Badger Pass

Sacramento Bee, February 3, 2016
Paul McHugh, Outdoors Writer, Special to the Bee

As a legend has it, the magic Scots village of Brigadoon comes to life once each century – but true love can help someone stay there longer. The historic ski haven of Badger Pass at Yosemite is like Brigadoon, but the main ingredient needed for Badger to arise and flourish is more basic: snow.

Our current El Niño winter is delivering that stuff by the bucket-load.

While I rode the comfy shuttle bus up from Yosemite Lodge in the valley, I stared out at droplets smacking its windshield. As we neared the base elevation of 7,200 feet, I noticed that spatter held ice crystals. By the time I debarked at the classic ski lodge – California’s very first, opened in 1935 – the snow had become a deluge of soft grains.

I must admit, I felt a jolt when I saw the old, fixed-grip double-chair line of the resort’s Eagle lift. I own decades-old memories of getting smacked in the rear end by that chair as I boarded. But on this day, I rose to Badger’s 8,000-foot summit aboard the new triple-chair, built alongside the old lift, and can report that it gave a much smoother ride.

Badger Pass celebrates its past, but does not seem mired in it.

Both the Eagle triple and Badger double-chair are new, and the lodge has revamped its foundations, bathrooms, locker rooms and food service areas. The downhill and cross-country rental equipment is well-sourced (Fischer, Rossignol), well-maintained and up-to-date.

Other aspects have not changed, nor would one wish them to. An emphasis on friendly, enthusiastic and skilled instruction established by legendary ski school director Nic Fiore (a charismatic French Canadian who set an amiable tone for 43 years) still holds sway. The 90 acres of Badger’s groomed terrain aren’t so much narrow runs as broad glades, where a skier or boarder can swoop at will and do some modest tree-skiing.
A grin spread on my face as I cut back and forth across slopes I’d not had the pleasure of visiting in years. Skiing on 7 inches of fresh snow dropped atop Badger’s carefully groomed runs was like carving whipped cream.

I dropped by the National Park Service’s A-frame cabin at the edge of the base area for a bit of perspective. The bearded ranger inside consulted a thick pad of statistics. The current snowpack is the best the park has seen in 10 years, he told me. Last January, on this date, with a 0-inch pack, Badger had to close. But now, he said, the depth was a full 5 feet thick, including those 7 inches that had fallen over the past 12 hours.
Outside the cabin, ski instructor Chris Moore, who goes by the nickname “Cowboy,” stepped up to ring the ski school’s bronze bell to start the morning class, a tradition that goes back to the Fiore heyday and beyond. In fact, Moore, now 60, said he himself was taught by Fiore (who died in 2009, at age 88) as a lad of 8, and considers himself a torch-bearer for the Fiore style.

As long as our present train of cold storms continues, Badger Pass, like the region’s other small and relatively low-elevation winter resorts (Dodge Ridge, 6,600-8,200 feet; Soda Springs, 6,700-7,325; Homewood, 6,230-7,881; Tahoe-Donner, 6,750-7,350; and Mount Shasta Ski Park, 5,476-6,866), should all be able to prosper, since they offer a combo of uncrowded slopes, cheap ticket prices and family friendly programs as their principal stock-in-trade.

Badger Pass’s special advantage within is that, once in Yosemite National Park, you win views of a wonderland featuring 1,169 square miles of grandeur with mist-wreathed, snow-draped massifs such as Half Dome and El Capitan.

It’s good news that Badger is presenting revived options for beginner and intermediate downhill skiers and boarders (as well as mountain veterans on a sentimental journey, like me). The great news is that Badger’s center for cross-country or Nordic skiing also has sprung back to life. There’s a school and gear rental facility, plus more than 90 miles of marked trail to ski on. The trail-system centerpiece is a 10.5-mile-long track, groomed all the way out to Glacier Point Hut.

The world-class operation up here, run by staff of the Yosemite Mountaineering School (YMS), is where I, as an ignorant immigrant from Florida 30 years ago, initially clipped into a set of boards. Then-director Bruce Brossman pushed me into a class and encouraged me past my first clumsy set of falls and bruises. He flogged me on into Yosemite’s classic Nordic race, then an outing to Glacier Point and finally a trans-Sierra ski trip.

