TR: In Too Deep on JMT to Little Yosemite (Feb 2-3, 2008)


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Trad climber
San Jose, CA
Topic Author's Original Post - Feb 6, 2008 - 06:38pm PT
It has been said that to truly live one must know the taste of death.

Jeez, what a load of cheeze whiz. But I was indeed contemplating this thought last weekend as we waded in our large snowshoes through mid-thight powder, with precipitous drop-offs, heinous slopes, buried trees acting like pit-traps, and negotiating monster avalanche paths that completely destroyed any hint of where the trail should go. A trail we had climbed 18 hours before below the loaded slopes in the midst of increasing snowfall.

Our plan was to snowshoe to the top of Half Dome. It all started Saturday at 3:30am when I met Salah at his place. We had the obligatory session of Guitar Hero... it was my first time, and I figured I could go for Medium since I'm a fairly decent real guitar player. Well I sucked at Guitar Hero, and Salah is a real Hero. But I digress. Somewhere before Sunol grade on the way out of the SF Bay area en route to Yosemite, not more than 10 minutes from Salah's house, we had a defining moment and decision point. We had split up the poles from the tent, and we realized that I left the poles at his house. We pulled off the freeway and sat for a minute thinking about what to do. We were planning to build a snow cave anyways, and the tent would be backup. After considering our options, we followed the FIDO principle: Fvck it, drive on.

So the good news is our backpacks got lighter. And Salah's got even lighter because he didn't have a bivy sack either. I had a bivy sack, and a zero-degree down sleeping bag. "That'll do pig" I thought to myself.

We burned most of the morning with various bumbling maneuvers: figuring out the snow chains at the park entrance after not using them for a decade; getting lost in the snow-covered roads looking for the Curry parking lot that would be plowed so our car doesn't get stuck, getting talked into going back to get a wilderness permit, etc. So long about noon we're getting the show on the road, heading out toward the bridge with views of Vernal Falls. It was pretty casual, with a beaten snowshoe track that permitted us to proceed in just our Sorel Caribou's. Skies were mellow, with heavy snowfall supposedly on the way. The first few hours went by with breathtaking beauty, passing various folks on their way down who were turned back by the deep snow.

The second phase of the trip began when we reached the junction of the John Muir Trail (JTM). Here we began breaking new ground, wading quite deeply through gorgeous terrain. The huge snow formations on top of the trees and talus fields was otherworldly. We were both riding a high on being out there, and we were oblivious to the hard work of gaining altitude in those trail conditions. But we did note the very intimidating appearance of the massive ice-covered rock wall just in front of us, which we passed on our right. All along the way the snowfall was very subtly increasing, until we neared the top of Nevada Falls in the midst of fairly heavy snowfall. Little pictures fail to do justice to the seriousness of what we faced. Not more than a quarter mile away and a little below us, we could see Nevada Falls raging out a jagged ice maw and spreading across the frozen slab below. Right in front of me the trail disappeared into a massive steep and nearly continuous slope. After adjusting for a moment I recognized the slight depression in the steepness that showed where the trail was likely buried. To my right was a loaded steep snow slab nearly 100 feet high. To my left was the continuation downward for another 100 feet. It looked like enough snow down there that a fall probably wouldn't end it all, but I sure as heck didn't want to figure out what would happen. And I really tried not to think about the wall of snow above me. After a harrowing few minutes of leading out with front-point like maneuvers in my snowshoes, with no ropes or pro, Salah yells out for me to stop. I'm just at a little rise where I can see past the immediate slope, waiting for Salah to come out to scope it with me. Truth be told, it was fvcking nuts. Sweeping before us in a wide level arc is the insanity that remains of the John Muir Trail. It must be vertical walls above and below the trail at this point, because what we can see is a series of ice walls, jagged hanging icicles, and 70 degree snow slopes covering 10 feet above the trail with precipitous 100+ foot vertical drop-offs to hard ice-covered rock below. If we had any hope of passing, it would be across the 70-degree snow slopes, all fresh powder sloughing off into oblivion and getting rained on by more spindrift from above. Did I mention it was still snowing pretty heavily?

I'm such a dumb@ss, being hung up on really wanting to get to Half Dome, that I'm trying to figure out how we can do it. Our climbing gear consists of a 20 foot loop of dyneema sling and a couple of biners. I thought about shoveling out a safe channel along the rock wall. Fortunately when Salah got there and looked at it he instantly and angrily said WHAT THE FVCK ARE YOU THINKING? Pretty much in that tone. It brought me back to reality, probably a little more slowly than it should. So we turned back. But I wasn't ready to totally give up the dream yet.

