A Visit to the Ice Cone

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!


The Ice Cone King & Half Dome

The Ice Cone King & Half Dome

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:

Close-up of the top of the Ice Cone

Close-up of the top of the Ice Cone and Upper Yosemite Falls


Close-up of icicles, Upper Yosemite Falls

Close-up of icicles, Upper Yosemite Falls

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:

Upper Yosemite Falls, Near Oh My Gosh! Point from Kirk Keeler on Vimeo.


Falling Ice, Upper Yosemite Falls from Kirk Keeler on Vimeo.


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.

Posted in Sierra Nevada, Winter, Yosemite National Park

A Trip Back to a Yosemite Glacier

August rolled in last month, seeing an end to the wonderful monsoonal weather we experienced in Yosemite in July. Most days were clear, warm and dusty – pretty typical for August in Yosemite Valley. Yosemite Falls has become what the locals call ‘Yosemite Wall’; water has ceased to careen over the 2,425 foot cliff that separates Yosemite Creek from the rim of the Valley to the floor. This, as well, is pretty normal. What isn’t normal is the trickle of Bridalveil Fall. Three seasons of below-average precipitation have put a damper on this typically perennial waterfall.

When August comes, people who work in the park usually set their sights on being at higher elevations – to beat both the heat and the crowds. Shauna and I planned our August getaway to Yosemite’s highest point – Mount Lyell and the Lyell Glacier. If you read my blog from two years ago, you would know that I visited there as part of a group of volunteers headed by park geologist Greg Stock and Colorado University geologist, Bob Anderson. If you haven’t read that series, click here to learn why we were up there.

Shauna and I planned a simpler trip – to enjoy the area and, for Shauna, to experience it for her first time! I, of course, brought the camera, hoping to capture some nice scenics, as well as document, in photos, the current state of the Lyell Glacier.

The hike from Tuolumne Meadows to base camp is roughly 12 – 13 miles. Shauna and I refer to the first 9 miles as a “slog” – a somewhat endearing term for the mile after mile of flat, straight, and mostly sandy trail that one travels to get to the Lyell Glacier. Along the way, we hiked next to the meandering Tuolumne River, which offered us many opportunities to enjoy the beauty of the Lyell Canyon and stop for a break to rest and enjoy the sound of water cascading on granite. After a few hours, the slog ended and the climbing began! The first mile or so was switchbacks. Then, we veered off the Pacific Crest Trail / John Muir Trail “highway” and went without a trail the remainder of the way. After a few more steep climbs, we reached our base camp – a lake that is part of the Maclure Creek drainage, below the pyramid-shaped Simmons Peak. It is a classic high-altitude Sierra scene:  Clear-water lakes, shrunken pines, lofty, glacier-sculpted mountains, and barren, exposed metamorphic and intrusive-igneous rock. The picture below, taken in 2012, shows the lake we camped at, along with the landscape I described above.

Lake in the Maclure Creek drainage, below Simmons Peak

Lake in the Maclure Creek drainage, below Simmons Peak

After finding protected ground under some stunted pines, we set up our camp and made dinner. Shortly after we finished eating, the light show began! Below is a photograph taken from our first night.

Sierra Wave Cloud over Kuna Crest and Donahue Pass

Sierra Wave Cloud over Kuna Crest and Donahue Pass

The next day, after a breakfast of fresh-ground coffee, oatmeal and miso soup (Yes…I think the combo goes quite well together for camping!), we dawned our packs, with ice axes and crampons attached, and set our sights on the granitic slabs above us that would bring us to the base of the Lyell Glacier. At this point, we left behind the trees and entered into a moonscape of rock and high-altitude flora and fauna that are well-adapted to the harsh conditions of life above 10,000 feet. Along the way we met several of the creatures that thrive in this environment, including a Yellow-bellied Marmot taking in the nice view.

A Yellow-bellied Marmot takes in the view across the Lyell and Maclure drainages to the Kuna Crest

A Yellow-bellied Marmot takes in the view across the Lyell and Maclure drainages to the Kuna Crest.  Photo courtesy of Shauna Potocky

We also came across several pair of White-tailed Ptarmigans – high altitude relatives of the Grouse. One pair had some chicks! Here’s a video Shauna made of the first pair we encountered:

After reaching the top of the slabs, the land changed once again, to the talus-laden moonscape mentioned above, with several teal-colored tarns (high alpine lakes with glacial-powdered dirt on the lake bottom).

After careful navigation through the talus field, we got to the toe of the Lyell Glacier about midday. Next, Shauna was able to put on her new crampons and with the aid of her new ice axe, was on the ice in little time. Here’s a few pics of her inaugural voyage on high-alpine ice:

Shauna looks above her at the expanse of the once-active Lyell Glacier

Shauna looks above her at the expanse of the once-active Lyell Glacier


Shauna, getting comfortable with an ice axe and crampons. The Lyell talus field is behind her, with the Lyell Canyon in the far distance (dark triangle-patch of trees).

After exploring on the ice, making videos, taking pictures, and eating a little lunch, we took off the gear, loaded the packs, and followed our path back down to base camp in time to dine and have yet another incredible sunset to gaze at and photograph.

