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Rock Upon Rock, Snow Upon Snow
Skiing Across Yosemite National Park

(Note: Includes photographs from tours of this route in 1973 and 1979.)

What is the attraction of mountains and snow? Why would someone want to be in an environment so harsh and demanding?

An "old Indian" is reported to have pointed to the towering peaks of the Sierra and warned California explorer John Fremont, "Rock upon rock, rock upon rock; snow upon snow, snow upon snow!" Challenged, rather than intimidated, Fremont promptly "led into the wintry Sierra in frontal attack."

Now, 130 years later, the mountains were again wintry. Not far from where the Indian had pointed to the mountains, we were preparing to cross the rock and snow of the Sierra.

Light snow was falling on the streets and buildings of Bridgeport and in the cloud shrouded mountains beyond. We had eaten breakfast and then checked out with the Mono County Sheriff's Department. While waiting for our ride to Twin Lakes, we talked with a local game warden.

He had seen our packs and skiis, and having done some touring was very inquisitive.

"Where are you headed?"

"Yosemite."

"From here?"

"Yes, we're going to ski up over Horse Creek Pass, and then down to Virginia Canyon. From there we'll work our way over to Glen Aulin, and then head for..."

"Tuolumne Meadows?"

"Right. From there we will follow the general route of the Sunrise Trail to Yosemite Valley."

It didn't take him long to notice the difference in our skiis. He had always used cable type bindings and downhill skiis for touring and was surprised to see my skinny skiis, pin bindings, and most of all, my "tennis shoe" boots.

"How do you keep your feet from freezing?"

I told him if it was really cold or wet I used overboots, but normally, my feet flexing with each stride kept them much warmer than if they were mummified in a stiff boot.

Glancing at Ken's "more conventional" touring equipment, the official scoffed, "Couldn't convince him, ugh?"

Before I could answer, a horn blared that our ride had arrived. The warden gave us his card, asked us to call him if we saw any ptarmigan or big horn sheep, and wished us luck. We were on our way!

Kick turn, diagonal across the slope, side step, side step, side step. Diagonal, kick turn, side step, side step. Tediously, rhythmically, we were ascending the 500' high lateral moraine that bordered the southern wall of Robinson Canyon. Using every known technique for climbing on skiis--and some not yet imagined--we eventually emerged from the baffling maze of White Fir and Jeffrey Pine, gaining the first of a series of glacial benches found periodically up Horse Creek Canyon.

These benches are characteristic of the relatively steep east side canyons of the Sierra. Abrupt elevation gains of 300'-500' are followed by longer periods of easy going. The varying topography enables a skier to gain large amounts of elevation with surprising ease.

Three such steps found us at the midpoint of the canyon and our first camp. The remainder of the day would be spent recuperating from the overnight drive to Bridgeport and acclimating to the elevation. Over eager we had rushed up the canyon. Tired and a little light-headed I rested on a boulder in the warm afternoon sun, succumbing to the visions and sensations that had drawn me into the mountains:

The impressive Silver Pines. Rugged, defiant. Hundreds of years old. Recorded within the twists of the limbs were unimaginable experiences. The storms they must have seen! What had been the deepest snow, the lowest temperature, the highest wind?

The avalanche that had swooped from the rocks high on the canyon's western wall, originating at a point and then spreading, fan-like, into a terminal cone of snow, rock, and splintered Lodgepole pine. What seemingly minor and unseen event preceded its chaotic slide? A frost shattered fragment of rock falling to the surface of the snow? A piece of sun warmed rime? The imperceptible "snap!" of a single crystal's intertwined arm?

The clouds. Damn those clouds! Playing a game that would become too familiar. Developing, only to dissipate. Dissipating, only to develop. Would it snow tonight? Or wait until we were down in Virginia Canyon and then really dump?

Suddenly chilled, I returned from my reverie. The steep canyon walls, earlier maligned because of the avalanche hazard, were now bringing a welcome ending to our first day "on the boards." Preparing dinner we watched as the sunlight became muted and then red as it ascended the sculptured buttresses of Twin Peaks.

Morning. Soon our frost lined tent would be warmed by a bright new sun. Or so we expected. Neither the brightness nor the warmth materialized. Only a deceptive calm and a subdued hint of light radiating from an unbroken and thickening layer of clouds. The game. It was our move. It was time to move. It was time to get up and over the pass!

