Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Storm Door

It seems that no sooner had I begun to become seriously pessimistic about our seasonal rainfall totals before the pacific system that brings us most of our rain had begun to awaken. The one good storm that we got at the end of last week was followed by two more even bigger systems this week, with more on the way. According to weather reports for the bay area, Saturday (Valentine’s Day), was the only likely clearing before even more intense storms move in for Sunday, continuing on into next week. Our storm door is open. This is great news for California, and to some extent for everyone, since about 70% of the green produce purchased in grocery stores across the country comes from California. Many other agricultural products from almonds to strawberries were in danger being cut off from water completely in order to service the burgeoning population. For us it means less likelihood of imposed rationing, and for others, lower prices. And of course the timing of the break between these heavenly displays was perfect for getting out for a hike.

This was the week that would have been better for doing the falls loop at Big Basin, but maybe I’ll hike that route again next week. I decided to head for Mt Diablo hoping to get a visual update on the sierra snowpack. I hate to wait until spring when they take the official measurements. If you have visited, or if you have at least hiked up high enough to see for yourself, you can get a good read on the conditions while treating yourself to the elements of seasonal change. Another way is to check out the webcams at the Yosemite Association website from any computer.

I packed my rain gear just in case, and anticipating muddy conditions, I decided not to use my trusty lightweight Lowa Renegades, and opted for my old trail beaten REI Monarchs (Merrell). When I arrived at Mitchell Canyon trailhead, it was obvious that the summit(s) were shrouded in low clouds, which would really mess up any hope for views if it didn’t clear later. I headed up Mitchell rock trail, to Eagle peak trail, to check out Eagle peak. These rocky trails have a lot of character, and many good viewpoints. Eagle doesn’t have any snow except for a few traces on the side that doesn’t get sun. The short range views were pretty good because at 2369’ I was still well below the cloud cover. To the west looked mostly clear, but to the east there were a lot of low clouds.

I didn’t hit any appreciable snow until I went up Bald peaks trail. In the shadow of the summit the slushy snow and mud made for slippery, slow, going on the steep parts. After passing the high point at 2645’ the snow was at about 5-6 inches. With snow at a measurable depth I almost wished I had snow shoes. At Prospectors’ gap, I was amazed to see 3 mountain bikers slogging through the snow. While talking to them I had asked “so – you’re able to get traction in this snow?” They looked at each other and just laughingly said “No!”, “not really”. Apparently one of them had crashed just earlier, after sliding off trail, going over the handle bars, landing flat in the snow with his bike on top of him. Luckily, no one was hurt.

By that time North peak had cleared a bit, so I headed up there, slogging through 6 inches of virgin snow on the trail. At this point I realized what I had forgotten about my old worn out boots. The gore-tex linings leak a little bit. The short range views were ok, but not as clear as I would have liked. There was no chance of seeing past all the clouds and mist to the Sierra. I had some lunch waiting for the main summit to clear, but it didn’t. While sitting there, I could hear the snow falling from the radio towers, melting in clumps, making pounding noises on the equipment below. This made me think of what the cataracts in Donner canyon would look like having some fresh snow melt. So I scrapped my original plan to make the summit, and decided instead to hike down Middle trail to the Falls loop. In any case it was good to get out of the snow and let my feet dry out and warm up.

This was the best part of the hike as Donner creek and all of its little tributes were all running well. The rough terrain and dense vegetation make it hard to see much, but you get partial views to various segments all along the trail. The cascading water makes a beautiful noise after being concerned about the dry conditions. It is raining again as I write this, so surely the Sierra snowpack is getting a major boost, and the water situation will not be as bad as it could have been.

Click here to see my pictures on flickr.

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