Sunset Clouds over the Kuna Crest

Sunset Clouds over the Kuna Crest


Sunset Clouds, Maclure Peak

Sunset Clouds, Maclure Peak

Current State of the Lyell Glacier

As stated above, part of this trip was to observe the Lyell Glacier – or ice field, depending on how you’d like to call it – and to see if there was any visible changes due to the melting of ice from two years of little snow and an ever-warming climate. Technically, it is no longer a glacier, due to the discovery of its stagnancy by park geologist Greg Stock during the 2012 trips. I was curious to discover if I could see any visible changes since September 2012 – when the snow was melted and only bare ice was showing. Below are pictures taken in approximately the same place (within a few hundred feet). The tarn is the same one in both photos.

Lyell Glacier, from the Northern-most tarn, September 2012

Lyell Glacier, from the Northern-most tarn, September 2012

Lyell Glacier, just above the northern tarn, August 30th, 2014

Lyell Glacier, just above the northern tarn, August 30th, 2014

Here’s my observations: The right flank of the glacier is smaller in the most current photo – meaning, there’s more rubble exposed in the gully to the right of the glacier. There is also a patch of rock that is more prevalent in the upper left region of the glacier. Lastly, the glacier, in general has a more deflated, or flatter, appearance in the upper middle region. I propose that this ‘ice field’ has melted considerably in the last two years. While Shauna and I didn’t go up to inspect the patch of rock, I suspect that is bedrock. It could also be a sizable rock fall from the Lyell Peak’s headwall that spread out in that area, so I can’t say for certain. I only base my theory on the fact that there’s a smaller rock patch in the same location in the September 2012 picture. The deflation looks pretty clear to me.

My theories will be put to the test. Greg Stock and co-founder of the Alpine of the Americas Project, Jonathan Byers (also on the 2012 project) are headed up this month to do surveys and take pictures to do a more precise analysis of this disappearing, stagnant “glacier”.


On a whole, Shauna and I really enjoyed our high-country trip. I was especially happy to see Shauna’s first responses on the ice! I’m also happy that we both got to experience this ice before it leaves us – a sad but true statement; a microcosm of a much larger issue – the disappearing of many of the worlds glaciers due to human-caused climate change.

Posted in Sierra Nevada, Yosemite National Park

The Blog is Back!!

Greetings! After taking quite a long time away from writing here (Almost a year and a half!), I’m back at it, recommitting to posting what I’m up to.

I thought I’d write about my experiences within the last month. As always is the case in the summer, Yosemite’s season gets into full swing and this year proved to be on par to previous. One incredible new thing I got to participate in July was being an assistant to Michael Frye in the gallery’s Hidden Yosemite workshop. This is a five-day course that puts participants into some of Yosemite’s most spectacular scenery, most of it away from the roads and where few visitors go to or even know about (thus “Hidden”…). The workshop is based out of Lee Vining, 30 minutes east of the park boundary, right next to Mono Lake. This location made it possible to also photograph locations just outside the park, in the Eastern Sierra and around Mono Lake.

Many of the staff photographers at the gallery joke that Michael Frye brings stormy weather with him to all his workshops because of the multitude of incredible shots he and his participants get of lit-up magenta clouds, storm light, etc. This week proved to be another one of those weeks and the following pictures show what we experienced during the Hidden Yosemite workshop:

Sunset Clouds Reflected in Pond, Tuolumne Meadows

Sunset Clouds Reflected in Pond, Tuolumne Meadows


Cascade and High Sierra Wildflowers, Inyo National Forest


Storm Clouds Above Gaylor Peak and Mt. Dana


Sunrise Reflection, North Peak, Hoover Wilderness


Moonrise Through Clouds, Mono Lake


I was incredibly grateful to be assisting Michael during his workshop. He has continually been an inspiration for my photography and a resource for questions I’ve had about all topics related to the camera, post-processing, and printing. Not only did he let me participate in teaching the students, but he also allowed me to take a group up to Middle Gaylor Lake for a moonset shot (a shot I’ve been wanting for quite some time!) as he took another group to photograph an alternative moonset over Tenaya Lake. Thank you Michael!!


Moonset over The Cathedral Range and Mt. Hoffman, from Middle Gaylor Lake

Guiding people in the park also increases during the summer. I did many guided sessions for people in July and it’s such a rewarding experience for me. One of my favorites was taking a teenager out for her first time in Yosemite. She will be going into an art college this fall, learning about – you guessed it – photography! We had an incredible day, as unsettled weather was in the Yosemite area, with storm clouds in the sky. We both caught this view of El Capitan and Half Dome, with a rainbow between them, from Turtleback Dome:

Rainbow Over Half Dome, from Turtleback Dome

Rainbow Over Half Dome, from Turtleback Dome

Moving out of teaching/guiding and into personal photography, I got to spend some time in the latter part of July discovering places in Yosemite I hadn’t visited yet. I hiked a three-day backpack trip that took me from the perimeter of the Cathedral Range up to Merced Lake, one of the High Sierra Camps in the park. I didn’t get the glorious, stormy weather (I guess Michael needed to be with me for that to happen!), but I managed to find some fun compositions:

