Winter Wonder Land

Be sure to read about the first half of this trip! Snowshoeing in Yosemite, Days 1 & 2

Its Snowing! (Sunday, March 25)

Snow starting to accumulate on the tent.

I awoke early Sunday morning to the sound of sleet hitting the tent. It was still dark, so I stayed in my sleeping bag for a while wondering how much had fallen through the night. The sides of the tent weren’t sagging in, so I figured it couldn’t be much, if any. As the sky got brighter, I poked my head out the door. No snow yet, but it was definitely starting to come down. By the time we were up and ready to do some hiking, there was a nice layer beginning to form on the tent and the snow flakes were starting to get bigger. This was the first time I had seen it snowing since I moved to California 3 years ago… Exciting!

Since our camp was sheltered by the trees, we were a bit surprised to find that 2-3 inches had already fallen when we got to the clearing by the stream to fill our bottles for the day. The snow was light and fluffy, and the air was still and quiet.

Snow falling on the Merced River (Photo Credit: Paul)

Trees left bare from a recent forest fire.

We had decided that we would follow the Merced River Trail a few miles before having lunch and returning to camp at LYV. The trail was marked with old tracks that were quickly being covered by the new snowfall. Our path was also frequently blocked by fresh tree fall. As we continued, we passed through a section that looked to be recovering from a recent forest fire. The bare trees looming in the falling snow carried a much different mood than the rest of the trails we had been on. Fire damage in combination with the wind storm that moved through CA last fall was probably responsible for all the downed trees. The trail maintenance groups will definitely be busy this spring.

The trail continued following the river through the valley with very little elevation gain. As the valley narrowed we got some to see some beautiful scenery as the snow fell silently on the river.

Looking up river in the snow

Me, making my way over a very slick tree crossing. (Photo credit: Paul)

Continuing up the trail, we came across a couple tricky stream crossings. The snow had made the trees slick and hid many of the holes between rocks and logs making navigating the crossings extra tricky.

After straddling a few trees, we arrived at a perfect swimming hole (were it a few degrees warmer of course). From here we climbed along a large water slide that looked like a perfect launch point for the swimming hole. A short while later we came across a second swimming hole with the same water slide entry. During the summer these probably get plenty of attention, but on this day, we had them all to ourselves.

Water slide into the lower swimming hole

Upper swimming hole

At this point we made our way up a short series of switchbacks heading further up the valley. We could feel the temperature dropping and the snow and wind began to pick up. It was now about noon, so we decided it was time to think about lunch. A short ways up the trail, Paul found a small cave that we took shelter in and enjoyed lunch while watching the powder fall. It had become very humid, and our rain gear was becoming damp on the inside, so it was nice to get out of the weather and air out the jackets a bit.

Looking out of the lunch cave. (Photo Credit: Paul)

After having some lunch, we decided it was probably a good time to start heading back to camp. We estimated we had gone about 4 miles, and the return trip would be slower with the deeper snow.

As we loaded up to head back, we had to shake off our rain jackets, which had iced over during the break. It was definitely getting colder. The snow had also picked up and, now approaching a foot deep, nearly covered the tracks we had made only 30 minutes earlier. Descending the switchbacks became significantly more tricky with the added snow. The fresh powder hid a shallow stream flowing between many large loose rocks. It was slow going.

Where did the tent go!?!

As we neared camp, the snow had pilled up to easily a foot!

Making our way through the trees, I was looking out for the bright orange rain fly of the tent. I knew we should be close, but I wasn’t seeing it. Walking into camp, we found the tent buried under several inches of snow. It was a very good camouflage!

After digging out, we took shelter in the tent for a while until the snow let up. It was getting close to 6pm and I was starving. I went for a second round of tortellini. I had brought olive oil with to use as a sauce, but this proved difficult as it had turned to a solid in the cold! (Once back in Oakland, I looked up the melting point of olive oil… 21F! brrrr!!!)

Hiking Out (Monday, March 26)

Snow cover from the night.

Shortly before dawn we awoke in a very humid tent. Everything had a layer of moisture on it and the ceiling of the tent had started dripping on us. It had continued to snow through the night and deposited another few inches on the tent. This blocked our ventilation and turned our cozy tent into a humidity chamber. We knocked off what snow we could from the inside and unzipped the door since it had now stopped snowing. An hour or so later, the sun started coming up and we emerged from a snow covered tent under a bright blue sky!

Half Dome showing off a new coat of snow

One last look at the watering hole before heading into the valley

After a quick breakfast, we packed up camp and started our way back down the valley. All the previous tracks had been covered, and we were breaking trail through about 15 inches of powder. It was slow going, and we starting making guesses as to how far we would get before encountering day hikers.

