By Deek Speredelozzi • Photos by Ian Stout •
All week long I watched with mounting dismay as the weekend forecast for Yosemite National Park inched its way from “promising” to “questionable” to “all-out stormy”. No matter, though—I would be heading there on Friday with Ian, whatever the weather would do; though if the stormy predictions proved prescient, we’d have a much harder time accomplishing our mission: to etch out a winter backcountry wilderness adventure on snowshoes, complete with photos and gripping trip report.
However, reflecting on various times in the past when I’d chosen to postpone or abandon backcountry plans on account of hostile weather predictions for the area of interest, only to find out, too late, that Ma Nature had had a last minute change of heart and decided to deliver the goods after all—for the sole benefit of those who had remained hardy enough to roll the dice and venture forth into her wilds, I decided that in this case I’d rather risk the possible disappointment of sitting around Yosemite Valley in troublingly inclement weather than to risk the infuriating helplessness of watching on the internet from home as deep blue Sierra skies rewarded all comers with an opportunity to experience the sublime tranquility and awe-striking beauty of Yosemite in winter.
Plus, we’d made arrangements to go up there this weekend, not some other later weekend for which we’d have to once again pre-handle our affairs back in San Francisco before setting off to the mountains, and for which the weather might just as easily foil our designs. No, screw it—we were going this weekend, fate be damned.
Into the Sierras
And so it was that on the afternoon of Friday, March 23, after picking up burritos at Taqueria Cancun, San Francisco’s best taqueria, I picked up Ian and we set off in my trusty, yet unsexy, Pontiac Vibe, bound for the peerless Sierra Nevada Mountains: that great range that forms such a formidable wall against all eastward lands. 400 miles long and 70 miles across, the Sierra Crest is pierced from east to west by a mere 13 paved roads, which averages out to approximately one paved road every 31 or so miles, if they were all spaced evenly through the range’s 400-mile north-south run, which they are in fact not. And between mid-October and mid-May, typically, only 6 of these roads remain open to through-traffic; and of these 6 roads, at least half face regular temporary winter closures, due to the heavy snows which pummel the Sierra high country relentlessly and unpredictably for more than six months of each year.
The central Sierra, in which lays the range’s most formidable and lofty peaks, is nearly always utterly uncrossable by car for the entire winter.
Spanning the Sierras’ low-lying southern reaches, and topping out at 5,280-foot Walker Pass, is CA Hwy 178, which connects Bakersfield in the southern San Joaquin Valley with Ridgecrest, in the Mojave Desert. From the northern end of the San Joaquin Valley, at Sacramento, US Hwy 50 begins its eastward run across the country to Ocean City, MD; and its most formidable task greets the eastbound traveler within the first two hours’ drive from the state capitol, often requiring the use of tire chains to gain the crest at 7,390-foot Echo Summit, just west of picturesque Lake Tahoe, which sits atop more than 20 miles of the California/Nevada border. And it is only by the constant vigilance and round-the-clock readiness of CalTrans’ snow-removal fleets that this road even remains open throughout the cold season.
In between highways 178 and 50 lies an unbroken stretch (250-miles, as the crow flies) of rugged peaks, crystalline lakes, deep basins, and high ridges, peppered throughout with thousands of miles of trails, and housing one of the richest collections of wildlife to be found in the lower 48. A mountainous wonderland indeed, with nary a single road interrupting its pristine wildness during the winter months.
Out into this unfathomable expanse of unforgiving wildness, awe-inspiring natural beauty, and treacherous danger, we set forth regularly each and every year, seeking for that which can only be attained by immersing ourselves in the heart of this mother of all playlands: a sense of losing ourselves in the sublime remoteness of the high country, and thus feeling, if only just for a time, more or less completely removed from the troubles of our everyday world. Which is not to say that trouble cannot find you in the Sierras.