Lupine, Cathedral and Echo Peaks, Cathedral Pass

Lupine, Cathedral and Echo Peaks, Cathedral Pass

Sunset Reflection, Echo Peaks and Matthes Crest

Sunset Reflection, Echo Peaks and Matthes Crest

Rock and Grass, Sunset on Matthes Crest

Rock and Grass, Sunset on Matthes Crest

Wildflowers on Water, Merced Lake

Wildflowers on Water, Merced Lake

My favorite was coming across a scene that Ansel Adams had photographed in 1936, Juniper Cliffs and River, Upper Merced River Canyon. I’ve put his and mine together here so you can see the differences. The two most obvious to me are the taller tree to the left of the Juniper and more lichen around both trees (darker area on the rock). Otherwise, they could look almost identical. I am amazed at how little the trees really have changed.

Modern Day Juniper Cliffs and River, Upper Merced River, 2014

Modern Day Juniper Cliffs and River, Upper Merced River, 2014

Juniper Cliffs and River, Upper Merced River, Ansel Adams, ca 1936

Juniper Cliffs and River, Upper Merced River, Ansel Adams, ca 1936

Lastly, I’ll put in a few words about some fires that occured the last week in July. The El Portal Fire started July 26th, just above the town of El Portal, and quickly spread up the hill to Foresta, where fire crews did an incredible job limiting lost homes to one, possibly two. The following photos are from the last week in July:

Smokey Sunrise From Tunnel View, July 28th

Smokey Sunrise From Tunnel View, July 28th

El Capitan and Merced River, July 29th, 7:45am

El Capitan and Merced River, July 29th, 7:45am

Close-up of El Portal Fire, July 30th, 9:13pm

Close-up of El Portal Fire, July 30th, 9:13pm. White light in sky is airplane support on fire.

El Portal Fire from Hwy 120, July 30th, 10:48pm

El Portal Fire from Hwy 120, July 30th, 10:48pm

As of today (August 4), the fire is 96% contained, with cool weather and possible rain in the forecast. This bodes well for all the fires in our area, the largest being the French Fire, very near where my girlfriend Shauna Potocky lives, in Oakhurst. It is currently at 13,000 plus acres, but the cooler temps have helped fire crews start to get a handle on this fire, which was caused by careless people not properly putting out their campfire. I sure hope the rest of the summer is fire free!

I am hoping to continue with my blog series, so check in from time to time to see what I’m up to! Enjoy the rest of your summer…or winter if you live on the other half of the planet!

Posted in Uncategorized

Latest Horsetail Fall Information

NOAA 7-day forecast calls for precipitation to descend upon Yosemite Valley beginning next Tuesday, February 19th.  This is excellent news for those of you wanting to photograph Horsetail Fall!

NOAA 7-day Forecast for Yosemite Valley from February 14 - 20.  Precipitation is expected beginning on February 19th.

NOAA 7-day Forecast for Yosemite Valley from February 14 – 20. Precipitation is expected beginning on February 19th.

I’ll try to update my blog with new pictures of the fall if conditions change.


Posted in Uncategorized

Horsetail Fall May Not Deliver in 2013

Horsetail Fall, February 12, 2013, 5:29 pm

Horsetail Fall, February 12, 2013, 5:29 pm, from the Southside Drive view.

I was out last night guiding some folks around Yosemite Valley.  They wanted to finish their session at a place to photograph Horsetail Fall.  Although not in the prime light window of February 16 – 23, if there’s sunlight and enough water, the fall can be pretty amazing in the days preceding the optimum window.

As seen from my photo above, there was simply not enough water in Horsetail Falls to put on a show last night.  In fact, I’ll say there was no water in the fall.  You can click on the image above to see the larger version.  The light colored rock in the right edge of the light is Horsetail Fall.  However, Horsetail is nothing more than a wet streak on the east face of El Capitan.

The NOAA seven day forecast doesn’t look favorable for Horsetail Fall.  Here’s the data through February 19, most of the optimal window for the fall:

NOAA forecast for Yosemite Valley, February 13-19

NOAA forecast for Yosemite Valley, February 13-19

There is no precipitation in site.  Visual observation of snow on the top of El Capitan gives me some hope though.  Melting snow is typically what feeds water into Horsetail Fall.  There is still snow on top of El Capitan.  Notice in the forecast that we will see temperatures rising to almost 60 degrees this weekend.  The warmer temperature could melt enough snow to revive the fall in the optimum window.  It’s really hard to know at this point until this weekend.

Let’s hope for increased water this weekend and a beautiful orange to red fall to fall down the east face of El Capitan!


Posted in Sierra Nevada, Yosemite National Park Tagged , , , , , |

February is Horsetail Fall Month

Back in 1989, for Christmas, my aunt gave me a copy of Galen Rowell’s “The Yosemite”. Actually – I saw the book in a local bookstore and asked her if she could get it for me for Christmas. My guess is that there was a sigh of relief from my aunt – knowing that year’s present was going to be easier than trying to figure out the latest fashion in clothing she’d try to get for me. Needless to say, my aunt’s gift that Christmas changed my life forever. It got me into landscape photography!

