Category Archives: High Sierra

The Deepest Valley

After reluctantly leaving Hot Creek, I headed down Route 395 into Owens Valley. (View road map of my route here.)

Between the Sierra crest on the west rising to heights above 14,000 feet, and the White Mountains to the east — with summits above 12,000 feet — Owens Valley is the deepest valley in the United States. It’s elevation varies, but is typically around 4,000 feet, so you are looking at a valley that is 8,000 feet deep. Deeper, in other words, than the Grand Canyon.

Here’s a photo looking across the valley towards the Sierra crest:

Sierra Crest Across Owens Valley

I think that Owens Valley is one of the surpassingly beautiful places on this earth. It is still fairly undeveloped, although beginning to get a little more crowded.

Early last century, the city of Los Angeles engineered a notorious heist of the water flowing through the valley. In some ways, this may have helped preserved the remote, undeveloped, and beautiful feeling of Owens Valley. (Although this was surely not the motivation of the Angelenos, who merely wanted to wash their cars, water their lawns, and fill their swimming pools.)

The photo at the top of this story shows the inner Owens River gorge, which has become a climbing mecca. The climbing spot is to the left and behind this picture.

Further down Owens Valley, the river becomes a gentle creek, as you can see in this picture I took of an Owens River swimming hole in the early morning:

Owens River Swimhole

Also posted in Landscape, Patterns, Photography, Road Trip, Writing

High Desert

Julian and I continued our adventures. We left the shores of Mono Lake, and drove towards Bodie in the High Desert.

It was getting late. Crossing into BLM land, we took a side dirt road, and then a side dirt road off that that led to an abandoned mine.

We pulled the car off the road, and made camp. The stars began to come out. We made a small sage brush fire, and toasted marshmallows.

Even though the day had been hot, the high desert night got cold. We were alone in a brilliant universe filled with points of light and shooting stars.

In the morning, the desert was golden, and we could see the Sierras on the horizon.

Also posted in Landscape, Photography

Turning Digital Night to Day

Julian, my eight year old, and I went on a camping trip for most of this last week. We started in Yosemite Valley, staying in a tent at Camp Curry for several nights.

This year there are many visitors from Europe and Asia in the national parks. It’s amazing how chic these people look, even in an environment as inhospitable to chic as Camp Curry – particularly the French and Italian women.

Camp Curry is run by the park concessionaire that runs all the businesses in Yosemite Park, Delaware North Corporation. This company has nothing to do with either the State of Delaware or the direction North. It is named after a street intersection in Buffalo, New York, and manages to both be incredibly smarmy (running advertorials lauding its environmental practices in front of “campfire” presentations), to serve food that is memorably awful, have zilch in the way of customer service, and be unable to keep its restrooms from becoming filthy – hence my surprise at the aptitude European women have at staying chic.

But Julian loves the place. He gets to run around, explore, and climb all the rocks that are between the tents. He likes sleeping in the canvas tents (actually, a rather filthy cross between a tent and a cabin). Oh, to be eight again and have a brave new world to explore!

We checked in pretty late Sunday night, and spent Monday hiking (up the Yosemite Falls trail), in the swimming pool, and swimming in the Merced River (the Valley temperatures were in the 90s). In the late afternoon, we got in the car and toodled up to Glacier Point (it is about an hour drive).

First, we stopped along the way, and fixed a Mountain House dinner on my camp stove. Thus fortified, we found a spot a few feet from the three thousand foot drop-off to the valley. Julian was cool as a cucumber, but it made me a little nervous to see him sitting so calmly close to the brink.

I set my camera on the tripod, and read “Half Magic” by Edgar Eager to Julian as we waited for the sunset.

The thing that really surprised me about the photo above and the one below is that I took them after dark. These photos are probably only really possible with digital technology.

Nevada Falls from Glacier Point

By the time I took both pictures, everything was pretty completely dark. I had the Nikon D70 set on Aperture preferred metering with the lens stopped way down – f/25. Exposures were long, two seconds in one case, four in the other.

Now here’s where it gets weird. Basically, when you open the camera RAW files of these photos in Photoshop, the default settings in the CS2 conversion dialog makes them look like washed-out daylight shots. I had to fiddle with the conversion settings quite a bit to get them to look like sunset, let alone the almost-darkest-night which was the way it really looked.

We didn’t leave Glacier Point until about 10PM. Julian fell asleep during thr ride back down to the Valley. When we got back to Camp Curry, I got him up and he walked to our tent. In the morning, he didn’t remember waking up – just watching the sunset at Glacier Point.

Also posted in Digital Night, Hiking, Kids, Landscape, Photography, Photoshop Techniques, Yosemite

A Lost Hiker

In the stillness of the early morning at the beginning of July of this year I stood by my campsite high on a ridge admiring the snowy view of the high Sierras. Later that same day, by a snow-covered Thousand Islands Lake, I photographed these wild flowers in a rock outcropping that was emerging from the snow.

