“TransYosemite” Snowshoe Trek Report

Be foolish in your dreams, not your actions. That’s the take home message I got out of last week’s “TransYosemite” Snowshoe Trek. You see, Meghan and I didn’t make it across the park. Not even close! In fact, we made it as far as the first stream crossing. Some might say we failed epically, I’d say we had a splendid wilderness adventure.

[Don’t like words or simply want to see some pretty pictures? Check out the Facebook album for the trip!]

TransYosemite Day 2 morning

The morning of Day 2. Photo by Meghan Hicks.

What Went Wrong
In the week prior to our departure it became clear that the route we had planned to take was far too risky to attempt. The avalanche danger was already “considerable” and two additional storms were forecast to hit during our trip. Rather than risk our lives and the lives of others in pursuit of a dream, we scrambled to come up with an alternate wintry adventure. Meghan suggested a north to south route across Yosemite National Park and that captured our attention. What fools we were!

We began Day 1 at Hetch Hetchy in a rain/mix that quickly turned to powdery snow as we ascended. We loved being out in the moderate snowfall; however, no one had plod through the existing snow and the additional snow further covered the trail. We had some trouble route finding on Day 1 and it was much more difficult after another 8 or 9 inches overnight. Sometimes the trail was obvious. Other times I would route find by feel. We kept our eyes open for rare blazes or more frequent cut blowdowns that would confirm that we were on trail. Treeless spaces and side trails would often require us to canvas an area for the way forward. It was less frustrating than time consuming.

Yosemite Winter Routefinding

"Navigation could be a problem..." Here's one example of difficult routefinding!

We also failed to consider stream crossings. They are a non-issue on an west-east route, but there are numerous bridgeless stream crossings when moving north-south through Yosemite’s middle elevations. These crossings are a pleasant diversion in the summer, but downright dangerous in the winter. Your choices are (1) to walk across the frigid snowmelt stream that’s flanked by huge snowbanks, (2) to cross om a sketchy snow bridge or downed tree, or (3) to scout the stream for a safe, dry crossing. We ruled out option 1 as we didn’t want to risk hypothermia. After a failed attempt to find a downstream crossingof Cottonwood Creek, we headed upstream to separately cross two, pre-fork branches of the creek. We still ended up crossing the first, smaller fork on a small downed tree bridge. This was super sketchy and took the better part of half an hour to cross once we found it. We spent the next hour following the second branch upstream with no success in finding a safe crossing. At this point that we decided that our secondary objective – making it as far as Yosemite Valley was not going to happen.

Yosemite Cottonwood Creek winter

The trail was just across the beautiful but dangerous Cottonwood Creek.

What Went Right
For four days, we safely and comfortably (for the most past) explored Yosemite’s breathtaking wintry wilderness without any outside contact. When was the last time you went 72+ hours with no phone calls, no email, no internet, or not even seeing another person aside from those with whom you are traveling? You know what it feels like? Profound. Simple. Wild. It was a treat.

Our second dose of snowshoe trek lemonade was sweet. With reaching Yosemite Valley ruled out, we spent Day 3 tracking the north fork of Cottonwood Creek to Cottonwood Meadow before continuing on to Smith Meadow on the west side of Smith Peak. We set up camp early and took in the setting’s stunning serenity.

Smith Meadow Big Agnes

A spot that made it worth waking up early on a Saturday morning!

I was surprised by the mountains. I like being surprised by the mountains. What struck me this trip was just how little fauna inhabits even relatively low elevations in Yosemite during the winter. Not once did we see an animal larger than a squirrel or a woodpecker and we saw few of those. Two nights we were treated to a great horned owl concert. The only large animal prints we saw above 5,000 feet were some very old coyote prints. In contrast, in the final 1,000 of descent to our car we saw, sequentially, day old bobcat, coyote, and mountain lion tracks in the fresh snow.

Yosemite winter snake

We were also treated to a valley garter snake on the snow!

What else when right? We were safe. Aside from that one slightly sketchy creek crossing that we took one at a time, we played it 100% safe. We took our time to find the correct route or took an improvised route only when it was clear where we were and we had an easy substitute route to follow, such as a creek. We took more than enough clothing. We kept our gear dry or dried it ASAP. We had enough food. We had a backup stove. We purified all our water even though it was all fresh snow smelt. All of this is reassuring in retrospect because our initial trail was snowed over after our first night out and we took an alternate route back. We were alone. We needed to take care of ourselves. We did.

While we should have considered our route more closely, we’d spent months thinking over our gear. It paid off as, for the most part, our gear choices were right on. My biggest failure here was failing to consider the huge volume of gear, which meant I had to bail on my pack choice (Osprey Talon 33) in favor of a huge pack I’d never worn.

What Gear Rocked
I wrote a previous article highlighting the gear I’d be bringing on this trip. Here are some of the standout performers.

