Memorial Day Weekend: “Don’t worry, it’s not supposed to stick”

Before the storm: gorgeous morning in Granite Basin
Before the storm: gorgeous morning in Granite Basin

With several weekends of beautiful summer-like weather already behind us, we headed across (the often still closed at this time of year) Tioga Pass on the Thursday night before Memorial Day weekend. The snow has been melting fast but there was concern about a storm forecast for the Friday and Saturday – Sierra visitors were being warned of the potential for significant snow and winds. We were less concerned since we were heading two mountain ranges to the east, the Silver Range in Nevada. While the storm would most likely also hit us, according to forecasts it would be in the form of “30% chance of isolated thundershowers, with a snow level of 7800 ft (no accumulation expected)”.

Camping in the desert and hiking peaks with some cooler temperatures and refreshing rain? This sounded fine to me. When we pulled into our secret late night crash campsite along 120 the wind was howling but the skies were beautiful and clear. We snuggled up in the truck bed, toasted a beer, then fell asleep with the wind rocking the truck.

Obsidian near the CA/NV border
Obsidian near the CA/NV border

In the morning the sun was still shining and the wind was still blowing – the storm was still working its way inland. We planned on meeting up with our friends midday at our campsite in the Silver Range so we took our time exploring some rock hounding areas and picking up obsidian, agate, jasper, and apache tears. Around midday we stopped for a soak in Fish Lake Valley hot spring, enjoying the warm weather, calm breeze, and sunny skies. From here it was only about half an hour to our campsite through a gorgeous colorful desert canyon.

 

Red Mountain from camp - one of our intended climbs
Red Mountain from camp - one of our intended climbs

We arrived at camp and said hi to friends, and within a few minutes the wind kicked up again. The storm was still blowing in and we could see storm clouds off to the west. If they reached us they might drop some rain, but it was still pretty warm out. At least it was for a few minutes. Within about half an hour the temperature had plummeted and we went from shorts and tshirts to fleeces and hats. Half and hour later we saw some light snow flurries in the air. “Don’t worry, it’s not supposed to stick”, we kept repeating from the forecast we had all read.

 

"It's not supposed to stick"
"It's not supposed to stick"

By sunset the snow was starting to accumulate. There wasn’t much we could do besides stand around the fire to keep warm, and eventually we all just bailed to our tents and vehicles to get out the wind and snow. We were sleeping in the back of the Tundra, closing the gate and the lid like in the picture above (thankfully I’m not claustrophobic). But we learned something about our lid – you can’t get the corners latched properly from the inside (when you close it from outside you have to kind of push on each corner). We didn’t really realize it when we went to bed, but as the night went on the wind pushed snow through the gap.

When I woke up some time before sunrise I realized my sleeping bag was coated in snow. Snow was piled up around me, and as I had rolled around I had melted it and it had soaked in through the bottom of the bag. The side of my body that I was sleeping on was actually wet inside the sleeping bag. The snow on top of the bag had melted some but I still had some loft – luckily, in my I-am-always-cold paranoia I had brought along zero degree bag despite the forecasts for nighttime temps in the mid 30s.

As soon as it started to get light out we decided to make a run for the cab of the truck. When we popped the lid we were greeted by what looked like about a foot of fresh snow, with drifts even higher. Inside the cab we blasted the heater to dry off and warm up. It was 5 am, and for the next two hours we would make runs to pack up and coordinate with the group in between jumping in the truck to warm up. The snow was still coming down and I was concerned about the depth as I watched a drift reach the height of the hood of our Tundra.

 

Defrosting inside the truck
Defrosting inside the truck

Eventually we headed out, and once we pulled out of the campsite area we realized the snow wasn’t as bad as we thought. It was maybe 6-8 inches deep along the road and the cars (everyone in some kind of truck or SUV) did fine getting out. We reconvened down in Fish Lake Valley and decided to head south – weather forecasts showed that the precip was staying north of Independence, so our new destination would be the Alabama Hills outside of Lone Pine (and in the shadow of Mt Whitney).

Not a bad view for a consolation prize
Not a bad view for a consolation prize

On our way south we stopped to hike Chocolate Peak, a desert summit in the Piper Mountain wilderness. It ended up being a perfect consolation prize for the afternoon; an easy hike, great views of the clearing storms, along our new route, and just the right amount of time. Soon I’ll be writing a post specifically about this hike. We ended the day under clear warm skies in the Alabama Hills, our campsite location at the site of the Gunga Din bridge (the Alabama Hills are a very popular place for movie sets).