No, far from it. Journeying into the Sierra backcountry demands, at minimum, preparedness, hard work, common sense, and most of all respect for the wilderness, if hardship is to be averted; and even then there are no guarantees against things going awry. The ability to make sound decisions in the face of unexpected challenges, as well as sufficient humility to know when the mountains have won (which will happen sometimes) are a few of the key things that seasoned backcountry adventurers have learned (usually by getting lucky after making the wrong decisions on occasion). But for those with the drive, fortitude, and willingness to build long experience over time, the Sierras, like any of the great mountain ranges of the world, promise far more adventure than can possibly be had in a lifetime.
San Franciscans are particularly well-situated to reap the benefits of the Sierra Nevadas, year-round. The summers offer boundless opportunities to explore the far-reaches of the range’s most deep and remote places; and the winters present skiers, snowboarders, and snow-shoers alike with thousands of miles of snowy-white playground to enjoy. Sitting, as it does, less than 200 miles due west of Yosemite Valley, which is arguably the crown jewel of the Sierras, San Francisco provides an ideal jumping-off point for the Sierra high country.
Three of the nation’s premiere high-country National Parks: Yosemite, Sequoia, and Kings Canyon, all lay within a 5-hour drive from downtown San Francisco; and aside from these three parks, the central Sierras boast no less than six National Forests, containing more than 20 wilderness areas.
After crossing the low eastern foothills of the Bay Area, and crossing the flat-as-a-pancake San Joaquin Valley, we reached the Sierra foothills by late afternoon. Stopping in the small town of Mariposa, county seat of its namesake county, we took advantage of our last opportunity to fill the gas tank before ascending into the mountains proper. I also used this opportunity to correct a potentially trip-ruining packing error I’d made back in the city: namely that I had neglected to pack my snow pants.
Fortunately, with the help of the well-placed Class A Consignments thrift shop in Mariposa, I was able to procure a pair of snowboarding pants, without which we surely would not have been able to proceed into the backcountry. They looked ridiculous on me: a few sizes too big, their black legs sewn over with giant fluorescent green knee-patches, and their waistline elastic band well past its prime. But it was no better than I deserved, having been the fool to leave his well-fitting, trusty snow pants nicely folded back in his gear room at home.
Proceeding eastward on CA Hwy 140 under partly cloudy skies, we made our way up and into the Yosemite front-country, enjoying the rugged scenery of the lower Merced River Canyon, along which the highway winds on its final approach to Yosemite Valley. We would not be venturing into the backcountry until tomorrow; so today’s to-do list included procuring firewood for the evening’s campfire, finding a campsite, and capturing, if we might, some worthy photos of the idyllic Yosemite Valley in the light of sunset.
First things first, we visited several small campgrounds along the Merced Canyon, seeking for any remnants of previous campers’ unused firewood stashes, left there months ago in the waning days of the previous summer season. We both knew from long experience that buying wood in the park is an exercise in financial inefficiency. As it happened on this particular afternoon, we were in luck. The tedium of driving empty campground loop after empty campground loop proved less trying than it might easily have done, thanks to the fact that we were able to fill the back of the Vibe with more than enough good wood to keep ourselves toasty and illuminated well into the cold March night.
Entering Yosemite proper around 4 PM, we made haste for the only campground that we knew for a fact accepts walk-ins without reservations: the Sunnyside Campground, aka Camp 4, a climber’s camp which sits at the foot of the trail to the top of Yosemite Falls, the continent’s highest, with a total vertical drop of over 2,400 feet. Getting a site proved an easy task, as not too many fools are willing to camp outdoors, even here on the relatively low valley floor, some 4,000 feet above sea level.
We walked the grounds, picked a nice enough spot at site 33, beside a 10-foot tall slab of granite which I imagined would nicely reflect the light of our campfire, and lugged our gear from the car to the site, a short walk of no more than 75 yards. We set up our tents, piled the firewood next to the iron fire-ring, and jumped back in the car to head up to Tunnel View Point, hoping to catch Yosemite Valley’s numerous prominences in whatever good light might be on offer before the sun disappeared for the day.
