Fire and Ice
fashioned the famous profile of Yosemite Valley. John Thaxton
climbed to Glacier Point in winter to see the park in its
primeval state-white, glorious, and dangerous.
was climbing a rock ledge when the avalanche started. I had
just emerged out of the alpine forest near my destination-Glacier
Point, a shelf of rock that is one of the best vantage points
in Yosemite. The view was all clouds-a low, flat layer overhead,
a motley flotilla below, flanked on either side by rugged
canyon walls that evaporated upward into the ether. And at
dead center, where I was headed with my camera, sat a woman,
denim-clad, alone, on the very rim of the precipice, legs
dangling over the edge. I clambered up rocks to take a picture
of the cloudmountainscape without intruding upon, or including,
the lone woman. As I released the shutter-wondering, having
labored to do otherwise, whether I should have included her
after all-the silence that I hadn't noticed exploded in a
sudden, hard rain. It grew louder by the nanosecond, until
it occurred to me, a second or two later, the camera down
from before my eyes-that this wasn't rain: It was an avalanche.
vast cascade of ice and snow poured down the sheer canyon
wall, perhaps thirty yards to my left, ominous and graceful
and white. Fragments of ice the size of footballs arrived
with my consciousness of what was happening, crashing all
around me as I dropped to my butt, slid back down the steep
rise, and scrambled to the lee side of a giant ponderosa pine.
My wife, twenty yards away, was crouched low behind a boulder
in a tight stand of small hemlocks. But the woman in denim,
whom I spun round to check on, was still sitting there, perfectly
unaware of the peril, so ravished by Yosemite's cold splendor
that she was oblivious to the implacable power, the essential
fearsomeness, of that much falling ice.
had been to Yosemite before-in midspring at the height of
snowmelt, during a week when I actually saw park rangers taking
pictures of waterfalls. That's how gorgeous the place is-the
employees carry cameras. But this was late winter, when the
High Sierra was almost entirely white, the falls almost a
parody of grandeur.
would fly over Yosemite and Glacier Point-where I was huddled-a
few days later, in early morning light, when the peaks and
snowfields of the High Sierra present bold arrangements in
black and gray, dazzling whites, and the blues of shadow.
Mount Lyell, at 13, 114 feet the highest summit in Yosemite
National Park, looks from above like a charcoal gray and deep
indigo pyramid placed curiously in a desert of windswept snow.
But for the wind, which blows it in gauzy banners miles long
from the summits, combing it like spindrift from the crests
of the highest ridges, snow would have overcome the High Sierra
three million years ago and ground down the highest of its
peaks from above, even as the glaciers that grew in its cirques
continue to gouge out its sides.
should do this in summer," the pilot said, poking the
slim radio mouthpiece down from before his smile.
aretes, sinuous black ridges miles long but only a few feet
wide, thin lines from the air, sweep east and west from the
shoulders of Mount Lyell in long, loping curves that describe
a bowl of near-vertical snow. Above and from the north, the
deep blue pyramid peak and curvaceous ridges resemble a gigantic
mussel shell filled with-and all but buried in-white sand.
An adjoining peak with four or five evenly radiating ridges
recalls a starfish half-sunk in the sandy floor of the shallow
sea that used to be here.
summer," the pilot added, "when the snow's all gone.
Then you can see the glaciers. They're blue."
small plane banks. A hazeless, cloudless sky rolls down the
window like a pale blue shade. To my left a herringboned whorl
of black rock and white snow reels past the pilot's profile.
He smiles as he levels the plane, arcs up, and heads for a
final flyby over the Lyell and Maclure glaciers, two thousand
feet below us by the time we pass.
as Windex," the pilot says to the back of my head.
smiling, he levels the Cessna. He stays at fifteen thousand
feet because there is no turbulence today. I see a rainbow
near the top of Yosemite Falls and the dark gray eastern face
of Merced Canyon, rising three thousand feet almost vertically
from beside the river to the Mecca, the Ararat, the centerpiece
of our trip: Glacier Point.
