A week ago Saturday we were in the midst of the longest heat wave of the year and downtown Sonora lay under a blanket of haze and smoke from multiple fires burning in the Central Sierra.
It was 80 degrees at 8 a.m. and the forecast high for the day was expected to be 106 or 107 degrees.
I left town about 9:30 a.m. and headed up Highway 108 toward Sonora Pass. I drove through haze and smoke all the way. There was denser smoke east of Donnell Vista, where the McCormick Fire and two other fires were burning near the Clark Fork of the Stanislaus River. Forest Service people called them the Summit Complex fires.
My plan was to try to get clear of all the heat and smoke, park at the top of Sonora Pass, elevation 9,624 feet above sea level, and walk up Sonora Peak or another summit.
There was less haze and smoke as I started walking about 11 a.m. It felt like it was about 70 degrees with a light breeze coming from the east.
At the last minute I changed my mind about Sonora Peak, elevation 11,459 feet, to the north off the Pacific Crest Trail, because I’d been to the top a few times already. The PCT on the opposite side of Sonora Pass, heading south and steeply uphill into the Emigrant Wilderness, looked more interesting.
Snow remains in September
I could see unmelted snowfields and patches of snow still melting on the black, dark-brown slopes above me. This helped me focus as the steepness of the trail and thinner air above the pass immediately slowed my pace.
I came to a rushing creek where two backpackers were stopped with their packs off and one was washing his face. The trail curved wide to the east with a few gentle switchbacks, then looped back around to the north to ascend the broad side of a nameless mountain on my map near the edge of the Emigrant Wilderness.
I was well above 10,000 feet and most of the trees when I realized the weather was turning perfect. Light breezes below in the pass got stronger as I gained elevation. The skies above me were clear and blue with a few isolated clouds.
I was sweating from the uphill exercise and breezes cooled the moisture on my forehead, scalp and back. In spite of the bright sunshine it felt close to perfectly cool, like 60 to 65 degrees maximum.
Smoke to the west
Views to the east looked clear compared to haze and smoke I’d seen to the west when I started walking. I reached a high ridge about 12:15 p.m. and was surprised to see a gray-white vertical smoke column already towering a thousand feet or more above the McCormick Fire to the west.
In the same view I could see small patches of snow on ridges in the foreground. To the south, the black-brown nameless peak loomed above me, with larger, brilliant white snowfields clinging to its dark slopes.
I followed the trail farther up to a gentle saddle and I could see a small sign in the distance that would mark a north edge of the Emigrant Wilderness. I looked over my right shoulder to the west again at the smoke column. Just 30 minutes had passed but the fire had already spotted and thrown out embers to the north and east, and a second column of smoke was building above the expanding fire.
I saw some people walking down a faint trail from the summit of the nameless peak above me. I decided this would be my destination, lunch site and rest spot for the next hour. I made it to the narrow, rocky summit by 1 p.m. and 360-degree views unfolded all around me.
It was stunning. To the south and southeast, the high, jagged spine of the Central Sierra crest stretched as far as I could see. More snowfields clung to all the dark, north-facing slopes lined up before me. Some of the snow formed high, steep creeks and waterfalls. Some of it was feeding impossibly blue lakes, including Blue Canyon Lake below Leavitt Peak.
To the northeast, I could see where the steep east side of the range ends in steep foothills, and I could see into the state of Nevada. North on the opposite side of Sonora Pass I could see Sonora Peak. To the west, winds on and above the McCormick Fire were spreading the smoke column out. More clouds, much larger than an hour before were lining up and marching my way.
To the northwest the view was blurry on the horizon. In that direction I knew there were multiple fires burning in and near the south side of Yosemite.
I studied my map again and determined the nameless peak I was on is right around 11,000 feet elevation, perched on the border of the the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest on the east and the Stanislaus National Forest on the west. The same border is also the Tuolumne-Mono county line.
I didn’t want to leave, but the threat of thunderstorms and lightning was increasing. I ate my lunch, peanut butter on hard, stale crackers. A tiny helicopter buzzed south of me over a ridge leading to Leavitt Peak. I took more photos of the McCormick Fire smoke, and noticed what looked like uniform streaks of rain streaming at a slant from clouds between the smoke and me.
To the east and southeast, clouds were building up above the peaks in that direction, too. Aside from the clouds, it remained a perfectly bright blue alpine sky, scrubbed clean by winds of any haze and smoke.
Walking down, I decided to take my time and stretch out this isolated window of fresh, cool air in the midst of a fire-ravaged Central Sierra heatwave. I knew I would be returning to what would feel like a smoke-filled oven compared to this naturally refrigerated beauty.
So I slowed down to notice slopes blanketed by elfin, evergreen shrubs, twisted and bent by their lifetime exposure to high-altitude east winds, and pockets of wildflowers, including white dwarf phlox, yellow rock butterweed, bright red gooseberries on green-leafed, sharply-thorned stems.
Finally I stopped to try to soak my feet in snow-fed Sardine Creek. It was so frigid I could not keep them in the water more than a few seconds. I descended the final few yards of the trail and stepped on the pavement of Highway 108, and smelled smoke again.
Sunbathers in the smoke
On my drive down the grade on the west side of Sonora Pass, more haze and smoke were beginning to push higher up toward the pass itself. The Deadman Creek drainage that includes Chipmunk Flat and descends toward Kennedy Meadows was choked with smoke, and the setting sun was slanting orange and red through the haze. People were laid out sunbathing in the smoke on beach chairs and recliners perched on rocks near Deadman Creek and the Stanislaus River.
Most campgrounds along Highway 108 west of the Kennedy Meadows turnoff appeared to be full. The store at Dardanelle Resort was open and busy with customers seeking Popsicles, ice cream, sodas and chips. Dardanelle Camprground and Brightman Flat Campground had signs out advising motorists they were both full.
About 6 p.m. I stopped and spoke to a Forest Service technician who was keeping an eye on the McCormick Fire from a roadside pullout between Clarks Fork Road and Donnell Vista. Later that night, I called a spokesperson for the Summit Complex fires and she estimated the McCorcmick Fire grew by 600 acres between sunup and sundown Saturday.
It still felt like 100 degrees when I pulled into downtown Sonora, but at least the sun was all the way down and the temperature was falling. The heatwave was supposed to be ending.
Reporter’s note: Before I began working for newspapers in the early 1990s, I spent seven years with VisionQuest and Outward Bound as a paid, certified wilderness instructor and emergency medical technician accountable for groups of felony offender teens, court-ordered children and adult Cuban refugees. I am in my mid-50s, and anyone who walks OK on their own can keep up with me anywhere.
Contact Guy McCarthy at email@example.com or (209) 588-4585. Follow him on Twitter @GuyMcCarthy.