A winter excursion into the Sierra Nevada has been high on my photographic to-do list for a number of years. Specifically, the western edge of Sequoia National Park, which is home to the world’s last remaining groves of giant sequoia. Hiking into the wilderness in the dead of winter isn’t to be taken lightly, especially when solo, and I knew a trip like this would require some planning. My goal; to photograph the magnificent sequoia trees under a blanket of fresh snow.
With a few snow trips under my belt, I felt up to the task. Winter backpacking might seem like old hat to some, but I’ll admit that the thought of spending several nights in the wilderness, alone and in inclement weather, still intimidates me. These adventures help me grow as a person, though, and I always seem to learn something about myself when I face new challenges. All the drama aside, this trip was going to be a lot of fun.
The weather forecast called for two days of moderate snowfall, followed by clearing skies. This was the opportunity I had been waiting for. I would drive into Sequoia National Park and park near the trailhead, spend a few nights in the backcountry, and then return to my truck and exit via the freshly-plowed road. The Generals Highway between Grant Grove and Lodgepole closes during storms, and can remain closed for weeks at a time if the conditions warrant. In other words, you need to get in before a storm arrives, and you’ll be stuck unless the weather clears.
I arrived in the afternoon and parked at the turnout for Quail Flat, near the junction with unpaved and unplowed Forest Route 14S75. I installed snow chains on the rear wheels of my 4WD, kicked the tires for good luck, and began hiking down the unplowed road. The snow was firmly packed and I made fast progress in boots. After two miles of uneventful plodding, I made it to the Redwood Mountain trailhead. The trail marker was almost completely buried in snow, and I donned my snowshoes.
The weather was good, but shortly after I began my descent into the canyon, it took a turn for the worse. It started to rain lightly, and I decided to stop and unpack my waterproof jacket and pack cover. Wet clothing is an uncomfortable nuisance in the summer, but can be legitimately dangerous in winter conditions.
Despite my efforts, it was impossible to follow the trail and I started heading cross country, using my GPS and map as a guide. I learned to navigate using a map and compass, and I still find it easier than relying on a tiny GPS screen. My GPS device does come in handy when I need to pinpoint an exact location, or retrace my route.
Picking my way through the forest wasn’t easy, and scrambling over obstacles while wearing snowshoes is pretty low on my list of fun activities. Have you ever tried climbing over a fallen sequoia trunk the size of a school bus? Neither have I. Five minute detour.
After a couple of hours, I had made some real progress and found myself deep in a grove of giant sequoias. A cold, light rain filtered through the canopy, and I suddenly felt as if I had been miniaturized. Standing at the base of these ancient trees, one cannot help but contemplate the insignificant nature of human existence. It occurred to me that, in the context of Earth’s geology, even these giant trees are nothing more than a fleeting wisp of ephemeral beauty. A few pockets of big trees remain, the rest having been wiped out by advancing glaciers, climate change, and more recently, commercial logging. Millions of years from now, the Sierra Nevada itself might erode away, or become a vast sea mount under the Pacific. I stood at the base of a fire-scarred tree and felt it’s soft bark with my hands, and for just a moment, insignificant or not, time stood still.
The rain continued in fits and starts, and I decided to make my camp near Redwood Creek, so that I would have access to a convenient water source. I packed in extra fuel so that I’d be able to melt snow for drinking water, but dipping my bottle into the ice-cold creek would be easier and more satisfying. As I normally do when hiking in the Sierra Nevada, I collected my water and drank it raw and unfiltered. I’ve never gotten sick, and while there are some acknowledged risks, I’ve come to believe that it is quite safe (provided one uses good judgment in selecting a water source).
I staked out my tent, ate dinner (freeze-dried lasagna), and retired for the evening.
Sometime after midnight, it began to snow. It was a heavy, wet snow, as if someone was dripping a melted slushy over my tent. When I’m half-awake, the unexpected sound of snow sliding off the top of the fly sounds alarmingly similar to a bear attempting to enter my tent. Other than a moment or two of heart-pounding panic, the night passed peacefully as I drifted in and out of sleep.
