Stormy Weather: Winter 2022-23

If you’ve been following the news from Yosemite at all, you know we’ve gotten a little snow this winter. We are awaiting the results of the April 1 snow survey, but it looks like we will be close to, possibly even beyond, the 1983 record of 224% of normal. It looks like we will be well beyond the 178% of normal we got in 2011, the second-highest snowpack in the last 40 years.

Fun Start, Tough Finish

It’s been a stormy winter from the start. We already had good skiing by December 2 and a first wave of atmospheric rivers with a mix of snow and rain in late December and early January. We were getting in some great days of skiing and animal tracking and generally enjoying a great winter in Yosemite, the highlight being a ski ascent of Mount Starr King.

But the big wave in the last week of February and first week of March resulted in heavy snow, closed roads, power outages, a bit of skiing, all around mayhem, and what seemed like endless, endless shoveling. In the first phase, we got several feet of snow, lost power for four days, got it back for a day, lost it for another day, then got it back. In the second phase we got heavy rain, which was good because we simply had no place to put more snow and people were starting to worry about roofs collapsing. We could no longer clear the driveway with the snowblower because it would not throw snow over the 8-9 foot banks.

Theresa skiing in Yosemite West
The naïve smile, the blissful ignorance on the first big storm day before we really knew what was coming

Nobody could keep up and we had what we think is the fourth-longest park closure in our 20 years living here (as of April 7). Only the two Covid closures in 2020 and the Ferguson Fire closure in 2018 lasted longer. We believe it is the longest winter closure since the flood of January 1997 closed the park for three months.

Most people understand that when six to eight feet of snow falls in a couple of days, it can take time to get roads open. But this set of storms added a couple other elements into the mix. First, they came at the tail end of an already snowy winter with big piles of snow everywhere already, the roads already narrow, and the ground already saturated. Second, they lasted, with a couple breaks, for two weeks. Third, the combination of big snows and big rains meant that in addition to all the complications of digging out the snow up at altitude, down low there were mudslides, rockfalls, road washouts and a massive wet-snow avalanche across the road between Tunnel View and the Valley Floor. So road crews were spread unusually thin across the whole range of altitudes in the region.

All of this overwhelmed workers, equipment, systems, basic infrastructure and, no doubt a lot of poor critters. We saw the rarest of things — a pocket gopher above ground, looking rather unhappy wandering around on top of seven feet of snow. The poor guy was probably flooded out of his home (pocket gophers normally do not venture out of their tunnels except to find a mate, which was most definitely not what was happening on this day).

A very sad-looking pocket gopher on top of the snow in the yard

There are a lot of obstacles to getting the park open that might not be obvious. Before welcoming the public, crews had to dig out enough bathrooms and trashcans for basic sanitation. There are also over 200 fire hydrants that need to be located and dug out. The park emergency communications system depends on remote repeaters powered by solar panels with battery backup, but all the solar panels were buried and some difficult to access. In our neighborhood, we simply could not pile the snow high enough to make viable turnarounds in the cul-de-sacs, which is important for emergency vehicles to access the area. A myriad of little problems like that, in addition to the big ones like washouts and avalanches, had to be solved one by one until finally the park could handle an influx of people.

While it was all work and no play for a period of a couple weeks, we did manage before and after to spend a lot of time out in the woods and mountains skiing. For a couple weeks when the park was closed, we were limited to places we could ski to from the house, but before and after that, we’ve had a chance to get out and see Yosemite in winter glory like we have not seen since 2011. See below for a small gallery of photos.

What does this mean for summer 2023? That’s still unclear in the details, of course, but it most certainly means great, maybe historic, spring and summer waterfalls, a long wildflower season, snowy trails up high, and late road openings. As with all things, some good, some bad (though, as Hamlet says, Act II, Scene 2, “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so,” and for our part, we rather like not having a drought summer for a change!)