A dozen or so cars ahead of me, the giant rotary snowplow with its two diesel engines was slowly inching its way through the five feet of snow that covered the road during the night. At this rate of speed, it would be at least an hour and a half before we covered the last two miles to the lodge at Badger Pass, in Yosemite National Park.
Many of the people in the first dozen or so cars were very worried because the afternoon before a skier had not returned to the lodge and they were anxious to mount a search party as soon as possible.
I was young enough at the time (21) to get caught up in the enthusiasm of the search and before I knew it I had joined two National Park rangers to help them break trail down to the highway to Merced.
The snow was very heavy and we still sunk in a foot and a half or more with each step forward. We gradually veered off to the right and down a canyon. We only had about four hours of light for the search and we managed to get caught in the darkness. I wanted to continue for another 30 minutes downhill because my senses told me the highway was only a little way off and we could stop a passing car if the road had been plowed out.
No such luck.
The rangers found a broken-off tree stump that they could light on fire and it would keep us warm all night. Or so they thought. While one ranger lit the tree stump on fire the other ranger and I started cutting branches to build a lean-to and a covering from the snow for us to sit or sleep on through the night. Everything proceeded according to plan as we had the beds made and the tree burning brightly when the wind shifted 180 degrees. Now the burning embers were falling on us instead of out in back of the lean-to. The real problem with this is that you would not know an ember was on your back until it burnt a hole through your clothes and blistered your skin. This made for a very long night under the stars.
Coming from the beach and naïve in the ways of winter at this early stage of my ski life, I kept my wet ski boots too close to the fire and managed to burn the soles right off of them. I do think it kept me from getting frostbite. I had a knee-length parka and I gave up counting the number of burn holes in it.
Two or three times during the night I mentioned that I thought I had heard a car driving by within a few hundred yards of where we were spending the night. Of course, I was laughed at by the rangers and this continued until dawn arrived on a crystal clear morning that made all of us realize we would live to hike another day.
I had to cut two of the four layers of leather soles off of my ski boots so I could get them into my toe irons and join the rangers in slogging downhill to who knows where.
We had not hiked 200 yards when we heard the first car drive by below us. Yes, we had stopped 300 hundred yards short of the highway the night before. At that point in time the road was closed due to the heavy snow but had since been plowed out and skiers where driving up to Badger Pass for a day of riding the lifts.
We hitched rides in the next two cars and got rides up to Badger Pass where we were greeted by the bad news that we were the last search party to report in and no one had found the missing skier.
He would be found days later on the trail to Ostrander Lake where he had found a ski patrol toboggan and blankets and stayed by the toboggan until someone came and found him – still alive but a lot skinnier.
I wore that parka with the burn holes in it with pride for a few days and then threw it away when someone told me I smelled like a horse barn that had just burned down.
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