Type II fun: A horrible experience while you’re doing it, but rewarding after the fact. Examples include: mountaineering, bushwhacking, extended winter trips, etc.
A few weeks ago, in the last week or so of March, Aubrey and I completed a week long ski tour from Mammoth Mountain to Tuolumne Meadows, roughly following the PCT / JMT, and out over Tioga Pass.
Our adventure actually started 5 months before that, though, when we cached about 50,000 calories worth of food at Tuolumne Meadows Campground before the road closed for the winter. For decades, adventurous souls have (illegally) stashed food caches in Yosemite National Park in the fall so they wouldn’t have to carry it in come winter. Animals started figuring it out, and you can imagine the disastrous results. So, in the 1990’s, rather than crack down on people, the Park Service decided to provide a safe and legal place to cache food. We took advantage of this option and brought two buckets of food to Tuolumne Meadows and dropped them off in the dank, mildewy, metal food closet.
At the time, our plan was to ski in over Tioga Pass, spend some time in Tuolumne Meadows, and ski out to the Yosemite Valley. But, our plans changed – we decided to take on a more adventurous route, which would require less of a car shuttle hassle afterwards. We started out at the Mammoth Main Lodge – the ski area – and cruised past the downhillers while wearing our massive 60+ lb packs. We got some strange looks.. people wondered if we were going camping for a night. We chuckled, and replied, “yes, many nights!”
It’s not easy going from sea level, and being mostly sedentary (though we’d made an honest effort to get into shape), to ski touring at 9,000 feet with a heavy pack. It really didn’t help that aside from a day-trip or two this winter, the last time either of us had been skiing was 2-3 years ago! I don’t want to give the wrong impression, we’ve done a fair bit of winter camping and touring: a two-night trip in Garibaldi Provincial Park, two nights in the Tatoosh Range, and a night at Mt Seymour, and we experienced a fair bit of snow in Gates of the Arctic on our two week trip there. But this trip was a whole new level: 50 or so miles of skiing. If something were to break, or weather were to move in, it would be a significant challenge.
This sort of trip takes quite a bit of organization and preparation: food planning, route planning, emergency gear, weather watching, etc. We figured that sometime in March, we would get our opportunity. The first two weeks brought big storms with several feet of fresh snow, but by the beginning of the third week, the weather had improved. We gave the snow 2-3 days to settle, and then got underway.
Towards the late afternoon we were beat, having only gone a few miles. We set up camp, anchoring our Megalight in the snow with our snow bag anchors, only to spend an hour the following morning hacking them out of the concrete-like ice! This was the start of a truly trying day. We stopped for a water break, and somehow a nalgene slid away on the ice, smacking into a tree 40 feet away.. cracking into 3 pieces. I thought Nalgenes were supposed to be indestructible? I remember launching one (full of water) with a catapult in high school and it survived hitting the concrete after falling 100 feet! Must be the lack of BPA these days. We could have probably fixed it with gear tape and epoxy, but didn’t think it was worth the materials and time.
Later that morning our route traversed a steep and icy section, which we were glad to finally have put behind us when we discovered that we had managed to lose our sunscreen – probably forgetting to stow it away after the Nalgene incident. Losing your sunscreen on day 2 of a week long trip is never good. But when it’s a week long trip at 10,000 feet in the snow, with blinding sun, it’s downright dangerous. We couldn’t – mentally – go back. The traverse we’d finished was not something we wanted to repeat. We had two options: exit via June Lake (a route we hadn’t researched but knew was an option), or continue on. We did have an option for continuing: cover all exposed skin, except for our cheeks and noses, and liberally apply Badger Butter (zinc oxide) to our faces. In either case we still had a few miles to go, so we decided to put off the decision until the following morning.
The following morning our mood had improved, and our inReach told us that the weather was still looking good for the next 3 days. So, we lathered up with Badger Butter, and decided to go for it. Although we were “winter camping,” and it was technically still winter (but only 3 days before the spring solstice), daytime temperatures got into the 60’s. Being covered head to toe in black in those conditions is not comfortable, but we endured.
