Adventures in hiking…

Posts tagged “crossing frozen creeks

Yosemite – Frozen Lower Cathedral Lake

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Sometimes there are not enough words to describe Yosemite.  It is a land of enchantment, meaning one will fall in love with it. Today, we had another opportunity to venture out near the Tioga Road and explore.   We actually stayed in a hotel in Bishop and drove in to the park through the east gate.    I am jealous of fellow blogger http://califraven.wordpress.com/ who lives nearby.  Her blog is refreshing and provides a neat perspective on this beautiful area.

It was a chilly 19 degrees F when we pulled into Tuolumne Meadows.  Our plan was to hike up to Lower Cathedral Lake and poke around.  No one else was silly enough to hike this early but we were prepared.  Bundled up with a couple of layers, we hit the trail crunching through the old snow.  The snow was from a storm last November.   Unfortunately, it has been a light snow year in the Sierras.  It was New Years Day 2012 and a great way to start the year.

After 20 minutes of hiking through snow, we had to peel off a layer of clothing.  Funny, because the temps were still in the low 20’s.  As long as we were walking, it was warm.  Stop for too long and the cold sets in.  We hit the main junction going up to Cathedral and the elevation change was around 600-700 ft. per mile.  In the spring/summer, this is a very popular trail.

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As we ascended, the silence of the forest enveloped us.  Sometimes the only sounds were my labored breathing and crunch of the snow under my feet.  As the sun broke through the clouds, it began to warm up some.  A Steller’s Jay followed us, watching us from a distance.  They are curious birds and like to observe humans.

The trail comes to a junction where the JMT keeps straight and the path to Lower Cathedral Lake breaks right.   There were multiple frozen streams to cross and it was difficult to follow the trail.  While it was a low snow year up here, the temperatures are still below freezing each night.  The creeks appeared to be frozen instantly in time.  It was an amazing sight to see.

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A creek that appears to have frozen instantly

I so wanted to slide down the frozen creek, but wisdom prevailed.  We picked our way around the icy streams and managed to follow the trail where it emerged in a meadow.  By following the frozen streams, we made it to the lake.  A strange sound emanated from the shore.  It sounded like humpback whales clicking and groaning.   It was an awesome experience.  By now, the temps were around 40 and the sun was out.  The granite slabs that surrounded the shore were flat and warm.

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The sound of the ice shifting was amazing.

We observed a few brave (if not foolish) souls venturing out on the lake about a half mile away.  We had lunch and took plenty of pics and listened to the sounds of the ice as it shifted and bumped against the granite shore.   I imagined how the glaciers of long ago formed this area.  This wonderful landscape has a way of capturing your soul.  For me, it reminded me that places like this were created for our enjoyment.  I wanted to linger, but knew that the days were short and the trip down could be slippery.  Some spots were steep with ice that melted and refroze.

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Cathedral Peak from the frozen shore of Lower Cathedral Lake.

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It looks like we are right on the water, but actually 8-10 ft. above on a granite slab.

The wooded area near the lake looked the same from the shoreline.  Fortunately, I set a waypoint  on the GPS and used it to follow our course in reverse.  We came across a few more people and pointed them in the direction of the lake.  The descent was a little challenging as we tried to keep our balance.  After this trip, I would get us some microspikes that slip over the boots.  Found some good ones here:  Kahtoola MICROspikes Traction System

This hike was quite the adventure.  If you have the opportunity to make it to Yosemite in the winter, see if the Tioga Road is open.  The trek to Lower Cathedral Lake is one that you shouldn’t pass up.  It’s not far from the Tuolumne Visitor Center which is closed during the winter.  You can park along the road.  Bonus:  If you enter through the east gate on (Tioga Road)  in the winter, you don’t pay the $20 park fee because no one staffs the entrance gate.  Round trip on Lower Cathedral Lake trail is approximately 7-8 miles from the trailhead.

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In The Last 30 Years…..

Entering the Tioga Pass Road

The Tioga Pass Road was open this late in the winter one other time.  In 1999 it was open for a week before closing on January 1, 2000.

We decided on a four day getaway to get a winter glimpse of Yosemite.   Having visited in the fall, we were hoping to do some day hikes in the northern sections of the park near Tuolumne Meadows.  A winter storm could close the Tioga Pass Road at any time, often for 6 months or more.  This was a rare opportunity to drive this road and avoid the bulk of the winter tourists, who gravitated toward the Yosemite Valley and Badger Pass Ski Resort.  Since we didn’t have snowshoes, we were hoping to find some accessible trails.  With maps and GPS in hand and bundled for the 25 degree temps, we hit the Glen Aulin trail near Lembert Dome.   What a  pleasant surprise to find mostly snow covered trails.  The last time it snowed was from a November storm.  Due to the frigid nights,  it was a hard, crusty snow and the trail was easily discernible due to the footprints of those that had gone before.

Easily discernible until we hit the first frozen creek that is.   The Glen Aulin trail starts out following the Tuolumne River which was partially frozen as it meanders around the meadows.  The creeks that normally fed it were frozen solid, or were they?  Not having any experience crossing frozen water, we diverted upstream to a narrow crossing, found a fallen log and quickly lost the trail.  We discovered more frozen streams and creeks and the white landscape with granite bolders made for a serene, beautiful view.

First of many frozen creek crossings

I discovered my maps of Yosemite with well marked trails, had grids that were approximately 1000 meters square.  My GPS provides coordinates that when plotted on these maps gets you to within a few hundred meters.   A trail that is 2-3 feet wide, and covered in snow with 200 ft conifers obscuring most landmarks becomes very hard to find.  Oh well, we had plenty of daylight, warm clothes, lots of water and a chance to work on my land navigation skills.  Ok, so my map skills have atrophied, but I knew that most creeks empty into a river.  Well sometimes they end at a waterfall.  Mary, who has learned to trust my bumbling ways, patiently followed me as we picked our way through deeper snow and 20% bolder covered grades.    After an hour , we found Dingley Creek, did our best attempt at the balance beam (log) and ended up on the trail again.  A quick lunch and we were headed towards Tuolumne Falls, the new objective.

We came to a cliff face and lost the trail again.  We knew that we had to get down to the river, so we did some bouldering and dropped down about 40ft.  It was fun and scary at the same time.  Afterwards, I thought, “thank you Lord for keeping us safe.”  We made it to what was Tuolumne Falls with a neat footbridge.  The river was completely frozen at this point and we could hear gurgling under the ice.

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The shadows were getting long and we hoofed it back.  Mary, who is like a horse heading back to the barn on the return leg, missed the bear tracks and scat.   She did keep me on a good pace and the trip back was uneventful.

Lessons Learned:  1. You will often get lost when hiking.  Keep your wits about you and don’t panic.  2. Unbuckle your backpack straps when crossing water, even if it is frozen.  A pack can pull you under.  3. Hiking is more fun if you do it with someone that you enjoy.