We left downtown Sonora about 7:30 a.m. Sunday to drive up to Sonora Pass and get on the prodigious snowpack still left over from this spring’s late-season storms.
It was supposed to be approaching 100 degrees Fahrenheit or hotter in downtown Sonora by Sunday afternoon. We hoped to find it 30 to 40 degrees cooler up at Sonora Pass, and we weren’t disappointed. We got winter and summer in one day.
At the 9,624-foot top of the pass we found snow still 10 feet deep in places next to Highway 108. We parked in a clear spot just west of the top of the pass. I had two pairs of snowshoes for my friends and I wore heavy mountaineering boots. I gave my friends one ice axe each, to help keep their balance and arrest falls if they slipped. I used a pair of trekking poles to stay upright.
We started walking south from the top of the pass about 10 a.m. We were trying to start early to get on snow still hardened from overnight lows below freezing, before the surface began melting again in direct sunlight. We also wanted to avoid potential thunderstorms that are possible every afternoon up in the east end of Tuolumne County and the rest of the Central Sierra.
The slopes we got on were still mostly covered with snow. The top quarter-inch or so of the snow surface was already soft and softening up more in the direct sun. We knew the Pacific Crest Trail was somewhere under the snow but we didn’t worry about sticking to the trail. We’d been this way before several times before, with snow and without snow, so we knew where we were going and we’d always be within sight of the pass below us.
The surface of the snow was cupped from several weeks of melting, since the first heat waves of summer began in late May and early June. Air temperatures felt like 60 to 70 degrees, with no clouds and light breezes from time to time.
Exposed patches of sloping soil and rocks were wet and it looked like there will soon be wildflowers, grasses, and other vegetation sprouting as the snow recedes. Bright orange lichen clung to some rocks.
We saw a group of skiers high above us. Another pair of skiers passed us as they headed upslope. By 10:30 a.m. we could see small clouds lining up north of us on the summit ridge that includes 11,460-foot Sonora Peak. By 11:45 a.m. the clouds were bigger and blocking out more of the sun. We reached a horn of exposed rock and decided to rest, eat, and start heading back down.
We reached Highway 108 about 1 p.m., and by that time we were in dark, cool shade from gray, moisture-laden clouds above us. Fat, individual raindrops began to fall, and they felt ice-cold when they hit skin.
We drove west down Highway 108 and we were back in downtown Sonora by 3:30 p.m. Later we learned the same storm system we’d seen forming had dumped hail and snow for about an hour on the east side of Sonora Pass, cutting off scores of motorists on Highway 108 in Mono County. Caltrans workers in Mono County requested a snow plow from the Tuolumne County side to help get motorists out. Down in Sonora we felt like it was a hundred degrees or hotter, and humid.
As of this week, snowpack for the Central Sierra was 104 percent of normal and precipitation for the current water year that started Oct. 1 was 128 percent of normal. Daytime highs this weekend are expected in the high 80s to low 90s in the Sonora area. There’s also a red flag warning for critical fire weather conditions through Saturday across portions of the Sacramento Valley and adjacent foothills below 1,000 feet elevation.
About 65 miles east of Sonora at the top of Sonora Pass, daytime highs Saturday and Sunday are expected in the high 50s to low 60s with sunny skies, so there’s still plenty of natural air conditioning available up at the high east end of Tuolumne County.
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 late 50s and anyone who walks OK on their own can keep up with me anywhere.
Contact Guy McCarthy at email@example.com or 588-4585. Follow him on Twitter at @GuyMcCarthy.