Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Eastern Sierra: December 2017

(Remember that you can click on the photos to see a slideshow, and then hit "escape" to get back to the text. Also, a note on the photo credits: as always, both Felice and I took these shots, and many of my shots resulted from her suggestions. I do the photo editing using Lightroom; my goal is to reproduce just what we saw, as faithfully as possible.)

After three months (!!) without a camping trip, we managed to get away for a few days to the Eastern Sierra, to do some snow-hiking and to see the Geminid meteor shower.

December 10:  Our first campsite was in the Horton Creek area, west of Bishop.  The access road was very rocky; but the campsite was right underneath snowy Mt. Tom, on the left side of this photo:

And yes, that's a dim meteor over the mountain peak, the only one that we managed to photograph all week.

 December 11:   It was a chilly, breezy, and sunny morning, the perfect time to get some portraits with our little "grand-trailer:"

We headed up Bishop Creek to Lake Sabrina.  As we expected, the road was closed at Aspendell, so we walked for a couple of miles on the deserted highway to get to the lake.  Up at the lake, we met a brave (foolhardy?) guy who had been skating on the partially frozen lake.  He told us that he and his buddies sometimes backpack up into the high country, just to skate on the alpine lakes surrounded by snowy mountains.  Fun!

We took a trail that ran along the western side of the lake, which we had never taken before:

Unfortunately, after about a mile, the trail petered out in a difficult talus field.  On our way back to the trailhead, Felice couldn't resist the temptation to conduct an experiment to test the thickness of the ice:

The patterns in the fractured ice were like nightmarish jigsaw puzzles -- Felice framed the shot perfectly:

This photo (taken at sundown) captures the lovely stark emptiness of this part of the Sierra, especially in midwinter -- the sweep of the sage-covered alluvial fans leading to the glacier-carved canyons, snowy crags above us, the cold wind rattling the brush, the trailer all alone, in the middle of nothing:   

In this photo, I tried to "paint" the trailer with a flashlight during a time exposure -- perhaps a little too much paint:

This is Mt. Tom, with a light coat of "paint" on the sagebrush:

The nearby Tungsten Hills are at the bottom of this shot, and that's Orion high in the sky.  The nebula is plainly visible.  Just over the hills, you can see the slight "light dome" coming from the town of Bishop:

December 12:  Another cold, clear, and breezy morning -- this photo (taken from our campsite) is an effort to catch the slanting light of midwinter.  If this looks like an imitation of a Galen Rowell shot, it is:

And this is another in a series of "the view from the trailer" photos --  the dark border is the inside of the door:

Just after that shot was taken, a nice lady from the BLM drove up in a truck.  It turned out that we were camped in the Round Valley Deer Migration area and had to move.  (Note to self:  next time, ask about deer migration season.)  So we packed up and relocated to the Volcanic Tablelands, a huge semi-flat area north of Bishop.  There were lots of campsites available, but quite a few campers, too -- surprising for mid-week in the winter.

After we found a new campsite and got set up, we still had time for a late afternoon hike up Pine Creek Canyon.  The trail was steep but not impossible, gaining a thousand feet in a mile and a half.  It switchbacked up a cliff above the creek, across from an impressive (and active) tungsten mine.  The mountain peak above us actually looked metallic in the late afternoon sun -- probably an optical illusion:

Back at our new campsite, we watched the sun drop behind the Sierra from the comfort of the trailer -- very pleasant!

December 13:  This shot shows the morning view from our campsite:

And this photo toward the east shows the campsite in the Tablelands, with a ridge of lava boulders behind the trailer, and the White Mountains in the background.  You can see that the dirt "two track" road leading to the campsite was pretty good -- only a few small rocks:

The Volcanic Tablelands is a convenient boondocking area (close to Bishop), but it is not really isolated.  There were a surprising number of campers in the general area, especially since this was midweek and midwinter.  We saw quite a few small RVs with thick foam mattress "crash pads" on the back or on the roof -- these are for "bouldering," in case the climber falls.  (Not my kind of sport.) 

Based on a tip from a local person who knew a lot about the road conditions, we decided to drive up to South Lake, even though the road was nominally closed.  Sure enough, the county had lowered the barrier cables, and we drove (carefully) up to the lake, over sheets of thick glare ice.  We had the entire lake basin to ourselves:

Of course, we had to take our customary boot shot:

The streams were running under a thick cap of ice:


We couldn't make it all the way to Long Lake -- the snow got pretty deep, especially in the drifts that clogged the switchbacks:

Felice spotted a big cluster of icicles hanging from the rocks: 

From one of the viewpoints on the trail, Felice zoomed in on a jagged crest across the canyon -- I think this is called an "arete," pronounced "a rate:"

On our way back down, we found a knoll at the intersection of the Long Lake trail and the Treasure Lakes trail.  The knoll overlooked South Lake and also gave us a good view of Hurd Peak to the south:

The drive back down the mountain was a little tricky -- the ice had thawed during the day and had re-frozen in the late afternoon.  But I just put the truck into "Four Wheel Low," and rolled very slowly down through the sheets of ice.  No problem, as it turned out.

