Yosemite in the grasp of a winter storm is one of the most exciting and beautiful spectacles in photography. The hard part is finding one and then finding one that delivers the correct amount of snow, and the correct amount of time without snow to grab photographs. This past weekend I met my group of photographers in Yosemite hoping to do just that. The weather forecast looked perfect, but, we all know how weather forecasts can be. The forecast called for partly cloudy skies on Saturday, giving way to a very short but powerful cold front on Sunday that was predicted to deliver 6-10 inches of snow in the valley. The following day looked to be perfectly clear, which means that the storm if it showed up, would be brief, and potentially clear out with time to shoot. Fingers Crossed!
The first morning we met early and went over the plan for the weekend, then set off into the park. We started our morning with what would be a multitude of trips to Tunnel View. I like the tunnel view because it’s probably the most iconic vista in the park, and also, it gives you the best perspective of the valley to try to see what might be happening. The sun rises behind all the giant mountains within the park, so all of the vistas of the valley are backlit but it doesn't make the viewpoint any less spectacular! We didn’t stay long and quickly made our way down to the Merced River for a couple of viewpoints of the icons like EL Capitan, Half Dome, and Yosemite Falls. Winter is the best time for ice and snow in the park which all help complement the granite, and create an interesting foreground. It was cold, and I think everyone’s toes and hands were numb by the time we finished the morning shoot so we set off for the lodge for breakfast.
After our morning shoot, it was time to head to the lodge for a lunch break/nap before our sunset shoot. We set off back for Tunnel View for another round of shooting to see if there was anything happening on the horizon that might give us some color. It was nice, but nothing epic.
Everyone was really curious about what the next day would bring. We all drove 4x4s so if there was snow, there wouldn’t be any issues getting to all the places we needed for images.
I set off for the parking lot in the predawn hour looking at and seeing clear skies above. This was NOT the forecast that was predicted. It had rained in the evening, as was predicted, but now it was mild temperatures and no precipitation. Typical, the weather forecast was not accurate. It said that by 9 am there would be hard snow. There wasn’t even rain right now. Our group set off for Tunnel View to try and see what the rest of the valley was looking like. A low layer of fog set in the tops of the trees, and the vista was exceptionally cool and moody. The sky looked dark and ominous, which was a good sign, but other than the cold there wasn’t any moisture.
But not ten minutes after we arrived the rain started and quickly turned into driving snow which quickly accumulated on the ground. Within about 15 minutes there was a good ½ inch on the ground, and it was time to retreat back to the lodge for coffee and early breakfast.
The forecast looked like there would be an hour of hard snow, followed by a break, then that pattern would repeat all day. That seems too good to be true! A ton of snow, followed by a break? Then having that happen ALL day? We will need to be creative!
During breakfast, the hard snow came down, but as forecasted, after about 45 minutes it stopped. I was getting updates from El Portal throughout the day. When the rain hit the hotel, we had about 20-30 minutes before the snow would show up, and when there were patches of blue sky in El Portal, it was the same. Twenty minutes later, we’d have shootable conditions! We shot some amazing light throughout the day during these breaks. We had awesome light on upper Yosemite and lower Yosemite falls, half dome came out just after lunch, and other than a giant snowman that was in the way, it was awesome shooting. It was strange to see how the forecast was so correct. We made a couple of trips up to Tunnel View to monitor the conditions, and grab some shots. It seemed like every time we went up there, 15 minutes later the snow would start.
This pattern of snow-shooting-snow-shooting-snow was a lot of fun and kept the scene always changing and looking awesome, but we wondered how our sunset would look. There was a last major snowstorm push on the radar that looked like it had the potential to dump snow from about 3 pm straight through past sunset. Sure enough, around 2:30 it started and came in hard. We made the best of a small break and set up along the Merced for a couple of quick shots before it really started coming down.
One of the group said, “I’m fine if we call it.” So part of our group started their long drive home. I have to admit, it seemed like it was going to be a lost cause at this point. We’d given it a good run all day and it has to end sometime. I checked the weather with my friend in El Portal. "It’s almost perfectly clear here"! But It was snowing like crazy where I was. That break looked like it was going to be perfectly timed with the sunset. So I texted the group the news, and we headed back up to Tunnel View for the final push. Thankfully we had 4x4s which meant easy access. Cars without 4-wheel drive or chains were turned around.
At Tunnel View, there was a modest group of about 25 other people, which, for the spot, was quite small. I think the weather and road conditions scared off a lot of people in the park. The light was already starting to break through when we pulled in, and we quickly grabbed our gear and set up for what turned out to be one of the best shows I’d ever seen in the park. It was truly amazing! Fresh Snow, fog, golden light..it had everything you’d want if you were ordering it up from a menu.
What a great way to end a really fun weekend. Many times we fight mother nature for good photographs and lose, this weekend, it felt like we won!
Until Next Time,
Brian and the rest of the Aperture Academy Team!
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