YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK — It was as if we had skied all day inside a white bedsheet, to the point of suffocation. My friends John and David and I had trudged 10½ miles from Badger Pass up to 7,200-foot Glacier Point as a blizzard dumped a foot of waterlogged, sticky snow on the trail.
On calm days, the trip is a gentle four-hour glide through fragrant pine, fir, and cedar. This day it took seven hours as the snow nailed our skis in place. I’ve run many marathons but nothing drained me like this. In one dizzied moment of dehydration, I gulped snow.
But we made it, and a hut, fireplace, and couches awaited. As we nursed ourselves with the salt of rehydrated split pea soup and corn chowder, the view outside began to open up. In the declining light of the afternoon, Half Dome, Yosemite’s signature 8,800-foot peak, was a rounded black obelisk peering over its whitened shoulder and the wispy clouds below. There was no color, just the gray, cloud-shrouded sky.
I had written about this spot six years before. The highlight of that trip was our final morning when the peak and all that was around us were hidden in a sheet of clouds. Then, as we prepared to leave, the clouds slowly parted around the head of Half Dome, revealing a likeness to Darth Vader’s helmet. Beams of light began to stream down.
This time we thought the gray would just go into the black of night. But inexplicably, 15 minutes before the scheduled sunset, a tiny sliver of clear ski inched up against the ceiling of clouds. It was like watching a Broadway stage curtain creep up to reveal the troupe’s toes.
The bottom edge of the sun dripped down into the slot. Half Dome turned ruddy.
I shouted, “Omigod! Half Dome’s lighting up!” The 20 people staying at the hut threw on their boots and coats, grabbed their cameras, and rushed outside.
At full exposure, the sun zinged an orange laser beam high over Yosemite Valley. The beam hit the top of Half Dome and the ridge of the High Sierras behind it. The light was so tightly focused that all else remained in the deepest shadow, all the more starkly black and white.
Ansel Adams once wrote, “When words become unclear, I shall focus with photographs. When images become inadequate, I shall be content with silence.” He would have laughed at us. It was nearly impossible to focus as we fumbled our cameras and tripped over tripods in excitement. During the entire show we screamed like children.
Most of us finally steadied for at least one good shot. For 15 minutes we experienced why Adams so revered this national park.
“It is difficult to explain the magic,” he wrote, “to lie in a small recess of the granite matrix of the Sierra and watch the progress of dusk to night.” He also said he often seemed to arrive at places “just when God’s ready to have somebody click the shutter.”
That whole day we were shrouded in nature’s sheets, arriving at Glacier Point in shreds. It was worth it all for the 15 minutes of that very magic.