Sunday, June 01, 2014

No Meteors, But Lots of Snow: Northeastern Sierra, May, 2014

(You can click on a picture to enlarge it and then hit "escape" to get back to the text.  Also, the videos are in HD -- feel free to click on the gear symbol and select HD and full screen.)

Even though we had just returned from our Lone Pine trip in early May, we left again for the Eastern Sierra on May 20, because we wanted to see the much-anticipated meteor shower on the night of the 23rd.  As everyone now knows, the meteors decided to boycott the event, but we had a wonderful trip anyway.

Tuesday, May 20:  We were intending to spend the first night in an RV park in Lee Vining, for the sake of convenience. But just as we passed June Lake on a stormy afternoon, Carson Peak poked out of the clouds, covered in fresh snow. We just couldn't resist – we impulsively turned off the highway and found a campsite in the Oh Ridge Campground with a great view of the peak.  (Supposedly, it is called Oh Ridge because the view is so spectacular -- “oh!”)  As it turns out, that view from the highway was the last time we saw Carson Peak: just after we got settled, it began to snow heavily for the rest of the evening -- big, wet flakes floating down like clumps of feathers.

Wednesday, May 21:  When we got up, we discovered that most of the snow had melted, but we couldn't resist this shot of the new snow on the sagebrush, thinking that this would be the last snow we would see for the year (wrong!):

As planned, we headed up to Conway Summit, north of Lee Vining; we unhitched the trailer and turned up into the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest to scout for a boondocking site off of a forest road.  Although there was about 6 inches of snow on the ground, we had no trouble -- the truck trundled along slowly in 4 wheel drive.  After some careful exploring, we found a wonderful campsite at 9500 feet on the barren crest of a lateral moraine (the huge, long gravel hill that was left by a melting glacier).  No shade, but the campsite had unobstructed 360° views of the surrounding mountains and valleys -- perfect for watching nonexistent meteors.

After the scouting trip, we returned to the trailer, hitched up, and towed it up the mountain through the snow, following our own tracks back to the campsite:

The access road to the campsite was rough (just a "two track"), with lots of big sharp rocks sticking up through the snow. But because we had added extra ground clearance to our trailer (by “flipping” the axle), we had no trouble clearing the rocks, although we had to drive slowly and carefully.  The truck pulled the trailer through the snowdrifts with no problem, even though some of the hills were fairly steep.

As soon as we pulled in to the campsite, the sky cleared, and this was the view from inside the front door of the trailer:

This is a quick panoramic video taken from our campsite:

The view from this campsite was astonishing -- we could see for around a hundred miles to the north, the east, and the south (perhaps ten thousand square miles of California and Nevada!), perched three thousand feet above the surrounding mountains and deserts, almost as if we were hovering in a helicopter.

Every morning and afternoon, we would spend a lot of time just staring out at the clouds and their shadows gliding across the landscape, and at the successive ranges of snowy mountains receding into the distance.  We listened to the sudden silence between the gusts of wind pummeling the trailer.  In the evenings, as we sat reading after dinner, we would watch the sunset, and then the mountains would turn pink and purple.  Jaw-dropping, breathtaking, stunning, hypnotic, dramatic, sweeping, magical:  insert additional superlatives here.

That afternoon, just as we finished setting up, the snowstorm returned, to our surprise.  But we were ready for it -- we suited up in our wind pants and Gore-Tex jackets and our waterproof boots.  (We quickly discovered that the air was so thin that bending over to tie our hiking boots and gaiters was a significant effort.)  We then hiked up the side of the mountain, just to see what we could see. We came to the ruins of an old miner's cabin:

That afternoon, back at the trailer, we tried to light the water heater. But because of the wind booming against the side of the trailer from the north, plus the very thin air at 9500 feet, the heater would not stay lit.  Felice cleverly solved the problem: we just parked the car right next to the water heater to block the wind, and the open flap allowed more air to get to the oxygen-starved burner:

(Note the two green jerry cans full of water under the water heater -- they are keeping the flap from flapping.)

The wind continued to build, slapping the mudflap violently against the tire, something we had never heard before.  I had to put a heavy crate up against the mudflap to keep it from making so much noise :

(The orange blocks under the tire are Lynx Levelers, fondly known as "the Legos.")

Late that afternoon, the storm appeared to be clearing out (as predicted by the National Weather Service), revealing the snow-covered mountains at the head of the canyon:

But -- surprise! -- the storm wasn't clearing out – it was just taking a brief rest.  Contrary to the weather service predictions, we were buffeted by a howling blizzard all night long -- when we would peek out of the door, the snow was flying horizontally.  Amazingly, the trailer hardly shook at all in the sudden gusts of wind; we had reinforced the stabilizer jacks with extra tensioning bars, and they passed the test easily.

