Saturday, January 21st, 2017
DAY 01 – “Journey to the north.”
For weeks the Eastern Sierra has been pelted over and over by multiple storms being swept in from the Pacific Ocean in the form of what meteorologists are calling an “Atmospheric River”. As a photographer, the one thing you get very good at is watching the weather forecast like a hawk and predicting more or less what kind of photo opportunities you will be getting. I had taken notice that the Eastern Sierra was scheduled for one last big winter storm. The forecast after that revealed nothing but sunny days for a while. I knew this was my last opportunity to venture into the storm and capture the awe-inspiring beauty of a wintry Eastern Sierra.
The reports out of Mammoth Mountain have labeled the month of January as the snowiest in recorded history and it wasn’t even over yet. Mammoth Mountain had attained the deepest snowpack in the nation. Making my way north, I chose to make the town of Lone Pine, California my venture headquarters. The weather report showed rain for Sunday and snow for Monday. I wanted to get some shots of the Alabama Hills with snow if possible. I have been to Lone Pine many times during the winter and have never witnessed any sort of snowfall, so this should bet quite a sight if the forecast proved accurate.
“The typically dry and scorched Owen’s Peak dawns a beautiful winter coat for the season.”
Winter days are inconveniently short so getting out there early is essential if you want ample photo opportunities. Driving highway 395 from the Mojave and into the Eastern Sierra Nevada is just one of my top ten highways to travel in California and for good reason. To the left, you have a wall of granite 12,000 -14,000 ft. (3,657.6 – 4,267.2 m) high stretching for 400 miles (643.7 km) north and to the right, a series of equally tall desert mountain ranges which interlock as they reach a similar distance. The drive to Lone Pine from my Mojave Desert home is a 2.5 hour drive and worth every minute. I had a small setback while loading the Starship, so I was in a bit of a hurry since the sun was setting around 5pm these days.
Lone Pine, CAGPS Coordinates: 36.5831265° N, 118.1485501° W
I got into Lone Pine with only moment before the setting sun disappeared behind Mt. Whitney and her sisters. Instead of checking into my room, I took Whitney Portal Road instead and swiftly made my way westbound. The road went from dry to snow-covered in just a matter of a mile. I got as far as I could go before I could lose all photo opportunities. I parked my rig in the snow and got out to snap a few shots. I knew this would likely be my last opportunity to capture the peaks until the storm cleared.
Whitney Portal Road had just been repaved in October 2016, but some recent reports stated that a massive boulder collapse had fallen and blocked the road at some point near the top of the switchbacks. Knowing this in advance, I did not press onward, so I found a spot to set up and take a few shots before heading back into town.
“Just as the sun set, the remaining light exploded from behind Mt. Whitney.”
“The wind was becoming powerful and started blasting the snow at higher elevations into the air.”
“This was the last I would see of Mt. Whitney’s peak for a few days.”
The GrillGPS Coordinates: 36.6033456° N, 118.064199° W
I went back into town and got settled into my motel room. The wind was starting to blow harder and I knew that the winter storm was building momentum. I was getting quite hungry by this time and walked over to a place in town called The Grill. I met the owner Bobby Pino who was a really friendly chap and we chatted for a bit while he told me about all the great dinner items they offered. I went with a 12 oz. Rib Eye that was aged three weeks and served with a portion of delicious mashed potatoes and sautéed string beans.
“The Grill’s 12 oz Rib Eye platter is a definite must for any hungry traveler.”
I thanked Bobby and his chef Jaime for the amazing meal and told him I would be around town for a few days so I would definitely be coming back. I didn’t have any room left for the delicious deserts that they prepare, but I did take one of their big, homemade chocolate chunk cookies to go. The night was early so I retired back to my motel room for the remainder of the evening and edited a few pics before I set off to bed. Tomorrow was going to be an early day for sure.
Sunday, January 22nd, 2017
DAY 02 – “The howling wind and rain became an overnight snowfall.”
I woke up at 5 AM to the sound of a powerful, howling wind and what also sounded like handfuls of sand being forcefully thrown at my window. I got up to take a look outside the window and saw that it was actually snowing! The weather forecast had it raining today and then snowing tomorrow so this was a pleasant and unexpected surprise. The only thing that was not very pleasant was the strong wind and tiny ice crystals blasting around in gusts. It was like sticking your face on the business end of a sandblaster.
“This was the view when I looked out the window that morning, someone left the freezer open again!”
I geared up and got ready for a new day out into what looked like a very wintry scene in Lone Pine. Dressing in layers was a must since the temperature outside was a chilly 28 ºF (-2.2 ºC) and the occasional gusts of icy wind made it feel even colder. Fortunately by the time I grabbed my camera and headed outside, the wind had calmed somewhat. There wasn’t a single footprint on the sidewalk so I new I was the only nut job walking the street with camera in hand at 6:30 on a morning like ths…lol.
“It was quite cold and the wind had started to pick up again so it was about time to go get breakfast.”
“One of the locals said that Lone Pine had not experienced a snowfall like this in almost 20 years.”
