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Moving Snow: Lost in a sea of snow in the High Sierras

Forced isolation forces relection for one winter worker


My boss Jan claimed it was one of the biggest storms she had ever seen in the 25 years she'd worked in this canyon.

In December 2010, 103 inches of snow fell in five days at Rock Creek Lodge, the backcountry lodge in the Sierra Nevada where I work. As one friend put it, that's like Manute Bol standing on Yao Ming's shoulders: two 7-and-a-half-foot-tall NBA players buried with maybe only a raised forearm reaching out of the snow. Everything was lost in the storm: windows, doorways, chimneys, snowmobiles, buildings. All of it buried.

What the storm meant for me was the humbling act of moving snow. I'd wake at first light and open the door of my cabin to a waist-high wall of new snow. I'd push through it, using my thighs and knees to force a path outward, and if I was lucky, Tim had run the groomer, packing a way up to the dining room 100 yards away. But instead of eating breakfast, I'd grab a shovel and start digging.

Every morning we shoveled. As the storm intensified, all of that snow resulted in sagging power lines stretched under the weight that needed to be cleared. I climbed roofs to relieve rusted chimneys from the pressure of the settling snow pack, and then cleared roofs before buildings caved in.

I was always soaking wet by lunchtime, and the spaces that I'd shoveled in the morning had another 2 feet of snow on them by afternoon. A doorway that had been cleared was covered again by nightfall. I felt like I was losing against time and there was no catching up; as if I was losing some silly game while the gods above reveled in the humor of watching my weak attempts to defy them.

Then the phones went out, and I realized I hadn't seen anyone other than my five co-workers--not a Nordic skier or a lodge guest­--in days. I leaned on my broken plastic shovel, took in the thousands of white flakes floating toward the ground and felt the sublime eeriness of this storm that lacked the renowned howling Sierra wind.

Maybe it was the result of overwhelming fatigue, but the concern and stress of wondering if it would ever end left me. Everything became calm. Senses softened. The only colors I saw were the plain hues of winter: whites, grays and blacks, with only the occasional flash of Jan's orange jacket or the scoop of a blue shovel breaking the flat view of the storm landscape. I felt like the only thing I ever touched was the cottony inside of my gloves.

I've always thought of being at Rock Creek Lodge as living in a soft wilderness. In the summer, there's a paved road that goes up to 10,000 feet. The lodge has electricity, plumbing and Internet. Even in winter, we attach ourselves to the outside by transporting guests by snowmobile. There's the possibility of hundreds of people flowing by in a day.

Years back, the experience of spending two summers at the High Sierra Camp in the Yosemite wilderness felt more separated from the modern world than where I now live at 9,400 feet in the Eastern Sierra. The buzz of electric power was nonexistent. The only colors we saw for months were the green of fir trees, the blue water of Merced Lake and the gray of the granite valley walls. They are the sorts of colors that are predictably unstartling, reliable and comfortable without any flashing or blinking. We'd challenge ourselves to go all summer without seeing the road; without jumping into the leather seats of a car. I imagine the wonderment of tourists upon seeing crazed High Sierra Camp employees running across Highway 120 in Tuolumne Meadows while covering their eyes with their hands.

My friend Molly and I caved in to our modern impulses one weekend in September 2002, after having been in the wilderness for three months. We jumped in my car and headed to Mammoth, anticipating a real shower, clean sheets, beer from a tap and ice cubes in our whiskey. Hell, maybe even a television. We ate in a Mexican restaurant with piercing pastel walls and dozens of people swarming around us. I don't know if we said a word during dinner. Molly's dark brown eyes were huge and she sat low in her chair, hunched over as if trying to lean away from all of the sights and sounds. I felt like I was doing the opposite. I couldn't focus on any one thing: the waitress, a little kid running through the restaurant, a brightly colored painting, someone outside on a bike, the waitress again. I was unsettled and wished I was back at Merced Lake.

During our 103-inch storm at Rock Creek Lodge, I began to feel like I always had in the Yosemite wilderness. I realized I was glad to be getting that back.

But after nearly a week, we reconnected to the world. That day felt like rush hour. The lodge snow groomer and country plow driver raced back and forth in the parking lot, shoving tons of snow out of the way. Incessant beeping while the machines reversed made me panic. It sounded like an emergency.

There was no moment to enjoy the first cloudless sky in a week and no pause to look up the canyon and be thankful to see pointed mountains again. Our reactions were dictated by the hum and the buzz of equipment; the grating of the plow shovel on pavement; the oranges, yellows and reds of moving vehicles; the shouts of people in a hurry to get a job done. These were things we had become unaccustomed to. And everything that my senses had started to meld into with the long, gray, quiet snowy days--all the ways I noticed my body and mind changing to the landscape and how I wished it could stay like that--had dissipated to somewhere else the minute the reverberations from the plow filled my chest.

All I could do was lower my plastic shovel into the snow and lift it out of the way--keep doing what I'd been doing for days, but now it didn't feel the same.