As I started to write this post, about two weeks ago, nearly a third of winter had passed and barely a drop of rain had fallen here in California. This is troubling because if it does not rain in the low lands it is not going to be snowing in the high country. While the rain is important, its the snow pack in the higher elevations that fill our water reservoirs and keep the perennial creeks and rivers flowing. This year it has snowed once or twice leaving behind a negligible amount of snow on the ground.
The high country of the Sierra Nevada is normally unreachable by this time into winter by virtue of the hundreds of inches of snow that block roads and by the continuous storms that make snow plowing a futile effort. This year however, a new record has been set for the Tioga Road remaining open into winter. The previous record of January 1st set in 2006 has been put to rest and it has extended late into January. This strange winter has also created an interesting and fairly unique opportunity to photograph places and events in the high country in winter normally not accessible.
The full moon this month fell on January 8th. The full moon always rises as the sun is setting and this is a very nice time to add the moon to the landscape in photos. Actually its better to make a photo with the rising moon a day or two before the moon is full due to the contrast variation between the land and moon at sunset. On the day of the full moon, the sky and land will have darkened sufficiently such that to photograph both in a single exposure and retain detail in both the land and moon is nearly impossible. However, the moon lags the sun by 45 to 50 minutes each day, so the day before the full moon the moon will rise about 45 minutes before sunset giving the opportunity to photograph the rising moon with sufficient light on the land as well.
The other interesting fact is that in January, the full moon rises just to the right of Half Dome in Yosemite when viewed from locations near Glacier Point. In a normal winter, reaching Glacier Point is a monumental task as one has to either ski or snow shoe in for miles. Not something that is done very often. However this year the roads in the high country are still open, the full moon was rising, and access to these locations was incredibly easy. Put all three of these circumstances together and you have the possibility for some interesting photo opportunities.
Knowing this, I presented the scenario to my 4 assistants two days before the full moon to hear there opinions on a one day excursion to the Yosemite High Country where we would hike in to the top of Sentinel Dome, a location west of Half Dome, like Glacier Point, but about 800 feet higher in elevation to see and photograph the rising full moon over Half Dome. The consensus was a resounding yes! So we started making plans for the trip, what we would need to bring, who would carry what and planned out our timetable. We would leave on Saturday no later than 10 am, giving us enough time to reach the trail head and make the short 1.2 mile hike to the top of Sentinel Dome with enough time to set up the cameras. Mind you, our youngest companion is only 5 years old.
I planned on making a couple of panoramic photos, one using the DSLR and one using the large format camera. So rather than having to switch out cameras on one tripod, I opted to bring two tripods. I would carry one and my oldest assistant, 14 years old would carry the second, along with extra water and food. My second assistant, 12 years old, would carry extra warm clothing, water and some food. The other two assistants, kept the hike lively.
Needless to say, we missed our departure deadline by one hour. This cut into the schedule in a not so serious way as long as we did not have to make to many stops along the way…however we did, twice for bathroom breaks and once for gas. As we made our way up the west side of the Sierra Nevada the absence of snow was very apparent and brought nothing but disappointment to my four assistants who secretly were hoping to find snow everywhere, after all it was winter. Once we did reach an elevation of about 6000 feet we started seeing remnant ice fields from some snow storms in late autumn that have now turned into giant fields of frozen snow. However to the occupants of a moving car, it looked white, it was on the ground, it had to be snow and the beseeching started. “Please!, Please!. Pleeeaseeeee!!….stop! we’ll do anything, Pleeaseeee!” Icy patch after icy patch, the crescendo of pleading increased. We finally reached the trail head at an elevation of about 7700 ft at around 3pm. We still had close to one hour to reach the summit, I thought we were in good shape.