The storm wasn't really that cold – probably in the mid-20s – and we were surprisingly warm inside the trailer, even without running the heat (except at shower time, of course). The trailer is insulated on all four walls, the ceiling, and the floor with a thick layer of Styrofoam, exactly like an ice chest on wheels.

With our Russian lamb’s wool hats, and lots of warm clothing, and two hot water bottles for Felice under her blanket, we were perfectly comfortable.  Remember, too, that the trailer is very tiny inside -- less than 11 feet by 7 feet and 6'4" high -- so that our body heat is enough to warm it up somewhat.  We were very pleased with our new Maxxair vent cover – we were able to keep the vent open all night for ventilation. No snow got in, and the vent did not flap in the wind at all.

Thursday, May 22:  The trailer was cold and dark, because the new snow blanketed the windows; so we hibernated under the down comforter like polar bears till almost 8 a.m. (which is very late for us).  We peeked outside and saw several inches of new snow, with storm clouds swirling around the trailer:

After our typically grim and Spartan breakfast of scrambled eggs with melted four cheese blend, whole grain toast and butter, pumpkin coffee cake, and artisanal pour-over Starbucks French Roast coffee (not freshly ground, so this was truly Spartan), we suited up in our snow gear (full “battle rattle”) and hiked up toward Dunderberg Lake.  It was snowing hard during the morning -- cold and very windy.  Notice the snowshoes on the back of Felice’s pack -- they came in handy later that day:

Around noon, it started to clear.  As we reached the 10,500 foot level, the snow got deeper and softer:

When we approached the lake, the peak (at more than 12,000 feet) emerged from the clouds:

The snow got so deep that Felice decided to strap on her snowshoes, thus packing the trail for me -- very nice!  Up at the lake, we could still see the peak through the clouds:

As we headed back down the trail, the clouds cleared over Mono Lake:

But the Bridgeport area to our north was still obscured by dark thunderstorms rolling up the valley:

From our perch on the shoulder of the mountain, we could look down and see the trailer on the ridge a thousand feet below us -- in the first shot, Felice’s pole is pointing at the trailer.  The second shot is a blowup of the trailer itself -- it is the white cube on the brown dirt road, right at the tip of her pole:

When we got back down to the trailer, most of the new snow around it had melted, but there was still plenty on the mountains behind us:

And there was a lot of new snow on Wheeler Peak, north of Bridgeport:

It was very pleasant to sit in the shelter of the warm trailer, enjoying snacks and cocktails, just watching the squall lines sweeping off Mono Lake and over the ridges to our east -- this was taken through the front window:

In the late afternoon, the light kept changing on the peaks all around us:

We bundled up in our Russian hats to watch the sunset:

(This is how we know we are getting spoiled:  compared to other recent Eastern Sierra trips, the sunsets on this trip were not particularly outstanding -- no lenticular ice clouds.  Ho-hum.)

Friday, May 23:  Even though the morning was pretty darn cold (maybe in the low 30s), I forced myself out of a warm bed to watch the sunrise hit the peaks -- I figure I can sleep anytime, but I can't see this every day:

We decided to head out to the Green Creek area, since it was at a somewhat lower elevation, so that the snow in the really high country would have another day to melt.  This was the view from the highway of the range between Lee Vining and Bridgeport -- Dunderberg Peak is on the left, Kavanaugh Ridge is in the middle, and Monument Ridge and the Green Creek basin are on the right:

As we hiked up Green Creek, we could see the northwest face of Kavanaugh Ridge (above the tip of Felice's pole) and Dunderberg Peak -- we had been hiking on the east side of that ridge the day before.  It was fun to be so familiar with the terrain that we could recognize it from the back, like an old friend:

When we got to Green Lake, there was nobody else around -- that's Gabbro Peak on the left and Glines Canyon in the middle:

This is a quick video panorama of the Green Lake area:

We tried to head up toward East Lake, but we could not cross the creek due to the snowmelt.  That evening, back at the campsite, we made elaborate preparations to watch the meteors, with reclining chairs, heavy sleeping bags, and a battery-powered electric blanket all set to go.  (As it turns out, we did not need the electric blanket -- it was hooked to an inverter, which was hooked to a cigarette lighter socket, which was hooked to a spare deep cycle battery.  I tested it at home, and it worked just fine; the battery would have powered the blanket for several hours.)

