Monday, December 6, 2010

I Know What You Did, Fella!, or The Headlands Report Goes to Yosemite in a Snowstorm

Over twenty-two years of frolicking in the Sierra Nevada Mountains - camping, hiking, swimming, lazing, eating, drinking, worrying about bears, avoiding bears, then one day actually going out to look for bears, exploring, bike riding, watching the sunset, star gazing - yet I had never experienced Yosemite Valley under the cloak of winter. Had seen all those gorgeous, iconic, black and white Ansel Adams photographs, but had never witnessed the snowy splendor in person.

Well, I can now check that one off The Bucket List. Even better: I somehow made it out alive. All right, so that may be a wee bit overdramatic; but I did make it out in one piece, which, believe me, is not.

*  *  *  *  *

"Jeez Palmer...just take a deep breath and relax. The worst thing happens we get stuck, call AAA and get towed out."

Meet Ryan: my accomplice in the harebrained escapade.

I shot him a sideways glance and hoped one of our cellphones would get reception when rescue time arrived. Let me rephrase that: I hoped his Droid would, because I had my iPhone and pretty much knew it would be worthless in the midst of the surrounding wilderness. How's this for your new slogan, AT&T?: No bars, just when you need them!

We were 5,000 feet above sea level in the Sierra Nevada, slowly and painstakingly and nervously fishtailing Highway 41 on our way to Yosemite Valley in Ryan's red Toyota truck. We were in the wrong lane of a narrow, two-lane mountain road, and it was snowing. Hard. Had another car eased around the bend we would either find ourselves in a head-on collision (granted a minor one, because pretty much everyone was driving 15 miles an hour) or be forced to stop. And if we stopped, we would never get going again. We would indeed be stuck.

Contrary to Ryan's assurance of the worst that could happen, that was not the worst, and I knew it. The worst would be to slowly slide off the road and down a cliff, which every so often was possible as the wall of mountain out my passenger-side window gave way to a lovely scenic drop-off. Briefly I thought about unbuckling my seat belt, just in case I needed to leap from the truck as it slipped over the edge and tumbled into the abyss.

Which was why we were in the wrong lane, the inside lane. You see there was fresh snow over there; it hadn't been plowed recently, and Ryan's truck seemed to get better traction in the snow, as opposed to the bare, slushy, frozen blacktop in the correct lane, the lane next to all that open free-fall. (Recently in this instance means within 10 or 15 minutes; with their orange hazard lights spinning, a fleet of snow plows muscled to and fro at regular intervals. It wasn't a blizzard, but it was coming down!)

A white SUV passed us at a death-taunting 20 miles per hour, and I saw the woman driving shoot a glance our way; read in her look "What the hell are those two lunatics doing over there in the wrong damn lane?!"

That, or "What the hell you boys think you're gonna do with those bikes?" Yup...For some obscure reason our mountain bikes were in the flatbed, an odd decision given the weather. What we should've stowed back there was another 400 pounds of sandbags or rocks; we certainly coulda' used the added weight for traction.

*  *  *  *  *

From the small-town, unincorporated "census designated place" of Oakhurst, CA. (formerly Fresno Flats), nestled in the foothills south of the park boundary at an elevation of 2400', the drive to Yosemite Valley proper on SR 41 zig-zags up to a 5,000' pass, dips back down to the settlement of Wawona, then climbs again to 6,000' at the junction with Glacier Point Road. In clement weather, even with all the ins and outs and ups and downs, the trip lasts less than an hour.

On Tuesday, November 23, 2010 it took us four.

From the very beginning it was obvious we had an adventure on our hands. Monday night we slept soundly at JoAnne and Joe's house (Ryan's mom and stepdad) in Oakhurst, and come Tuesday morning we set our sights north around 10 a.m. on blessedly bare asphalt. Yes!, I initially thought to myself. The weather was jibing perfectly with my master plan: a good storm had passed through the day before but cleared, and upon our arrival the previous evening a short hike to Lewis Creek and Conlieu Falls had immediately thrust us into a winter wonderland in the shadowy folds of the mountains, beyond the reach of the sun.

