Granite Dome & Lakes 2017

This was my third time visiting the exceptionally scenic region beneath Granite Dome. In both 2012 and 2014 visits were in early June and most of the lakes were melted out. This time a full month later in early July the lakes were mostly frozen; a testament to the unprecedented High Sierra snowpack received in the winter of 2017. What made this visit special was the colorful ice pools in the lakes, including a heavenly blue pool in Upper Lewis Lake and a stunning teal turquoise color in Ridge Lake. In addition, Iceland Lake was only partially melted out with icebergs and an array of ice colors from green to blue. Similar to my first visit in 2012, I ascended to the top of Granite Dome which has great views of the Emigrant Wilderness and Northern Yosemite. Tower Peak is particularly striking to the east. The crux of the trip was crossing Summit Creek which was raging like a river. There was one safe log over the creek in the vicinity I needed to cross. It was mostly dry in the morning but by afternoon it was wet and I had to carefully scoot across while keeping my feet sufficiently out of the water so the swift current would not pull me in!  It also didn’t help that I had turned my ankle on trail run in and was relegated to walking (carefully) the rest of the outing. Complete photo album here.  Route on Strava here.

Granite Dome is an immense granite massif with numerous micro-basins occupied by a series of stunning alpine lakes set amid granite slabs and cliffs. I like to describe this region as the “Granite Balconies” since each of the lakes can be viewed from above on granite slabs. All of the lakes are located on the northern side of a broad, massive ridge called Granite Dome. The summit is a fairly nondescript and non-prominent point along the ridge. The region is characterized by ubiquitous ice polished granite carved into its present form by glaciers that blanketed this region over millennia. No trails travel into this area making it a relatively infrequently visited spot where solitude and ample room for exploration can be found. While the northern side of Granite Dome is rugged, the south side features more subdued terrain and no lakes until much farther down in the Emigrant Wilderness. The region is accessed via Kennedy Meadows off of the Sonora Pass Highway and includes a moderately steep trail to reach Relief Reservoir and beyond. The off-trail travel is fairly easy with navigation on friendly granite slabs. The primary objective in route finding on this terrain is to avoid steeper sections of granite that can become cliffs. The named lakes of the region include the Lewis Lakes (lower, middle, upper), Sardella Lake, Ridge Lake and Iceland Lake with a numerous other smaller tarns. Ridge Lake is arguably the centerpiece nestled beneath the towering cliffs of Granite Dome with waterfalls splashing down into the lake from the upper reaches of the peak. However, Middle Lewis Lake is perhaps the most dramatic with towering granite cliffs surrounding its shores like an amphitheater. Furthermore, the view overlooking Iceland Lake from the south is fantastic.

The ascent to Granite Dome’s summit is fairly straightforward from the lakes. On both of my climbs I ascended directly to the ridge from Upper Lewis Lakes. If early in the season (or a heavy snow year like this year when snow will persist through much of summer) consider bringing ice and crampons as the slope to the ridge is moderately steep. Once on the ridge it’s fairly flat with some nice alpine wildflowers amid the volcanic rocks with some interesting rock features as one approaches the summit. Several false summits are passed on what feels like a long ridge traverse before the highpoint is reached. The best views of the lakes are located slightly below the summit where the flatter rocks of the summit area abruptly transition to the precipitous granite cliffs.

 

 

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Clouds Rest Winter

This is the third a series of posts on winter adventure in Yosemite. The first post was about Mount Watkins and the second about Glacier Point and Sentinel Dome. I have been to Clouds Rest in all seasons except winter and took the opportunity this past March to visit the mountain in genuine winter conditions thanks to the record setting snowpack. It’s a much more arduous snowshoe climb with everything covered in many feet of snow, but the views of the snowcapped high country are well worth the effort. In the summer the shortest route is a relatively easy <7 miles each way from the Sunrise Lakes Trailhead at Tenaya Lake with less than 2,000 ft of elevation gain. However, I’ve always preferred visiting Clouds Rest before or after the Tioga Pass road closes since it significantly reduces the amount of visitors and solitude can be found on the summit to enjoy the magnificent 360 degree panorama. However, this means that the peak must be ascended from Yosemite Valley with substantially more mileage and elevation gain. Depending on whether the winter closure of the Mist Trail is in effect, the total mileage each way from Happy Isles is between 9.5 to 10.5 miles with 6,000 ft+ of elevation gain. However, climbing Clouds Rest from the Valley seems like the proper route in my opinion with passage by the iconic Vernal and Nevada Falls along with close views of Half Dome and Liberty Cap from below.

