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.