Ignoring the strong warnings of the National Park Service—including my partner, who is a ranger for the Park—I organized an all-women backpacking trip to the Yosemite High Sierras for the weekend of July 4. Normally the Sierras are passable by early July, but record-setting snowpack this past winter meant many areas are still socked in with 6+ feet of snow and ice. Streams that are normally passable by now are violent, uncrossable rivers. Trails aren’t visible. And unfortunately, none of us had any experience backpacking in winter conditions on this scale.
The three of us walked, slid, postholed, stumbled, climbed, and—during one particularly difficult spot—crawled from the Cathedral Trailhead at Tuolumne Meadows to the top of Half Dome and then down to Yosemite Valley over the course of three days. It’s a trip that I believed would be on the easy side of moderate when I first planned it, a trip that would have been fine on a normal year, but which turned into the most physically challenging and dangerous backpacking trip of my life.
I got through it with the help of two brave women backpackers who persevered even in conditions far worse than we could have imagined. I learned a lot about how to cross sun-cupped snowy fields, search for firm footing on snow bridges over rivers, navigate the countless snow dunes of snow-choked forests, and stumble up and skid down icy mountainsides. I learned to find the ghost of footprints among the contours of ice-edged snow, and how to avoid the edges of trees and rocks, where snow collapses.
But more than that, I learned that friends who can keep their heads in a bad situation are the best gear you can possibly take into the backcountry in winter conditions. Well, tied for best with a GPS device and a set of crampons.