Within minutes we are up on the eastern wall of the canyon, intending to gain enough elevation to bypass the largest and steepest step. This morning the mountain wears white armor. The snow is so crusty and cold that our edges barely mark its surface. Moving carefully, slowly, we creep toward a large island of rock. For a while we try to follow the tracks of a party that passed here late on the previous day. No better. The tracks are a ribbon of water ice and are too slippery to follow. I do NOT want to slip here. Maybe I'd feel better if my ice ax was in its usual place on my pack, but I don't know what I would do with it. Finally, we reach the outcrop, remove our skiis and announce our madness!

The weather seems to be deteriorating even more; the wind increasing, the clouds developing. If we continued to the next bench and there was a big storm, we would be trapped between two small but dangerous avalanche slopes. Even the bench might not be safe. Either we turned back and escaped the apparently imminent blizzard, or tried to make the pass and the relatively safe terrain beyond.

Decisions. Go up or go down? Left chute or right? Traverse to the face or climb the chimney? Bivi here or climb one pitch in the dark? Put people under a little stress and its amazing what can be said. After some discussion we decided that we should continue, but not up the icy traverse. Diagonally descending, we skied to the bottom of the canyon, trying to lose as little elevation as possible. Part way down we noticed three people descending on the opposite side of the canyon. When they were below us Ken yelled, "Did you make the peak?" meaning Matterhorn Peak. A barely audible wind carried voice answered, "...terrible... cold...a whiteout."

Wonderful! What am I doing here? But suddenly the wind calms, the clouded sky becomes slightly brighter and less threatening, the still air warmer and comforting. We continue.

As we reach the base of the canyon's largest step, a break in the clouds reaches the sun. Midday dawns! Long rays just graze the slope's surface, soft shadows accentuating each subtle change in aspect and inclination. Individual crystals shine like beacons, beckoning us to follow. Sun warmed and mountain spirited, we charge up the slope.

On top ahead of Ken, I am greeted by three more retreating climbers bearing a familiar message: "It's really bad up there!" They continue down, the sun disappears, the wind increases 15 mph, and the effective temperature plunges 20 degrees. "Come on Ken!"

Just as I'm about to go and investigate, a skier covered in snow rounds the shoulder.

"Ken? What happened?"

"I was caught in a slough--carried me about 75 feet"

"Are you kidding?"

"It was only a couple of inches deep."

Ahem. Not wanting to dwell on this event, we hurried up the canyon, eventually reaching an elongated ridge entering the canyon from the west. We would work around this ridge and follow it, more or less, to the pass. First, we had to melt snow for some water. In the rush to leave camp we had forgotten to fill our water bottles!

Naturally, as Ken fired up the stove, snowflakes began to dawdle from the sky. But we had become conditioned to this game. It started to snow harder. Still we ignored it.

I thought of a warm summer morning in this canyon, sitting in the sun, eating currants and sipping pennyroyal tea. This worked, but only for a while. For try as I may, I could not escape the fact that beneath 15' of snow the currant bushes and pennyroyal were wilted and brown. The sun, wherever it was, hid behind dark gray, snow laden clouds. And instead of shorts and a tee shirt I wore every cold weather garment I owned. Damn!

Fortunately we pushed onward, for the weather--between brief flurries--began to improve. As we climbed toward the pass we realized the threatening clouds had helped rather than hindered. Instead of a sheet of ice, we found an easy to ski, cold new layer of crystals.

With the improved conditions we were soon atop the pass. Our arrival seemed to be acknowledged by a marked improvement in the weather. Perhaps the clouds were being chased away by the incessant scolding of a nearby Clark's Nutcracker, projected at us and the universe for invading his private domain. Blue was now being substituted for gray at an accelerated rate near the col and in the valleys beyond. To the south we watched as more and more of the Yosemite, and our eventual route, became visible.

The feeling was one of unrestricted elation as we skied the treeless bowls at the head of Spiller Canyon. Too soon we were camped in the flats three miles and 1500' below the pass. We were committed to the tour and the winter wilderness, and to an inescapable feeling of exuberance. Even our pursuers, the clouds, had left us; left us at least momentarily, to enjoy the rock and snow in solitude. In permeating stillness, quiet, and isolation. That we might learn the language of the glimmering stars and sense the light of the moon as it meandered through the pine-tops, reflected softly from the snow, and slowly, hypnotically, encompassed our bodies, our minds, and our spirit.

