Saturday, October 19, 2013

Rain and Cold

Journal Entry

Today is a day of rest for my body.  The physical exertions of yesterday's dawn-to-dusk hike were considerable.  Generally the day after any long hike is a rest day, or a day of several short hikes, time to let the body recoup and stretch its muscles.  So far I detect no serious tightness in my legs or hot spots on my feet.  Although my mind wants to go on another long hike, today’s sporadic rain dilutes my drive and encourages me to saunter around and observe nature.  This is also a good time to catch up on housekeeping chores—especially cleaning up the tent, as I tend to dump things in when I return from one hike and reset my backpack for the next day’s activity so that I can take off at daybreak.

The impact of weather on camping and hiking is brought home as I encounter changing weather conditions in mid October.  When it's rainy, much of my attention is focused on staying relatively dry.  My first concern is for the inside of the tent.  When my tent and sleeping bag get wet, the trip is over.  Once the tent is secure, then I resign myself to sloshing around all day, with parts of me perpetually wet.  I can endure a day of wet feet and half-wet pants, wet hands and a wet face, as long as I have a dry place to return home to at night. After yesterday's late rain, when I had to deal with a little seepage under the tent, I moved my tent to a spot under a tree that stayed dry during the storm.  Cold, wet weather is a different creature.

Hiking in the mountains when it's raining isn't fun because the trails are always going up or down and will be slippery and potentially dangerous in spots.  The added weight and layers of rain gear slow me down, making long hikes cumbersome, and blisters are more likely to form on soggy toes.  Hiking over flat ground in the rain is fine because there's not much friction put on the bottom of my feet.  Yet the sights of the valley in the rain are filled with wonder, and it's tempting to risk hiking up to specific spots on the mountainside just to take photographs.

As I come out of Tenaya Canyon in Yosemite after a short hike, the skies darken and it begins to sprinkle.  Then thunder cracks and bangs through the sky. I love rolling thunder, especially the type that I can feel rumbling deep in my chest.  The wind increases and blows camp chairs, branches, and pieces of small sailing ships across the path. I make it back to camp and grab my rain gear.

With the gear on, I head for the open meadows so I can see what the storm is doing to the surrounding mountains.  Of particular interest is the white cloud floating just below the lip of Upper Yosemite Fall.  It's the only cloud that is this low.  The color of the water in the fall matches the white of the cloud so it looks like the fall is pouring into the cloud like a basin.  I wonder if it’s possible that the fall is creating the cloud?  Maybe the cool air flowing down the Yosemite Creek canyon behind the fall is mixing with the humid, warmer air rising from the valley floor and forming a cloud at the junction. Lightning flashes and unleashes a thunderstorm that unhitches the cloud from the fall to float down the valley towards Curry Village.

Why does walking through the rain in a wilderness place move my deeper emotions? What is it about fog that seems to erase the boundaries of time?  Why does a storm make even mountains seem vulnerable?

I walk through the pouring rain from Leidig to Sentinel and down to Stoneman and Ahwahnee Meadows.  As I return to camp the rain stops and I introduce myself to Tim and Dave who arrived today and discover that as I was watching that cloud form below Yosemite Falls, they were at the top of the Falls photographing it from above as lightning started zipping around their heads.  Later I learn from a ranger that it snowed so much at Tioga Pass they had to close the road.

I turn in early at 8:30 p.m. to get some sleep in case the storm intensifies overnight and I have to battle it to keep my tent upright.  I sleep fitfully for ten hours as the rain resumes, waking repeatedly to listen to the sounds of the storm echoing off the valley walls, and to check the tent for leaks.

The storm makes it clear that I’m not in control here.  The weather, wild animals, and the exposure to the elemental forces of the earth tell me that I am visiting a world where life and death go on and nothing is assured except this moment.

Overnight the air gets colder as the freeze in the highlands moves down into the valley.  Temperatures have fallen into the 20s.  The carrots in my cooler are frozen.  The car won’t start, and I may have to break out the insulated winter coat that makes me look like a blue Michelin man.  It's supposed to warm up a few degrees today and a few more tomorrow, but the sun won't rise over the south rim of the valley and reach Camp 4 until 10 a.m. keeping camp cold, and we’re on the sunny side of the valley.  At noon, I'm still getting the last of the chill out of my bones.  Today being a rest day between long hikes, I don’t have anything scheduled on the docket, other than to get warm, and I walk around the valley floor trying to do just that.

Last night, to my great delight, I found out that the hood to my new sleeping bag works great in cold weather.  Called a "mummy bag,” I can either leave the hood flat, or pull the drawstring so that it comes all the way around my head and keeps it warm.  I can draw it so tight that only my nose sticks out.  This allows me to breathe fresh air and expel moist breath outside the bag, while I stay warm and dry inside.  I used to wear a stocking cap and duck inside my old bag, but by morning I was cool and slightly moist, so this is an improvement.

If I know that I have a warm place to come back to, I find have a great time tromping around in the cold.  If I'm cold and wet and know that this isn't going to change, I don't enjoy being outside as much.  But I confess, it's a growing edge—to enjoy nature’s beauty whether I am warm, cold, or wet.  I am not Cuthbert who intentionally sits in the cold water off Lindesfarne.

-- Mark Liebenow