Tuesday, January 15, 2013

January 2013: Snowshoeing in the Sequoias

 Even though we had done a lot of traveling during 2012, we were still hoping to take another camping trip to the Sequoias during the first part of January.  (To quote Mae West, "Too much of a good thing is wonderful!")  Unfortunately, the weather didn't cooperate: the forecast (correctly) predicted very icy roads, which would have been unsafe for towing. So we reluctantly planned to "motel camp" at Wuksatchi Lodge, near Lodgepole, since the northern portion of the Generals Highway was closed.

At the last minute, however, the Park Service plowed the entire highway from north to south, which enabled us to stay at Montecito Sequoia Lodge (just south of Grant Grove). For our purposes, Montecito was the perfect place to stay: good food is provided, the accommodations are pleasant, many of the guests are interesting people, and the location is excellent. Since the highway was open throughout the park, we were able to get to trailheads that are ordinarily unreachable during the winter. And since there was plenty of snow (both on the roads and in the forests), we knew that there wouldn't be very many people on the trails.

January 6: We arrived in a snowstorm and promptly grabbed some inner tubes:

This video will bring a smile to your face:

After dinner, we took a walk on the highway in the fresh-fallen snow.  (There was no traffic at all, of course.)  The sky had completely cleared; even though there was no moon, the stars were so bright that they reflected off of the snow.  It was very easy to see the trees and the roadway.

January 7:  It was a beautiful, cold, clear, morning – as we hopped into the truck, we noticed that the windows were covered with "frost flowers," not a common sight for Southern Californians:

We headed south down the highway, which was covered in a couple of inches of new snow. We didn't see anyone at all, in half an hour of driving. We  had a little difficulty strapping on our snowshoes – the bindings were frozen.  (After that, we learned to bring the snowshoes into the lodge  each evening.)  We started up the Little Baldy trail, which starts at about 7300 feet and then zigzags up the mountain to a dome at over 8000 feet. Although we were breaking trail, it wasn't too difficult, because the snow was dry and fluffy:

Up  on the ridge, the trail was completely obscured by snowdrifts, but the GPS helped us stay on track. Speaking of tracks, we found unmistakable evidence that the bears don't sleep solidly throughout the winter –  check out the claw marks on these huge pawprints:

As we approached the top, the Great Western Divide was on full display:

On the lee side of the dome, the wind had braided the snow to form intricate "sastrugi,” taken from a Russian word meaning "grooves:"

Up on the dome, in lieu of Felice's usual "boot shot," we took a "snowshoe shot" of the eastern skyline:

At the summit, facing west, we could see that the entire San Joaquin Valley was filled with fog:

Here's a short video panorama taken from the top of the dome:

Late that afternoon, on our way back to Montecito, we stopped off at Lost Grove to explore the portion of the grove uphill from the highway, which is ordinarily off-limits during the summer, since foot traffic could damage the shallow root systems. But with a deep snow cover, there was no danger of harming the trees.  We took our usual "tiny people at the base of enormous trees" shots:

That evening, we were treated to a spectacular sunset from the deck at Montecito:

January 8: For many years, it has been our fantasy to visit Muir Grove on snowshoes. (I know that this isn't a very exotic fantasy, but it's a sensible and realistic fantasy.)  Surprisingly, I discovered that if you Google "snowshoeing in Muir Grove" (in quotation marks), you would get absolutely no results at all, at least until now.

I think that there are several reasons for this – first, when there is enough snow for snowshoeing, the highway is usually closed, and Muir Grove is completely unreachable. Second, it is a fairly strenuous trip on snowshoes – 6 miles round-trip from the highway (because the campground is closed), with plenty of elevation loss on the way down to the grove. And third, really adventurous winter athletes (such as backcountry skiers) would not be interested in visiting the grove – paradoxically, it's not a sufficiently difficult trip for those kinds of people. So, apparently, no one has ever published anything on the Web about snowshoeing to the grove, until now.

Anyway, for once, all of the stars aligned: the highway was open, there was enough snow (but not too much), and there was no avalanche danger.  Once again, on the long drive from Montecito to the trailhead, we didn't see anybody at all.