The next day we were finally getting into the swing of things. We made good time up the gentle approach to Donohue Pass, where we would face our first real unknown: how steep would it be on the other side, and what would the snow be like? While the skiing down into Lyle Canyon wasn’t exactly fun (it never is, when you’re carrying a big pack), it could’ve been far worse. We made it down with only one face plant each! That evening our appetites started to catch up with our activity, and for the first time we made some dessert after dinner: no bake cheesecake with coconut oil.
The next morning was one of the colder ones, with everything covered in frost. We did our best to pack up quickly; the promise of a warm ski hut lay only 8 miles away.
After a long slog, we finally arrived. At some point that day we realized that it was unlikely that we’d be the only ones at the cabin – it was spring break for many people, after all. And indeed, there were 13 people at the hut when we arrived! They were very welcoming of us, however, and despite there only being 10 beds, they offered to make space for us so that we could spend a night in a warm cabin, instead of our frosty tent.
The next day 7 of the people left, leaving the cabin in a relatively quiet state to Aubrey and I and three other skiers. We went for a little tour, and then relaxed while our quesadillas sizzled on the wood stove.
Later that day some weather rolled in, and overnight we got about 5 inches of fresh, dry, powder. Unfortunately, poor Aubrey had started feeling sick, so wasn’t able to enjoy the fresh snow with new friends and I. We skied up to Elizabeth Lakes and had two marvelous backcountry runs down a couloir and from the saddle of Unicorn Peak – a total of 2,000 feet of bluebird backcountry powder.. in the middle of Yosemite National Park!
The next day it was time to go. Our new friends graciously offered us a ride from the gate back to our car in Mammoth, which no doubt saved us a huge hassle of walking to Lee Vining and tracking down the 4-times per week bus that goes from Reno to Mammoth.
Unfortunately, thanks to a combination of long travel days, no major rest days, and conditions, etc. I didn’t really have any serious photographic opportunities. Still, experiences such as this are always worth the time and effort.
We learned quite a bit on our trip. And before we forget, we thought it would be wise to put it down in writing. And who knows, maybe a few of you readers can learn from our mistakes.
- Next time, we won’t do as much distance touring, preferring to spend our time in one or two locations to explore, ski, and of course, photograph.
- We also learned (or remembered) that it takes about 5 days for your body’s metabolism to ramp up. So although planning for 3,500 calories per day might be a good goal for a winter trip, it’s not until you’ve been out exercising and living in the cold for five days that your body will let you consume and process that much food.
- Late March in the Sierra isn’t really winter – we didn’t need as much fuel as we brought, and we had a few too many clothing layers.
- Traversing is a lot of work, next time we’ll do a better job of minimizing traverses.
- We should research (and bring maps for) alternate exits, just in case.
- We had a few things we didn’t need to be carrying – mostly too much food.
- You can find our gear list here (no guarantees as to its comprehensiveness): ski tour gear list
Bonus: Spring in the Alabama Hills
After our trip, we rendezvoused with my parents in the Alabama Hills for a few days. The flowers were out in full force, and, surprisingly, so were the mosquitoes. It was wonderful to relax a little in a place without snow for a few days!
It’s been all over the news, yes, Death Valley is in bloom! A rare “super bloom” as you have likely heard it called. So, being fortunate enough to live just a few hours away, I made some trips out there to experience it (along with many other SoCal citizens). Yes, it really is quite spectacular. I’ve spent a lot of time in Death Valley, but never have I seen it even remotely so beautiful. What is typically a dry and desolate place is now quite literally carpeted with wildflowers (at least, if you look in the right places).
Mostly the bloom is all thanks to a big storm that rolled through in late October last year, which dropped 3.5 inches of rain in just 5 hours. That’s 150% of the annual rainfall Death Valley normally gets, in less than a quarter of a day! Aubrey and I actually experienced that storm, not in Death Valley, but while driving through St. George, UT. The skies unloaded so much rain and hail so quickly that we couldn’t see the front of the car we were driving. Four months later, thanks to ample February sunshine, the desert is thanking the weather gods with a truly spectacular display of flowers.