A snowshoe trip up Clouds Rest is a much more challenging endeavor since it’s likely nobody has been up there and trailblazing in deep snow is not easy (the snow was still largely unconsolidated on my trip). The last human tracks ended at the Sunrise Creek Junction but I was able to stay on the buried trail corridor as it passed through pine and fir forest. While the beauty of snowshoeing is you can basically go anywhere in the forest floating on top of buried brush and downed logs, staying on the trail corridor eliminated unnecessary weaving around dense clumps of firs. At the steep slope below the Clouds Rest pinnacles the trail begins a series of well-graded switchbacks, but with these switchbacks completely buried the only feasible option is to just head straight up. It becomes quite steep on this climb of several hundred vertical feet. Aim for the forested bench to the east (right) of the pinnacles and do not follow where the trail ascends which is to the left side of the slope and then does a long traverse back to the right. Traversing steep slopes is not fun in snowshoes and better to aim directly for the forested bench on the right. Once that bench is reached the incline decreases and it’s a pleasant walk through the pines to the final step up to the summit. Here, instead of following the vicinity of where the trail would be below the ridge I climbed up to the SW ridge crest and enjoyed some awesome views looking into Tenaya Canyon on the final approach to the summit block.

Complete Albums:

The summit is essentially a large granite fin that is oriented SW to NE with a couple hundred feet drop on the east side and a few thousand feet drop on the west side into Tenaya Canyon. A fall on either side would not be pleasant, though I have to think falling to the east is the better option. The final climb from the south includes a steep section with some exposure to the cliffs falling into Tenaya Canyon. After the snow melts, the trail provides ample safety, but when snow covered, this pitch gives pause and may require an ice axe and/or crampons depending on conditions. Fortunately, the summit itself is broad enough to relax and enjoy the stunning 360 degree view which takes in most of Yosemite National Park including Half Dome, Yosemite Valley, El Capitan, North Dome, Mount Hoffman, Sawtooth Ridge, Tenaya Lake, Tuolumne area domes, the Cathedral Range (including the highest point in the park, Mount Lyell), and the Clark Range including Mount Hoffman. It’s a spectacular vista and even more impressive when it’s all snow covered. The northeast end of the the summit fin narrows into a knife edge. When the knobby granite is exposed this an easy hop and skip but when snow and ice covered it becomes a tricky knife edge requiring ice axe and crampons. All things considered, the south route up the summit block is the better choice in the winter since it does not require dealing with the considerable exposure found on the knife edge north of the summit.

The immense northwest face of Clouds Rest is at an angle that is plenty steep but still enables snow and ice to accumulate throughout winter. On a heavy snow year such as this, several feet of snow and ice accumulate setting the stage for an awesome phenomenon in late winter and spring. When the sun angle increases and temps warm, the snow and ice calves off the granite apron and tumbles down to Tenaya Canyon with amazing speed over wet, slick granite. While I was on top of Clouds Rest I witnessed several amazing calving episodes with thunderous sounds and staggering amounts of snow and ice shooting down into Tenaya Canyon. There were chunks the size of buses sliding down the granite and launched over cliffs like torpedoes. The power of nature is on full display when this calving occurs!     The winter closure of the Mist Trail seems to dissuade many visitors and in both the morning and afternoon I had Vernal Falls and Nevada Falls to myself. In addition, over all these years of doing the John Muir Trail and Mist Trail I had never bothered to do the Clark Point cutoff trail. With the winter closures, this stretch of trail becomes required and it far exceeded expectations. The upper portion includes amazing views of Nevada Falls with Liberty Cap, Mount Broderick and Half Dome. The lower part includes a dramatic birds-eye vista of Vernal Falls that is arguably more impressive than that seen from the Mist Trail. I also found the cutoff trail to be a little icy in the morning, which means that the shaded Mist Trail was probably much more icy. The take away is that the winter route is plenty beautiful and it’s not worth disobeying closures that put yourself and others in harms way. As of this writing, the Mist Trail is open so expect it to be open in Spring. 

Watkins Winter

In my opinion Mount Watkins has one of the best views in the Yosemite Valley region. Unlike some of the more famous vistas which have a road or a designated trail leading to them (and associated crowds), Mount Watkins has neither and this largely explains its relative obscurity both in summer and especially in winter. I won’t deny, the solitude one can experience from this majestic perch is part of the allure for me. What’s certain is from the end of the Watkins Ridge one receives the best view of the massive granite apron that constitutes the northwest face of Clouds Rest. The vista also includes an excellent vantage of Half Dome as it towers above Yosemite Valley. The stunning panorama encompasses a good chunk of the National Park including Mount Starr King, the Clark Range, North Dome, Basket Dome, Mount Conness, Mount Hoffman and Glacier Point.  In the summer it’s merely a 4 mile jaunt down from the Tioga Pass Highway to the edge of Watkins Ridge (where the best views are located) but in the winter it’s a more arduous trek up from Yosemite Valley via the switchbacks of the Snow Creek Trail and then off-trail from the vicinity of the Snow Creek Cabin up to the Watkins summit and down the ridge. However, the extra effort to reach Mount Watkins in the winter is richly rewarded with an experience is enhanced by snowy winter conditions.

