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TR: Big Whitney, Tunnel Meadows and More Snow

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TR: Big Whitney, Tunnel Meadows and More Snow

Postby quentinc » Tue Oct 11, 2011 12:56 pm

Fresh powder may be great for skiing, but it's a **** to hike in. I figured if I stuck to the southern end of the High Sierra most of the recent snow storm would be melted, but I figured wrong. On the plus side, the Horseshoe Meadow road was actually plowed, so I didn't get to test my Forester's facility with snow.

I laughed when the permit ranger claimed there was 1-1/2 feet of snow in Horseshoe Meadow, but even the 2 -4 inches that was there proved to be no laughing matter when hiking through it.

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I stopped for lunch before the Cottonwood Pass trail begins to climb and, to my shock, a group of 5 teenagers came along. Then, to my annoyance, they decided that would be a perfect rest stop. Yup, I was here to plod through miles of snow just so I could have a crowd for company. So I packed up and moved on, only to discover later that I had left one of my water bottles (the only one with water in it) behind. I was too hungry to hike back, so I discovered the delight of powdered hummus mixed with snow. Yum.

When I went back for the water bottle after lunch, I decided not to go back to the trail (which presumably would have lots of foot tracks by now). This proved to be a mistake. For some reason, the route to Cottonwood Pass is like the Bermuda triangle for me -- as many times as I've done it, I somehow manage to veer off-course whenever I go off trail. I was also distracted by looking back down into the meadow.

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The worst of this was it involved a lot of needless up and down, and as the snow gradually got deeper and deeper this became utterly exhausting. And then were the swampy meadow areas hiding under the snow which I kept getting immersed in. This was so tiring that I made camp at 4pm, which is the earliest I have ever stopped on a solo backpack. I didn't even make it over the pass! But the campsite had nice views. It (almost) made up for what I would guess to be about a 10 degree night -- the coldest I've ever camped in.

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I ended up just north of the actual pass, so had to climb an extra 200 feet. I ended up postholing almost every step, even at 8 a.m., sometimes as deep as a foot. This was also the first backpack I've been on when I was seriously considering turning around and just going home.

Once over the pass, things were no better, even though I was heading down what was mostly a western exposure. I figured that Big Whitney Meadow at least would be easy going, but that also proved wrong.

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By 3 p.m., I was still circling the meadow on what seemed to be the trail (there was a small furrow in the snow), and STILL thinking about just turning around. But since I was close to where the trail heads down to Templeton Meadow/South Fork of Kern I promised myself to go one hour further. Things looked bleak at first.

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But it turned out the snow was only about 2 inches deep, and suddenly that felt like a walk in the park. Now I was glad I kept going. By the time I got down to the South Fork of the Kern, the ground was mostly clear and dry.

The next morning I headed up Tunnel Meadow. Here's Kern Peak in the background.

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Past the meadow, the trail winds up a narrow canyon along the beginnings of the South Fork of the Kern. It was overcast, and the cold air just sat in the canyon -- still freezing!

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Once in Bullfrog Meadow, it again became a snow slog. I was so worn out that the 1150 foot climb to Trail Pass felt harder than going up Shepard's. But the sun peaked through from time to time and the snow really was quite beautiful.

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If you'll forgive an obscure reference, there were times I felt like I was reenacting Gerald Crich's last walk in Women In Love.

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And, really, I consider any trip that I manage to return from alive to be wonderful! Challenging as it was, I'm really glad I did this one.



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quentinc
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Re: TR: Big Whitney, Tunnel Meadows and More Snow

Postby windknot » Tue Oct 11, 2011 1:11 pm

Wow, this area looks beautiful with the fresh dusting of snow (though of course I say this from the comfort of my sea-level office). Thanks for the report and great pictures. I've camped in temperatures that dropped below 10 degrees before and it was miserable.
A few backcountry fishing pictures: http://wanderswithtrout.wordpress.com/
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Re: TR: Big Whitney, Tunnel Meadows and More Snow

Postby richlong8 » Tue Oct 11, 2011 1:49 pm

Unbelievable. This has been an amazing year for weather. Three of the 4 trips I went on this summer were impacted by weather. Here is a picture of Tunnel Meadow just one month ago. That stretch up the South Fork was very warm when I went thru it.

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Re: TR: Big Whitney, Tunnel Meadows and More Snow

Postby SSSdave » Tue Oct 11, 2011 2:14 pm

There are many different types of snow depending on how it has evolved through environmental factors from the time it crystalizes up in the atmosphere. And that produces many different qualities on what one might have to move through as a hiker. Generally advanced snow skiers, especially those who venture off ski trails and into the backcountry, have considerably more understanding of those qualities than your average summer hiker. One thing they wisely avoid is a minor depth of new snow on autumn landscapes.

It can all look so smooth and pleasant on top but beneath is a world of unpleasant surprises. In the fall, ground temperatures tend to be relatively warm and that causes snow to melt upward from the ground creating many air pockets. Pockets that erratically collapse as one moves across terrain. Terrain that can hide all manner of holes and brush one really does not want to be stepping on. Until snow depths are about 2-3 feet deep, ski resorts almost never open their natural snow terrain. And on brushy slopes one ought wait even longer, else one might punch through ending up in depths of dark airspace within brush below snow.
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