Half Dome from the top of Mt. Watkins (elev. 9,000 ft.), rendered by Abner Berzon
March 7-9, 1996
This was the first winter climb Ab and I attempted. We arrived at the Curry Village in theYosemite Valley floor on a Friday night and searched for an affordable place to stay. The price range for accommodations varied from $300+ per night for a nice room in the Ahwahnee Hotel, to $30 per night in a semi-permanent tent. The accommodations we selected, which afforded a degree of luxury one notch above the tent option, was a one-room cabin with electric heat. It was just big enough for two twin beds and a chair. Bathroom facilities were located fifty yards away.
These cabins were situated beneath Half Dome near the outdoor ice rink. Honestly, so many natural distasters have recently occurred in the valley that I'm not sure if these cabins or the semi-perminant tents are still extant.
The next day we got up and did some last minute shopping at a supermarket located inside the
park. We are in no way recommending this approach as we did sacrifice economy and risked not getting all the provisions we would need. Ab also had to pick up a set of ski poles which were available in an outdoor sports shop in Yosemite Village.
Originally, we planned to reach Mt. Hoffmann, which looked to be about fifteen miles from the valley floor. We ended up changing these plans. To start, the climb out of the valley consisted of an unrelenting ascent up Snowcreek Switchbacks (105 in all). The drudgery of this climb was greatly diminished by the incredible scenery unfolding beneath us. Many times during this climb the silence was punctuated by the thundering of distant avalanches sliding off the precipitious shoulders of Half Dome. It would give us pause for a moment to watch and enjoy. Until approximately switchback 70 we were doing a spring climb with no snow on the ground. Our initial encounter with snow was only in the shaded sections of the switchbacks. Gradually, switch-back by switch-back, we found the snow's depth increasing until, at our arrival at the valley rim, it was approximately six feet deep. Above and beyond the rim, the trail signs were barely visible, and they are probably at least eight feet above dry ground.
We set up our first camp just off the trail at the last switchback and spent the night gazing down into the valley. We also were inspired to share a few prayers from the heart.
The next day, still planning to reach Mt. Hoffmann, we packed up everything and headed up the trail. At this point snowshoes were a must. I guess it would be generous to say we ventured about one mile up the trail when we decided that the going was too much with our 70-pound packs and found a choice spot behind a fallen giant redwood to dump most of our gear. We then donned our cross-country skis and proceeded towards Hoffmann with renewed hopes.
Because we were breaking new trail and weren't destined to see footprints until the third day of our trip, the going wasn't as fast as we had anticipated. After very little bickering, at about 12 noon we decided that Mt. Hoffmann wasn't a reasonable goal for the day, so we studied the trail map to look for an alternative climb. It was at this point that Mt. Watkins was decided upon.
The climb up Watkins was a steep, direct, trail-less climb to the top. On the way up, we switched to snow shoes, our appetites for a ski down being whetted by often wide open, treeless slopes. Ab had the new aluminum type with a nice crampon built in under the toe section. I was working with the old-fashioned wooden bearpaw snowshoe. I had retrofitted a small crampon apparatus to the bottom of these. This proved to offer a bit more purchase on the climb, but certainly wasn't the answer. The old-fashioned shoes have another problem which came into play: once the finish is worn off the gut webbing, they become extra-absorbent. Since the snow conditions in midday were pretty wet, it got to the point where I felt like the Earth was metal and I was wearing two magnets on my feet.
After finishing the climb up what could be considered the lower section of Mt. Watkins, we stopped for lunch and eyeballed our route up the upper section. In the middle, between what we are calling the upper and lower section, the terrain leveled off for a while. After lunch, we pared down our loads some more; and after determining snowshoes were right for the task, left our skis at the lunch spot. We soon entered a wooded area and a gradual climb. Coming out of the woods, the slopes started steepening and many false summits were quickly revealed for what they were. This section was so steep and without trees that we were able to ski down on our snowshoes. In addition, when a clump of snow was kicked up it would roll down the hill and grow until a huge wheel, sometimes a couple of feet in diameter, was created that would eventually topple over. They didn't at all resemble those nice perfectly round cartoon snowballs we all grew up with. Anyway, this was the first time we had ever seen this occur. And we liked it!
After an hour's climb, about a thousand feet, we reached the top. The views from the top of Watkins were worth all of the effort and commitment to reach that point. As Ab's rendering shows, we were as high as the top of Half Dome. From the top of Watkins, one has a 360-degree view of Yosemite Park. Looking east, the view of Clouds Rest's shear face was awesome.
After "skiing down" on our snowshoes, we reached our lunch spot and changed to skis. Please note that I was ill-equipped again. I was running on trak skis which greatly added to the challenge of getting down in one piece. Ab did a little better in that he had invested in more of a back country ski. His boot was a bit more substantial and his skis have metal edges. Anyway, being a fairly accomplished alpine skier, it was a blast to feel like a beginner again.
The trip back to the campsite was fairly straight forward and lots of fun. Our skis worked quickly returning in the tracks we had created going in. We boogied. In the late afternoon I began to feel a bit fatigued, and on cross-country skis this can have interesting effect. The most pronounced effect was: "Help, I've fallen and I can't get up." At one point, I got stuck in a gully and couldn't get out. Exhaustion had taken over. After a short cursing tirade, I was able to get it together and continue on my way. Looking back, it was pretty funny stuff.
We got back to the campsite and set up the tent. Ab created a couch area out of snow, complete with a redwood bark coffee table. It was as beautiful a living room as any could ever want. We cooked up our back-country feast and hit the hay.
The next morning we packed up pretty early and began our return trip to the valley floor. At the top of the switchback by our first campsite, we met up with a group of college coeds who were embarking on a week-long, fifty-mile traverse of Yosemite Park to meet some friends at a ski resort.
We made our trip down out of winter and back to spring. The walk through the valley floor via Emerald Lakes was interesting. Probably more interesting to the average Yosemite tourist. We surely were an odd sight with skis and snowshoes hanging off our monstrous 9000 cubic inch packs when there wasn't a flake of snow on the ground. Anyway, this was the first time I felt the buzz one gets after they've accomplished a decent climb. Again, I liked it.
We spent the rest of the day taking pictures of waterfalls, watching rock climbers ascend El capitan, and just feeling great. We then headed back to the Bay area and spent the last night of the trip in Half Moon Bay and paid homage to Mark Foo (R.I.P.) before flying back to the east coast.Return to Morrison's Hiking Page