BACKCOUNTRY BLISS GUEST MUST SKI IN TO TIOGA PASS RESORT, WHERE THE TERRAIN IS TRACKLESS.
YOSEMITE HIGH COUNTRY - Ski-in, ski-out is an advantage many resorts advertise. At the Tioga Pass Resort, it's required. To get to this backcountry adventure outpost in winter you'll have to put on a pair of skis or snowshoes and make a two- to four-mile journey on the snow-covered Tioga Road from Highway 395.
This is probably the only ski resort that also requires that you sign a liability release when you make your reservation.
The release form warns guests that, among other hazards, they might encounter ``crevasses, cornices, cliffs, high altitude, variable and difficult snow conditions and wild animals.''
For the adventurous, these hazards describe the perfect backcountry ski experience, along with no lifts, no lift lines and miles of untracked snow to explore. There are also no ski patrols. Guests are advised to bring avalanche gear - a radio beacon, shovel and probe.
While you have to arrive under your own power, the resort will meet you and haul your luggage and gear via snowcat to the resort, about a mile from the eastern entrance to Yosemite National Park.
From the lodge guests can put on cross-country skis and enjoy a gentle tour along Tioga Road. Others bring telemark or Randonee skis and climbing skins and set out to explore some of the high places. That can include Mount Dana - at an elevation of more than 13,000 feet, it is the second-highest mountain in Yosemite National Park.
Snowboarders have the option of ``booting'' up the slopes carrying their boards. Or they can use one of the new split-board designs that can work like snowshoes with climbing skins and then be locked together for the downhill ride.
There are no trail signs, snow fences or marked runs. You're free to create your own way down, after you've ``earned your turns'' by the uphill climb.
The lodge is at 9,641 feet. Terrain varies from gently rolling open meadows to sheltered, north-facing powder glades to 50-degree, 800-foot icy couloirs for the vertical extremists. Expert-only runs have names like Cocaine Chutes, Dana Couloir, Ellery Chutes and Powerhouse, the latter a 4,000-vertical-foot descent.
Don Lackowski has been coming to Tioga Pass Resort from San Diego since the early 1990s - it is the peace and quiet that lures him. ``We have the whole valley to ourselves,'' he said.
Not all the skiing is extreme or even expert level - you can strap on snowshoes and stroll around or do an easy ski tour to Yosemite's Tuolumne Meadows. In springtime Mother Nature's grooming machine, the freeze-thaw cycle, coupled with the Sierra's moist snow, produces corn snow that's as smooth as any blue run at Mammoth Mountain.
``You don't have to be an avid mountaineer to come here,'' said Lackowski, who adds that visitors just need to be reasonably fit. ``If you are an avid mountaineer, you have everything you need.''
What you'll certainly find is incredible scenery. The expanse and beauty of what famed explorer and conservationist John Muir called the Range of Light is simply breathtaking. The depth of color in the indigo sky above the brilliant white snow reminds you of space as seen in a NASA photo of astronauts floating above the Earth.
There's always the chance of seeing what Muir called the Sierra's bravest ``animal mountaineers'' - the endangered Sierra bighorn sheep.
As it gets dark, the alpenglow bathes the mountains in warm pastels and then the stars come out, puncturing the night sky above the warm glow of light spilling from the lodge.
When you're done carving fresh lines, there's the toasty great room to gather in. It's built in old-fashioned log post-and-beam style and decorated with wood and rawhide snowshoes, wicker and birch fishing creels, and wooden skis with bear-trap bindings. During the summer it's a store, but now, guests can relax under a wagon-wheel cowboy chandelier warmed by the wood blaze in a potbellied stove. Folks read, discuss the day's adventures or brush up on local lore and history.
There is a lot of history here.
Albert J. Gardisky built the first building on the property, Cabin 1, in 1914 as a place to stay while he trapped and prospected. But he soon learned that he could make a better living providing food and shelter to travelers crossing Tioga Pass.