So after a few minutes of back-tracking, we spot a steep snow gulley on our left up the hillside, which might lead to the summit ridge and an alternate way into Little Yosemite Valley. We forge on in the dwindling daylight, kick-stepping, groveling, and fist-punching into the steep snow slope to gain ground. We did pretty well, gaining a few hundred feet. But we lost the race against daylight, the snowfall was unceasing, temps were dropping, and we did still have to build a snowcave. We scrambled out of the steep snow gulley and into a small forested slope on the side. We looked around for a good snow cave spot, but unfortunately it was just not deep enough anywhere, and it was too loosely packed. We picked a spot between a couple of trees and decided to dig a snow ditch when we bottomed out on dirt in our efforts to build a cave. In short order we had a pitiful little ditch that would be about as useful as a freezer in Antarctica. And there was the issue of that snow slope right above us still. Everywhere had a snow slope right above it :)

So we made a roof with the low dead branches of the pine trees around us, mostly the diameter of my thumb. We had two major supports about the diameter of my wrist. So now we had a little 18" high space under some twigs, in the fall path of a small snow field. We broke down and took maybe 5 green branches to get the protection afforded by the pine needles. I rationalized our destruction by thinking it will be years before another human sets foot on the particular spot we occupied. The bright spot of the evening was that Salah still brought his tent ground tarp, so we had a piece of nylon to cover our twigs. A couple more sticks on top would have to call it done. I inwardly laughed that this was more of a coffin than a shelter, but decided not to share that sentiment with Salah because this was his first snowcave experience and I didn't want to have to walk back to the trail head in the middle of the night.

With this chore completed, we settled in to dinner on Backpacker's Pantry Pad Thai. Salah lost his spoon, and I just never brought one, so we found twigs to make chopsticks. Now you'd think under the circumstances we could have practically eaten bark a piss and enjoyed it. Amazingly enough, neither of us liked that freeze-dried pile of rice sticks in a bag. Salah wolfed his down anyways, it took me the better part of an hour to finish. But I did enjoy holding it inside my jacket and using it as a hot water bottle, warming my body that had long since been cold and wet. Salah had lost one of his liner gloves and his bare hand was getting screwed up. I made him put on his heavy gloves, and fortunately by that point he crawled in to bed. I sat out for a while finishing up, holding one edge of the ground pad under my butt, the rest curving up around my back and providing a shelter above my head to protect me from the brunt of the dumping snow.

The next trick was getting rid of the wet jacket and snowpants, getting into the sleeping bag and bivy sack, and slithering into the shelter. The shelter wasn't big enough to do anything inside, so I had to do all this in the open. It was snowing hard enough that when I wiped off my arm, it was covered again just as quickly as I finished. Did I mention that I have a down sleeping bag? Through some gymnastic maneuvers in the bivy sack, and narrowly avoiding the big slide all the way down the hill while half-dressed and stuck inside (think frantic body flopping and arms clawing at steep powder), I managed to get my outer snowgear off and get into the sleeping bag inside the bivy sack.

To give you an idea of how small our shelter was, when I slithered into it on my belly, my chest was scraping against the ground the entire way, and the twigs in the roof were flexing upward with my back pressing against them. I didn't have room to get my arms anywhere to pull myself in, and I couldn't bend my knees to push, so Salah had to just pull on my arm and yank me in. I managed to roll over on my side without breaking the roof, and then began the arduous task to get the sleeping bag from around my knees back toward my shoulders. Some ten minutes later, after a bit of laughing with Salah about our situation, I settled in to sleep with twigs inches from my face. Between the twigs, the tarp sagged under the weight of the accumulating snow. I was in a wet and lumpy down bag. But I was getting warmed up, and life was cool. I went to sleep with a perma-grin stuck to my face. Well almost... Salah had to go pee again! Damn we couldn't move at all, let alone sit up to pee in a bottle. I told Salah to carve a ditch in the snow by his pecker and just go there, and we'd deal with the smell. Then I had to go too. So to hell with it all, we slithered out one by one, got buried in snow while taking another piss, and then repeated the whole comical act of oozing into the shelter. Sleep at long last.

