Category Archives: Winter

What A Yosemite Photographer Does in Winter

The winter of ‘16/’17 in the Sierra Nevada is shaping up to be quite impressive!  I wrote this blog (January 20th) from a house above Bishop, where constant snow was falling – perhaps a few inches an hour at times.  Mammoth, just north of here, at the time of this writing, had the most snow for any ski town in the entire West.  My friends and I waited out storms, dug out when there was a break, and managed to get some great xc skiing time between the big snow storms.

What A Yosemite Photographer Does in Winter

Winter in Yosemite is a time for slowing down and recuperation from the busy season.  That means vacation!  My January vacation started with the idea to xc ski at Mammoth for a few days.  Then, I threw in a few days at Death Valley – a place I haven’t been to for 27 years and would be a first as a photography trip.

I left Saturday, Jan. 14th in the rain.  I decided to just push through and drive all the way to Death Valley and got there about 9pm.

Usually, I plan my photography trips with much detail, but for a few reasons, I didn’t do that for Death Valley.  So, when I woke up at pre-dawn the next morning, I made the decision to head down to the spot that this land is most noted for – the lowest point in North America, Badwater, at 282 feet below sea level.  I got to Badwater just as the morning sun was beginning to hit Telescope Peak in the Panamint Range to the west.

Sunrise At Badwater

I walked out to the playa and took some photos of the interesting salt features on the ground there.

Salt Patterns on the Playa, Badwater

I was surprised to see a parking lot and established paths at Badwater.  When I was there during a college geology trip in 1989 or ’90, none of that infrastructure was there – it was just a pullout on the side of the road with a small sign!

After returning to my car and brewing a cup of coffee, I headed north back towards Furnace Creek.  I decided to make a stop at Natural Bridge.  I didn’t know this spot existed, so was up for some exploring!  Here’s a pic from that hike:

Natural Bridge

In the Afternoon, I headed up to Zabriski point for a nice afternoon hike.

Manly Beacon and Hills, Zabriski Point

Mesquite Sand Dunes

No doubt, my favorite time in Death Valley was visiting and photographing Mesquite Dunes, near Stovepipe Wells.  I woke up early Monday (Jan. 16) morning and drove out to the dunes parking lot.  I had done some recon the night before and saw that most of the close dunes, including the tallest ones, were demolished by tourist’s footprints and sand sledding escapades, so opted to walk a fair distance to more remote and untouched sand.  I’m glad I did!  What I discovered were dunes only touched by the wind.  Below are a few of my favorite photos from the session:

Sunrise Light on Dune #1


Sunrise Light on Dune #2


Dune, Patterns #1


Dune, Patterns #2


Black Sand Patterns


That afternoon was dedicated to going up Marble Canyon, northwest of Stovepipe Wells.  Without the planning, the outing felt very adventurous.  It ended up being mostly a great hike through a desolate, barren landscape, turning around at a landscape that was inspiring to my more geologic sensitivities:

Folded Strata, Marble Canyon


Phase 2:  Bishop CA

After an incredible shower and a fun dinner with ex-Yosemite-now-Death-Valley rangers, I headed north to Bishop to spend time with friends skiing in Mammoth.  After two days of incredible skate skiing, I awoke to over a foot of snow on Thursday (Jan. 19), so spent most of the day helping to dig out the house I stayed at, as well as the buried cars.  I spent some moments with the camera to photograph the surrounding landscape:

Sunset, Mt. Tom


Clearing Storm, White Mountain


Horses & Cottonwoods, Round Valley


Horse & Trees, Round Valley


The area surrounding Bishop CA reminded me so much of the Nepali Himalaya!  Truly inspiring landscape!!

Sunrise on the Eastern Sierra


Mt. Whitney, Lone Pine Peak & the Alabama Hills, from Lone Pine.  I had to do it…put my tripod where I thought Ansel did when he photographed his famous “Winter Sunrise from Lone Pine” in 1943.  The only difference between now and 1943 – almost no trees in the foreground and I have cows in my foreground; Ansel had horses!

As I finished wrapping up this blog post, I glanced up to look outside.  It was snowing pretty hard!  I’d be back outside to start shoveling snow again.  Perhaps that might sound displeasing, but I kinda looked forward to it.  Yah…I know…CRAZY!!

Also posted in Death Valley, Sierra Nevada

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.




Also posted in Sierra Nevada, 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.



Also posted in Sierra Nevada, 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.

Also posted in Sierra Nevada, Yosemite National Park