The sunset that evening was the best one of this trip:

After dinner, we sat outside until midnight to watch the meteor shower, which was one of the best we'd ever seen.  The meteors were generally bright and slow, appearing all over the sky every minute or so.  It was cold (around 30 degrees) and windy, but we were dressed warmly.  We also spread a heavy sleeping bag over ourselves -- very comfortable!

Overall, the star-watching in the Volcanic Tablelands was very good but not great.  There was some light pollution from Bishop, and there were a few RVs within about a half-mile of our trailer, some of which had outside lighting.  So it was not perfectly dark, but almost.

December 14:  We took Casa Diablo Road from our campsite all the way up to Crowley Lake.  It was fun (bouncy and dusty!) but time-consuming -- it would have been faster to drive back down to Bishop and take 395 instead.

We hiked the McGee Creek trail.  Of course, we took a photo of my favorite road sign:

The creeks in the canyon had deposited thick wads of ice on the rocks -- Felice caught these scalloped "ice sculptures:"

The last of the sun bounced off the top of this two thousand foot long avalanche chute:

That is a classic "hanging valley" in the middle of this next shot, over Felice's head:

That evening, on the way back to the trailer, we stopped off at the viewpoint on 395 overlooking the whole Bishop Creek/Buttermilk Country drainage.  This is exactly how it looked -- the pink-orange sky, with the purple mountains reflecting the last of the sunset:

Monday, September 25, 2017

The Sawtooths, Rainier, and the Sierras: Aug. & Sept., 2017 -- Part IV – The Eastern Sierra

(Remember that you can click on the photos to see a slideshow, and then hit "escape" to get back to the text. Also, a note on the photo credits: as always, both Felice and I took these shots, and many of my shots resulted from her suggestions. I do the photo editing using Lightroom; my goal is to reproduce just what we saw, as faithfully as possible.)

(Also, please note that the fonts on this particular post are messed up -- the blog software is acting up, and someday I will figure out how to weed out the bad code. Sorry for the inconvenience!)

Monday, September 4: The heat wave showed no signs of breaking; although the nights were pleasantly cool, the hikes were not. So we decided to leave the Desolation Wilderness area. Only one problem: which way to go when we reached the bottom of the hill at the intersection with Highway 50? We could go left and then spend some high-altitude time in the Eastern Sierra. Or we could go right, do some bike riding on the river trail in Sacramento, and hunt for ripe blackberries. It all depended on the air quality in the Eastern Sierra.

We hitched up and got to the bottom of the mountain and fired up Felice's marvelous iPhone: turn left for the Eastern Sierra! Only one more problem: there was so much Labor Day traffic streaming down Highway 50 from Tahoe that it took us a full 10 minutes to wait for a brief break in traffic so that we could make our left turn.

A few hours later, we were happily ensconced in one of our favorite high-altitude boondocking sites above Mono Lake. After getting all set up, we took a walk as a late afternoon thunderstorm gathered over Kavanaugh Ridge. Note the celebratory sweatshirts – at last, the temperature was in the low 60s, which was a huge relief:

That night, the moon was almost full, lighting up the clouds and the trailer:

Tuesday, September 5: I got up early to do some stretching and caught sunrise – that's Venus in the top center, and that's the eastern shoreline of Mono Lake in the lower right:

Unfortunately, this shot can't quite convey the smell of sagebrush and pine before dawn on a summer morning:

To beat the heat, we headed up to Virginia Lakes. Along the way, we passed my favorite road sign:

There were still quite a few wildflowers, which was surprising for September:

And there was still plenty of snow, left over from last season, in the shady areas on the north sides of the mountains. In this shot, Black Mountain is on the left and the trail's summit is in the middle, with reddish Excelsior Mountain peeking up behind the ridge:

The summit was very windy (as usual), which was delightful. We took this "wide shot" with the aid of our radio-controlled shutter trigger. The tripod was weighted down with rocks -- please do not ask how I learned this trick:

The snowmelt pond at the summit was still going strong, complete with a twenty-foot-thick snowbank -- I'm in the center of the shot, where the snowfield tapers off to a mere seven feet:

Before we headed down, Felice climbed the shoulder of Black Mountain:

Imagine this whole valley full of glacial ice – what a sight that would have been! Geologists say that Mono Lake was hundreds of feet deep and was choked with icebergs:

Even on a barren talus slope, the purple penstemon were still waving in the breeze:

Wednesday, September 6: Since the weather was cloudy and cooler, we went to Lundy Canyon, which is at a lower elevation – not great for a hot day, but just fine in the right conditions. We were delighted to see so many wildflowers so late in the season:

The cascades at the top of the canyon were booming as if it were June, not September:

We had some fun with the slow-motion features on the iPhone and the GoPro:



The wildflowers were enjoying the spray from the falls:

Thursday, September 7: We pulled up stakes and headed south, but not very far. We stopped at Rock Creek Canyon (leaving the trailer at Tom’s Place for the day). As always, the Little Lakes area was spectacular:

By now, we were expecting late-season wildflowers, and we were not disappointed:

The spiky purple flowers in the front row of that shot are Pacific mountain onions. They smell just like garlic -- really wonderful if you like garlic, and who doesn't?  Supposedly, the bulbs are edible.