You can read the story of this adventure of mine in three parts:

I was reminded of my difficult, but beautiful, trip yesterday when I got a call from a National Park Service ranger asking whether I’d seen missing hiker Hyundo Ahn. Ahn would have been coming south along the John Muir Trail; according to his wilderness permit and mine we would have been in roughly the same place at the same time (the upper Rush Creek basin). The ranger tracked me down on the basis of the dates and locations shown in my wilderness permit.

I didn’t see Hyundo Ahn, a lingusitics student at U.C. Davis, when I was in the Ansel Adams Wilderness back country. Considering the snow conditions, I doubt he made it out over Donahue Pass from Yosemite National Park. I am deeply sorry for his family and friends, and offer this photo of mountain flowers as a testament to the beauty and purety that hides amid the remoteness of the wild – and why it is worth sometimes putting aside the safety net of civilization and exploring these difficult places.

Update (8/19/05): Hyundo Ahn’s body has been found in Tenaya Canyon. The exact cause of death is unknown. He never even made it as far as Tuolomne Meadows, and was not in the area I hiked. Condolences to his friends and family.

Also posted in Flowers, Hiking, Photography, Writing, Yosemite

There and Back Again

Rush Creek

© Harold Davis – Rush Creek crossing, early morning, July 3, 2005

This is the third (and final) installment of a story about my recent short — but particularly poorly planned — backpacking trip to the Ansel Adams Wilderness in the high Sierra in this year of extraordinarily heavy snowpack. You can read about how I got into this in first place in A Walk on the Wild Side, and how I dug myself further in: Does the Wilderness Care about Me? Here’s also a topographic trail map of the area if you really want to follow my travails on (and off) the trail.

The walk down the trail from my campsite at Summit Ridge to the Pacific Crest Trail junction and then up to the John Muir Trail junction at the inlet to Thousand Island Lakes was not particularly dangerous. However, my assessment that I had made it through to the end of the snow fields was, of course, premature. As soon as the trail wandered down below timberline into the forest, it vanished under snow that hadn’t melted. Starting up to Thousand Island Lakes, I passed once more in a territory of snow, rock, water, and raging hot sunshine. My 40 SPF all-day sun stuff worked pretty well, but my lips were blistering and the inside of my nose was getting sunburnt.

Here’s a picture of Thousand Islands Lake (as I’ve said, you’ll just have to believe that there are really islands under that snow!):

Thousand Islands Lake

I sat down, got my bear canister out of my back, and took out some jerky and nuts to have for a late lunch. I also pulled off my socks to dry (the constant snow got in my boots, and I was walking with ice-water wet feet).

Finally, I had a look at the map to see what to do next. I didn’t really want to camp at the lake in the snow, although I could have been comfortable. It was more an emotional thing than anything else. I felt that I wanted to be sure that I could make it out of there.

It seemed from the map that my best bet was to cross Island Pass, which is a relatively low pass at 10, 205 feet, head down into the Rush Creek valley, turn east and follow the trail beside the creek down past Waugh Lake, Billy Lake, Gem Lake, and finally to Agnew Lake — which was where I had come up beside the cog railway. From Agnew Lake it was a short couple of miles down the cliffside to the trailhead at Silver Lake — and, yes, my car!

Although I noted a couple of creek crossings, this looked reasonably unproblematic, although far longer than my route into the wilderness. I was about to get my boots back on and saddle up when a couple of hikers came up along the trail from the south. They were “Batchelor Bob” and “Beer-Keg Ben”. I don’t know where these nicknames came from, but it’s how they introduced themselves. Batchelor and Beer-Keg were in their early twenties and “through-trekkers” — heading on the Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Canada. Batchelor carried an ice ax and wore gators. He said, “These gators don’t do any good, my feet still get wet. I’ll die happy if I never see another one of these four feet high snowcups from Hell!”

Snow cups are formed when the snow fields melt in the afternoon. The process of slogging through a snow field in the afternoon is repeatedly climbing up and down over these formations, which as Batchelor rightly said can only been devised by the devil in an inventive mood. Every so often when you are crossing these things in the late afternoon when they are getting melty you go through up to your waist. You can only hope that you are not crashing through to an under-snow pit or raging snow-melt river. It just takes a great deal of energy to get across a field filled with these crusty snow cells.

Beer-Keg Ben was carrying, of all things, a beach umbrella. He said, “I don’t see how anyone crosses 600 miles of desert [along the Pacific Crest Trail near the Mexican border] without carrying one of these things. It’s good on snowfields too.”

We talked about how the snow had slowed them down. Bob and Ben needed to average close to thirty miles a day to reach the Canadian border before October. They said they couldn’t wait for Oregon: “It’s always summer there, we can hike in tank tops and leave the winter gear behind, and rally make tracks.” Well, I don’t think so, but I wish these guys luck.