The pictures featured in the news blurbs I’ve seen really only focus on one species: Desert Gold. But, there are so many more! My favorite is Sand Verbena, a beautiful carpet like plant with incredibly fragrant pink flowers. The best part? They grow in the sand, so you can wriggle your toes in the sand as you delight in that rich perfume. In these same sandy environs you can find another strange plant (if you’re lucky, and go where no one else goes): Cooper’s Broomrape. This strange plant is actually a parasite, which steals its nourishment from the roots of other plants, rather than using leaves like everyone else (thanks to my friend and fellow desert rat & photographer Michael Gordon for the ID).
Not much more to the story, so I’ll let the pictures say it from here. While most of these flowers are on their way out by now, there is plenty more happening, and going to happen, in the coming weeks at higher elevations. It’s not too late to see it, yet! Read the latest reports.
Images © 2016 Floris van Breugel. Licensing questions? Contact me.
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Out of the past three weekends, Aubrey and I managed to spend two of them near Mammoth, CA, in preparation for a trip we hope to do later this spring. Although the main goals for these trips were (a) to remember how ski, and (b) to relearn avalanche safety, we happened to be in the right place at the right time to capture some beautiful light.
Mammoth is particularly special in that it is one of the few places in the world that combines excellent in-bounds and backcountry skiing, desert weather, and natural hot springs. We took full advantage of all of these opportunities! Here’s a few images from our two trips.
After not having seen the ocean in over a year (Los Angeles beaches don’t count), Aubrey and I managed to make two visits in less than two weeks. It was nice to see the rolling waves and smell the fresh, crisp, and salty air again.
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Before Christmas we made a short trip to Washington to spend some time with family and friends, and made a trip to the Olympic Peninsula with some friends to enjoy the cold and wet atmosphere we’d been missing in Southern California. Wandering the wild Olympic coast brought back so many wonderful memories! Despite all the rain, we managed to time our outings such that we barely got wet (an remarkably impressive accomplishment, I might add).
For years I’ve wanted to make an image of the abstract tree-like patterns that form in the sand as water trickles from the shore back to sea. Finally on this trip I found a (small) scene I liked. The tones and shapes seem to merge the character of the Olympic Rainforests with the gloomy, mysterious, and calming coastline, into a single abstract visual poem of sorts.
After returning home, we had an opportunity to see some more of the Pacific, this time in sunny California’s Montaña de Oro State Park. It being winter, the mountains of blooming golden flowers for which the park is named were mostly gray, but the coastline was as inviting as ever. The geology in this part of California’s coast is dominated by the Monterey Formation, which is composed of sedimentary layers that formed 6-16 million years ago. The layers tell a story of cycles of birth and death of diatoms – tiny single celled organisms – that flourished in the nutrient rich waters. Tectonic action compressed the organic material into the beautifully layered rock we see today. The organic origins also produced rich oil deposits, which are extracted by enormous offshore oil drilling rigs that line the coast.
Our route home took us along the famous Monarch butterfly grove near Pismo Beach, which I’d visited once before six years ago. Every winter, Monarch butterflies settle in to roost along the coast from southern California to Mexico. Once the temperatures warm up again, in Feb-March, they’ll start making their way north again. The butterflies take 3-4 generations to reach the northern United States and Canada, and come autumn, the great-great-great-great grandchildren of the butterflies in the Pismo grove will come back. Exactly how they manage to do this is still an active area of research, laden with confusing experiments, but they likely use celestial cues such as the position of the sun, polarization angle, topographical cues, odors, and potentially magnetic signals. Their numbers have dwindled substantially, and groves which used to harbor 100,000 animals now only have 10-20,000. Pismo’s estimated count is currently at 28,000. If you have some garden space, and want to help out these beautiful creatures, plant some milkweed for them this spring!
Finally, I’ll leave you with a miscellaneous abstract I took in our backyard a few month ago or so, of a large Agave, in case you hadn’t seen it yet on my website.
