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David Is Thinking About Winter Camping Already

| June 23, 2006

David wrote in to ask:

Each winter, I organize a group of 40-something guys (between four and ten of us) on a winter hike. For the past 10 years we’ve been doing this in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, always with a guide service to help us deal with equipment and emergencies. But this past Spring I visited Yosemite with my family, and I’m intrigued at the idea of having the group fly to Yosemite to hike.

We would most likely have just two days to hike – a weekend. What can you recommend as a hike for us? If we hike two days with an overnight in the middle, are there any shelters – heated? – where we can spend the night? I know Half Dome is a famous hike, but is it accessible during Winter? And do you recommend we use a guide service, and if so who?

I sent David’s email over to Tom, Instructor at Badger Pass and a resident Yosemite to see what he had to offer. Here’s what he had to say:

Loyd elected me as resident winter guru, which is a bit exaggerated, but I do spend a lot of time outdoors in winter (22 days this February. Yeah Baby!). It sounds like your preference is to have a hut. Unlike the Northeast, where huts are the norm (though not heated), there aren’t many in Yosemite. There are, however, three options.

1 Glacier Point Ski Tour with the Yosemite Mountaineering School. This is a nice trip, but you can only do it with a guide. You are, of course, welcome to head out there on your own, but the hut has a full commercial kitchen, supplies for the summer retail and so forth, so you can only get in with a guide who has a key. It’s fairly plush – gas heat plus a fireplace, full kitchen, stocked fridge, bunk beds. They also groom the road for every guided trip, so it’s friendly for folks who aren’t necessarily strong skiers. It’s 10 miles one way and you can do trips with either one or two nights at the hut. It runs somewhere around $160 to $250 dollars depending on whether it’s one night or two, weekend or not. I don’t know exact prices since that’s my wife’s job. Call the Mountain School at (209) 372-8344 for info on prices. For info on the trip itself, you can see a description on my site

http://YosemiteExplorer.com/ski/glacier-point

For a set of images, click on the link to the associated gallery.

2. Ostrander Hut. This is a tougher ski and a more rustic and much smaller hut. It’s also much cheaper ($30/night). I’m not sure how to get reservations because I’ve always just either gone for the day or camped, but I can look into it. If you want to stay in the hut, you have to call the Yosemite Association (209-372-0740) for information. They hold a lottery for reservations every November, but realistically it’s easy to get reservations during the week most times. If you want some more description of the trip, you can again check out my general page on the Ostrander trip and then go from there to the gallery (there’s a link on the description page).
http://YosemiteExplorer.com/ski/ostrander

3. Trans-Sierra trip through Tuolumne. This is probably beyond the scope of your trip since you would want several days for this. Basically, you go to Tioga Pass Resort on the first day. Another day gets you to one of the two huts in Tuolumne (either the park service free hut or the Yosemite Mountaineering School hut which has meals and heat, but requires a guided trip. Then it’s usually a couple more days to get down into the Valley. At that point you’re faced with trying to get back to your car on the east side.

If you want to camp out, that opens a lot of possibilities. If you want just a short hike/ski, Dewey Point is fantastic, but that’s more of a one-day thing (http://yosemiteexplorer.com/ski/dewey-point). Heading up Snow Creek from the Valley is a grueling start to any hike, but you could do a sweet hike out to May Lake and possibly summit Mount Hoffman if you’re a strong group. That’s definitely something to consider.

Half Dome is a much more serious outing in the winter and I have to admit that I have not done it myself. Basically, the cables are present, but the stansions are removed, the cable is lying down. Risk of avalanche can be high if there’s snow on the Dome. Much easier would be to go up to North Dome, but of course it’s not a famous tick. I would say that Half Dome in winter is a mountaineer’s summit, not a hiker’s peak.

Thanks for all the great information Tom. I hope that helps you out some, David. Be sure to visit Tom’s site at http://www.YosemiteExplorer.com

Photo courtesy of BigPhilUK


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About Loyd: For over 30 years I've enjoyed hiking, backpacking, fishing, photographing and exploring Yosemite and the Sierra Nevada. More About the Author. View author profile.

