River Appears to Top Out

This morning’s update:

Woke up this morning to see the Merced River appearing to be just passed it’s max height.  The graph above shows 12.68 feet.  The graph appears to be headed down.

Here’s where the water topped out (around midnight according to NPS) at the Phono Gauging Station:

 

Just poked my head outside and it’s still raining consistently.  My guess is that the snow level has dropped a fair amount.  My one piece of equipment – my iPhone – has decided not to work, so I can’t look at my radar app to confirm the snow level drop.  If true, this would lock much of the rain coming down now as snow in the backcountry, which wasn’t the case 24 hours ago.

So, it appears the worst might be over.  The roads have some flooding right now, but the water will most likely recede quickly.  Good News!!

Because my phone is inoperative, I unfortunately can’t access the videos I took yesterday.  Very sad.  I will most likely go out and take more photographs this morning and survey the flooding.

 

Kirk

Posted in Uncategorized

Storm Day 2: Water Rising But not as much as predicted

Update, January 8th, 6pm:

The River is now just over 9.5 feet and projected to crest at just under 12 feet.  This is lower than the previous days’ predicitons.

The satellite shows another wave of heavy rain going over Yosemite and Central California right now.  We had a reprieve from rain from about 9:30am – 1:30pm or so, then it started raining again.  It’s been a steady downpour for at least two hours now.

We are supposed to have continued heavy rain for at least the next 12 hours or so:

I will be posting more videos and pics from my day out today.  It was wild!  I’ll post 1 each here now, but more to come:

Royal Arches Cascade

Day 2 of January Storm: Yosemite Falls from Kirk Keeler on Vimeo.

The River was about a foot and a half under Superintendent’s Bridge about 4:30 pm today and Cook’s meadow is beginning to pool up – even starting to look like a lake!

Check back in tomorrow as I’ll post more!

 

Kirk

Posted in Uncategorized

STORM DAY 1: Not Much To Report

Just a quick update:

Went out to check on things before all the roads closed at 5pm this evening.

Stream Gauge, Phono Bridge, at 4pm, January 7th.  The white marker on the building is one of the gauges.  The other is next to the small tree in front of the station, just in the water.  The stream marker’s top height is 6.0 feet while the white marker on the building begins at 6.8 feet and tops out at 13.5 feet

 

Merced River Level at 4pm, January 7th. 4.5 feet

As seen in the photo and water graph for the Merced River above:  In the last 24 hours, the river has gone up about .8 feet; so, not much so far.  Notice, however that the predicted max. river height has gone up by two feet since this morning’s post.  That’s a little disconcerting.

There’s lots of water coming off the cliffs here!  Here’s a video I took of Yosemite Falls and what I’ll be calling Castle Cliffs Cascade.  I’m not sure if this cascade has a name, but I’ve never seen this much water in it – even during high spring runoff!

Yosemite Falls & Castle Cliffs Cascade, January 7th at 3pm from Kirk Keeler on Vimeo.

And last, but not least – Here’s what the satellite looked like at 5pm today over California.  Wow!  That’s a lot of water headed our way:

Satellite Image, 5pm PST, Westcoast

Unfortunately, I will no longer be able to drive around Yosemite Valley, but will post what pics and videos I can from Yosemite Village.

That’s it for now.  I’ll check back in tomorrow morning.

 

Kirk

 

Posted in Sierra Nevada, Winter, Yosemite National Park

Waiting For The Storm

I woke up this morning (around 6am) to the familiar pitter-patter of raindrops hitting last year’s oak leaves on the ground outside my house.  The storm has begun!

In an effort to preempt difficulties of leaving Yosemite Valley due to possible flooding, the National Park Service put out a press release informing the public that Yosemite Valley would close to visitors at 5pm yesterday.  All roads leading into the valley are closed, however certain areas of Yosemite are still open for visitors, such as Hetch Hetchy Dam and the Merced and Tuolumne Groves of Sequoias.

All but ‘essential’ employees are to be gone from the valley later today.  I, along with two others, are remaining at The Ansel Adams Gallery as essential employees.  I will be helping any efforts to minimize damage to buildings here, as well as maintain security.  Gratefully, the president of the gallery installed a generator a few years ago for events like this – as a way to keep the gallery operating during the many power outages that occur in this outpost, far from generating stations.  Although we are officially closed, the generator might come in handy for the three of us, should the power go out.  Another concern with rising water is that the valley’s sewer pumping stations may have to be turned off to keep spilling of raw sewage to a bare minimum.  Sewer and water are expected to be turned off.  We could be living by bare-minimum means these next few days…perhaps longer!

All Eyes on The Gauge

As of this morning –

Here’s just a peek at what the National Weather Service predicts for the weather through Tuesday Night:

National Weather Service Forcast through Tuesday, Jan. 10th

Here’s also NOAA’s predition of the water level of the Merced River at Pohono Bridge:

Estimated river level at Phono Bridge through Wednesday, Jan. 11th

Lastly, here is a list of flood impacts (again by NOAA), measured in feet of water, to areas within Yosemite Valley:

Yesterday, I got the idea that I should go down to the gauging station at Pohono Bridge and take some photos of the station that all eyes will be glued to in the next days as the Merced River begins to rise.  Actually, I’ve never given the gauging station a second thought as I’ve driven passed it hundreds of times while entering the valley.  EVERYONE must pass by it if you arrive to Yosemite Valley via Hwy’s 120 or 140, because you are forced to drive over Pohono Bridge – fairly menial at first glance, but still a beautiful arching stone bridge.  The gauging station sits just upriver, on the south side of the river, from the bridge.

As I walked over to the gauge station, I immediately noticed the gauges on either side of the building, along with a small gauge in the river, right next to the station.  Here are some pics I took yesterday, around 3pm.

Here’s the small gauge in the water.  If you click on it, you’ll see the water level was just under 3.7 feet – a very harmless, calm Merced River yesterday:

This photo shows the gauge on the side of the station facing the river.  Because of my height, I was only able to show the gauge up to 12.3 feet.  12.5 feet, as stated by the flood impacts image above, is the beginning of both roads, Northside and Southside Drive, being flooded.

This final image just shows that this building is indeed a ‘stream gauging’ station:

As I stood by this station, looking at the river level at under 3.7 feet yesterday, it was hard for me to fathom the river being 6 feet over my head for the beginning of flooding, much less the projected 16.1 feet the river might get to (over 10 feet above me!).

For now, all the remaining essential employees, myself included, will be waiting with anticipation as this winter rain storm unleashes the relentless pitter-patter of rain drops.  It’s my hope that this storm is colder than what’s predicted, and that the majority of precipitation falls as snow in the backcountry, thus holding back much of the water and lowering the water level in the Merced.

I’ll check back in as things progress.

 

Kirk

Posted in Sierra Nevada, Winter, Yosemite National Park

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

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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

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Cascade and High Sierra Wildflowers, Inyo National Forest

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Storm Clouds Above Gaylor Peak and Mt. Dana

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Sunrise Reflection, North Peak, Hoover Wilderness

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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!!

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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.

Kirk

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!

Kirk

 

 

 

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