Using a mule and block and tackle, Gardisky completed four cabins and the main lodge by 1916. When heavy snows in the winter of 1920 crushed the flat roof on the lodge, Gardisky re-built it in its current two-story, A-frame configuration.
In the 1920s the lodge was known as Camp Tioga. When Gardisky died in 1943, his relatives, believing he had hidden his treasure in one of the buildings, tore apart the floorboards of all of the buildings. Finding nothing, they quickly sold Camp Tioga.
For most of its history the resort was a summer-only operation, catering to tourists visiting Yosemite. But in the 1980s the first winter operations began. In 2002 a company formed by a group of outdoor enthusiasts including Ron Cohen took over.
Cohen was a lawyer in a big downtown L.A. law firm who loved to ski. When he had a chance to practice law in Mammoth, he moved. Then a few years ago, tired of sitting at a desk, he bought Tioga Pass Resort along with some ski buddies. Now he's focused on unlawyerly problems that include keeping toilets working when the temperature plunges to 20 degrees below zero; maintaining buildings, some of which are 90 years old; bringing in food and supplies over the snowy landscape; and waiting out the occasional blizzard.
``There's no book for this place,'' he said. ``We just do what it takes.''
Doing what it takes includes feeding guests superb chow.
Chef Bob Dougall whips up a dinner menu that can include pork loin stuffed with apple and sage, broccoli custard, garlic mashed potatoes and a Tioga Ding Dong for dessert - a chocolate bundt cake with creamy filling.
At breakfast, guests fuel up for the morning's climbs and runs with such hearty items as spinach frittata, bacon and French toast.
Since most people are out in the snow all day, lunch is a build-it-yourself sandwich spread after breakfast.
For those who want to pack a lunch and venture out, but don't have much experience, Cohen suggests hiring a backcountry ski guide. There are a number who work with the lodge, including Tim Villanueva and Doug Nidever. Both have worked as guides in the Sierras for many years, and can help you with ski technique and avalanche awareness, then take you on an easy tour or a big descent.
The ski-in, ski-out requirement doesn't stop people from enjoying the lodge, said Cohen. One reservation was made by a group that ranged in age from 73 to 82 years old. ``They all made it,'' said Cohen.
This season looks to be especially long, with record snowfalls.
When the CalTrans snowplows finally clear Tioga Road to the lodge in spring, according to a resort staffer, some of the employees will say, ``Freedom!'' But for others, the sentiment will be, ``No, it's the loss of freedom.''
Becher covers adventure travel topics. He can be reached at billbecher(at)yahoo.com.
IF YOU GO
THE RESORT: The Tioga Pass Resort is open for skiing from about mid-December through April, depending on snow conditions. The resort has cabins and a bunkhouse, all with shared bath. Cabins can accommodate from one to six people. Per-person rates, which include lodging and three meals, range from $105 to $155 per night (rates go down the longer you stay). For reservations, call (209) 372-4471 or e-mail reservations(at)tiogapassresort.com. More information is available at www.tiogapassresort.com.
BACKCOUNTRY SKIING: Guide Tim Villanueva can be reached at (760) 872-4413 or tgnvillanueva(at)hotmail.com. Doug Nidever's Web site at www.themountainguide.com has information about backcountry skiing adventures. He can be reached at (760) 648-1122 or doug(at)themountainguide.com.
6 photos, box
(1 -- 3 -- color) Much of the intrigue of a stay at the Tioga Pass Resort is skiing two to four miles on Highway 120 to get there, top. The snow often piles right up to the rafters, above, but the backcountry skiers who favor the historic lodge find it to be warm and cozy inside, right.
(4 -- 6) Backcountry ski guide Tim Villanueva enjoys a run near Tioga Pass Resort, left, where skiers must apply ``skins,'' below left, before heading up the slopes, which are not serviced by ski lifts. After working up an appetite, skiers chow down at the resort, above.
IF YOU GO (see text)