Yosemite ski tour

One of my curiosities is whether my concepts of light and fast, of being able to walk and ski easily over mixed terrain is as applicable in North America as in New Zealand. With the exception of ski field roads there are not many ways to drive to the snow in NZ, hence my concept is to make sure the gear is light enough so that a ski trip is nothing more than a walk in the mountains.

After spending 2 days acting as beast of burden for my 9 month old son checking out waterfalls and views in Yosemite, it’s time for an adventure. I walk out of the village at 5.30am and take the zig-zag trail up the canyon wall to Snow Creek. By 7.30am I have my skis on and am travelling fast over frozen corn snow heading towards Lake Tenaya. Fresh bear prints – I thought they were meant to be asleep at this time of year!

By 10.30am I find the buried Tioga Pass road. There is a lot of snow – the biggest snow year in decades. The views are wonderful, blue sky contrasting with green pine trees, sparkling streams and the sheer granite backdrop of Half Dome. Navigation is quite different here to New Zealand. Firstly, NZ does not have all the trees above the snow line to obscure the views. Secondly, NZ mountains are a very different shape. Made of softer rock they erode in different ways, there are not the high plateaus of the Sierra Nevada nor the sheer walls of Yosemite valley. NZ has more steep mountains with basins and pointy peaks, in some ways more serious but in other ways easier to navigate in because features are more definite.

By lunch time I am at Lake Tenaya, the ice looks thin and the creek draining the lake has no bridge so I trust my judgement and the frozen lake holds. What an amazing place. If I lived in California I would drive up in summer, stash a good tent, food and a kerosene heater then return in winter to enjoy some great back country skiing from a good cozy base.

From the lake I ski up to the shoulder of Clouds Rest (point 9242 feet). On the exposed slopes the snow is getting wet and my skis feel heavy with lots of drag from the snow. The traverse over to the head-waters of Sunrise creek takes ages and I start the descent at 5pm. The snow is good and it is fun to be dodging the trees,  something us Kiwis don’t get to do much. But I have a slight problem, on the flat Tioga pass road I applied some kick wax to the base of my skis which makes skiing on the flat much faster than using skins, the problem is I forgot a scraper to remove the stuff. Usually this is not a problem as it wears off after a few hours. But not today and it just wants to grip to the spring snow.

The descent was not as fast as I had hoped with spring creek having lots of flat sections. In retrospect maybe the kick wax is more help than hindrance, it certainly means you can ski downhill, then tour through the flat sections without the need to add/remove skins – it just takes a bit of speed away from the downhill runs. The snow runs out at 7000 feet on the south facing slope down to the Merced. Daylight is also running out so skis off and I run down hill, then skis back on again because the flat valley floor with it’s tree shading is still covered with snow. Nevada falls is the final place to remove skis then a run down the track in fading light, touch out at Vernal falls and down the mist trail. I stop a few times, turn my headlamp off and just admire the amazing place I am in – thundering waterfalls, starry sky, towering cliffs. I keen running all the way back to the village since I promised Christine I would be back before dark getting there at 9pm.

So some data about the trip:

Height ascent/descent 2380 metres (7800 feet)
Distance measure off maps 39 km (24 miles)
Distance by trails signs 48 km (30 miles)
Proportion skiing about 80%
Total time 15.5 hours


A great trip and a good introduction for me to the Sierra Nevada mountains – my first ski in the US. The only signs of other people were old ski tracks on the Tioga road and the trees to Snow Creek, I am curious how many people get out and enjoy the High Sierra in winter. It is interesting to compare the distance by trail sign and the distances I measured of Google Maps, I guess the distances by sign include all the zig-zags of the trail, something I don’t usually take into considertion.

From a gear perspective everything worked well, I just had to tighten a screw that I had forgotten to apply Lock Tight (a type of glue) to. I can’t imagine doing such a trip with different gear – traditional ski touring gear would mean a lot of carrying on the walking sections (you would probably want different shoes – so a big pack), snow shoes would be difficult in the decent and hard work over such a distance, skinny nordic / telemark gear migh work but would be hard in the trees when walking and not much fun on the steeper sections. As for a split snow board, well, maybe if you camped half way!

Well, I’m itching to do more, then tell me Tolumene medows in nice…..
View Yosemite day tour in a larger map


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