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Wild Moments in the Wilderness #4: Wild Weather + Bad Trail Maps = Mental Anguish

17 Jan

Ask any seasoned outdoor traveler and they’ll tell you that if you spend enough time outside, you’ll see just about every kind of weather imaginable. This is especially true when traveling in the mountains. Weather forecasts are generally unreliable when dealing with high altitude backcountry travel.  Currently, I find the national weather service’s website to be the best for detailed weather forecasts of hard to get to wilderness locations.

For example, this past summer Joyce and I were planning a series of two backpacking trips to the southern part of the Sierra Nevada mountains. In late September, the weather is usually clear and mild even into the far reaches and heights of the High Sierra. For the weeks leading up to our trip, I continuously checked the weather forecasts. The forecasts, much to my dismay were clear, clear and more clear skies. They called for unseasonably warm temperatures during the first leg of our trip.

However, the forecasts also predicted a strong cold front  coming into the region (from the Pacific NW)  by the middle of our trip. This was not supposed to change, and believe me, I scoured every website looking for anyone or anything calling for clouds.  

There weren’t any surprises concerning the weather (clear, blue Sierra skies) when we started our trip. Unfortunately, the weather on day two was even much hotter than what was forcasted. It was literally scorching hot without a cloud in the sky. Coincidentally, it was also one of our most arduous days of hiking. Despite the incredible scenery, this made traveling unpleasant. Oh, not mention, our National Geographic topographic map seemed entirely inaccurate. What looked to be a fairly straight line on the map was actually a winding, weaving, up and down, thigh burner of a trail. It ended up being at least 3/4 mile longer than what was stated.

When combined with the hot weather and long distances can really demoralize a hiker’s attidue.

This was sunset at Hamilton Lake taken on the hottest evening of the trip. The High Sierra Trail is visible on the far side of the lake - this is where it makes its final ascent towards the Great Western Divide.

The  following day the weather started to change. Just my luck, another perfectly clear sunrise without a cloud to be seen.

Taken shortly after sunrise near Hamilton Creek.

The Changing Day

Two hours later, the clouds came out of nowhere and started rolling and swirling around. At first it was in a concentrated area and then things really started to intensify. We didn’t break camp until almost noon and so thereafter the fog started descending on us – hard.  On this particular day, the map was even less accurate. It was a long, cold, strenuous, uphill venture and fresh bear scat along the trail added to the intensity and mystery.

This is the view from the top of a steep fall on the way to Tamarack Lake.

What was even more difficult was the fog covered all of our vantage points so we really had no visual frame of reference as to how how far our final destination was. Long story short, after several hours of exhausting travel we arrived at the lake.  A couple of times, I actually thought the fog might lift and we would be treated to a spectacular sunset. Alas, that never happened.

Later that night, it started to snow. It snowed hard for several hours, which seriously worried Joyce. Rule one for wilderness travel is to hope for the best, be prepared for the worst and keep a level head. That’s what we did and things turned out just fine. The next morning it was sunny and clear. Once again, not a cloud in sight. Later that day, the fog settled in, right on cue.

That’s about three days worth experiences summarized in three paragraphs. There are several lessons to learn from all of this. Remember, the difficulties in backpacking are 50/50 mental and physical. Weather patterns while traveling high in the mountains are completely unpredictable.  It is crucial to be both mentally and physically prepared for the worst. Keep a level head and take one step at a time. Don’t rely too much on trails maps for complete accuracy.  If you need to cut back on some weight, you can always leave some of your camera gear at home . Well, hopefully not! I hope you enjoyed this post. Look for #3 around next Friday.

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