 

Alabama Hills Camp
Alabama Hills Camp

The storm had not come this far south so the high country was still dry. Instead of our original desert peak bagging plans, we headed up to Horseshoe Meadow trailhead at 10k and hiked Trailmaster Peak, an over 12k summit just north of Cottonwood Pass. It felt so, so good to get out and do my first Sierra peak of the season. I was actually happy our original plans didn’t work out! Like Chocolate, I’ll be doing a post on this hike since it’s a great introduction to cross-country peak bagging in the Sierra.

 

Even better: view of Whitney and Langley from Trailmaster
Even better: view of Whitney and Langley from Trailmaster

This was one of those trips where I’m very thankful to have friends who have their @#$% together and are smart and flexible enough to make new plans. No matter what, I know I’m going to have a good time when I’m with this group. Thanks guys!

Full photo album here with detailed narrative.

Masonic, Potato Peak, Bodie Peak, Aurora, and Tioga Pass Opening Weekend (better late than never)

Tundra in the Bodie Hills
Tundra in the Bodie Hills

Hi guys! I’m still here!

While gearing up for the summer backpacking season I realized I’d never posted about an early season visit to the Bodie Hills. I’ve visited Bodie State Park many times in the past, but I’ve never really explored beyond the park boundaries. Given the snow conditions this year, on a mid-June weekend that would typically be spent backpacking in the Sierra mid-country we instead decided to play around the Bodie Hills between Bridgeport and Lee Vining.

Starting out from Bridgeport on Saturday morning, we headed out through the Northern part of the Bodie Hills  to the ruins of the old mining towns of Chemung and Masonic. The roads through here are pretty good at the start but to get anywhere you’ll need a high-clearance 4WD vehicle and the ability to use it. There is a maze of old mining roads through the hills and it’s easy to get in trouble if you turn down one without the proper equipment or map.

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Tioga Peak: 11,526 ft

Tioga Peak Summit Register
Tioga Peak Summit Register

Tioga Peak is a really nice little peak found near Tioga Pass just east of the Yosemite boundary. I climbed it on Friday, August 20th on my way out to Bishop to meet my friend Sooz for a nine-day backpacking trip. I had the whole day to make the 6-ish hour drive, so I decided to break it up with a short hike to stretch my legs. Another motivating factor was to work on my acclimation – I had just returned from the Mineral King trip three days before so I knew that a quick hike at over 11,000 feet wouldn’t be too difficult and would help with my acclimation when starting off on the long trip the next day.

Tioga Peak is an excellent and easy short climb. Much like Gaylor Peak, the effort to payoff ratio is great – a couple of hours and very simple cross-country travel will get you to a summit with incredible views. The hike I did was approximately three miles round trip with about 2000 feet of gain – not quite as easy as Gaylor but definitely easy by Sierra standards.

To access the peak, follow 120 east through Yosemite. Once past the Tioga Pass gate, look for the turnoff to Saddlebag Lake (just past Tioga Pass Resort). Turn left on this rough dirt road and follow it about 1.5 miles to the parking for the Gardisky Lake trailhead. Park here, then find the trail across the road. Follow this steep dusty trail up the hillside until you reach the meadows before the lake (about 0.5 miles into the hike). From here you leave the trail and head cross-country to the summit of Tioga Peak.

Use trail on NW ridge
Use trail on NW ridge

The peak will be obvious, the prominent point to the southeast. The route is simple – just hike on up the slope to the summit. If you follow the northwestern ridge (see the descent part of my track below) you will find a nice use trail. If you decide to continue on the trail to the lake first and then head up the slope, you’ll have to navigate through some brushy overgrowth (my ascent path). Although any approach is easy, the easiest way to attain the summit is to follow the northwestern ridge.

From the summit, the views into Northern Yosemite, Mount Conness, the lakes along Tioga Pass Road (Tioga and Ellery), and across to Mt Dana are amazing. There is even a peek at Mono Lake. It’s a great perspective on the layout of this part of the Sierra. Another great thing about this hike is the lack of people. I saw a few people hanging out at Gardisky Lake, but only ran into one person on my descent – and it ended up being a friend, neither of us knew the other would be on the peak that day!

