Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Falls Trail in Winter

Waking up on the first morning of our winter trip, we quietly began preparing for the day. We had already discussed the options, and decided to head for a nice view point. The trail up the south rim would be nearly impossible in the conditions. There’s a few sheer drop-offs high up on the 4-mile that would be precarious with snow and ice piled up. Unless you wanted to bring tools and do a lot of shoveling and digging. But it’s usually closed anyway. The Falls trail is usually passable even with snow on the upper sections provided that you have some help getting traction. It doesn’t have any seriously risky sections unless there is danger of rock-fall or avalanche, in which case it would be closed. We thought we could probably make it to the top even if it would be crazy to go out to the any of the overlook areas, but the trail was open. The north rim gets more sunlight in winter than the south side. John Muir used to spend a lot of time scrambling around on the ledges around the falls area. He called one section “Sunnyside Bench”, and would even sleep up there sometimes.

We expected to find deep snow at the top, and a possible late storm, but we were prepared. We had winterized our boots, and were using wool socks, and waterproof gaiters, and packed our waterproof gear. We decided not to lug our snowshoes up the trail, so we made due with our Yaktrax. The lower sections of the trail were clear, but were wet with melt water trickling down everywhere. We made our way up the rocky switchbacks and along the ledge out to Columbia Point. The skies were gray and misty which made for poor conditions for photos, but we enjoyed the view opportunities amongst the blooming manzanita. The sweeping view of the south side of the valley had great texture with the snow packed in to all the cracks and creases, and gullies having flows of snow like frozen falls. Sentinel Fall was literally frozen into hard-pack snow. The valley floor had lots of snow remnants, but looked mostly brown in between them with fallen decaying pine needles.

We climbed higher and hiked closer to the falls with the trail now having patches of snow to walk through. As the falls came into view I could immediately notice the huge snow cone collected at the bottom of the upper fall, and traces of ice clinging to the rock walls behind the fall as the wind was blowing the waters one way or the other. As we got higher the snow became deeper and soon the entire trail was in packed snow. We put on our Yaktrax to keep from slipping, and they worked very well. As the faraway peaks of the high Sierra began to appear above the rim everything was covered in snow, and there were icicles clinging to the rocks and fallen wood. As we reached the top we could see that the little creek there was covered in hard-pack snow and the trail signs were almost buried. Even with the Yaktrax the going was getting hard as our footsteps were sinking in sometimes past our knees. At this point we would have been faring better with the snowshoes, but we at least we had the gaiters, and our feet were still dry. We made it out to the edge of the cliffs and enjoyed some time with the open vistas of the valley far below and the snowy high peaks a fitting payoff. It was very quiet and peaceful, and soon a few snow flurries were falling. We knew a storm was coming in so we headed down before it got worse. The wind was kicking up and the water coming over the upper fall was being blown around like vapor. The hike down the trail was a lot nicer with the snow to cushion each footstep. This really is a very different hike this time or year.

Click here to see the photos on flickr

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