Wintertime in Yosemite can be quite a transformational experience! Sometimes overnight, the Valley’s evergreens, oaks and cliffs go from shades of green, grey, and brown to a familiar light tone – white. Late-2015 saw the white stuff come in November; about normal for the Sierra Nevada. Since then, I have experienced two rather large snow storms in Yosemite Valley; one on Christmas eve, as I was leaving the park to be with family. The other occurred just a few days ago. Both storms dropped about a foot each after they were done. Perhaps years ago, this would be the normal Winter pattern, but with 4-plus years of a California drought – that brought with it a decidedly LACK of precipitation – the site of comparatively so much snow has brought much elation to this photographer’s heart!
Along with the snow and sometimes single-digit temps., a wintertime visitor has returned to the park. Like Snow Geese from the north, you can almost set your watch to the arrival of this frozen guest at the base of Upper Yosemite Fall. If there exists a throne at the cataract’s foot, Upper Yosemite Fall’s king of that throne is decidedly the Ice Cone. And the frozen King has arrived!
As any good servant of the Ice Cone King would do, I hiked up to the base of Upper Yosemite Falls last week to pay my respects. With a lull between two major Winter storms, the day seemed warm enough to safely make the ascent up the steep switchbacks to Oh My Gosh Point – the spot where one is confronted with the 1000-foot vertical torrent. Attached to my boots were a pair of Yak Trax foot traction devices, just to add a bit of sure-footedness, should I step on a slick patch of ice or snow.
Most of the switchbacks were snow and ice free. It started to get a bit dicey at Oh My Gosh, so the Yak Trax were welcome! I passed a few parties who not only didn’t have traction devices, but weren’t even wearing winter footwear. I actually marveled at their tenacity to climb up the slick, icy trail with their obvious handicap and decidedly dangerous choice. It reminded me slightly of John Krakauer’s ill-fated Everest climbing trip to get to the top at any cost. Being that I heard no rescue helicoptors that day, I’m guessing they achieved their goal or decided to turn back if it got too dangerous.
I got to the spot on the trail where I deviated slightly. After some mild bushwhacking, I arrived at my perch atop some talus and set up the tripod. The warmth of the day (about 10am at this point) had dislodged a fair amount of the mist-ice that forms on either side of Upper Yosemite Falls – a product of the sub-freezing temps and constant mist off the waterfall that collects as ice on the cliff face during the night. Despite that, pieces were continuing to fall as I started photographing. Below are a series of photos from that session:
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After several exposures and different comp’s, I packed up the SLR and brought out my Pre-Cambrian Era iPhone 4, brought up the camera app and switched to video mode. I sat still with the phone hand-stabilized on my tripod, waiting; hoping for a moment when a piece of ice would break loose and hurtle toward the cone. As luck would have it, a few pieces did dislodge and were captured by my mobile relic. Below are two videos of that session. The first is just of the waterfall and the second is of a piece of ice falling and hitting the ice cone:
I was pretty impressed by the sound of these rather small impacts to the ice cone! In the past, I have seen very large pieces come off the cliff (standing in Cook’s Meadow) and, when hitting the cone, make a rather loud, concussive sound that rippled through much of the 7-mile stretch of the Valley – a sound akin to rock fall I’ve heard and seen. Perhaps because of my close proximity to the ice cone, the ice hitting the cone this morning was pretty loud. I felt safe at my perch, but wondered what would happen if one of the large pieces of ice came down. Perhaps an experience for another day!
After taking the videos, I just sat and reveled in the moment, hanging out about a hundred yards or so from the Ice Cone King. I love Winter in Yosemite and am so glad we are having a bona-fide one this year! I hope to go back up and visit the Ice Cone King a few more times before Spring comes and the King leaves.