiers regarded our motley crew with gaping mouths. “Where did you say you came from?” asked one in disbelief. Before long, we sat around a table at a hofbrau, eating cheeseburgers, drinking beer and laughing.

Not Too Shabby

In the final box score, we had to record a few mistakes. But since they didn’t cause any epic trails, they didn’t bother us. Actually, we did quite a bit more right than wrong, like planning, route finding, and judging conditions correctly. Enough to get us to our destination, at least.

Toughness has to count for something, too. In all my years of skiing, mountaineering, rock climbing and distance running, I don’t think I’ve ever attempted anything more physically demanding than this trip. Yet better snow and more wax could cut the duration and difficulty in half. To better skiers, this trek is a warm-up for more challenging trans-Sierra crossings.

“It was the conditions that made it tough,” Andy said. “We had both ice and clumpy snow, and neither one is conducive to moving fast.”

Finally, we took a strong team, for which I was grateful, since it encouraged me to push my limits on this occasion.

“I think this was my best-ever trip in the Sierra,” Richard announced. Coming from a man who’s explored the mountains his whole life and named his son Cliff after a rock formation, that’s saying something.