I hope everyone (in America) had a wonderful Thanksgiving! After a delicious feast shared with local friends, I spent the holiday with my parents near Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park. Wednesday brought one of the first major storms of the winter season to the Sierra, which was followed by a clear and cold night. The frigid temperatures and humid air were ideal conditions for hoar frost, which coated just about every surface that wasn’t already covered in snow. I headed up to the park Thursday morning before sunrise, and watched as the golden light illuminated the crystalline forest.
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Last weekend Aubrey and I made a road trip out to Escalante National Monument to explore the strange sandstone landscapes. It’s a bit of a drive, 9 hours one way, but we had the audiobook of The Martian to keep us entertained. It seemed like an especially appropriate choice for our long voyage to the land of red rock and sand. Our first destination was a spot I had been to five years ago. We hiked out through the sandstone landscape to find an area covered in Moqui Marbles – strange shiny black balls ranging in size from peas to avocados. The name comes from the Hopi word Moqui meaning “departed ones.” According to legend, spirits of the dead played with the marbles at night, leaving them on the sandstone to reassure the living that they were enjoying the afterlife.
The scientific explanation for their existence is equally interesting and inspiring. Long ago, portions of the rusty red navajo sandstone were pushed through pockets of oil and natural gas. These hydrocarbons dissolved the iron, stripping the sandstone of its color. When this solution encountered groundwater it oxidized, and the iron precipitated out, forming concretions around sand grains and other oddities. Over time, these tiny concretions attracted more iron precipitate, eventually forming the large avocado sized balls that can be found today. Surprisingly, much of this happened quite recently in geological time – the Escalante marbles range from 2-5 millions years old, and those found in Arizona are as young as 300,000 years.
Landscapes on Earth don’t get much more martian than this – similar kinds of balls were found on Mars (called Martian Blueberries, or Spherules) by the Opportunity rover back in 2004. There are, however, many ways for spherical rocks to form, and it is currently unclear if the Martian balls are the result of a meteor impact, or the same kind of water catalyzed concretion like that which formed the Moqui Marbles.
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Unfortunately the weather forecast for the southwest became stormier and stormier, which meant that any roads that crossed major drainages were at risk of being washed out, and narrow canyons and gorges would could become unsafe to explore. Since we didn’t have the flexibility to hang out behind a washed out road for several days, we decided to play it safe and stayed above the flood zones. This led us to explore some sandstone plateaus I hadn’t visited before. After listening to the rain fall on the awning over our heads for several hours, the clouds parted and we took advantage of the moment to wander the landscape and enjoy the sunset.
With more rain to come, we made the tough decision to abandon our original plans for good, and headed east into Nevada. Shortly after passing through Cedar City we entered the biggest rain/hail/thunder storm I’ve ever encountered. Our visibility went from a mile to a meter in a matter of seconds. The deluge of rain and hail hit the car so hard that we could barely even hear the thunder striking the hills within a mile of us. Fortunately we were able to slow down without hitting anything, or getting hit, and made it to the other side of the storm cell safely.
After entering Nevada, we left the freeway to explore some red rock pockets of the Mojave desert. We were welcomed by an ironic sign, perhaps placed there to keep uninformed desert wanderers away. We pushed on, and set up camp next to a fairyland of red rock sculptures. The storm raged on all around us, but this little desert valley seemed to be immune to lightning strikes as none came closer than 15 miles of us.
The following day we explored the area, finding hundreds of little sandstone alcoves and strange shapes. My favorite structures resembled tiny villages and castles. I imagine these tiny towns were once inhabited by little martian creatures that abandoned their own planet in favor of Earth. But, the rain was too much for those desert dwellers, and they’ve since perished, leaving behind their sandy homes to melt and crumble away.
I’ve been quite busy this summer, and unfortunately have not had the opportunity for quite as many adventures as I (and Aubrey) would have liked. I have, however, visited Mono Lake in eastern California several times for a research project I’m working on. Although most of those images will have to wait, I thought I could share a few unrelated ones from the area.