The Snow Creek Trail is south facing and the lower part typically melts out a few days after snowfall (at least to the point snowshoes are not required; though some snow and ice may remain). After a fairly level trek to Mirror Lake and about a mile beyond, the trail gets to business with a long series of rocky switchbacks. Fortunately, views open up pretty quick and they only improve as one ascends. The most spectacular feature during this ascent is Half Dome, directly across the canyon, but in my opinion, the view across Tenaya Canyon to the Quarter Domes is equally impressive. Unless a heavy low elevation snowfall just occurred, snowshoes are typically only required near the top of the Snow Creek climb at ~6,500 ft where the gradient begins to flatten. The trail follows close to picturesque Snow Creek for a short distance before crossing the creek using a bridge. After the crossing the trail resumes a gradual climb through the forest up to a meadow area. Trees are marked with blazes to guide the direction if you happen to be breaking trail. The stretch from the Snow Creek crossing to the cabin passes through a forest that turns into a winter wonderland with an excellent mixture of large and small trees along with a diverse variety of pines and firs. The Snow Creek Cabin is just off the trail on the opposite side of a meadow. Topo maps have the cabin marked relatively close to its actual location and there are plenty of posts on the internet providing GPX tracks and specific directions. The cabin used to be somewhat of a secret as it’s open to the public for overnight stays during the winter, but word has gotten out and the internet is not helping. Staying at the cabin in the winter used to be unrestricted but unfortunately, too much demand has caused the park service to get out their free-flowing ream of red tape to implement yet another quota. Now one must either pick up a permit the afternoon before the trip (and arrange for accommodation or camping int he Valley) or the morning of the trip when the visitor center opens with no guarantees any spots are remaining. Neither option is convenient and makes heading up there for a day trip much more appealing. It turns out climbing up the steep Snow Creek trail to the Snow Creek Cabin and beyond to Mount Watkins is much more pleasant without overnight gear anyway. Perhaps if one wanted to continue beyond for a winter ascent of Mount Hoffman or Tuolumne Meadows I would consider a night at the cabin.     

Complete Photo Albums:

Although off trail, reaching Mount Watkins is fairly straightforward from the cabin. From the Snow Creek Cabin head southeast through open forest and then make a short but steep climb directly to the high point of Mount Watkins at 8,500 ft. The summit area is quite broad and therefore the high point does not have the best view. Instead, I highly recommend continuing down southwest from the summit around a half mile along the gently-sloping granite ridge studded with occasional pines. Eventually at around 8,200 ft the ridge becomes narrower and steeper and at this point the superior views are realized as one can gaze down into the depths of Tenaya Canyon all the way up the granite face to the summit of Clouds Rest. The sweeping panorama takes in everything from Mount Conness to the Yosemite Valley floor. The ridge is quite exposed to the elements and the stunted pines and junipers growing here are particularly picturesque making for some great photography subjects to pair with the magnificent view. 

The Science of Snow Cone

The “Snow Cone” is somewhat of a mythical event to experience. A snow on Cone Peak is not rare in itself, but rather the ability to experience and capture a fresh snow. Most years have snow on Cone Peak, and sometimes multiple times per year, but as I will describe, they are virtually always difficult to forecast more than a day in advance and the snow is fleeting and hard to capture. Timing is therefore very important to get the full winter wonderland effect (with trees and vegetation cloaked in snow) above the spectacular Big Sur coast. When it all comes together, standing in fresh snow while marveling at the turquoise and blue waters of the Pacific Ocean thousands of feet below indeed feels like something out of a dream or mythology! The challenges of timing a Snow Cone reminds me of growing up in the Seattle area wishing for lowland snow. As with the Snow Cone, there were many more teases than actual snow storms in the Seattle area, but when the ingredients came together it was always magical.  In many ways, the forecasting challenges for lowland snow in Western Washington and Cone Peak are similar and I’m just as fascinated now as when I was young.