The first time I woke up was probably the sound of snow chunks falling from the trees. I was prickly and alert, listening for sounds of trouble. But it turned out to be nothing, and I tried to go back to sleep. The only trouble is half of my body was smashed against a wall of ice, separated by only my inner clothers and a flat wet down sleeping bag. The other half had Salah sliding from gravity down the hill onto me, cutting off circulation in my arm. I tried to shove him, but he was snoring loudly and didn't stir.

The second time I woke up, or rather stirred from my haze, was to the sound of an avalanche burying our shelter. It's not right to be confined in such a space, hear a huge and bassy hissy sound, feel an earth-shaking thump, and then a surreal muted silence. I was blessed to be mostly conscious for the whole event. After the thump, Salah was jolted awake but lost in the confusion of sleep.

Salah, we're buried. get a stick or something and poke out your air hole again. Dude get a stick, we'll run out of air.

But there were no free sticks, and the air hole above his head was completely sealed. Our roof sagged enough to press firmly against our bodies, but not crush us. We couldn't see down past our knees. Within a few seconds, we were pushing out with our feet and fortunately the opening wasn't blocked much. A tree trunk directly in front of the opening parted the avalanche flow. Once outside, we surveyed the damage: a new slope completely covered any trace of our shelter or adjacent excavations, and about 18 to 24 inches of snow was directly on top of our twigs and tarp. Salah the b@st@rd just looked around, peed, and climbed back in! Now who was the fricken psycho!

I spent the next 10 minutes shoveling snow off the roof, and re-establishing an air hole above Salah's head. I tried to clear a few feet of the slope above us, but it was pretty hopeless with the rest of the hill still looking like it could go any minute. I told Salah that we should brace ourselves for a more avalanches in the night. It required a certain amount of mental toughness to climb back into that ice coffin after that. And I didn't have that perma-grin on my face any more. That air-hole was on the other side of Salah's head, and whenever he turned his head toward me, I felt starved of oxygen and slightly ill with the smell of the nasty freeze-dried Pad Thai. At one point I got panicky and shouted out for air. Half-frozen, smashed, suffocating, and scared, I forced myself to breath deeply, settle in, and relax. I imagined the roof was luxurious feet away from my face. I found inner peace, and resumed sleep. But the night was a mixed experience, with both Salah and I wrestling with moments of peace, moments of fear, and hallucinations of spirits waiting to escort us to the other side. It was a little bit grim.

We managed through the night with no more avalanches, and lingered inside until 8am when there was plenty of light coming from our feet. We made a detailed plan for our exit strategy, down to the sequence of what to take off, what to put on, where to sit and get the boots on, etc.... I was the first to slither out, and the plan went to hell. It was dumping snow like a mofo. I was instantly covered. I abandoned grace, stood on the soaking wet sleeping bag, and pulled the soaking wet jacket and pants over my soaking wet body. In a few moments I was wrapped up in battle gear, and the world seemed like a better place. It's OK to be wet if you're moving and warm. While we searched for our stuff under a couple feet of snow, avalanches came pouring down the snow gulley we had climbed the previous night, wind blasting toward us on the side. That would not be the way down. We picked a new route weaving between the trees, and sliding down super-steep and sketchy hills using our snowshoes ski style, sometimes just sliding on our butts or sides in mini-avalanches, aiming for trees to stop our slide. We hit the trail, thinking we were home free.

But damn when is this experience going to let up? After moderate route-finding through a fluffy winterland, we neared the notch where the JMT drops down next to huge cliffs. The entire area had been subject to a seemingly continous avalanch that just changed the landscape. Places where the trail had crossed under trees were just big bushy impasses where the snow had caused the trees to arch over. At one point while breaking trail, Salah sank in up to his chest, and then continued sliding sideways into a sink-hole. With much groveling and movie-style "grab my hand" moments, we got past that. We truly lost track of the trail at that point and were just purely cross-country route-finding down the sketchy steep hill right between two major cliffs. The slope seemed ready to go at any moment, and we were right in the fall zone of the massive cliff to the left with who knows what snowfields looming high overhead. It was still snowing heavily. Relentlessly. Our strategy through that section was to just haul ass and get through it going tree to tree, desperately hoping to find a sign of the trail again. After 30 minutes of wandering more or less straight downhill, the trail became faintly recognizable again, and we happily plowed a track through the middle of it. Every few minutes we had spotted a bluejay that was our totem spirit guiding us to safety. At least that was our coping mechanism to not get bogged down in the seriousness of the situation.

When we reached the junction of the JMT and the trail below, we relaxed a bit. From there on it was easier going, the fear of massive avalanches eased up, and we took time for pictures and acting silly. There were still some fairly decent avalanches next to drop-off points in the trail, between the bridge with the view of Vernal Falls and the trail head, enough that had turned back anyone that morning. But after what we had been through, that shite was nuthin'.

So, lessons learned:
1. when heading for HD in the winter, stay off the John Muir Trail
2. synthetic bags
3. a tarp will get you through most situations.
4. focus on enjoying the ride, not the destination
5. beware of even short straight-aways between trees during high snowfall conditions
6. keep cave/trench openings in the protection zone behind a tree or rock if possible.
7. try to work out a shelter big enough so you can change inside it so you don't get everything soaked.

Feb 6, 2008 - 06:45pm PT
Lessons not learned; heed the weather report when NOAA red flags the Sierra's for a major epic winter storm.

Trad climber
San Jose, CA
Topic Author's Reply - Feb 6, 2008 - 06:49pm PT
Yep Werner, that's a better one. Being a winter weenie with no serious winter storm experience, I didn't have enough respect for mother nature. And I didn't have enough respect to be intimately familiar with the specific terrain (JMT to Yosemite Valley, went down it once but didn't know it well) in good conditions to assess whether or not it would be reasonable to go there in rougher conditions.

Edit: I just re-read my story and another lesson to be learned jumped out at me: DON'T BE AN ARROGANT DUMB-ASS.

Trad climber
Feb 6, 2008 - 06:59pm PT

the Fet

Knackered climber
A bivy sack in the secret campground
Feb 6, 2008 - 07:11pm PT
"ice coffin"

Mental note: if Nutjob asks you to go on adventure, RUN the other way.
Mighty Hiker

Social climber
Vancouver, B.C.
Feb 6, 2008 - 07:28pm PT
Sounds like quite the adventure, and learning experience. Glad you made it through in one piece.

I can't help asking about your comment "I'm such a dumb@ss, being hung up on really wanting to get to Half Dome, that I'm trying to figure out how we can do it. Our climbing gear consists of a 20 foot loop of dyneema sling and a couple of biners."

In the prevailing conditions, could you have climbed the cables with that equipment?
nick d

Trad climber
Feb 6, 2008 - 08:10pm PT
Wow!!!! I got cold and wet just reading that! Congratulations on surviving that outing. Even though you made some mistakes I'm sure you really learned from it all.

There is always quite a difference between reading about stuff and laying there in the dark wondering if you will live. Kinda drives the point home.

Thanks very much for posting up your great adventure!
Mike Bolte

Trad climber
Planet Earth
Feb 6, 2008 - 08:26pm PT
hmmm, so is there some even more out-there story that led to your ST name?

Gym climber
Feb 6, 2008 - 08:29pm PT
Nothing like a wet bag in a winter wonderland.
Clint Cummins

Trad climber
SF Bay area, CA
Feb 6, 2008 - 09:08pm PT
Yeah, Mist Trail, I guess, but count me out. It could be quite dangerous as well.

If you got to Half Dome proper, danger of a slide seems very serious in those conditions.

Better to have your first snow camping adventure in a place that you can retreat from.

Wet down bag, stuffed = major damage to the bag.

No rope - hmmm.

Did you have ice axes?

Have you done any mountaineering?
Dapper Dan

an 89' honda accord
Feb 6, 2008 - 09:26pm PT
do you have pictures?

Trad climber
San Jose, CA
Topic Author's Reply - Feb 7, 2008 - 11:12am PT
OK, more analysis of the stupidity:
1) Real mountaineering experience: uncheck (done a few cross-country snowshoe backpacking trips up to 5 days, built a few snow caves, once had a decent storm but only lasted a day).
2) Ice climbing experience: uncheck (I own crampons and a mountaineering axe, never used em)
3) Studied detailed topos to note areas of likely difficulty: uncheck
4) Studied weather reports to determine amount of precipitation likely: uncheck

In the week leading up to the trip, and even up to the moment before we started hiking, I was planning to bring a 9mm 60m rope and a super-light rack of gear (a selection of small nuts and some biners and slings). I had a vision of building snow bollards padded with my backpack for belay stations, thought about buying some snow pickets but didn't do to that. Didn't consider ice screws, etc. thinking its all snow, nowhere to put screws.