TUNNEL VIEW POINT
Tunnel View Point sits at the eastern end of the Wawona Tunnel, which bears travelers from the south, via CA Hwy 41 out of Fresno, into Yosemite Valley. Drilled through 4,233 feet of granite, the Wawona Tunnel is the longest highway tunnel in California; and exiting its long, wet, darkness here at Tunnel View Point, inbound travelers get their first views of the mighty granite monoliths which have rightfully made Yosemite Valley one of the most vigorously photographed spots on Earth. People routinely come from all over the world to witness the staggering beauty of Yosemite’s unfathomable crags, spires, peaks, domes, valleys, rivers, waterfalls, lakes- not to mention its rich flora and fauna.
On any given day, the parking lot at Tunnel View Point is fairly well packed with gawkers, especially around sunset. Positioned as it is at the western end of Yosemite Valley, and some 420 feet above the valley floor, this spot is perfectly situated to allow a prime vantage point for those who wish to behold the spectacular light show, unparalleled just about anywhere else on the planet, which explodes nearly every evening, casting the 3,000-foot granite walls, waterfalls, and towering peaks of the valley to the east in a crisp, heavenly array of yellows and reds, all courtesy of the westering sun.
On this particular day, though conditions for photography were not ideal, the sky was nevertheless cooperating more than we had expected it to, in light of the cloud-cover which had hidden the sun from us at intervals throughout the day; and so, after I parked the car in the Tunnel View parking lot at around 5:45 PM, Ian, our team’s photographer, shouldered his gear, and the two of us made our way up to a vantage point above the tunnel exit, up and away from the throngs of tourists congregating at the overlook down at parking-lot level.
Even at our current elevation of 4,400 feet, there is still very little snow on the ground; so the going is easy. After no more than five minutes of climbing, we found a spot which afforded us unhindered views of the valley’s premiere features; and so Ian set up his tripod and went to work, while I set off on foot to explore the nearby area in the fading light of early evening.
Probing my way gingerly along the edge of the 500-foot abyss on whose southern rim Tunnel View Point sits, I flirted with vertigo in my quest for new and exciting vantage points, seeking for a clear view down to the valley floor directly below me. A dead-end here, an untraversible, implausibly steep cliff there, and a slippery, sloping granite death sentence, lethal with runoff, just about everywhere else, I stepped lightly, and as always, with the utmost respect for the lay of the land.
The setting sun to the west was hidden from me by the bulk of the rock above the Wawona Tunnel; and so most of the sunlight visible to me was to the east, reflecting off of the famous crags, spires, and waterfalls in that direction. Yet there was still, as I perceived, some direct sunlight falling on the Merced River, some 500 feet below me, over the brink of the aforementioned abyss, though I had yet to find a feasible vantage point from which to behold this portion of the light show.
Picking my way around the steep, forested, granite bulk of the mountainside, I eventually westered enough to get a last direct view of the setting sun; and so seeking for an overlook down to the Merced, I attempted to descend through the trees, sloped nauseatingly towards the abyss at an angle of at least 45 degrees, until I lost my nerve (or regained my good sense, as it were) and retreated back up through the stumps and brush which clung as precariously to the mountain as I did to them.
Back on terra-somewhat-firma, I headed back towards Ian’s perch above the tunnel; but detoured again at the site of what looked like a clear line down to a granite platform overhanging the Merced. Though the route was not without grave peril, I trusted my footing, and after a few moments found myself peering down at the sparkling Merced River, bathed in sunlight, from a precipice so steep that I could not muster the nerve to lean over enough to see the wall below me. No need to push my luck any further just yet. Five hundred feet directly below me, running alongside the raging waters of the Merced River, I could see Hwy 140, on which we had come into the valley, and its junction with Hwy 120, which enters the park to the north of 140, on a bearing more or less directly east from San Francisco, over the great hills which line the northern shores of the Merced Canyon.
Satisfied, I made my way back up and over to Ian, who stood by his trusty tripod, patiently waiting for that ideal golden moment to capture the valley’s prominences in their best light. Standing beside him, I looked east. In the immediate foreground below us sat the Tunnel View parking lot, and its assembled crowd of sunset watchers. Further east, I could see the picturesque ribbon of Bridalveil Fall, bathed in orange-yellow light as it emerged improbably from a tiny cleft in the valley’s southern wall and plunged some 617 straight-vertical feet to the valley floor below, its bottom hidden behind tall trees, though its attendant cloud of mist could be seen, rising above the tree-tops.