I’ve been captivated by the possibility of a Snow Cone for some time. I’d seen enough from others who’d witnessed past events to know that it was something special and an event that I wanted to experience for myself but I also knew that if timed correctly it could be that much more amazing. Along the way I’ve sought to understand what weather patterns might make for a good Snow Cone in order to be at the right place at the right time when an opportunity presents itself. The drought got in the way of my plans for a few years but I finally got the opportunity to implement some of this knowledge during Snow Cones on January 21st and January 24th. In particular, the snow on January 24th measured 15 inches on the summit with snow down to 2,500 feet, the most significant snow in many years. The winter wonderland we encountered even exceeded my dreams. The following is a discussion of some of the science behind what it takes to get a Snow Cone. Note that these are just the thoughts and observations of a weather enthusiast and I have no formal training in meteorology. Also please note that all photos are © Leor Pantilat, All Rights Reserved. Please request permission for any use.

At 5,164 feet one might guess that the summit of Cone Peak receives quite a bit of snow, both in terms of number of events per year and aggregate number of inches. However, this is not the case since there are many counteracting factors that turn many promising snow events into merely teases. For a Snow Cone you need the ingredients – namely cold air and moisture – to come together just right. If you continue reading, you’ll see there are a number of moving parts that make it challenging to get these two ingredients together at the same time. Then, assuming a snow does happen, it’s sometimes a challenge to obtain the visibility of the coast from the summit. In my opinion, it’s not the same if the mountain is stuck in a cloud. What makes a snowfall on Cone Peak so unique is the ocean vistas and while certainly not a requirement of a Snow Cone, having visibility of the coast elevates the experience to another level.

Snow Cone is a fairly infrequent event. I’d estimate that a “normal” season probably sees a handful of times where the summit receives more than a dusting and one to two events in the 6-8 inch range on the summit. Any event that exceeds 8 inches on the summit or drops snow below 3,000 ft happens much less frequently and cannot be counted on every season. In fact, using the term “normal” may be somewhat of a misnomer considering California’s climate which swings wildly between drought and big winters. In fact, one of the winters in the recent drought likely did not even have one snow event the entire season. On the other hand, “big” winters with a persistent flow out of the Gulf of Alaska may see several good snow events.  A snow Cone is possible as early as the end of November, but the season really only gets started in January with the best possibilities residing in January through mid March.

Any discussion of Snow Cone needs to start with geography. The summit of Cone Peak is only 3 miles from the coast making it the steepest gradient from ocean to summit in the contiguous United States. This topography is what makes Cone so special. However, since the mountain is essentially right over the ocean that is a problem for snow prospects. Even in January the ocean temperature is typically in the mid 50s. Water holds heat better than land does and it therefore warms the air above it. Thus, the Pacific Ocean has an enormous moderating effect on coastal temperatures. Right at the coast temperatures are very mild even in the heart of winter and also mild in the middle of summer with a persistent marine layer. With onshore flow out of the south or southwest, warmer maritime air envelops the summit and snow is out of the question.  

The next problem is that Cone Peak is not a naturally cold spot. Colder air from elsewhere is needed. Cone Peak resides at a relatively south latitude with a Mediterranean climate characterized by hot, dry summer and cool, wet winters. I would go so far as to say that most of the year is warm to hot on Cone, especially on its sun-baked south facing slopes. Even during the winter it’s rarely cold. Most of the precipitation that falls on Cone occurs during warmer “Atmospheric River” events that pull in copious moisture from the subtropics and raise snow levels well above the summit. The vast majority of snow events are “fringy” meaning that the temperature on the summit is just barely cold enough to snow. Even when it does snow, it is almost always very fleeting. Once the sun comes out it’s only a matter of hours before the south facing slopes melt out and the snow and ice drop from the trees and chaparral. With a big enough snow the north facing slopes will hold onto snow on the ground quite a bit longer, but the chaparral vegetation and trees will start dropping snow from their limbs as soon as the sun comes out and temperatures rise above freezing. 

So how does it get cold enough to snow?  The answer is usually not arctic air. It is very rare for continental arctic air masses originating in Canada to reach Cone Peak’s latitude on the central California coast. The path of least resistance for these air masses is east of the Rocky Mountains, but even when the cold air manages to sneak through the Rockies, it still has to get over the Cascades and the Sierra Nevada. That means there are several barriers impeding the progress of these cold air masses. Due to these challenges, I’d estimate that a modified arctic front only reaches Cone Peak once every five years or so. When these fronts do reach central California the next problem is moisture. These systems tend take an inland trajectory more often than not which usually means they are moisture starved. The northern end of the Santa Lucias can be efficient at squeezing out snow in these scenarios, but Cone lies in an unfavorable “snow shadowed” position in this situation. When the already-rare arctic front happens to swing off the Northern California coast and gather moisture off the Pacific, this becomes the textbook setup for low elevation snowfalls in coastal California. However, there’s a reason snow is so rare in San Francisco and Monterey. That’s because arctic fronts are rare as-is and then to have them swing offshore just enough to gather moisture (but not too much to warm the air up) is even more rare. Despite the rarity, history has been marked with just this sort of event many times, and it seemingly happened more in the past with several records of measurable snow in downtown San Francisco in the late 1800s, 1951 and 1976 from just this sort of pattern. While it’s been 40 years since this pattern came together just right to produce snow in San Francisco, arctic fronts are always something to watch for and the December 2008 snow was associated with an arctic front.  That said, arctic fronts do not happen frequently enough to be considered the primary producer of a Snow Cone.