Bob and Ben headed up in the direction they thought was towards Island Pass. However, they were mistaken about which way to go (they were headed east over a cliff!) and I had to set them straight. We said good bye a second time, and pretty soon I was on the trail behind them, and not too much later the trail vanished under the snow and Bob and Ben’s tracks were gone for good.

To call Island Pass a pass is a little peculiar. Actually, it’s a high, mostly above-timberline plateau complete with a number of small lakes and a bunch of mini-summits. Without a trail, in the snow, navigation was confusing. Here’s a picture of conditions:

Island Pass Snow

Once I figured out that the trail probably headed round the shoulder coming down from Mount Davis, I didn’t have much problem with picking a general route. But steep slopes, afternoon sun cups, ice water traps and rocky ridges made progress treacherous and slow. I could see Donahue Pass, the Yosemite Park border, at over 11,000 feet a good bit higher than Island Pass, under snow in the distance.

I really can’t convey how weird and disorienting it was to navigate around this area. A number of times I went a fairly good distance before climbing to a vantage point and realizing that I had gone off course. You can imagine that a loud exclamation preceded each course correction! But, of course, course correcting was better than heading straight ahead down some snowy cliffs.

After going on the diagonal around a particualrly steep slope, I reached a little rocky summit that I really thought was the further edge of the pass. I was morally certain — which means about 95% — that I had done a good job in coming out where the trail did. What concerned me as I looked out over the valley below was the positively ferocious noise of falling water. Water crashing, roaring, water formed of afternoon ice and snow melt, making a positively cruel noise down below. I hadn’t really thought much before about river crossings, and now I began hoping that there were bridges!

I shambled down the slope with my ice-water feet, and felt positively in awe of myself when I emerged from the snow about fifty feet from the Muir Trail. Holy cow I said to myself, I’m good.

The terrain at the bottom of the valley was a kind of weird stone labyrinth with piers of stone surrounded by twisting water courses that had overrun their banks. When I got to the first crossing, there was a rough plank bridge made of logs that had been cut so they were flat and then chained together (there’s a picture in this blog entry of mine).

After crossing, the trail followed the further bank of the creek, although mostly the trail was either flooded or covered with snow. I picked my way wearily down to the junction with the trail that crossed Rush Creek and would take me home, only to find the creek so high that it could not be safely crossed (the picture is at the top of this story installment).

By now I was so tired that I figured I ought to make camp and deal with it in the morning. I slept soundly, but anxiously, with dreams of falling and pounding water.

In the morning, the water was down several feet, and I thought I had a chance to make it across. (I really couldn’t think of any decent alternatives). I reloaded my pack so that the cameras and other digital gear were as high up as possible. I put my hiking boots on without socks, and slowly started out into the icy, tumultuous creek.

Stepping into the cold, rushing water was frightening, and I couldn’t really see how deep it was. At each step I tried to plant my feet so that I wouldn’t be buffeted down stream, or slip. I often couldn’t tell through the foam where I could step next, or whether there were slippery rocks. I didn’t know whether the water at some point in the crossing would be over my neck.

In fact, the water was no higher than my waist, but you can hardly imagine the force of the snow-melt fed torrent against me even this high. I’m fairly certain that I could only have made it across in the early morning, and that by late afternoon it would have been impassable for a single hiker.

I can report, as you’d expect since I am writing this, that I made it across. More surprisingly, the cameras made it dry. I put my socks back on, and began the long slog down to the trail head. There was one more difficult and wet crossing (the inlet to Waugh Lake), and after that it was a sunny walk beside placid lakes (the trail was still going through mud holes and snow banks, but nothing too difficult compared to what I’d already passed through). Here’s a picture of reflections of snow back in the high country in Waugh Lake:

Waugh Lake

I had a good, hard look from across Agnew Lake at the cliff I started out by climbing, noticing particualarly the waterfall pouring out from beneath a snow field I had crossed, and called myself an idiot. (See the first part of this story.)

It was late afternoon before I reached my car (I entertained and motivated myself along the way with meditations on food and sex).

In the fews days since I had started on my hike, a volunteer ranger (meaning this was some kind of part time retirement job), his wife, and poodle had moved into a trailer behind a little booth by the trail parking lot. The ranger’s RV had a BBQ in back, surrounded in a neat triangle with astro turf.

Before I drove away, I knocked on the door of the volunteer ranger’s trailer, told him about back country conditions, and suggested he might want to discourage people from following my route (at least without proper snow and ice equipment).

Next stop was the Bad Man from Bodie BBQ Restaurant in Lee Vining for a whole rack of ribs (I did mention that they have a thing about naming food and food establishments after miners in the eastern Sierra – good for tourism, or something).

