By Scott Lange —
As winter was rolling in just before Thanksgiving, a few of us got the urge to get into the High Sierra one last time this year.
It would prove to be a tough task to even find an accessible trailhead as most of the roads had already been closed to snowfall, but we found an entry via the Maxson Trailhead at the Courtright Reservoir.
Our plan was to hike in about 13 miles, with the last four to five miles being off trail to reach Blaney Hot Springs. The hot springs would be a grand prize for the wintertime trek, and we’d have a chance at getting some nighttime photography atop the nearby Ward Mountain.
Upon picking up our wilderness permit at the Prather Ranger Station, we were informed that a storm was on the way and that our route was greatly discouraged — both by the ranger, as well as a few others who were loitering around the office.
We were well aware of and prepared for the coming storm, and were still eager to get into the backcountry. With permit in hand, we set off into the foothills towards the Maxson Trailhead.
Just short of the reaching Courtright Reservoir, the snow began to fall. We made it to a parking lot covered in about a foot of fresh powder. We suited up in our winter gear and set off to find the trail. This task was a bit harder than usual since the ground was covered in snow, but we knew what direction we wanted to go, so we just forged through the 12 – 18 inches of snow towards where we thought we’d find the trail.
To begin a backpacking adventure with such adversity right from the start was both amusing and overwhelming. We’d all done some winter treks before, but it was obvious very early on that we were in for some extreme conditions on this one.
The wintertime views were excellent, and would hopefully make it all worth it. We caught an awesome view of Maxson Dome as we carefully passed over an ice-covered granite slab. As our elevation increased, so did the amount of snow we had to trudge through. We couldn’t help but laugh as we kept on going for the sake of adventure.
After a few hours, it became clear that we would probably not make it to the hot spring that day. No big deal — we’d go as far as we could, and make up the difference the next day if possible. A short while later, it became clear that we would probably not make it to the hot spring at all. The snow was falling hard by this time, and we were now walking through a steady 18 inches of snow which was slowing us down considerably. Nevertheless, we were enjoying the winter weather of the High Sierra.
As the sun began to wane, we found ourselves at Long Meadow — a mere five miles from the trailhead. The snow continued to fall, and we decided to set up camp and get a fire going under the shelter of some trees alongside the meadow.
We each had to stomp down a large enough area in the snow to accommodate our tents. The wood was plentiful, and the fire was now our best friend as temperatures dropped into the low 20s. We’d already decided to abort the trek and hike back out in the morning. There wouldn’t be any hot springs, and there wouldn’t be any nighttime photography either, due to the now furiously falling snow.
The next morning, we awoke to another foot of snow and temperatures in the teens. Everything was frozen — our water, shoes, clothes, every zipper, everything.
Even my tent stayed standing after removing the poles. We wasted no time in cramming our icy gear back into our packs and then made our way back to the trailhead — this time hiking through closer to two feet of snow. As we arrived at the place where we’d began just 24 hours earlier, we were more than ready for a warm vehicle and an escape to the nearest restaurant.
We hadn’t made it to the hot springs, and we didn’t capture any nighttime photos. We walked miles through deep, sinking snow and were freezing cold most of the time, but a Sierra adventure is what we asked for, and that is exactly what we got. The trip doesn’t always go as planned. Often, improvisation is required when hiking the backcountry, and it is this reason that makes it both challenging and rewarding. At the end of the day, it’s great to experience the Sierra in all its forms.
Since we came up short in the photography department on this trip, we’d like to share a couple of images we’ve captured on previous wintery trips.
The first was taken in the Sierra National Forest near Marie Lake. Expecting more of a spring-like trek, we were met with a late winter storm during this expedition last May. The sky was clear on this night and we captured this shot of Saturn rising over the snowy landscape.
The second shot was taken in April of 2014. We’d arrived at Mono Lake after an overnight drive from San Francisco, and again captured Saturn as it rose at dawn. It was hard to jump of out a warm vehicle into the 17 degree weather at five in the morning for this one, but we were glad we did as the sunrise proved to be a spectacular scene with Saturn beaming in the sky.
Our love for these nighttime landscapes keeps us hungry for more. It’s brought us to many awesome destinations, and we’re always searching for new ones.
Beginning in January 2016, we’ve decided to launch the Dark Sky Postcard Club. Recipients will receive a postcard every month of the year featuring one of our Dark Sky images on the front, along with a caption, list of current nighttime sky events, and a quote on the back. We think this will be a fun and inexpensive way to share our nighttime landscapes across the world. If you’re interested in signing up or giving a subscription as a gift, please visit our Kickstarter project to learn more.
You may also check out more of our work at DarkSkyPhotography.com. Until the next adventure — let’s enjoy a hopefully snowy winter for the Sierra!