As the sun climbed higher in the sky, the trees began dropping the piles of snow perched on their branches. I seemed to be a more favorable target than Paul as I ended up with a much larger amount of snow down my neck than he did. The trail began to descend towards the top of Nevada falls at the intersection of the JMT and the Upper Mist trails. It wasn’t long after this intersection that we decided to take off the snowshoes.

Nevada Falls

When we reached the top of Nevada falls we came upon the first group of day hikers. There were around 10 of them and they looked a bit surprised to see two people coming down out of the high country. The snow was still about 12 inches deep, and they were significantly under prepared for the conditions. With one backpack between the 10 of them, only a few water bottles, soggy tennis shoes, and two of them in shorts and t-shirts, they asked if they were heading the right way for Half Dome. They were, but we told them that the cables were down for the season and that the snow only gets deeper from there with no tracks leading up the Half Dome trail from LYV. They were undeterred.

Looking at Glacier Point from near the top of Nevada Falls

As the elevation decreased, the snow turned from powder to packed powder from day hiker traffic to a heavy wet layer on a soggy trail. We continued descending until we reached the top of Vernal Falls where we stopped for lunch. Relaxing at the falls overlook, Paul made the observation that this was probably the only time of year that you could be alone at this spot. This was probably true. My previous visit to this spot was in October 2009 and I was in the company of 20 – 30 others taking turns standing at the rail for a quick photo. The solitude was nice and being able to enjoy the moment rather than being pushed aside by someone else wanting a picture was even better.

Glacier Point being a little camera shy in the clouds

After lunch, we continued down. The trees were now dripping under the warmth of the sun, day hikers were a regular sight and we soon joined with the portion of the trail that was paved. After many, many switchbacks, we finally reached the valley floor. My knees were happy to be traveling on flat ground again, but my feet were looking forward to getting rid of the pack and having a seat at the car. A long mile later we had arrived!

We loaded up the car and changed into some fresh clothes (Except for Paul’s shoes… he had forgotten to bring road shoes and was stuck with some soggy boots… bummer!). But a trip to the Valley would not be complete without taking a dip in the river! Unfortunately, Paul could not be convinced, but I made a quick, and chilly dip in the river before hitting the road back home! It was the perfect end to a great trip!

Many more photos can be found on Flickr, or in Paul’s Facebook album

Additional resources:

Topo Map

Eastern Sierra Avalanche Center

Clouds Rest Summit Post

Trip Report (These guys ran up Clouds Rest in the snow!)

Judgment Calls

Snow has been surprisingly absent from this years winter. But a storm finally brought about 4 feet to Yosemite’s high country. This of course meant it was time to hit the trails for some snowshoeing!

The recent storm had dropped a significant amount of snow in a short period of time, and because of the mild winter, this created unusually dangerous avalanche conditions. Because of this, we decided on a few route variations in case the conditions didn’t improve by the start of our trip. The idea was to do a loop starting at Happy Isles in Yosemite Valley, head to Tenaya Lake (crossing Clouds Rest, 9,931 ft), then loop back to the valley via Snow Creek.

Happy Isles to Little Yosemite Valley (Friday, March 23)

We arrived at the ranger station shortly after 9AM to get our wilderness permit and get some info on trail conditions and weather from the rangers. While the avalanche danger had decreased significantly, more weather was approaching quickly. They were expecting 3-5 inches above 6,000ft on Sunday and another 3-5 Sunday night with the snow line dropping to 4,000ft. Then more rain/snow on Tuesday. As we were talking with the rangers, a guy came in saying he had just come from near the top of Nevada Falls where he encountered foot-deep snow worthy of snowshoes. With this new info we got our permits for the loop with the idea that we would make a final decision on our climb up to Little Yosemite Valley (LYV).

Permit in hand, we were on the trail! Since it was winter, a portion of the Mist trail was closed, diverting us to the John Muir Trail. This added about a mile, making the trip to LYV a little over 5 miles with about 2,200 ft of gain.

The trail was steep, and we quickly climbed up out of the valley past Vernal and Nevada Falls. We passed a several people along the trail, but there were significantly fewer people than my last time on this trail, when I was making the trip up Half Dome. The trail was mostly snow-free with the exception of a few shaded switchbacks.

Looking at Nevada Falls from Clark Point on the JMT

The switchbacks going up the side of Nevada Falls were very steep, but offered a great view of the valley disappearing below us. As we continued up, we came across a portion of the switchbacks that had turned into a series of mini water falls as the melting snow came rushing down into the valley. I was definitely glad to be wearing my boots rather than the tennis shoes worn by most of the day hikers we encountered.