So if it’s not from the arctic where do the ingredients for a Snow Cone usually come from? The answer is the Gulf of Alaska. These systems tend to be much more reliable in the moisture department as they take an over-water trajectory. They also tend to occur with much greater frequency in a normal winter (the drought years were a notable exception when it seemed like years passed without a strong Gulf of Alaska storm). However, with Gulf of Alaska systems, since the cold air is of maritime origins it’s usually more cool rather than cold.  In most cases this takes lowest elevation snow out of the equation, but the snowline with these systems is more nuanced as a strong enough Gulf of Alaska system with a low pressure tracking to just the right spot can lower the snow level to 2,500 feet or even lower.

Gulf of Alaska systems come in many flavors that have consequences on snow possibilities. These systems typically include a cold front moving down the coast which will draw up warmer air ahead of the front from the south and southwest. Most of the heavier precipitation usually resides ahead the frontal band and, frustratingly, it’s going to be too warm in this sector of the storm. Once the frontal band passes the wind direction turns to northwesterly and this allows the cooler air out of the Gulf of Alaska to filter in. Within this cool, unstable air resides cumulus and showers. If this transition to cooler air is prompt, then these showers can start producing snowfall over the summit soon after frontal passage. It helps if there has been preceding systems already establishing cool air over the region so the warm sector of the system is brief. If the cooler air takes its time to arrive it’s likely not a good sign for a Snow Cone. Once the front passes and the cooler air has arrived attention turns to the “shower game” which can be equally frustrating. Not all Gulf of Alaska systems have a deep reservoir of showers after the front passes. Many times there isn’t enough moisture in the post-frontal airmass to produce more than hit and miss showers once the cool air has arrived. Other times the trajectory of the shower flow is out of the northwest which is a great setup for the northern Santa Lucias like Ventana Double Cone and Chews Ridge, but once again Cone Peak is “snow shadowed” by these peaks to its north. For post-frontal showers to be successful for Cone Peak the flow of showers needs to be more from the west and it needs to be fairly strong with a lot of post-frontal shower activity.

After the frontal band passes things get more interesting when discussing the track of the low pressure. Most times the parent low will track north into the Pacific Northwest but sometimes with a deep and digging trough over the western United States the low will descend into the base of the trough by sliding down the coast and moving inland over Big Sur or to the south. The low serves as a mechanism to organize shower activity and produce heavier snowfall and is entirely within the cold part of the system. The success of this type of setup is highly sensitive to the track of the low. A track too far north may draw up warmer from the south and southwest and raise snow levels too high.  A track too far south or offshore will take away the moisture to make snow. Thus, a track that either closely parallels the coast or comes in just to the south is likely ideal. This Goldilocks setup does not happen very often but when it does you can get lower elevation snowfall and heavier snow totals up top.

In late winter and early spring instead of frontal bands coming out of the Gulf of Alaska, the systems sometimes take on the form of a cutoff low, which is a low that has been cutoff from the basic westerly flow. Instead of a widespread precipitation event with a well-defined frontal band, these cutoff lows can sit off the coast quasi-stationary for a day or longer and spin up showers. It can be quite cold underneath these lows and if they are positioned correctly they can result in substantial snow over Cone Peak along with hail and thunderstorms at lower elevations. In fact, these cutoff lows are responsible for many of the late season snows in March and April. Since the cold air is typically confined to right underneath the low, once the low does “eject” the temperatures usually warm up rapidly.

The final type of Snow Cone doesn’t originate in the Gulf of Alaska or the arctic. Sometimes systems will come directly out of the west with a low making landfall somewhere on the central coast. As Cone Peak is on the cooler north side of such a system and the air flow can become weakly offshore (cutting off the moderating influence of the Pacific) the air can be marginally cold enough for a higher elevation snow event (generally above 4k) and possibly lower if there is some antecedent cooler air in place.

