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.

The early winter storm that temporarily closed Ebbetts Pass, Sonora Pass and Tioga Pass last week in the final days of summer presented a rare opportunity.

When Highway 108 and Sonora Pass re-opened for the weekend, it offered people a chance to get into significant fresh-fallen snow on the spine of the Central Sierra. This was the type of snowfall that normally would keep passes closed, in the month of September no less.

Caltrans District 10 staff said the last time they had to close Highway 108 and Sonora Pass so early due to snow in the late summer season was 10 years ago on Sept. 20, 2007.

Three of us decided to meet at 6 a.m. Saturday in downtown Sonora. We pushed it back to 6:15 a.m., drove east up Highway 108, parked at the top of the pass and started walking before 8:30 a.m.

The overnight low before we arrived was in the low 20s. The sun was up with clear blue skies, and occasional breezes and wind gusts that felt like the frigid-cold breath of winter. My fingers felt wooden and my feet felt numb.

Dressed for chill

We were dressed for the chill: hats and gloves, hoods, windproof jackets, insulated tops, long pants or long johns. My friends wore sturdy, lightweight hiking boots. I wore a pair of hand-me-down mountaineering boots with gaiters, hoping to keep my feet dry.

There was crust on the first snow we walked on, which varied from 6 to 12 inches deep. Linguists say people who live in snowbound regions of the arctic, from Alaska to Siberia and Scandinavia, have dozens of words for snow. We needed more words to describe what we were seeing.

We walked through all kinds of white stuff, including what looked like fresh, dense powder in the Sardine Creek watershed that feeds the West Walker River.

We were walking south up the Pacific Crest Trail, toward an edge of the Emigrant Wilderness and a nameless peak I’d visited twice before since Sept. 1. Four weeks ago and two weeks ago, there were still fields of unmelted snow on some north-facing slopes, left over from last winter. This time most of the landscape was blanketed in white.

Snowcover changed the entire look of Sonora Pass above Highway 108. Sonora Peak to the north was clad in white. Peaks of the Emigrant Wilderness, Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest and Hoover Wilderness were covered in snow to the south and east.

Snow also slowed our progress. None of us wore snowshoes. We appeared to be following one pair or two pairs of footprints up the trail. Each step was into a hole, ankle-deep, knee-deep or deeper. I used a pair of trekking poles to keep my balance. It was exhausting work but worth the effort.

Wind-swept ridge

I came to a wind-swept ridge and found multiple patterns carved into thin sheets of salt-grain snow crystals. Some exposed ridges were blasted clean of snow, showing their black and red volcanic rock spines.

The more altitude we gained, the more we could see, up close and in the distance. Underfoot were constantly changing textures of powder snow, wind-blown snow, snowclad grasses and wildflowers. To the east we could see where snowfall and accumulation thinned out as Highway 108 descended toward Pickel Meadows and the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center.

Where the sun beat down on snow blanketing dark-colored boulders and rock fragments, melting snow and running water were frozen into thick, sharp-pointed icicle daggers.

By 10:30 a.m. we felt we were moving fast enough in existing conditions to commit to making the summit ridge we hoped to reach, without fear of an afternoon storm clamping down on us. Two and a half hours later we were up around 11,000 feet above sea level, on the nameless peak north of Leavitt Peak, on the crest of the Central Sierra.

Bright orange and green lichen still clung to the dark rocks of the highest points on this ridge. Dwarf-sized grass and shrubbery hunched low behind other rocks, some coated in crystallized jackets of snow and thin coatings of rime ice. Miniature cornices, frozen waves of wind-carved snow, perched on one east-facing ridge.

To the southeast, scores of peaks and domes lined up clad in white, row upon row marching off into the distance. To the northwest, a line of thin, dark clouds hung low over the North Fork Stanislaus watershed toward the Highway 4 corridor. Snow capped some of the highest summits to the west, with much less snow on them than the mountains where we stood.

Time to head back

By 2 p.m. it was time to start our descent. One high, ridge-hugging traverse proved more interesting on the walk back down, where the downward angle accentuated the steepness and exposure below should anyone lose their footing.

One false step or collapsing foothold could immediately put you in downward motion, and it looked like a steep, fast ride that would take you down several hundred feet minimum, over snow and rocks before you’d stop.

Afternoon sun was melting a lot of the thinner snow cover on slopes east of Sonora Pass. Icicles still dripped from boulders and rock fragments. Melting snow clung to my boot treads, gaiters and pole tips. Breezes and wind gusts disappeared in some locations, replaced by absolute silence.

Early in the day we’d seen a pair of hawks riding thermal updrafts high above us. We saw deer tracks but no actual deer. By late afternoon chipmunks and squirrels were out moving around.

We regrouped about 5:30 p.m. at our vehicle, tuckered and hungry. We were back in downtown Sonora by 7:30 p.m., ready to eat anything that moved. We’d experienced wind-blown winter alpine conditions, in late-summer snow on the first full day of autumn.

Contact Guy McCarthy at gmccarthy@uniondemocrat.com or (209) 588-4585. Follow him on Twitter @GuyMcCarthy.



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