Paul snapping some pics of the valley below.

At this point we began wondering just how far the guy in the ranger station had made it before tuning around. We were now almost 4 miles in, at the top of Nevada Falls, and had not encountered any snow that would have warranted the use of our snowshoes. How far had this guy really gone? And what time did he start in order to get to the ranger station at 9AM!

Passing the top of Nevada falls marked the end of the significant climbing for the day. The trail flattened out and rolled along another mile to LYV where we would set up camp for the night. This is where the snow began to get deeper and form a consistent cover over the trail. However, there were plenty of tracks leading the way, making travel without snowshoes easy… This continued all the way to LYV where we encountered two other pairs of people that we would be sharing the campground with that night.

Home Sweet Home

We arrived at camp around 3PM, pitched the tent, then found our way to the nearby stream to fill our bottles and relax a bit before cooking some dinner. This also gave us time to discuss our plans over the next couple days.

We discovered that I had access to data thanks to AT&T’s wonderful coverage (it was a no-go for Paul’s poor Sprint phone…), so we were able to check in on the weather. Sure enough, there was some, possibly significant, snow coming in on Sunday. Since both of us are pretty new to winter backpacking with significant amounts of snow, we decided it would be in our best interest to stay in LYV for the storm. Our revised plans were now to base-camp it at LYV and climb Clouds Rest with day packs the following day. We would ride out the storm at LYV, then head back into the valley on Monday.

After a nice dinner of three-cheese tortellini, it was off to bed!

Little Yosemite Valley to Clouds Rest (Saturday, March 24)

We got on the trail a little after 7:30AM, a tad later than planned. This wasn’t too big a deal since we had decided to go with day packs allowing us to travel at a much quicker pace. It was 7 miles to the summit, with about 3,800 ft of elevation gain. The trail was all up and it didn’t take long for me to be happy I wasn’t hauling a full pack!.

One of the many bear tracks on the trail.

Being on a south facing slope kept the snow depth down, but as we climbed the snow slowly got deeper. We had been warned by the rangers that the bears had been very active this season, but we saw no evidence of the furry creatures around the campground. This was not the case on the trail… We came across many sets of bear tracks criss-crossing and following the trail. We even came across fresh tracks on the way back down!

Continuing up the trail, the snow became a constant blanket under our feet. And after separating from the Half Dome trail we were given our first views of the surrounding area.

Paul putting first tracks in on our way to Clouds Rest. No need for snowshoes yet!

Half Dome peaking out from between the trees

About a mile from the summit we crossed over a ridge onto a southeast facing slope. The snow depth jumped up to about 3 feet and the trail was no longer visible. We made our way across the snow through the trees gradually climbing up to the ridge that led to the summit. At the top of the ridge, the wind picked up significantly and we go our first look at the granite slope on the back side of Clouds Rest. We could see sections where the snow had begun letting loose allowing gravity to cary it down into the valley below.

The last push to the summit was very steep. As I began making my way up, but it became clear that it was too steep for the snowshoes as I began sliding backwards with each step. This was definitely unfavorable as the snow was sloped just right to slide me right down the cliff into the valley. With the snowshoes off, I began post-holeing up the slope. This got me a bit further, but I ran into a section of thin snow sitting on a nice icy crust that offered little in the way of traction. With the wind gusting around 30 mph I looked down the slope on my left, then back at Paul who was having a bit of trouble dealing with the trail conditions.

About 100 ft bellow the summit I turned around and took a seat in the snow. After a brief chat with Paul, we decided the snow conditions just weren’t right for us to continue. It was about 12:30PM and the snow was to soft to provide the right traction… Had we arrived an hour earlier it may have been a different story, but at that moment we decided to turn back. But not before snapping a few pictures of course!

Half Dome from Clouds Rest

Yosemite Valley from Clouds Rest (Photo Credit: Paul)

Back in the cover of the trees, we again strapped on the snowshoes and headed back towards camp. With 7 miles of descending ahead of us, we took our time and enjoyed a few extra sights along the way.

Checking out Half Dome from atop a snow drift. (Photo Credit: Paul)

We got back to camp at about 5:30PM. A significant amount of snow had melted during the day, and the other camp inhabitants had left. We refilled our water and made dinner… tonight was tuna pasta with alfredo sauce, yummy. As we filled our bellies with a much deserved meal, we reflected on our summit trip, and still felt that we had made the right call in backing off. And after checking the weather, it looked to have been the right call to base camp it at LYV rather than continue on the loop as the weather was beginning to move in. Unsure of what tomorrow would bring, we buttoned up camp, prepped the tent for the possibility of significant snow, and went to bed.