It was now about 8PM and the sun was a beautiful, setting orange ball. I headed up the magnificant road above Vining Canyon towards Tioga Pass:

Tioga Pass Road

As evening turned to night along the Tioga Road I passed Lembert Dome:

Lembert Dome

And then I saw Half Dome from Olmsted Point:

Half Dome from Olmsted Point

Finally there was the long drive home through the night, first the dark North Yosemite Highway, then the towns and bustling two-lane roads of California’s central valley, and eventually the freeways of the Bay area megalopolis.

I got home at about 3AM and parked in the garage. I crept upstairs quietly. The house was dark. Phyllis and the boys were sleeping. I showered, and crawled into bed. Phyllis turned over, and touched me. “Oh,” she said, “You’re back.”

I felt like Max, the hero of Where the Wild Things Are. Max is naughty, and sent to bed without supper, where he travels

in and out of weeks
and almost over a year
to where the wild things are

Eventually, he grows bored with being the king of all wild things:

and sailed back over a year
and in and out of weeks
and through a day
and into the night of his very own room
where he found his supper waiting for him
and it was still hot.

In the night air of the sleeping house my family was still there and I was happy!

This concludes my story, which began in A Walk on the Wild Side
My story was continued in Does the Wilderness Care about Me?

Also posted in Bemusements, Hiking, Landscape, Photography, Writing, Yosemite

Does the Wilderness Care About Me?

Back of the Minarets

© Harold Davis – Looking towards the Minarets from Summit Ridge, July 1, 2005

In the first part of this story, I told how an excess of enthusiasm for wilderness backpacking and a desire to try out some new digital photography equipment led me up the side of a valley hung with steep snow fields undercut with rapid waterfalls. The trail had vanished under the snow. I didn’t have an ice ax or crampons for traveling on snow and ice, and it seemed way too dangerous to go back down the way I had come.

Getting myself into this situation was possibly foolish of me. Actually, it was obviously extremely downright stupid on my part. It also showed a certain amount of inattentiveness – to the snowpack situation in the Sierras this year, and to the warning that Search-and-Rescue Billy had given me. My fixation on getting away from the kids for a few days, on being a wilderness photographer again, and reliving my life style from my twenties even though I am in my fifties had got me into a fix. Maybe that’s why “fix” is the root word in “fixation”.

Anyhow, as the day passed and I continued up and across the snow in the general direction I thought the trail would have meant to go if there hadn’t been any snow, I began to realize that I was very alone, that I was in a fix that might even be life threatening, and that I would have to figure out how to get out of it on my own.

After I got up the cliff-covered-with-snow-which-there-was-no-going-back-down, I passed Spooky Meadow. Here’s a picture:

Spooky Meadow

It looked pretty spooky to me, I guess, but not like much of a meadow. A little further on, there was more snow. Hard to know which way to go, though terra firma did stick out of the snow from time to time, like in this picture of one of the Clark Lakes:

Clark Lake

The next memorable landmark was when I slogged my way to the junction with another, somewhat less steep trail that headed back down to Gem Lake. I knew that I was at a junction with this trail because the junction sign post stuck out of the snow. Otherwise I wouldn’t have had a clue. I thought about heading down this trail. Search-and-Rescue Billy had suggested it as a less steep topography than the way I had come up. But the thought of turning around with my tail between, well between my backpack, was too much for me – I also didn’t like the idea of trying to follow a trail (a trail that didn’t really exist because it was under snow and that I didn’t know) down a steep mountain.

Had I been thinking ahead, I would also have wondered about crossing Rush Creek at the bottom of the valley near Billy Lake. (As Search-and-Rescue Billy had remarked, “nice of them to name a lake after me.”) But I wasn’t pondering the issues raised by high water crossings yet, just stuck in the mire of crossing endless snow.

Here’s a map of the area (you can click it for a larger size). The trail junction I’m talking about is 0.7 miles below Agnew Pass on the map:

By now I was getting pretty tired, and the day was getting on, but there was no place to camp. I also still had vague fantasies of making it to Thousand Islands Lake before dark, which had been my (very misguided) plan.

I continued on past a variety of snow fields, small lakes, and slopes ranging from mildly steep to pitched catastrophically into the small lakes until I was able to orient myself by an obviously heart shaped lake. You can see this lake on the map if you look hard right above the word “Summit” on the larger version of the map.

It’s clear that the trail passes over a ridge at the bottom of the heart, but it was equally clear to me that I wasn’t going to pass over this steep, slippery ridge without glissading down the snow into the little heart-shaped lake. Said lake, by the way, was half frozen and had no obvious way of egress because of steep banks if I had plunged into it, leaving me with more to worry about than the effect of ice water on my digital equipment.