If all of the ingredients line up correctly then Cone can be an efficient snow producer and create a unique and magical winter wonderland. In a matter of hours 6-8+ inches can accumulate. The northwest facing Devils Canyon is masterful at orographically enhancing precipitation and generating clouds. If it’s below freezing and the mountain is in a cloud rime ice begins to build up on vegetation within these clouds despite the fact that there are no higher based clouds and precipitation. After several hours the ice can accumulate to impressive amounts, particularly on the very exposed ridge lines, as manifested by an event on January 21st that produced 2-3 inches of ice accumulation.

Let’s assume the ingredients came together and a snowfall happened. The next problem is visibility and whether there will be any. Being so close to the moist environment of the Pacific Ocean, it’s often a difficult task to clear the mountain of clouds. Even if the mountain is clear in the morning, cumulus development in the afternoon is a good bet if a substantial snow has occurred and onshore flow persists. On some occasions a dry northerly wind will follow a snow and blow away all the clouds, but these winds might also blow the snow off the vegetation. Other times the mountain is socked in for the entire day after a snow. For me personally, what makes a  Snow Cone so special is the proximity to the ocean and having the visibility to the ocean takes it to another level. Thus, not only is timing the snow important, but also timing the breakout from the clouds! 

The January 24th snow event produced 15 inches of snow on the summit of Cone Peak with spots along the north ridge approaching 2 feet. These totals are significant and have not been seen in several years (likely back to 2011 or 2008). This was a classic Gulf of Alaska storm that was the the final system of three. The preceding two systems served to progressively cool the atmosphere. In fact, it was already cold enough to produce 2-3 inches of rime rice and 4+ inches of snow with the second storm on January 21st. On Saturday evening, January 21st, the frontal band with third storm approached but precipitation fell as rain in the pre-frontal band with strong onshore flow out of the south and southwest drawing up warmer air. However, temps on the summit only rose into the mid 30s as the warm sector was brief and once the front passed early Sunday morning it did not take much to lower the snowline back below the summit. In addition, the post-frontal shower game with this third system was especially strong. There would be a constant stream of moisture flowing into the Santa Lucias in the cold and unstable environment. The topography of Cone Peak would only serve to enhance these showers and since the showers were coming out of the west the mountain would not be “snow shadowed” by peaks to the north.     The showers in the post-frontal environment were most numerous Sunday night when around 1 inch of liquid precipitation fell as snow on the summit (~10 inches). Snow levels during this part of the storm were around 4,000 feet. There was a bit of a break during the day Monday, January 23rd, but the snow was not done. The parent low would track down the coast during the day and spread showers back over Cone Monday night. The track of this low and the timing at night allowed snow levels to come down to 2,500 ft. Showers produced snow accumulations of 2 inches at 3,000 feet and around 5 inches on the summit (on top of the 10 inches already fallen). Chilly temperatures at around 26 degrees on the summit (as determined by the temperatures recorded at the comparable Chews Ridge weather station) allowed for higher snow to liquid ratios with unusually light and fluffy snow for the Ventana. This final burst of snow on Monday night was largely responsible for creating the winter wonderland scene that we experienced on Tuesday morning. The low ended up weakening as it continued south and largely stayed offshore during the day Monday resulting in clearing skies on Tuesday morning. Had the low stayed closer to the coast or swung inland over Big Sur snow totals would have likely been even higher, but then we wouldn’t have had the beautiful clear skies in the morning

Junipero Serra Peak

It’s fairly rare for a modified arctic cold front to sweep into central California. However, in early December a cold, dry continental airmass overspread the region. With the cold air in place, attention turned to the possibility of low elevation snow on local mountains. All we needed was moisture. It seemed like wishes would come true with a system coming in from the north late in the week. In fact, the National Weather Service office in Monterey issued a winter weather advisory two days out from the event, specifically calling out the Santa Lucia Mountains for up to 6 inches of snow. Stoke level was high for a snow day on Cone Peak’s Stone Ridge. Well, things didn’t turn out as initially forecasted and the winter weather advisory did not verify. Snow levels wound up being much higher and only the highest peaks in the Santa Lucia Mountains received snowfall (>4,500 ft). Why?  The low pressure tracked from near Crescent City, California to Lake Tahoe placing the central coast on the south side of the low. In this sector, onshore winds brought in relatively mild air off the Pacific Ocean just as the heaviest precipitation arrived. In fact, temperatures increased as the event unfolded despite it being in the middle of the night. Once the cold front passed, snow levels plummeted once again, but by then very little moisture was left. All things considered, it seemed highly unlikely snow accumulated on Stone Ridge between 2,500-3,800 ft (we were right).  At this time Joey came up with a plan B – Junipero Serra Peak. As the highest point in the Santa Lucia Mountians at 5,862 ft, Junipero Serra Peak stood the best chance of having some snow accumulation. The route would be only 12.4 miles roundtrip but feature over 4,000 ft of climbing.  It turned out to be a great idea!   Strava route here