More photos can be found on Flickr

Continue with Days 3 & 4!

Cal Cycling Road Race

This past weekend was the home road race for Cal Cycling. It was also my first race of the season and my first time racing the Mens B category. Unfortunately, I have not been spending much time on the bike, so rather than hoping to place well, I was hoping the races would motivate me to get back on the bike with a more consistent riding schedule. I also recently acquired a GoPro, and this weekend gave me a good opportunity to try my hand at creating a video…

As with every race weekend, we were up before the sun, and heading to the race site to get the course setup.

At 9:55am I was pedaling off for the first lap. The race started at a nice relaxed pace. I could tell my legs weren’t going to make it the full 40 miles, but it didn’t bother me… just meant I wasn’t going to have to make the climb up McEwan Rd FOUR times! So, I just chilled about mid-pack as we wound our way through the hills of Crockett, CA. Then, we made the turn onto McEwan. I counted two dropped chains (not mine of course) and then bid farewell to the pack as they cruised on up hill without me. After that it was a pretty uneventful ride… I completed two laps of the course then decided to call it quits in the hopes that I might have something left for the crit the following day.

Sunday was another early day. My race started at 10:25am and was to last 45 min. The race was fast from the start, and I quickly got dropped. There was a strong head wind blowing up Durant which made it feel like I was riding up hill around the entire block. After about 6 min of pain, the officials took pity on me and pulled me from the race. Since this was clearly not enough racing for one day, so I returned later that afternoon to race the Cat 3/4 race and managed to keep up for about 20 min before being pulled.

Despite not finishing any of the races, I had a pretty good time being back in a race, and so far it seems to have sparked me into riding again! Plus, I got some great shots with my GoPro and put together a little video.

Dendrophobia

Its 2012 and what better way to start off the new year than with a trip to some Hot Springs!

Luckily for me, there are some high quality hot springs just a short ways down the coast in Big Sur, CA. The Sykes Hot Springs are a very popular destination, and get to be quite crowded during peak season. One resource even said that the crowd can reach the triple digits! (This was quite surprising to me considering its over 10 miles of hiking to reach the springs.) I was hoping that since it is January, and between holiday weekends, that there would not be too much of a crowd. However, the weather has been behaving more like early summer than winter, so I really had no idea what to expect.

I left Friday night to head down to Santa Cruz for the night and pick up my former housemate, Cheyenne. We wanted to get an early start on the trail in order to maximize the time at the hot springs, so we rolled out at the wee hour of 6:30AM and headed down Highway 1. It was early, but we were quickly rewarded with a spectacular sunrise.

The view was just too nice to not stop and enjoy it!

We got to the trail head shortly after 8AM and found a parking lot full of cars. Some had clearly been there a while, and others were filled with people getting ready to start hiking. Without wasting time, we grabbed our packs and started down the trail.

Ventana Wilderness. Damage from the wildfire can be seen on the sign post.

There was not much warm up before the trail took off up the ridge in a series of steep switchbacks. They were serious… the only thing nice about them was the fact that they were basically at sea level. Once to the top, we followed the Pine Ridge Trail along the Big Sur River Valley. After about 2 miles, we entered the Ventana Wilderness. This area has been recovering from a wildfire about three years ago. Most of the old trees showed signs of the fire, and other parts were covered with thick new undergrowth (including lots of poison oak, yuck).

The trail made several steep descents and ascents in and out of the valley making for a fairly tough hike, but offering the occasional scenic overlook to the up coming mountains of Big Sur, or back to the vast Pacific.

Ocean view

Yup... I'm stuck

Along the trail, we came across a significant number of downed trees. It was many more than any other trail I had been on, and most looked fairly recent. My guess is that most came down during the strong winds that moved through California at the end of last November. In most cases, downed trees are not much of a problem, but since these were Red Woods, they routinely presented a bit of a challenge… they are after all, very big trees. Eventually, maneuvering over and under the trees became humorous as I occasionally got stuck under them, or Cheyenne’s legs just weren’t quite long enough to easily cross over.

This tree formed a nice bridge

We made it to Sykes Camp at about 2PM. The camp seemed pretty empty, but we knew there were several groups not far behind us. So we crossed the river (very cold) and set up camp. I had brought my new 4-season tent, which was over kill for the conditions since it was basically summer, but I wanted to use it, and since Tahoe doesn’t seem to be getting snow anytime soon, this was my chance. Cheyenne joked that we would have no trouble finding it in the dark because the orange rain fly is so bright it probably gives off light… we later found this was not so far from the truth…

With camp set, we took off down river to find the hot springs. I knew they were about a half mile down stream of the camp, but the trail was not well established. As we worked our way down the river bank, we passed several camps that looked as if they had been there a while. At this point I was hoping there would still be room left in one for us.

