How Not to Ski to Ostrander: A Classic Story of Misadventure

A few weeks ago, Matt and I set off on a trip to Yosemite to ski to the legendary Ostrander Hut with Elliot, patriarch and OG badass of the Fineman family. The plan was simple: fly into Oakland, drive to Yosemite and stay overnight at the Yosemite Lodge, then skin the 12ish miles up to the hut for 2 nights of alpine bliss, complete with bunkbeds, the snores of strangers, and a flask of whisky.

In a stroke of genius, Matt and I decided to book parking at one of the airport lots to save us the hassle of Ubering with our skis (shoutout to Krystin Norman and Evo for lending us a wheely bag, total lifesaver). We found a screaming deal online, paid, and left with ample time to park, shuttle to the airport, check our bags, and be on with it.

Or so we thought.

It turns out the address they sent us in a confirmation email lead to a random empty lot behind a fast food joint. With no cars or people to guide us, we googled a second address after failing to get a person on the phone. Twenty minutes later, we arrived at said address only to find that it too was not a parking lot. Frantic at this point, we decided to throw caution (read: money) to the wind and park at the airport because we were dangerously close to missing our flight. We plugged the airport into the GPS and BAM, the gas light came on.

Allow me to briefly interject with a story about a common issue with mid-90s to early 2000s Subarus: they are finicky AF about receiving gas. So, approximately 15 minutes later we acquired two gallons of gas, sufficient to make the drive to the airport and back to a gas station upon our return, and we were on our way!

We crushed the twenty minute drive to the airport in approximately 25 minutes (because traffic) and found a parking spot on level 8. Feeling triumphant, we grabbed our bags and rushed to the Alaska desk to check our skis. There, a very kind man informed us that while we could still make the flight, we wouldn’t be able to check our bags. Apparently TSA doesn’t take kindly to folks trying to carry on skis, much less full touring setups with beacons, probes, and shovels so we were SOL. Deflated, we headed to the customer service desk where an exceptionally kind woman took pity on us and promptly rebooked us on the next flight WITH NO FEES, WHEEEEE! We grabbed our things and headed back to my sisters house for a couple of hours of sleep before doing the whole thing over again, this time opting to just catch an Uber to the airport. Pro-tip: make sure you request an XL if you’re traveling with a ski bag and several large packs. I’ll spare you the details of wrestling our shit into the tiny boot of the cute BMW that arrived to pick us up at 3:45am.

We arrived in Oakland and promptly grabbed our checked backpacks, then waited for our skis to arrive at the oversize luggage department.

And waited.

And waited.

And waited.

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We finally gave up, and checked in at the baggage desk where they informed us that they had no idea where our ski bag was but they would find it. In the meantime, we were advised to try and find rentals. Feeling defeated, we headed to the Fineman house to regroup and research. I finally found a shop in Berkeley that rented touring setups (shout out to California Ski Co) so we packed up the car and hit the road. On the upside, the shop had a pair of Black Diamond Helios 95 for Matt, skis he had been eyeing for some time. On the downside, the skins for the setup I was renting were missing and the odds of getting a replacement set looked grim. At that point, Alaska called to say they had found our bag and it was en route to the Oakland airport. So, we drove back to Oakland, grabbed the skis, and FINALLY hit the road.

The drive to Yosemite is beautiful in places and between dozing off in the back and grocery stops, I was full of excitement. We pulled into the Yosemite Valley Lodge and checked in, then went on a short hike to Yosemite Falls, roaring into the (very grey) sunset. We grabbed dinner and drinks, then packed our bags for the morning and hit the hay. Once our party-hearty neighbors calmed down at 3 am, we got a few hours of shut eye and woke up far from refreshed but super stoked.

We made the drive up to the Yosemite ski area to check in with the rangers and park the car, then we were off! The skin up begins with a short section of climbing, then mellows out into a gently rolling groomed trail. Elliot took a little tumble early on, and a few miles in decided to call it. He felt great physically, but a little imbalanced and was understandably worried about taking a fall on the notoriously steep hills closer to the hut on the way down. Feeling sad, we made a new plan which involved Matt and I carrying on to stay at the hut for one night. We stopped to exchange certain items of gear, and I also removed the footbed liners of my boots, which were riding up the back of my foot and causing a lot of discomfort. We said our goodbyes, and carried on up the trail. A half mile later, I felt the tell-tale signs of a blister. I popped off my boots, applied moleskin, and kept going. A mile after that, it was worse. We finally reached the cut off for the final charge up the hill to Ostrander and at this point I was in a lot of foot pain. I popped off both boots to make a final assessment of my feet before carrying on to discover blood blisters the size of half dollars on both feet, plus varies other small blisters. I was perplexed, having never had problems with these boots before, and frustrated. I was also in a lot of pain. And, having cramps. THANKS BODY.

At this point, I realized that if we carried on I would be pretty miserable the rest of the day, not to mention the following day as we skied out. With trips to New Mexico and Nepal looming, I also wanted to make a smart choice for my feet. So, with one bout of tears I made the call to turn around. It sucked, big time.

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Before beginning our descent, I patched up my feet as best as I could and we fired off messages to Elliot to let him know what was happening. Then we began the painful ski back, each subtle motion of my feet sending fire up my legs. As we skied, we kept checking for a response from Elliot, but none came. We finally made it back to the trailhead to find the resort and ranger station closed, with barely a car in the lot. We limped to the lodge to use the bathroom and regroup, and started to face the reality that we might be bivvying in the parking lot, having no way to get down the mountain.

