Snowstorm in the Cathedral Range

March 28 - April 4, 1982

Back in March 1982, Randy, Mike, and I set out on a week-long ski-backpack trip into the Yosemite high country. This was a trip that we had been looking forward to, and we were all in good spirits.

At the visitors center, we took advantage of the "self service wilderness permit" system by making a total joke out of it. For example, under "number of watercraft," Mike described his rubber ducky. Under "destination," I wrote, simply, "YOSE!!!"

Having completed this official obligation, we strapped the telemark demo skis onto our packs, and started hiking out of the valley. Near Vernal Falls, Randy asked, "did anyone check the weather?" Mike replied "Of course not! We would have gone regardless!" We had dry ground to the top of Nevada Falls, where we pitched our early-model TNF Oval Intention, and camped.

It snowed about a foot that night. We packed up the next morning, forgetting one of the lengthwise tent poles (tent wands are easy to ignore lying on the ground in powder snow). We slogged through the fresh powder to about 7500', where the snow was deep enough to ski on. We skied, with skins on the bases, behind Half Dome, and onward to the east of Cloud's Rest. It started to snow again. Mike had already spotted a particular ridge-top on the map where he wanted to camp, for the "great sunrise" we'd have the next morning. What we got instead of a sunrise was a full night of horrendous winds, which only let up when blown show against the tent walls started to act as somewhat of a windbreak. While acknowledging that his campsite had been less than awesome, Mike remained optimistic, telling of how we'd have "great powder skiing" in the Cathedral Range.

So we moved on, through the increasingly heavy falling snow, breaking trail up the middle of Long Meadow. Trail-breaking got more and more difficult. Our ski tracks were almost knee-deep. Visibility dropped to zero. We were getting tired. We stomped out a tent site and made camp.

Quite a lot of snow fell that night. The next morning, it was still snowing very hard. Randy, a snow survey engineer from Norden (still is) noted "this is a very serious storm; I'll bet there are a lot of highways closed." Our gear was getting damp, partly due to the oval-minus-one-pole having bad condensation problems.

We decided that we'd better just pack up and head home... until we tried to ski. Our ski tracks were now waist-deep. Breaking trail for even a hundred feet or so required considerable effort. We decided to wait a day, in hopes that the snowfall would lighten up, and that the snowpack would consolidate. We spent the mid-day digging out a luxurious snow cave.

We slept well, aside from having to periodically clear fallen snow away from the entrance. The next morning, the storm was still going strong, though there was some visibility. For the first time, we could see that we were camped near the base of Columbia Finger. Which particular uplifted digit Columbia Finger represented was something that we all agreed on. "I hate snow," Randy muttered. With three planned days remaining, it was clear that we would have to start back immediately.

Our strategy was to cross the width of Long Meadow to the exposed ridge on the other side. We hoped that the ridge crest, being windblown, would not have as deep powder as the valley. So we started off. The snow depth was absurd. Our ski tracks were about four feet below surface. If you stepped off of your skis into the ski tracks, the surface of the snow would be above eye level. We estimated that there was more than ten feet of fresh powder.

Breaking trail was exhausting. One person would leave their pack behind, break trail with a sort of ski-goosestep for a couple hundred paces, then drop back to get their pack while someone else took the lead. Using this system, it took us four hours to attain the ridge crest, maybe a mile from our old snow cave. Once on this windy ridge, we were able to make better time. We did about three more miles, and collapsed in the tent.

Priming the stove in the tent that night, we spilled some white gas. The spilled gas caught fire. Someone quickly tossed the burning stove out into the snow, but we still had a fire on the floor of the tent. Fortunately, everything was hopelessly damp. We were able to put out the white gas flames, which were pretty much just floating on water puddles on the tent floor.

After dinner, I pulled out our copy of our ridiculous wilderness permit. "You think they've gotten around to reading our permit?" "Yeah, they must think we're pretty hilarious!" "I guess we're the joke of the week down there."

It wasn't snowing quite as hard the next morning. We headed off. The ridge finally ended, and we would soon have a moderate downhill. We reached that. Breaking trail on the downhill was laborious, since we were once again in full-depth powder. We made camp at dark, physically trashed, having done a four-mile day.

The next morning: partly sunny! Skiing was merely difficult from here on. We got off-route on our descent into Little Yosemite Valley, and had to plunge-step down a rather nasty avalanchey-looking slope, which we basically found ourselves committed to descending. We stopped at dark in Little Yosemite Valley. This had been the day that we were due to return.

The next morning we started early, getting to the top of Nevada Falls in a couple of hours. There was less powder snow, perhaps only five feet or so, at this lower elevation. Unfortunately, there was no base layer of snow whatsoever. This particular snow condition made descending the big granite switchbacks near Nevada Falls quite gruesome. You couldn't see the switchbacks, but, *SCRAPE*, you could feel them. This ugly powder-over-rock situation persisted most of the way to the valley floor. The Rossignol Randonnee tele-boards that Marmot was letting me "demo" were destroyed (thanks to a delam, they were under warranty though).

We spent our last remaining ounces of energy skiing slowly through Yosemite Valley, towards Curry Village. In my dreamy exhausted state, I heard a helicopter above. "I wonder if those guys are looking for us?"

Yup! There was an urgent note on our car. We called them, we all called home, and we bought a paper. The storm was the main story. 12 to 15 feet of snow had fallen throughout the Sierra. Randy had guessed right about highways 80 and 50 being closed, but he had failed to predict the huge avalanche that had just devastated Alpine Meadows (mid-afternoon on 3/31, around the time that we were finishing our snow cave).

We headed to the Central Valley, and stuffed ourselves at a big all-you-can-eat salad bar.

-Bob Akka, 11/20/93

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