Category Archives: Yosemite National Park

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, Winter

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, Winter

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, Winter

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.

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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.

Also posted in Sierra Nevada

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!


Also posted in Sierra Nevada 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!





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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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August Glacier Trip

August 21st saw Park Geologist Greg Stock, assistant Colter Chisum and me heading back up to the glaciers to record their movement since July.  I was happy that my gal Shauna Potocky also came along, as she was meeting with trail crews at a nearby CCC camp, just off the PCT, to give them a presentation on her recent trip to Chile.

This glacier trip was designed to be a simple, fast, and light trip:  Hike in, measure movement of the stakes we put in the ice in July, and then hike out 24 hours later.  All of us brought light bivy sacks just in case we had some wet weather…more on that later.  One thing to note from the last month’s blog post – August 21st was the day that John Muir had placed stakes in the Maclure Glacier to do his personal research.  Greg’s goal was to duplicate measurement 140 years later to the day.

Park Geologist Greg Stock measures glacial water discharge in the Maclure Creek.

A fall on Maclure Creek. Maclure glacier is to the left, just out the picture.

Starting before 9am, we made good time and over 12 miles later Greg, Colter and I were at the foot of the Maclure Glacier by 4pm, where we met up with Yosemite Conservancy naturalist and educator Pete Devine (who is personally interested in Yosemite’s glaciers like me).

The first noticeable observation was the lack of snow on the glacier – nearly all the ice was exposed.  The Maclure in July had a fair amount of snow coverage.  The previous two weeks had seen temps above normal (Yosemite Valley, at 4000’, was in triple digits for nearly a week).  Greg’s unease about stakes melting out of the glacier were realized when we approached the lowest stake to find it lying on top of the glacier.  Greg estimated that the glacier had lost approximately 1.7 meters of glacial surface to ablation since the July trip.  Ultimately – we did not put the stakes in far enough!  Luckily, we had GPS locations for all the placements, plus rock cairns at nearly all of them, so we were able to find the original locations and re-drill the stakes into the ice.  So, a one hour job became a four hour job when we finished right as red sunlight was leaving Maclure Peak – achieving the data gathering on par with John Muir’s August 21, 1872 date.

Pete, Colter, and Greg finish work on the Maclure Glacier as last light hits Maclure Peak.


Storm clouds gathering at sunset over Kuna Crest.

NOAA’s website predicted fair weather for our 2 days out.  Clouds began forming overhead as we sat down for our meal.  The skies were completely grey by the time we all went to bed, so we all decided to play it safe and rest inside our bivy sacks.  Hours past when I was awakened by drops hitting the netting of my bivy.  “No problem. I’ll just zip up the bivy and be dry while the rain falls.”  The rain got harder and harder and within an hour, a steady downpour ensued.  I noticed my sleeping bag was wet near one of my legs.  I turned on my headlamp and to my horror; the top of my bivy sack had delaminated from the bottom!  My sleeping bag was getting soaked!  Thinking fast, I flipped over my bivy and used it as a basic tarp.  It rained the whole night.  Luckily, the temperature wasn’t too cold, so I threw on all my warm clothes and had a very wet, clammy night with maybe 2-3 hours’ sleep.

My bivy sack after the storm – The red, top part of the bivy delaminated from the black bottom. Luckily, the bottom was big enough to use as a tarp to drape over myself!

The four of us awoke at 7am.  Come to find out, no one had a restful sleep.  Greg got wet in his bivy and had to move out of a pool of water that formed around him.  So, we shrugged our shoulders, ate our breakfast and got ready to hike over to the Lyell to measure the stakes there.

Some stakes had melted out of the Lyell, but some were still in the ice – better than expected from the previous day’s discoveries.  Greg had also found two stakes from his 2010 survey that were still in the glacier, so we added the measurements of those to the five we placed there in July.  Success!!

Rain clouds formed again and by the time we finished the rain was falling.  Gratefully, we all descended back to the PCT safely.  Greg, Colter, and Pete continued to hike the remaining 11 miles out while I stayed with Shauna near the CCC camp one more night.

Even with equipment failure and unforeseen stake melt-out, the August trip was fruitful.  September’s trip is just a few weeks away.  I look forward to updating you with the results from this trip.  Let’s all wish for a dryer trip!