Galen’s book paired his photographs alongside the energetic words of John Muir’s book “The Yosemite” – the goal to hopefully melt a pictorial inspiration with Muir’s prose. Well, it worked for me! Not only did the book inspire me to pick up a camera, but Muir’s words inspired me to want to “Climb the [Sierra] mountains and get their good tidings” and go visit Yosemite, which I hadn’t yet (I was 19).

I would pour over Galen’s book, sometimes for hours, in amazement of the beauty of Yosemite he captured through his camera.  The one image that burns red in my mind from that book was his ‘Last Light on Horsetail Fall, El Capitan, 1973’ (click on the AA0008 image).  I stared at that image for what seemed an eternity the first time I saw it!  “That fall is real?” I asked myself.

It took over twenty years and numerous visits to the park before I got to witness and capture Horsetail Fall through my camera.  Nearly a year after I arrived to Yosemite, I nestled my camera amongst the many who showed up one night in February of 2011 to try to capture the glowing fall.  Unfortunately, not all the conditions showed up to stoke up the ‘natural firefall’ – clouds to the west hid the red light at sunset and foiled all our attempts to capture red water careening down the east face of El Capitan.

In order for the orange/red glow to happen, several things need to align.  First, there needs to be enough water in the fall, which is fed by snow-melt on top of El Capitan.  Second, if it is stormy, with clouds surrounding the cliffs, or if there are clouds to the west that block the sun at its lowest point before setting (as was my case in 2011), no go.  February is typically a stormy month, so getting the ideal conditions for this event could take years.

Fortunately, my good friend and fellow photographer, Michael Frye, has devoted considerable time to figuring out the ideal days for photographing Horsetail Falls.  You can read his article here.  He has deciphered that the best window for optimal light is February 16 – 23.  Photographing before this can still capture glowing light, but the sun hits to the left of the fall at sunset, as in my picture below, taken February 3rd.

Horsetail Fall, February 3, 2013, 5:26 pm

Horsetail Fall, February 3, 2013, 5:26 pm, taken from “Rowell’s View” at El Capitan picnic area.  Note the fall on the right edge of the light, beginning just below the last prominent tree on right-top of the cliff.  Click on image to see a bigger version.


Horsetail Fall, February 15th, 2012.

Horsetail Fall, February 15th, 2012.  Notice most of the light is still to the left of the fall, but enough (but not a lot) water is in the fall to see it glowing, particularly on the bottom part, just before is descends behind the dark ridge in front of it.

Horsetail Falls, February 17, 2012, 5:28 pm

Horsetail Falls, February 17, 2012, 5:28 pm.  This was taken right in Michael Frye’s optimal window.  Notice the light is just hitting the fall.

This highlights the cliff, with the fall in shadow at sunset.  Photographing after the 23rd, the sun then hits the wall to the right of the fall – again, the fall is lost in the darkness of the cliff.  Having the left-side cliff in shadow really makes the waterfall ‘pop’ with color – like putting a dark sheet behind a light subject in a portrait photograph.  Frye writes, “I always felt that the shadow behind the cliff is an important element”.

So, there is one week of opportunity to capture the sun just hitting the water – not much of a window.  Thanks to Michael Frye, photographers can now plan their trip to Yosemite around the optimal week in February to photograph what Frye believes is the only glowing waterfall of its type in the World.  Thankfully, working here as an Ansel Adams staff photographer gives me access and daily opportunities to try to capture a rare (and hopefully unique) ‘natural firefall’.  I will most certainly be staying home February 16 – 23!

Speaking of Ansel Adams – Did he capture the ‘natural firefall’?  The answer is yes, but since he was a black & white photographer, his emphasis was on the falls’ back-lit spray.  Steve Bumgardner, producer of Yosemite Nature Notes, has a wonderful video explaining the photographic history of this fall.  In it, Michael Adams, Ansel’s son, remembers the fall as El Capitan Fall, and shows a picture Ansel took of the fall with lots of water in it.  So, Ansel did capture Horsetail Falls and rendered it’s beauty perfectly in black & white.

Conditions update February 5th:  A dry January has left little snow on the top of El Capitan to feed Horsetail.  The latest forecast calls for a little precipitation this week

7-Day weather outlook as of February 5th.

NOAA 7-Day weather outlook as of February 5th.  We have 1 – 3 inches of snow expected on Thursday.  We need more though!

We really need at least one big storm, I believe, to get the fall going well enough in two weeks.

Hope to see you out there this year!





Posted in Yosemite National Park Tagged , , , , , , |

Stop. Look Big. Yell. Bear safety that really works.

Adolescent Bears in Oak Tree, Yosemite National Park

Adolescent Bears in an Oak Tree, Yosemite National Park

I love trail running!  Since my move to Yosemite in 2010, I get to run in one of the most beautiful, scenic mountain ranges in the world.  Not only does Yosemite National Park offer many trails, but the National Forest surrounding the park offers equal prospects for trail running – most times without the crowds that I encounter in Yosemite Valley during the summer season.  The National Forest also offers opportunities to encounter wildlife not tamed by over four million visitors that now visit Yosemite each year.  With solo wilderness backcountry trail running, there is a responsibility of protecting oneself in the event of an encounter with large animals such as mountain lions and bears.

