“The calendar may say summer but the weather is more like dead of winter,” sighed Ferdinand Castillo, the ranger at this 9,941-foot-high eastern gateway to Yosemite National Park.
Outside the kiosk Castillo has manned for the last 32 years, trees, meadows and towering mountains were draped Thursday in a glorious mantle of dazzling white. On the ground the snow was nine inches deep.
Off in the distance a family of deer dashed across the meadow, kicking up a cloud of white powder. A Belding’s ground squirrel scudded across the snow, disappearing into a hole.
The earliest September snowfall in the High Sierra since 1972 temporarily closed two mountain pass roads--Tioga and 9,624-foot Sonora--from sundown Tuesday through late Wednesday afternoon. Snowplows finally cleared the way for scores of stranded motorists.
Caught by Surprise
Backpackers and campers caught by surprise by the snow and chilling temperatures (it was 12 above zero at Tuolumne Meadows early Thursday morning) fled the high country, heading for warmer, drier places.
Delip Ratan, a biology student from Yucca Valley, walked into 8,700-foot Tuolumne Meadows from the John Muir Trail Thursday morning after spending two shivering nights fitfully catnapping in a wet sleeping bag.
“My plans were to spend five more days hiking 40 miles in the back country--until I woke up Wednesday morning with a foot of snow outside my pup tent,” Ratan said.
“I started hiking back to my car in the parking lot at Tuolumne Meadows, walking through deep snow all day Wednesday and early Thursday. I got lost a couple of times. I fell a few times, tripping on slippery rocks hidden beneath the snow.”
Ratan left Yosemite for the San Bernardino Mountains in Southern California to finish the remainder of his week of hiking, “hopefully under a nice warm sun.”
September is normally considered the best month of the year for hiking and camping in the High Sierra because there are fewer people on the trails and the days are warm and clear.
All week, the Tuolumne Meadows parking lots had been full of cars belonging to backpackers and campers. By late Wednesday they had emptied.
Resorts suffered temporarily as people left the High Sierra early or canceled reservations. The 75 tent cabins at Tuolumne Meadows Lodge were reserved long in advance for the week but only 20 were occupied Wednesday night.
Storm Blessing in Disguise
For Nic Fiore, director of Yosemite’s Badger Pass Ski School and a resident of the park since 1947, the September snowstorm was a blessing in disguise.
He broke out his skis for the first time since May and cross-country skied through glistening meadows and over snow-covered slopes.
“I have never seen this much snow so early in the season,” Fiore said gleefully.
Fiore’s enthusiasm was not matched by John Hurley and his wife Joanne, who had traveled to Yosemite from Tampa, Fla., and--not surprisingly--were totally unprepared for the icy temperatures.
“We thought we would freeze to death in our tent cabin,” Hurley said.
As the Hurleys headed to warmer weather, the snowplow drivers at Yosemite were gassing up for the weekend, when another snowstorm is predicted for the High Sierra.