Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Right place, right time

As early morning's shadow crept like a curtain down the granite cliffs across the valley, I walked across the ice-crusted snow and found a rock outcropping to claim as my exclusive seat for the show. 

Behind me, the rising sun projected a stream of golden light, creeping down the high peaks of Yosemite and illuminating the backside of Half Dome. I watched previews of color form on sparkling ice and distant snowfields, waiting patiently for the main attraction — the moment the angled light of sunrise touched the frozen mist of Yosemite Falls. 

A faint crimson was the first color to emerge, followed by a hints of yellow and green. As the sun climbed higher into the crystal blue sky, the falls burst into a full spectrum rainbow, with colorful mist floating through the air before freezing into snow and settling gently onto the slope below. Nature's version of Hawaiian shaved ice, striped with every flavor on the shelf. I smiled at the memory of eating a multi-color snow cone in the January heat of Honolulu on top of Diamond Head, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day no less, and ricocheted back to the awe that the present moment brought me to the top of an 8,000-foot granite mountain, and this colorful ice swirled around a waterfall that was 2,425 feet high. The world is continuously doling out beautiful gifts, but the most spectacular go to those who find themselves in the right place at the right time.

Not many people would consider the wind-exposed summit of Sentinel Dome in the predawn cold to be a right place, and even fewer would view the snowbound month of January to be the right time. We would likely have never found ourselves in this spot either if Beat and Steve hadn't been training for the Idiatrod, and looking for tough conditions to trek with heavy sleds and camp for a night. We headed to Yosemite National Park for the long weekend, mainly because the park is our closest access to snow. On Saturday, we ran the 22.5 miles out to Glacier Point and back as a training run, and hoped to find another packed trail to stage our camping trip the following night. But on the way back, we encountered a group of skiers who informed us they were planning to stay on Sentinel Dome that night, and recalling a wonderful hike last May, I said to Beat, "You know, spending a night on Sentinel Dome would probably be amazing."

The following day, we learned our options for sled-draggable trails were actually quite limited, and decided to return to the Glacier Point ski trail for the ten-mile trek to Sentinel Dome, elevation 8,127 feet. Steve and Beat seemed not totally stoked about making virtually the same trip twice, but I stuck to my conviction that a Sentinel Dome camp would indeed be amazing, and possibly, on this warm holiday weekend, even windy and cold.

Our mid-afternoon start put us at the top right at sunset, and we broke camp just as a wash of pink light spread over the mountains.

Photo by Beat Jegerlehner
The Sentinel Dome is the tallest landmass for many miles, offering a full panorama of a large cross-section of Yosemite, from the higher peaks to the east, to the sheer granite walls of the Yosemite Valley, to the flat expanse of California's central valley to the west, to (I'm convinced, although my friends disagree) the far-away Bay area landmark of Mount Diablo. It's nothing but views, and a whole night up high gave us nothing but time to look at them.

Photo by Beat. The landform I thought was Mount Diablo is directly to the left of my head, behind the city lights.
We fiddled with Steve's new stove as Beat melted snow for hot drinks and three revolting freeze-dried meals (honestly, I never find any of these that I like. I'm just about to give up on hot dinners when camping, which is something I've been saying for 15 years.) Despite the relatively warm temperature (around 30 degrees), the wind picked up after the sunset, and I had a difficult time staying warm without running in circles around the dome at frequent intervals.

It gave us an excuse to dance around in the snow and play with the settings on Beat's camera — also important training for his Iditarod race next month.

The wind howled through the night, but I got great sleep while curled up in my -40 sleeping bag. We woke up a half hour before sunrise to melt snow for coffee and drinking water, as well as a freeze-dried raspberry crumble dessert that I bought, because I know better than to mess with freeze-dried breakfast foods. (Or oatmeal. Not a fan. I'm usually a breakfast Clif Bar eater.)

Photo by Beat
 But I do think stoves are useful for more than just winter drinking water. True happiness is hot coffee at the top of a mountain.

The sunrise views were every bit as startling as they were at sunset, in lighter hues of red and blue.

And the Yosemite Falls light show — truly an incredible work of art.

After the show was over, there was nothing left to do but pack up the sleds and trek back to the valley with full bellies and hearts.

This isn't to say the trek back was easy. But positioning oneself in the right place and the right time rarely is. There's a good chance we'll return someday for an encore. Training makes the best excuse. 

Beat shot a short video of the waterfall rainbow, linked here.


  1. Three weeks of freeze dried dinners this summer and I am with you. Leslie said she went stoveless for the entire pct and I'm curious what she ate. If you must, I've found that Mary janes farm, all organic from Idaho, is by far the best.

  2. Beautiful shots of Yosemite! On my XC bike trip I used a jetboil stove and would boil dehydrated veggies, then mix in instant puds, and then stir in and heat tuna or canned chicken and it was actually pretty good. Enjoy your blog and best of luck and great adventures to Beat on his quest in Alaska next month. Paul

  3. Oh wow, what a life you lead with people who help challenge and find even more adventures for you - LOVE IT!!

  4. Yeah, I have eaten a lot of different forms of backpacking camp food. My road trip to Alaska turned me off of Tasty Bites Indian food forever, and because of my cross-country bike trip I can't look TVP or powder pasta packets in the eye ever again. Two things I actually still enjoy is Annie's mac and cheese with tuna or black beans, and (sad to say) Cup O' Noodles. But in the case of anything that has to be cooked (rather than just rehydrated), I still believe it's more of a hassle than the worth, especially when I can carry a bagel sandwich or tortilla wrap for virtually the same calorie to weight ratio. I do like coffee in the morning, but if I was ever going to hike the PCT Leslie-style, I wouldn't bother with a stove, either. But the most annoying kinds of stoves (liquid fuel) are a must for winter camping.

  5. Aaah, that looks heavenly. It's been to long since the last time I snow camped.

    I've given up on most backpacking meals too - I don't have much of an appetite (for once!) when I'm out there, so the food needs to be really appealing for me to eat it. Mary Jane's has good ingredients but no flavor! So I usually stick with soups (split pea or black bean, the protein keeps me full), the Nile Spice brand has a lot of good ones, just add water. And then, you know, chocolate.

    I backpacked without a stove once, and I really, really, really missed that morning cup of coffee. I ended up bingeing on caffeinated Honey Stinger gummies.

  6. To clarify, I don't add chocolate to the soup, that would be mental.

    ...or would it..?

  7. You definitely made the right choice to stick with your plan and stay on the dome. Incredible pictures and even better that you were there to capture it as it happened.

  8. Actually, seeing the bumps to which you were referring in the picture and referencing a topo-map, they definitely appear to be in the correct location for Diablo.

  9. I'm into the 4 serving packets of instant mashed potatoes. I add packets of tuna to them if I'm feeling really wild. I've found the Mountain House type meals disgusting, too. I'm also into Ramen...and coffee. Lots of coffee.

  10. Photos--wow. Just wow.

    I know you probably don't need any more food ideas, but have you discovered the joys of baby oatmeal? You don't need water to be hot to make it--the flakes are so small that it cooks instantly with any temperature of water. It's also surprisingly non-disgusting!

    And, have you considered selling that photo of breaking camp at sunset to Mountain Hardwear? It makes the tent look pretty impressive.

  11. Truly spectacular! Thanks for sharing so eloquently.

  12. Out of all of your thousands of pictures that I have devoured on this blog, these are some of my favorite. Beautiful and I love seeing you so big against the mountains. It's like you're a giant!

  13. Half Dome in the winter looks awesome! Sounds like a great trip.

  14. "True happiness is hot coffee at the top of a mountain."



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