Heading down river to the hot springs

Coming around a turn, I saw the first hot spring… There was no water in it! I was disappointed until I realized that someone had a trowel and mortar out and was working on it. How nice of them… but we moved on to the next. There were two more springs, one was full, but the other had plenty of room!

The water was the perfect temperature (~100F), and the air was cool enough that a nice cloud of steam rose from the surface. A stone and mortar wall had been built to contain the water and it was filled directly from the side of the mountain. It was about 4 feet wide, 6 feet long and deep enough to get completely submerged and sat right on the edge of the river. (I didn’t take a picture of the springs out of respect for the nude bathers.)

Cairns marking the hot springs

We joined the one person who had already occupied the spring, and were quickly joined by 4 others. As we relaxed and chatted in the warm water, a line began to form as those who started the hike behind us caught up. After about an hour and a half, Cheyenne and I decided it was time to trek back to camp and round up some dinner.

Back at camp the number of tents had exploded. People were gathering wood, making fires and it more closely resembled a park’n pitch campground than a backpacking camp 10 miles from the trailhead! But as the sun set, it was quite apparent that the people here were much more respectful of their neighbors than your typical car-camper (plus there were no obnoxious generators).

Lunch spot

The next morning we were the first ones out of the camp. Again, there was little time to warm up the legs as the trail quickly climbed up away from the river. This was an out and back trip, but this direction was slightly easier, despite the continuous ups and downs of the trail. By the time we stopped for lunch, a couple of the groups from camp had caught up with us, and we continued to leap frog them all the way to the parking lot.

As we got closer to the trail head, we began passing day hikers. Some in small groups, some walking their dogs, but the most interesting was a family that was out with their parrots perched on some sticks. I must say, this was the first time I had seen someone take their bird out for a walk!

We had made it back to the car, which is always a nice feeling, but it meant the trip was over and it was time to go back to reality… but not before stoping for a burrito in Santa Cruz, mmmmm…

I even managed to get back to Oakland in time to catch a spectacular sunset!

Watching the sunset over the Golden Gate (btw... this is the view from my house!)

As always, additional pictures can be found on Flickr

Resources:

Pine Ride to Sykes Hot Springs on Everytrail.com

Backpacking California from Wilderness Press

Dendrophobia is the fear of trees

Bye Bye Gorgonio

Day 1: South Fork Trailhead to Dry Lake

Day 2: Dry Lake to Red Rock Flat

Day 3: Red Rock Flat to South Fork Trailhead

When I awoke it was already bright. Rolling over to find my phone and check the time took a bit more effort than it had the day before. All of my muscles were letting me know that the previous day had been a big one. It was about 9:30AM, the wind was blowing and I couldn’t tell if the snow hitting the tent was fresh falling or just being blow from its resting place on the hillside. Between the wind and my stiff muscles, I wasn’t in a hurry to get up. There was no need to hurry either. There was no big summit or target to get to today. The idea was to just wander out along the ridge and turn around at some point to make camp at Dollar Lake.

I climbed out of the tent to a clear sky, but it was much cooler and windier than the day before. Paul and I found shelter behind a large log to make breakfast and decide where we were going to hike to. Since both of us were feeling the effects of a long summit day, we decided to take a nice easy hike down to Dollar Lake. It was only 1.5 miles away and about 800 feet lower in elevation so it should be warmer and more sheltered from the wind.

The trail can barely be made out under the drift snow

It was 11AM by the time we had camp packed up and were ready to take off down the mountain. The start of the trail was in the shadow of the ridge and had a strong wind blowing up the slope… and with out previous tracks we again found ourselves post-holing through knee-deep snow. Today, however, this didn’t last long. The snow level decreased and the temperature increased quickly as we descended.

Continuing the descent as the snow cover thins

Once we crossed into the sun, the snow depth had decreased significantly and we quickly came to the trail intersection that would take us to Dollar Lake. We had traveled quickly and it wasn’t even noon. Looking down the Dollar Lake trail, we noticed that we would most likely be building camp in the shade. And without a lot of side hiking opportunities or desire, this looked like a cold way to spend an afternoon. After a little discussion, we decided to go ahead and return to the car which would give us two days back in Berkeley to clean gear and recover before having to return to reality and the lab… so we continued downward.

As we descended, the snow cover continued to decrease and we stopped to take off the snowshoes. That made the pack a bit heavier, and I stumbled over my first few steps while my body remembered what it was like to walk without these large flat things attached to my feet. But after a few steps I had learned to walk again, and our pace picked up significantly. It was yet another beautiful day for a hike!

Looking back at the summit of San Gorgonio on the descent.

About halfway down the trail, we rounded a corner and came up on a set of foot prints in what remained of the snow. We were no longer going to be putting in first tracks. Though we had yet to find a person to go with those tracks, I was suddenly reminded that we were in fact on a fairly well traveled trail and no longer felt so removed from civilization. After a bit further, we came up on Richard. He was a volunteer park ranger (as many rangers in CA are now due to budget cuts) out on a day hike towards Dollar Lake. He told us stories of people he runs into with tennis shoes and a single bottle of water with the idea that they would make it to the summit and back in the snow. We had a few laughs about this, then showed him our permit and continued on. A little while later I hear Paul laugh behind me… I look back and he says, “You know what I just realized? We just met Ranger Rick!” HA!

Paul fills his bottles

Meeting up with the South Fork trail that our journey began on, we stopped at a stream crossing to fill our bottles. This was much faster than melting snow for water… MUCH FASTER! I filled and emptied my bottle a few times and watched as the water rushed in to fill it with a strange feeling of amazement in how quickly the stream would fill it. Here we met two guys that were heading up to the summit via Dollar Lake taking the reverse trip we had just done. They didn’t have snowshoes, but seemed unconcerned when we told them the snow conditions we had just stomped through.

After a few bars and several gulps of water we continued down to the car passing about a half dozen day hikers with various degrees of preparation. We noticed what Ranger Rick had pointed out about shoes as we passed about 4 people in sneakers and tees. Shortly after leaving the wilderness area, we met two more rangers that were heading to the summit following the same path we had just taken. They were happy to get a snow report, and even happier to know that they wouldn’t be breaking trail on the way…

Victory Beer!

By 2PM we had made it back to the car! My body was thrilled to put down my pack and my feet happy to get out of my boots. Siting on the bumper, I thought back to the many trips I took during my time with the outdoor program in college, and remembered a few words of wisdom, “The trip’s not over until you’re drinking beers at the car.” The summit day on San Gorgonio was proof to that. The summit had been reached the previous day, but there was still much to push through to make it a successful summit trip. Now that we were back at the car, it was time for that victory beer!

Screen shot of the map app

Technology on the Trail

Prior to coming on this trip I had found a trails app for my iPhone. It had high reviews primarily because it downloaded USGS maps to the phone so that it can be used without access to cell or data service. It also has other cool features such as GPS and compass as well as the ability to tag locations and shade slopes based on time of day. Since there is only so much that can be achieved by playing with a map app in my room, I decided this would be a good trip to try it out on. (We brought a real map and compass along just incase…)

The app worked great! The GPS was able to pinpoint our location to within 8 feet of where we actually were. Where its benefits were most appreciated though, were above tree line. Following the trail within the cover of trees was not very challenging. For the most part we just followed the widest path between trees, and confirmed it was the trail by looking for signs of trail maintenance (most notably branches and logs cut by saws). But above tree line we had to rely on stacks of rocks that were, for the most part, covered in snow. With the help of GPS, staying on the trail above tree line was trivial.

Pack equipped with solar charger

However, since I also use my phone as my primary camera to get the GPS tags on all the photos I take, there became an issue with battery life. How would I keep the notoriously short lived iPhone battery charged for several days while routinely using the GPS? For that I turned to the sun. I picked up a solar charger from Goal Zero and strapped it to the top of my pack. This kept my phone charged and ready to go for the duration of the trip!

More photos can be found on Flickr

Summit Day Snow on San Gorgonio

Day 1: South Fork Trailhead to Dry Lake

Day 2: Summit Day – Dry Lake to Red Rock Flat

Day 2 started early. My alarm woke me at the lovely hour of 3AM. I woke surprisingly quickly. It may have been due to the 6PM bed time the night before, or maybe the adrenaline of knowing it was time to climb the mountain. The weather forecast had said there would be a 30% chance of snow this day, and I was worried about opening the tent to find ourselves socked in by clouds. With no idea how far the tracks continued up the trail, I feared the idea of having to route find with limited visibility… this would most likely have put an end to our summit dreams.

Summit bound under the new moon

I opened the tent to find it darker than dark outside as we were going to be under a new moon for our pre-dawn hike. The air was still and there were no snow flakes falling from the sky above. Looking up, I saw a sky that was crystal clear and full of tiny points of light (many more than visible from the sky of the Bay Area). This was definitely a relief.

After packing up camp and strapping on our snow shoes, we headed up the trail towards Mineshaft Saddle. We got on the trail by 4AM, and with the saddle about 2 miles away, we figured we would get there by sunrise.

As we hiked, it became clear that we were following only one set of tracks… those belonging to our trail blog friend who had turned back only 2 days earlier. I was happy to have a clear trail in front of me.

As we approached the saddle, a dim glow appeared over the ridge. I was happy to see morning arrive, and the saddle provided the perfect vantage point to watch the new day begin!

Day break from just above Mineshaft Saddle on Thanksgiving

Snow drifts slowly covering the trail

On the saddle, our trail intersected with Fish Creek Trail. There were no tracks coming up that trail, and the ones we were following continued up the mountain. While the air was still, the trail showed evidence that we had crossed over to the windy side of the mountain. The tracks had begun to be filled by drift snow traveling across the slopes, and the snow was consistently over a foot deep.

Continuing on, the slops continued to get steeper while the tracks we were following continued to disappear. As we followed the ever diminishing trail, a few gentle breezes started passing through. They were gentle and surprisingly warm… I enjoyed the feel of the warm air on my face, but hoped the winds would not pick up or bring the snow that had been forecast.

Trails don't last long on the snowy slopes

Making first tracks as we pass the plane wreckage

As we approached the beginning of the switchbacks, we came up to the site of the 1953 plane crash. The wreck had been mostly covered, but there were a few pieces still visible through the snow. This was also the point where our trail disappeared into the powder. We had reach the point at which our blogger had turned back. I could see the switchbacks weaving their way up the slope and began wondering how far we would get. It was still fairly easy to kick steps in the snow with my snowshoes, but for how long would this be true? There is of course only one way to find out, and with a beautiful, clear sky above us, we continued onward and upward!

The sun greeting us as we reach the top of the switchbacks

The switchbacks presented quite a challenge. While the trail was easy to follow through the trees, marked by evidence of trail maintenance, gaining about 1,000 feet in such a short distance is never easy… especially when shuffling through over a foot of snow. Our efforts were well rewarded. After no fewer than 8 switchbacks, we crested the ridge into the warmth of the ever rising sun to see the valley below to the east and a low lying blanket of clouds to the west. It was now approaching noon and we were within 2 miles of the summit. We estimated that we were about 30 min behind our expected pace, but after getting a quick lunch and checking the map, we continued on to the summit.

Summit this way!

As we pushed along the last bit of trail to the summit, I could feel the air getting thinner while my feet seemed to get heavier. Coming around the mountain allowed us to see the extent of the trail. It looked like a white carpet gradually sloping upward along the ridge. I knew somewhere out there was the trail junction that would take us up to the summit. Now that it was in sight, it seemed so close, but as my legs grew more tired, and my lungs had to work ever harder to get oxygen from thinning air, it seemed so far away. Then I saw it… the trail sign pointing towards the summit!

It was now almost 1:30PM and we had been hiking for over 9 hours. We dropped our packs to make a quick detour to the summit… half mile out, half mile back. We had made it… and what a way to spend Thanksgiving!

San Jacinto Peak holding back the clouds

We could see Dry Lake where our day began so long ago

The summit trail stretches out along the ridge

After celebrating a bit on the summit (11,501 feet), and enjoying the feeling of having a whole mountain to ourselves, we turned back and began our descent to Red Rock Flat. It was now 2PM and we still had almost 5 miles to go to reach the camp. While it was all down hill, we were feeling the effects of the sun, the altitude, and the hours of hiking and I wanted to be sure to get across the last steep snow field before the sun dropped to far and the snow crusted over.

Summit trail junction

We hoisted our packs and began down the trail. Since we were above tree line, we no longer had the cut branches of trail maintenance that I had grown a custom to following. It was up to my topo map skills to get us back to tree line (though I had a bit of help from the GPS of my iPone, which definitely came in handy). Descending was a nice change of pace, and the trail kept us on the sunny side of the ridge. Looking back we could see the trail we had been following stretching back along the mountain for miles.

Crossing the last snow field and ducking back into the trees, we found ourselves less than a mile out of camp with a perfect view of the sun set. The colors were spectacular, and provided the perfect back drop for the cloud filled valley stretched out before us. We stopped to grab our headlamps and watch the day slip away.

Sun ducking below a sea of clouds

The day fades through the trees

With the last of the light fading, we found our way into camp. We were on top of a ridge at about 10,000 feet, and as the sun disappeared, the wind picked up, the temperature dropped rapidly and what remained of my water started to freeze. We layered up, and quickly got the tent set up. My excitement for having a nice hot bowl of tuna rice was overshadowed by my desire to get into my fluffy down bag. Dinner turned into several handfuls of trail mix, jerky, cheese, and a few bites of summer sausage. Once warm, Paul fired up a stove to melt a bit of water to get us through the night, and I piled up snow to help protect the tent from the wind gusting over the ridge.

With the sun gone, and another night of new moon, it was pitch black out. But while building our snow wall, I noticed a strange orange glow on the horizon. I knew it couldn’t be the sun, that had set nearly an hour ago. Looking out into the dark I saw thousands of glowing points. The clouds had cleared, and the lights of San Bernardino were now illuminating the sky. As isolated as the mountain had felt all day, it was hard to believe the city was so close.

Crawling back into the tent, I could feel the toll that the day had taken on me. It had been a long day, and my body was ready to retire. It took us 13 hours to get from Dry Lake to Red Rock Flat, and I felt it. I was asleep moments after climbing into my sleeping bag and didn’t stir until the sun came up the next day…

Day 3: Red Rock Flat to South Fork Trailhead

More photos can be found on Flickr

Thanksgiving on San Gorgonio

Thanksgiving provides a great opportunity to take a trip someplace a bit farther than can be done in a weekend. In the beginning of planning this Thanksgiving trip, San Gorgonio became the target because it is the tallest mountain in Southern California at 11,500 ft. Initially, the weather looked like it would either be in the 50’s or on the leading edge of the winter snowfall. The route we decided on was to summit via the South Fork Trail.

As the trip date closed in, it became clear that we were gonna encounter a bit more snow than originally expected. Then, the day before leaving, someone posted on the trail blog that they had to turn back and recommended crampons for climbing the steep switchbacks. While we weren’t sure what this meant for our summit dreams, it didn’t deter us…

San Gorgonio Wilderness Boundary

Day 1: South Fork Trail to Dry Lake

The South Fork Trail head starts at about 6,200 ft and there was snow on the trail from the start. It was patchy at first, but didn’t take long to become at steady layer on the trail. The trail was well traveled with several sets of tracks leading the way.

About two miles in we passed the trail to Poopout Hill and crossed into the San Gorgonio Wilderness. From there the snow began to deepen and the trail began to pick up altitude. As we continued we arrived at the trail split for Dry Lake. The footprints followed the Dry Lake trail, while we got a look at the

Dollar Lake trail free of tracks

trackless trail coming from Dollar Lake that we would be returning on in a few days. This left me wondering how far the tracks continued along this trail. Did they go all the way to the top, or did they stop at the switchbacks where our guy from the trail blog had to turn back? The answer to this question would have to wait until tomorrow when we pushed for the summit. Until then, we continued to Dry Lake.

Getting to Dry Lake required several stream crossings. Some were small, and others were a bit tricky with the snow covering some boot sized gaps between logs. After some graceful steps (and plenty of balancing help from the hiking poles), the streams were crossed, and Dry Lake was a few steps closer…

Paul navigating the snowing crossing... August in Nebraska?

Snowy Stream

After crossing the streams, the tracks thinned and the trial climbed to the top of a ridge. As we crested the ridge, the summit became visible through the trees, and with the sun behind the mountains, it had an almost mystic glow in the sky. I could feel the excitement for the summit day growing…

San Gorgonio appears through the trees

San Gorgonio (left) and Jepson Peak (right)

Ice covered Dry Lake

We arrived at Dry Lake to find it frozen over. The 3,000 ft we had gained since leaving the trailhead had brought cooler temperatures (mid 40’s in the sun) and deeper snow at our first camp at 9,000 ft. We put on our snow shoes in order to leave the trail in search of a place to pitch our tent. The snow was a nice powder and about a foot deep.

As the sun started to dip behind the ridge, we got camp set up and made dinner. With the frozen lake and a thick layer of snow hiding any flowing water, we filled our water bottles by melting snow in preparation for the big summit day coming quickly. With few daylight hours, we decided to get up at 3AM to pack up camp and get on the trail by 4AM. It would be 5 steep miles to the summit at 11,500 ft, with 5 more miles to camp. Hoping to average 1mph, this would get us to camp before sunset.

Camp at Dry Lake

With food in our bellies, water in our bottles, and a plan for the summit, we called it a day and the late hour of 6PM…

Day 2: Dry Lake to Red Rock

More photos can be found Flickr