Within 10 minutes of leaving town and starting the climb, however, it started to snow, and soon we came upon a road block with a highway patrolman who informed us we needed chains to proceed. Well chains in winter in this part of the world are as easy to find as a flannel shirt or a gun rack, and within a half hour we had them bought and properly wrapped around the rear wheels. Problem was, even with the chains we couldn't get the truck off the miniscule incline where Ryan had parked on the side of the road. Yeah, that's correct; there was nowhere near enough weight over the back wheels, and we needed a push just to get going again, but a push we got (Good Samaritans in winter in this part of the world are as easy to find as chains, flannel shirts and gun racks, as most everyone needs a hand sooner or later).

We were off! Granted, our "off" was like a giant tortoise might be off in the Galapagos Islands when - should this ever actually happen in the Galapagos - the temperature plummets to bone-cracking 28-degrees Fahrenheit.

Woo-hoo! Ten, fifteen miles an hour! Sometimes five, I swear, as ace driver Ryan coaxed the truck higher and higher to snowier and snowier climes, then down again into Wawona, into the land of the big trees: the Giant Sequoias. The day before my master plan had included a stop to see the behemoths, the heftiest plants on Earth, but given the unfolding weather I quickly banished that idea from the itinerary. The valley, and the valley alone, was my goal; which was smart, because our 4-hour drive in and a 3-hour drive back out via the less drastic State Highway 140 (there was no freakin' way I was gonna let us chance the unknown conditions on SR 41), coupled with a 5 p.m. sunset, left us a brief two and a half hours to explore Yosemite on foot.

At that point in our journey, however, we didn't know it was gonna take four hours. Had we known, would I still have opted to continue? Probably. We were by then kinda egging each other on, both of us with our eyes on the prize come hell or high water (which in Yosemite has also been know to happen in a flash); caught up in one of those outings that, in retrospect, was probably better left undone, but that we were gonna do anyway.

I could already hear my mother Ginger, when I recapped the details of our trip, ask me like she has a few times in the past, I'm afraid to admit: "Where's the smart one in the group, Peter? The one who says 'Maybe this isn't such a good idea?'"

I've never really had a good answer for that question, and I certainly wouldn't have one if we made it back to the safety of Oakhurst. What was I gonna say? "C'mon, mom...Yosemite in the snow!?"

On the plus side, Ryan did indeed know his little red truck and had driven it in similar conditions before, so inch by inch, foot by foot, mile by mile, he somehow kept us moving. Other people, other vehicles, were about as well, which I found odd and comforting all at the same time. Yes, unbelievably there were like-minded fools who had the hankerin' for Yosemite in a snowstorm.

Every bend in the road revealed another dicey, icy incline, but somehow we successfully breached the first summit and cautiously made our way down to Wawona. As we passed the Wawona Hotel, a handsome establishment straight from a Hollywood Western, I found myself thinking back on "Yosemite Summer, 1996", when a gaggle of friends and I stayed nearby: twice in Cabin 2-B and once in Cabin #64. To this day I fondly remember the trips - one in late spring, one in high summer and one at the onset of autumn - and images from our adventures still bring a smile to my face: gasping for breath as we trudged to the top Yosemite Falls, legs and lungs burning (the view from the top and the sense of accomplishment made it all okay...when we were finished); exploring the high county and Tuoloumne Meadows; and finally, in September, my first trek to the bald, granite summit of Half Dome, an absolutely stunning but grueling 16 miles round trip, with a 4,800' elevation gain to boot.

I was snapped out of my pleasant, sunshine-filled reverie by the feel of the truck fishtailing - wheels spinning in vain as they searched for traction. Inhale and exhale, I told myself, and while you're at it unclench your fingers (they were digging holes into my thighs). Yup, we were on the climb again.

