When I planned a trip to Yosemite National Park for the Christmas holiday, I never could have imagined that a protracted political crisis could threaten my life and that of my father.
While snowshoeing in Badger Pass during the week between Christmas and New Years Day, we found ourselves in the wilderness after dark without the safety net provided by well-trained park rangers.
Now in its fourth week, the federal shutdown has shaken the financial stability of 800,000 federal employees who have missed their first paychecks, is harming our public parks, and has cost life. This unnecessary political stalemate could have cost me mine.
Yosemite holds a special place in my heart. One of my happiest family trips as a young adult was touring the valley through a light dusting of snow over Thanksgiving weekend. After my mother lost her life at age 66 three years ago to pancreatic cancer, we scattered her ashes outside Hetch Hetchy.
I feel connected to the ridge lines, waterfalls and towering Ponderosa pines that cover the park.
Each year, I endeavor to visit the park at least once, and the holidays are an especially poignant time to be at the park for me and my father, Stephen, who at 69 is fairly fit and in good health.
Yosemite was a refuge where I could momentarily escape thoughts of petty politics and news of the day that typically consume most of my waking hours as a journalist. This time, though, a political stunt encroached into this natural refuge.
During our most recent trip, we wanted to squeeze in some snowshoeing on our last full day in the park and I consulted the person staffing the rental store about easy routes that wouldn’t take too long. I was assured there was a clearly defined 30-minute run that started at the top of the ski lift.
So my dad and I set out, taking the ski lift to the peak and, following in the footsteps of other snowshoers, enjoyed what was initially an easy descent back to the lodge. But then we started climbing the ridge line and it became increasingly difficult.
Thirty minutes became an hour. Then that became two hours. Soon it was 30 minutes until sunset and we were no closer to the lodge than we when we began.
My dad and I, both novices in snowshoeing, had mistakenly taken a black diamond trail. Upon realizing we were close to finding ourselves in total darkness, I began to run back to the ski lift for help.
When I arrived at the lift, minutes before sunset, I found it totally deserted.
I ran to a small cabin attached to the lift and found a phone inside. I called 911, which didn’t connect. My eyes scanned a printout with extensions to important phone numbers. Among them were ranger stations which I dialed, only to hear that because of the federal shutdown, no park ranger staffed the station.
I grabbed what I can only assume was some kind of metal snow rake, and began banging it on the metal railing outside the cabin trying to get the attention of a snow plow that was coming up the slope to smooth out the runs.
Initially, the snow plow operator couldn’t hear my screaming or the clangs of the metal rake over the engine of the plow, but something made him stop and I frantically ran toward him. (Aaron, thank you for everything.)
When his radio didn’t work, the snow plow driver drove back for help as the sun set behind the ridge line. The mountain would soon be dark and my dad’s location and well being remained uncertain.
Instead of a team of well-equipped park rangers setting out to look for my dad, three snow plow operators from the lodge plodded up the hill. Two of them set up a perimeter to look for my dad, while the other driver drove me back to the lodge to wait and talk with one of the few rangers on duty in Yosemite Valley.
That my father and the two young snow plow drivers returned to the lodge unscathed is nothing short of a miracle. The managers at the ski lodge even confessed they didn’t think he’d make it.
My dad and I did a few things right.
We stayed on the trail, we took stock of our location using trail markers in the trees and (for the most part) we wore the appropriate gear. We also did several things wrong, including setting out after noon and not consulting with someone at the top of the run on the exact route we needed to follow to get back.
But these relatively minor missteps should not have threatened our lives. And the job of launching a search and rescue effort for a lost snowshoer should not have fallen to two snow plow operators who hiked a mile through the darkness without any additional equipment to find my dad.
That job should be left to the well-trained professionals, who ought to be on the job, and not the victims of a politically-driven furlough.
Lauren Williams is a freelance journalist based in Long Beach, [email protected] She wrote this commentary for CALmatters.