Comments (6)

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  1. David says:

    Thanks! Some interesting options. Unfortunately our group isn’t into X-C skiing; we’re more looking for a strenuous/challenging hike with a ‘reward’ at the end of the day of a reasonably comfortable bed, some heat, and a hearty meal. Maybe Tom can let me know if his suggested camps are reasonable destinations for hikers as opposed to skiers; generally we like having a destination as a goal – top of a mountain sort of thing.
    In any case, many thanks for the info-
    David

  2. Jon Shannon says:

    Tom makes mention of going out to Glacier Point on your own. I try to do this hike every winter because it is superb. As he mentions, the trails are groomed so you can ski or snow shoe with ease. I take a tent and there is usually only a couple of other people out there. Glacier Point is a day-use area in summer, and is often packed. But in winter it is to die for.

  3. Par says:

    David, there is snow in Yosemite in the winter.

  4. David says:

    Just so I’m clear, the goal is to engage in winter hiking – not necessarily just walking in the snow, but getting up a mountain in the snow/ice. In New Hampshire we typically are using crampons/ice ax and are prepared for wicked winds and frostbite. And we always bring guides in case of emergencies, and we’ve seen a bunch of those too.
    Perhaps this is a different kind of hiking from what we would find in Yosemite?
    David

  5. You could try Mt. Whitney for some winter climbing / extreme hiking. It is also crowded in the summer, but mostly isolated in the winter. You can fly into Vegas, cross Death Valley, and then be in the snow the same day.

  6. Tom says:

    Jon is definitely right. You pretty much never see anyone out at Glacier Point. I usually skate ski out there a few times a winter and it’s great to be alone there. One time, in fact… er better not go there.

    Anyway, Loyd said he was going to post this, but I missed it and the ensuing discussion. David and I corresponded by email. Other than my illiteracy (saying I don’t know about reservations at Ostrander and then proceeding to explain about reservations at Ostrander), there are some other things to add. Here’s my follow up email to David. Not sure what the comment form will do with the links, but here goes:

    ….

    David,

    Got it. I would say that the real pleasure of Yosemite in the winter is backcountry skiing (not necessarily nordic, but backcountry, meaning it could be lightweight cross-country, heavyweight cross-country, telemark or alpine touring depending on where you go).

    A couple of things. In my opinion, skis are pretty much a necessity for anything FUN in the Sierra in winter. You can’t believe how much snow we get and how long the approaches would be postholing in the snow. I grew up in Vermont, skiing, ice climbing in Smuggler’s Notch and Lake Willoughby, hiking in summer and winter and rock climbing, so I have a pretty good idea of what the conditions are in the east. In Vermont, a huge snowstorm is three feet and a big snow pack is 12-15 feet. In the Sierra, we frequently get single storms that drop 6-8 feet in 24 hours and we commonly have 30 foot snowpacks at high elevations. What this means is that in winter, roads are often closed at fairly low elevations and this necessitates a long ski approach for efficient travel. You can use snowshoes, but I find that really inconvenient on the return trip.

    You can bag summits in the Sierra any time of year and you will not find any crowds on Whitney in mid-winter, for example, but you will find the road closed considerably lower than in the summer. You can also do Mount Shasta in the winter and, for strange historical reasons, they actually have a road that gets plowed to 6700′ which makes the summit climb only six miles and 7400′ elevation gain so it can be done in a day (and can be quite crowded).

    The main season for snow and ice and gully climbing, is typically early summer (snow climbs) and early fall (gully ice climbs along the lines of what you might find on Mt Washington in the winter). Much of the couloir climbing that involves crampons and such takes place in late summer or early fall, especially in years with big snow packs. This is because the gullies are typically choked with snow all winter and then turn to ice after several months of freeze/thaw. So for example, Dana couloir is an easy ice gully in September, but a moderate ski descent from whenever there is enough snow until about now ( I was just up there skiing last week).

    Back to your original question, there is no guide service that will guide Half Dome in winter (or really any peak within the park). YMS, the service with the park concession, operates only ski tours in the winter. They do hiking and climbing guiding from about April to November. In general, the west side of the Sierra, because of long low-angle approaches, is poorly adapted to winter mountaineering, and most of that happens from the east side.

    There are some excellent guide services on the East side of the Sierra. Doug Nidever, is one of these that I know a little and have seen climb and guide. He’s an excellent and experienced guide who does it all. He guides El Capitan, ice climbing, ski tours, winter mountaineering, and winter peak ascents by custom arrangement in the Sierra and has a full winter program from the east side.

    http://themountainguide.com/

    I would contact him and and set something up a little further south and east in the Sierra, which unlike the part of the Sierra you saw on your Yosemite trip, is really one of the great winter ranges in America. The southern Sierra is taller, craggier and steeper than the Rockies, generally more pleasant weather than the Whites, and more interesting than the rolling northwestern Sierra of Yosemite.