Two weeks from now, as temperatures in Yosemite National Park climb and the rivers begin to surge with melting snow, a few intrepid souls will ski over 9,945-foot Tioga Pass. From there they will drop into Tuolumne Meadows, a Shangri-la-like subalpine valley in California’s Sierra Nevadas that is cut off from civilization for six wintry months every year.
Those solitary adventurers may well be in for a surprise. Coming in the opposite direction about that time will be a suntanned, weather-beaten couple with cross-country skis strapped to their feet and packs strapped to their backs. Jim Harper, 32, and his wife, Marilyn Muse, 33, the park service’s loneliest rangers, will be calling it quits for another year. Stationed in the back country of Tuolumne from November to May, the couple returns to civilization with mixed feelings each spring. “We do a lot of skiing, which we love, and we both prefer solitude,” says Jim. On the other hand, they enjoy “just getting in a car and driving somewhere,” according to Marilyn.
Winter life is neither quiet nor uneventful for the two rangers. “People have this misconception about our having all kinds of time,” says Muse. A typical day at Tuolumne begins before dawn, when husband and wife first phone in the weather report to the Yosemite Valley park headquarters. Next they measure cumulative snow depth, and Jim studies the snow to assess the avalanche possibilities. As Marilyn prepares a breakfast of oatmeal with raisins on this February day, Jim, armed with a pot and dustpan, dives after a mouse, then carries the intruder to a final resting place in the snow.
By 8 o’clock the rangers have donned parkas for their daily patrol of roughly 10 miles, which includes checking for wayward skiers. “Most of the people who come this far into the back country know what they’re doing,” says Harper. “Still, if you make a mistake, it’s easy to die.” They always pack extra food, clothing and radios. Each is also equipped with a beeper in case one of them is buried in an avalanche. “Only the best cross-country skiers can make it up over the mountains, and they almost always arrive exhausted, blistered and wet,” says Jim. “We help them in whatever way we can.” Last year they discovered a man who lost his poles in a stream while trying to fill his water bottle; they supplied him with replacements. Another man lost his jacket in a raging storm. The rangers took him to their hut and after a few days’ rest he was able to get out on his own.
Harper and Muse are back home in the two-room cabin before sunset. It is equipped with a wood stove, electric oven, running water—and, of course, the telephone. “The phone is our great luxury,” says Marilyn. “Our first winter here it went out. That’s when I felt most abandoned. Finally the phone company agreed to fix it. ‘Are you going to be home tomorrow?’ they asked. I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll be here. I’d just like to see you get here.’ They fixed it without ever coming up.”
The inevitable question arises: How does even the most compatible of couples cope with all this togetherness? “I had some doubts,” says Marilyn. “I didn’t,” claims Jim. Doubts or no, they do spend some time apart from each other. “Everyone needs some space,” admits Muse. “We kind of make an effort to do some things on our own. Sometimes I’ll just ski off by myself. It’s not something that we plan; it just happens.” Most times, though, the couple finds life safer à deux. Recently Jim was skiing at 12,000 feet when he tripped on a rock outcropping and split his knee open. Marilyn was there to apply a bandage and help him ski the five miles back to camp, where she pulled the wound together with tape.
Muse and Harper bring vastly different backgrounds to the mountains. Raised in the flatlands of Oklahoma, Marilyn first fell in love with mountains while visiting her grandmother, who lived at the base of Colorado’s Pikes Peak. Muse met her future husband in 1974, when she took a job as a caretaker at the Yosemite Institute in the Valley, an environmental education program. Jim, who was raised in Berkeley, Calif., had moved to Yosemite to do construction work a year after graduating from Columbia Junior College in California. Attracted by a mutual interest in skiing and mountaineering, they were married four years later in the Yosemite Valley Chapel. Jim subsequently followed Marilyn into the park service and three years ago the couple began spending their winters in Tuolumne.
It is a testament to their affection for their style of life that Jim and Marilyn hardly touch civilization before they start talking about leaving again. After several summers working in more frequented parts of Yosemite (picking up trash, leading hikes and giving nature lectures), they have applied for a remote posting in Alaska this summer. But chances are they will spend this summer at Yosemite’s Lake Eleanor, as they did last year. That will probably be followed by an October vacation in a warmer clime, perhaps Hawaii—”just to wear shorts and not have to put all those clothes on,” says Marilyn. “Still,” she adds quickly, “nothing beats Yosemite.”
Harper and Muse are already planning their return to the back country next November. “Winter is our favorite time of year,” says Marilyn. “Up here we get to see the wilderness the way it looked to the first explorers and pioneers.”