"Hey, Palmer.  Relax." Thanks, Ryan...I'll try.

Unbeknownst to us Yosemite Valley was another two and a half hours away, but the scenery, as I looked around, was already beautiful, like in the pictures. Like I imagined it would be! A foot and a half of fresh, powdery snow from the previous storm lined the road. The Douglas firs, the Ponderosa pines, the giant sequoias, the granite outcroppings, the newly invigorated streams: all were drooping with, laden with, lined with, a blanket of pearly, heavenly white. And more was falling. Large, wet, luscious, lacy, storybook snowflakes fell from the heavy and gray, overcast sky. The wind was minimal, so the flakes drifted straight down: silent, succulent snow that quickly covered any tracks and begged to be tasted.

I got the chance to do just that - to tilt my head backward like when we were kids, open my mouth and let the flakes softly alight upon my tongue - got the chance as we sat in an hour-long standstill, a string of 20 or so cars going nowhere fast. The road to Glacier Point (elevation 7,214') split off to the right, and was closed for the winter. We had made it to 6,000', the highest point in our journey, and then, well...we waited.

People hopped in and out of their cars and briefly exchanged theories on the nature of the hold-up. A few snowballs arced high in the air, found their appointed targets. Ahead of us the door of an SUV opened and an old woman with a walker, assisted by her family, tottered into a nearby building. I watched two teenagers, as teenagers are want to do, push each other into a four foot-high drift of snow.

"I'm bored," Ryan said forty-five minutes into the delay. "Tell me a story."

I was concerned that after all our time and effort we were about to be informed that the road ahead was impassable, so I told him the story of how I was gonna shove him into a snowbank if he didn't behave, if he didn't quit telling me to relax.

We had food, warm clothes and plenty of gas, and a restroom was open as we waited for the highway patrol to clear a supposed accident ahead of us on Highway 41, which, once we got going again, was mostly downhill into the valley at 4,000'.

Every vehicle had to pause and listen to instructions by a park official at the front of the line before proceeding: "Wait 'til the car ahead gets around the bend, and drive slow."

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Ahhh...Yosemite Valley! Buttressed by 3,500 vertical feet of granite, by Half Dome, El Capitan, Glacier Point, Royal Arches and Cathedral Peaks; laced with Bridalveil, Yosemite, Vernal and Nevada Falls; graced with the mighty Merced River, the thick stands of trees and the broad, grassy meadows: You are truly a gift from the gods to mankind.

At the turn of the 20th Century the area had yet to be afforded National Park status, but luckily Galen Clark, John Muir, the early Sierra Club, President Theodore Roosevelt and like minded decision-makers preserved it for eternity in 1906 when the land was transferred from the State of California back to the federal government. In doing so they kept Yosemite from the fate of Hetch-Hetchy Valley in the northern part of the park: damned, and now underwater.

Early photographs, paintings and stories of the fabled land hit the mainstream, and once the infrastructure for mom and pop tourist was laid, people started coming: by car, by train, on horse and on foot. They still are, in droves. The 1950's saw attendance first reach 1,000,000 annual visitors, and nowadays the park can seem almost loved to death as a yearly parade of almost four million sightseers travel from all parts of the globe to marvel at the mind-blowing natural beauty. Most of them come for the 7-square miles of the valley floor itself, and most in spring, summer and autumn.

Which brings us back to our story, brings us back to the reason I had to see Yosemite in winter.

Besides the scenery - which was as peaceful and as lovely as I imagined it would be, and which included the sight of an eight-point buck hoofing the snow in search of food and a huge black bear in the woods - my most potent memory from the trip to the valley was not a visual one. It was the sound, or lack of sound I should say. All my previous experience with Yosemite had been in spring, summer or fall, when the valley is crawling with those aforementioned pesky tourists. I've never had a problem with "high season" because my friends and I stay with the masses but learned early on how to escape the crowds, and I love what those months offer the hiker, the swimmer, the star-gazer: sunny, T-shirt days next to clear, long-sleeve nights, piercingly blue skies next to afternoon thunderstorms.

