OFF THE BEATEN PATH : Ski Touring in Yosemite Offers an Inexpensive Change of Pace and Scenery

Times Assistant Sports Editor

This national park is a spectacular place any time of year, but in winter, there's a special magic about it that only somewhat adventurous skiers can fully appreciate.

After the summer crowds have departed and the first snows of winter have added a splash of white to the color scheme, a chill quiet descends on Yosemite, broken only by the traffic noise of cars laden with bulging ski-racks.

They stream up the mountain on California 41 from Fresno and wind along the river on California 140 from Merced, headed for Badger Pass and a day or a weekend of riding lifts uphill and skiing right back down again. It's fun, of course, but repetitious.

Badger is a pleasant, well run little hill that looks much like many other ski areas. You hardly know you're in Yosemite, unless you're staying overnight at Yosemite Lodge or the Ahwahnee and make the trip down to the valley at day's end.

But there is an alternative, and like many of the best things in life, it can be free--or almost free.

The real Yosemite aficionados wear skinny skis in winter, enabling them to engage in a sport called, variously, cross-country skiing, Nordic skiing or ski touring. And the beauty of it is that it frees skiers from dependency on chairlifts--and lift tickets--and turns them loose almost anywhere there happens to be snow.

"This is one of the greatest places in the world to go ski touring," said a skier named Steve, from Los Gatos, Calif., as he and his younger brother took a break between jaunts into the wilderness last week. "The scenery is incredible, and the trails are well marked. I enjoy skiing downhill, too, but this is something special."

The brothers had just completed a tour to Glacier Point. They set out from the Badger parking lot at about 8:30 a.m. and skied the 10.5 miles along a snow-covered road that is closed to traffic in the winter. The terrain is generally flat, with just enough up-and-down to provide a few challenges and thrills.

Arriving at Glacier Point about 4 p.m., they set up tents in the snow, then boiled water on their portable stoves for a tasty supper of soup, tortellini and other backpackers' delights.

"It gets dark early this time of year, so after taking in the panoramic view of the valley and Half Dome off to the east, there wasn't much to do but sleep," Steve said.

There were two other small groups of skiers camped nearby.

They all awakened the next morning to several inches of new snow on their tents, but Steve's brother, Stu, who had come up from San Diego, said: "We were cozy and warm all night. Our (sleeping) bags are good down to about 10 (degrees) below zero."

After fixing breakfast, the pair took a few pictures of the view and skied back to Badger, reporting their return at the ranger station there. Since they had their own equipment, the total cost of the overnight ski trip was virtually zero.

There are several other ski touring options from Badger, including trails to Bridalveil campground, Dewey Point and Ostrander Lake, and some of them can be completed round-trip without camping in the snow. It's even possible to ski to Glacier Point and back the same day if you travel light, without a backpack full of camping gear.

The Yosemite Nordic Ski School, directed by Bruce Brossman, offers a complete range of instruction, from beginning lessons to avalanche survival techniques, and guided tours.

Rental equipment is also available. Besides being narrower than downhill--or Alpine--skis, cross-country skis also have special bindings that permit the skier to raise his heels, thereby making it easier to slide along on the flats. The loose heels also make it more difficult to turn when going downhill, however, and some skiers use the old telemark method, which involves half kneeling on one knee and lifting the other.

For ski touring that involves considerable changes in elevation, there are bindings that can be locked at the heel when desired, and boots that are higher than the normal low-cut shoes, to give the ankle more support.

One of the more popular tours in Yosemite covers 9 to 10.3 miles each way, depending on the route, to the Ostrander Lake ski hut, which sleeps up to 25 people. Reservations and advance payment are required for skiers touring without a guide.

Longer trans-Sierra trips, from Lee Vining to Yosemite Valley, are scheduled twice this spring, on March 14-19 and April 4-9.

In addition to the common-sense guidelines concerning proper clothing and equipment, planning your route and checking the weather forecast, park rangers have assembled a set of rules and suggestions for ski touring in Yosemite, which include the following:

--Registration is required for all overnight trips, available daily from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. at Badger Pass. The wilderness permit is free, as is parking at Badger.

--Camp at least a mile from any plowed road.

--Cutting tree limbs or pine boughs for shelter is not permitted.

--Don't travel alone or get separated from your party.

--Unless you're expert with map and compass, stay on trails, which are located by yellow markers.

--For even short trips, carry proper food and gear for an unexpected bivouac.

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