Yosemite in winter: Crisp, cold and pristine

It is early February and Yosemite is quiet.

  • Feb. 4, 2011 8:00 p.m.

The orange hues of the sunset color the skies over Half Dome on a snowy evening in late winter

It is early February and Yosemite is quiet.

The crowds that clog the roads and tramp through the meadows during the other seasons are now gathering around their big-screen TVs with chips and dip.

I have the park to myself. No voices. No crowds. No parking problems.

Only the muffled sound of a gentle breeze and the crunch, crunch, crunch of my size 13 boots on a new-fallen snow that decorates the peaks and trees of the mighty park like a dusting of powdered sugar on a Christmas cookie.

The scene is amazing to see but painful to photograph. It’s in the 20s.

I am a Southern Californian, and I don’t do cold. So I am a giant fashion faux pas: two jackets, two pairs of socks, glove liners and gloves, a stocking cap, a hoodie and jeans covered by thick snow pants. I can hardly move.

Knee-deep in a snowdrift, I watch the clouds frame the granite face of El Capitan, and memories come flooding back.

It is 1979, and my wife, Debbie, is pregnant with our first son, Jeff. We and our lifelong friends Larry and Kathy, who is then pregnant with their first daughter, Melanie, are making one last trip to the park in the final months before our lives make the sharp right turn into parenthood.

Debbie and Kathy are standing in a snowdrift almost up to their waists and looking very pregnant. I snap a picture.

It is December 1992. Our entire family—sisters, brothers-in-law and parents—load into several vehicles and slog through the snow to rental cabins at the Redwoods in Wawona.

We tie a Christmas tree to the roof of the car, which is loaded with gifts, lights and dinner fixings.

Our sons—now there are two—press their faces against the glass and see snow on Christmas Eve. It is the first time.

It is also the last time I will make this trip to Yosemite with my father, whose insistence on family vacations here instilled me with a love of the place.

It is 2009, and I am here by myself, a little lonely but determined to finish a project on the four seasons in Yosemite, whose changes I have documented in a series of photographs taken throughout a year. (For autumn, see latimes.com/yosemite.)

With a tripod slung over my shoulder and a backpack full of gear, I begin to see designs on the snow, like an ink and watercolor wash painting on fresh white parchment.

The limbs of the now-bare deciduous broad trees, whose leafy profusion hides them in spring and summer, become simple jagged lines of botanic calligraphy.

A hungry coyote, decked out in its thick winter coat, dances on the mounds of snow in Ahwahnee Meadow. Its ear and nose to the ground, it wanders from mound to mound, searching for snow-shrouded critters that may provide much-needed food.

In Cook’s Meadow, a seven-point buck leads a group of younger bucks in search of vegetation.

He moves noiselessly, never acknowledging the shivering, overdressed photographer crouched in the cold and grinning ear to ear.

(If the snow hadn’t been melting through my pants, I would still be there.)

As night falls, it begins to snow. A few flakes turn into a few million.

The giant iconic elm in the meadow is almost obscured.

The old wooden Yosemite Valley Chapel looks like something out of Currier & Ives.

By morning, everything is fresh and clean and crisp.

A month later, I am back in the same meadow. Winter is easing its grip. The snow is beginning to melt, and the falls and rivers are running stronger.

A few blades of grass push up through the snow pack.

Spring will fight its way through, and I will be here for its unveiling. The cycle will go on.

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