Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Tioga Pass - May 2016

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"It hasta be Shasta!"

This is how it started out. When we last skied with our buddy Mr. Randonee, the Lady and he set a date for a spring ski trip together to Mount Shasta. We all started watching the weather. As the date neared, the destination changed. "I'm doing a trip to Shasta Memorial Day Weekend," Mr. Randonee (aka Ted) said. "How 'bout we head to the Sierra East Side so I don't do the ski and drive north twice?" he asked.

The Lady agreed. "That's a much easier drive for us and we already know spots to camp."

Ted had a plan. "Let's ski Dana on Saturday and False White on Sunday."

"It hasta be Shasta!" morphed into "Dana will be dandy!"

California's highway 120 crosses the Sierra Nevada crest at Tioga Pass and traverses through Yosemite National Park's incredible high country. Closed all winter long, highway 120's annual spring opening is a celebrated event. The east side from Lee Vining to the Park Boundary at Tioga Pass opened the weekend before. The west side through Yosemite from Crane Flat to Tioga Pass opened on Wednesday with media fanfare. For our access needs, the planets were aligned.

Friday evening's trip south on highway 395 was an easy drive, except for the pounding wind out of the southwest roaring down the eastern front of the Sierra. The peaks were capped with a shroud of clouds clinging to the crest against the force of the storm winds. I checked road conditions prior to departure. Monitor Pass on highway 89 was open as was Ebbetts Pass on highway 4.  Overhead signs on 395 now announced they were both closed. It was hard to stand against the wind as we popped the camper top and set up camp in the granite outcroppings just north of Mono Lake. Wind buffeting the camper rocked us into a deep and sound sleep.

The weather looked promising Saturday morning. 

But if conditions did not warrant a climb to Dana's summit, we could always find something fun to do. As planned, we met the rest of our group at Whoa Nellie Deli at 7 am at highway 120's intersection with 395. It was cold, not our wished for warm weather with a promise of spring corn snow to harvest. Even colder was that sign that announced, "Road Closed 4 miles ahead." Tioga Pass had closed overnight.

Ted suggested looking at the Virginia Lakes area. We headed north. Ted was waiting at the intersection with Dunderberg Meadows Road. "Let's look at the east ridge of Dunderberg Peak." This is all familiar territory to us and today would be a opportunity to explore it on skis, our favorite mode of travel.

Dunderberg Meadows Road was immediately blocked with snow drifts. They were hard as a rock and Mr. Randonee, in his Dodge Durango, led the way up and over each one. Kevin and Christine followed in Kevin's new Subaru Outback. We followed up with our truck. The snow drifts across the road continued in the shady areas, one after the other. How would this be coming back out later in the day, especially if, by chance, the weather warmed? We all had shovels, if the need arose. All it would take was work.

We turned the vehicles onto a steep two track spur road and climbed until we reached snow. This would do for a trailhead.

Skis were on then skis were off as we climbed wanting to reach continuous snow coverage. The terrain steepened. With hard icy snow it was near impossible to get a ski edge to bite. Six people were now lashing skis to packs and booting up. Ted was able to kick in the smallest of toe holds with his Alpine Touring gear. The Lady and I were the only ones on tele gear and our duck billed boots were not up to these marginal toe holds. Ted took a slide into a tree. Christine pulled her crampons on. The Lady was not having fun and wondering why should we climb this miserable crap just to ski hard icy boiler plate. I could see it in her eyes. I called up to Ted. "Ted, we know this area very well. The Lady and I are going to traverse to the right and around the ridge and ski into the big basin just to the north of Dunderberg. If you guys make the ridge, we'll get a visual on you." Ted was fine with us breaking away from the group.

On an easier route out in the open, we climbed until we reached continuous snow.

The clouds indicated strong winds were still roaring over the crest.

It was obvious storm was coming back in for the afternoon but we'd take advantage of the break as long as we could. It was pure joy to be up here.

Rounding the corner we could see the cloud bank coming over the crest.

We also saw a lot of fun ski terrain with better spring conditions. All in all, even on this more northern aspect, snow coverage was patchy. We skied down to tiny Dunderberg Lake.

