Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Sheltering in (a Breathtaking) Place: My Last Pre-pandemic Adventure

It was a warm spring day in mid-March, and I didn’t look like a typical BART commuter. I shouldered a full-sized (though ultralight) backpack crammed with cold weather layers, a zero degree sleeping bag and a bear-proof food canister. In my hands I carried a canvas bag with an awkward jumble of snowshoes, hiking stick, snow shovel and fleece-lined snow boots.
After multiple seasons of drought, national park shutdowns and some nasty health issues thrown in for good measure, the stars had finally aligned for this trip. Fresh Sierra snow awaited, more was forecast, and I was going snowcamping in Yosemite hooray!
Exiting the train station for my carpool meet-up, I balanced the bags on a shady cement seating area and scanned for a similarly geared up stranger. I fished a Purell wipe out of a pocket and washed my hands. A few texts later, I located my Sierra Club carpool crew and we launched into introductions.
The previous week had been a roller coaster of unsettling headlines. The WHO had declared a pandemic the day before, and no one knew what to make of it. As our car cruised through sparse highway traffic, the backseat passenger noted that school closures had just been announced in San Francisco.
I switched off my phone and beseeched my two cohorts not to share virus updates with me during our trip- just a short respite from the unspooling apocalypse. I’ve never taken my phone backpacking because I appreciate being off the grid and feeling present in the wilderness. Bad news can always wait.
Our pre-hike lodging just outside the park had hand sanitizer pumps mounted at every public entrance, and my soft-spoken roommate snored seismically. In the morning, our 7-person group caravanned to the winter road closure on Glacier Point Road and parked at the Badger Pass resort. Tantalizing powder frosted the hill but the lifts were deserted. Patches of snow and ice contoured the car-closed continuation of the road, though nothing appeared deep or treacherous, so most of us ditched our snowshoes & cautiously plodded on in snow boots. We encountered a handful of cross-country skiers carrying their skis on their way to the coveted Ostrander Ski Hut, and we swapped phones to snap group photos. After a short section of road walk, we veered off onto the snow-blanketed winter trail to Dewey Point and bid farewell to the skiers.
Our trek followed a tight cluster of footprints overlaid around faint ski tracks, like a frozen trail of 3D sheet music. When our route became indistinct, we searched for the bright yellow winter trail markers sporadically affixed high in the tree trunks. Traipsing through a marshmallowy white meadow, we navigated across the shallowest crossings of snow-crusted creeks, testing for solid footing before lumbering across with full packs. Some trail sections meandered through prickly tendrils of brush that snapped back behind you and threatened to whack tailgaters.
A few hours though just two and a half miles later, we reached an open expanse above the Yosemite Valley rim with a stunning panorama of granite peaks. Dropping our packs to worship from the Dewey Point overlook, we feasted on private views of El Capitan, Cathedral Rocks and the dramatic tips of Cathedral Spires. Walking in, we’d encountered just a few fellow hikers exiting the backcountry, and we reveled in the celestial solitude.
Back from the rim, in a clearing framed by sentinel evergreens, our trip leaders scouted a deep snow deposit where we would construct a communal camp kitchen. We set up our individual tents in dry-ish private nooks around it, and then shoveled and formed snow bricks to build a three-foot-high amphitheater snuggled beside a long snow table. As daylight receded and stars popped into view, we tied a line between the trees and draped a rope of colored lights overhead to make sitting in the cold darkness more festive. After eating dinner shoulder to shoulder in our tightly packed social zone, we shared whiskey and alfajores cookies.
Before melting snow to rehydrate or cook our dinners, we’d strolled to nearby Crocker Point, where we reveled at the gushing white line of Bridalveil Fall and the distant silhouette of Half Dome. Aqua blue sky descended into puffy clouds on the horizon, casting dramatic shadows and texture onto a never-ending vista of snow-capped knobs and sheer rock walls. Looking down into the Valley chasm, avalanche gullies streaked gray paths through precipitous slopes of forest.
Because it’s home to so many opportunistic (habituated) bears, Yosemite is one of the few places in the Sierra Nevada to require bear-proof food storage in winter. Before turning in for the night I puzzled over the best location to cache my bear canister so it was far enough away from camp (no overnight food raids, please!) but not so distant that it would be impossible to locate after the morning snowstorm to come.
I began hearing drops hit the tent as soon as I’d donned four clothing layers and zipped into my puffy down mummy bag. Though the temperature was close to freezing, the rapid taps sounded like rain, so I gathered my boots further under the rain fly and felt a wave of gratitude for my warm dry shelter. The wind picked up & stayed active all night, battering my low profile tent like a pesky speed bump.
My Dewey Point campsite in the morning
I awoke at daybreak to the sound of a zipper and the crunching of snow fading off towards the Valley rim. I peeked out to see a white dusted world and the foot of my tent sagging under hours of accumulated snow. Exiting my shelter, I knocked off the snow drifts and located my blue food canister in a seemingly new locale. My food partner was already up and boiling water for coffee and oatmeal, and I remarked at how decadent it felt to have someone making me breakfast in the backcountry.

The hike back was a transformed landscape of fresh unconsolidated snow and the footprints our group left behind in it. We unintentionally demonstrated the myriad ways to gracelessly posthole, at least once extracting someone buried up to their waist. The snow continued to fall, gusting into our faces and fogging up glasses and goggles.

As we departed Yosemite, arriving visitors were being stopped for tire chain controls, and we felt fortunate that we’d never had to chain up. On the drive back home, I silently ticked off some personal landmarks along Highway 120: the impossible-to-spot sign for Rainbow Pool, the white-knuckle descent of the Old Priest Grade, the melancholy remains of Chinese Camp, plus a helpful new traffic light at the junction of Highways 120 and 108.
A few days later, San Francisco Bay Area residents were ordered to “shelter in place,” as if an active shooter had taken the entire region hostage. Soon after, Yosemite itself was closed and the governor enacted a statewide stay at home order. Looking back, the trip seems like an improbable fantasy, a distant history where it was reasonable to venture out and explore the world, meet new people and talk face-to-face, masks weren’t ubiquitous accessories, and people didn’t cringe when strangers walked less than six feet away.

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