Recently, my girlfriend Shauna introduced me to an amazing grove of sequoias near her house.   The Nelder Grove is just outside the southern entrance to Yosemite and is managed by the US National Forest Service.  It has quickly become one of my favorite places to photograph, cross-bike ride, and trail run.  It has a short loop trail with several amazing sequoias, including the Bull Buck Tree – one of the largest sequoias in the grove.  A longer, three-plus mile trail takes one up to a smaller grove at the top of a ridge and is more secluded than the loop.

The Bull-Buck sequoia tree in winter 2012

The Bull Buck sequoia tree in December 2012

Back in July, I decided to do my first solo trail run on the longer trail to try and beat the triple-digit heat occurring in Oakhurst; hoping the shaded trail and higher elevation (5000’ – 6000’) would bring some relief.  This proved to be true when I emerged from my car at the trailhead.  After some stretching, I took off on the trail – headed for the upper sequoia grove.  I quickly noticed the silence and solitude offered by being on this trail – on a weekend in the middle of the summer.  It didn’t take long before I was enjoying my run, getting into a rhythmic groove as I was reaching the first mile.

Suddenly, from my right side, my silence and solitude quickly vanished with a lumbering noise approaching me; a mostly breathy “rah, rah, rah, rah!!”.  I looked to my right and on the uphill side of the trail, running right toward me, was a rather large mama black bear with two cubs in tow.  The cubs quickly jumped and scaled up the nearest pine while mom continued her charge right at me.

This was one of those moments that I knew was a possibility yet, had never actually prepared for really happening – a mama bear with cubs, protecting her young by charging at a perceived threat.  I’ve read many times about what to do in this situation:  Stop, make yourself look as big as possible, and make as loud a noise as possible, and if there’s anything to throw, pick it up and throw it at the bear.

My first instinct was to run faster.  With something 300 – 500 pounds faced squarely upon you, threatening harm, wouldn’t you?  I resisted that instinct and stopped.  I looked around for something to pick up and throw.  Nothing was nearby me unless I ran to get it – probably not a good idea with a sprinting bear coming at me.  So, I got past my fear, looked directly at the approaching bear, put my arms over my head to look big, and began to roar as loud as I possibly could.  Mind you; this was all happening in the span of about 5 seconds.

There was a moment after I started, mama bear still charging me, where I thought, “This might be it.  This creature might cause some pretty bad damage to me…or worse!”  I kept up with the roaring and with less than ten feet to spare, the bear stopped at the top of the uphill berm of the trail – looking right at me with her ears straight up, eyes intently looking into mine.

This bear was wild.  Not like any bears I’ve seen in Yosemite Valley.  First, it didn’t have the tell-tale ear tag that nearly all bears in Yosemite Valley have.

Secondly, most Yosemite bears have become accustomed to people and vehicles, and do not seem to be as affected by human presence.  I remember once seeing a mother bear and two cubs walking towards me to El Capitan Meadow one evening.  Just before crossing Northside Drive to get into the meadow proper, cars began to stop, people getting out of their cars in the middle of the road to photograph or video these bears – creating what Yosemite locals call a ‘bear jam’.    This was my first witness to the rather normal summer event.  I noticed mama bear quickly turned her cubs around and headed back into the forested region near the base of El Capitan.  I felt no fear from my photographic position in the meadow – a position that the three bears were aiming for.  I think I knew they’d turn back, so continued with my evening shoot.

Many times I’ve witnessed Yosemite bears crossing roads, innocuously turning logs in the forest, running through North Pines campground being chased by a camper who’s yelling, “Go Bear…Go!”.  I’ve come to view these large mammals as mostly harmless; certainly appearing to not be interested in taking a bite out of or swatting any humans with their ginormous paws and sharp claws.

But this was different.  Standing eye to eye with this bear was humbling.  She could have ripped me to shreds if she wanted.  I was utterly defenseless, except for my wits.  I looked her square in the eyes and roared like I’ve never done before; like I was going to rip her to shreds if she came closer (at least that was the role I was playing).

It worked!  She turned around and ran back to where she came from, her cubs coming down from their safe trees and running behind her.  She continued to run until about 100 yards from me where she turned, looked at me, and then continued to lumber away.  Let me remind you – I was still yelling.

Weirdly enough, perhaps with a bit of “I beat her”, I continued up the trail with my run, running a few seconds faster than previously; mostly from adrenaline and less from fear of bears.  Since my run was not a loop, I had to revisit the place of the incident.  As I ran past, I made several loud grunt noises; as if to state that I was back and to not mess with me.  This was clearly an attempt at putting myself at ease, as I did NOT want to have another charging bear face-off.  Luckily, this time it was just me on the trail with a handful of gray squirrels and chipmunks scrambling up trees nearby.

