Ski Mountaineering

Tamarack Flat/North Rim Yosemite Valley
Feb 12-15, 1999

Keith Martin

The trick to this trip is the weather. Last year an El Niño blizzard roared in on Presidents Day week end and I cancelled the backpack, opting instead to day ski and stay at my house in Groveland. The snow level for the storm was at the same level we were skiing at and we were all soaked by lunchtime, which put a real damper on all our enthusiasm and made me glad we were not camping.

This year I closely followed the weather patterns, and as the weekend arrived it appeared that there would be a break in the storm sequence except for a little disturbance Saturday night. Six of us: Scott and Julie Meek (OCSS /SMS), Ron Haky (Sierra Club), Rich Henke (SMS), John Kornak (new SMS) and myself stayed at the house. We all got up an hour early and had the place clean and ready to go by 8am. No need for a maid. Pete Yamagata (SMS) met us at 8am at the house and we joined Ken Kerner (SMS) at the trailhead at 9am. The morning was clear and sunny and we all anticipated a great weekend.

We made the long slog up the Tioga Pass Road to Gin Flat where we then headed south along the old Big Oak Flat road. This is the first road to reach Yosemite Valley and was used until the early 1950's. As we skied along the old road the weather began to cloud up and the road became indistinct. At one point we lost the road in the trees, but Rich was able to relocate the road after a little XC. The views of the snow covered north rim country were inspirational. We were in camp by about 1:30 pm. Tamarack Creek flowed nearby with fresh snow melt. We found that the bathrooms were not locked and with a little snow removal (about 4 feet) we were able to open the doors and avoid one of the less favored rigors of snow camping.

About 3pm, Rich, John, and I headed south to the Devil's Dance Floor. It was located about a mile due south from camp and involved only a few hundred feet of gain. Portions of the ascent were steep and covered with large boulders. On top we were treated to spectacular views of Yosemite Valley including Bridalveil Falls. The sky was beginning to get really threatening, a cold wind was blowing and it was close to sunset; so we had to leave. The upper slopes were breakable crust. As we descended we got into soft snow and had fun skiing between the boulders and trees. This was the first time I had a chance to try out my new K2 Piste Stinx skis in backcounty snow and I was pleased at their ability to quickly initiate turns. Rich of course was skiing on Kazama Outbacks and doing faultless jump turnsŠ.the triumph of technique over new gear.

That night Ron and I were introduced to Rich's hanging stove. He cooked in the tent and while outside the temperatures fell into the 20šs, we laid about in a balmy 50 degrees and drank hot chocolate. Hmm! That night a storm moved in after everyone was snug in their sleeping bags. First it blowed and then the tents were battered by a continuous loud rattling After about an hour it subsided and in the morning the skies were clearing and about a quarter inch of snow and ice covered the rainfly.

Only Rich, Ken, John and I choose to do the long tour to Ribbon Meadows. The rest decided to spend the day up on Devil's Dance Floor. Pete was particularly hopeful he could get some good photos.

We started down the road at 9 am. I had expected an easy ski to the footbridge over Tamarack Creek. I was in for a surprise. The road had not been maintained since its closure in the 50šs. Every time we came to a stream crossing, the road had been washed out with six foot snow covered embankments. We built character as we bravely crossed the roaring tempests, usually though not always without our skis. At one point the creek had flowed down the road for about a quarter mile, forcing us to try and ski off to the side. We found ourselves in a meadow crisscrossed with downed trees and multiple stream crossings. More character building. We made it to Tamarack Creek by about 11am, and began the climb up to Ribbon Meadows. After we got above tree line we stopped for lunch and enjoyed the views. By 1 pm we were at an overlook gazing into Yosemite Valley across from the entrance to the Wawona Tunnel. We contemplated the closeness of civilization, the spectacular view and the day and a half on skis which separated us from the tiny motorists below. Time to head back.

Above the trees we found ourselves again skiing in breakable crust. Only Rich, with jump teles was able to link turns. The rest of us resorted to kick turns and traverses. I tried a little side slipping and learned a valuable lesson. Do not try to side slip on breakable crust. The lower ski will catch without warning and your momentum will carry the upper ski over the lower one and cause you to fall in a very awkward position.

As soon as we got into the trees, the snow softened up and once again I was able to enjoy the turn capability of my new skis. Everyone enjoyed the challenge and reward of skiing between the trees. Since we were not celebrities, the trees were benign. Back to the road we skinned up and retraced our tracks. When we got to the stream covered portion of the road, we made better time since we were going up hill, not downhill. We were all back in camp by 4pm and listened to the other group rave about the fantastic views they enjoyed for nearly two hours while up on the Devils Dance Floor. Everyone had fun.

This was a great midwinter tour in a seldom visited area, lots of views, fun skiing at varying skill levels yet minimal avalanche danger. Several participants commented on how nice it was to have tours appropriate to intermediate level (4th class) skiers. The requirement for membership in SMS is to be an intermediate level skier. However, most tours are led at an advanced level. They felt, as I do, that leading intermediate level tours is good for the section, encourages members to improve their skills and gives an opportunity for new members, such as John, to join the section. Doing mid winter tours with a spirit of exploration also acts as a contrast to simply going again up to the top of Baldy to prove that yes indeed you can still ski downhill.

Monday we all packed up and were all starting back by about a quarter to 9. The last ones made it back to Crane Flat by 12:30p. The day was warm and sunny. Rich and John decided to ski a portion of the old road which parallels the highway. They had fun jumping over downed trees while skiing with full packs.

My thanks to all the participants, especially Scott Meek who stepped in as assistant at the last minute.

Back to Trip Reports
Back to SMS Home Page