Sierra ski trek: “The Mountains Let Us Through”

Setting out under heavy packs near the gateway town of Lee Vining, we knew the day ahead would test our strength. Sixteen miles separated us from our first destination, the ski hut in Yosemite’s Tuolumne Meadows. Starting at dawn, we hiked an hour to reach the snowline around 8,500 feet, where we put on our skis. From here, we expected to begin difficult trailbreaking that would last the rest of the day. But to our surprise, a pair of well-traveled ski tracks extended to the snowy horizon and beyond.

Amazing, how much those parallel lines invigorated two cross country skiers setting out on a long journey. Breaking trail through fresh powder up and over the 9,943-foot Tioga Pass could have broken us. Instead, the path other skiers left us sped our passage, enabling us to travel about a mile and a half per hour.

My brother Dan and I were attempting a trans-Sierra trek from Lee Vining to Yosemite Valley, planning four days to cover the distance of about 38 miles. We’ve enjoyed many outdoor adventures together, and I had done this same trip with other friends years before in the spring. But neither of us had tried a ski trip this long in late December, when days are short and storms are common.

We passed Ellery Lake, Tioga Pass Resort and Tioga Lake. Mt. Dana came into view and we officially entered Yosemite in mid-afternoon. By then we sweated profusely in the brisk air.

“I’ll never think of this road the same way again even when I’m driving it,” panted Dan.

Dusk brought us to Tuolumne Hut, which richly rewarded our ten hours of labor. A warm fire and new friends awaited us there. They turned out to be another pair of brothers, and Tim and Nick welcomed each of us with a beer. Guaranteed, no one in the lowlands enjoyed a brew and a hot meal more than us that night. We slept soundly on bunk beds.

A leisurely winter day in Tuolumne Meadows doesn’t come around very often, and we fully enjoyed ours. Freed of overnight packs, we skied delightedly through the forest, beside Elizabeth Lake and onto beautiful Unicorn Peak. There we feasted our eyes on a gorgeous winter landscape few will ever see. Mt. Conness, Matthes Crest and especially Cathedral Peak caught my gaze; I fondly remembered summer ascents on each of them. Tracks showed that others had already descended from our summit most skillfully, cutting sharp telemark turns. We skied down with much less finesse and plenty of zigzags, but enjoyed our outing no less, I’d bet. “Best day trip in memory,” I later wrote in the logbook at the cabin. There a friendly ranger greeted us, pleased to have rare winter visitors passing through the park’s high country.

Our third day brought the greatest challenge: 15 miles separated us from Snow Creek Cabin. Bidding our hut mates farewell, we skied an hour west to Pothole Dome, where the tracks we’d been using for two days ended. We’d have to make our own from here on.

Fairview Dome, Mariuolumne Dome and Tenaya Lake greeted us like old friends as we passed them by, but plowing through a foot of powder slowed our progress to about a mile per hour. The distance, our pace and our need to reach shelter tinged the day with anxiety, which increased when one of Dan’s ski bindings broke. He jerry-rigged a replacement using backpack straps. Hours passed and we contemplated a cold night outdoors in our sleeping bags and bivvy sacks.

Then to our astonishment, we came upon more tracks! Snowshoers had traveled our route, compacting the snow just enough to ease our progress again. Amazing, what a difference that made to our speed and our spirits. We revved back up to our top speed of a mile and a half an hour. Visions of shelter and warmth pulled us toward Olmsted Point. What a sunset view of Half Dome we saw there.

A steep and icy drop forced us to take off our skis and post-hole our way downwards, descending several hundred feet. Darkness fell as we skied the final miles by headlamps. Locating Snow Creek Cabin in pitch blackness wasn’t easy. But find it we did, and once again enjoyed a comforting fire, a warm meal and new companions. The hut-to-hut push had taken 11 strenuous hours. To thank the two snowshoers, we gave them our surplus food: pita bread, cheese, trail mix and hot chocolate. They accepted ecstatically.

Our final day began with a descent of Snow Creek Trail, which includes dozens of switchbacks and 3,000 feet of elevation change. Only a hardy few climb up this murderous path, and even going down takes a heavy toll on the knees. But fantastic views of Half Dome inspire hikers much of the way.

After we reached the valley floor, we began to see day hikers at Mirror Lake. A few greeted us kindly but most just stared at our packs and skis in bewilderment. Having never contemplated the idea of a trans-Sierra ski crossing, they didn’t know what to make of us. We demolished a large pizza in Curry Village before catching our bus home.

You never know what you’re going to get in a winter expedition. Including our Unicorn Peak excursion, the journey totaled about 45 miles. I found it both exhilarating and surprisingly hard, much more so than my springtime crossing on the same route 15 years earlier. Dan declared the outing both “awesome” and his “toughest trip ever.” His tight boots hurt his feet and toes throughout the trek and for about a week after it.

But the adventure could have been much tougher. We enjoyed blue skies and perfect weather every day. Had a storm dropped more snow, or had we not found tracks, our labor would have been longer and harder, bordering on impossible. I felt like we pushed our limits on this occasion and faced significant challenges, but the mountains let us through.

Snow fell as we rode home, filling the tracks we’d made and blanketing the landscape, as if to clean the slate for the next visitors seeking adventure.