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Six Lessons About Snow Learned The Hard Way
Heading across snow near Tioga Pass outside of Yosemite National Park in July of 2019. DENNIS WYATT/209 Living

I ended up sinking up to my neck in snow the first time ever on skis.

It was in Yosemite National Park north of Glacier Point Road beyond Badger Pass Ski Resort.

I’d been in Manteca a year when a friend, Gary Pogue, talked me into going to Yosemite with him to ski. He wanted to take me skiing to Glacier Point given the road served as a “groomed trail” as it is closed for the winter once snow starts falling.

It didn’t matter that I had no idea how to ski. Gary said he’d teach me.

I rented cross-country skis at the Ski Chalet in Stockton while he drove down from Newcastle.

The first hour or so trying to nail down form was more than frustrating. And when I did kind of semi-master it, I was as wobbly as Jell-O during an earthquake going downhill.

Seeing my frustration — and later I’d find out the hard way an opportunity — Gary suggested we get off Glacier Point Road and try some wilderness skiing.

Basically we were going to head out into snow cross country wilderness style without a solid base below us such as the pavement of Glacier Point Road. Gary said just to follow his lead. I was getting comfortable with it. Then Gary started passing fairly close to a large stand of pines while staying on the south side.

He finally found what he was looking for. As he continued gliding on his way, I started sinking fast. I was dropping into a pocket that had been hidden by a fairly thin bridge of snow.

I was not very happy to sink to the point the snow was almost level with my neck.

Gary enjoyed the moment a little bit too much as he spent awhile snapping photos before he helped me out of the hole.

THAT TAUGHT ME SNOW LESSON NO. 1: Southern exposures can be tricky as they get the most sun.

We headed back to his Chevy S-10 Blazer and made a stop at the Tuolumne Grove. He convinced me it was an easy 2.5 mile round trip on skis.

Everything was going fine until we got to the tunnel tree carved in a dead, still standing, trunk of a sequoia. There were a number of other skiers sitting at the base taking a break.

Gary said we were going to ski through it. I told him he was crazy because all I could see was me losing control and slamming into the side of the tree as I tried to pass through. Gary said he was going to ski through.

The other skiers all got up and moved back. Gary started skiing. In just a few seconds he lost control and slid out the back side on his rear.

THAT TAUGHT ME SNOW LESSON NO. 2: Beware of snow in shaded areas as they may be iced over.

Given my extremely low sense of coordination and ease going downhill on my first day of trying to cross-country ski I promised myself I’d never, repeat, never even contemplate downhill skiing.

That, however, has not kept me away from the snow in mid-spring hiking above Yosemite Valley in years that Mother Nature cooperates or in July traversing the remaining snowpack found in the right locations in the Sierra above 9,500 feet.

I did try hiking once in the early spring heading up to the South Rim trail from Tunnel View in Yosemite Valley. It was the day after a snow storm that had left several includes of snow on the ground and more than a dusting in many of the pine trees.

I had been on the trail several times before and knew there was a narrow creek coming up when I got to a certain landmark. Imagine my surprise a second or two later when my foot broke through the snow and landed into about a foot of extremely cold running water.

SNOW LESSON NO. 3: Beware of what you can’t see when hiking in snow.

That particular hike also offered another lesson.

After carefully finding somewhat firm snow and pulling myself up with the help of hiking poles, I took off my boot and pulled out a dry sock from my backpack. I then continued toward Taft Point and its breath-taking, dazzling over-the-edge, 4,000-foot straight down view of Yosemite Valley.

About five minutes later I heard a slight creaking noise. I looked to my right and perhaps 20 feet away a snow-laden pine tree branch perhaps six inches in diameter was swaying on an otherwise calm day. Then there was a thunderous crack and the branch and snow fell to the ground making a loud thud as it hit the snow. It did not fall in my direction. However the number of seedling type of trees that snapped under its weight caught my undivided attention.

It turns out it is not unusual for snow laden branches — including big ones — to snap under the weight of snow. Hikers call them “widow makers” for obvious reasons.

SNOW LESSON NO. 4: What you’re not paying attention to above you can hurt you.

The fifth snow lesson could be not to have iPods et al blasting music in your ears as you’re hiking in snow in the middle of nowhere. But it is a more universal rule when you’re in the wilderness — period — whether you are hiking in November in the middle of Death Valley or on Mt. Whitney at 14,550 feet in July.

You need to hear everything from animals to the sound of what you are stepping on. Rarely do I see anyone listening to music — either with earbuds or actually blasting it from their smartphone — unless I’m in areas near Yosemite Valley.

Four summers ago I was hiking to Piute Pass at 11,423 feet in the Sierra northwest of Bishop. The reason I picked the hike is everyone I talked to indicated there was always a good chance to come across snow near the top even in mid-July.

It had snowed heavy and late that year. I already owned crampons for navigating icy and snowy terrain. They are essentially metal chains complete with spike-like teeth that wrap around your hiking boots. It’s the same general concept as tire chains but with a bigger bite.

