We’re skinning in puffys. Temperatures hover around zero. With headlamps lighting our way, it’s one of those mornings where as palpable as the excitement for the day is, we’re still far enough away from our objective to keep quiet in the skin track and stay on the move. I know what lies ahead even though I’ve yet to experience it in person. It’s a dream I’ve had for years, one that is shared with my other three partners for the day. I’ve imagined it in my mind so many times it almost seems like I’ve been here before. And truthfully, I have visited Yosemite National Park many times, just never during a time when there was actually enough snow to ski to the floor of Yosemite Valley.
The previous night Dave Campbell and I had made it to Yosemite about an hour before sunset. Dave is no stranger to Yosemite, especially the steep granite crags and walls that call to climbers around the world making it arguably the international epicenter of rock climbing. Yosemite is also one of the most visited natural attractions in our country, a National Park that averages around 4 million visitors annually. It’s an area revered many times over for its ecological majesty and the incredible access the Park provides for anyone willing to make a visit. One of the many special spectacles in Yosemite is the “Firefall,” and as much as Dave I weren’t necessarily visiting the park to catch the fleeting phenomenon, it looked as though we might be in the right place at the right time to catch it on this trip.
Running through awkward snowdrifts trying not fall, I found myself bobbing and weaving through the crowd, looking up at what appeared to be a continuous stream of electrified lava pouring off of El Cap. It’s a place so revered and rightly so, with postcard views in abundance everywhere one looks, this was an unforgettable, fleeting moment of sheer natural beauty. Being here for this one moment in time was worth any effort it took to experience it in person. As the glow faded into a pink alpenglow I caught a glimpse of Dave, smiling as if he just finished another climbing route on El Cap. The look was one that was clear in its sincerity. What we just saw was special, and we nailed it. But seeing Dave also reminded me that we hadn’t actually come to Yosemite to see the Firefall, and we should probably get back to our car. We had our other two friends to meet and a big mission planned for the following day. We were here to ski, after all.
Back at the car, we’re glad it hadn’t been towed. Dave and I circled around the valley back to El Cap Meadows to meet up with Todd Offenbacher and Clay Josephy. The four of us knew that with the epic, cold, snowy winter the Sierra had been experiencing certain lines and fickle zones that need copious amounts of moisture would likely come into play. We had all skied in the park for years, but always in the high country on the outskirts of the eastern end. The dream was shared, to someday catch the heart of Yosemite Valley covered in enough snow to ski. Friend, and legendary snowboarder Jim Zellers had ridden Half Dome back in 2000, and fabled local Jason Torlano had been putting up first descents in the valley for decades. The potential was there, but like nailing the Firefall, lining up the perfect ski conditions with precise timing is a perpetual crux to the Yosemite skier.
Eventually, the four of us gathered at the base of El Cap with a slice of pink lingering in the ever-darkening sky. Dave and I were buzzing from catching the elusive Firefall, and Todd and Clay had arrived with just enough time to catch views of Yosemite Valley covered in snow. We had friends on the ground that had completed ski descents from Rim-to-Valley in the days prior, and it seemed the stars had aligned for our team to give the rarity a go.
Sleep did not come easy that night. A mix of nerves, logistics, and excitement kept everyone’s minds occupied. We all had our own unique connections to Yosemite. Clay shared, “it is the centerpiece of memories dating all the way back to when I started climbing in my early 20’s. I’ve made so many missions to the valley, and El Cap is always right there, front and center, looking over the entire scene, seemingly holding all the aspirations, dreams, intention and devotion of the climbers and athletes that go there.” Yosemite is one of the most important places in the world to Dave, and I have been fortunate to share in more than one adventure with him in the park. In fact, the last time either of us had been in Yosemite before this mission was earlier that fall, airing it out on the famous Lost Arrow Spire. Todd is a world-class big wall climber with first ascents across the globe, including 19 successful routes up El Cap. He told me, “I’d always looked across the valley while climbing El Cap and wondered how often those ski lines fill in, and if they’d been skied.”
After a few hours of fake sleep, our four-pack brewed some strong coffee and set out for step one of the day; setting up the shuttle. With complex lines in the Sierra, like any of the routes that connect the Rim of Yosemite to the valley floor, the preferred method of access tends to be bottom up, so first hand conditions beta can be derived on the ascent. However, it’s not an absolute rule. And in this specific case, climbing up any line-especially the one we were planning to ski- would expose us to countless opportunities for hang fire to shed as soon as the sun started to rise. One of the many nuances that comes when skiing in Yosemite Valley is the short window to make a safely informed descent. With an ideal drop-in time between 8-9am, and so much verglas, rime, and precariously plastered snow stuck to granite slabs and overhung rock roofs, the option to start from the top was wiser in this case. After we dropped our pickup car off in El Cap Meadows, we drove to the Badger Pass Ski Area and started the multi-mile, relatively flat approach to the Rim of Yosemite Valley.