The group for this adventure included Joey Cassidy, Flyin’ Brian Robinson and Brian Rowlett. From the trailhead we could see some snow accumulation on the summit, but we were not prepared for how remarkably awesome the wintry scene would become on the last thousand feet of vertical on the mountain.  As we ascended above the snow line, we found a unique combination of snow, rime ice, and glaze ice (from freezing rain).  It felt as if we were entering an ice box as everything was glazed in ice, sometimes approaching over an inch thick.  I have never seen so much ice accumulation!  After ascending to the summit ridge, we traversed to the north side where we hiked through a coniferous forest which had become a winter wonderland with snow and ice covered Coulter Pines (largest pine cones in the world, weighing up to 8 pounds!) and Sugar Pines (the longest pine cones in the world, growing up to 24 inches long).  The entire mountain was burned in the Basin Complex Fire in 2008, but it’s good to see a large portion of the conifer grove survived the fire. In fact, Coulter Pine saplings were thick in spots. The chaparral slopes on the mountain did not fare as well with virtually all of the older woody chaparral charred. Five years later new chaparral vegetation is growing back aggressively, but the old burned snags remain making for an interesting sight when glazed with ice.

The flora and fauna of the Santa Lucia Mountains is often rare and fascinating. The pine forest of Coulter Pines and Sugar Pines atop Junipero Serro was so striking I decided to do a little research. It turns out Sugar Pines are not common in the Santa Lucia Mountains and can only be found on a few of the tallest peaks in the range, including Cone Peak and Junipero Serra Peak. The grove at Junipero Serra is particularly large with several tall old-growth trees.  Interestingly, the Sugar Pines in the Santa Lucias are genetically distinct from other populations of Sugar Pine due to large geographic separation. The two populations cannot mix. I wonder how these trees got the summit area of Junipero Serra in the first place as everything surrounding the grove is either chamise or montane chaparral. 

Another favorite topic of mine is meteorology. What caused such an impressive accumulation of glaze ice on Junipero Serra? As mentioned above, the weather system that pulled in some relatively warmer air off the Pacific in the middle and upper levels of the atmosphere, but colder air lingered at the lower levels of the atmosphere. Rain droplets formed in the warmer clouds but then became supercooled when they descended into the colder air below and froze upon contact with any object on the upper part of the mountain. This is freezing rain. The resulting ice from freezing rain is aptly named glaze ice and was at least an inch thick in spots. After the cold front passed on Saturday night, the entire atmosphere became cold enough to support snowfall on the highest elevations of Junipero Serra. This phase of the storm dropped 3+ inches of snow to complete the unique winter wonderland scene.  

While I’m a big fan of winter sports in general, seeing places snowcovered that don’t typically receive much snow is always a special experience. After this adventure I’m even more pumped for the winter season and the potential for a few more chances to see local mountains snowcovered. You can bet I’ll be chasing the snow!   

Buena Vista Peak, Horse Ridge & Ostrander Snowshoe

I had a great visit to Badger Pass at New Years so I was excited to return for a new objective – Ostrander Lake, Horse Ridge and Buena Vista Peak (see Glacier Point XC ski here and Dewey Point Snowshoe here). This is a fantastic route with stupendous views. The total mileage was 26.5 miles according to GPS (Strava route here, and first 4.2 miles here).

We stayed at Mariposa the night before and drove into the park with great anticipation as skies were clear and fresh snow coated the fir trees. We enjoyed a cup of coffee and breakfast snacks at the Badger Pass lodge before setting off down the Glacier Point Road at 8:30 a.m. I strapped on the microspikes for this four mile stretch which helped with traction while running. At the junction with the Bridalveil Creek trail, I switched to snowshoes and soon turned onto the Horizon Ridge trail. I was the first to travel this trail in several days, but the prior tracks were still easy to follow. While it was still only 10:00 a.m. the sun exposure on Horizon Ridge was already making it feel hot. Some sections of snow were getting thin, manifesting the warm nature of this ridge. As I ascended up Horizon Ridge proper, views of Yosemite opened up, including a fantastic and unique angle on Half Dome and Mount Starr King. I took photos from the top of Horizon Ridge and then descended to the junction of Bridalveil Creek trail (which I would descend). I continued up for 1.5 miles to the Ostrander Hut. I had passed a large group of skiers departing the hut and their turns in the powder were evident on the slopes above Ostrander Lake.

