Dan's Outside

I go, I see, I do, I walk, I think, I like…

Sierra Weather: What Was I Thinking?

I’m just back from a nice little near-the-end-of-the-season pack trip out of Tuolumne Meadows – I spent a couple nights out in the Young Lakes basin. I’ll probably write a bit more about the trip and post some photos later, but for now here’s a little story about me and the weather.

I often follow Sierra weather forecasts even when I’m not going to the mountains, but before a pack trip I often consult several sources before I leave, including the Weather Service forecast discussions. By wading though the somewhat technical verbiage and reading between the lines I can often pick up important hints that may affect my choice of destination and – more often – what gear I take.

This past Saturday and again on Sunday morning before I left, the basic thread was that we were going into a fairly benign weather week, with some cloudiness around the Sierra crest on Sunday and then a clearing trend. So I decided to leave my tent at home and take only my bivy, even leaving my small Siltarp in the car to minimize weight.

The short story is that I got the chance to find out what it is like to camp in a bivy in the rain. The longer story follows, and includes a little lesson on what happens when I focus too much on weather reports… and perhaps not enough on the actual weather.

Nothing too surprising happened on Sunday, the first day of my little trip. I knew that there would be some clouds in the afternoon – as a photographer I actually looked forward to this bit of interesting weather – and a slight possibility of some showers. So I wasn’t at all surprised when the clouds thickened and it started to sprinkle a bit by the time I was a mile or so from my camp at Lower Young Lake. This was very minor weather – the sort where you put the pack cover on “just in case it really starts to rain,” and keep the rest of the rain gear near the top of the pack. The sprinkles pretty much passed by the time I set up camp.

The morning was beautiful on day two with blue sky (though hazy, perhaps from those September California fires) and a stray cloud or two. I decided to wander on up past Middle and Upper Young Lakes, and perhaps continue on up to a further lake along the route to Mt. Conness, or possibly travel to nearby Roosevelt Lake. In light of the generally nice weather and bearing in mind the forecast of fair weather I had read before leaving, I chose to travel light, carrying only camera gear and some water – I carried no rain gear or other clothing beyond what I wore.

As I walked the short distance to the two upper lakes I was a bit disappointed in the flat light under increasingly cloudy conditions. Oddly, having that weather forecast so fixed in my mind, I didn’t really even consider that it might rain – in conditions that would have caused me to think about this in normal circumstances. After photographing at the upper lake I thought I’d wander up to a point on a low ridge where I could either continue to the upper lake or head over toward Roosevelt. It was here that I first heard thunder and then felt a few rain drops. I thought something like, “That’s odd. It shouldn’t rain today,” but I decided that it might be a good idea to reconsider my plans and head back toward the lower lake.

A couple minutes later it was raining enough that I had to stop and put a rain cover on my camera bag. As I dropped through a steeper section of the route between the middle and upper lake I realized that I was starting to get significantly wet. I found a partially fallen tree that provided shelter until the rain slacked off a bit, and then continued on for another 15-20 minutes in the drizzle to reach my campsite.

Fortunately, I had zipped my bivy up tight, so my camp was secure and dry. Now I had the opportunity to figure out how to try to keep it that way while getting out of wet clothes and into the bivy. It went something like this: Take boots off and stuff them into a large plastic bag along with pack and few other odds and ends. Move food canister close to bivy in case rain continues during dinner. Open bivy and push sleeping bag away from the opening. Standing in the opening of the bivy, quickly put on additional poly layers and put the damp pants and shirt on over them. Zip into the bivy while lying on top of the sleeping bag and let body heat do its work of drying the damp clothes. Listen to thunder and rain and hail on the bivy. When rain stops, sit up in bivy and fix dinner… and then zip up again for after-dinner showers.

It finally stopped and, yes, a bivy is a decent though cramped shelter in light rain. (Remember to bring a book…)

A lesson learned: Next time pay a whole lot less attention to what the weather is supposed to be and a lot more attention to what it actually is doing.


September 12, 2007 Posted by | Commentary | 2 Comments


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