A high point of my visit to Badger this January was taking another run out to Glacier Point. I started off under tranquil, sapphire skies to find another foot of powder compacted on a trail groomed with diagonal-stride tracks on each side and a skating lane in the middle. (YMS grooms all the way out to the point every Thursday or Friday, then after “as needed.”)

On the trail, I met and passed more folks heading out for snow-camping sessions or a visit to Ostrander Hut (a higher, more distant, and more rustic option). About 4 miles down the road, the lovely snow-clad peaks of the Clark Range appear, luring me on to further effort. At Mono Meadows, the trail bent north to climb for the next 3 miles. A 1.7-mile descent then ended at an overlook where the bulk of Half Dome rears in total magnificence against the northern horizon.

To term the Glacier Point facility a “hut” is kind of a misnomer. It’s actually a 3,000-square-foot alpine chalet, designed in an Ahwahnee/Craftsman style by Henrik Bull, with a soaring ceiling, peeled log beams and granite accents. In summer, it’s a drive-up visitor center for the point; in winter, it’s a ski-up lodge with dormitory bunks erected in one wing and food service in the other; a huge wood stove dominates the center.
I made my trip to the point in the four- to five-hour time window the park suggests for intermediate skiers, and was met at the door by Ryan Mann, 38, a former pastry chef from New York. Bearded, burly and smiling, he inquired if I wanted a hot beverage and snacks. My instant response: “Absolutely!”

Mann came to Yosemite to camp and grew spellbound by the park at first sight, then contrived a way to stay. Four years ago, he moved from cooking at the Ahwahnee Hotel to caretaking this hut.

“It’s a perfect job for me,” Mann said. “I like wilderness and solitude, but also love visiting with people and cooking for them.”

Soon, nine skiers ages 20 to 65 had slid up to spend the night. We shed jackets and boots, warmed up by the stove, and tucked into hot nachos and wine. As sunset rinsed Half Dome, Mount Starr King and the Clark Range in the pastels of alpenglow, we grabbed snowshoes from the pile by the door and strolled outdoors to soak in the view. We returned to further refuel on Mann’s stir-fry and salad, and get to know one another. Our cozy hut was soon full of yellow light, abuzz with chatter and laughter, as a blue darkness fell outside.

Our group included husbands and wives, a father and daughter, and a pair of friends: John Mullin, 43, and his pal, Ryan Wiley, 39. Both had been eyeing a Glacier Point End ski trip for years, and decided to jump on it as soon as conditions looked good.
“I grew up skiing in Colorado, but gave it up after college,” Mullin said. “Doing a job and having a family just didn’t leave enough time. Skiing out here today was my first time back on the boards in 21 years. It felt exhilarating to catch these views, and to pull mountain air back into my lungs. Maybe it’s time now to teach skiing to my kids. Probably, we should do it at Badger Pass.”

IF YOU GO:

Badger Pass downhill ski area is open daily, 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Basic adult lift tickets are $48.50, but even cheaper if purchased in advance, online ($44 weekends; $37.50 mid-week). The free shuttle bus runs twice daily from stops in the valley. Schedule, deals, rates, etc., online at Badger Pass Downhill Ski Area

The cross-country ski area at Badger Pass, operated by the Yosemite Mountaineering School (YMS), is open daily, 8:30 a.m.-4 p.m. Access to the groomed and signed Nordic trails is free, but YMS provides gear rental and lessons, including performance ski-skate packages, ski mountaineering and telemark gear. Guided overnight trips to the Glacier Point Hut are $350 (one night), $550 (two nights); self-guided trips are just $138 per night (provided a basic quorum of six skiers have signed up for that night). Custom guided options range up to trans-Sierra ski trips through the park. (209) 372-8444. Badger Pass Cross Country Skiing

Outings to the high-country’s Ostrander Ski Hut are arranged through the Yosemite Conservancy.

Information about lodging and other visitor services: Yosemite Park

Information about Yosemite National Park (includes special bulletins on road and weather conditions): Yosemite National Park