I think to be more fair with myself, I should give a more balanced analysis. If I'm with someone who is also nuts, there is a point at which reasonable judgment returns to me. If I'm with someone who I know is more cautious than me, then I tend to let myself run away and be reigned in by the person I'm with. I suppose that is an area worth some personal growth to be more considerate of my partners' comfort level. It would also ensure that I consistently enforce an internal standard of what is a safe or reasonable thing to do.

So I think I actually did learn some useful things about technical matters (proper trip planning and analysis, equipment selection, en-route assessment of conditions for the trip in AND the trip back, shelter-building strategies, etc) and about internal matters (my casual attitude toward seeking adventure, relying less on my partners to regulate my push toward an objective).

The single biggest thing I think is to acknowledge that I'm a n00b at winter adventures, and I've got some skills to build and judgment to grow via gentler adventures so I can explore places/conditions like this with a better margin of safety.

Edit: photos coming within a day or two.
Dingus Milktoast

Feb 7, 2008 - 11:17am PT
That made me quesy reading it. I'd go absolutely insane in a hole like that.

I couldn't read it all.

the Fet

Knackered climber
A bivy sack in the secret campground
Feb 7, 2008 - 11:19am PT
Have you been up Half Dome before? The cables turn people back even in the summer.

If you had made it all the way to the cables (and probably even before that) you would have turned back anyway. It would take some real skillj and the proper equipment to safely ascend that route in winter.


Trad climber
Feb 7, 2008 - 12:25pm PT
Dude Nutjob - that was awesome. Sounds JUST like an f-ed up trip I'd find myself on! Can't wait for the pictures.


Trad climber
Green Mountains, Vermont
Feb 7, 2008 - 12:27pm PT
Good read. Much of what you experienced seems manageable and worth the discomfort for the lessons learned. But a fundamental understanding of avalanche terrain is not something that you can gain through trial and error. A couple comments in there made me wince. It's definitely worth investing in some avalanche awareness training.

Trad climber
Mammoth Lakes, CA
Feb 7, 2008 - 01:01pm PT
Any story that begins with “Our plan was to snowshoe to the top of Half Dome” isn’t going to turn out well. Glad you guys made it back alive!

A few more pointers on the winter camping:
Snowcaves are a very, very, extremely bad idea. I’ve done the snowcave thing once, and my experience was nowhere as bad as yours. But I still wouldn’t do it again. Not on purpose, at least.
Not bringing a tent means that your packs might be a little bit lighter, but digging a snowcave takes a huge amount of energy (and time). That energy would be better spent hiking closer to your objective. The extra weight of the tent means you’ll ultimately have more energy at the end of the day, since you won’t have to dig your own grave. A tent also allows more time to relax and eat, and the opportunity to dry some gear.
Digging a snow cave will soak everything you’re wearing. I don’t care what the gore-tex ads say.
And if you have a tent, then you most likely will not need a synthetic sleeping bag. Synthetic bags are heavier than down. The combined weight of a down bag plus a tent won’t be much heavier than your synthetic bag.

You should wait for a window of nice weather, and try again. It becomes much easier (and safer!) to snowshoe once the snow has had a chance to settle for a few days.

Boulder climber
Salt Lake, UT
Feb 7, 2008 - 01:10pm PT
Snow caves are not necessarily a bad idea, but you need to know what kind of snow you can expect. Lot's of new snow or not very much, and yes, they are a bad idea.
But if you have a good amount of consolidated older snow, they can be relatively easy to dig and pretty warm and quiet compared to a tent.

Trad climber
San Francisco, Ca
Feb 7, 2008 - 01:12pm PT
Dood, be careful out there, you need to buy freedom of the hills or something. Your snowcave sounded more like a grave, I would have freaked out in that thing without the avalanche. Snow caves suck a$$, tents are the way to fly. Better luck next time!

Trad climber
Feb 7, 2008 - 01:44pm PT
Has anyone found a way to stay dry digging a snow cave?

I have done a few and i always end up soaked to the bone by the time it is completed. Definately snug once you are done, but I wouldn't bother with the time, effort and wet gear for a one night stay.

I have always wondered if I am missing something when I read of people on big mountains, or lost for a night out digging a snow cave like it was a quick, dry and simple affair.
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