Snow Camping

After multiple fits and starts, years after the initial idea crept into my brain with the perseverance of syphillis, I finally headed up into the mountains and camp in the great white, frigid tundra of the Sierra Nevada, facing harrowing white-out conditions, a la Jack London lightsabering open his Tauntaun, relying on only my MacGyver wits and those innate survival skills harkening back to caveman days.

Okay, a couple slight misrepresentations there. Jack London had no lightsaber. Other than that, it’s all legit.

Plus the fact that I was in Yosemite Valley, where there are park rangers every other square foot. Not to mention grocery stores. And bars, in case I forgot to pack enough beer, the ultimate survival sin.

Oh, and the weekend in question, the temperature was only a few degrees cooler than down in the flatlands.

This was my second planned glorious freezefest marred by temperate conditions. Two years ago, my outdoor curling bonspiel, held at one of the coldest spots in the lower 48 states, resulted in a high in the mid thirties and a low in the twenties. Don’t get me wrong, that’s cold and all, but that same competition this year had highs in the single digits.

Yosemite camping, in comparison, was closer to what I assumed it would be. Yeah, that high temperature wasn’t substantially lower than back home, but the high temperature doesn’t tell the whole story. In the valley, you probably get three to four hours a day near the high. In Yosemite, if you walk into a shadow, you’re losing ten degrees. The only time I felt truly miserable was 2:00 pm, returning to campsite after hiking to the Vernal Falls bridge, only to find said campsite completely shaded, and realizing that sweat cools very quickly. The sun teased us way up on the mountains, but it was gone for good from down below. Even though the temperature dropped another twenty degrees by nighttime, we were acclimated by then.

Actually, the most miserable I felt was when 28,000 steps at elevation combined with carnitas and beer. The bus that takes you into Yosemite is called YART, for Yosemite Area Rapid Transit. Yart is also what I did inside my tent.

Speaking of which, the shuttle busses are back! After two years of destroying the environment in order to stop the sniffles, they finally decided to let our feet and exhaust pipes rest. The only weird thing about the busses was the time and date posted inside were wrong. We rode around Saturday afternoon, but the busses through it was Sunday morning. We thought maybe if we rode the busses long enough, we could find out who won the Super Boal and make a bet on it. Alas, at 5:00 pm Saturday, it was still only reading 8:00 am Sunday, and I don’t think the shuttles ran at midnight when we could listen to the game. Damn you, time travel paradoxes!

Sorry, that had nothing to do with snow camping, just a Yosemite/Covid aside. 

As for the temperature thing, it did get pretty chilly overnight. Somewhere in the mid-twenties, I’d surmise, although one of the wives saw a report of 18. Nothing that a tent, sleeping bag, and about five layers of clothes. 

Oddly enough, my feet kept getting cold around 3:00 am. I’d think my feet would be the warmest, buried deep in my sleeping bag. But I suppose they’re also closest to the edge of the tent. Plus the whole distance-from-heart thing and only one layer of socks. On night two, I threw a hand warmer down there, but it had burned out by the time I needed it. I opened a second one, but I don’t know if I didn’t shake it right or if it was a dud or whatever, but it never seemed to warm up and I was too fucking tired to reassess. 

Yes, I’m talking about those little iron oxide packets. As I said, roughing it like our forebears. 

But dammit, there WAS snow on the ground, so I’m claiming victory over snow camping.

Honestly, I was a little worried. We had huge storms in December, but the last four weeks have been dry, and I wasn’t sure what impact a month of fifty-degree days might have on tobogganing conditions. I knew there’d still be snow up on the mountains, but the valley only sits around 4,000 feet elevation. Fortunately, there was plenty of snow to go around. Considering our campsite was in full shade from 2:00 pm on, I think the snow will stay there well past the equinox.

At least it wasn’t last year. We originally booked our snow camping for last January, but Yosemite canceled it due to the first, or maybe second, Covid surge. Back before we started naming variants, because they didn’t start naming variants until after got vaccinated and weren’t living in fear of plain ol’ vanilla Covid.

While I complained about Yosemite shutting down, because it’s not like we were going to be exchanging lots of saliva with strangers while outdoors in January, perhaps it was a blessing. Our first (and only) storms of the 2020-21 winter didn’t arrive until two weeks after our reservations. Without snow, it isn’t really snow camping. It’s just cold camping, which doesn’t sound nearly as fun.

Aside from the length of time it’s near the high, want to know the other difference between forty degrees at home and forty degrees camping? The latter doesn’t have central heating.

I figured forty was no big deal. I regularly walk to my classroom in shorts when it’s sub-40 in the morning, and half the times I’m wearing shorts because it’ll be 65 by the time I walk out. Except on the way to my classroom, I’m only outside for 500 paces or so. When it’s forty degrees at a campsite, you better be sitting your ass by the fire. Then your front. Then your ass again, like a goddamn rotisserie chicken.

I’m mostly exaggerating. Weatherwise, it was more or less what I was looking for. Cold and crisp, enough to require layers and bundling, but nothing bone-biting. Not sure I would’ve wanted to run around naked at midnight, but nothing a fire in the morning and evening, and a little walking around during the day, couldn’t accommodate. 

Although we did a hell of a lot more than “a little” walking around. In addition to those 28,000 steps, my Fitbit clocked me at 130 floors on Saturday. We did Mirror Lake AND Lower Yosemite Falls AND the Vernal Falls footbridge. I’ve become so used to camping out in the middle of nowhere where the biggest exertion comes from sitting by a lake and playing cornhole, that I forgot camping can include some rather aerobic exercises.