"After a still winter night I awoke with the impression that some question had been put to me, which I had been endeavoring in vain to answer in my sleep, as what--how--when--where? But there was dawning Nature, in whom all creatures live, looking in at my broad windows with serene and satisfied face, and no question on her lips. I awoke to an answered question, to Nature and daylight. The snow lying deep on the earth dotted with young pines, and the very slope of the hill on which my house is placed, seemed to say, Forward!"

-- H.D. Thoreau


And forward we went. Past the junction of Spiller and Virginia Canyons. Climbing, dropping. Skiing in shadow and in sun. Spending a snowy night near Cold Mountain and then descending to the cascades and waterfalls of Glen Aulin. Skiing along the Tuolumne River, anticipating the spring thaw. Traversing the expansive tundra like meadows, sunlight muted and long. Following faint, perhaps imagined, tracks to the comfort and warmth of Parson's lodge.

Clouds continued to chase and we continued to follow. Skiing the Tioga road, a buried telephone booth and road sign belying the efforts of the winter. And now, after four and one-half days on the snow, we were climbing gradually to Cathedral Pass.

Born in the Pacific, wave upon northwesterly wave of turbulent polar air had condensed to form translucent clouds veiling the peaks and ridges on every side of the pass. Below and to the north shadows raced across the frozen surface of a high country lake. Overrun, an indistinct, rucksack clad figure drafted a soon to be erased chord across the white expanse.

I had stopped near the pass to change wax. The temperature had dropped considerably since leaving the Meadows, and my Rex yellow was now far too soft. Scraping the wax from my skiis, I marveled at the terrain before me. Massive domes lower in the Meadows anchored the splintery, soaring spires of the higher elevations.

Remnants of millennia of frost wedging, the pinnacled summits had somehow escaped the insatiable appetite of the Tuolumne Glacier. Rough and angular, uncountable numbers of three inch feldspar crystals protruded from the rock. Lower, the glacier had shorn similar crystals, leaving a mirror like surface embedded with a curious pattern of rectangular tiles.

Beyond Cathedral Lake, its conical base buried in snow and spires concealed in clouds, was Cathedral Peak. Josiah D. Whitney, of the renowned Whitney Survey was among the first to describe its beauty, noting in his Yosemite Guide-Book:

"This is one of the grandest landmarks in the region, and has been most appropriately named. As seen from the west and south-west, it presents the appearance of a lofty mass of rock, cut squarely down on all sides for more than a thousand feet, and having at its southern end a beautiful cluster of pinnacles, which rise several hundred feet above the main body. It requires no effort of the imagination to see the resemblance of the whole to a Gothic Cathedral; but the majesty of its vast dimensions are such, that any work of human hands would sink into insignificance beside it."

Cathedral Peak is indeed inspiring, and it is not surprising that it is the most often climbed peak in the area. Its summit is an airy...

Abruptly these thoughts were interrupted by the surprising and incompatible curses of my fellow skier, ruthlessly directed at the "glue" on his skiis.

"Are your skiis balling as bad as mine?"

"Yea, I should have changed a long way back!"

"Did you put on blue or purple?"

"Purple under the foot."

"Anything would be better than this!"

While Ken waxed his skiis, I began to trace the meandering 7 inch wide by 30 mile long impression our skiis had made in the snow, eventually ending on the mountainous horizon at a small, cloud shrouded pass adjacent to the now indistinct form of Matterhorn Peak. We were joined to this pass, and all that was between, by a sometimes snow covered and animal tracked path. A passage to challenge the body, and to stir the senses and the mind, and to remind us of the exceptional sense, beauty and grace of nature.

A day of sun and we would be in Yosemite Valley. Expansive vistas, quiet forests and untouched snow would give way to pavement and pizza, chips and dips in the Mountain Room Bar, and a Greyhound Bus ride home. An almost unimaginable transition. But that would occur tomorrow. Today we could continue to ski in solemn solitude and ponder with each stride a wilderness of rock upon rock, and snow upon snow.

"Every winter the High Sierra and the middle forest get snow in glorious abundance, and even the foothills are at times whitened. Then all the range looks like a vast beveled wall of purest marble. The rough places are made smooth, the death and decay of the year is covered gently and kindly, and the ground seems as clean as the sky."

-- John Muir

Additional "Rock Upon Rock, Snow Upon Snow" Photos


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