We sat outside for about an hour, from 10 pm to 11 pm.  We saw a couple of fairly ordinary meteors, and then a thick layer of high clouds drifted in from Nevada.  We decided to go in, go to sleep, and check again in the middle of the night.  I did, and the sky was completely covered by clouds -- I was very disappointed.

Of course, we did not know it at the time, but the clouds had done us a big favor -- the meteor shower never materialized, and we would have sat outside in the cold wind for a long time for nothing.  So the clouds at least allowed us to get a good night’s rest!  

Saturday, May 24:  Even more snow had melted off the mountains during the night -- this is the view from our breakfast table:

We headed south to Lundy Canyon near Lee Vining.  Although we have hiked the Lundy trail many times, we had never seen it in snow, and it looked very different:

The first wildflowers were just appearing -- an expert has told me that this is "Hackelia micrantha," commonly known as "Jessica sticktight" -- what an odd and excellent nickname:

Some of the aspens had just leafed out; others were still dormant.  The absence of leaves meant that we could see the trunks (and the mountains!) much more clearly than we usually could, and we were struck by the number and size of the ancient aspens.  This one had a circumference of 10 feet -- Felice, the designated tree-hugger, has a wingspan in excess of 5 feet (perhaps as much as 5 feet and one inch):

Even though this was a drought year, the cascades at the head of the canyon were flowing vigorously, probably because of the storm over the last few days:

And now, the requisite boot shot:

This is a quick video of the cascade:

Unlike the usual gray Sierra granite, most of the rock in Lundy Canyon is ferrous, giving the cascades a reddish-orange color:

We could not make our way up the talus slope toward Lake Helen in the 20 Lakes area of Yosemite -- there was too much snow on the trail, and it was too dangerous because of the steep slope.  So Felice was forced to hang out by the cascade while I fooled around with my camera equipment:

We saw several beaver dams, two beaver lodges, and lots of evidence of trees damaged or cut by beavers:

We could see that they used their chisel-like teeth to gnaw away at the trunks until the tree would fall -- notice the freshly-cut wood chips on the ground:

After cutting the smaller trees, they drag them away to form part of the dam, leaving the stumps -- I wonder whether they work in teams to drag away the bigger trunks:

We were also trying to puzzle out exactly how they cut through the tree -- look carefully at the following photo, and you will see that the “chisel cuts” appear to be mostly horizontal (across the axis of the trunk), rather than vertical (along the axis) -- how could this be true? I pictured the beavers standing on the ground and gnawing on the tree, cutting vertically (not horizontally) with their powerful teeth:

When I got home, I looked at a few Youtube videos of beavers chewing on trees, and the mystery was quickly resolved:  the beavers stand on their hind legs and then turn their heads sideways, leaving horizontal gouges!  Beavers have flexible necks -- who knew?

When we returned to the trailer late that afternoon, we found that the wind had knocked over our chairs; so instead of our usual photo of “cocktail hour in the camp chairs,” this will have to suffice:

(We never did get to sit outside for afternoon snack time -- too cold, too windy.)

We took a walk after sunset -- even more snow had melted off of the mountains, and the last rays of sunlight were hitting the peaks:

Long after sunset, there was still a little light in the western sky, but the stars were already out:

(Felice said, "Next time, maybe we will move the truck out of the shot."  But that would be like taking a family portrait without the dog.  Although we don't have a dog.)

Sunday, May 25:  We figured that this would be the day we would tackle the strenuous Virginia Lakes hike, which goes up to a summit over 11,000 feet high -- some of the snow had melted, and it was going to be a warm day.  At the trailhead, we saw a bald eagle perched in a high tree overlooking the lake, ready to pounce on a trout:

Just a few minutes away from the trailhead, we came to Blue Lake; there was no wind, which meant that we could see the reflection of the hill on the south shore:

For the sake of a photo, Felice bravely crawled into a decrepit miner’s cabin and peered out of the window:

The reflections of the mountains were even more vivid at Cooney Lake, at around 10,200 feet:

Above Cooney Lake and Frog Lake, the trail was mostly hidden by deep snow.  We had to work together, using the GPS and the terrain to find the trail, which was time-consuming but really fun. There were very few tracks to follow (since almost no one had come up this far since the snowstorm), and all of those tracks were useless and misleading, made by folks with even less information than we had.  Route-finding in the snow gave us a sense of being “explorers.”  (We knew it was just pretend -- it was impossible to get really lost -- but it was challenging, so it became a game.)

