by Matt Johanson
As we gazed over Tuolumne Meadows and countless snow-covered pinnacles on the horizon, we saw not a soul and scarcely a sign that people had ever been there. It was hard to believe we were in one of the world’s most famous and popular parks, visited by more than 4 million people every year. To reach the 9,450-foot summit of Lembert Dome in summer involves an easy hike, but to earn that same view in winter we had to ski for two days to even get close, and then trudge upwards through several hundred feet of deep powder. We had carefully hiked the final steps over rock and ice to reach a patch of bare granite atop the mountain of snow . The amazing view from the peak was our reward. The whole point of visiting Tuolumne Meadows in winter is to be one of the few to enjoy the perfect tranquility and spectacular snow covered landscape. The amenities that summer visitors enjoy are scarce.
Crossing the mountains on cross country skis from east to west was our goal, starting in Lee Vining and finishing in Yosemite Valley. We spent five days in early April to cover 35 miles plus side trips. Our three-man team consisted of me, my friend Cliff DeYoung (both in our early thirties), and Cliff’s father Richard DeYoung, the fittest and toughest 61-year-old I know. We are all experienced if not expert skiers. We took many preparation trips, both in Yosemite and the Lake Tahoe area. On one trip, after a surprise storm buried our tent at night near Lassen Peak, I figured we were ready for anything.
Tioga Pass was our destination the first night—eight uphill miles from the winter gate east of Lee Vining on Highway 120. To our surprise, a crowd of people waited at the road closure for a ride from one of the few motorists with winter access: a driver for Tioga Pass Resort. Tioga Pass Resort, a privately-owned cluster of cabins just two miles west of Yosemite’s Tioga entrance is a convenient first stop for skiers crossing the mountains. Dinner, breakfast and a pick-up ride to the snow line are all included with TPR’s package, and we watched the truck’s driver take a pack of tourists up the mountain. We chose to forego commercial assistance and trek in alpine style, so we set off on foot under heavy packs, scoffing at the “softness” of the resort guests. Privately, though, I found little satisfaction in plodding up a paved highway in ski boots. Within two miles, Cliff felt blisters forming. An hour later, the pick-up approached on its final run.
“You guys wanna ride?” asked TPR’s driver Stacy Lewis. “You talked us into it,” I said. Stacy took us about two miles, from 7,800 feet to the snow line at 8,800 feet, and even offered to haul our packs in the snowcat the next two miles to the resort. That was going too far, we decided, and politely declined. We had four miles and about 1,100 feet of elevation gain between us and Tioga Pass. “We should make it to the pass tonight, shouldn’t we?” Richard asked. “If you don’t, you’ve got no business doing the trans-Sierra,” Stacy replied.
How Did You Get That Up Here? Skiing on good snow, we reached Tioga Pass Resort in an hour. A friendly crowd, warm fire, and the promise of a hot dinner tested our resolve, but we pushed on towards the pass, reaching it in an hour. Normally, camping at the 9,943-foot pass would be inadvisable due to high winds, but the warm and calm conditions were inviting. For better or worse, this meant we would have access to a nearby pay phone, half buried but operational. We spent a peaceful evening in our four-season tent, dining on soup, rice and leftover steak which we ate with bare hands right out of tin foil. Big, bright and countless stars filled the clear sky, until a moon rose so bright it seemed to turn night into day.It was only eight downhill miles from Tioga Pass to the next common destination, Tuolumne Ski Hut, a public cabin that serves as a campground office in summer. Near a host of exciting winter attractions such as Cathedral and Unicorn peaks, the hut provides shelter and modest comfort to up to ten skiers on a first-come, first-serve basis, at no cost . We arrived at 1 p.m. on our second day, claiming three of the four open beds. That evening, our fellow cabin guests put our meal of rice and noodles to shame with their dinner menu: beer, wine, salad, a hearty stew, and cheesecake. How had they carried such a backbreaking load? They took advantage of a large food locker provided by the park service. Many winter visitors cache non-perishable food during the fall, and we earnestly wished we had done so, though one friendly skier offered us his surplus pickles, olives, cheese and salami.
Together the nine of us passed a pleasant evening. I called my wife on the pay phone and checked on the Giants, who had just swept three games from the Dodgers behind a barrage of Barry Bonds’ home runs. Women teased the men about snoring, and men stoked the fire hot enough to make a sauna of the cabin, trying to entice the women to disrobe. Sweating like a pig, I stripped down to my shorts. The women held tough.
“I can’t believe you can come here for free,” laughed Dave, chief fire-tender and an accomplished skier. Only a handful of people visited the hut in December, January and February, according to the guest book. On most nights, it was vacant. Many more came in March and April, and the cabin actually overflowed on our second night. Ten skiers slept inside and a family of four camped nearby. They did not seem pleased to spend a long night in their tent away from our warm stove.
Shall We Tell Them How Easy It Was? We relished the waterfalls and snowy granite domes of the trek’s fourth and longest day. We had grunted up many long hills by this point, but here I found the first technically challenging skiing comprised of runs down long, shady ice slopes. We skied about two hours from the hut to an amazingly turquoise, frozen Tenaya Lake, where we paused to eat and refill our water bottles. We considered it important to rest and hydrate before Olmstead Point, a notorious avalanche hazard and the most serious obstacle of the trip.
The avalanche danger of Olmstead Point became clear as we approached. Facing into the sun, its steep slope seemed to be 40 to 45 degrees—a perfect combination to encourage snow slides. Sure enough, the trail of a previous avalanche crossed our route directly. A cause for concern, it had motivated me to attend a basic avalanche safety seminar prior to our trip. On the bright side, fresh snow had not fallen for more than ten days. Still, we took basic precautions. Before entering the hazard area, each of us tied on an avalanche “tail,” a thin, 50-foot length of rope. Should an unexpected snow slide bury one of us, the others could quickly find him as long as they could find any part of the tail. Resolving to move quickly, I led at double time, followed by Richard and Cliff. As we crossed the hazard, I wondered what I would do if the slope were to suddenly slide. Turn downhill and try to escape the avalanche? I doubted the plan would work, but the alternative of being buried alive was even less appealing. Five breathless minutes later, we reached more level terrain, where we relaxed and admired the view of Tenaya Peak, Tenaya Lake and Polly Dome. Olmstead Point also boasts an awesome view down Tenaya Canyon and a unique perspective of Half Dome. From a short distance past Olmstead Point, skiers must leave Tioga Road for the first time and either follow Snow Creek Trail or devise another route to Yosemite Valley. After camping near Mount Watkins, we started this descent in earnest on the fifth and final day. Though mostly downhill, this leg of the trip can be the most difficult because of inconsistent snow and the challenge of route finding. We took our first falls on snow that was sometimes icy and fast, and other times slushy and slow. After a few aggravating hours of trudging over downed logs, boulders and snow patches on a steep grade while trying to reacquire the trail, we reached bare earth again and hiked down the switchbacks near North Dome. Despite fatigue, our spirits rose as we completed the last leg of the journey back to civilization.
“Are we going to tell everyone how easy it was?” Richard asked. The Trans Sierra is not always easy, though. Conditions for us in early spring had been nearly perfect, but good weather and snow are never guaranteed. A foot of fresh powder would have made our work twice as hard, and every one of our warm-up trips had been far more difficult. Only strong and experienced skiers should even consider a trip like this. Help in an emergency will be unlikely. If you’re ready for it, though, there’s no finer backcountry skiing in California. “My only regret,” Cliff said, “is that we didn’t do this a long time ago.” Catching the bus at Mirror Lake, we enjoyed our trip across the valley like a victory lap.