As soon as the assistants saw the ice fields they rushed to them with all abandon. It only took about 4 slips of the feet out from under them to realize it really was not snow and they came back with both their heads on straight and eyes on the prize of summitting Sentinel Dome. This ate about 30 minutes of time before we were out on the trail. The trail to Sentinel Dome is not a difficult one. Elevation gain is only about 350 feet and it only gets steep once we reach the final ascent on the north side of the dome. Along the trail there are two locations where Sentinel Dome can be seen completely and it was at the first location that my my youngest assistant, hand in my hand, asks “what is that?” I replied, “that is the mountain we are going to climb, we are going up to the top”. Suddenly she says, “Baba, I’m scared” All her intrepidness seemed to vanish into thin air. I reassured her that it would be ok. She insisted that she did not know how to climb a mountain, but I continued to reassure here that she could hold my hand the whole way up and that we were not going to “rock climb” Somehow I felt she really did not believe me. Just before reaching the base of the granite dome, she started to give up out of tiredness and decided to just sit there in the middle of the trail. After a little coaxing I manage to get her to continue. The other assistants were already ahead of us and once she saw them ascending the dome, my little one suddenly became over exuberant and started after them.
It was as if I had not existed and this mountain was nothing more than a mole hill to her. They all charged up the dome ahead of me. I was about 50 feet from the summit, when my second oldest came rushing back down yelling “the moon is rising, hurry take a picture!”. It was too late of course, I had missed the rising. Rather than trying to scramble and set up the camera on the slope I continued to the top and once there set everything up. I started with the large format camera while the moon was still relatively close to the horizon. I set it up, focused, metered and determined the filtering needed to hold the sky back while still keeping detail in the trees now in the shadow of Sentinel Dome. I planned on using back shifts to create a two frame panoramic. With this technique, I would only need to focus once and as long as I did not move the rear standard forwards or back, focus would stay the same. Once I finished with the larger camera, I switched to the DSLR. I planned out a sweeping panorama using my 80-200 mm lens set at 80 mm. Even at 80mm the angle of view was quite tight so it required three vertical passes. I made 36 separate exposures, twelve in three rows. By the time I had finished all of this, the wind had started to pick up and with it the wind chill kicked in fiercely. The air temperature was around 40°F and with that brisk wind, possibly 15 mph, the temperature suddenly felt like it was below freezing.
My assistants started to complainof the cold and found a small impression on the dome and all huddled in it to shield themselves from the wind. Rather than risking anyone getting really cold, I packed up and we started down just as the the light was starting to become golden in color. I sensed that the sky was going to ignite with color however reason won out and we found ourselves on the trail and heading down hill. Once below the tree line the wind was non-existent and everyone was happy again. Just before reaching the trial head we crossed over a wooden foot bridge that spans over a small unnamed tributary creek that feeds into Sentinel Creek. The creek is not more than about 10 feet wide and it was completely frozen over. The creek was a ribbon of ice meandering through the trees, each cascade, with all its ripples and splashes, caught frozen in time. It was too much for them to bear, they just had to walk out onto it. At first they did so with an ample amount of care, which slowly eroded away and it led them to only find themselves flat on their backs on the icy surface. This lasted for about 5 minutes with me bellowing out loud in both laughter and admonition to come back off the ice.
We all reached our vehicle in one piece and with our spirits soaring. We made a quick trip down to Washburn Point, where I made two more photos of little Yosemite Valley under the light of the full moon and fading dusk light and then it was down to the Valley for something warm to eat before heading home.
On the short trip down to the Valley, we started recounting our hike and realized that my youngest assistant suddenly became the record holder in our clan as the youngest to summit Sentinel Dome, at 5 years old. Not to be outdone, the others started to boast of their own records. My next youngest holds the record of most number of times to Yosemite before age one. He in fact visited Yosemite three times before reaching the ripe old age of one year. Then my oldest of course holds the record for longest hike as a toddler, 4.5 miles at the age of 4 years. My second oldest holds the record for many things in our clan none of which are for our outdoor escapades.
We arrived home just over 13 hours from the time we left. We spent about as much time at 8000 feet as we would have on any of our local outings and yet somehow it was not just another day in the park. We accomplished something great together, as a unit, and discovered things about ourselves and shared an experience, laughter, and each other. I think we fell in love that day, with each other, with Sentinel Dome, and with Mother Earth. I don’t know about my assistants, but to me I feel like every step we took that day forged a stronger bond between the five of us, a bond, God Willing, that will hold us together for many moons to come. It also has seemed to light a desire in us that keeps calling us back to the mountains.
I encourage all of you to go out and do something epic with someone you want to get close to, as epic as you dare, or perhaps maybe even just with Mother Earth. She just might show you the time of your life and lasso your heart.