Warszawski: Hiking the Sierra in January feels like summer

The Fresno BeeJanuary 22, 2014 

— It sure doesn't feel like winter. Not when I'm wearing a thin shirt and pants.

It sure doesn't sound like winter. Not when the crunching under my footsteps comes from brittle twigs and pine needles.

It sure doesn't look like winter. Not when there's hardly any snow up here.

Hiking up the trail to Big Baldy, I come to the realization that my senses are complete liars.

Only the calendar tells the truth.

After spending the entire fall covering football, this was my first trip to the mountains since last summer. I had heard (and seen in photographs) how bad the conditions were, just not with my own eyes.

Now my eyes couldn't believe what they were seeing, either.

The initial idea was for my girlfriend and I to hike up Mitchell Peak, one of my favorite Sierra summits. But the gate at Big Meadows was closed -- probably out of habit.

So we found ourselves back on the Generals Highway staring at Big Baldy, a granite dome perched on the western flank of the range.

Unsure of what to expect, I packed two pairs of traction devices. Made from stainless-steel coils or chains, they strap over the soles of your shoes to provide grip on slippery surfaces like snow and ice.

Turns out we didn't need them. The only ice we encountered occurred in low spots on the trail that freeze overnight and never get sun. These places were easy to avoid, or level enough that we could walk across safely.

About halfway up the 2-mile hike, the trail crosses a flat area dotted with boulders where the rounded form of Big Baldy comes into view. It was then that I realized I had been on this trail (and written about it) exactly one year ago.

Except last January, I was scraping along on cross-country skis and pushing through powder. Now I was wearing hiking boots just hoping to find a patch of white stuff.

We did find a couple thin patches near the top, but the broad, flat summit was barren. It looked like September up there. January? Preposterous.

The only thing more disconcerting than the snow-less surroundings was the blanket of dirty air hovering over the central San Joaquin Valley.

We breathe that stuff? Yuck.

Because the view from Big Baldy is obscured by trees, I decided to see if Panoramic Point was open. Located above Grant Grove, the viewpoint offers spectacular views of the Kings River drainage.

The steep, winding road to Panoramic Point is another of my favorite cross-country ski runs. Only this time, we drove up on dry cement.

I knew the Sierra snowpack measured just 13% of average, but to see it was kind of shocking.

Now I understood why Yosemite's Badger Pass, which doesn't have snowmaking, remains closed. Why the Valley stables have reopened for horseback riding and why they're offering self-guided hiking tours (for $120.50 per night) to Glacier Point.

I understood why visitors to the Pear Lake Ski Hut in adjoining Sequoia National Park aren't bothering to bring their skis or snowshoes.

I understood why China Peak, despite intensive snowmaking, has laid off seasonal staff and why owner Tim Cohee may shut down the resort if conditions don't improve by President's Day.

"This is a historic winter, the driest on record since the late 1800s," Cohee said. "You cannot sugarcoat it. If not for snowmaking, we wouldn't be open."

California does have a history of late-season snowfall. (See the "March Miracle" of 1991 or, to a lesser extent, 2012.) So there's a chance this could turn around.

But if the dry weather continues, the recreational impacts will be widespread this spring and summer. (Of course, a drought affects many other things, too.)

Boaters and anglers will be squeezed together because there isn't enough snowpack to fill our reservoirs.

Hikers and backpackers will encounter dry, dusty conditions and could face longer distances between water sources.

Wildflower enthusiasts will find fewer blooms in the foothills and also at places like Death Valley and Carrizo Plain.

The wildlife will be hating it, too. Less water means fewer plants and shrubs for animals to forage. Many bears won't even go into hibernation. When it's so nice out, why bother?

This has been the weirdest winter I can remember. Hopefully it gets wetter.

The columnist can be reached at (559) 441-6218 or marekw@fresnobee.com or @MarekTheBee on Twitter.

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