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Photographing and Studying Glaciers with Park Geologist Greg Stock

From July 9th – 12th I backpacked twenty-two-plus miles with park geologist Greg Stock to some of the highest peaks in Yosemite, Mt Lyell (13,120 ft.) and Mt. Maclure (12,880 ft.), as part of a survey to measure movement of each mountain’s glacier.  This trip has been a long time coming for myself – A shoulder injury kept me from going last year.  Ever since my geology studies in college, I’ve wanted to take a trip to a Sierra glacier.  Not only can I say that I’ve completed that wish, but now I’m going back – 3 more times to be exact!

The National Park Service, along with the University of Colorado, has been conducting a three-year study on the movement of these glaciers; trying to determine if they are still moving and, if so, what their total movement is per year.  According to Stock, both glaciers – along with all the Sierra glaciers – have melted substantially, or have disappeared completely since the last Little Ice Age, which he said ended sometime around 1850.  Ultimately, the results of the study will help  determine if Yosemite’s remaining two glaciers can be considered ‘living’ or ‘dead’ glaciers.  For a glacier to be called a glacier, it must have consistent, down-slope motion and enough mass to keep that movement going; thus a ‘living’ glacier.  If a glacier no longer has the mass to move and doesn’t get enough snow to replenish the ice mass, it is considered a ‘dead’ glacier.  Determining if either or both glaciers are dead will be historical for Yosemite’s last ice flows and could lend more mounting evidence for the existence of global climate change.

Park Geologist Greg Stock drilling a stake hole on the Lyell Glacier. The five stakes inserted into the Lyell Glacier will be measured at a fixed point each month to determine movement of the glacier.

The field study, started in 2008 (delayed a year by larger than average snowfall in 2011), is completing this October, with the final report out sometime in 2013.  This study is culminating exactly 140 years after John Muir, from his own curiosity, measured the velocity of the Maclure Glacier from August to October of 1872 by inserting stakes into the glacier.  Part of the study – a piece that excites Stock – is to duplicate Muir’s measurement dates in August and October.  Stock is returning to the glaciers two additional months – July and September – to add additional data to the final velocity measurements; ultimately refining Muir’s methods from his 1872 study.

As a staff photographer for The Ansel Adams Gallery, my interest in this study comes, at one point, from being in the footsteps of Ansel.  From his early days working his first job as summer caretaker for The Sierra Club’s LeCont Memorial; evolving to be on the board of directors from 1937 – 1971, to his large volume of writing to save wild lands, Ansel was one of the early environmentalists.  I am honored to say I work for an institution that was started by someone who loved wilderness so much!

Like Ansel, I fell in love with the Sierra at a young age.  Like Ansel, I want to capture magical Yosemite and Sierra moments with my camera.  I also feel compelled to understand our increasingly changing planet through the lens of my camera.  Monumental shifts in Glacial ice in Greenland; The Northwest Passage opening up more and more each summer; The American Heartland’s historic crop losses; Ever more intense storms and heat waves – All lend a heavy hand of evidence toward what scientists have predicted for decades – a warming planet.  Volunteering with the park geologist fills that part of me interested in knowing the truth of things.  And I want to know the fate of the glaciers in my back yard.  I feel I’m getting a sense of it now, but will wait for the data to be collected, the numbers to be crunched, and the last word of the report to be written before any definitive answer can be told.

Back to my camera comment above.  I have the pleasure of being the only photographer for these trips.  Not only am I documenting the glacier study process, but I get to photograph the beauty of the Lyell and Maclure area.  This first glacier trip has been truly inspirational for me and I look forward to taking part in the remaining glacier trips.  A big ‘Shout Out’ to Yosemite Park geologist Greg Stock for allowing me to be a part of this historic study and letting me literally dig the holes for the stakes and help with recording the data.  Stay tuned for pictures from the August trip!

A GPS location of the stakes is recorded to help locate its position if the stake is not found on a later trip.

It’s not all work on the glacier! Volunteer Jonathan Byers takes a moment to recuperate from drilling stake holes on the Maclure Glacier.

While much of the glacier trip was work, I got to do some ‘art’ photography as well. This is one of my favorite pics during a morning shoot before going to the Maclure Glacier.

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