Mariposa & Yosemite

Trek to backcountry Yosemite site worth the work

YOSEMITE -– It can't be much farther. That's what I tell myself as the muscles in my left thigh begin to ratchet.

I am on cross country skis, following a marked trail under brilliant blue skies and bright sunshine. My destination is the Ostrander Ski Hut, a stone cabin nestled in the backcountry nine miles from the nearest road.

More than 5 hours have passed since we departed the trailhead at Badger Pass. While picking up our wilderness permits, an arrogant young ranger (sadly, becoming the norm at Yosemite) scolds photographer Mark Crosse for not having climbing skins and predicts he won't make it to the hut without taking off his skis and walking. With that welcome, we set off.

Pete Devine, the Yosemite Conservancy's resident naturalist, joins us for part of the journey and proves an excellent tour guide. After 4 1/2 miles of easy skiing, we leave groomed Glacier Point Road and head on to the Horizon Ridge Trail. Yellow signs and reflectors in the trees point the way, as well as old tracks left by skiers.

As we climb Horizon Ridge, the Yosemite backcountry begins to open up, and we're treated to sweeping views of Half Dome's seldom-seen South Face, neighboring Mount Starr King and the entire Clark Range. At the base of what's known as Heart Attack Hill, Devine turns back and leaves Crosse and me to tackle the rest.

The final 1 1/2 miles are a struggle, but eventually my skis point downhill. Soon, a metal roofline appears in the distance. When I finally pull up at the Ostrander Hut and click out of my skis, the front door is wide open. There isn't a soul about.

While waiting for Crosse to arrive (yes, he skied the entire way), I kick back on the front porch and scan my surroundings. Looking across frozen Ostrander Lake toward Horse Ridge, a majestic north-facing bowl carved up with graceful "S" turns, it's little wonder why a ski hut was built on this spot.

Yosemite Valley, with its acres of pavement, tourist hordes and pistol-toting rangers, couldn't be farther away.

Constructed in 1941 over a seven weeks by the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Ostrander Hut harkens back to an era when backcountry skiing was all the rage and riding chairlifts was considered mere practice for the big mountains. Plans called for three backcountry ski huts to be built. But as the popularity of downhill skiing surged, in no small part due to improvements at Badger Pass, the other two were abandoned.

With its 2-foot-thick granite walls, harvested from a glacial moraine, and sturdy beams and rafters made from lodgepole pine, Ostrander Hut looks and feels like a relic. Guests sleep in metal bunk beds that hang from the walls. There is no phone, and the only water source is the frozen lake, which requires punching through the ice and carrying the water to the hut in 5-gallon buckets.

The only modern amenities are a propane kitchen stove, for preparing fancy meals that are an Ostrander tradition, two outhouses containing portable toilets and a few light bulbs that hang from the ceiling, powered by solar panels installed above the front deck. A wood stove is the sole source of heat.

After an hour or so we're joined by longtime hutmaster Howard Weamer, who spent his afternoon in search of untracked powder. Resembling a modern day John Muir with his unkempt white beard, the 66-year-old Weamer has been welcoming visitors to Ostrander Hut since 1974.

In fact, the facility probably would've been shuttered long ago if not for Weamer's efforts. Because of its remoteness, not to mention lack of profitability, the hut was long ago forsaken by the park's power brokers. (It was even closed one winter in the mid-1990s due to sewage concerns.)

Since 1980, Ostrander Hut has been operated by the nonprofit Yosemite Conservancy (formerly Yosemite Association), making it one of the few places in Yosemite not controlled by the National Park Service or DNC Parks & Resorts, the park's concessionaire. About 1,500 skiers make the annual trek, and many visit year after year.

Weamer is a veritable encyclopedia about the surrounding area and the hut's history. Over the years, he's rescued numerous skiers en route to the hut who were caught unprepared by storms or darkness. He speaks in the calm, deliberate manner of a man who hasn't carried a watch in decades. I soon learn not to ask Weamer a question unless prepared to hear a long, thorough answer.

In fact, the only quick answer I get from Weamer is when I ask what keeps him coming back winter after winter:

"I can't imagine a better place. Besides, I'm still learning how to ski."

Crosse and I are the only guests during our first evening in the hut. (Thankfully, the stove keeps pumping heat all night.) But in the afternoon of our second day, we're joined by a group of five college friends in their late 20s and early 30s who are spending one night at Ostrander before skiing out to Glacier Point.

As they arrive one by one soaked in sweat and out of breath with cheeks flushed, I'm reminded how the best things in life – like backcountry skiing – require hard work.

Let others ride chairlifts. I click on my skis and scrape my way across the lake toward Horse Ridge, determined to earn my turns.

Related stories from Merced Sun-Star