Well, getting myself into this predicament may have been a foolish mid-life crisis blip kind of thing. But once there, I do have to say without boasting that my wilderness navigation skills are superb. I don’t know whether it is my eastern European Jewish ancestary, or my Native American progenitors, but I can find my way anywhere. Blind fold me, spin me round and round, I still know my directions and how to get to anyplace at all. I also know how to read a map. It’s probably not genetics at all, just one of those things that some people do and others don’t. But it’s a good skill to have if you are ever caught in a snow-clad wilderness empty of people.

So as an intrepid path finder, acclimated to sea level and not 10,000 feet elevation, carrying a fifty pound pack for the first time in years, not to mention too much bulge around my middle, I actually made a good decision. I said, no matter what I am not attempting to traverse slopes that I think may be too dangerous. That ruled out following what I deduced as thedirection of the trail. Instead I set out in the opposite direction, up a safe but do-able snow field without tremendous exposure.

The snow field led to a summit ledge that I could follow. By now I was downright exhausted. I looked around. It seemed like a pretty good place to camp, with a great view across the valley towards Banner Peak, a view of the backside of the minarets, and further off towards the south the high creast of the Sierra headed towards Mount Whitney orange in the late afternoon sun. There was also a waterfall tinkling into the valley out of one of the snow fields. Here’s what the place looked like:

Campsite near Summit Lakes

I put my pack down and explored. Not fifty feet from where I had stopped, I saw the trail once again emerging from the snow. It was my first site of the trail in quite a few miles, and I found it heartening. The view down the valley in the direction I wanted to go towards Thousand Islands Lake also looked blessedly free of snow:

View from Summit Lake Campsite

My spirits went up. It looked like maybe I wasn’t so crazy after all. I had a nice campsite (my yellow tent, bought on sale from Sierra Trading Post years ago and never used, went up snug and cheerful). A musical waterfall played its wonderful melody as it ran out of a snow bank and I cooked dinner. The trail ahead looked to be obvious and relatively clear of snow. As the sun set I put the Nikon D70 on my tripod and took pictures including the one at the beginning of this installment of the story and this picture:

View to the South, Ansel Adams Wilderness

For another picture from this camping spot, taken at dawn, see this entry.

So I should have been relatively content. It at least seemed like I’d made it through the worst and had good conditions for the walk over to Thousand Islands Lake in the morning. I had a snug, harmonious, and spectacular place to camp. But all was not right for me.

As I lay in my sleeping bag exhausted beyond belief I realized I didn’t care about the beautiful wilderness around me. After all, it didn’t care about me. Banner Peak was completely indifferent to me. Banner Peak didn’t care if I lived, or I died, or if I ever saw my family again, or if I had a pounding headache from the altitude.

And all I wanted was to be out of there. I wanted to be back at my car at the trail head. Most of all, I want to be safe and snug with my family.

This story began in A Walk on the Wild Side
It concludes in There and Back Again

Also posted in Bemusements, Hiking, Landscape, Photography, Writing, Yosemite

A Walk on the Wild Side

Thousand Islands Lake

© Harold Davis – Thousand Islands Lake, Ansel Adams Wilderness, July 2, 2005

About a week ago I organized a solo hiking trip to the Ansel Adams Wilderness. The Ansel Adams Wilderness is administratively part of Inyo National Forest, and lies just south of Yosemite National Park in the high Sierra. It’s accessible to hikers from the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada Mountains off Route 395, which runs past Mono Lake and through Owens Valley. Here’s the general area in question shown as a Google Satellite image. My goal was to go camp beside Thousand Islands Lake, where I’d spent some time thirty years or so ago in my backpacking glory years. The lake is nestled under Banner Peak and Mount Ritter. I thought it would make good photographic material for the digital equipment I’ve been playing with lately. It’s spectacular country, and there are many islands in Thousand Islands Lake, although probably not one thousand of them. (You’d hardly know there were any from the picture above with the lake mostly under snow.)

I had about a day to make my preparations. I finished up Chapter 9 of the book about Google I am working on, and swung into gear. It had been a while since I had been backpacking, so I needed to remember what stuff to bring, to shop for food, load a backpack and make sure I could carry it, and get a wilderness permit.

The wilderness permit part of it was easy. I called the reservation number at Inyo National Forest, and for $5.00 on my Visa card got a wilderness permit which would be left for me in the night drop box at the Mono Lake Visitors Center in Lee Vining. Lee Vining is on the eastern side of Tioga Pass. The pass had opened a few days before following one of the heaviest snow years in recorded history in the Sierras.

As I chatted with the reservations ranger, he told me that there was lots of snow (I knew that already), and that I probably wouldn’t see too many people or mosquitos on my trip. I said both of these were good things. He also told me I needed to carry my food in an approved bear-resistant container. These bear canisters are made of molded plastic and use screws that you turn with a coin (or back of a spoon) to make it difficult for a bear to get inside. Personally, I kind of think that if a bear can get into a car trunk, a bear can probably get into one of these things. But regulations are regulations, so I added a bear food storage thing to my list of supplies to buy at REI (Recreational Equipment).