I learned two valuable lessons from my bear encounter.  First, all the preparation for the remote possibility of an encounter with mountain lions and bears is very much worth the effort.  Second, and most importantly, believing in myself enough to stand my ground in the face of imminent danger was a life lesson that mama bear indirectly gave to me.  There might be times in my future where a challenging event may come again.  I believe that this encounter has prepared me and will help remind me to stand my ground and be completely present with whatever situation I am presented with.  Being confident in the face of adversity is a life lesson we all must learn and five hundred pounds of charging, life-threatening, female-protecting bear energy reminded me of this.  Thank you mama bear!!

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The Glacier Trips: Final Story, October 2012

Here it is – the final installment of my blog series about Yosemite’s glaciers.  Thank you for following and I hope you enjoyed the series!  If you’d like to read the first three posts to this story, click here.


Mt. Lyell and Lyell Glacier, from a USGS photo point, Lyell Canyon

October Glacier Trip

The first weekend in October found me again, hiking the long trail from Tuolumne Meadows through the beautiful Lyell Canyon.  My destination – The fourth and final encounter of this year, with Yosemite’s remaining glaciers.  I decided to hike ahead of the survey team for this trip; partly to experience the hike solo, but also to have additional time to photograph places along the trail I had been wanting to connect with—and had spotted on previous trips.  It was a beautiful day!  I stopped several times for photographic opportunities.  Below, I think, exemplifies early fall in Yosemite’s high country.

Old logs, Lyell Canyon looking north

Lyell Glacier and Peak, Lyell fork of the Tuolumne River, Lyell Canyon

I met up with the team later in the afternoon and we headed for our previous campsite during the September survey.  Volunteering for this trip was Greg Stock’s wife Sarah Stock, Brian Whitehead, Matt Holly, Jessica Thompson, Jen Jackson, and Dustin Garrison.  Arriving to camp before dinner gave us plenty of time to set up camp, eat, and watch one of the Sierra’s finest light shows!

Firey Sunset above the Kuna Crest, Yosemite high country

This trip was simply to get one more velocity measurement from the stakes in both glaciers, then take the stakes out and complete the four-year study.  We headed for the Maclure glacier first.  Freezing night temperatures helped keep the stakes in place, which made for easy measuring and removal (except for two stakes frozen in the ice).  Again, the weather was very good, so working during the day was a pleasure and sleeping at night was very restful.

For this trip, I could only work until noon on the first day.  This was because I had also been monitoring the development of the fall leaf color progress on the eastside and thought it might peak during this same weekend; thus, the plan was that I would leave the glacier trip a day early.  Greg and I connected after the weekend and he informed me that measurements on the Lyell Glacier were equally easy as on the Maclure.

If you read my previous blog, you will remember that I have initial findings from the survey that Greg Stock said would be appropriate for me to share and publish here.  Here they are!  First – the good news.  A recent correspondence with Greg revealed current velocity measurements of the Maclure Glacier:  “The Maclure Glacier moves about 22 feet per year, with somewhat faster motion in the summer than in the winter.  Our August-October measurements were indeed very similar to Muir’s, with about one inch per day of movement.”  Greg added that he and geologist Bob Anderson (the other part of the study team on the survey) are puzzled by the movement because the glacier is 60% smaller than the 1872 Muir study “with about 120 feet of vertical ice loss”.  The glacier is still moving and during our July trip, a few of us heard and felt the glacier’s bass-like creaking and popping sounds that seemed to indicate that movement was occurring underneath our feet – somewhat unsettling sounds when on the glacier!

By contrast, the data collected from the Lyell Glacier tells a very different story.  From July – October, Greg’s velocity measurements showed that the Lyell had no movement…at all!  Even with the Lyell’s larger surface area, making it visually the largest glacier in the park (and one of the largest in the Sierra), the data suggests dramatic change.  I’ll remind you once again that in order for a glacier to be called such, it needs movement.  It must have enough mass to keep that movement going and continued formation of ice to maintain the previous two.    The recent survey’s numbers were also gathered during a season in which a Sierra glaciers’ movement would be the greatest – during the summer months (as Greg stated above).

All the Lyell’s information puts Yosemite National Park’s first appointed geologist to the task of what to call the large ice structure below the northern slopes of the highest peak in the park.  As I write this, Greg is writing his report on the four-year glacier study, no doubt checking over the stats once more and finalizing his conclusions.  Computer models will be created to help interpret the data more easily to park service officials and the public.  “One thing is for sure”, Greg points out during one of the survey trips, “The news that’s revealed from this will be big!”  Greg has the report’s tentative finish date sometime in early 2013.

Panorama, Western Lobe of the Lyell Glacier, July 2012.  There are four people, just above the end of the right-entering talus field and below a single boulder, for scale.  Click on photo for larger version.

Being the 2012 glacier survey’s regular photographer was exceptional!  Not only did I get to travel to one of the most beautiful places in the park, but the opportunity helped to augment my photography skills.  This was the first time I had the chance to document an event, in addition to creating artful photographs.  As seen from my website’s portfolio – there are no humans in my photographs.  It was great to test this new territory.  I learned a lot and perhaps this is only the beginning.  I am also eternally grateful to Greg Stock for allowing me the chance to be a part of this historic survey.  Not only have I gotten to know him better, but I got to meet many volunteers who, like me, share a fascination of glacial geology and wanted to know first-hand what is going on with Yosemite’s glaciers.  Meeting Colorado University, Boulder’s Bob Anderson was equally great, as he had much additional glacial information and enthusiasm to share.

