Winter is coming (we hope): my last excursion to Tioga Pass?

Walking on a frozen Gaylor Lake, January 16, 2012As my dad and I drove through the Arch Rock entrance station in Yosemite yesterday, we viewed something that had become so unusual recently that it took us a moment to identify it. “Is that snow?” I asked the ranger at the gate. Granted it was a pretty weak snowfall, as if someone was occasionally sprinkling confectionary sugar, but we can’t be too picky in the Sierra these days. The clouds followed us to Crane Flat and beyond, and some of the trees and granite peaks glowed with a light dusting of snow against the gray clouds. At Olmsted point, the blue skies emerged, but Tenaya Peak boasted some white highlights on his granite face.

Gaylor Lake (photo by Beth Pratt)“Winter is coming,” is a catch phrase on one of my favorite shows, Game of Thrones. It’s a mantra we have been uttering here in the Sierra Nevada, yet less emphatically than Ned Stark. The California version: “Winter is coming? Isn’t it?”

The record-breaking delay in closing Tioga Pass and the access to Tuolumne and Yosemite’s high country in winter has been marvelous. Being on the Dana Plateau in January or walking across a frozen Tenaya Lake is not an experience usually attainable for those of us who are not good backcountry skiers. Yet these rare opportunities come with a price tag—a disruption of the water cycle so central to California that the decreased snowpack reverberates with implications for all life in the state. We’ll hope skating on frozen Tenaya Lake (or taking beautiful wedding photos on the ice—check out this photo by Patrick Pike Studios) remains an once-in-a-lifetime experience that we tell our grandchildren about.

With one of the ghost trees in the middle of Tenaya LakeSo the dusting of snow made me hopeful. And the forecast for more snow and rain later in the week may put an end to my winter wanderings at 12,000 feet (it’s just unreal that I have been hiking—yes—hiking at this elevation in winter), yet the Sierra needs a long, sustained drink of water. As I hike around the Gaylor Lake basin yesterday, I found the the lack of snow and the parched landscape unnerving. In my twenty years of exploring Yosemite, I had never seen this area look so, well, just plain thirsty. The white gleam of ice from frozen Gaylor Lake contrasted sharply, like a mismatched outfit, against the adjacent brown, bare landscape.

(On a related note, the other glaring absence from the Tioga landscape has been the Mobil Station being closed. Do you know how hard it is to drive over the pass without being able to stop for a fish taco at the Whoa Nellie Deli or  talk baseball with Chef Toomey?)

Tuolumne River and Lembert Dome (photo by Beth Pratt)Even the lakes seemed to be lamenting against the current lack of snow—in song. One of the most wonderful discoveries of this late access to the high country has been the music of the lakes. On my first visit to frozen Tenaya Lake when the road reopened in December, I stood on the west shore and listened in amazement to the voice of the lake—it resembled the mysterious moanings of whale song. Gaylor Lake sang a melancholy song as well, with Cathedral Peak listening sympathetically in the distance.

Will this be my last adventure this winter in Tioga Country? As splendid as it’s been, let’s hope so. Winter, you better be coming!

Some alarming comparision photos:

Tuolumne Meadows (photos by Beth Pratt)

Gaylor Lake Basin (photos by Beth Pratt)

Dana Meadows (photos by Beth Pratt)