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!
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.
Sometime between mid-October and (usually) early November, the first real winter storms start to arrive in California and the Sierra Nevada – and we move from occasional temporary closings on the highest passes to the annual winter closures.
Judging from the current predictions, travelers need to keep a watch out starting next week. Right now it sounds like a storm system may come through California that has the potential to drop much more than the “dustings” of snow what we’ve had in the high country up until now – quite possibly enough to close passes like Tioga, Sonora, and Ebbetts for a long time or even for the season, depending on what follows.
According to a variety of reports that have been floating around for the past couple of weeks, Yosemite National Park’s Glacier Point Road is scheduled to open tomorrow, May 1 “conditions permitting.” That last pair of words may well be important this season, as a respectable storm is scheduled to pass through northern California on Friday.
My bet at this point is that the NPS will delay the official opening of the road a bit.
Informal updates on Tioga Pass Road indicate that a decent chunk of the road from the west has been cleared, and I’m betting that other portions have also been cleared. The NPS won’t say in advance when it will open and I haven’t heard any unofficial announcements (I sometimes manage to pick up on a few of these a week or so before the opening) but it is likely to be at least a few more weeks. I’m betting against the first half of May, but I’m pretty confident about the second half.
Update: Right after posting this I saw an update on Tioga Road at Yosemite blog. The short story is that they have made it to the May Lake turnoff.
I spent about four days in the Death Valley National Park area last week, doing photography in familiar and new places. This has become something of a spring break tradition over the past few years. (Photography from the trip has started appearing at my photography web site and will continue to do so for the next week or so.)
On the final day of this trip I was more or less run out of the park by a huge dust storm. I’ve experienced several of these in the past, but this one pretty much takes the cake. Due to a lucky turn of events in the morning I was able to exit the park faster than I might have otherwise.
I woke up at 5:00 a.m. so that I could head to my planned photography location well before dawn. My plan was to shoot until mid-morning and then swing back through the campground at Stovepipe Wells to strike camp before heading out of the park later in the day. But because I got up quickly I found myself with a few extra minutes, and I changed plans and struck my camp in the dark before heading off for photography. I was very glad about this a few hours later!
Before dawn I arrived at the iconic Zabriskie Point. I hadn’t necessarily planned to shoot there, but I thought there might be some interesting clouds on this morning, and that can make for something very special at Zabriskie. Turned out that the clouds did not materialize, but despite this development and the tremendously windy conditions I managed to spend a productive couple of hours shooting. As I finished up I noticed that a few scattered clouds were developing over the ridges to the west, east, and north – but this was more or less in the forecast.
As I drove back up the Valley toward Stovepipe Wells the clouds began to get a bit thicker… and I noticed a very ominous haze around the summit of Tucki Mountain above Stovepipe Wells, a haze that I recognize as the warning sign of a dust storm. (I’ve experienced two in the past, so I have at least a bit of experience with them.) As I continued on up the Valley it became apparent that there was a huge, thick, dark cloud of nasty looking dust all the way across the Valley before Stovepipe, and just before the road turned left to head west across the Valley I drove into it.
It immediately became twilight dark, strong winds buffeted the car forcing me to slow to 45 mph or so, and the sand was streaming across the roadway. Visibility became quite bad as I passed the Mesquite Dunes area and at Stovepipe Wells it was dark and no one appeared to be outside. I was very glad that I had packed up earlier – it would have been a real mess trying to strike my tent and pack the car in this meteorological awfulness!
The photo below shows the beginnings of the dust storm across the Valley near Tucki Mountain, with one final glimpse of blue sky showing through.
Looks like snow is what we may get in the Sierra this weekend. While it isn’t unusual to get a few dustings in late September and the beginning of October, this storm looks a bit more robust that usual.
If all goes as planned, I may be able to offer a first-person report early next week.
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