There was much new ice around the circumference of the lake and Dunderberg Peak was just above.

We found a low spot out of the biting wind and had lunch. We wanted to see if the wind would allow us to climb up to the crest of Kavanaugh Ridge, but thunder to the north suggested thunderstorms were also building and our instincts said not to go higher. We skied back down, a bumpy ride on this boiler plate. After crossing the bottom of the final bowl coming off the ridge, the unmistakable chatter of skis on hard snow told us the rest of our group was descending. They wanted to stay and yoyo in the basin awhile and work on icy snow turns. We'd head out and meet them Sunday morning again at Whoa Nellie Deli.

Back at the truck we descended back to Dunderberg Meadow Road and headed north to see if the way was clear to Green Creek Road since it was all downhill. We drove around a few downed trees and stopped and moved a couple off the road. On the steep side hill just before Dunderberg Meadows, the road was blocked with an large snow bank that was impossible to cross or dig out. We had to turn around and deal with all those snow drifts we had crossed in the morning. We did not make the crest of the first challenge. The Lady does not take well to the notion, "We just need a little bit more speed." We backed off and lined up for a run at it. The Lady closed her eyes. "I'm glad you're not driving!" I said.

"I do trust you. I just don't like this," she sighed before the blinders went on. We were easily up and over. Back out to pavement we left a message on Ted's phone - call to let us know they made it out and we'd come back in if they needed help digging.

Since we were so close, we drove up to Virginia Lakes. The road was clear to the end. It was lightly snowing.

We heard a "woo who" from up in a high bowl and watched two free heel skiers very carefully skid turns on their descent.

Two Belding's Ground Squirrels were quite enamored with the Lady.

Back in Lee Vining, we made a stop, as suggested by Ted, for a hot shower at the Mono Vista RV Park.  Stop in the office (before 6 pm) for a $3 shower token that gets you five minutes of decadent bliss. The facility is well kept, clean, comfortable, with easy access.

The sign at the bottom said Tioga Pass was open! It was late afternoon in blowing snow when we pulled up to the Park Entrance Station at the top.

"I got a geezer card!" I said to the happy young woman, looking good in her NPS campaign hat.

"Let me see it!" she smiled.

She turned it over in her hand and asked, "And what is your name?"

I passed the test. "You've been trained well," I said and then asked, "How's your day going?

"It's cold in here!" she said but still smiled.

"Well, it's plenty warm in here." I remarked about inside our truck.

"So can I climb in there with you two?"

"Sure!" the Lady and I both answered.

We almost had a new adopted daughter.

The pass was encased in storm.

We settled in at a campsite on the south side of Mono Lake for Saturday night. It was fairly sheltered from the wind.

The weather was a mixed bag with clouds still streaming over the Sierra crest.

Thunderstorm and a veil of rain hemmed us in to the east.

We still went for a long walk after dinner. Evidence of spring's new life was all around us.

Rain pattered on the camper roof overnight but Sunday dawned with clear skies.

It was clear and cold.

And yes, someday we'll fix that 12 hour error with the clock.

We couldn't have asked for a more spectacular place to wake up at.

We met our group again at Whoa Nellie Deli at 7 am ready to take advantage of this great weather. But we were confronted with that sign again, "Road Closed 4 Miles Ahead." Tioga Pass had closed overnight. 

We decided to wait it out, figuring ice was the issue and with a little sun beating down on it the road would open. And it did, right at a proper bureaucratic time of 9 am, sharp.

We gathered gear and suited up at the trailhead at the intersection with Saddlebag Lake Road.

There was around an inch or two of new snow. The group was obviously in a buoyant mood with great weather and good friends. They even took direction when asked to get into position for a photo.

Our group consisted of Wayne, the kid, the couple, Christine and Kevin, the Lady and Ted, aka Mr. Randonee. The lady and I were on our light tele/backcountry gear and all the others were on alpine touring (Randonee) set ups. When did skis get so big and wide? The Lady and I were feeling like we had just awoke from a Rip Van Winkle nap.

