Warren Miller: A frigid and memorable night in Yosemite | AspenTimes.com

Warren Miller: A frigid and memorable night in Yosemite

Warren Miller
Special to the Aspen Times Weekly
Aspen, CO Colorado

A dozen-or-so cars ahead of me, the giant rotary snowplow with its two diesel engines was slowly inching its way through the five feet of snow that had covered the road during the night. At this speed it was throwing the snow 40 feet through the air, and it would be at least an hour and a half before we covered the last two miles to the lodge at Badger Pass, in Yosemite National Park.

Many of the people in the first cars behind the plow were worried because the prior afternoon a skier had not returned to the lodge and they were anxious to mount a search party as soon as possible.

I was young enough at the time (21) to get caught up in the enthusiasm of the search, and before I knew it I had joined two National Park Service rangers to help them break trail down to the highway to Merced.

The snow was heavy and we still sunk in a foot and a half or more with each step forward, so we gradually veered off to the right and down a canyon. We only had about four hours of light for the search and we managed to get caught by darkness. I wanted to continue for another 30 minutes downhill because my senses told me the highway was nearby and we could hail a passing car if the road had been plowed out.

No such luck.

The rangers found a broken-off tree stump that they could light on fire, and it would keep us warm all night. Or so they thought. While one ranger lit the tree stump on fire, the other ranger and I started cutting branches to build a lean-to and a covering from the snow for us to sit or sleep on through the night. Everything had proceeded according to plan – we had the beds made and the tree burning brightly – when the wind shifted 180 degrees. Now the burning embers were falling on us instead of out in back of the lean-to. The real problem with this is that you would not know an ember was on your back until it burned a hole through your clothes and blistered your skin. This made for a very long night under the stars.

Coming from the beach world and naïve in the ways of winter at this early stage of my ski life, I placed my wet ski boots too close to the fire and managed to burn the soles right off of them without even making my feet warm. I think it kept me from getting frostbite, however. I gave up counting the number of holes in my knee-length Navy parka, but I had company in my misery with the two park rangers.

I had recently returned from the South Pacific where I had been sunk in a typhoon. Neither one of the rangers had even seen the ocean, so there was only so much they could understand about my typhoon adventure. On the other hand, I learned a lot that night about how the wind can switch 180 degrees in the early evening; they had gotten so cold and tired, they forgot about it when they where building our shelter.

Two or three times during the night I mentioned that I thought I had heard a car driving by within a few hundred yards of where we were. Of course the rangers laughed at me, and this continued as the first gray streaks of dawn began to appear in the sky and we all realized in the clear morning that we would live to hike another day.

I had to cut two of the four layers of leather soles off of my ski boots so I could get them into my toe irons and join the rangers in slogging downhill to who knows where. We had not hiked 200 yards when we heard the first car drive below us. Yes, we had camped 300 yards short of the highway. The night before, the road had been closed because of the heavy snow, but had since been plowed out and skiers where driving up to Badger Pass for a day on the slopes.

We hitched rides in the next two cars and rode to Badger Pass, where we were greeted by the bad news that we were the last search party to report in, and nobody had found the missing skier.

He would be found 13 days later on the trail to Ostrander Lake, where he had found a ski patrol toboggan and blankets and had stayed by the toboggan until someone found him, still alive but a lot skinnier.

I wore that Navy parka with the burn holes with pride for a few days, then threw it away when someone told me I smelled like a horse barn that had just burned down.