Last weekend I decided to do one of my favorite Tuolumne Meadows area hikes – the Mono Pass trail. This trail starts below Tioga Pass, just inside the park, and goes out the Sierra crest near Mount Gibb, passing through forest and beautiful alpine meadows on the way.
As I loaded up my pack – filling with a lot of photography equipment – it was a beautiful, clear morning. The previous day I had hiked out toward North Dome and carried what turned out to be too much extra clothing. Since I usually tend to over-prepare for the weather, and was perhaps more aware of this than usual having done so only 24 hours earlier, I decided to just take what I was wearing. That’s right, no rain gear.
Is there a better way to ensure that it will rain?
About an hour into the hike, near the junction with the trail to Spillway Lake, I was pleased to see some white, fluffy clouds appear – they relieved the uniform blue sky and occasionally produced a welcome bit of shade. I began to consider how I would incorporate them in photographs near the pass.
I reached the area of the pass at about 1:00 and wandered over to the historic mine site that sits on the pass. (I had visited the mine remnants before, but this time I found out a bit more about it. The site is older than I had thought, first being used in the 1860s and abandoned in about 1890.)
I sat down on a comfortable rock to drink some water, have a snack, and look around for photographic subjects. I noticed that the fluffy white clouds had morphed into something much darker and a bit menacing to my south, in the direction of Parker Pass. I figured this meant that there might be some thunder and perhaps a few showers by late afternoon when I returned to my car. No worries!
Not five minutes later it started to sprinkle. I thought “that’s a bit surprising, but it will stop in couple of minutes.” It didn’t stop. The drops became larger. I began to think about my lack of rain gear. As I sat there munching on my snack there was a sudden clap of thunder right overhead – what I call “flash bang” thunder because it is so close that there is almost no delay between the flash of lightning and the bang of thunder. A few minutes later another clap of thunder exploded right overhead.
OK, time to leave! By the time I had the pack reloaded and on my back, the light rain was becoming steady. Two thoughts became prominent in my mind. One, I had left my tent windows open back in Tuolumne Meadows – I hoped the rain didn’t head that way! Two, I was either going to get lucky and watch the showers move on, or I was about to get very wet on the nearly two-hour walk back out.
I got lucky. Although the trail was wet all the way down, there was constant thunder, and I could see rain coming down all around… it barely sprinkled on me until I got to my car. As I loaded the car it began to come down in earnest.
My tent was not so lucky. Back in Tuolumne it had rained, and hard.
Lessons learned and relearned. Never leave camp without closing everything up and putting all of my gear away. And, what the heck, toss that lightweight parka in the pack!
Coming in to work this morning, the radio station reported that snow chain requirements are up on highway 80 across Donner Summit, and that eastbound traffic is being held at Colfax! Wait a minute – this is supposed to be spring!
While reports say that the overall weather in much of the rest of the world is warmer than normal so far this year, here in northern and central California this has been anything but a warm May. One report on a Bay Area television station earlier this week suggested that by the end of the month one quarter or a third of the days of May will have seen some precipitation.
I’m not complaining though. I prefer cool and “interesting” weather to the boring and consistently beautiful and warm weather of summer in the part of the world, and I welcome the possibility of a very green and wildflower-filled summer in the Sierra this year!
Being a regular Death Valley visitor – and probably a Death Valley return visitor in the next month or two – I like to keep up with the conditions in the park. If you aren’t familiar with the place you might envision static, hot, dry desert conditions in all seasons. You would be very wrong! I’ve most often visited around the beginning of April and I’ve seen everything from hot (upper 90 degree range) to snow (more than once!) and on several occasions rain and a few memorable dust storms. When rains do occur it isn’t unusual for there to be floods, some of epic proportions. (Within the last decade there have been several very serious floods than have led to major damage and deaths.)
I’ve been thinking about this during the past week’s huge storms in the Southwest – storms that have brought record low pressure systems to much of the area, created tornadoes, dropped snow to low elevations across several states, and dropped a lot of precipitation. Recently, photographer Bob Young shared with me the web address of a great resource for current conditions in the Death Valley area. (Thanks, Bob!)
From the report I read there today, it sounds like the storms hit DV fairly hard. Many (most?) back-country routes have been closed by rain, mud, and/or snow – including some of the popular locations such as Titus Canyon and the Racetrack. I get the impression that some of the low lying areas that can become flooded during wet years may indeed be flooding. While I don’t know the full extent of the conditions, I’m wondering if we might see some interesting and unusual water “events” this year and whether this might produce another exceptional wildflower bloom in a month or two.
An unusual-for-October strong storm is to come onshore in California in the next 24 hours or so. While the snow levels are forecast to be quite high – around 9000′ – this storm could well close several passes if things pan out as forecast.
The folks at the Dweeb Report include an ominous sentence in their most recent update: “WINDS WITH THIS SYSTEM OVER THE CREST COULD REACH BETWEEN 120MPH AND 140MPH OVER THE CENTRAL SIERRA.”
Folks still are backpacking in mid-October, and I think there may be more than a few of them cowering in their tents for 36 hours or so early this week. Coupled with close to freezing temperatures at mid-level elevations, and with the potential for wet snow in large quantities at the higher elevations, this is serious business.
Starting about this time of year, many of us outdoor types are susceptible to speculations about the upcoming winter weather. Most of us are looking for something “interesting” – as in record-breaking rain/snow, an unusually early start to the season, and so forth.
Those who enjoy the seasonal speculation will appreciate the reports that El Niño conditions are returning for the upcoming season. Adding some uncertainty – but making the speculation all the more fun – El Niño can bring anything from above normal to below normal precipitation to the central/northern California area where I live. Apparently a weak El Niño can bring reduced rainfall, while a strong event (like the one I recall from the mid-1990s) can produce record-breaking conditions.
The current prediction? Conditions are still evolvomg, but at this point it looks like a weak to moderate event.
This is certainly no surprise, given the “interesting” weather this weekend – and I guessed earlier that this might happen – but according to a number of sources, including the NPS itself, the opening of Glacier Point Road, originally scheduled for yesterday, has been delayed until this coming Monday, May 4 due to weather concerns.
Some might wonder whether the weather could delay the opening of Tioga Pass Road. My guess is “no.” First, they generally seem to open the road near the end of a week, if memory serves, so there must be some leeway about the actual opening day. Second, it is not at all unusual to get a bit of “shoulder season” (fall and spring) snow that melts quickly in a day or two. The only fly in the ointment here is that this damp weather could last into the first half of next week. If that happens, I suppose that it is possible that road clearing work might be delayed – but my hunch is that this won’t end up being the case.
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