I also wanted to figure out a way to store my digital images in the field without having to use a whole mess of memory cards, so I bought a 40 Gigabyte battery operated photo storage gadget. I’ll be writing more about digital photo field storage options in a subsequent blog entry.

After my day shopping, organizing, and preparing I loaded my food in the bear canister, and the canister, sleeping bag, tent, cameras, and so on, into my backpack, and shouldered the backpack. With my backpack, probably about forty-five pounds, and in my hiking boots, I walked to the top of Marin Ave, a pretty straight up road that goes up about 1200 feet here to the top of the Berkeley hills. I was sweating, but I could do it! I felt good. I though to myself, “I may be fifty-something, but I’m fit – and you’d never know it!”

Wednesday morning early I left the three boys and Phyllis, drove out through the Bay area sprawl, across the central valley via Oakdale and Manteca, and onto the North Yosemite highway at China Camp. From there, after passing the park entrance station at Crane Flat, I turned onto the spectacular road that goes up to Tulomne Meadows and Tioga Pass.

On the other side of the mountains, in Lee Vining I picked up my wilderness permit – once I signed it my permission to hike was official! – had some dinner in a restaurant, and headed for a campground near my trailhead.

The trailhead I was going to use, Rush Creek, starts from Silver Lake at an altitude of about 7,200 feet on the June Lake loop. Grant, Silver, and June Lakes are a kind of messy resort (with a ski lift and many trailer parks) the first stop south of Lee Vining and the Tioga pass road. So I drove south for about ten miles, and then turned right towards the mountains. As I passed Grant Lake, the high rolling sage brush turned to mountain forest, rock and snowy vista.

The next morning I grabbed a massive breakfast at the Silver Lake Resort. For the record, I ate “Miner’s hash – everything but the kitchen sink.” I can’t vouch for the kitchen sink, but it certainly had eggs, ham, bacon, and potatoes. They are big on gold and silver mining and hearty eating in the tourist enclaves of the eastern Sierra.

Next, I stuffed my tent back into its sack, parked by the trailhead, and started up. Here’s a map of the area (you can click it for a larger size):

It’s amazing how easy it is to leave our everyday world and enter a completely different universe. This other universe is one where issues are simple: survival, not falling down a cliff or into a hole in the snow, being warm and dry, having enough to eat, and (if you are fifty-ish with kids) not having a stroke or heart attack alone in the wild. The wilderness is grand and majestic and magnificent – but it is utterly alien to us, and does not care in the least about us and our concerns, our well-being, or whether we live or die. Depending upon how you look at things, this is either comforting or terrifying (or both). Hikers do vanish each year in the Sierran wilderness; for example, probably no one will ever know what happened to Fred Claasen or Michael Ficery other than that they died.

Perhaps it is a good time to start making clear the mistakes I made on my journey through one of these cracks into the alternate universe that is the wilderness. First, I wasn’t really paying attention when people (such as the reservation ranger) told me about all the snow, and how empty the Sierra wilderness was this year. I also wasn’t taking the time to get adjusted to the change in altitude. I drove from sea level to above 7,000 feet in one day, and then started hiking up. No wonder I didn’t feel so good. My head was pounding, and my breathing labored. Stay tuned for one big whopper of a mistake to come (though obviously I am here to write about it).

The Rush Creek Trail goes up on a long diagonal above Silver Lake. You can look down at the normal world of people fishing on the lake:

Silver Lake

Around the bend, Rush Creek pours out of Agnew Lake – this year, a great deal of water (which might have made me stop to think):

Rush Creek Falls

The trail on its way up to Agnew Lake somewhat bizarrely crosses a cog railway twice. This railway is used by Southern California Edison, who uses the area for power generation in a modest way. Also on this first bench up, I crossed a snow field (not very hard, but a slip could have been bad news – in fact I later heard someone had been badly injured crossing this patch), and a creek crossing where the bridge had been washed out, both within two miles of the start of my hike. Obviously, I wasn’t paying very good attention. My attitude was simply “Gosh darn I can do this!” Here’s the railway:

Tramway below Agnew Lake

Right about at the second crossing of the tracks I met a hiker, my first on this trip. He was an old codger dodger – well, no older than me, but you know what I mean – carrying a day pack and his name was Billy. Billy’s hobbies were leading boy scouts from his home near Ventura into this area and helping with search and rescue operations. He knew this part of the mountains pretty well.

I told him what I was planning: to head up the cliff on the little-used trail on the south side of Agnew Lake, continue past Spooky Meadow, Clark Lake, and Summit Lake, and find the Pacific Crest and John Muir trails near Thousand Island Lakes, camp there a few days, and then head out the same way.

