A wonderful two days in the Sierra! I spent two hours on Pothole Dome in Tuolumne Meadows watching stratiform lenticular clouds form over Mt. Dana and Mt. Gibbs and measured 35 mph winds at Ellery Lake. The next day I had a wonderful hike up the Sierra Crest via Saddlebag Lake. Although my destination was Mt Conness, the icy conditions on the crest made it too dangerous (at least for a wimpy hiker like me) to proceed. Yet my inability to reach the summit didn’t mar the beautiful day one bit. Blue skies, 60F temperatures and a rainbow of oranges, browns, and reds of the fall landscape made for a perfect hiking day.
Winter wasted no time in arriving in the Sierra and gave us very little warning as well. One moment I was lounging on my desk in shorts basking in the sun and reading Richard Dawkins’ new work, the next I was bundled up inside watching the trees sway from wind gusts and listening to the footsteps of rain on the roof.
Of course the real reason the first rain is so significant this year is our fear over what water will do to the rockslide. And sure enough, when I drove across the bridge this morning, large clouds of dust rose across the river while boulders bounced down the slope. Although the small release put us in no danger, it served as a reminder that the rockslide still has a few more acts to go.
I led my friends—Kimi, Anthony and Iris—up the Dana Plateau today (see Team Half Dome on June 5). As this was their first hike to this wondrous region, I delighted in their delight, as the Dana Plateau is my favorite place to wander in the park--a Martian-like landscape, with fantastic rock gardens grown over millions of years.
The instability aloft continued today, leaving vestiges of the conditions that produced the wave yesterday—a fine display of lenticular clouds. At times, the wind blew so fiercely that we had trouble walking.
As a student of weather, one would think I would know better. I needed to do a seven-mile run and by the time I was able to break away from work in the evening, I could hear rumblings of thunder in the high country and the sky above Half Dome glistened darkly. I reasoned, somewhat illogically, that the storm might simply pass over the Valley and I could probably finish my run before it got too bad. As I considered my options, a friend, Chuck Carter, assured me I’d be fine. When you receive assurance from someone who regularly skis down mountain cliffs, it adds strength to your rationalizations. So I dashed off, and not surprisingly at El Capitan meadow the storm descended in earnest. Lightning flashed above and a heavy rain soaked me to the skin. As it had been unbearably hot the last few days I welcomed the bath, but the threat of electrocution took some of the enjoyment away. However, I have since decided to plan my speed work in thunderstorms as I logged in a personal best time for the four miles back to the Visitor Center that day!
Winter has officially arrived in Yosemite . The official indicators of winter, at least for me, include 1) The Four-Mile Trail being closed because of avalanche danger, 2) Badger Pass opening, and 3) I now have to don a fleece jacket. Being from New England, I still don’t think the climate in Yosemite really qualifies as winter (not when you can ski in shorts)—it’s more like an extended autumn with snow. I recently rode the train from California to Boston, and my route on the Empire Builder took me through Washington, Montana, North Dakota—states that really look and feel cold! When we stopped in Fargo , North Dakota , it was -5F. Yesterday the temperature was over 60F at my home and I read a book on my deck in shorts.
My friend Mara (of the Tenaya Lake swim—see 8/27/2005) has proposed yet another adventure: skiing over Tioga Pass , through Tuolumne and to Yosemite Valley . I have always wanted to visit Tuolumne as it sleeps in the winter; I’ve envisioned a world of sublime quietude, where the silence almost echoes. I read the Tuolumne Rangers report religiously and with envy.
To train for this adventure, I’ve been trying to squeeze in two skiing treks a week. Glacier Point Road provides a wonderful and almost limitless place to glide through the snow (although in recent years as snowshoeing has become more popular, the groomed trails are getting trampled). Today, I skied out to the first good viewpoint of the Clark Range . I meet a nice couple from Sacramento celebrating their first wedding anniversary; they had been married at the Yosemite Chapel.
The National Park service in Yosemite organizes a wonderful monthly lecture series called “The Croaking Toad” where scientists present the results of their research. This month, Michael Dettinger of the US Geological Survey and Climate Research Division/ Scripps Institution of Oceanography visited the park and shared with us his models that predict the impact of global warming on the Sierra Nevada.
His provocative (and downright scary) theory asserts that the Sierra Nevada in general—and Yosemite specifically—are situated at ground zero for some of the possible consequences of increasing average temperatures. As most Californians know (or should know), the “snowmelt’s the thing” The water cycle, which we all learn in third grade, is pretty basic—snow falls in the Sierra Nevada in the winter and as the spring and summer progresses, it melts gradually, flows into the rivers, and ultimately into our water taps.
Mr. Dettinger’s data suggests that as temperatures rise, rain will replace snow in higher frequencies, and the snowmelt will peak in February instead of April. Why? Since Sierra Nevada weather is more moderate than many other colder regions in the US (where else can you ski in shorts?) even a slight 2-3 degree difference could mean the shift from snow to rain. As a result, in the future the rivers—and our taps—could run dry before spring even begins! We already have some convincing evidence to suggest that the peak snowmelt has been shifting to earlier in the year.
