Most people who know me know of my great admiration for legendary photographer Ansel Adams, bordering on an obsession, really. I have a seemingly endless fascination with his work, his process and his politics. It should then come as no surprise that I make the journey to the photographer’s Mecca and Adams’ personal playground Yosemite National Park as often as possible. I have been known to return from a long road trip elsewhere in the state or further west only to take a detour of several hours and duck into the park for just a few minutes before returning to my home base of San Francisco.
One of my favorite times of the year to visit Yosemite Valley is in the winter, when the hordes of tourists that descend on the park in the summer are mysteriously absent. Truthfully, crowds or no, I find winter a much more magical and photogenic time to experience Yosemite than any other. With a fresh blanket of snow falling and clinging to the dramatic granite cliffs, Giant Sequoia groves and open meadows, all of which are punctuated by crashing waterfalls in every direction, the place is the stuff fairy tales are made of.
As January rolled around I was determined to photograph Yosemite under its snowy alter ego. I packed up my gear and waited for the rainstorms that are so predictable and relentless this time of year, which in turn manifest themselves as fresh snow in the higher elevations of the Sierras. That was when a curious thing happened. The winter gray was replaced by deep blue skies and temperatures rose to 60′s and 70′s. Day after day, week after week, my bags sat packed by the door waiting for Mother Nature to cooperate with my plans. Finally, around the second week of February, things were looking up. That weekend’s forecast called for a cold front dipping down from the north followed by rain. Lots and lots of rain. This was my chance! I fueled up the car, charged the batteries for my DSLR and pulled out stacks of film from the back of the refrigerator for my large format camera.
This was about the time that I started hearing the term “Firefall”. As I would later discover, the Yosemite Firefall is a natural phenomenon that occurs for only a few days out of the entire year. The setting sun creates a beam of light that illuminates the Horsetail Fall and gives it the appearance of a 1500 ft. lava flow down the side of the rock face. As it would just so happen, this event was scheduled to occur during my impromptu visit that weekend.
I pulled out of my driveway at 2 a.m. on Saturday morning so that I could make it to the Valley by sunrise. The weather report showed a long night of heavy snow, and armed with this new Firefall revelation, the timing couldn’t be more perfect. As I approached the park the conditions deteriorated. I climbed higher in elevation and whiteout conditions increased, pushing my speed slower. 30 mph. 15 mph. Fairly quickly I found myself crawling along at a numbing 5 miles per hour. Even with snow chains and four-wheel drive I was sliding all over the road. After hours of these conditions I finally arrived at the park entrance to a not-so-welcome sight. Several cars sat idling with a road barricade stretched out in front of them. The park ranger at the booth told me that the road into the park had been closed. She reported that a car slid into the ditch a few miles ahead. Crews would need to pull it out and then re-plow the 30-mile stretch of road that was rapidly becoming buried under several feet of snow. The ranger informed me apologetically that it would be several hours before the road was re-opened. I pulled my car up to the growing crowd of vehicles, grabbed my camera and started hiking down a fire road.
As the sun came up on the freshly minted winter wonderland, I found myself in a beautiful utopia where the only sound I heard was the crunching snow under my feet as I wandered further down the white pathway. I explored the peaceful Sequoia forest for more than an hour, photographing along the way before turning back. When the road was finally opened, the 50 or so cars that had amassed at the entrance crawled along the winding pass until we were at last unleashed in Yosemite Valley.
I spent the day trudging through waist-high snow in the meadows and climbing up icy rocks near the waterfalls, all the while lugging my Sinar 4×5 view camera along with me. When the shadows grew longer I made my way to the most scenic spot in the park to witness this unique event called Firefall, only to find that about a hundred other photographers had the same idea. There we all stood shivering for the better part of an hour, only to have a heavy cloud layer shut us down for the evening.
Day two: Today was going to be the day. The Firefall was the talk of the valley, and if there was ever a day it was going to materialize, this was going to be it. The sun shined bright over the valley and the sky was a kind of deep blue that you rarely see. I busied myself throughout the day photographing rock formations, frozen creeks and snowy Half Dome. I caught myself however, checking my watch at an increasing frequency as the day wore on. Finally the time had come. The sky was completely clear and I was heading back to the staging area where I would stake my claim alongside the masses to view this amazingly rare event. As the sun was lowering into position and Horsetail Fall was flowing strong, the row of photographers were all but high-fiving one another… when a thick layer of fog crept over the side of the cliff and dropped down in front of the waterfall like a curtain. The silence in the group was palpable. As the sky grew darker it became obvious that our window of opportunity had passed. I started packing up my gear, accepting the inevitable as others held their ground in a state of denial, hoping that some miracle would occur and reverse the earth’s orbit to allow for the Firefall to show itself after all.
As I drove out of Yosemite Valley, winding my way through the white forest, my car hugged the side of the granite cliffs and I watched the heavy clouds roll over the waterfalls and drop into the valley. I found myself thankful for the absence of the Firefall. It is, in fact its rarity and elusiveness that makes it so enticing. And after all, it gives me an excuse to return to the Valley again next year.