Billy suggested gently that I might want to reconsider. He said that in thie year of extraordinary snow the trail I was planning to take would almost certainly be under snow and probably impassable and dangerous. I should at least scout it, he said, from the other side of the lake before heading up it. Billy also suggested several longer (but less steep and dangerous) ways to get into the high country.

I can say with absolute certainty that I paid no attention to anything Billy the search and rescue codger-dodger said to me. When I got to the junction with the side trail I’d been planning to take – my trail led off to the left on the far side of the lake – I took it without looking ahead. I did notice that there was no sign marking my trail. I later learned that they didn’t post “my” trail because they wanted to discourage people from using it.

For the first part of the trip up the steep side of the lake, things seemed OK, and well steep. Here’s a picture with the trail outlined in red so you can see it:


I took the photo from the other side of the lake on my way out a few days later because I wanted to get a good look at where I had started my walk on the wild side. The first part up along the side of a steep scree field was no particular problem, although I did have to pause to take a breath frequently. When I got to the trees shown in the photo I had to start pulling myself up hand over hand, backpack and all. As I continued up the snow crossings started to get more and more difficult and scary. Some were undercut with fast running water, and I knew a collapse was possible at almost any time in these conditions of brutally hot sun and massive snow. As I’ve said, I drew the trail into the photo above. The part I drew in towards the top was the last I saw of the trail for many miles – it vanished under a snow field, and didn’t reappear. I began to wonder why I hadn’t brought proper gear for traversing snow – an ice ax, or at least crampons. Gators would have been nice, too, although more a matter of comfort than safety.

At some point when I was fairly shortly above the area shown in the photo I realized that I had lost the trail in a terrain of infinite snow and steep cliffs, and that it was probably too dangerous to go back down the way I had come.

This story is continued in Does the Wilderness Care about Me?
It concludes in There and Back Again

Also posted in Bemusements, Hiking, Landscape, Photography, Writing, Yosemite

Processing a Digital Photo

Lembert Dome
Lembert Dome, Tuolumne Meadows by Harold Davis

I always have a little chuckle when I hear a photographer boast that their digital photo didn’t need to be “fixed” in a digital darkroom program such as Photoshop or Photoshop Elements. This statement probably means that the photographer doesn’t understand what their digital camera is capable of doing, and that they shot the original photo as a JPEG rather than in camera RAW format. There’s nothing wrong in shooting JPEGs, but you lose a lot of the power of digital photography. You can certainly fix things in Photoshop if you start out with a JPEG, but you don’t process an image as a matter of course with a JPEG the way you do with a camera RAW image. (By the way, you can set many cameras to save images in both JPEG and camera RAW formats, so you have the best of both worlds.)

The steps I take to process a camera RAW digital photo in Photoshop are very comparable in their results and purpose to the steps I would have taken to make a good silver halide or chromagenic print from a film original. Here are my steps for routinely processing a digital RAW photo:

  1. Open the camera RAW image in Photoshop. Note that there is no universal camera RAW format, each camera manufacturer has a proprietary version. For example, Nikon’s camera RAW format is saved with a NEF file suffix.
  2. The Raw Adjustments dialog will open as part of Photoshop’s process of opening the camera RAW image. Here’s where part of the power of the RAW format comes in. This dialog, shown here, let’s you adjust the exposure up or down a few stops – so shooting in camera RAW is effectively the same thing as automatically bracketing each exposure.

    RAW adjustments

    The other thing this adjustment dialog does is let you set the kind of light source used in the image. This is the same things as resetting the white balance – after the fact. The possible settings are shown in the drop-down list, and you can preview the results before making a choice (you can also preview the results of changing the exposure up or down). Here’s my post about the Photoshop CS2 Camera RAW Settings dialog, which is what you use to import a RAW photo into CS2

  3. As soon as the image opens in Photoshop, save it as a PSD file. PSD files are Photoshop’s native format. You can archive the camera RAW orginal (NEF file if it was shot with a Nikon) and keep it safe. Do your Photoshop work in the PSD file, which has the advantage that it keeps track of the history of everything you do within Photoshop. It’s smart to name the PSD file the same way the camera RAW file was named, except the file suffix – that way you know what corrrecting image goes with what camera RAW original.
  4. Working on the PSD file, sharpen it by choosing Sharpen > Unsharpen Mask from the Filters menu. A 100% sharpening should be about right, but experiment with the slider to try less or more sharpening, and use the preview checkbox to make sure the effect works before applying it. (Too much sharpening can make an image appear to be coarse and unreak.)