Links

Gaylor Peak near Tioga Pass

View from Gaylor Peak
View from Gaylor Peak

We spent last Friday through Sunday in the Sierra. There was an overnight backpack in Cottonwood Basin scheduled for Saturday and Sunday, so on Friday morning we decided to do a short acclimation hike somewhere near Tioga Pass (around 10k feet). It was the perfect opportunity to get up a peak I’d been wanting to climb for some time – Gaylor Peak.

Gaylor Peak is a short hike (~1 mile one way) with about 1000 feet of gain. It begins at the Gaylor Lakes trailhead right next to the Tioga Pass entry station for Yosemite National Park. There is trail for half of the approach, and the second half is easy class 1 cross-country from the saddle above Gaylor Lakes. The summit is a nice rocky ridge with plenty of room for people, though we were the only ones up there on Friday morning.

The best part of this hike is the views. The payoff to effort ratio is great – a mere hour’s hike will get you the kind of views that you’d expect from the bigger peaks in the park. The views into the Gaylor and Granite Lakes basin below is expansive and there is a 360 degree view of the peaks of the Yosemite sub-ranges.

Use this hike as a short stretch of the legs when passing through Tioga, or as a warm up hike for one of the bigger peaks like Dana, Conness, or Lyell. It’s so easy I’m surprised there aren’t more people who hike this one. Don’t miss it!

Links

Yosemite News: Tioga Pass, No-Fee Weekend, and WATER

It’s a big weekend in Yosemite. It has been announced on the park website that:

The Tioga Road (Highway 120 through the park) will open on Saturday, June 5, 2010 at 8 am, conditions permitting.

Half Dome, May 2007
Half Dome, May 2007

This is good timing since this weekend is also free admission to Yosemite, as well as more than 100 other National Park properties. If you can’t make it this weekend to enjoy the $20 waiver, don’t worry – there are other opportunities:

  • June 5-6, 2010
  • August 14-15, 2010
  • September 25, 2010
    (Public Lands Day)
  • November 11, 2010
    (Veterans Day)

If you visit the National Parks regularly (you should!) I recommend just getting the annual pass. At $80 per year (not calendar year – it’s good for a year from the date you buy it), it pays for itself quickly if you visit parks like Yosemite which have a $20 entrance fee. I probably make up the $80 in one summer month of driving across Tioga Pass.

Finally, if you DO get the opportunity to head out to Yosemite to enjoy the arrival of summer, be careful out there. This year’s heavy snow and recent warm temperatures have really churned out the water. Rivers and creeks are very high with strong currents. The National Weather Service has even issued a special statement about the high water levels – be careful!

Exploring Owens Valley: Memorial Day 2009

Ellery Lake

From the moment the passes close each fall, I have serious Eastern Sierra withdrawals. Getting from the Bay Area to the “East Side” in the winter involves a long and circuitous route, undoable in a weekend. Even when the passes are open, I expect a minimum of a five hour drive just to get over the mountains to the other side. The East Side is my favorite place in California and every time I visit I am in awe at the beauty, history, and opportunity for adventure that surrounds me. The 395 corridor from Bridgeport to Ridgecrest offers enough activities to keep a curious explorer and outdoor nut busy for ten lifetimes.

The Eastern Sierra is the best point of access to my favorite backpacking terrain – trail heads that start at 9000+ feet and spit you straight into the granite wilderness of the High Sierra. The western slope of the Sierra is gradual and forest covered, but the east slope is steep and dramatic, with sharp granite peaks over 14,000 feet with high desert terrain at their feet. While I’ve always been in awe of the scenery around me when driving through, and dabbled around some of the famous rock climbing areas, it was really last year that I started exploring with the help of some 4×4 geocaching friends. Those two trips really opened my eyes to all of the unique things to do along the east slopes of the Sierra.

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Summer in the Sierra

It’s here! It’s here! Sonora Pass is now officially open, and the Half Dome cables opened for the season today. Rumor is that Tioga Pass will be open by the upcoming holiday weekend. 

Me, I’m sticking to the lowlands around Cache Creek this weekend, hoping to catch some wildflower stragglers. I’ll be off to the mountains next weekend. 

Woo! Summer!