Although the storm had been forecast, scores of climbers and backpackers had misjudged how severe it would be. Longtime rangers said it had the character—and duration—of a January blizzard, not an October surprise. By week’s end, the search for some 30 hikers and climbers stranded up and down the Sierra Nevada made CNN.Special Report: Six Nights on the Dark Tower, Daniel Duane, National Geographic Adventure, Feb 2005 (Issue 47)
Twenty percent chance of precipitation. That was the prediction from the NOAA website before we departed for one of our more memorable trips to the High Sierra. It was late October and our plan was to squeeze in one last dry land trip before the snow started to fall and our focus shifted to snow sports. Little did we know that two weeks later we would be pointing our tips downhill at Kirkwood to kick off our earliest ski season on record.
Our plan was simple…and stupid. One weekend, round-trip summit bid on Mt. Langley. Never mind that the trailhead was a nine hour drive from San Francisco and the hike itself was 21 miles round trip – topping out at 14,026 feet. Simple facts such as these are no match for ignorance and exuberance. A big storm was predicted to hit the Sierra at some point, but the specifics of where and when were a bit cloudy, and that was good enough for us.
On the same weekend, one year prior, Jody and I stood atop White Mountain – California’s third highest peak and the first Fourteener for both of us. We hoped luck would be on our side again as we made another late season trip. This time around we were joined by our friend, the irrepressible Ben Sabraw – a man that is one half court jester, one half Six Million Dollar Man, and just dumb enough to think this plan made sense.
None of us could take Friday off, so the best we could do was a 4PM departure from San Francisco. The roads were clear as we made our way east – out of the Bay Area, through the Central Valley, into Yosemite and over Tioga Pass. By the time we gassed up in Bishop, the supercomputers at the National Weather Service predicted a storm could blow through as soon as Saturday night. Never a group to exercise caution in the face of scientific reason, and buoyed by the fact that Ben’s barometer was holding steady, we pushed on and arrived at the trailhead around 1AM Saturday morning. Our initial plan to hike through the night to Cottonwood Lakes was put to rest by tired eyes and freezing temperatures. We threw our sleeping bags down near the car and called it a night.
Up for an early start the next morning, we hit the trail for the relatively level, 6-mile hike to the Cottonwood Lakes basin. We made pretty good time and found a great campsite near Cottonwood Lake #3. Jody had decided to lay low and play the role of Basecamp Bunny while Ben and I made our way for the summit. Our original plan called for a chill day on Saturday and an alpine start Sunday morning. But the weather was holding steady and it was only 11AM, so we decided to make a dash for the top. We opted for the Old Army Pass route – a long slog over a rocky pass, leading to an equally unglamorous slog up scree slopes to the mountain’s summit. Langley isn’t exactly Sierra climbing at its aesthetic best, but it’s still an interesting hike up a big damn mountain.
Less than a mile from camp, just as we started making our way up Old Army Pass, we got sucker-punched by unexpected snow on the route. Neither of us had planned for snow. Postings on the summitpost message board indicated the trail was clear and dry as recently as the prior weekend. The snow looked fresh and couldn’t have been more than a few days old. We didn’t have ice-axes or crampons and our choice in footwear was better suited for a long, dry hike than a snowy one. We tried to ignore it for a few hundred feet, but as it got deeper we realized the obvious – this mountain would just have to wait. The hike up didn’t concern us so much as coming down – especially if we ran into problems and had to make the descent in the dark after the snow had firmed up.
Never a group to exercise caution in the face of scientific reason…we pushed on…
Jody was a bit surprised when she saw us return to camp only an hour after we had left, but she was glad to see we had turned around rather than taking a chance. The sky was clear and the barometer was still holding steady, so we decided to enjoy an afternoon in the mountains and hike out the next morning. Jody and I spent the better part of the afternoon shooting an assignment for my photography class, while Ben took a nap by the lake. As soon as the sun fell behind the ridgeline, the mercury took a nose dive and we hurried to get some dinner cooked so we could get to bed as soon as possible.
We crashed on the early side – Jody and I in our tiny hoop tent and Ben nearby in his bivy sack. All across the Sierra, from Mt. Whitney to El Capitan, climbers and hikers were settling in for the night, unaware that the mother of all snowstorms was about to hit us like a ton of bricks. We woke briefly around 3AM to the faint sound of snow hitting our tent fly. By the time we woke up at first light, we knew that hanging around wasn’t an option – 11,000 feet, six miles deep isn’t a good place to be during a Sierra snowstorm. Thick clouds overhead blocked out the sun. A steady wind gave the modest snowfall a bit more gravitas. A few inches had fallen overnight. A quick survey of the trail offered some relief, as it was still somewhat visible under the blanket of white.
We broke camp fast and started moving with some purpose. We lost the trail while crossing the Cottonwood Lakes basin, but had ourselves straightened out before we ran into trouble. Once the route ducked into the trees, the sparse canopy offered some shelter from the snow, but the trail was slick and we had to watch our step. We were so rushed to get moving that morning, we hadn’t taken the time to eat. After an hour of hiking, we decided to take a break and recharge with some snacks. While we munched away, a solo hiker stopped by and asked if he could join us for the hike out. Like us, it was his first time in the area, and we all figured it was best to team up. We soon realized this was the same guy we saw float tube fishing at Cottonwood Lake #5 the previous day. Hauling that kind of gear into the backcountry at this elevation requires a pretty salty fisherman – we were impressed. Before long, we ran into two more hikers making their escape. The six of us leapfrogged each other all the way back to the trailhead.
It was a relief to see the snow wasn’t sticking to the asphalt. The long road down to Big Pine isn’t one you want to negotiate with snow or ice on the road. Staring back at the Sierra Crest from the safety of the Owens Valley was a humbling sight. The High Sierra was socked in and taking a beating. We felt lucky to have made it out of there without much trouble. While gassing up, we heard the news that Tioga Pass had been closed – blocking off our most direct route home. It’s always a game of chance around October/November – trying to schedule one more trip to the Eastern Sierra before Tioga closes. What are the chances that it’s going to happen over the course of a weekend trip? With the route through Yosemite closed, our next fastest option was an end run around the High Sierra – over Walker Pass and through BAKERSFIELD, BABY, BAKERSFIELD! A few more hours in the car is hardly worth mentioning when compared to the complete hell that several groups of hikers and climbers were up against.
Just outside of Bakersfield, Jody picked up a worried message from her mom, who had been had been hearing news about several search and rescue operations being launched throughout the Sierra. The storm was even more serious than we thought. Most of these searches ended happily over the next several days with parties making it out under their own power or with some assistance from SAR teams. Two Japanese climbers, however, met a more tragic end on the unforgiving vertical of El Capitan in Yosemite Valley. The rescue efforts in Yosemite prompted a Special Report in National Geographic Adventure (Feb, 2005) and made the cover of Rock & Ice magazine.
The whole experience, while exciting, was a stark reminder of how important it is to heed the warning signs around you and to respond without hesitation. We all walked away that weekend relieved to be safe, and with a renewed respect for the awesome power of Mother Nature.
You may be wondering, “Why so many photos of Matt below?” Well, I was working on an assignment for a photo class that weekend involving self portraits. Yes, I am trying to look cool. Yes, I am trying way too hard.
This post is part of the SierraSoul Archive. The trip took place in October, 2004 (or thereabouts).