Recently we have seen a flurry (no pun intended) of stories, articles and news broadcasts reporting on the lack of snow in the Sierra. No doubt the shortage of precipitation is a news-worthy topic considering that fall like conditions have dragged their way into the first third of the winter season. Yet, the news isn't all bad. The dry weather has offered some unique recreational opportunities for the Sierra outdoors enthusiast: the high Sierra Passes, both Sonora (SR108) and Tioga (HW 120), remain open to motorized traffic!
In many ways this January has been completely out of the norm... I mean, it's not like we had a six week dry spell at the beginning of last winter. Oh wait, yeah we did. How quickly we forget. Seriously though, it is crazy to look out and see the mountains almost completely barren at this time of the year. However, the acute absence of precipitation in the Sierra has set a new record for Tioga Pass remaining open.
The Tioga road is the highest pass in California. As a result, it should come as no surprise that the National Park Service shuts it down when the snow starts to fall. According to Yosemite's NPS Daily Report from January 3rd, the previous record for latest closure date was January 1st 2000; the average date being November 1st. However, this year the pass remains open to day-use visitors and there is no threat of closure in the foreseeable future.
Despite the dry spell, the weather has remained consistently cold for the last eight to ten weeks - with the exception of the previous seven days or so. As a result, there is plenty of exposed ice in the Yosemite high country. So, during the last couple of weekends I have ventured up HW 120 to experience this rare phenomenon.
Although it's not unusual for Tanya lake (a large body of water by which the highway passes) to freeze in winter, it is rare to be able to drive up to it in all it's snow-free, glassy glory. Moreover, it is an uncommon occurrence to be able to access the ice flows that have formed on some of the domes and cliffs that border the road. I will say that it's very cool to climb a hundred and ten meters of ice on a dome that I have climbed in the summer as a rock route.
I know, it's no substitute for deep powder, but this rare opportunity to venture into a snow-free, but none-the-less winter, high country is one worth taking advantage of while it's still available. After all, variety is the spice of life. I'm still thinking snow, but enjoying what mother nature has to offer!
- Nick Miley is a freelance writer and columnist living in South Lake Tahoe. He spends his free time exploring the Sierra, learning its history and writing about his experiences. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org Read more at his blog: tahoepulp.wordpress.com