Congratulations to our winner, D.G. Van Arsdale for his story. Read the story here and see what he won below.
This occurred back in the 1970s, when I was working in Yosemite as an Italian boot salesman at the Mountain Shop. I took the day off to ski the Glacier Point Road, which was closed at the time and covered in snow. From there, I planned to drive my Volkswagen bus up to Badger Pass Ski Area lot.
I checked the NPS weather forecast at the Yosemite Village Visitor Center and it was for “blue skies all day, with high winds on the highest peaks.” I grabbed my daypack and put in some snacks, water bottles, a Space Blanket, a Ma Curry green wool blanket off my dorm bed, extra socks, and then headed out with my skinny cross-country skis and poles.
The drive up was easy–the road had been freshly plowed for all the buses and car drivers coming up from Yosemite Lodge and the Ahwahnee Hotel. The blue sky was intense, so I had my favorite sunglasses, my rose-lens Sunclouds. I parked my van and took off. There were tracks already set on the unplowed road and lots of other skinny skiers. I talked with two couples that were skiing into Ostrander Hut. Since I had always heard about what a beautiful lake and ridge location that was, I figured a change in plans was in order. The weather was still perfect, with not a cloud in the sky.
As we turned from east to south and started climbing, I realized that these two couples were breaking trail with heavy packs, so I offered to lead and break trail in the fresh snow. Within an hour the weather drastically changed and it got windy and cloudy at 7,000 feet. Instead of going back, I chose to seek shelter quicker and head for the Ostrander Hut. However, I missed the last sign, a critical hard right turn, and ended up dropping into the next southern cirque! Weather conditions were getting really bad–howling winds, totally overcast (unlike the NPS federal forecast of that morning), and I was thankful that I had an area topographical map and a good plastic compass. I decided not to sidestep the 50-degree slope back but to make a snow cave with my plastic spare ski tip. I told myself not to worry; after all I had done snow camping for my Boy Scout skiing merit badge, I was a NSP volunteer at Badger, and my parents practically raised me in the outdoors. I curled up in my fiberfill vest and put my extra socks over my gloves. Then, I climbed inside the green wool MaCurry blanket and the Space Blanket. The wind howled and the snow fell all night long. I wondered if I should sleep or try to stay awake to stave off hypothermia. The snow was too hard to sleep on, so I chose to stay awake and think about food, skiiing out the next morning, and what a good adventure story this would be for friends and workmates.
The next morning, after a very long and sleepless night, I pushed the snow away from the entrance so I could check the weather. No wind, a few thin light clouds, and tons of new snow– at least two feet where I was. Boy, was I going to complain to NPS about their weather forecasting ability!
I couldn’t feel my feet but assembled most of my gear and quickly sidestepped up a slope. It was so quiet; no sound, no wind, no birds.
At the top of the rise, I got out my map and compass and made sure I was going north to the Glacier Point Road. Once there, all I would have to do would be to ski down to Badger Pass, where I could get in my Volkswagen and drive to the dorm for a hot shower and food. I was so hungry. Suddenly, I heard voices. I couldn’t tell if it was a hallucination, so I shouted “Hey, stop talking!”
Two guys on cross-country skis came busting through some small snow-cloaked pines. “Are you Duncan?” one of them asked, “They have been talking about you on the NPS radio all night.” The men insisted I go left to the Ostrander Hut, but I told them I had had enough adventure and was skiiing back to my car and going to take a hot shower.
They insisted again and won out, as I did want to see this famous Ostrander Hut.
When I got to the Hut, there were the two doctors and their young, beautiful wives. A ranger named Howard got out his first aid book and put me on a metal bunk bed. My hands and feet swelled up to the size of footballs, and were put in two aluminum basins of lukewarm water. Howard made me 12-inch pancakes swimming in syrup, one after another. Howard said my breath was acidotic and that I had been burning my body fat. He also told me that I was not the only one caught out by this massive winter snow storm; a father and son just to the north on the South Rim had also been caught in it. Howard said that a Navy helicopter was coming in now to search for the father, since the son had just been found.
Howard’s ranger radio did not have a charger, so to get the last bit of juice out of the battery, he put it on the stove, warm it, and then hot-potato it back in. Communication with the Valley and central ranger dispatch was poor, but it sounded like the Navy helicopter had spent hours looking for the lost father and was going to make a swing by and pick me up.
Howard madly dashed about and got me dressed, just as two burly Navy guys in full helmets and full winter suits burst into the Hut. Their helicopter was hovering out front.
“Do not touch the cable before it touches the ground or you will be shocked,” one of the Navy guys said.
I was carried on someone’s shoulders out into 4 feet of fresh powder. It had been the biggest snowstorm of the decade. I had done helo lifts in the Navy, but this would be a helo ride into Yosemite Valley, in the depths of winter. I was looking forward to the view out the wide side door.
We went very slowly in the helicopter and landed in front of El Cap. I was rushed to the Yosemite Village Clinic, where I knew some of the doctors and nurses. One doctor said immediately that my toes would have to be amputated. I told him that was not going to happen, as I had seen photos of black skin frostbite on Everest.
Three doctors went off to find a recent medical journal magazine with some truly graphic pictures of how to save toes and fingers. One ranger, Butch, took a photo of my red feet. I was served fried chicken by the nurses.
In the end, I insisted on paying the hospital bill, but was told “no” after a couple weeks of the treatment. I was on crutches for months, and I regained feeling in my toes and fingers after being told there was too much nerve and tissue damage.
Ranger Butch said that I was very lucky. “The storm was so severe and cold, you did not get wet from the snow. The unusually dry powder snow acted as insulation and kept you warm,” he told me. “If it had been a typical warm, wet winter California snowstorm, you might have gotten wet, dropped your core below the hi-80s, and died out there.”
(As a side note, if you ever go in to Ostrander Hut and find a red and silver Space Blanket and a green wool MaCurry blanket, I would like to know. I went back the next summer and could not find them.)
D.G. won this Nebulus flotation device (retail: $500). For more information on the Nebulus prize, check it out here