Alpine Conditions Report – August 30th, 2015

In From the Range of Light & Fast by Howie Schwartz4 Comments

Hi mountain people,

As the kids go back to school and we enter into late summer we wanted to offer some updates on conditions in the Sierra high country. Those of you who have been keeping up with any news in the last few weeks, or have been in the Sierra, will know that fire season is in full effect in California and the rest of the arid mountain west. The three fires that have impacted us here the most are the Willow Fire, the Rough Fire and the Walker Fire. The Willow Fire was in the Sierra just east of Merced. It is no longer a smoke issue and is 100% contained. The Rough Fire on the other hand, near Cedar Grove, is active at 25% containment and over 61,000 acres large. This is the one causing us the most problems currently. The Walker Fire has been another nuisance, closing parts of highway 120 and campgrounds near there. It is currently 95% contained but still produces a bit of smoke that may creep into Tuolumne, June Lake, and Lee Vining with different wind directions.

Eastside locals and business owners have noted significant decrease in visitation to the Sierra since the Rough (and Walker) fires started. JMT hikers have initiated a mass exodus, though there are still people out there toughing it out in spite of obscured views, and physiological challenges that come with exercise in smoky air. Several Sequoia and Kings Canyon west side access points have been shut down or limited in services. Trail crews in Kings Canyon exited to Bishop a few days ago. We have had some days, even in the Owens Valley recently where visibility has been less than a mile or two which indicates some of the most dangerous air quality to be breathing, especially while trying to hike or climb and while unacclimated to higher elevations. If you might enjoy hiking in a dirty ashtray, or would like to take some Sequoia tree bong hits then come experience what the High Sierra has to offer right now!

It’s not all apocalyptic gloom though. The more northerly and southerly ends of the range are relatively free of smoke on most days. Most days the smoke is concentrated primarily in the Kings Canyon zone, spilling over to the east and into the Owens Valley near there. In the valley, the smoke is thickest between Independence and Mammoth. Mammoth has had more clear days than Bishop and around Mono Lake north has had mostly clear days. Tuolumne still gets some smoke from the Walker fire but there have also been clear days as well, it just depends on the wind speed and direction. There are still plenty of wonderful and smoke-free places to go from the Eastern Sierra if you strategize accordingly.

We would like to take a moment to remind all you ice climbers out there to cancel your ice climbing plans in the Sierra this season. It’s over before it has started, so go travel somewhere far away, or wait until winter ice around here comes in. Couloirs are ugly, with little snow and ice left. Whatever is there is covered with rock and debris from active rockfall. Many significant snowfields and “glacierettes” marked proudly on the USGS maps are now nonexistent. I’m not going to mourn their loss. I’m just going to get over it and go alpine rock climbing. Let’s all hope for a big winter from the forecasted mega El Niño… followed by a little ice age immediately after that.

Enjoy the end of summer. We’ll be back in touch to update you when things clear up and the El Niño starts kicking in. Here are some photos from our recent adventures to show you what it looks like out here in a variety of places. Cheers!


  1. Is there any snow on the last bit of approach up to the base of Venusian Blind? I’m planning to head out there this weekend and hope to not carry crampons. Thanks!

    1. Hi Jeremy. The approach to all of the Celestial Arêtes (which of course includes Venusian Blind) has been snow free most of the summer this year. You could expect some unconsolidated snow on the rocks close to the base, but no terrain that crampons (or axe) would be recommended for. A bit of new snow this week and unsettled over the weekend so keep an eye on the weather forecast. Good luck!

Leave a Comment