As dawn approached, the snow began to fall in large, clumped flakes. Peering outside, the forest started to transform before my eyes. I spent the morning watching from my tent, as the ugly undergrowth and tree litter slowly became covered with soft pillows of snow. The temperature inside my tent held at a steady 36 degrees, though it was certainly colder outside. Around 10 am, I dashed outside to shoot a few pictures, but quickly retreated since it was impossible to keep snow off the lens. It snowed hard all day, and all I could do was lie there in relative comfort, watching as the landscape changed around me. By evening, I admit that I was starting to go a little stir-crazy, but then it got dark and I allowed myself some of the syrah I had packed in, and I drifted off to sleep. During the night, I would occasionally force myself to go outside and shovel the accumulating snow away from the sides of the tent. I learned that lesson on my ’09 trip to Washington’s Alpine Lakes Wilderness. Allowing one’s tent to become buried in snow is poor style (and not very smart).
By the next morning, I had been confined to my tent for 36 straight hours. Mind you, this is a single-person tent that is roughly the size and shape of a tall coffin. I am not very claustrophobic, and I do possess a bit of patience, but this was definitely testing the limits of my sanity. It was still snowing hard, but I decided that I simply had to get outside and move around. Rather than head deeper into the forest and risk getting lost without my gear, I decided to gather up a few essentials, my camera and tripod, and retrace my route back towards the trailhead. Everything was covered in fresh snow, and I wanted to familiarize myself with the route back. I left the rest of my gear inside the tent, which I zipped up tight. I would return in a few hours, or so I thought…
It took me a couple of hours to make it back to the trailhead, and the fresh snow made the navigation a bit easier. Whereas I was forced to scramble over and around obstacles on the way in, now I just floated over them on my snowshoes. It even stopped snowing for a while, a bit of sun broke through the clouds, and I was able to take some proper photographs. The richly colored bark of the sequoia trees stood out in stark contrast from the rest of the forest. A beautiful winter wonderland.
Soon enough, it started to snow again and I was forced to pack away my camera. Rather than return to my nylon coffin, I decided to hike the additional 2 miles back to my truck. I wanted to check the road conditions and, time permitting, drive the 5 miles to Grant Grove Village to get some hot coffee. More than anything, I wanted to spend as much time as possible outside and moving around. I arrived at my truck and quickly realized that this storm was dropping more snow than the forecast had predicted. I used my shovel to dig it out a bit, got it running, and was just able to drive out of the turnout and onto the highway. A few minutes later, I crossed paths with a plow operator who was headed in the opposite direction, and he waved me to stop. To my dismay, I learned that the Generals Highway was gated and locked just ahead. The road was closed in both directions, and he would need to escort me back to the gate, if I wanted to leave. I explained to him my situation – that my gear was still at the bottom of Redwood Canyon – and that I intended to drive out in a couple of days, once the weather cleared and the roads were plowed. I was surprised to learn that the updated weather forecast called for heavier snow through the weekend. The highway would likely remain closed for a week, or even longer.
I took this opportunity to mutter some choice expletives.
Returning to my tent to retrieve everything would take several hours, and the plow operator wasn’t about to wait for me. Although I had stashed extra food and blankets in my truck for emergency use, I really didn’t want to spend a week stranded on the side of the road. I suppose I could leave my truck and snowshoe my way out, but that wasn’t exactly a solution, either. No, I would have to follow the plow out the Grant Grove exit, and return to recover my gear sometime in the near future. Talk about a change of plans!
I made it home early the next morning. Replaying the day’s events in my head kept me wide awake during the 7-hour drive back to San Diego, and I compiled a mental checklist of all the items I had left behind. Miscellaneous camera gear, including an expensive wide angle lens. My tent and sleeping pad. My sunglasses, bear canister, and trekking poles (which I used to help stake the tent fly out). Extra fuel and socks. The top compartment of my backpack. Did this really just happen?
As I write this, I feel a mix of irritation and mild amusement at the situation. On one hand, I am extremely lucky that I decided to hike back to my truck, otherwise I might have been stuck for who knows how long. As soon as the highway reopens, I plan to return with a shovel and dig everything out. Apart from the long drive, that might actually be fun. I’m curious to see if the tent holds, and whether a bear or other animal tries to get at my food. I’m not too concerned with theft, because in all likelihood, my tent is completely buried under snow! Thankfully, I happen to possess the GPS coordinates to find it.
Stay tuned for an update.