On one of my trips my father paid a visit, and scouted the surrounding hills for interesting places to camp. In his explorations he discovered a plateau covered in flowers, and convinced me I simply had to go check it out. Well, it was nothing short of spectacular, complete with a herd of wild horses – it’s amazing that for someone who’s explored California for several decades there’s still always something new to find! That evening I was also surprised by a gigantic lined june beetle, clearly a male in search of a mate, whose pheromones he was hoping to find with his oversized flabelliform antennae.
Academic mentoring obligations kept me away from the Sierra for a longer trip, but Aubrey and our friends Randy, Cyndi, and Kevin, made it out to Sky Blue Lake for a short weekend. True to its name, the lake, and the skies, were remarkably blue. Being surrounded by the crisp mountain air and enormous piles of granite is such a wonderful feeling!
On my most recent trip to Mono Lake fall was finally starting to arrive. My father, along with my cousin and her boyfriend, camped high up in the surrounding hills and enjoyed the last rays of sunshine as the set over the distant Sierra crest. The following day, after finding myself surrounded by a photography workshop near the popular tufa formations, I explored some areas of Mono Lake I hadn’t yet visited where I found throngs of migratory birds, instead of people!
The final image I am sharing is one that might take a little explanation, a little head scratching on your part, and most certainly you’ll have to see it much larger (click the image, and I hope you have a large monitor). As you likely know, I study the behavior of flies (and mosquitoes), with a particular interest in understanding the neural basis for their behavior. While I have not done much of my own imaging of fly brains, I am intimately familiar with how they look. So, when I was waiting for the sun to go down along the shores of the lake and I saw these grasses, I thought, hey, that looks vaguely reminiscent of the sorts of shapes I might see in a fly brain. After I took a few images, an actual fly happened to land, in focus, in the picture I had already composed. I quickly made an exposure before it took off again. Perhaps the fly also had an interest in the inner workings of its own brain?
A few weeks ago as Aubrey and I boarded a plane headed for Juneau the flight attendants looked at our hiking boots and backpacks and asked joyfully, “going backpacking?” “Nope,” we replied, “we’re going to a wedding!” Truth be told, we were a little out of place with our hiking boots – we should have been wearing Xtratufs, the tall brown rubber rain boots everyone in Alaska has at least 3 pairs of. After spending the night in Juneau, we boarded a catamaran with 150 or more other guests headed for the small village of Pelican (the typical population is less than 100).
Somehow our friends who were getting married not only planned the wedding and transportation, but also managed to find a place for everyone to stay despite doubling, or perhaps even tripling, the population for the weekend.
The ever present rain lightened up for the ceremony on the beach, and afterwards we feasted on smoked and grilled salmon, halibut, herring egg salad, and crab. All of which was of course caught within a few hours boat ride of Pelican.
After the wedding, our friends graciously ferried a group of us to the White Sulphur Hotsprings on the outer coast of Chichagof Island. Here, a hundred yards above the storm tide line, are two pleasantly hot pools: one outside, and one with a wood cabin built around it with an open window to the Pacific. For two nights we enjoyed the remote location, the hot pools, and the crackling fires.
The long days (3am-11pm) gave us plenty of time to explore the coastline on either side of the hot springs. We saw whales, otters, birds, and lots of bear poop. It was refreshing to return to such a green and wet place, so full of life, and so devoid of human impact.
On our first evening the clouds parted, and we saw the sun for the first and only time that week. I hiked out to a spot Aubrey and I had found earlier in the day across the bay from the hot springs. Here, small rain water pools were surrounded by zen arrangements of moss and miniature trees. There was plenty of evidence of bears enjoying this spot, too, but fortunately they let me be that evening.
Click image for larger view – in the full res version you can see the hot spring cabin across the bay.
This past week Aubrey and I escaped the holiday crowds, the southern desert heat, and the Sierra rains, by exploring the White Mountains in eastern California. This is one of the only areas in California where you can drive to a high enough altitude that the summer temperatures are tolerable. Fortunately, the lengthy approach and lack of water keeps most people out.
This high alpine desert paradise is most famous for the bristlecone pines (Pinus longaeva). At least one of these tough trees has eked out a living in this dry and wind and lightning battered landscape for over 5,000 years. The average trees range in age from 1,000 to 2,000 years old, making them the real “millennials” of the world. Over these nearly geological time scales, rocks shift, and even entire mountain sides can slide away. But, the toughest of the trees manage to find what little soil is available, clinging to life in the most unlikely places.
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Holding on to their rocky perches requires an immense amount of strength, and their exposed wood bodies reveal burly layers of cellulose muscle and sinew marred by scrapes, bruises, and fractures. These weathered souls have suffered for longer than all of mankind’s recorded history.
Between the solitary trees are acres upon acres of sage land. Afternoon thunderstorms pound the landscape with rain, releasing powerfully sweet and savory smells that waft through the valleys. Life isn’t easy for the sage, either, though. Scores of dead and dying shrubs litter the landscape, like an exhumed graveyard. They are not forgotten, however. Many of their bodies are adorned with summer flowers, breathing seasonal life into their forgotten souls.
Judging by the plentiful droppings we saw, I’m certain there is quite a bit of wildlife in the valleys; but the rabbits, deer, and predators made themselves scarce. We did, however, come upon a solitary member of the white mountain wild horse herd. The white mountains are home to 75 wild horses, whose origin likely dates back to escaped ranch horses from the 1870’s.
Last weekend Aubrey and I found some time to go backpacking in the Sierra. Coming from the heat of Pasadena, it was nice to cool off in the mountains again. The weather was a strange mix – we simultaneously had 65° temperatures and warm sun, while graupel (a cross between snow and hail) blew in from some distant clouds.
As you may well know, California is in the throes of its fourth year of a major drought. Snowpack in the Sierra was at 5% of normal a month ago, and last weeks snowpack survey was cancelled on account of there not being any snow to survey. These numbers, however, and even photographs of barren mountains and empty lakes, aren’t as moving as seeing the issues first hand. In a normal year, lakes at 10,000 feet in the Sierra begin to thaw in late June. On our trip last weekend to the Big Pine lakes at 10,000 feet, we were surprised to find no snow, and no ice, in the first weekend of May.
Even more surprising was the lake level of 2nd lake, which was thirty or more feet below it’s recent historical level. If you look closely you will see an unnatural bathtub ring around the lake shore in the image above. Apparently many years ago LA Water & Power built a damn to increase the capacity of the lake, and drilled a tunnel from 2nd lake to 1st lake to make it possible to drain it almost completely in the case of a severe drought. Well, the time has come. From the lingering ice lining the shore, it is apparent that within the last few months alone the lake level has dropped almost 20 feet. I wouldn’t be surprised if the lake is entirely empty before the end of the year.
The scarcity of water isn’t just a problem for the states agriculture, drinking water, etc. Many of our trees are too thirsty and stressed to fight off the invasion of pine beetles, and before long large swathes of the forests blanketing the low elevation Sierra may be dead.
On the bright side, with all these dead and dying trees, colorful abstracts of weathered wood will be everywhere. That is, so long as the wildfires don’t destroy the entire landscape. [/end sarcasm]
The first step in making change is admitting that there is indeed a problem. Currently, within city limits (at least in my neighborhood) one would hardly know there is a drought at all. Lawns are still green, and sprinklers are still running. In fact, many sidewalks are frequently soaked in water early in the morning. That water, at least in part, is coming from those precious backcountry lakes like 2nd lake. This separation between consumption and destruction seems to be a general problem underlying so many of the issues in our society today.
Perhaps it’s time we take some inspiration from the native environments that survive on the minimal water that is locally available. Before our trip to the mountains Aubrey and I spent a night in the Alabama Hills outside of Lone Pine. We hiked out to some of my favorite granite boulders, and on the way back Aubrey spotted a small blooming beavertail cactus. There is a certain beauty in these simple, austere, landscapes. Perhaps us Californian’s can learn a thing or two about aesthetics from the desert landscape that surrounds us.
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To be fair, there are a few attractive water-friendly yards around, but you do have to look pretty hard to find them!