Yosemite in winter is all about an improbable stillness and hush amid such grandeur. The scenery looms around and above you as in summer - the towering trees, the imposing granite cliffs, the unbelievable, incredible mass of it all - and still appears like it should be buzzing, humming, noisy: all that BIG, all that OPEN, all that POWER. But it isn't. The valley is remarkably silent, even when you're by the banks of the Merced River or dwarfed at the base of Yosemite Falls. It is utterly enchanting.

"Oh my god Ryan if you can slow down without an accident there's a huge black bear in the trees!" I said it so fast it came out as one long word, and Ryan did in fact ease off the gas. He couldn't really slam on the brakes, lest we go twirling off the road into a...hell, it coulda' been any number of things. He got a good peek, though: The biggest bear I've ever seen in the wild - a prime sighting - and it walked with that unmistakably confident, lumbering gait the males adopt when they're fully mature.

Alas, the hour was getting on toward 4:30 p.m. The sun had slipped behind the rim of the valley cliffs, and it was time to head out, head home. We had driven the loop road almost twice, walked to the base of Yosemite Falls, lingered on Swinging Bridge, stumbled upon a bear and a handsome buck, but very few people. We had not seen Half Dome or El Capitain, as they were enveloped in clouds, and it didn't seem like they were destined to appear anytime soon.

I was supremely content with the entire outing, but I realized as we drove toward the exit that I wished we were scheduled to stay the night. I wanted more.

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The nighttime drive out of Yosemite on Highway 140 was in fact a whole lot less treacherous than our entrance during the day. On the odometer it's the long way back to Oakhurst but I didn't care, and I think Ryan was fine with our decision as well.

The adventure wasn't over, though, and neither was the drama.

Everything was swimming merrily along until we turned south on Highway 49; we were actually up to 40-mph on the descent into Mariposa town, and when an official sign on the side of the road claimed they were no longer needed we stopped to take off the chains. Alas, from Mariposa the road climbs anew; not as high as 41 but it climbs, and that's when things once again got a bit sketchy. Snow lined the road, ice reappeared and at times I could feel the wheels of the truck search for traction.

"Okay, I'm kinda over this now," one of us said. The other probably sighed or nodded in agreement. We weren't talking much any more.

Up and down, snow and no snow, ice and no ice, then (here's a new one) dense fog. Ryan slowed down to a gruesome but sane pace. We were getting there, but the trip was dragging on when all we wanted was to be back home with Joe and JoAnne.

From behind us a small sports car passed when the time was right, but zipped ahead at what I thought was too fast a clip. I think I shook my head in disbelief at the occupant's bravado (I'm a grandpa; if it was me driving that night we would still be making our way back). Lo and behold, not a minute later I watched the car fishtail, spin out of control, maybe do a couple 360's, launch itself up the embankment and into the side of a mountain.

"Holy shit!  Look out!" I yelled (maybe screamed). We were close behind but able to stop without or own accident.

I breathed a sigh of relief, then immediately to myself thought: 'Son of a bitch! Almost home and now because of this asshole we're gonna be dragged into a whole big lengthy rescue scenario!'

Not so Good Samaritan of me, I know. The Good Samaritan, the nice guy, was apparently behind us, and his name was Tyler: a young and strapping, handsome lad who came to the-idiot-in-the-sports-car's rescue.

Ryan and I were already out of the truck (I could feel the ice underfoot as soon as I stepped on the road) and were heading over to the scene when headlights appeared. I turned around and saw a hefty Dodge Ram Hemi coming our way, saw myself on one of those TV police shows where the people who stop to help get hit by a passing car, and had the gut-wrenching realization that we were about to become the victim. But the big truck eased to a stop and Tyler got out: all six foot-two of his dirty-blond, lanky self.