After a little aborted route finding - due to lack of good snow cover -  we dropped into the Lee Vining Creek drainage and climbed. What splendid country this is!

The pyramid of Mount Dana loomed behind us.

We climbed the steep ridge separating the Lee Vining Creek drainage from Mine Creek and its chain of small lakes. We topped out on a knob. 

Two young women we had met near the parking lot were keeping pace with us. The Lady and I called them Split Board Girl and AT Girl. Early in the trip, after crossing a wet area, we had stopped and helped Split Board Girl when her climbing skins clumped up with frozen snow and ice. Without a scraper and skin wax, she was in a world of hurt and unable to clean up the mess.

This knob gave us our first view of False White, a gorgeous ski summit.

We dropped into the basin and crossed the snow covered Fantail Lake. And then we climbed.

The Lady was ecstatic to be back up in her favorite terrain.

The summit of False White was above us.

I was having trouble. I was breathing hard. This was not me; I just go up mountains without a problem. What was going on? I felt anxious, a bit light headed, and that I was hyperventilating. Weird, damn weird. When I stopped, my recovery was as I expect, my pulse rate dropped almost immediately. The Lady said it was allergies. At home we are living in a dust storm of pine pollen. Whatever it was I quickly made the decision I would go no higher. I would not become a liability to the group.

The Lady would hear nothing about going to the top without me. Ted suggested at least she climb into the bowl above and enjoy the steep descent down to my perch. And a fine perch it was. The views from here were incredible.

Ted, Wayne, and the Lady climbed the steep pitch.

Christine and Kevin followed.

Split Board Girl also continued up.

I heard the Lady bid farewell to our friends and then Christine and Kevin watched her cut her first turns down.

She was looking good and in her groove!

I don't think it could have been done better.

"AT Girl and Split Board Girl were funny," the Lady said as she joined me. "They asked why you had stopped and I told them you weren't feeling well and that I was not leaving you alone. They wanted to give me Oreo cookies to take to you."

"That was very nice of them to offer," I replied.

"That's not the funny thing," the Lady went on. "They both said they sure wished they'd still be able to do this stuff when they were forty!"

I laughed. I knew what was coming next.

The Lady continued. "I told them they needed to look a little closer. I'm sixty and one of the fellows ahead of you is seventy-three."

It was wonderful carving turns down to Fantail Lake. We took a long break, ate, drank, and evaluated how I was doing. If I breathed hard, my anxiety rose. My lungs just felt weird. I could blame it on the breathtaking views before us.

We looked up at the summit that eluded us today. We had no regrets about making a cautious and prudent decision.

Back on top of the knob above Fantail Lake we turned and took a last look at False White. Two skiers had just cut first tracks down from the summit. Ted, Wayne, and Split Board Girl are climbing mid slope. Kevin and Christine are on the flat, getting ready to ascend.

This was a day in the high Sierra to live for and we thank Ted for the introduction to this peak.

The steep skiing through the timber on the slopes back down to Lee Vining Creek was thrilling. It's the kind of skiing we love. You have to make your turns.

Back down in the wide valley along Lee Vining Creek, it was a glide back down to the truck and camper. We just had to point the skis toward Mount Dana.

A remarkable sight greeted us on our arrival back at the trailhead. It was a perfect end to a challenging, refreshing, and exhilarating weekend of skiing the Sierra Nevada high country. The ice crystals in the wisp of a cloud produced a rainbow across the sky above us. 

Since we had a late start with the highway closure over Tioga Pass, we arrived at home a little before dark. The next morning as I walked from the bedroom to the kitchen the Lady asked how I felt. My eyes were watering, almost shut, my sinuses were completely stuffed up, and I was coughing.

"See?" she said, "Allergies. Pine pollen is everywhere."

I admitted she was right. "Once I get moving and get to work I forget all about it." 

But we will be hard pressed to forget about the fun we had this weekend, it was such a great time. We hope you all get some enjoyment from this tale of our adventure. Thanks for reading.


  1. Thanks Dan, in such marvelous terrain how could it not have been?

  2. Awesome! Excellent, inspiring narrative. And that rainbow!!!