Continuing beyond Ostrander, the climbing became steeper on the final slopes approaching the summit of Horse Ridge. The breezes also began to pick up near the summit. Horse Ridge is a fascinating escarpment feature. It’s quite long and the ridge is a tale of two sides: the north side has a consistent cliff drop and steep open slopes below while the south side is gentle sloping with a forest of large trees. I enjoyed the panorama from Horse Ridge, including Half Dome, Tuolumne area peaks, the Clark Range, Buena Vista Crest, and even distant peaks like Mount Conness and Tower Peak. I gazed over at Buena Vista Peak as I checked my watch and figured I had enough time to at least attempt to reach Buena Vista so I set off down the south forested side of Horse Ridge. I soon found myself at a saddle between Horse Ridge and Buena Vista. It began to feel like true wilderness on this side of Horse Ridge since few people venture beyond Horse Ridge’s summit. I began climbing up the open slopes of Buena Vista with views opening up once again. The climbing was pretty straightforward until I reached the point where I had to access the northwest ridge of Buena Vista. Here the snow became step and icy for a small section and an ice axe would have been beneficial. A few steps later I was happy to be on the ridge snowshoing up the final part of the ridge to the summit. All in all, it took a little over an hour to go from Horse Ridge to Buena Vista Peak.

Buena Vista Peak is aptly named with a magnificent 360 degree view. The panorama also includes a impressive views of Gale Peak and Sing Peak on the southern border of the national park. In addition, there was a great vista of the high Sierra to the south including the evolution area of Mount Goddard and Mount Darwin. On the way down from Buena Vista, I went further down the northwest ridge before angling off which was an easier route and retraced my steps down to the saddle and then up to Horse Ridge, taking many photos along the way. On the way down from Horse Ridge, Half Dome was uniquely photogenic with a tongue of clouds surrounding its lower slopes. After some snacks at Ostrander Hut, I made my way down to the Bridalveil Creek trail. This route felt much longer than Horizon Ridge, partly because it is in fact 1.5 miles longer, and also because it’s quite monotonous meandering through the woods with not much to look at. I finally reached the Glacier Point Road and traded snowshoes for microspikes for the last 4.2 miles. I soon caught up to Erica and we traded photos before making the last push to the car. We both made it back to Badger Pass before dark with big smiles, extremely satisfied with the day’s adventure (Erica made it to Ostrander Hut for a 19.5 mile snowshoe).

Winter Alta & Moose Lake Snowshoe

I had a great memories of a climb of Winter Alta in 2011 so I was excited to come back and this time I ventured further to remote Moose Lake (see route on Strava here).  The view from Winter Alta is simply outstanding. Overlooking Moose Lake and the Great Western Divide, it seems as if the entire range is at your feet.  At around 10,500 feet in elevation, Moose Lake is one of the largest high alpine lakes in the region. Nestled in a shallow bench, the lake is well above tree line which provides an unobstructed view of a large portion of the Great Western Divide and Black Kaweah.  The panorama of Moose Lake and all the peaks in the background is one of the greatest in all of the High Sierra. Complete photo album here.

This area is accessed via the Pear Lake ski hut and a marked winter trail from Wolverton.  The path from Wolverton to the ski hut is challenging for a snowshoe hike with lots of elevation gain but well worth the efforts. The slopes near the hut are fairly popular with backcountry skiers, but I found few tracks beyond a couple hundred feet above the hut and no tracks beyond Winter Alta.  Prior to summiting Winter Alta, I decided to continue further along the Tablelands to Moose Lake. The lake is about 850 feet below 11,328 foot Winter Alta which apparently deters most people from visiting. The snow conditions on this day oscillated between a stable crust and deep powder, but overall not bad for efficient progress. I made my way down some moderately sleep slopes and soon found myself walking across the tundra that is a frozen Moose Lake. I crossed the lake at its center and my poles hit a solid ice platform about a foot and half underneath the top of the powder. From the far end of the lake, I admired the view down the Middle Fork of the Kaweah River, the Kaweah Gap area, and the line of peaks that stretched as far as the eye could see.

I recrossed the lake at a different point and headed up for the summit of Winter Alta taking many photos and video clips along the way. Calm conditions on the summit provided an incentive to stick around and enjoy the scenery for a bit. Once I packed up, the descent went fast and I decided to come down through Pear Lake. After some moderately steep (but soft) slopes, I was on top of frozen Pear Lake, which is located in a rugged granite cirque beneath the Alta Peak massif.  After some more photography and video, I headed down the slopes to the Pear Lake ski hut and started my return to Wolverton.  This proved to be another fantastic snowshoe outing in Sequoia National Park!  I look forward to coming back and exploring further along the Tablelands in the winter, perhaps all the way to Big Bird Peak for views down to Big Bird lake and closer views of the Great Western Divide.