At this point, a staff member came outside and saw us. Curious, he asked what we were up to so we explained. He took pity on us, and offered to help. As he made his offer, an employee bus came around the corner. “Let me see if you can catch a ride.” he said. A few minutes later, we were loaded up on the bus, snacking on Joe Chocolates and peanut butter while the driver regaled us with stories from his time spent in the Denali backcountry. It felt like sweet, sweet success.

We finally reached the Yosemite Lodge, where we faced our next conundrum: with no responses from Elliot and no wallets, what should we do? We briefly entertained the idea of sleeping at Camp 4 but without a tent or sleeping pads and with my feet in need of some TLC, it was a grim prospect. So, I decided to approach the hotel staff and explain our situation. To my surprise and joy, it was the same woman who checked us in initially and she remembered us! She quickly got us sorted with a room using some sort of magic, and 10 minutes later I was showered, bandaged, and laying in bed.

We finally met up with Elliot, just in time to miss last call for dinner so we toasted marshmallows and ate housemate potato chips by the fire while we caught him up on our disaster. We all laughed, then went to bed. The next day we explored the valley, checking out some classic sights before hitting the road. Even though we didn’t achieve our objective, I’ll never forget the trip or the kindness of strangers that helped us stay safe and happy.

And that, my friends, is how to not ski to the Ostrander Hut.

Trail Chat: The Dos and Dont's of Talking to Strangers

I’m hiking up the trail with my 65 liter pack on, relishing the tart huckleberries and fact that I’ll have my tent set up and a glass of wine poured just as alpenglow hits. In a state of sweaty bliss, I round a corner and bump into a group of men. “Hey guys!” I say. “Hey,” they respond. “You know the sun is going down soon, right?”

Nearing the summit of Mount Olympius. Feeling fine, thanks for asking. Photo:  Daniel Fineman

Nearing the summit of Mount Olympius. Feeling fine, thanks for asking. Photo: Daniel Fineman

Seconds later, my male partner bumps into them as well. “Hey guys,” he says. “What’s up, man? Great day!” they say.

Insert facepalm here.

REALLY CHAD, TIM, and [INSERT OTHER BRO NAME HERE]*? REALLY?

I wish I could say this was the only time I have had similar such encounters, but it’s not. Sadly, I’m not alone in this. Despite no evidence of injury**, despair, objective risk, or the zombie apocalypse, my presence and ability/preparedness on the trail is questioned virtually every time I go out.

This is problematic. Before you chime in with a chorus of “but it’s not because you’re a woman,” let me stop you. Deep down, we all know why this happens. Therefore, I would like to offer some scenarios with appropriate responses for future reference. That way, we all win.

Scenario 1:

You encounter a person on the trail. There is no evidence of injury or imminent harm. They seem reasonably prepared, with a backpack and other gear as needed to support their adventure.

What should you say? Try this: “Hello!”

Things to avoid: “Are you out here alone?” “Are you okay?” “That’s a mighty heavy pack for a girl.” “I love seeing women hit the trail.” ANY COMMENTS ON PHYSICAL APPEARANCE.

Scenario 2:

You encounter a person on the trail. There is no evidence of injury or imminent harm. You notice they don’t have the gear you deem necessary for the adventure, but you don’t know them, their experience level, their objective for the day, or anything else about them because THEY ARE A STRANGER.

What should you say? Try this: “Hello!”

Things to avoid: Pretty much anything but a neutral greeting, unless they strike up a conversation.

Scenario 3:

You encounter a person on the trail. There is no evidence of injury or imminent harm. They seem reasonably prepared, with a backpack and other gear as needed to support their adventure. You notice they are heading deeper into the backcountry and that daylight will soon end.

What should you say? Try this: “Hello!”

Things to avoid: Any comments about the impending sunset BECAUSE ANYONE WHO ISN’T AN INFANT KNOWS THAT THE SUN SETS EVERY DAY BUT THANKS FOR YOUR CONCERN.

Scenario 4:

You encounter a person on the trail. They are displaying evidence of distress or injury.

What should you say? Try this: “Hello!” Perhaps your perception of distress is merely the result of them pushing themselves to get that cardio in or hit a new PR. Perhaps they are recovering from an injury. Perhaps they tumbled and are a little sore, but otherwise fine. Perhaps they need help. Either way, the conversation should begin neutrally, then develop from there. If they ask for help, give it.

Things to avoid: “Are you okay?” right off the bat. Lectures. Condescension. Body shaming.

Scenario 5:

You encounter a person on the trail who is obviously injured or so ill-prepared that they are posing a serious objective risk to themselves and others (think shorts and tank top in a blizzard).

What should you say? How about this: “Hello!” Even in emergency situations, it’s important to keep your cool and communicate clearly and effectively with the folks who may need your help. Check in, introduce yourself, assess the situation, and call for help if needed.

Things to avoid: Elitist or ableist comments. Lectures. Someone in dire need of assistance is probably very aware that they made a mistake. There’s a time to teach, and there’s a time to STFU and take care of business.

There you have it, folks. My handy dandy guide to not being a presumptuous jerk in the outdoors. Happy trails!

*My apologies to the very sweet, feminist Chads and Tims of the world who would never dream of doing this. Sorry ‘bout your name!

**Actually, the one time I was visibly bleeding on a hike (on the summit of Mount Saint Helens in a sports bra and bare feet no less), the dudes who approached me proposed instead of offering me a bandaid. Shoutout to the woman on the trail who lent me some extras!

Yes, I am on the summit of this volcano in a sports bra and bare feet. No, I don't need any assistance but I will accept Nutella donations.  Photo:  Ryuhei Yokokawa

Yes, I am on the summit of this volcano in a sports bra and bare feet. No, I don't need any assistance but I will accept Nutella donations.  Photo: Ryuhei Yokokawa