Sentinel Dome (8127') Winter Backpacking
Sentinel Dome (8127') winter backpacking -Yosemite NP
Date: 18-19 Feb 2017
Duration: 2 days
Distance: ~18 miles
Elevation gain: ~1500 feet
Hike type: Snowshoeing
Trailhead: Badger pass ski & snowboard area
Trail/Route: Glacier point road all the way past restroom (Sentinel Dome summer trailhead) -> left bend (decent) -> an old road type trail -> Sentinel Dome.
Notes: Glacier Point road is groomed in the winter for cross-country skiing. We had to break trail from the glacier road branch towards Sentinel dome (~1mile)
Best approached by cross-country skies. Snowshoeing = making your life difficult especially along the groomed glacier point road.
Atop Sentinel dome looking north east towards Half Dome
Yosemite National Park also resonating as the granite gateway to heaven, has a lot to offer to everyone; from the most innocent of children to the people who have grown wise over time. Majority of the crowd visit Yosemite in summer months making winter an ideal time for people preferring the sounds of the spirit of Yosemite over fellow humans. Numerous park visitors have spoken about their experience of being touched by something extraordinary as they entered the grand landscapes of this park. I believe this sense of connecting with nature is more prominent during a winter visit. The untarnished white snow capping the towering peaks around Yosemite brings about a different calm that provides warmth on some of the coldest of days. Having experienced this beauty before, I’ve made it a point to visit Yosemite during winter whenever possible.
Along the Glacier point road - Looks like beauty preserved for years!
For the year 2017, my ritual journey to Yosemite was snowshoeing to Sentinel Dome (8127’), starting 9 miles out from Badger pass ski & snowboarding area (7200’). Badger pass is one of the many parts of the park where chain control is in place and thanks to the blessings from rain gods, this year Yosemite saw a lot of snow/rain, mandating chain requirements here. National park service in collaboration with the ski & snowboarding outfitters runs free shuttle service from the valley. Taking the shuttle might be a great option depending on how prepared and comfortable one is with driving in snowy/icy conditions. Given snow & ice there are a few options (snowshoeing, backcountry skiing, cross country skiing) for hikers & outdoor lovers like us (Ang, Roxana and I) to venture into nature. The option we chose was snowshoeing which I’ve been wanting to do for quite some time (What’s life without learning something new now and then?). Enjoying sunset and sunrise amidst nature is best experienced by camping for the night in wilderness. Backpacking provides the freedom to call any beautiful place in the vast wilderness home for the night and we did just that! Our home for the night was planned to be Sentinel dome - literally!
Overnight trips in National park wilderness require a wilderness permit. For hikes starting at and above Badger pass ski area the permit needs to be acquired from the ranger station at Badger pass. Having taken the 8:30am shuttle from Yosemite Valley lodge, we got to the ranger station at 9:30am. As if Yosemite wanted to welcome us magically, it gently snowed on our way to badger pass. Similar to how excited kids would jump with joy and run into the snow, we started our long walk along glacier point road towards our temporary home for the night (Sentinel dome). Glacier point road is pretty much a ski trail in winter. Its groomed all the way to glacier point and it's surprising to see a lot of people use it. Families with kids venture 1-2 miles in where kids get to play with undisturbed snow, make snowmen and throw snowballs at each other. More adventurous folks either snowshoe or cross-country ski further as a means to explore winter wilderness. The gift shop at glacier point is converted to a ski hut with bunk beds in winter which can be reserved as part of an adventure package (food & service included).
Almost at Sentinel dome. Going past the dome which is to the left and preparing to climb up.
The ski-hut seemed to be the reason for the trail’s popularity. We had cross country skiers whiz past us while we trotted slowly with the large snowshoes and heavy backpacks. Imagine daffy duck from Walt Disney show days, walking with its webbed feet; we’d probably looked like that, mind you daffy duck probably would have been much faster. Well we signed up for hiking, so nothing to complain there. The sun walked into and out of the clouds all morning. Every so often the snow would fall from tree branches either due to the hinged snow melting away or just whispers from the wind. Being snowshoers, that meant we would be walking targets for these random cosmic events. I contemplated if I would be hit by the falling snow mounds during the entirety of the trip, pretty much dabbling at a game of chance with nature. The trail (road in summer) ascends and descends over and over making it hard to not only hikers but also skiers. The first mile is a steep ascent, then some descent and then the trail gradually climbs higher.
We reached the Sentinel dome trailhead, near one of the restrooms at around 3pm (included a break for lunch midway). The last few miles to reach this summer trailhead was a slog for me. It had been ages since I backpacked, let alone snow-backpacking. Being rusty just made me slow. Ang & Roxana graciously waited for me. The toilets and road signs were pretty much completely buried under multiple feet of snow. I suppose this is commonplace during winters, especially like the 2016-2017 one. The restrooms’ roof was the only visible part of the entire structure. During summer, the trail to Sentinel dome starts here. However the ranger had showed us another way to the top. Continuing further on glacier point road (~half to three-fourths of a mile), just after a left curve an old road like feature branched off the main road. From there on the snowshoes actually came to use. Ang broke trail all the way to the top. Approach to Sentinel dome is around the dome counterclockwise and from the back. At the top we could see nothing but ourselves. The surrounding was thick with snow flurries and clouds. We literally setup camp on the summit of Sentinel dome.
Backpacking in general but mountaineering and winter backpacking in particular requires a lot more planning and the art of food selection that each individual likes. I had some old backpacking food packets with me that I thought I could use for this trip. This however ended up going straight to trash. The weather being so cold, all I wanted to eat were fruits and something hot. Thanks to Ang & Roxana I gulped some of their food and regained part of the energy spent that day. Snow melting is the most common way to replenish water supplies in snow backpacking trips unless of course one carries the entire supply of water for the trip. Another interesting aspect of winter camping is ‘peeing’ after tucking in for the night. This involves wearing multiple layers both top & bottom, gloves, headgear and boots (crampons if camped on a slope) and venturing a couple of steps away from the tent. Believe me, i would have avoided this if possible but getting a good night’s sleep is more important than suffering through this tedious procedure.
A common quote out there worded in different ways but conveying something in the lines of - “those who put effort get rewarded” could be seen taking effect at dawn the next day. Clouds slowly rolled out opening up 360 degree panoramic views of the entire valley. Half dome to the north east, Yosemite falls to the north and El cap to the west. Sunlight filled the horizon illuminating it with varying shades of yellow and orange. It felt like we were in heaven and the time had stopped forever. After taking in all of the sight we packed up our camp, gobbled up some breakfast and returned to badger pass ski area by ~1:30pm with almost ~30mins to spare for the return shuttle (2pm) back to the valley.
Ang and Roxana spent the next day skiing while I walked around the valley floor taking in the very scenery that convinced John Muir to keep coming back to the valley every summer and finally deciding to stay back there forever.
Ang's tent in the foreground and upper Yosemite falls in the background - Atop Sentinel dome
El Capitan in the background