When toasty -- and sometimes slightly toasted -- cross-country skiers in the Ski Hut at Glacier Point start making a move toward their sleeping bags, tour guide Nancy Davis usually says she is going to take her bag and a mattress outside for the night.
On my first visit here two years ago, several people took Davis up on her offer to join her in sleeping under the stars at 7,214 feet, with one of the most famous natural sights in America, Half Dome, looming straight across the valley void at 8,842 feet.
"I think I only slept inside once last season," Davis said recently over the telephone. "In fact I can't wait to get out tomorrow. There's going to be a full moon overhead all night long. I love the moonless nights with the shooting stars, or Venus rising over a crescent moon. But to me, there is nothing like waking up at 4 a.m. on a full-moon night and to see how the moon shines and illuminates the face of Half Dome. It looks like a ghost."
Winter offers a special way to experience Half Dome as it is transformed from wearing a ghostly Darth Vader hood at night to radiating a red glow at sunset, from its most brooding to its most brilliant. In summer, something of the same experience is shared by most of the 3.36 million visitors who come to Yosemite each year and drive up to Glacier Point on the 10.5-mile road out of Badger Pass.
In winter, Glacier Point Road is closed as Sierra snow piles up to the tops of traffic signs and the roofs of outhouses. After the groomers lay tracks, the road becomes one of the most spectacular cross-country skiing trails imaginable, with a one- or two-night stay at the Glacier Point hut as the goal at the end of the trek.
I heard about the wonders of Yosemite in winter from my friend John Capitman, a professor at California State University, Fresno. We tried the one-night trip in March 2005 and enjoyed it so much that we came back a year later for a two-night stay. Our guides on both trips were Davis and Rick Stockwell. Davis, 47, a guide for nine seasons, has long experience in the park. She bused tables at the famed Ahwahnee Hotel as a teenager and once ran a Wednesday ski school for local children. Stockwell, 59, is in his 28th season as a winter guide. In the summer, he leads backpacking trips and wilderness survival classes.
"What is so fascinating to me," Stockwell said, "is how we take people out who may be far apart on many political issues, but once they get out there, taking in the view of Half Dome together, sharing some glasses of wine, and talking about the wonders they've just seen, all the conversations seem so genteel. If Congress could work this way, we'd be all right."
The 10-plus miles out to Glacier Point begin amid towering trees adorned in snow like cotton balls at about 7,000 feet. If you can go for a day on beginner and intermediate trails at Bretton Woods in New Hampshire, then the only things you will need to go cross-country in Yosemite are altitude acclimation and common sense. The trail unfolds so gradually up to about 8,000 feet that younger or more macho skiers often ask Davis if they can blast ahead.
"I get these competitive women who want to race me," said Davis, laughing. "In my head, I'm saying, don't even try it. I may have a little paunch, but I can fly when I want to." On last year's trip, grandparents in their 60s and mid-70s laughed the night away at the hut while several twenty- and thirty somethings nursed blisters and sprained ankles.
Half Dome formed underground 87 million years ago and emerged through eons of uplift. The Indian name for it is "Tis-sa-ack." Depending on what legend you believe, it was named either for a wife whose spats with her husband got them both turned to stone or for a guardian angel of the valley whose prayers to end drought were met with a thunderous splitting of the dome and life-giving waters cascading down from the High Sierra.
Half Dome is not really the proper name, at least in mathematical terms. Over millions of years, water got inside cracks in the granite formation and weakened it enough that part of it fell away during the age of glaciers. But only about 20 percent of the dome was lost. Park rangers joke that it should be renamed "80 Percent Dome."
The dome was the subject of an early masterpiece by photographer Ansel Adams in his 1927 work titled "Monolith: The Face of Half Dome." It marked the beginning of his attempt to communicate, as he said, the "austere and blazing poetry of the real."
Nothing is more austere and blazing than emerging from the shroud of the woods near the end of Glacier Point Road to a sun-drenched, snow-dappled, silvery Half Dome, with the mountain ranges stacked up behind it and the valleys spreading out more than a half mile below. Adams said Yosemite Valley alone is "always a sunrise, a glitter of green and golden wonder in a vast edifice of stone and space." At Glacier Point, Yosemite Valley becomes the faint bottom of the well, with its giant waterfalls seemingly a distant trickle.
The hut is a 10-year-old, $2.7 million structure with high beams and a massive stone fireplace. It mirrors the usage of the park. In the summer, it is a T-shirt gift shop and snack bar. In the winter, it is transformed into a seemingly palatial abode of sofas, dining tables, and bunks for no more than 20 tired skiers.
Davis and Stockwell make dinner as part of the package, though Stockwell humbly said of their enchiladas or lasagna, "I sure hope people don't come for the food." After the day's trek, no one complains, especially after the complimentary wine, and the evening spent cementing new friendships and sharing digital photographs.
How many ways can you see Half Dome? On our one-night trip, the silver of afternoon gave way to granite fireworks at sunset. The dome became copper. Then for a precious few moments, the face glowed a ruddy red.
The next morning, a few light bands of clouds were behind Half Dome. They became pink and lavender ribbons in the predawn light. As the yellow sky brightened in the east, the dome itself blackened into a silhouette. By the end of breakfast, another day of silver had begun.
Our two-night trip was much more mysterious. On our way out, snow showers obliterated many of the views. But there was one moment where a blue hole in the sky opened starkly over a billowing meadow of perfect, untouched snow. In the middle of the meadow was a lone pine tree. The sharp horizon between blue and white, with dreamy shadows in the snow , all seemed as if they had come off Georgia O'Keeffe's brush.
"That is why no one thing in particular stands out for me on these trips," Stockwell said. "You never see the same thing twice."
Davis said, "That's why I beg to do back-to-back trips. But they won't let me. I'd probably exceed the state laws for this sort of thing."
Half Dome was the usual daytime silver when we got there, but the clouds began a bedeviling dance, rolling in and out. They eliminated the sunset, then just before total darkness, Half Dome emerged in spectral form. The next day, in the few hours it was clear, John went on a day trip to a 360-degree view of the park from Sentinel Point. I stayed to meditate on the changing illumination.
Clouds rolled in again to wipe out the sunset. Half Dome was socked in and snow fell from night until breakfast. The view from the hut at dawn was a sheet of white. As we prepared to leave to go back to Badger Pass, we longed for one last look.
It was as if Tis-sa-ack heard our wish and blew a deep breath from on high. The sky brightened and Half Dome emerged above the cloud line. There was so little definition in the clouds, I felt as if I could reach out and touch the monolith just beyond the trees.
The young Adams said he was "arrested" by his "exceedingly pointed awareness of the light" in Yosemite. He said that on one hike, he saw several things more clearly than ever, including "the motion of the high clouds streaming above the peaks."
Few things in creation could be more arresting than the motion of the high clouds streaming below Half Dome.
Contact Derrick Z. Jackson at email@example.com.