Point looks down at Vernal and Nevada falls, over at Mount
Star King to the southeast and Clouds Rest to the northeast,
and straight out at Half Dome looming over the confluence
of Merced and Tenaya canyons.Standing on its edge, you get
a wide-angle (140-degree) study in what a glacier does to
a landscape. Beyond the blue footprints and ski tracks at
the brink of the precipice, the foreground drops away into
a ten-foot-wide cornice of windblown snow, a drift thrust
out over the abyss, undisturbed-no coyote tracks, no raven
tracks even. The abrupt loss of the ground twenty feet in
front of you does something dizzying to the panorama beyond;
the near and far scan at surreally different rates.
is terrifying. Which may be why everybody wants to go there.
In summer, hundreds of people gather on Glacier Point-for
hundreds, one imagines, of reasons. But one Thursday night
last winter, there were just four of us staying overnight,
on a guided tour conducted by the Yosemite Cross-Country Ski
set up base camp at the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite Valley,
we signed up for the second half of a mid-week package that
included two days of instruction before the ski trek out to
the overnight lodging at Glacier Point-a three-thousand-square-foot
Quonset hut about forty feet from the edge of the abyss. We
discovered, upon arrival, that its most picturesque amenity
was a three-quarter ax, at rest beside a pile of logs wider
than the opening of the stove. Being the only gentleman in
attendance, and having rather a talent for splitting, I split
up a storm, realizing with my first shot that this was an
activity to be done in one fell swoop. I had never, it occurred
to me, split wood indoors; each stroke of the ax reported
like a howitzer in an empty subway tunnel. The wool army blankets
on the row of cots ten feet beyond the brick hearth leaped
up at each stroke with Busby Berkeley precision. I suggested
that everybody leave while I split. They did.
trek begins at Badger Pass, from which we ski to Glacier Point,
a ten-and-a-half-mile cross-country trail that starts with
a two-and-a-half-mile downhill run. At first the sun is right
in my face, the landscape blinding, the snow slow, a bit slushy.
Then, as the trail curves north through a chiaroscuro of sunlight
and shadow, I almost lose my balance. When I pass from light
to dark, I hear the hiss of my skis changing pitch, feel the
sharp drop in temperature, lean into it, open my eyes. In
the shade the snow is pale blue. The trail curves, my knees
bend, my pupils constrict against a vast blast of white ten
seconds down the trail. I can see no detail whatsoever in
the white, and so I stare into it, blinking, squinting, hearing
the hiss of my skis. The downhill run levels out into a mile-and-a-half
stretch of undulating plateau and then drops steeply for a
mile to Bridalveil Creek. The creek is a noisy black pattern
among huge white spheres and cylinders, under curving silver
shelves of ice. The air in its col is thrillingly cold. From
here we ski uphill for four unrelieved miles, then stop for
lunch at the edge of an open ridge. We eat ham and cheese
sandwiches as we take in a sweeping view of the Clark Range,
just south of Mount Lyell.
best to keep your sunglasses on while you eat," our guide
tells us, "and if you feel yourself sliding, or any dizziness
or anything, fall down. Don't think about-okay? Just fall
wonder what sort of organization would adopt as its slogan
JUST FALL DOWN.
by dark forested ridges on either side of us, the Clark Range
arcs below the sky in a jagged horizon. Ravens wheel slowly
and croak overhead, their shadows racing by us as they pass.
A Clark's nutcracker swoops through the view, screams from
the top of a pine.
keep on. What will take an hour to ski up tomorrow, I ski
down in ten minutes this afternoon, smiling widely as I glide
out of the woods and gradually slow to a stop right in front
of the hut, which is below me. All but the chimney and dugout
entranceway are buried under snow. I gloat over not having
fallen the whole day as I see my wife, also smiling, descending
in parachute-hue purple through the pines, driving a pair
of ravens before her.
at the view, I take off my skies, absentmindedly, perpendicular
to the ridge.
where I lie on my belly in the snow, squinting over sunglasses
too caked with it to see through and the cold white blurry
rim of my headprint, I see a great field of luminous, pale
blue ice filling the Yosemite valleys and canyons rim to rim,
a few high black-and-white domes and ridges projecting above
it. It is an uncannily accurate picture of what I imagine
it looked like three million years ago, during the first and
most extensive of the Pleistocene glaciations. As I study
the landscape, snow melting down my shoulders and neck and
wwrists, my sunglasses hopelessly fogged-I remember, yet again,
that the essential dialectic in this world is that between
radioactivity deep in the earth's core and the infinite cold
of interstellar space; in a phrase, between fire and ice.