Soon, the snow became so deep and so soft that Felice strapped on her snowshoes -- the aptly-named Black Mountain (at around 11,700 feet) looms above her:

I decided not to wear my snowshoes, since my huge boots were not sinking into the snow too badly:

It took us several strenuous hours to trudge up to the summit at 11,000 feet, but it was worth every minute -- much of the North Yosemite backcountry was spread out to the west, and the sky at that altitude was a deep dark blue:

This is a quick video panorama of the summit area:

Remember that shot of the summit of Black Mountain towering over Felice?  Here she is, not far from that same summit:

And of course, no summit would be complete without the obligatory “two boots" shot -- that is Summit Lake between our feet, completely frozen over, far below us at 10,200 feet:

To our north, we could see Hoover Lakes (on the left side of the picture) and East Lake (on the right, covered in ice), with Epidote Peak between them:

In this panorama, Excelsior Peak is on the left, at just over 12,000 feet, with Grey Butte in the center, back behind Summit Lake:

It is always a surprise when we stumble across metamorphic rock on a Sierra peak, since the Sierra is granite (an igneous rock).  But the sedimentary “country” rock was here first and was then given a rough ride up to the sky, as the hot granite pushed up from below.  The rock in the shot below started out as ordinary ferrous shale -- I am not sure what to call it after it has been heated, compressed, tilted 90 degrees, uplifted thousands of feet, and severely weathered, other than perhaps "metamorphically mistreated:"

Heading back down toward the trailhead, we could plainly see the deep U- shaped valley spread out in front of us.  The glacier had carved a huge trough out of solid rock.  The valley was about a mile across, a mile deep, and almost ten miles long:  imagine a river of solid ice, crammed with huge craggy boulders, flowing very slowly to the east, groaning as it gouged chunks out of the surrounding mountains, the meltwater filling the Mono Basin to a depth of hundreds of feet:

The trip downhill was a lot easier than the way up -- not only because it was down, but because we had already found the trail and could retrace our steps.  Felice found an even quicker way down -- this is a "must see:"

(That movie tells you everything you need to know about Felice.)  Like a true backcountry skier, she took a moment at the end of her run to appreciate the elegant track she had just carved:

Down at Frog Lake, there were actually frogs in the frigid meltwater, making quite a racket.  Felice caught this little guy napping -- he was about two inches long:

When we got back to the trailer, we discovered that our boots and our knee-high gaiters were pretty wet.  But the campsite was infested with adorable chipmunks that had a bad habit of chewing on anything left outside -- so we hung our boots on an awning pole to dry in the wind:

Not surprisingly, we could tell that even more of the snow had melted off the mountains during the warm day:

Monday, May 26:  I got out of bed at 1 a.m. and took a quick look outside -- the stars were shockingly brilliant, and the breeze was warm, so I got dressed and stepped out to take photos.  This shot is not fake -- nothing artificial added -- but neither does it really represent what the unaided eye would see:  the shutter was open for 30 seconds at an ISO of 1600, gathering a lot more light than the human eye could.  Also, I edited the photo in Lightroom to boost the visibility of the stars and the intricate structure of the Milky Way.  The white patch behind the trailer is snow on the mountain across the canyon from our campsite:

After my midnight photo session, I thought I would sleep in -- but no such luck.  Another breathtaking sunrise dragged me out of bed.  This picture captures the early light, but it does not catch the cold dry wind or the sharp smell of the sagebrush:

After breakfast, we reluctantly hitched up and headed south to Rock Creek, between Mammoth and Bishop.  The trailhead is at around 10,000 feet, so we figured (correctly) that there would still be plenty of snow in the canyon:

Long Lake was still frozen, except for a narrow strip along the shore:

As we got up toward the Gem Lakes area, at around 11,000 feet, the snow got deeper and softer -- very tiring.  I was "postholing" to the middle of my calves, but Felice was plunging in up to her knees, and she was not thrilled about it:

You can see from the prior shot how patchy it was -- not suitable for snowshoes, but not great hiking, either.  We had to stop before we got to the Gem Lakes -- the rotten snow meant that we were plunging through to some very sharp talus, instead of onto flat ground, and that was too dangerous.  We headed back down to the cascade below Long Lake, with Mt. Morgan in the background.  Felice was very patient as I fiddled around with my camera equipment -- this shot required a neutral density filter, an f-stop of 29, and an exposure of more than a full second:

Bonus Feature:  Watch the Snow Melt! 

We took many shots of the surrounding mountains, mostly because we could not stop ourselves from doing so.  But you can see over the span of several days that a lot of the snow melted!  This is what passes for entertainment when you are camping in the boondocks:

Wednesday, May 21:

Thursday, May 22:

Friday, May 23:

Saturday, May 24:

Sunday, May 25:

Monday, May 26: