Yosemite snow storm - my tale

9:26 a.m. on November 1, 2004 (EST)
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a.k.a. future atwalker

Two weeks ago a friend (J.) and I were caught in a surprise snow storm while backpacking in Yosemite. Neither of us is from California, and this was our first trip to the Sierra Nevadas. For those of you who might enjoy accounts of harrowing hikes, I describe out experiences below.

We arrived at Yosemite valley on Saturday, October 16th. We picked up bear canisters at the Wilderness Station, and were informed that the backpacking site in the valley, where we intended to spend our first night, was closed for the season. The remaining campgrounds in the valley were full, so we drove to Hodgdon Meadow site. That evening, it began raining, and by morning it was a true deluge.

Day 1. Our tents were wet, and our sleeping bags were damp. We returned to the valley, and before setting off, dried our gear at the laundromat. We then began climbing out of the valley on the John Muir Trail (JMT). I carried an umbrella, but was optimistic that the weather would clear. It did very briefly when we reached the Nevada Falls a few hours later, but soon closed in again. At the Little Yosemite Valley backpackers

10:10 a.m. on November 1, 2004 (EST)
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Yosemite snow storm - told you so ;=>D

I'm really glad you are ok. Sounds like you took a lot of the advice you got on this site about how Oct-Nov weather in the Sierra can be anything and everything. This was pretty much the extreme for October. Since you aren't from Calif, you might not have heard that 3 groups were at various locations in the Sierra, got heavily snowed in, were the subject of large-scale searches, and in a couple cases got helicoptered out. One was along the south border of Yosemite NP, one farther south near Courtright reservoir, and the other was a group doing Mt Whitney. All were fairly experienced groups. All were passably prepared, although none had snow hiking gear (no snowshoes, no skis).

Also in the Valley, there were several parties beside the Japanese pair that had to get hauled off El Cap.

Some might say you were lucky. My take is that you had much of the right gear, and mostly, you made the right decisions. As they say in flying, sometimes the "180 degree turn" is the right thing to do. Always be ready to make that call, instead of pressing on regardless. Avoid the "gotta get to the summit" tendency to blindly go ahead. And if you do get trapped, hunker down in one spot to await rescue, making yourself as visible as possible both to ground and air searches.

To repeat a comment in the earlier thread, always check the weather forecasts from NOAA weather radio, NWS websites, commercial TV and websites (Weather Channel, etc), and at the National Park and National Forest ranger stations starting a week ahead of your planned departure on a daily basis to see what the developing trend is.

Hopefully, your experience, your preparation which you describe well, and the previous threads on this site will help others. I look forward to more reports from you and sharing your experiences with others.

12:26 p.m. on November 7, 2004 (EST)
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Re: Yosemite snow storm - repost

We are really glad that you made it back. I understand the push when you are from out of state and visiting Yosemite, but the fact that you were the ONLY people in little Yosemite Valley should have told you something. Those of us who live here know that the trail is extremely dangerous when snow covered - in fact I almost have to question hiking down the trail rather than calling the rangers from the phone at the top of Nevada Falls?

I wrote to you to ask if I can repost this on the Ultralite group cause those guys all think they can go out in the winter with only minor preparations and since your post goes into tent types etc, it would be good for them to read.

I suppose in the future you will carefully consider your shells and gloves and carry multiple sources of fire. Did you guys have gaitors? How about your boots - what were you wearing? And what kind of shells? Come on we need this information very badly about what failed and what worked for you guys.
Thans for sharing
Jim S

3:35 a.m. on November 8, 2004 (EST)
(Guest)

a.k.a. future atwalker
Re: Yosemite snow storm - unprepared?

I think you raise an interesting issue: preparedness. Of course, a lot of preparedness relates to the gear you bring, and I'll offer my comments below. But awareness of the weather (as Bill S. has pointed out) is fundamental. We knew that it was going to be cold and that snow was expected above 7000 feet from the forecast at the Wilderness Center in the valley. What we weren't prepared for (in some ways) was a proper storm. It was sunny and in the 50's when we arrived at Yosemite Valley.

OK, gear. My shoes were below-the-ankle high trail shoes (they are called approach shoes where I live). They were North Face something or others, with Gore-Tex. It may have been a mistake not having full, ankle-high boots, but my thinking (and experience) was that lighter shoes would be less tiring than full boots. This thinking, however, left me unprepared for more than a few inches of snow. My friend wore full length boots, but his feet were soaked eventually as well. In my opinion, if it's raining/snowing all day, and you are walking through wet snow, eventually your feet will get wet no matter what you are wearing. However, putting Zip-loc bags on our feet over our socks worked well when we had to don wet shoes/boots.

I didn't bring gaiters. I find that they usually just make the bottom of my legs sweaty. In hindsight, these would have been very useful in keeping snow out of my shoes.

We had hats and gloves, but lightweight, water-proof gloves would have been a real asset. Basically, once your gloves are wet they are a heat sink.

Shells: I wore a Gore-tex jacket and pants (REI?). These worked initially, but became sodden. Admittedly, they have seen a few seasons of use. However, like the boots, I think that even Gore-tex can be soaked through eventually.

Layers: I brough two long sleeve, breathable synthetic shirts. I wore one while walking (at it got wet), and kept the other in my sleeping bag to stay dry and sleep in. My down bag stayed dry in a trash bag. I also had a fleece jacket which I kept in a trash bag and used as a pillow and as a dry layer in camp.

Pack: Lowe Alpine internal frame something-or-other. This is an interesting one. If I had the trip to do again, I might consider switching back to an external frame. Basically, the bottom of my pack was dripping wet (perhaps from being placed in the snow, although I tried to avoid this). J. strapped his bear barrel to the bottom of his external frame, and plunked his pack into the snow whenever he wished.

I've read Ray Jardine's book... hell, I even brought an umbrella (which was useful)! So, I wished to travel light, but am glad I wasn't too light. On the other hand, I've read about the Donner Party, so I didn't want get stuck in the snow either. Walking out in the storm was a judgement call, and it could be argued that we could have been better prepared. But the amount of rain and snow that we experienced would have presented a challenge to most hikers (in my opinion). What I take away from the experience is the absolute necessity of being able, gear-wise, to get dry (and warm) when a several-day storm arrives.

1:41 a.m. on November 13, 2004 (EST)
(Guest)

Re: Yosemite snow storm - unprepared?

Interesting reading, considering I flew home that Sunday that the storm started, after hiking in the Sierras all week (over 10,000 on both Thursday and Friday). I was at North Dome overlooking Half Dome and El Capitan the day before the storm started (in shorts, I may add).

It just goes to show how you'd best be prepared, both equipment wise, and mentally, for reversals in conditions.

9:35 a.m. on November 17, 2004 (EST)
(Guest)

Re: Yosemite snow storm - unprepared?

FutureATWalker,

It sounds to me like you did VERY well with your gear and made good decisions. After all, you are alive and well. Don't let JimShaw allow you to think everyone on the backpacking.net forum goes unprepared except him. That is far from any truth.

4:25 p.m. on November 17, 2004 (EST)
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Re: Yosemite snow storm - unprepared?

Ummmmmm, Whoever (whoever you are), Jim did not say, and I am pretty sure (knowing him pretty well) did not mean to imply, that "everyone" on the various nets is unprepared except for himself. In fact, his request of futureatwalker was the one that those of us who spend a lot of time in the backcountry make of everyone - let us all know what lessons were learned, both right and wrong. Jim has been backpacking, climbing, skiing, and otherwise in the outdoors for "only" 40 years or so, and I have been doing so since my parents took me horsepacking at age 6 months (or so the label on the photos says, so well over 60 years), but both of us, and the very experienced staff on the winter camping course I direct, along with every professional guide I know will be among the first to tell you that we learn lessons every single time we are out. Sometimes it is a new way to use gear, sometimes it is a reminder of a safety precaution we got careless with. But we always learn something. Even with written checklists (and Jim has the most extensive one I have ever seen, in a spreadsheet, with every item's weight and usage classification), we all overlook something every time (to quote a fellow climber on another forum "I thought you brought the rope").

Maybe put another way, and more correct, we all go into the woods and hills unprepared in some way, even the most experienced among us. By sharing our experiences and lessons learned, we can minimize the consequences. "Alive and well" really means "got away with it this time."

Futureatwalker missed a few things, but he and his bud were far better prepared than the 3 parties of "experienced" backpackers (according to the news reports) who had to be rescued, and far far better than the Japanese pair who perished. Jim's request (and all of us) is simply share the lessons learned.

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