the ranger gets lost. (Howard Weamer and Yosemite’s Ostrander Ski Hut)
Across from El Capitan, Bridalveil Fall plunges 617 feet down the mountainside into Yosemite Valley. Follow the creek upstream, past granite domes and groves of fir, and you’ll eventually reach Ostrander Ski Hut.
Built by the CCC in 1941, this sturdy stone structure has become a popular cross-country skiing destination, reachable only by slogging up “Heart Attack Hill” and braving the wicked winter storms that scour the region. The trip may be difficult, but Ostrander rewards winter adventurers with plentiful bunks, a toasty fireplace, solar-powered lights, and a functional (if basic) backcountry kitchen.
Throughout the long Sierra winter, ‘hutmeisters’ (a term borrowed from Europe’s own ski hut tradition) maintain this glowing refuge for arriving guests. This helpful crew repairs storm damage, coordinates reservations, and stokes the fire that can thaw frozen fingers. Most importantly, when guests don’t show up, the hutmeisters venture out into the night, sweep the trail for the lost skiers, and herd them toward the safety of Ostrander.
By 1984, Howard Weamer had serious hutmeister credentials. Ostrander had hooked him from the start; he first visited the hut while writing a doctoral dissertation on John Muir. A decade later, Weamer was still there, winter after winter. And he grew more Muir-like day by day, with his long, wispy beard and lanky frame. Also like Muir, Weamer developed an incomparable knowledge of the region’s geography. After hundreds of round-trip journeys to the hut, he knew the trail better than anyone alive. Even in white-out conditions, he could find his way through the woods, navigating by landmarks that newcomers would hardly notice: nondescript trees, gentle contours.
In short, Howard Weamer was the least likely man to get lost en route to Ostrander Ski Hut. But on December 17, 1984, he did.
It was Weamer’s first trek to Ostrander that season, so his load would be heavy. On top of his usual sleeping gear, Weamer shouldered twenty-five pounds of photography equipment, fifteen pounds of radio gear, and a twenty-two pound frozen turkey. The bird was destined for Christmas dinner, barely a week away. Confident in his abilities and expecting a quick trip, he packed no tent and no water.
Weamer got an early start; he was hoping to reach Ostrander early enough to unlock the hut for the season’s first visitors. At first, he glided through a wonderland. Snow flurries drifted lazily down as he slid by; he relished the icy air and its familiar sting. The weather seemed ideal, but it didn’t last. The storm he had raced to the mountains soon caught him. Wind gusts whipped up to forty miles per hour, sandblasting his cheeks with snow. As the sun began to set, visibility worsened: first fifty feet, then fifteen. Soon, the surroundings disappeared almost entirely. Under such conditions, even a hutmeister’s trusted landmarks can slip by, unnoticed. Trail signs blend into the background. A skier might careen off a cliff before he even realizes it’s there.
All at once, Weamer realized that something felt off. One of his “skins,” the ski cover that adds grip for uphill climbs, was gone. It had slipped off his ski, somewhere behind him. Turning back into the wind, Weamer saw no sign of the gear. He gave up the search quickly; finding it could take hours, leaving Weamer at risk of serious frostbite.
Hobbled by the missing skin and increasingly disoriented by the white-out, Weamer resolved to climb down from his exposed perch. Hurriedly, he detached his skis, then watched helplessly as one ski clattered away, over a ledge and down into the darkening woods. He had forgotten to secure it before setting it down.
“Major dumbness,” he grumbled to himself, clambering down the hillside. “No ski, no hut, no shelter.” The situation was even more dire than that. Weamer had no water and no food (save for a rock-hard frozen turkey). The storm was growing fiercer by the minute. Daylight was fading fast. Weamer had a radio, but it was useless without a battery (those were waiting at the hut). Worst of all, he was lost–and if Howard Weamer was lost, what had befallen the skiers scheduled to visit Ostrander that night?
To find out what happened, read Weamer’s original account of that stormy December night here. Better yet, pick up Weamer’s book, The Perfect Art: The Ostrander Hut & Ski Touring in Yosemite.
Twenty-seven years later, Howard Weamer continues to serve as the Ostrander Ski Hut’s caretaker. He remains doggedly committed to the site, having defended it repeatedly from budget cuts and over-regulation. As Mark Sundeen notes, “In his tenure at Yosemite fighting to keep the hut open, [Weamer] has outlasted nine superintendents, as well as countless rangers, bureaucrats and inspectors.” Weamer himself reflects on his determined love for Ostrander in the short film below (be prepared to cry).