A month prior I decided it might be wise to buy a snow ax. Given your neighborhood REI doesn’t stock them in June — at least in this part of the country — I had one shipped to me.

When I got it, I religiously went over instructional videos on YouTube. Each one emphasized the same movements over and over again. They also admonished you to make sure you are comfortable with using them before you need to use them.

Given there was no snow in Manteca, I improvised by trying to replicate the procedures needed to arrest a fall or slip on a steep slope from turning into a disaster.

The day I set out for Piute Pass I had already completed four other hikes in the previous four days to other passes that had snow and it was clear I did not need the snow ax.

When I started out for Piute Pass I almost left the snow ax in my vehicle at the trailhead thinking it would be just a pain to lug it again strapped to my backpack.

I had been in the lower part of the trail once before squeezing it in on the same day I did Lamarck Lake. But on that hike I never cleared the tree line.

On the day I was tackling the pass, when I did get out of the trees what l saw ahead of me was stunning. The last 700 or so feet of elevation gain was covered with snow. The snow also covered all traces of the trail.

I could find no sign of those that had hiked through before me. So I scanned the horizon and tried to figure the least steep route possible and where the trail might be at that would be the easiest and safest route to go. I made the judgment based on other fairly steep, snow covered trails I had been on that week.

I also looked down the slope to see what I was dealing with. There was a drop off that I later found out was about 80 feet to a creek. There were also a few outcroppings of large rocks that were not completely covered with snow.

With crampons on and using hiking poles, I headed up.

It was fairly steep and laborious. At one point I spied a ridge of sorts that I later would learn was where the snow-covered trail was at. Seconds later two things became clear. I had to change my angle heading toward the ridge because the way I was traveling was getting too steep. At the same time the iced-over snow was becoming slicker.

Then six careful steps later it happened. Even with crampons on my boots while clutching hiking poles, I slipped.

After struggling to get up for a few minutes, I switched my hiking poles for the snow ax with the intent to help me pull myself up through the icy snow.

Things were going fine for four minutes or so and I was perhaps 10 feet from the ridge when it happened. The snow I was planting the ax in gave way.

I found myself — all 175 pounds plus backpack — sliding down a fairly steep slope covered with icy snow.

It was somewhat all slow-motion as I looked over my shoulder to see if I could make out the rock outcroppings below.

I then started using the snow ax to slow and then try to stop my descent, hoping I could remember what I learned from the YouTube instructional videos.

I ended up doing it kind of right and was able to come to a stop and work my way to the rock outcropping. Once there I was able to scope out a less steep path to the top.

There was probably a good 30 yards or so to the drop off. I probably wasn’t in any real danger. But that said, the snow ax was definitely a big help.

SNOW LESSON NO. 5: Always be prepared for any situation you might encounter and carry the right equipment.

In mid-June two years ago I was at my go to hiking area — the Pacific Crest Trail and the nearby St. Mary’s Pass trailhead off of Highway 108 along Sonora Pass.

I’ve hiked in snow there a number of times when there was still two plus feet on the ground.

There wasn’t much snow visible from where I parked along the highway but as I kept heading south it started appearing.

I’ve hiked this section five times before including twice when there was decent snow on the ground. I was heading toward a section of the trail know for 100-mile views along a wind-swept ridge.

There were a number of areas where snow covered the trail to a decent depth.

When I neared a large horseshoe shaped bend where the trail is partially cut from a steep side of the mountain, I could see where the trail was completely covered in snow.

So I got off trail and started looking for a safe way to get to where I wanted to go.

After perhaps a quarter of a mile of going up and over snow-covered ridges, I saw a solo hiker in the distance with a dog headed the same direction I wanted to go.

I switched directions and hiked in his general direction.

I lost sight of him several times as I was gingerly trying to find my way over the rocky terrain. When I saw him again he was tackling the steep snow-covered terrain to reach the buried trail. I watched as he tried tackling it four different times before he decided to give up.

I decided if he couldn’t do it, neither could I.

He started turning back but headed in a slightly different path. I was still a ways behind him but I figured I’d follow him.

When I got to a ridge he had disappeared over, I saw his boot print and hiking pole holes in the snow.

I figured it was my lucky day.

Did I mention I was hiking in shorts with a sleeveless shirt given it was a warm day while he was wearing pants and a long sleeved shirt?

The descent was going well for about 100 feet or so until it became steeper. A minute or so later I lost my footing. I had crampons in my backpack that I had taken on and off at various parts on the hike but had opted not to put them back on before I started going down the ridge.

Long story short, I ended up going about 250 or so feet sliding downhill with my backpack strapped on going feet first before coming to a stop. I really was never in danger.

I got a few scratches on my legs and by the time I stopped my rear felt as if it was stuck on a giant block of ice.

But none of that bothered me as I sat there laughing to myself while soaking up the sun rays and scanning the blue horizon at the nearby mountains covered with snow.

I felt like a 14-year-old.

SNOW LESSON NO. 6: “Playing” in the snow is a lot of fun.