  • Atlas 12 Series 30″ Snowshoes – These snowshoes continue to be the bomb and bombproof. Even with a 40 pound pack, I never felt like I needed more floatation than these bad boys provided. Meghan loved the Atlas Elektra 12 Series 23″ with their easy on, easy off bindings.
  • Big Agnes String Ridge 2 – The String Ridge 2 was a snap to set up in any conditions and didn’t waiver when a foot of snow fell overnight. As we grew to know the tent (neither had used it before), we succeeded reducing overnight condensation throughout the trip.
  • La Sportiva Wildcat GTX + OR Verglas Gaiters + Drymax Maximum Protection socks – I couldn’t have been more pleased with how dry this setup kept my feet. After 4-6 hours of snowshoeing, neither the socks nor shoes ever felt more damp than if I’d gone for an hour run on a dry spring day. No blisters. No maceration. My only foot problem was a bit of irritation where the snowshoe binding pushed the gaiter’s metal shoelace clip into the top of my right foot.
  • Big Agnes Mountain Booties (with Bridgedale Endurance socks) – After the first night, I “yarded” our campsite, which means I used snowshoes to pack down our tent and cooking areas as well as a few select paths. After yarding, I threw on the booties and freely wandered about camp in warm, blissful comfort.
Mountain Man Powell

Me with some favorite gear - Mountain Hardwear Nitrous Jacket, Atlas 12 Series 30" snowshoes, and the Big Agnes String Ridge 2 tent. Photo by Meghan Hicks.

Winter Wildlands Alliance!
Winter Wildlands Alliance logoAfter this latest wintry wilderness experience I’m smitten with the idea of exploring the world’s wilds in winter. I’m also stuck by the need to balance protecting these lands with the right to access them. Fortunately, the Winter Wildlands Alliance is out there watching our backs on this issue. The organization’s mission statement reads:

Winter Wildlands Alliance is a national nonprofit organization promoting and preserving winter wildlands and a quality human-powered snowsports experience on public lands.

I’ve read a few WWA newsletters and am really impressed with what it does on a local level. Nice work guys n’ gals.

Another thing that stood out for me was how many of WWA’s corporate supporters I do or have relied on. These include Clif Bar, REI (I’m a member), Atlas Snow-Shoe Company (used on the trip), Black Diamond, Patagonia, Outdoor Research (used on the trip), Smartwool, and Osprey (I wish I’d used their pack on the trip)!

There are 12 comments

  1. Sara M

    Sounds like it was an amazing trip, Bryon. (Drool!) And wow, a solid lesson to share about being flexible and working with the conditions instead of against them. Really enjoyed the pics, especially the tent/tree/sky one. Gorgeous campsite!

    1. Bryon Powell

      Sara, it was a trip I'll never forget. That final campsite will stick with me for a long time, too! Glad you liked the pic.

      I think one of the big triumphs of the trip was going with the flow. If we tried to fight nature we would have lost or had a miserable time "succeeding."

  2. Michael Helton

    Awesome…simply awesome. It doesn't matter if you hit the goal because the journey looked like so much fun and made so many memories. I am not a big winter person, but I am now seriously considering a snow trek next year.

    1. Bryon Powell

      Michael, I highly recommend trying a winter snow trek. In a backcountry setting, it's NOT running, but I feel it embraces the same spirit as trail running… which is why I feel justified in publishing such stories on iRunFar.

      Many top trail runners take some down time in the fall or winter. Why not convert some of that down time to other fun, challenging, similar outdoor activities? I particularly like the low risk of injury that snowshoeing provides.

  3. TrailClown

    You gotta change your gravatar so that you display your Grizzly Adams look all the time to your faithful readers. Thanks for posting your adventure for us jealous East Coasters…although DC did look like that for a few weeks, albeit a bit less quiet and serene. When are you gonna ditch the snowshoes and put on the XC skis?

    1. Bryon Powell

      TC, I'm afraid Grizzly Powell may take a shotgun… er… clippers to the chin in the next few days. It's time for me to start thinking about summer. While the beard is on it's way out, I'll continue to unleash my locks for longer.

      Glad you liked the report even if you need to get off the easy coast.

      I'll start some Nordic skiing just as soon as I get a pair of such skis. I be broke and it'd be a stretch to fit them in the iRunFar budget.

  4. Lana Weber

    Thanks for the nice plug Bryon! We are working hard for those wild places – at a local and national level, and this is a good reason why. Looks like a fantastic trip – thanks for sharing!

    Lana Weber

    Winter Wildlands Alliance

    1. Bryon Powell

      Lana, Thanks for all the hard work you and the other folks at the WWA do! I'm really impressed with your organization's level of engagement. I'm also impressed with how much more wild "wildlands" feel in winter. When I'm four mile from a trailhead in Yosemite during the summer, I'm almost home. In winter, that same situation has me reliant upon, in awe of, and at the mercy of the wilderness.

      (Ps. Please thank whomever at WWA put your newsletters out at the Outdoor Retail show. I took a few home and got a great feel for what you guys do.)

  5. Linda

    What a great article Byron. I am from Australia and not a winter person at all (we have a very short one here anyway). My husband and I are planning on doing a similar trip to yours next winter in the New South Wales ski fields, about 5 hours south of Sydney. We have very little experience and it was great to read some of the issues and successes from your adventure. I hope our trip turns out as well as yours!

    Linda

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