  5. On the Images menu, choose Adjustments > Auto Levels. If you don’t like the results, use the History palette to undo the adjustment (Control + Z on the keyboard also undoes your last step).
  6. On the Images menu, choose Adjustments > Auto Contrast. If you don’t like the results, use the History palette to undo the adjustment (Control + Z on the keyboard also undoes your last step).
  7. On the Images menu, choose Adjustments > Auto Colors. If you don’t like the results, use the History palette to undo the adjustment (Control + Z on the keyboard also undoes your last step).
  8. Now come some steps that depend on the image and your taste: use the Clone Stamp Tool and Healing Brush to fix and flaws in the image; dodge and burn specific parts of the image to taste to bring out details hidden in shadow (dodging) and put detail back into parts of the image that are washed out (burning). (Dodging works better with digital images, so you are better off exposing properly for the brighter parts of an image and adjusting the shadow areas in Photoshop as a generalization.) You can also adjust hues, saturations, and specific colors.
  9. When you are satisfied with the image, make sure it is saved in the PSD format.
  10. Using the PSD file, use Save As to create different format files for different uses – typically a JPEG file for viewing on the Web, and a TIF (tagged image file) format file for print reproduction.
  11. It’s important to regularly follow a process such as this for processing and archiving your digital photos. As I said at the beginning of this protocol, these steps are very analagous to what photographers have always done to create good finished prints – so I don’t see why there should be any obliquy attached. The only excuse is ignorance – and if you are reading this, you are no longer ignorant.

    You may also want to try photo retouching or photo composition (neither of which are described here – well, maybe a little retouching depending how far you go with the Clone Stamp Tool). These are great things to do with digital photos and Photoshop. But photo composition is worrisome – because a skilled Photoshop operator can change anything digital – photos and documents – and there’s no way to tell that changes have been made! Beware – you should not necessarily believe your eyes when presented with photos or digital documents. It is easy to fake them nowadays.

    Of course photo composition can also be used for artistic purposes. For example, here’s information about photo compositing a moon into your landscape picture.

Also posted in Bemusements, Photography, Photoshop Techniques, Writing

Ode to My Hiking Boots!

My Hiking Boots, photo and poem by Harold Davis.

Say thanks to my hiking boots at the end of the day!
All covered with mud and perhaps with clay.
My boots get me into the wilderness and out again:
They ignore cold, heat, snow, and pain.
Leather and Goretex upper and Vibram soul:
I know each part of this shoe very well!
Say thanks to my hiking boots on trail and at home,
I know they’ll support me where ever I roam.
No trail is too dusty, no ice field too steep,
For these hiking books their promises they always keep!

Also posted in Bemusements, Hardware, Hiking, Photography, Writing, Yosemite

Dawn Comes to Banner Peak

I took this photo a few days ago at sunrise of Banner Peak. This is part of the Ansel Adams Wilderness, which itself is part of Inyo National Forest. It is to the south of Yosemite National Park: you go over Donahue Pass from Tuolumn Meadows in the park, and there you are.

I was camped across the valley at Summit Lakes by a waterfall. The sun came up, I opened my eyes – and there it was. I leaped out and took the picture.

Conditions in the high country this year are extraordinary. Snow pack is 200%, or more, than average. Water levels are very high,and crossings are dangerous. Right now, there’s snow above about 9,600 feet and hiking consists of navigating snow fields. Crampons and/or an ice ax are a good idea. If I never see another snow field or late afternoon snow “cup from hell”, I’ll be happy. This picture, taken on Island Pass, gives you an idea of hiking conditions: on and on, endless snow.

Island Pass Snow

River crossings are another problem. This picture is of the bridge at Rush Creek Trail near the junction with the Muir Trail. I knelt and gave thanks to heaven when I saw there was a bridge at the crossing.

Rush Creek Crossing

I took the picture first thing in the morning. By late afternoon water would have been two feet over the logs, and this probably couldn’t have been crossed until the next morning.

Also posted in Hiking, Landscape, Photography, Yosemite

Mirror Lake, Yosemite

Mirror Lake, Yosemite, originally uploaded by Harold Davis.

As you can see in this photo, Mirror Lake was full of water (and like a mirror) a few days ago. This is unusual – in part it is true because of the time of year (spring), and in part because it is one of the most wet years on record in California and the Sierra.

Most times you go to visit Mirror Lake (and it’s a gentle one mile walk from the Yosemite Valley shuttle bus stop) you’ll find a sandy basin, and no lake it all. This was my experience when I visited with Julian at the end of last summer.

Mirror Lake was a stop on the great tour of Yosemite around the turn of the century when tourism of the rugged West was still somewhat novel. They had a hotel, boat houses, and (in the winter) ice skating. The lake, however, was artificial, and it took more and more dredging to keep it a lake. When the Park Service stopped keeping it artificially moist in the middle of the last centruy, it began reverting to its natural state: very seasonal and mostly dry.

My photo echoes views made by great 19th century photographers and painters of Yosemite (Mirror Lake was a favorite view).

Thanks to Phyllis for post-processing this photo.

Also posted in Hiking, Landscape, Photography, Yosemite