Memorial Day weekend signals the beginning of the summer, even the calendar says it doesn’t officially start until three weeks later. It’s a great excuse to escape from the city, get out of town and go recreate somewhere. For many, this means escaping the warm weather and making a pilgrimage to cooler weather up to the mountains.
When the temperature is over 80 degrees on the plains, it’s easy to forget all the snow that is still on the ground high up in the mountains. But as I gaze upon the Indian Peaks from our home in Nederland, I can see it’s going to be a long time before I will be able to climb those peaks. That won’t keep people from flooding into Nederland this weekend in search of mountain adventures. And several of them will be shocked and surprised to be walking through drifts of snow several feet high, while wearing sandals or sneakers.
One of the more surreal scenes I ever witnessed was the summer of 1998 when I worked in Sequoia National Park as a Park Ranger. Much like this year, the Sierra had received significant snowfall throughout the winter and into the spring. I remember it snowing 15 inches in mid-May adding to the several feet of snow that was already on the ground.
As Memorial Day weekend approached, the campground ranger staff became panicked. As one of the most popular campgrounds in the park, many of the sites in Lodgepole Campground had been reserved months in advance. But the camp sites were still buried in snow. While they could refuse first come, first serve campers, stating snow conditions, what could be done about the reserved spots?
For a solid week, rangers and maintenance staff shoveled out camp spots, enough to accommodate a tent or two, as well as unearthing the picnic table. What a strange sight to behold! Little snow caves amongst these towering banks of snow on all sides. Not exactly the summer scene most visitors envisioned when booking their holiday weekend getaway.
I personally spent a rather odd Memorial Day weekend while working at Sequoia my first summer. While there wasn’t any snow on the ground, I did endure a rather challenging and odd situation. I had the day off, and decided to go for a hike on the High Sierra Trail.
The day started off promising enough — blue sky, sunshine. Nevertheless, I’m a big believer in preparing for anything during a day hike in the mountains. I had included rain gear, long underwear, fleece, hat, gloves, extra food and water in my day pack. I remember one of the guys I worked with lifting my pack, and teasing my about how much it weighed.
But as I got about 4-5 miles out from the trailhead, the weather took a turn for the worst. The skies darkened, the temperature plummeted, and pellets of snow started to fall, stinging my face as they hit me. (I would later find out this is specific type of snow called graupel).
I ended up taking every piece of clothing I had out of that pack, donning my hat and gloves and hunkering down underneath a ledge of granite as I watched thunder snow come “raining” down from the gloomy skies.
So for all you flatlanders expecting to come up to the mountains, this weekend? Better come prepared for any and all kinds of conditions, if past experience is an predictor.