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Skiers seek unique El Capitan adventure

El Capitan attracts its share of impressive exploits. From Warren Harding to Lynn Hill and Tommy Caldwell, countless cutting-edge climbers made their mark there. But how many have ascended Yosemite’s granite giant with skis rather than ropes? The prospect of that unique challenge lured me and two companions to the big stone in winter. 

When the three of us attempted an El Cap climb years before, we didn’t get very far, stalling on the first pitch. None of us ever threatened to upend the big wall climbing world. This time we felt better prepared, having cross country skied in Yosemite’s backcountry since before Alex Honnold moved into a van. Glacier Point, Ostrander Ski Hut, and Tuolumne Meadows inspired many happy winter journeys, but we had never skied across Yosemite Valley’s north rim before. The snowy Captain demanded a visit. 

My cousins Andy, Zach and I set out from Old Big Oak Flat Road trailhead, on the west side of Yosemite Valley near the Foresta Road junction. Our route took us east, crossing Tamarack Creek and Cascade Creek as we gradually gained elevation. After two hours of effort, we reached enough snow to don our skis. That lightened our packs though complicated route-finding as snow concealed the trail. So we used a map, scattered trail markers and faint snowshoe tracks to navigate. 

Winter visitors, and especially backcountry travelers, experience a vastly different Yosemite than summer crowds. When we camped that night, our only companions were each other, the trees and the stars. Zach and I collected wood to build a fire. Andy, field chef extraordinaire, fed the team a sumptuous dinner. We enjoyed a pleasant night together in the snow, unfathomable as that would sound to tourists in the valley below.

Our journey reminded me of Native Americans who also experienced a Yosemite free of traffic jams and crowded parking lots. They named it Ahwahnee, called themselves the Ahwahnechee, and told an interesting legend about our objective. Two young bears slept on a large flat rock which grew until the cubs scratched their faces against the moon. When Mother Bear called for help, the inchworm Tutokanula crawled to the top and rescued the babies. So they named the 3,000-foot mountain Tutokanula, after the bears’ savior. Perhaps the inchworm should get credit for the first ascent, too. 

Our ascent became more difficult on the second day as tracks and trail markers disappeared. The unseen path wound through a thick forest with only occasional glimpses of landmarks like the Cathedral Rocks. Reluctantly, we resorted to electronics to stay on route. 

The snow itself varied in quality: sometimes good, other times choppy and rough. We caught our first sight of El Cap from its western gully and neared the summit soon after. Snow became icy as we traversed a steep slope; a fall into the gully would mean a thousand-foot drop and mountain-sized trouble. But we overcame the crux and soon found ourselves atop the big stone that fascinates so many. 

A wondrous winter view rewarded us and we gazed at Half Dome, Sentinel Rock and other snowy mountains around us. The best snow of our 20-mile outing let us glide smoothly around the summit; we kept a careful distance from the edge. None of El Cap’s more famous climbers were present, unless Tutokanula escaped our notice. 

We couldn’t claim a first winter ascent, though, not even for that day, as we spotted several snowshoers tramping about. A dozen more were ascending or descending on the Yosemite Falls Trail. El Cap has actually seen remarkable activity in winter, including death-defying climbs through epic snowstorms and even the world’s first skiing BASE jump in 1972. 

Still, only a handful ski across this summit each year, compared to thousands who rope up to climb the mountain’s face. 

Harding, Hill, Caldwell, Honnold, and… Andy, Zach and Matt? 

That’s quite a stretch but we descended into the valley with pride. Tourists stared at our skis and backpacks in bewilderment. Hot showers, cold beers and a suitably huge dinner restored our energy as we celebrated an uncommon adventure and pondered our next one.