The first part of the hike downhill through the campground was fairly easy, although we knew that we would have to come back up the hill in the afternoon. The snow was very sparkly but fairly heavy; as the day wore on (and got warmer), the snow got even heavier. We found the trailhead with little difficulty:

But right at the trailhead, we had some difficulty finding the trail itself, since it was completely buried in deep snow.  Thankfully, the GPS was very helpful in pointing the way.  Once we got ourselves on track, we were able to follow the subtle folds in the terrain, where the trail crossed the snowy slopes --  if you look closely, you can see that the mountainside levels off just slightly in front of Felice:

The granite boulders covered with snow formed small mounds of of whipped cream:

At one point we saw icicles mixed with sap hanging from a log; the tips were illuminated by the slanting sunlight:

We came to a couple of potential avalanche chutes, which did not appear particularly dangerous. The snow was very sticky and not too deep. As a precaution, though, we crossed the chutes separately, walking on the inside of the trail:

The stream crossings were a little easier than I had thought they would be.  Although there were snow bridges across the streams, we didn't rely on them – we just hopped across the streams, which were very low (since most of the water was still frozen). When the sun rose a little higher, the snow that had built up on the branches started to drop off onto us and onto the the trail; the blobs of snow were wet enough to form snowballs, rolling downhill and gathering layers like cinnamon rolls:

As the day warmed up (into the 40s), the snow started to stick to the bottoms of our snowshoes, especially below the "bearclaws" under our feet, forming enormous heavy lumps. Every few minutes, we had to clear them by whacking the snowshoes with our poles. Anyone contemplating this snowshoe trip would be better off in colder weather, to avoid the clumps.

After about three hours of slogging, we got to the grove, which was very peaceful:

This is almost the same shot, edited in Lightroom:

The reddish trunks of the sequoias were illuminated by the sunlight reflected from the snow;  sparkling ice crystals were falling from the branches far above. We found a convenient log, cleared off most of the snow, and ate lunch in absolute silence, surrounded by the big trees.

 On our way back, we stopped off at the granite dome across the canyon from the grove -- you can see the bulbous tops of the sequoias on the ridge behind me:

In the afternoon, the trek back to the highway was pretty strenuous, due to the clumps of snow sticking to our snowshoes, followed by a steady uphill through deep wet snow over the last couple of miles.   Before the last difficult half-mile, we  took a short rest by a little stream:

In terms of total effort, it felt like we had done a 12 mile hike on dry ground, but it was absolutely worthwhile.

January 9:  There was a storm predicted for the late afternoon, so we decided to stay close to Montecito. We took the Big Baldy route, which leaves right from camp.  The first part of the hike was along groomed forest roads, which made it a lot easier. But then the trail forked steeply uphill to the ridge.   From the crest, we could see the Coast Range, more than 100 miles west of us – that's the dark bumpy line above the cloudy San Joaquin Valley in the photo below:

Even though it was cold and windy up on the ridge at 8000 feet, there was a tiny but determined spider marching across the snow:

Up at the summit, at 8200 feet, the ridge is just wide enough to provide some sense of security, although the cliffs drop away very sharply on both sides:

From the top, we could see north into Kings Canyon – Tombstone Ridge on the left includes the Obelisk, and Buck Rock is the granite pinnacle on the right:

January 10:  Overnight, a very cold snowstorm had arrived, as predicted. There was not a lot of snow, but it was very dry and fluffy. Amazingly, the Park Service did not close the highway. We packed up and left Montecito and drove (slowly and carefully) south to the Lodgepole area, through a few inches of snow on top of a layer of black ice.  The Lodgepole Campground was closed, which was a surprise – I thought it was open all year. The Marble Fork of the Kaweah River runs through the campground:

We parked near the General Sherman tree and strapped on our snowshoes -- Felice traipsed across the snowfield so I could take my "big tree/little person" shot. It's unusual to be able to see a whole sequoia tree:

We headed out on the Congress Trail and were again able to go "off trail," because the snowshoes would not injure the roots of the trees:

Along the trail, we came across a snowy root ball:

There was hardly anyone in the Giant Forest Grove, which was a pleasant change from the summertime crowds. Eventually, we reached the Senate Group, our favorite cluster in this grove:

This picture really captures the feel of being in Giant Forest in a snowstorm  –  columns of huge reddish trunks stretch off into the distance:

It got much colder and windier, and it started to snow pretty heavily – I discovered that it is possible to choke on falling snow if you inhale at exactly the wrong time:

This next clip captures the feel of snow falling against the trunk of a sequoia:

Somehow, toward the end of the day, a button was pushed on the camera, converting the video from large format to compact. Nevertheless, this clip captures the sound of a small stream:

As we made our way back down toward the Sherman Tree, Felice stood behind a tree that had been split by lightning:

She then took a mirror-image picture of me through the same cleft -- if you look carefully at this picture, you can see the falling snow against the fire-blackened trunk of the tree:

That afternoon, we left the sequoias, headed home down Highway 198. It was very twisty and icy – even with my special off-road tires, the back end of the truck fishtailed once, just a little. Thankfully, there was absolutely no traffic, due to the terrible weather.  As we reached Three Rivers, we were greeted by a vivid rainbow:

Given the bad weather, we were not surprised to find that the Grapevine on Interstate 5 was closed by snow, and we had to detour through Mojave, which meant an extra hour of driving. But the opportunity to snowshoe in Giant Forest, in the falling snow, was more than worth the trouble.