It doesn’t matter if I’ve done Vernal Falls twenty times in my life, I still fall for that sign at the beginning every damn time. “Vernal Falls Footbridge,” it reads, “0.8 miles.” How hard can a trail be if it’s less than a mile? 

Except for the fact that it’s 0.8 miles straight the fuck up a mountain. I tried to explain this to the two Yosemite noobs with me on this trip. We’d done Mirror Lake already and it was getting close to lunchtime. I really only wanted to see if Happy Isles was open. I didn’t need to prove anything.

But it’s less than a mile, they said. There ain’t no pain in the world we can’t withstand for one measly mile. Twenty minutes up, twenty minutes down, and we’ll be right and ready for lunch. 

Then I suddenly forgot a lifetime of experience. I’m older now than I used to be, I reasoned. My legs are longer. An hour car ride used to be straight torture, and now I do it on a daily basis. Based on that logic, the NFL would be filled with fifty-year-olds. 

Holy shit, Vernal Falls is a brutal fucking hike!

There’s one stretch, only fifty yards or so, that appears to cross the surface of the sun at something like a seventy percent grade. No, I don’t care if that can’t exist. This entire stretch stands only as a reminder, after hiking ninety percent of the way under a beautiful tree canopy, that nature is an asshole. On a summer hike, you rest beforehand, drink your body weight in water directly afterward, and then become a druid so you can fuck the nearest tree. 

I thought maybe it would be a pleasant respite in the middle of winter, but nope. Because when you’re hiking in forty-five degree shade, you’ve got layers. I contemplated stripping off my flannel and sweatshirt in order to cross the threshold in my skivvies, but that would’ve taken way too much effort.

When we returned to the campsite, now with no sunlight, my friends remarked it was a deceptive 4/5 of a mile. I felt like reminding them I tried to talk them out of it. But instead I only shivered while cold wind buffeted my sweaty undergarments.

The Mirror Lake trek was more pleasant. The only drawback to that slow, paved incline was some slippery-as-shit batches of ice. Not so bad on the way up as the way down. My curling skills came in handy. Walk like a penguin, low center of gravity. My friends didn’t do quite as well. Four tumbles between the two of them. 

Speaking of ice, I was surprised the actual lake was iced over. I suppose it shouldn’t surprise me. Ice and snow don’t form the same way, and if it’s regularly dropping into the twenties and teens at night, it doesn’t matter if it’s been a month without a cloud in the sky. But still, Mirror Lake is pretty shallow. Not really a lake at all so much as a slight egress, a Thanksgiving belt unbuckling, of a fast-moving stream. In fact, the pool just beneath Mirror Lake, which I always considered more or less a part of Mirror Lake, didn’t have a speck of ice despite only a fifty foot elevation change. 

And yeah, I totally wanted to curl on that shit.

The Yosemite Falls hike was pretty much the same as it is in the middle of summer. Almost as crowded, too. For the most part, the park was serene and, from the perspective of a regular summer day, sparse, but the Lower Yosemite Falls bridge was still ass-to-elbow.

The only other place that felt crowded was, ironically enough, the campgrounds. Only one of the seven or eight valley campsites is open in the winter, and it’s only half open, all of us jammed into a hundred or so campsites. So even with decreased demand, we’re still right on top of each other, especially for guys used to camping somewhere remote enough for home run derby and throwing butter at trees. Maybe Yosemite knew what it was doing when it canceled my reservations last January. I thought there was no way we could spread Covid to strangers while outside in January. Turns out it’s about as private as a cultish orgy.

They didn’t, however, close Yosemite Falls last January. I assume that’s what caused every single surge and variant of the past twelve months.

Even the village store was a ghost town. I didn’t even know it was possible for the parking lot to only house a handful of cars. On a summer day, you’re idling for ten minutes until one of the two hundred cars leaves. In January, they don’t even bother plowing half the parking lot. 

Or maybe it was just that people bought their shit during the day, not wanting to drive over icy roads in the dark like a couple dumbass city slickers rolling into town twenty minutes before the store closes.

Which leads to the biggest issue with my snow camping adventure, the biggest switcheroo from my comfort zone of summer camping. 

Did you know that the days are shorter in February than in June? Who woulda guessed?

I knew there was no way in hell we’d make it there before the sun went down, but couldn’t fight that niggling hope at the base of my spine that I wouldn’t be blindly groping in the frozen dark like a freshman trying to unclasp Elsa’s bra. We discussed grabbing dinner on the way into the park, but didn’t want to lose time. So no stopping at the Pizza Factory or inviting brewery in Groveland. Because… well, I’m not sure why. It’s not like 8:00 would’ve been darker than 7:00. Once you hit nighttime, you’re setting up camp blind. The only difference is sloppiness caused by hunger pangs.

In the end, after fumbling around with some persnickety poles that seem to go together perfectly fine when I don’t have to worry about my fat ass blocking the lantern light, we finally boiled some water and had ramen for dinner that first night. It was almost PB & J sandwiches, but the other guy realized he threw some packs into his camping gear back in the Bush administration and that stuff can withstand a nuclear winter. Or a Yosemite winter. 

Not as good as the brewery or pizza in Groveland. Then again, had we stopped for dinner, the store might’ve been closed when we got there, meaning we could only burn the wood we brought with us. Ramen and fire beats pizza and no fire.

Who says I’m irresponsible while camping?

Next year, Polar Bear Challenge!

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