After miles of dark and cold skinning, the dense coniferous forest surrounding our vantage started to dissipate. The Rim. I had no idea what major landmark would be noticeable at first, if we would be exactly on top of our intended line, or if more route finding would be necessary. Our quiet skin track soon started bubbling with hoots and hollers. I focused on the first thing I could make out as I crept out to the rim, and there was Lost Arrow Spire. The four of us started laughing in unison. Was this real? Here we were, looking over Yosemite Valley, and as far as the eye could see, it was covered in a deep winter coat. The dream was real.
A little preoccupied by our insane positioning, we needed to find the top of our line. Thankfully, all we had to do was find El Capitan. From Clay’s perspective, “when I realized El Cap was that far below us, it took my breath away. Skiing down towards it, literally filling the view out of the couloir, seeing something so familiar in a totally new light, it was powerful. I’ve spent all my life looking up at El Cap and there we were skiing towards it. Having the opportunity to do something that is so rarely accessible, and done by so relatively few, was like magic. It was surreal to be able to have that perhaps once in a lifetime experience. And I knew it at the time. Even had the thought on the way down, this is a once in a lifetime experience.”
We knew we had to ski quickly, but rushing was not an option. Todd recalls, “We descended very early in the morning. Skiing down was cold, dark, and in places steep, but El Cap was lit up in the sun, like a lighthouse across the valley.” After negotiating the steep entry, a crux presented itself, an island of rock-tree-ice that we inevitably knew we’d encounter on such a descent. With a massive rappel from skiers left, we might have been able to bypass this section, but here we were picking our way through this intricate, technical mound to reconnect with the long, arcing couloir that fed to the valley floor.
The turns off the top were committing, but the snow was good. The more we made our way down and over to the island, the exposure was real, much like it is for the climbers who have flocked to the valley in the non winter months to find their Zen for decades. A few chunks of ice peeled off the couloir walls, and there was another sense or urgency to move. As cold as it was, and as shaded as we were in the couloir, the California sun was doing its thing. A beautiful thing it is, but not to us in our exact location. Carefully and methodically, we picked out way through the awkward island until rejoining the powder tube. A few thousand feet later, dumbfounded, we collectively milked the last few fresh turns until we popped out on the valley loop road. El Cap stared at us the whole time. The powder was perfection at times, but truthfully, it was like a bonus as the aesthetics of the line was in full command from the very first to the very last turn.
I remember my first trip to Yosemite. I had seen Ansel Adams photos, had a minimal idea of the land protection history, but I had no real idea what this place meant to climbers. I also had no idea of the rich history of skiing in the High Sierra, in the Tioga Pass region, or of the people making first ski descents in the Valley. I simply stared in disbelief at every peak, bowl, and ramp I saw imagining what this enchanted place might look like covered in snow. As the years went by, and I skied more in the High Sierra, I realized how far off a dream it was to ski in the heart of Yosemite Valley. When it did snow, because of its low elevation, the snow changes as fast as it can fall. Here one day and gone the next, I stayed in tune to the seasonal fluctuations through the years all the while realizing there might be but a handful of days every several years or so, or none at all, when a line from the rim to valley floor can be skied.
Walking out on the loop road after our ski, right into EL Cap meadows was a sensation I know our crew will never forget. It was a banner year for the Sierra and many places across the American West last winter, but some missions simply stand alone. As much as I hope to catch Yosemite Valley in prime conditions again one day, I’m not going to hold my breath. But if the opportunity presents itself, I know how exciting it is to simply skin to the rim, never mind riding a perfect couloir of powder for thousands of feet walled in Yosemite granite from rim to valley floor. It’ll be worth the wait when it happens again, although the feeling from that day will never truly dissipate. In the end, it’s a feeling we all crave and find in our own ways as skiers and riders. Whether you get it lapping the bunny hill with your kid, getting a run in before work, or wiggling as many s-turns on a hidden backcountry stash as you can, it’s out there. In Yosemite, it could be as rowdy as pitch 27 on an El Cap push, or as passive as catching the Firefall from the safety of the valley floor. It all counts and it’s all good. The feeling is just unique in a place like Yosemite, where memorable adventures happen round-the-clock, but nailing it-especially in winter, takes a lot of patience, and no matter how long it takes, it’s worth the wait.