Approaching electrical storm
From time to time we throw all caution and accountability out the window because we think if we don't go through with what we are about to do the whole world will come to an end. But, then again, if we don't forget about being prudent, we may never leave the comfort and safety of the couch in front of the flat screen. The weather forecast for the Eastern Sierra towns of Lone Pine and Independence in mid July of 2013 was simply "partly cloudy." Well, that is all well and good, only if I thought that the same forecast held true for the mountains of the Eastern Sierra some 6 to 10,000 feet higher than Owens Valley's towns.
Feeling that I had done all that I could do to get ready for the trip, my wife and I headed for the Sierras, a six hour drive from our town. After picking up a permit from the visitor center in Lone Pine, we headed for Independence completely forgetting to check the forecast for the mountains. Since we looked like we knew what we were doing, the ranger at the station didn't offer any hints about what to expect either. Late in the afternoon we were in the Onion Valley parking lot looking at the completely overcast sky. Soon after getting out of the car, the pitter patter of rain drops began. "Oh darn, we've come this far and now we have to hike in the rain?" my wife asked. "What do you think Marc, should we go for it?" "Well, I'm afraid if we don't go for it and the clouds lift up, we're going to regret not having gone for it," was my answer. Trusting my judgement, my wife uttered "ok, I'm game."
Kearsarge Pinnacles sunrise on the walkout day!
The rain didn't really start, so with the backpacks on our shoulders we hit the trail. A few minutes up the trail we ran into a lady ranger hiking down with a huge backpack on her back. She told us that she had been up in the mountains for several days. But, she wanted our names to run against the permits in the ranger station. Yikes, they check permits here? Official business everywhere you go! We were thankful that the trail was gentle. Starting from 9000+ feet was a bit much for folks like us coming from sea level the same day. Another two miles, if it doesn't start raining, we figured, it should put us near one of the lakes. But, if it started really raining, all bets would be off. Luckily the hike went smoothly without rain.
We found a great spot not far from Flower Lake. After fetching water and eating dinner the clouds began to lift for a few minutes. I hurried to take a few photos in the dimming light. Soon after, we heard a huge rumble of thunder. Then, a bright flash of lightning followed by another thunder and another one. I have spent many rainy days in the mountains, but I hate electrical storms. There is really no good place to hide. We hurried into the tent as all hell broke loose. Wow, what a luck! We had no reason the leave the tent, so let it thunder and rain all it wants. And, rain it did, and hail it did, enough to stick. It poured for several hours as we stayed warm and comfy in our bags.
Got up to a sunny but drenched forest in the morning. Well, we needed to dry the tent before anything else. I figured it must weigh a ton wet, and it was not going to go into my pack like that. But, we weren't in a hurry to go anywhere anyway. We had all day to go only four or six miles to the west side of the mountain. The immediate goal was to reach Kearsarge Pass, only three miles away. Up to this point the hike was pretty much in the forest. You really don't feel like you are in the mountains. But, from here on the forest thins out and gives you some spectacular mountain views. I was looking forward to that. I love being above tree line.
After a couple hours of drying out and packing, we were back on the trail. I was surprised to see very few groups heading up. Leaving the Flower Lake camp we said hello to a young couple going in the same direction. We talked about the rain the night before. They were much faster than us, but they stopped to take photographs, so we passed each other a few times. The highlight of this section of the trail happens half way up the pass. Just above a rock buttress, it's possible to scramble down a few rocks and get a birds eye view of Heart Lake. Heart Lake really looks like a heart. Then, within another mile, you get another birds eye view of Big Pothole Lake. This lake looks like a meteor crater filled with water. With these digital cameras, I wonder how many photos of something interesting is enough-no answers yet!
As we started to hike up the long traversing part of the trail, we noticed that the clear blue sky was giving way to another approaching storm. I was praying that the clouds stay distant at least until we made it to the pass, and they did, for the most part. Like most passes I've seen, it was crowded with hikers from both directions, but mostly from the west side. It seemed that they had their share of storms the night before, and they were bailing out. Looking toward the south, the ominous dark clouds were much closer now.
The views up there were breathtaking, but feeling a few drops of rain on us, it wasn't safe to linger much longer at the pass. We hurried down the west side toward Kearsarge Lakes. Lucky again, except for a few drops the rain never materialized giving us time to reach our destination. Safe and dry several hundred feet below the pass, we set up camp near Kearsarge Lake. My wife is such a hardcore, she went for a swim while I cooked dinner. By the time we finished dinner the sky was completely cloudy, then the first lightning and a thunder that shook the earth. Another lightning followed by a deafening thunder turned into a prelude to things to come.
My wife was enjoying the sound of the thunders that seemed to last 15-20 seconds each echoing through the mountains. I was keeping appearances of not being afraid, but I was concerned about the constant lightnings that seemed to get closer and closer every minute. The hail started with a vengeance pounding our tent like thousands of bullets. After a healthy dose of lightning, thunder, hail and rain, the weather decided to give us a break. We got lucky again, we were safe and dry, and alive in our sleeping bags. It continued raining periodically through the night, but we woke up to a beautiful sunny sky in the morning.
Hiking up to the pass and back down to the car was as enjoyable as it could get. Being saturday, we ran into countless parties heading up toward the pass. Many of the parties were getting back on the John Muir Trail after resupplying themselves by their friends in the parking lot. It was nice to see so many older folks like us taking on a task like that. May be some day, if we get that ambitious, we should try that. But, our trip was over. We had dodged the weather bullet time and again and we were planning our next Sierra trip. A trip, hopefully, sans many electrical storms.