“I had the feeling that I was experiencing a very rare event here.”
“The Starship is taking a cold nap, guess I will just walk to breakfast…hehe”
“A snowy drainage grate.”
“I’ve been to Lone Pine quite a bit, but never saw this Angry Bird before.”
Alabama Hills CafeGPS Coordinates: 36.6042071° N, 118.06522° W
Every time I stay in Lone Pine, the Alabama Hills Cafe is my “go to” spot for breakfast. They serve up some seriously great food and bake all their own breads and pastries. The cinnamon swirl bread loaves are the best, especially when they get sliced and turned into french toast. I strolled into the cafe just as they opened up shop (7 AM). I sat and placed my order when suddenly the power went out. It took about 5 minutes to kick back on, but then it went out again. Eventually the power came back on again and stayed that way. The momentary lapse in power seem didn’t stop the chef from whipping up my breakfast in record time. As per usual, the meal was excellent and the folks working there were just as courteous as I remembered.
“First one in the place and had it all to myself.”
“I had a mighty craving for flapjacks, eggs, and sausage.”
With my hunger extinguished, I hit the road and drove south along the 395. Visibility was dismal at best and the same was true when I attempted to travel northbound out of Lone Pine. I decided to just turn back and hit up the Alabama Hills to see what was going on there even if the visibility was low. I have to say that the drive along the way reassured me that I had made the right choice. The scenery was gorgeous! Never in all my visits to this region had I ever seen so much snow on the rocks. It was time to put the pedal to the metal and get to the hills.
Alabama Hills, CAGPS Coordinates: 36.6079735° N, 118.1078289° W
The Alabama Hills is the place where many old western films were shot and it wasn’t until I became a huge fan of the movie “Tremors” that I discovered a whole lot of recent films were shot there as well. Typically this region is used because of its exaggerated geology making ideal for an alien-like world or a fierce-looking environment. Because the Alabama Hills are on the desert end of the biome, this place is usually arid and hot. During a good winter storm it will get snow from time to time, but it’s usually rare and hardly falls in large amounts. Today would be a completely different version of the Alabama Hills.
“A brief video compilation of the Alabama Hills region that day.”
“Welcome to a version of the Alabama Hills that is not common at all.”
“Fields of boulders and snow, such an amazing view.”
“Rudy, my travel bear wanted to get out and play for a bit while I took photos”
“There were lot’s of frosty pinnacles just like this one.”
“This trail went right up to a literal wall of rock and ice.”
“One of the countless rock clusters that litter this area.”
“The Starship blends into her environment anytime she is off-road.”
After cruising all the trails in and around the Alabama Hills, I was ready to get some lunch back in town. As I headed out, I came across my friend and fellow photo venturer, Max from Bishop, CA. The odds of running into Max out here were so astronomically narrow that all I could do was laugh. He was heading out to the Mobius Arch and asked if I had attempted the hike. I told him that I had tried to much earlier, but the wind was blasting ice in my face and I was not equipped properly to handle it. He said he had some extra winter gear I could borrow if I wanted to join him, so I said “Hell yeah!”
Mobius ArchGPS Coordinates: 36.6113294° N, 118.1249464° W
As we arrived near the trailhead, Max recognized a couple of chaps who were driving past us. It was Jan from 395 North and his buddy Pete. Max flagged them down. We chatted for a bit after we all introduced ourselves and Max convinced the guys to join us on the hike out to the Mobius Arch. The wind had calmed only slightly and it was still rather cold, but we started our trek. The snow was almost knee-deep in some areas, but got shallow as we continued.
“From left to right, Jan’s 395 North Jeep, my Starship, and the Max Mobile.”
“With snow on the ground, it made following the trail a bit tricky, but the occasional trail marker kept us on track.”
“Max and Jan take in the scenery with shot after glorious shot.”
“We finally approached the arch and it was looking very promising.”
“The Mobius Arch like I’ve never seen it with a nice heap of snow all around it.”
“Such grand views warrant a grand appreciation and who better than a photographer’s eye to capture the beauty.”
“The terrain here looks so unforgiving and yet so peaceful with this much snow.”
“A small creek flows underneath its slushy surface.”
“Marching single file back to the our off-road machines.”
We spent a good while out at the arch taking many great shots, but it was time for us to get back to our own travels and part ways. Jan and Pete bid us farewell and set off on their next venture. Max and I decided to grab a much-needed lunch break back in town. We aimed our sites at the Mt. Whitney Restaurant for a delicious bison burger and fries. We talked about the sites today and what to expect with the winter storm for tomorrow. It was good to meet up with other photographers again, but it was time for Max and I to part ways. The following day would be full of new scenery as the clouds were forecast to begin parting a bit to reveal all the photo opportunity goodness.
That’s it for Chapter 01 of this great 4 day romp through the Eastern Sierra Nevada town of Lone Pine.
Catch the second installment here: Lone Pine Winter Storm 2017 – Chapter 02
Until the next travel blog, remember to get out there and “Shoot the Planet!”
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