It is also important to note that this isn’t the only recent study of Yosemite’s glaciers.  Hassan Basajic studied many of the Sierra Nevada glaciers and wrote an impressive report on his findings, which you can read here. Of considerable interest for me was Hassan’s use of comparing old photos of the glaciers with his new ones taken in the exact location of the old photos to show visual evidence of the glaciers’ retreats.

I can’t speak for all who participated, but I can say that this experience not only informed me of the current conditions of these ice formations, but it has helped me see the direct effects of climate change in my back yard.  For me, climate change is now more real than ever.  Learning the truth about these glaciers is emotional.  I feel a profound sadness for the loss of these incredible moving bodies of ice.  For now, I can say, “At least the Maclure is still moving”.  But, for how much longer?  Perhaps I can take comfort in the fact that the Sierra glaciers have been growing and retreating, disappearing and reappearing throughout the range’s history.  Maybe, thousands of years from now, the very spot I write this blog from in Yosemite Village will once again be under meters of ice, experiencing the day-to-day ablation of yet another glacial period; erasing any signs of The Ansel Adams Gallery, the scoured Ahwahneechee acorn grinding stones, and possibly even the vertical walls of Half Dome and El Capitan.

The future remains to be seen.

For now though, I have witnessed first-hand and documented through my camera, another diminishing ecosystem caused by our present-day, human-caused, warming planet.  How will this affect all the species, including us, who rely on this resource?  Maybe I should be happy for experiencing these glaciers while they are still here; believe me – I am! Yet, as I look to the future and ponder the National Park Service’s Mission Statement, “… to conserve the scenery and the natural (my emphasis) and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”, I am left with an emptiness that the coming generations will experience a Yosemite impaired; a Yosemite without glaciers. A Yosemite wilderness not mismanaged by its faithful and evolving National Park Service, but by forces much larger than itself—forces that are collective and know no boundaries.

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The Glacier Trips: September 2013

My Apologies for not getting these stories out sooner!  I had an incredibly busy October and time got away from me to write.  With that, enjoy the remaining glacier blog posts!

September Glacier Trip

Park Geologist Greg Stock uploading temperature data to his small laptop.  This gauge has been out in the field since the beginning of the glacier study in 2008.

September’s glacier trip found me on the ice with a team of six volunteers, Colorado University,  Boulder geology professor Robert Anderson (the other institution involved with the glacier study), and of course, Yosemite National Park geologist Greg Stock.  The goals this month:  Record the position of glacier stakes since August and begin the removal of equipment from the area, as the study’s end is the first week of October.  In addition, stream and temperature gauge data was downloaded, as part of a water discharge study, and then the equipment was removed, per Leave No Trace wilderness principles.  The biggest piece of equipment removed was the meteorological station (MET station for short), which has recorded weather data in the region since the early days of the glacier study nearly 4 years ago.  After the final data was collected onto Greg’s laptop, the MET station was dismantled, divided up amongst the volunteers, carried down to base camp and eventually out of the back-country.

Volunteers Brina Mocsny and Scott Borden help dismantle the meteorological station with Colorado University, Boulder professor Bob Anderson (pictured with light cap).

Cooler September temperatures slowed glacial ablation enough to hold six of seven stakes in their positions, making measurements far easier than August.  Still, we had to drill the holes deeper to ensure they would be intact to measure on our final October trip.  While on the Lyell glacier, I wanted to make sure to photograph a marker on a rock face – a ‘K’ – which marked where the glacier’s surface was during a 1933 survey .  I was very interested in knowing the elevation difference between the ‘K’ and the current glacier surface, now below it.  Professor Anderson loaned me his lazer rangefinding device to get this distance.  I walked over to a spot (see below photo), found a piece of exposed ice at the end of the glacier, got down at ice level, and shot the lazer right at the ‘K’.  40 vertical meters came back (approx. 130 feet).

Brina helps give human scale to 79 years of glacial retreat.

So, between 1933 and 2012, the Lyell glacier lost around 130 vertical feet of ice from my position.  To put this in perspective, imagine you were walking on the Lyell glacier in 1933.  You would be 130 feet above my head, more or less, a massive ice sheet between you and me!  It’s not there anymore.  In 79 years, all that ice has melted away.  With 2012 California and national temperatures breaking records for more consecutive highs each year, these conditions seem to point towards more melting.

The most important analysis, however, will be the data collected from the stakes off both the Lyell and Maclure glaciers.  Reading my first blog post from this project, you will remember that in order for a glacier to be considered such, it needs to have enough mass to move.  If it’s not moving, it would be considered more of an ice field than a glacier.

A conversation with Greg revealed even more interesting glacier facts.  The Sierra glaciers have oscillated in behavior throughout the mountain range’s lifetime.  Glaciers have grown and retreated several times.  Greg even mentioned that at one point, glaciers were completely absent from the range.  He emphasized that these oscillations have had thousands of years of regularity between them.  By contrast, this last retreat to present time took only 150 years of time – extremely out of the norm and notably beginning the same time as the Industrial Revolution (roughly 1850); the time when burning fossil fuels and releasing C02 into the atmosphere began in earnest by humans.    “The last 150 years”, Greg points out, “is very much out of [geological] regularity of past Sierra glacial retreats.”