The sky exhibited a beautiful mélange of clouds today. The indiscriminate showing was akin to a museum displaying an Albert Bierstadt painting next to a Jason Pollock canvas. From my position at Olmstead Point, I had a wonderful viewing spot of the varied art of the sky.
To the north, stretching from east to west, the sky birthed an array of stratus clouds; their lenticular, UFO-like shapes reminded me of my recent viewing of the movie, The War of the Worlds. I suppose Tuolumne would be the ideal place to be at the end of the world! Stratiform clouds are formed by wind; you can read about a stratus cloud unique to the Sierra Nevada, in my article “The Sierra Wave” at http://www.yosemite.org/naturenotes/SierraWave.htm
To the south, cirrus clouds decorated the blue sky—wispy fibers with veins filled with ice. In the midst of one cirrus cloud, a band of color shimmered-a phenomena known as an iridescence. Directly above me, a halo encircled the sun, another optical phenomenon. Both the halo and the iridescence are cousins to the rainbow, and are caused by the refraction and diffraction of light respectively. In their wonderful book, The Rainbow Bridge: Rainbows in Art, Myth, and Science, authors Raymond Lee and Alistair Fraser tell of the Arab mathematician and physicist Alhazen musing in the eleventh century that “Now among things…which have given much perplexity of thought, are the two effects known as the halo and the rainbow.”
And lastly, in the southwest, a lone cumulus congestus cloud crept over the horizon, trying to assert its dominance as it rose beside Half Dome.
I had several events to attend this weekend and a bundle of work to accomplish. My solution was to ignore all of my commitments and instead spend the weekend in Tuolumne. After all, I rationalized, the pass doesn’t stay open all year.
I arrived in the afternoon on Saturday and decided to take the boat across Saddlebag Lake and hike the loop around the lakes. What I love about the Saddlebag Lake area is that with little effort and expense (a mere $6 gets you ferried across the lake) you can be in the midst of the High Sierra with alpine lakes and craggy peaks for surroundings. I’ve explored the area extensively, having climbed White Mountain, Mt. Conness, and North Peak, but I had never hiked the official loop around the lakes.
The trek around the lakes was an easy hike, so I didn’t feel I had really earned my dinner. However, my perceived lack of effort did not deter me from ordering a plate of fish tacos. After dinner, I returned to my favorite lodging, the El Mono Motel and read my Weatherwise magazine while I sipped on jasmine green tea from the motel’s café.
On Sunday, I joined Ranger Dick Ewart on the last day of his "Ice, Wind & Fire" outdoor adventure course. His hike focused on the natural forces that shaped the landscape in the park, not the music of a '70s rock band. The day I joined the group (a very fun bunch of poeple!) we traveled to Little Devil’s Postpile, a volcanic plug along the Tuolumne River, to learn about the “fire.” As always on Dick’s wonderful hike, I added much to my Yosemite knowledge. Did you know that the last period of major volcanic activity in the Sierra was 9 million years ago? Or that some grasses grow in donut rings in the high country because of water and mineral dispersal?
One bonus involved the clouds. It was a superb cloud day! The wind had picked up last night at Mono Lake, and had followed me to Tuolumne in the morning. The winds aloft were extremely unstable, as told by the clouds’ language. The wind produced an array of unique stratus formations across the sky; lenticular clouds stretched across the horizon, looking like UFOs had landed on the Sierras.
We ended the day on Erratic Dome, gazing at the 360 degree view as Dick named the peaks on the horizon. We huddled close as to hear his voice over the 30 mph winds.
Another splendid day in Tuolumne! I hiked up to Mono Pass and lunched at Spillway Lake, munching on a brownie and peanuts while feasting my eyes on Kuna Crest, and listening to the sound of the snow-melt rushing down the cliffs. Corn lilies had begun springing up in the meadows, along with some yellow flowers that I could not identify (our Illustrated Flora of Yosemite is just too heavy to bring on a hike!).
I met only four other people on the trail, and three of them had Yosemite Association connections! Judy Marks, our new employee at the Tuolumne Meadows Visitor Center, was heading up to the pass on her day off. One of our returning volunteers, Heather Schneider, and a new volunteer, Julie Rice, also had spent the day hiking in the area. We certainly have a great group of volunteers and employees who enjoy exploring the park.
On my return hike, the cumulus clouds had evolved into cumulus congestus, and I felt the first drops of rain hit me about halfway to the trailhead. After my hike, I drove to Tuolumne Meadows and watched as the storm formed over Mammoth Peak. An hour passed, and Mother Nature still had not produced any lightning, so I called it a day and headed home. However, I did stop at numerous vantage points along Tioga Road to watch the progress of the storm (thinking this safer than trying to watch the clouds in my rearview mirror). The clouds had climbed high into the troposphere and a definite anvil, the precursor to a thunderstorm, had formed. I almost drove back up to the meadows, wanting to see the lightning dance over the peaks, but I reasoned that I would have plenty of opportunities to see thunderstorms this summer.
On a walk along the Merced River today, we were treated to an unusual atmospheric phenomena—a cloud iridescence. As I gazed up at the sky, a high cirrus unicus (mare’s tails) cloud stretched its tendrils over our heads. A rainbow of color decorated the bottom of the cloud, and while we watched, it slowly spread upward, like paper absorbing ink. The colors evolved as the cloud formed; it was like watching the birth of a rainbow. Shad, my partner, definitely regretted not bringing his camera!
An iridescence is caused by a difraction of light on small water droplets, and is related to the corona, another optical formation. The term iridescence comes from the word irisation, relating to the Greek deity Iris, who represented the rainbow. Not wanting to miss any portion of the show, I waited until the cloud had disappeared behind the hills (much to the disappointment of my dogs who could not understand why I stood still during our walk), delighted that the sky had painted so delightful a picture for me.
This morning, my drive up the river canyon to the association’s office in El Portal resembled an excursion in the high country. A winter storm left the hills frosted in snow, a rare event at 1,800 feet elevation. I enjoy my daily commute winding along the river and in between the hills, observing the character of the region as it changes, sometimes subtly, sometime significantly, with the weather. Today the hills were in a preening, boastful mood, proud of their new white coat.
Yesterday the snow began in the afternoon, following a burst of wind that came up as suddenly as an ocean squall. Our sunshade gazebo that covered our picnic tables blew down, and we eyed the bending trees surrounding our office with alarm. After the wind calmed, the snow began to fall, large feather-like flakes that made it appear as if the gods were having a pillow fight above and we were witnessing the carnage.
Let it snow! A viable winter storm has finally enveloped Yosemite, and should continue through this weekend. The current snow level is at 5,000 feet, with a predicted accumulation of seven inches overnight. The past few storms have been fickle, tempting us with overcast skies and light rain, yet dissipating before granting us any satisfying levels of precipitation. At last, a snowfall that might herald the true beginning of the ski season at Badger Pass! Being a cross-country skier, I don’t need much snow to be happy.
Thoreau said that being on the snow is like “walking in the sky upside down.” Winter is a sublime season in the park, and some of the most peaceful memories I have in Yosemite are while gliding along Glacier Point Road, reveling in the quietness of the snowfall. Perhaps a cloud has the same prevalent silence that is almost mystical in nature.
The miles of cross-country ski trails at Glacier Point provide great skiing opportunities for any level of skier. Beginners can refine their skills on the groomed track, while more advanced skiers can take advantage of the more difficult side trails or venture cross-country. I hope to be skiing in the high country this weekend!
Well, I was made to eat my words. It actually can rain sometimes in California. That day, we took the boat across Saddlebag Lake and began our hike up to North Peak. As we strolled though the lovely basin that contains Conness Lakes, the tops of cumulus clouds peered over the Sierra crest.
Watching the clouds, we began climbing, and sure enough the cumulus clouds became cumulus congestus and were heading toward the cumulonimbus stage very rapidly. Thinking we still had time to reach the summit before the thunderstorms were fully developed, we continued up, but a half a mile from the peak the first roar of thunder sounded. I turned to Shad and said one word, “DOWN!”
Shad, having never been on a high mountain pass during a thunderstorm, continued to snap photos as I scurried down the mountain in record time. Sometimes ignorance is bliss. I love to watch storms, yet after having been caught a few times in high places with my hair standing up on end and the thunder sounding like a gunshot next to my ear, I always try to avoid such situations!
As we strolled back past Conness Lakes, my pace more leisurely now that I was near some cover, we watched the gray clouds build in strength and surround the ridge. Two brave souls had hiked up one of the remaining snowfields and we followed their small distant forms as they sailed down on skis.
Last night I peered out my window and stared with fascination at a theater of a pristine night sky dancing with spots of light. For moment I felt like a character in Isaac Asimov's famous short story Nightfall, where inhabitants of a planet with three suns (and consequently no darkness) fear a coming eclipse because they might get a glimpse of those terrible, mythic creatures called "stars". I realized my confusion resulted from the weeks of greedy rain clouds dominating the skies day and night.
Although our friends in Portland and Oregon may be accustomed to weekly rain showers, I am quite happy to live in a place where the rain sleeps from May to October, where the word winter doesn't quite apply to the weather from November through March (winter and 70 degree days don't ring as synonyms for me), and where "winter" storms are polite enough to occur only a once or twice a month (and usually not on weekends) and have the courtesy to allow for at least a week of sunny weather in between their visits.
T.S. Eliot was right in calling April the cruelest month. The sun became an endangered species this past April and most of us who live in Yosemite began singing "rain, rain go away, come back some other day." What was the use of rain and snow in April? We couldn't ski since Badger Pass was closed and it only would delay Tuolumne opening for the season. No, we really couldn't think of one good reason for this month-long stretch of rain.
Mother Nature, however, had plenty of good reasons for making April a tribute to Seattle in the Sierras. According to the data on the California Department of Water Resources (a great site for weather enthusiasts, hikers and skiers at http://cdec.water.ca.gov) the precipitation from October to March was running at 85% of normal. After April that jumped to 99%. Akin to the Patriots winning the Superbowl in the last seconds of the game, Mother Nature raced into the endzone with a touchdown of weather when we least expected it: April's rainfall exceeded the average by 225%.