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, out of control at high speed.
Committing to Mammoth
Mistakes and epics constantly occupy the minds of mountain travelers, especially in winter. Everyone makes mistakes, but nobody likes epics, a mountain term for dramatic crises. So the idea is to keep mistakes small, learn from them, don’t let them happen again, and stay out of serious trouble. We felt we had the experience (a nice way of saying 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 the uphill direction did not appeal to me.
Andy and I chose a slightly faster route to the hut from the opposite direction, starting near Lee Vining and skiing Highway 108 over Tioga Pass. Skiers can make good time on this all-paved route, but the 17-mile trek from the road closure to the hut is no cheapie, and 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, first come first served, available all winter for free. Another benefit of the shelter is the food cache area. Visitors can store food in the hut’s adjacent bin each fall for consumption during the winter. So besides the stove, lights and beds, we enjoyed a dinner of ground beef, mashed potatoes, cookies and very cold beer.
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 because the same route had stopped Andy and me the year before.
Starting from Mammoth Lakes that time, our progress across San Joaquin Mountain had been painfully slow. In mid-April after a light winter, extended patches of bare earth forced us to hike in our heavy ski boots. Taking our skis off time after time to hike through bushes and over talus made for weary work and took hours. The delay combined with the choppy, icy terrain 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 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. But 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 and teammate 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 still-unknown challenges of the route, wouldn’t be a mistake we would all regret.
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 don’t call it “Sierra cement” for nothing. 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 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 the area’s coldest air fills 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, which clung to our ski bottoms and slowed us like an anchor. Then the setting sun forced us to stop for the night just before the climb to Donohue begins, 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 by 6 p.m.
A blue sky greeted us the next morning with the promise of a sunny day, but before the sun arrives, clear skies mean cold air. Sure enough, our thermometer read 0 Farenheit, -17 Celcius. 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.
Under heavy packs, we kicked our skis 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.
But 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 during 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, and completing the crux of the trek lifted the spirits of the entire team.
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.
Our return to San Joaquin Mountain was as grinding as I’d feared. The icy southwest slope is hard and slow to traverse and 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 its winds frequently strong enough to blow a dead man right off it. We estimated the gale blew into our faces at about 60 miles per hour on the last leg of the trek. 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 Area, bursting with pride even as the local 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.
Mistakes, no epics
In the final box score, we had to record a few mistakes. But since they didn’t cause epics, they didn’t bother us much, like runners who reach base but don’t score against your baseball team. Actually, we did quite a bit more right than wrong, like planning, route finding, and judging conditions correctly (or at least well enough).
Toughness has to count for something, too. In my years of skiing, mountaineering, rock climbing and distance running, I don’t think I’ve ever attempted anything more physically demanding (and that includes the steeplechase). 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. And coming from a man who’s explored the mountains his whole life, and named his son after a rock formation, that’s saying something.
If you go:
Yosemite’s winter rangers stationed in Tuolumne Meadows can provide
valuable advice. Call them at 209-372-0450. GPS coordinates for Tuolumne Hut are N: 37.52.595, W 119.21.343.
All backcountry parties need wilderness permits, available at the Wilderness Center in Yosemite Village, the Forest Service office on Highway 395 just north of downtown Lee Vining, or at the Forest Service office on Highway 203 in Mammoth Lakes.
Tioga Pass Resort
TPR has private cabins and dorms on Highway 120 between Lee Vining and Tuolumne Meadows. Prices start at $120 per night, including dinner, breakfast, help with your pack, and a ride to the snow. TPR sometimes requires a two-night minimum stay. Call 209-372-2241 or visit tiogapassresort.com.
Mountain weather can change extremely quickly, especially in winter. Check the National Weather Service forecast at www.nws.noaa.gov. Call (800) 427-7623 for a Caltrans road report.