Dana in Snow

26 Sep 1998 - by Jim Ramaker

Five of us journeyed to Tioga Pass last weekend to attempt the Dana Couloir. After a restful night at the campground by the road into Saddlebag Lake, trip leader George Van Gorden, George's friend Larry, Ted Raczek, and myself (Jim Ramaker) awoke Saturday morning to steadily falling snow and a beautiful winter landscape. As the euphoria of this unexpected scene wore off, we had breakfast and drove to Tioga Pass to meet Ron Karpel, who'd left home at 2 a.m. and driven up in the wee hours. Ron arrived right on schedule at 7:15, and the five of us stood around talking in the snowstorm. We discussed various options ranging from driving straight home to doing a low-elevation dayhike or climb. Since George and Ron had brought lots of ice-climbing gear, we decided to at least hike over to the couloir and do a couple of practice pitches. We had no thought of summiting, as the blowing snow was bad enough at the pass and was sure to be worse up on the peak.

Larry decided to bail, and the other four of us geared up and started hiking. After about two hours of cross-country through the woods and over snow-covered boulders, we spotted a snow slope on the flank of Dana to our right and decided to do our practice climbing there, instead of in the actual couloir an hour further on. The angle was moderate -- less than 40 degrees -- but there was good quality ice underneath the new powder. George and Ron each had a rope, so they each climbed a pitch parallel to each other, placing a couple of screws and pickets along the way. Then they belayed Ted and me up, and we all downclimbed and pulled the gear. Screws and pickets both worked well, though placing pickets required a lot of pounding with an ice hammer.

Conditions got no better as the morning wore on -- light snow off and on, and lots of wind that occasionally blew sharp snow pellets into our eyes. We donned sunglasses to shield our eyes, though the day was too dark to require them. Visibility was only a few hundred feet at times, though occasionally the gloom lifted and we could see parts of the mountain above us. Down in the snow-dusted canyon below us, we were surprised to see a party of six backpackers heading up into the storm.

Around noon, we reclimbed the snowfield to get to a higher, steeper snowfield that we'd spotted during one of the breaks in the weather. Ron led a pitch up this snowfield, the rest of us followed on ascenders and then rapelled, and then Ron downclimbed. By the way, Ron and George are both pretty skilled with screws, pickets, and their new-age ice tools. (Ron mentioned that his 12-inch long plastic job from Charlet-Moser cost over $200!)

As we took a lunch break and sorted gear, the storm showed no signs of letting up, so we decided to bail. George, Ron, and Ted had to be home that night, but I didn't, and I had a sudden inspiration to try for the summit. So I signed out from the trip and decided to try to get to the top of the ridge to our right. Though it was hard to orient oneself in the weather, my intuition told me the top of that ridge was probably the edge of the large plateau where the normal route up Dana goes. A 100-foot cliff that appeared to be class-3 (visible from the road by Tioga Lake) separated me from the top of the ridge.

First I traversed upward toward the bottom of the cliff, but ended up an icefield with nearly a foot of fresh powder on top of it. Doable, but not by me without a rope. I dropped down a few hundred feet and found a way to traverse over to the bottom of the cliff on snow-covered rocks. I worked my way up ledges and ramps covered with fluffy snow, and soon gained the top of the ridge. It was the plateau. It was almost 4 p.m. and I couldn't see the summit in the blowing snow, but I decided to go for it anyway. I know heading up a peak at 4 p.m. in a snowstorm is not standard procedure, but many years in the PCS have changed my opinion of what's reasonable. If I could summit by 5:30, I'd still have two hours of daylight for the 3000-foot descent. Also, it was all easy terrain that I'd been on before, and I was warm and dry, including my feet -- one benefit of dry powder snow.

For some reason, the climbing felt exhausting, I guess because of the snow and the occasional ice patches on the familiar boulders. (Or maybe I'm just getting old.) But the snow stopped after awhile and a window of blue sky opened up right above the summit, which boosted my spirits. I topped out at 5:15, and was rewarded with spectacular views of wild- looking snow-dusted peaks underneath huge roiling grey clouds that covered all of Yosemite. Even the east-side humps like Dunderberg and Excelsior looked impressive streaked with fresh snow under the forbidding grey skies. Mono Lake appeared, reflecting blue sky out toward Nevada. The wind picked up, swirling snow in my face, and I started down.

The wind stopped once I was off the summit, but it started snowing again, a steady fall of large snowflakes. As visibility declined, I took a compass bearing on the descent route. George had told me to do this, pointing out that the descent from Dana is not north as intuition might indicate, but almost due west (the Tioga Road here runs almost north-south). It was a wonderful experience to be descending a peak at dusk in a gentle, silent snowfall. Memories of walking in the snow in the winter as a boy back in New England drifted through my addled mind.

After a long trudge across the rocky plateau, I spotted some cairns and picked up the use trail, still mostly visible under the snow. I managed to stay on it all the way down the slope below the plateau, helped in no small part by the orange blazes painted on the rocks by the late Carl Sharsmith about 40 years ago. (For those who don't know of him, he was a Yosemite ranger and botanist for over 60 years.) Down the switchbacks into the forest, and finally over to my car at 7:15.

I spent another comfortable night in my car at the same campground, disturbed only by a mouse who'd snuck inside the car and kept scratching around in my cartons of gear. Attempts to hunt him down with a flashlight failed, so I resigned myself to sharing my refuge with my tiny companion, calling to him to keep the noise down when his scratching and scurrying got out of hand.

More snow fell overnight, and I woke Sunday morning to sparkling blue skies and another winter landscape, the nearby pine trees laden with fresh snow. After breakfast, I took a walk to take pictures around the many small tarns near the beginning of the trail up Dana. Judging by the footprints in the snow, it's amazing how much wildlife there is in the forest at timberline. I saw the tracks of at least 40 animals in a two-hour walk, including deer, coyote, marmot, and countless squirrels, chipmunks, and field mice. One of the deer was really moving -- his four footprints were separated by gaps of 18 to 20 feet!

Back at the car, I talked with a couple in their 40s from West Australia who were seeing snow for the first time in their lives. After that I hiked up Gaylor Peak, the little 11,000-foot vista point just north of Tioga Pass (a good peak to take non-climbing friends up, by the way). More great views of the sparkling, snow-covered landscape, then down to the car, where it was so warm I stood around sorting gear in shorts and no shirt. As I drove home across Yosemite, the peaks along the Tioga Road and the Tuolumne Domes looked spectacular streaked with fresh snow.

As I drove west, I entered a cloud bank and the temperature plummeted. Down in Yosemite Valley it was about 20 degrees colder than at Tioga Pass, 6000 feet above! The next cold front and set of snow flurries was on the way. It looks like summer and winter will be battling it out in the high country for a few more weeks before winter arrives for good.

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