"Damn," he admitted, "My brakes locked up when I hit 'em and I started to skid. Thought I was gonna cause more trouble there for a moment."

The daredevil driver was okay, shaken up but not hurt. His car was a different story: both front tires were flat, the front end was a mess, and the windshield was one big-ass, complex spiderweb crack.

All-righty then, let's fix this mess! Ryan called the Highway Patrol; Tyler roped the small car to his truck and towed it to a turnout not far away, and I stood there watching Tyler...oops, watching Tyler and Ron (that was his name!) deal with the car, I mean. He climbs trees for a living, Tyler said when I asked him, and was on the way home, which thank goodness just happened to be in the direction Ron, said idiot, was going.

When the Sheriff arrived Ryan and I told him what had happened, and kinda assumed he would take things from there, help out the guy who's car was inoperable, take him somewhere warm and safe for the night. Nope. We looked back as we climbed into the truck and saw Mr. Sheriff drive off, leaving the car on the side of the road and Tyler as the sole escort.

"What the fuck!" Ryan exclaimed.  Did you see that? The cop left!"

I had, and I didn't quite understand, but I was happy we were once again on our way home; happy that someone else, the stalwart Tyler, was left dealing with Mr. Doofus McLeadFoot.

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I didn't actually hear it for myself, but when we walked through the door in Oakhurst around 9 p.m., kicked off our shoes and shed our cold and wet outerwear - when we admitted that we had indeed made it all the way into the valley and back, Joe looked at Ryan and said: "I know what you did, fella!" What he meant with those words was that he understood exactly the sort of trip we must have had, given the weather. From the warmth of their house he and JoAnne had watched the snow fall all day long, and had expected us to return hours ago. When we didn't come fishtailing down the road they then thought a phone call would be imminent, a call saying we had decided to abandon the master plan, take in a movie and lunch instead.

"Where's the smart one in the group, Peter..."

To our delight the unknown had not stopped JoAnne from cooking up a feast. She baked a scrumptious chocolate-hazelnut tart during the day, which we happily sampled after a plate or two of grilled tri-tip steak and hearty roasted vegetables. The neighbors stopped over before dinner, and Ryan and I recounted the day's improbable adventure with a bottle of Bonaccorsi pinot noir in hand, happy that it was safely history. A glass of Macallan 10 year-old scotch and a round of the card/spelling game Quiddler followed dessert.

I slept like a large granite rock, like a big lumbering bear is apt to do come winter. The following morning, under blissfully blue skies and snowless roads, we loaded up our frozen bikes and hightailed it back to the San Francisco.

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In what will soon be 23 years living in San Francisco I have tackled the lofty peak of Half Dome twice, Yosemite Falls once, the Mist Trail and Nevada Fall several times, and hiked countless other trails, both well-traveled and off the beaten track; spent time in the High Country and Tuoloumne Meadows, with a posse of friends searched out Dog Lake, May Lake, the tops of Dog Dome and Lembert Dome. I have found myself hugging trees with trunks 10 feet in diameter, trees that first sprouted to life 1,500 years ago. I have baked in the sub-alpine sun on smooth granite rocks 10 million years old and dunked my lily-white butt in water so damn cold it takes your breath away (and if you're a guy makes your testicles disappear). I have enjoyed surprisingly tasty pizza on the patio in Camp Curry with like-minded revelers from around the world; in isolation devoured a turkey sandwich and a frosty beer at the base of Illilouette Fall with two hiking buddies. And that's all just in Yosemite: throw in Downieville, Sierraville, the Lakes Basin, the north and south forks of the Yuba River, Sequoia National Park, Lake Tahoe and more, and the list of cherished memories gets even longer.

I consider myself blessed to have in the backyard of my adopted home the whole mountainous Sierra Nevada chain, and Yosemite Valley in particular: one of Planet Earth's most awe-inspiring natural attractions. And I am thrilled that I finally got to see it blanketed in freshly fallen snow.

It was worth the wait, and the trouble.

Peter J. Palmer