If you read my last post, you know that I recently left a bunch of gear in the Sierra backcountry. My Sequoia adventure ended a bit different than planned, but I made it home safe and came away with some nice images. All things considered, it was a fantastic experience. It was simply breathtaking to visit the big trees in such beautiful, but harsh conditions.
I was left with an uncomfortable knot in the pit of my stomach, though. The weather system that forced me to tuck tail and run was now settled over the Sierra, dumping several feet of snow. A second storm was in the forecast, and I started to worry that my gear would be lost until the spring melt-off. The weather window I was hoping for appeared to have slammed shut.
There would be a few days between these storms, but the Generals Highway was still closed. The main issue was access. Looking at a map, there appeared to be a solution. I would park at the locked gate near Grant Grove, and then hike down the road and back towards Redwood Mountain. With a fun cross-country shortcut, the round-trip mileage would be manageable; doable in a day. I convinced my buddy Steve to join me, and we drove to Fresno earlier this week. We would get in and out on Tuesday.
As expected, the Generals Highway was closed and we parked at the gate. I was relieved to see that the road had been plowed, which allowed us to travel quickly along this first section. What I had billed as an exciting gear-rescue quickly morphed into a photo trip, and my non-photographer friend rolled his eyes each time I would stop to set up my tripod. No big deal; we hiked the John Muir and Wonderland Trails together and he’s used to this sort of thing.
We made fast progress along the ridge above Redwood Creek, and eventually split from the road and began heading down a steep slope towards the bottom of the canyon. The powder was soft and deep, and going downhill was a blast. If only we had snowboards!
After a bit of cross-country tramping, we found the Redwood Creek trail and continued along the snow-covered path. This trail had been obscured by forest litter on my earlier visit, but now it was easy to follow this relatively clear swath through the forest. I kept an eye on my GPS, and I watched with excitement as we got closer and closer to the waypoint that marked the location of my tent. 1 mile, then 0.2 mile, 800 feet, 500 feet… This had become an all-out treasure hunt.
I recognized a few of the trees and knew we were getting close. Then, I spotted the grip from one of my trekking poles sticking out from the snow. Success! I had used my poles to stake out the tent fly, and the grips must have been three feet above the snow when I left. The rest of the tent was buried, with two small bumps suggesting its aluminum frame hadn’t buckled completely.
Digging out the tent was easy, but the stakes and trekking poles wouldn’t budge. I had packed the snow down with my boots when staking it out, and they were now firmly encased in ice. We chipped away at the stakes and removed them one by one. As it turns out, there is an easy way to remove stakes from packed snow, and it involves drinking lots of Gatorade and careful aim. I discovered this preferred method while extricating the last stake, which was especially stubborn. Note to self, for the future.
Thankfully, all of my gear was still clean and dry. The tent had buckled across the middle, but would be salvageable. I noticed that the water in my Nalgene bottle was still in liquid form, with only a few thin ice crystals at the surface. Like an igloo, the buried tent had insulated everything from the sub-freezing temperatures all week.
After packing everything up, we began the steep slog back to my truck. Navigation wasn’t an issue since we were able to follow our own inbound tracks, but it was slow and tedious. The skies turned overcast, and fog slowly filled the canyon. This made for some interesting photo ops, and I was pleased. I had recovered my gear, and with a few hours of daylight remaining, I’d have time to make some more images (much to Steve’s dismay).
I caught up with Steve at the trailhead, where he had been waiting for over an hour. As usual, he mocked my passion for photography and began hurling insults in my direction, complaining that I had tricked him into coming. I returned his fire with snowballs and chunks of ice, and we worked through our differences like a pair of 6-year old kids. A few hours later, we were back in my truck and on our way home.
These back-to-back trips have temporarily quenched my thirst for winter photography, but I know that won’t last for long.