Behind it loomed the mighty Cathedral Rocks, towering some 2,500 feet above the valley floor, and still further to the east stood the rounded top of Sentinel Dome, standing sentinel indeed more than 4,000 feet above the valley floor, though partially obscured by clouds. To the left, the northern wall of the valley was dominated by the 3,600-foot sheer face of El Capitan, crown jewel of rock-climbers’ aspirations.
On a summer day, if you’ve got the eyes for it, or a good set of binoculars, you can see its face speckled with inconceivable little spots of bright color: the clothing and gear of climbers making their way up the 90-degree face of this granite monolith. The face of El Cap is so high that it takes more than one day to get to the top; and so climbers seeking for the top must bivouac (spend the night unsheltered) on its sheer face, getting what rest they can, strapped into bedrolls hanging from bolt-holes drilled and clipped in to its narrow crannies. The easternmost end of the valley’s northern wall is hidden behind the protruding face of El Capitan.
Straight up the middle of the valley floor, east of everything I have so far named, towers the mighty Half Dome, easily the most well-known of Yosemite’s many natural wonders. Topping out at 8,800 feet, Half Dome stands tall as the pre-eminent granite mass of Yosemite Valley; and it can also be seen from far off in the high country which lays to the north and east of it. As seen from this vantage point at Tunnel View, the right (southern) side of Half Dome curves away as the surface of a giant ball of granite, eventually lost to view behind the advancing northern face of Sentinel Dome, which sits in front of and slightly south of its bulk.
In stark contrast, however, the left (northern) side of Half Dome is a staggering straight-vertical face, which plunges some 4,800 feet to the valley floor, its lower reaches concealed behind some of the lesser granite features before it. In the summer months, throngs of determined hikers make their way each day to the top of this towering crag, by way of a ladder of steel cables, drilled into the curving rock on its eastern side.
The far-reaching view from the top of Half Dome is one of indescribable majesty, rewarding those who make it up there with a life’s list of unparalleled High Sierra scenery: from the valley floor nearly a mile below, to the park’s highest peaks further east and south of its peak, and, on a clear day, even westward to the cities of Modesto and Stockton, far-off in the San Joaquin Valley, some 80 to 100 miles distant. Looking again east from Tunnel View Point, behind and a bit to the north of Half Dome can be seen the mighty ridge which boasts the Quarter Domes and Cloud’s Rest, more than 1,000 vertical feet still higher than even the towering apex of Half Dome.
Eventually, a little past 7 PM, the sun set light show from Tunnel View Point winds down, as the sun sinks at last behind the San Joaquin Valley, San Francisco, and the Pacific Ocean to the west. Ian packs up his photography gear, and we descend to the parking lot, where we pose for some touristy photos before getting in the Vibe and heading back to our camp for the night, making a necessary stop at the grocery store in Yosemite Village to pick up beer.
Back at Camp
Back at camp, we have run out of distractions from the growing cold of the night; and so I immediately set to the task of getting a campfire going. I crumple up some old newspapers and place them in the middle of the fire ring, building on top of them a tepee of small twigs, and on top of that a larger tepee of mid-size sticks. Lighting the newspaper at a few key spots, I watch as the flames quickly grow and envelope the small twigs, watching and waiting for the larger ones to catch.
Once everything in the fire ring is burning steadily, we start throwing on still larger branches, until we are both standing over a raging little campfire. Then come the big logs; and as they catch fire, we settle in for a few hours of talking and drinking by the flickering orange light of the campfire, one of my favorite aspects of spending the night outdoors. We rip into our burritos and discuss the next day’s plans: Will the weather cooperate enough for us to execute our planned mission? We’ll have to wait and see. At this point it looks like it could go either way; but we have come this far, and we hold out hope that the coming storms will be held at bay long enough for us to snow-shoe out to Dewey Point, on the southern rim of the valley, for a frosty night in the snow-covered high country.