These two forces, with crystals and time, created this landscape
of dizzying, awesome beauty.
you all right?" my wife asks from behind.
nod as best I can with my face in the snow; wave reassuringly
with the hand on the ski.
about four hundred to two hundred million years ago, the continental
shelf of proto-North America occupied the space that Sierra
Nevada occupies now. At that time the Pacific beaches were
in what is now western Nevada, and the North American tectonic
plate was floating west on the earth's plastic outer mantle.
The Pacific tectonic plate the while was floating east, with
the result that during mid-Jurassic time, circa 150 million
years ago, the two plates met, pushed against each other with
platonic force, and then one slid beneath the other. It was
a subduction scene. The Pacific plate underrode the North
American plate and started melting into earth's semiliquid
outer mantle, injecting upward, as it plunged, a massive linear
chain of volcanoes and a vast underground reservoir of magma,
the Sierra Nevada Batholith.
any help?" my wife inquires.
the batholith hardened, a period of uplift thrust it through
the sedimentary floors of the shallow seas off the coast of
Nevada and eleven thousand feet into the air. Twenty million
years of snow and fast rivers eroded it down to rolling hills
of a few thousand feet; and then, twenty million years ago,
it started to rise again, and it's still going. What sculpted
it as it grew into the spectacular landscape I see, raising
my chin over my headprint, is the same stuff I flick off my
nose and sweep from the top of my sunglasses: ice crystals.
I see more as my breath melts the rim of my headprint-I see
all the glaciers that endure here, right now, at the very
threshold of the Holocene. It tickles my nose something fierce.
to stay there all night?"
form and break down more quickly than other geological formations,
and they flow beneath the weight of their own gravity, shifting
internally along myriad crystal planes as they range, busily
seeking, continually changing. They move upon the landscape
when, under the weight of those above, the crystals below
rearrange themselves, slipping along planes by melting and
refreezing a ten-millionth of a millimeter at a time. When
the crystals of the pre-Taohoe ice sheet moved their ten-millionth
of a millimeter downstream, they plucked their colleagues
of quartz and feldspar right off the valley and canyon walls
I'm looking at, in some places in vast and elegant planar
sheets. They gouged the V-shaped canyons of wild ancestral
Sierra rivers into the wide and flat-bottomed U shapes of
the Merced and Yosemite valleys.
tributary streams, tributary glaciers followed the landscapes
of least resistance to larger ones, sometimes flowing into
them hundreds of feet above their base. When the glaciers
retreated, the valleys of these overhead tributaries were
left hanging at the tops of sheer rock faces, like the one
over which Nevada Fall, below me and to my right, plunges
594 feet in a cataract of billowing white. I wonder at the
geologic history of narrow, noisy, black Bridalveil Creek,
which I saw from a turnout two days ago, watching a rainbow
rise where it spilled into the puffy white silence of Bridalveil
bellyflopped and squinting toward the horizon, I can almost
see the giant planar joints that the Sierra Nevada Batholith
fractured into. It rose with a giant wedge of earth's crust.
Rivers and glaciers followed, eroded those fractrues, sculpted
them, dammed them with sediment, filled them with lakes, turned
them into flat marshlands and meadows at the borrom of deep
romantic chasms full of clouds and rainbows. Voila-Yosemite.
ski back the next morning, and that night we dine late at
the Ahwahnee, in the cradle of comfort, if not civilization.
I peer over the top of the wine list as the waiter tells me
the crab is local. Outside the window where we sit, about
a mile away, Glacier Point rises above a dark green canopy
of ponderosa pines. Trying to see it through the darkness,
I see instead a reflection of the room behind me-the twenty-four
foot vaulted ceiling, the row of chandeliers, the dark ebony
sheen of the baby grand at the far end of the room, the face
and hands and sheet music of the player, a field of candle
flames, a man in a tuxedo pouring champagne.
taste it-lovely-as the pianist segues from Satie to Gershwin.
The dining room at the Ahwahnee is a classic-rustic, elegant,
big as an airplane hanger, yet strangely intimate. As we leave
it, smiling, we notice a blue dungaree jacket and denim nor'easter
hat lying on a couch in the cavernous lobby. Beside them,
her back to us, elbows on her knees, and her chin, I imagine,
resting upon her hands, sits a dark-haired young woman in
a black sweater, staring at the fire. We move one ten-millionth
of a millimeter toward her without breaking pace, smiling
wider as we head to our room with its view of Glacier Point.