We made it to the Gem Lakes – no impassable snowbanks this time, unlike the last time we were here:

Note the stripes in the wall behind us -- we were high enough into the Sierra that we had risen above the granite and were into the older metamorphic "roof rock" that had been pushed up by the rise of the younger igneous rock.

On the way down, the stripes in the headwall above Gem Lakes were very vivid:

That rock formation always reminds me of marble halvah, a Middle Eastern sesame and chocolate dessert:

So, once we got down the hill, this was the plan: drive to Bishop, do a little marketing, gas up, grab a calzone (a rare treat!), and head up Highway 168 into the Bishop Creek area to snag an unreserved campsite. Sure, it would be dark by that time, but we knew the area well, and we could easily set up our campsite with our headlamps. Off we went. Market, check. Gas, check. Calzone, check. We drove up toward Big Trees Campground.

It was so dark that we could not see any of the campground signs, but no problem. The iHikeGPS app on Felice’s iPhone would let us know when to turn off. Sure enough, we got to the turnoff. There was a yellow highway sign showing the “T” intersection for the roadway. We turned, knowing from past experience that the road down into the campground was long and bumpy. The GPS app showed that we were on exactly the right road. No problem.

We were a little surprised when we soon came to a deep sandy patch in the road, but we instantly had it all figured out – the sand had washed down during a recent thunderstorm, and the forest service had not had time to clear it off. No problem. I shifted into “4WD low” and we powered through the sand and back onto clear pavement, still heading down.
We kept going. The bushes did not look well-maintained. OK -- the forest service is understaffed. No problem. We kept going down. The pavement came to another sandy patch. Wait -- this did not look right – it looked like the road was going to go off a cliff?! Felice got out and walked ahead. Yep. A small cliff, but a cliff.

I got out and surveyed the situation. The road had been washed out by a flood and had dead-ended into a tiny small cul-de-sac. There was no feasible way to back the trailer up, all the way up a steep and long and narrow and sandy road. We had to turn the whole rig completely around in a space roughly as long as the truck and the trailer combined, in the pitch dark.

So we sat in the truck and gobbled the calzone. (I must say that I did not enjoy it very much – so much for our rare treat.) Felice strapped on her headlamp, and we fired up the walkie-talkies. (Remember that it was completely black – our usual hand-signals were useless.) Very slowly, very carefully, never going over the cliff, we backed and forthed for at least a half hour (45 minutes?) in the pitch dark, gaining a few degrees of rotation each time. 

This was the RV equivalent of two people exchanging clothes in a phone booth (remember phone booths?), with one hand tied behind our backs and all four sets of shoelaces tied together. Not impossible, but not easy or quick.  In total darkness.

I am forced to admit, though, that it was kind of fun. We worked as a team. Felice talked me through each maneuver – “Three feet, two feet, one foot, stop. Now forward, wheels to the right . . . .” No problem.

What a relief to finally get pointed in the right direction! (Yes, it's an intentionally split infinitive. Where else to effectively place the adverb?) We rolled slowly back to the highway, through the deep sand, and found the real entrance to Big Trees Campground, fifty yards up the road.

We later determined that the phony road was indeed the former entrance to the campground but had washed out some time ago. The forest service (or Inyo County? Or CalTrans?) had neglected to put a “Dead End” sign on this now-useless stub of a road. And the GPS app had not been updated to show the new access road. In retrospect, our antenna should have gone up when we came to the deep sandy patch; but by that time we were already committed and could not have turned around anyway.

Getting a site at Big Trees was anticlimactic – there were plenty of vacancies, and it took us very little time to set up the trailer, headlamps and all.

We went back the next day (without the trailer, of course) to see the dead end in daylight and to take some photos.  This shot is a little out of focus, but Felice (blue shirt) is standing on a boulder mid-way down the little cliff on the right side – note the tiny pad of dirt that we had to use for maneuvering. For scale, the pavement is about ten feet wide. The truck and trailer combined are about 35 feet long:

In this shot, I am standing right on the edge of that little pad:

Friday, September 8: We slept late, after all the excitement of the night before. We headed to South Lake and made it up to Long Lake in a leisurely way:

Saturday, September 9: We posed behind the trailer on the bank of the creek, displaying our “catch” – two massive laundry bags: