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!)

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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