I’m willing to bet, when you think of Yosemite, the last thing you think about is skiing. One of the park’s best kept secrets is that yes, you can go swooshing down a mountainside. And even better (especially for me), you can also learn to ski.
Yosemite National Park is home to a nifty little ski area, at Badger Pass. No, you won’t have a dramatic view of Half Dome as you plow through the fresh powder — Badger Pass is a few miles away from any dramatic views. But it’s still great to be able to enjoy skiing, while you’re staying so close to all of Yosemite’s other attractions.
Badger Pass is home to the oldest downhill-skiing area in California. The first ski lift was built here in 1936 — a large sled that traveled on a cable, pulling six skiers at a time to the top of the hill†. It wasn’t just the first in California, but in the entire western U.S. Even before then, Yosemite boasted a ski school (established in 1928).
It wasn’t Yosemite’s history of teaching people to ski that convinced me to give it a try. It was a deal. Yosemite offers a $35 (as of 2010) package to people staying overnight in the valley, that includes a lift ticket, ski rental, and a group lesson (in addition to a few other features, like snow tubing and ice skating, which I didn’t have time to try). I don’t want this to sound like an advertisement, but seriously, that’s a pretty darned good deal.
Badger Pass Ski Area has a nice lodge, complete with a ski shop, rental shop…
… and a snack bar (and I later found out there was a bar upstairs, called the Snowflake Room). It’s nothing fancy, but it’s everything you need.
I felt clueless as I wandered in. Since this was my first time skiing, I didn’t know where to go, or what to do. I talked to several people who pointed me in the right direction. All of them had the same advice: I shouldn’t have worn jeans. (In my defense, I didn’t want to go out and buy ski apparel, not knowing if I would ever wear it again.) I soon learned why so many people were questioning my wardrobe.
After finding the rental shop and fumbling through the process of putting on gear for the first time, I wandered out onto the snow to await my lesson. It was just a bit past 9 a.m., and the next class didn’t start until 10. The wait was good: it gave me time to learn how to get my balance, and even slide a short distance without falling over.
When 10 o’clock arrived, I was the only adult novice to show up. So, my group lesson turned into a private lesson. My instructor was known to everyone simply as “Cowboy”.
We headed first to the “Turtle” lift. Just the name itself made me a bit embarrassed. I grew up in snow, why on earth didn’t I learn to do this as a kid?
The Turtle lift is a cable-tow lift. A cable makes a loop, running up and down the small slope. Skiers grab onto one of the handles attached to the cable, and it pulls them up the hillside, perhaps 50 feet or so. Near the top of the tow, you let go of the handle, then ski down the fenced-off slope.
I learned quickly that the simple things were the toughest — like standing up once I had fallen. Cowboy finally got me upright, then to the top of the Turtle run. The basics included making a wedge with your skis as you head downhill, in order to control your speed. Kids are reminded to “make a pizza” with their skis. I appreciated the fact that Cowboy never said this to me.
After a couple of runs straight down the slope, we started working on turns. The trick, I learned, was to control my direction with my uphill foot — the one that would be on the inside of the curve. Trying to steer with the downhill foot ended with a spectacular fall, every time.
Body positioning was also important. I had to learn to keep my shoulders square with my downhill destination. This took a lot of practice, with Cowboy heading down the slope ahead of me, giving a “watch it, now do it” instruction.
We spent an hour on the kiddie slope before the “group” lesson ended. After eating lunch, I headed back to Turtle one more time, to make sure I hadn’t forgotten everything I had learned. Then…
… it was time for Bruin. This run is considered a green “easiest” trail, just like Turtle, but it is worlds apart. I’ll admit, my first time at the top of the hill…
… I was terrified. But once you’re at the top, there’s only one way to get down, so I gave it a try. The Bruin run starts off surprisingly steep, then for the final 3/4 of the hill, the grade decreases, and the skiing is easier.
This is when I was truly thankful that I was learning to ski at Badger Pass. There was almost no one on the slope, making it easy to wait for everyone else to get out of the way. Much of the time, the run was completely empty, which meant no one could see me fall. And I did.
All those lessons I learned at the bottom of the hill flew out of my mind as I gained speed. My legs crossed, my skis popped off, and I plowed into the powder. It happened three or four times on my first run down Bruin, if I remember correctly.
I was quickly beginning to understand why my denim outfit wasn’t a wise choice. The jeans were getting soaked with melting snow. The ride back up the hill was even worse, as I sat on a seat covered with sleet. The phrase, “freezing my butt off” had a whole new meaning.
On the second trip down Bruin, I fell once. By the third time, I stayed upright the entire time. And for the rest of the day, I managed to keep my tumbles to a minimum. Every third or fourth run, I would head inside for some warmth. Despite being chilled to the bone, I managed to ski until 4 o’clock, when the lifts were officially powered down. I got to know Scott, the operator of the Bruin lift, and as closing time approached, he urged me to make one more round-trip. I couldn’t say no. Hypothermia be damned.
I didn’t try any runs more challenging than Bruin, though I think by the end of the day I was ready. Badger Pass has three other chair lifts, the most modern being the Eagle — a triple chair (meaning each chair can hold three people) with detachable grip (each chair can detach from the rope, allowing more time to load, and no need to slow the entire line). The hardest runs, Red Fox and Wildcat, come down the mountain on either side of the Eagle lift. (You can see a map of the mountain here.)