Marek Warszawski: Don't take early summer for granted

The Fresno BeeMay 15, 2013 

Valley anglers are eagerly anticipating Saturday’s trout opener, the first day of legal fishing in Sierra creeks and streams.

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Summer's early arrival in the mountains north and east of Fresno is great news in some ways and a tad worrisome in others.

Let me explain.

Oh, sure. It's wonderful to have Tioga Road, which opened Saturday, and Kaiser Pass Road, which was scheduled to open Wednesday, both drivable before Memorial Day weekend. In some years, they don't open until late June or even into July.

Except early access to the Sierra Nevada isn't necessarily better. Especially in the long run.

Take Tuolumne Meadows, where the campground is as snow free in mid-May as it's been in recent memory. Just don't head up there Memorial Day weekend expecting to pitch a tent. The campground isn't scheduled to open until July 12.

You'll find more services available along Kaiser Pass Road, where the Vermilion Valley Resort (Edison Lake) and Mono Hot Springs will both be open Memorial Day weekend. But nearby campgrounds won't be.

And don't drive to Edison Lake expecting to take the hiker ferry. With lake levels at 23%, it could be weeks before that service is feasible.

While rivers and creeks are running high now, many will be faint trickles by the time August rolls around. That's not good news for backpackers, who will have to walk farther to find water. Nor is it good news for fishermen and boaters whose favorite lakes may never approach capacity. And lakes that do won't stay full for long because of hydroelectric and irrigation demands.

But more than anything, early access to high-elevation areas means contending with fickle weather, as attested by recent thunderstorms and lightning strikes. It's been my experience that many who visit the mountains during the month of May do so completely unprepared.

No matter how sunny and clear the forecast, never take mountain weather for granted.

For me, Memorial Day weekend 1999 will always be a lesson learned. Two friends and I drove to Mammoth Lakes for an attempt on Mount Ritter, one of the Sierra's most prominent summits.

From the Mammoth Mountain base area (the road to Agnew Meadows had yet to open), we set out on skis under blue skies and made camp at Ediza Lake, which sits practically in the shadow of Mount Ritter and the Minarets. So far, so good.

Scattered clouds moved overhead while we slept, but we didn't think much about them because there were no storms in the forecast. And we kept on ignoring those warning signs along the approach.

Everything changed so suddenly. While climbing the cliffs below Ritter's southeast glacier, storm clouds streamed overhead and it started snowing. Hard.

We bid a hasty retreat off the mountain, and by the time we reached our tent it was a full-on whiteout. The snow didn't let up that night or the following day. With no visibility and our tracks completely covered, it took us 12 grueling hours to make our way back to Mammoth Mountain.

In fact, we might've gotten lost and had to make camp in a raging snowstorm had it not been for my friend's dog, a Labrador/wolf mix, who knew which way to go.

So, in other words, we got doggone lucky. But those who venture into the mountains unaware or unprepared for anything nature can throw at them might not be so fortunate.

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6218 or marekw@fresnobee.com.

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