The team walks through a shallow col, while Maclure Peak and glacier tower behind them. Left to right: Taryn Mead, Scott Borden, Bob Anderson, Jonathan Byers

Having finished this trip’s work on the Lyell, the team hiked to the Maclure region the next day for measurements and some clean-up of old stakes, left behind from previous glacier studies, dating as far back as the 1970’s.  Similar stake conditions to the Lyell made for easy lazer rangefinder measuring and re-drilling of the stake holes.  This day found me walking alongside professor Robert (Bob) Anderson, using an ice auger to make the stake holes deeper and holding a prism above the stakes for Greg to get distance measurements from his lazer rangefinding station at the base of the glacier.

Professor Bob Anderson holds a prism to capture the lazer rangefinding beam and send it back to Greg Stock at a fixed position below.

Bob was a pleasure to work with and listen to!  He has previous experience working with glaciers at Glacier National Park and told the group stories about being underneath glaciers, setting up monitoring equipment.  He also worked on Colorado glaciers and had just returned from Alaska studying glaciers there before our trip.  He was grateful for my camera knowledge – especially when I turned on the Highlight indicator in his Nikon camera.  In Bob’s spare time, he enjoys photography and still employs his 4X5 medium format film camera to capture images.

Professor Bob Anderson expounding geologic processes, while park geologist Greg Stock and volunteer Scott Borden listen.

Speaking of being underneath glaciers…After the team was finished with our Maclure Glacier work, Greg took us to one of the Maclure’s amazing wonders – its ice caves!  We entered two at the toe of the glacier and a whole different world revealed itself!  We were on newly scraped rock, covered with glacial flour, while the bottom of the glacier was the roof of the cave.  This world stayed at a constant temperature around 32 degrees Fahrenheit, allowing for all sorts of ice forms to be present.  The pictures below show a few of the things seen there.  Going into the Maclure ice caves was not only a highlight of this trip, but a highlight of all my trips to the glaciers this year!

A naturally occurring ice sculpture in one of the ice caves underneath the Maclure Glacier.

Looking out the mouth of a Maclure Glacier ice cave.

One last note:  Weather on this trip, while cooler and with more wind, was much more pleasant than the August trip (Read my blog post on the August Glacier Trip to see what happened then).  Clouds formed, but rain never fell.  Also, Shauna loaned me her two-person tent, which when pitched correctly, had no problems with the stiff winds we had and allowed me lots of room to keep my gear dry in case of rain.

With each glacier trip, I have gained more respect for Greg and Bob and the information that they are retrieving for their study.  I believe this knowledge will have a significant impact not only on the health of Yosemite’s remaining glaciers, but bring additional and unique awareness to the larger impacts of human-caused climate change.  Stay tuned for part two of this blog on October’s final glacier trip and for future posts when Greg’s final report is done!  The next post will also have initial findings from the survey – the first public writing of the results from your’s truly.  Historic!!

Looking out to the Kuna Crest, with an un-named lake in the foreground. The team camped at this lake!

Sun setting behind peak, near Mt. Maclure

Glorious Sierra sunset over the Kuna Crest.

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Early Signs of Fall Color on the East Side

Layers of Aspens, Green Creek, Eastern Sierra, October 2011

Shauna, her dog Roo, and myself went to check out the progress of fall color on the east side this weekend.  It was a great weekend with excellent weather.  Traveling along the Tioga Pass Road (Hwy. 120), we noticed a fair amount of people still visiting Yosemite’s high country – something that neither of us has seen in the past.  Usually, the high country has slowed some, but maybe with all this great weather, people are still trying to get that last backpack trip, or climb in, before it starts getting cold.

I wanted to show Shauna the June Lake Loop because she hadn’t been there yet.  As we drove around, early signs of fall in the aspens are showing.  Mostly, there is a slight yellowing to the leaves at this point, but there were a few trees in full fall color.  Sorry- didn’t get pics of that.

We then headed north to Lundy Canyon.  Similar Aspen conditions exist here, with the exception of one fairly large grouping of trees turning color up an eastern Sierra slope near Hwy. 395.  It’s been my experience that higher altitude aspens turn before the lower ones and I’ve seen them turn in mid to late September in the past.

Fall Color & Lundy Falls, Lundy Canyon, October 2011

It was fairly cold during the night at Lundy Creek Campground, but not freezing.  Theories suggest that really cold temps help to turn the leaves.  If that’s the case, it may be a couple more weeks before full color happens (perhaps 1st week of October – earlier than usual).  I’ll be returning in a few weeks in hopes of an early fall on the east side!

Kirk’s disclaimer:  I’m new at this prediction stuff, so in no way am I responsible for mis-predicting fall color.  Think of me as you would a weather person…  Check other east side fall color sites as October gets closer for more recent observations.  I’ll certainly update my blog the next time I’m on the east side!

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