Sunday, December 9, 2007
san gorgonio wilderness
by Guy McCarthy
It was pitch-dark just after 3 a.m. when I started up a trail near the south fork of the Santa Ana River. Dim light from my headlamp guided my way on the path.
In my pack I carried snowshoes, a shovel, and an avalanche probe - just in case. It was mid-March, several months ago. Winter and spring had been dry. Even in high country above 10,000 feet, snow was sure to be thin compared to recent years.
I’m no scientist – just someone who spends time in the mountains. I figured one way to see how dry it’s been would be to visit a place where snow two years ago was 12 feet deep. Whatever it looked like now, it would mean something.
In a pocket I carried photos from a day in early May 2005. One showed a colleague standing in a vertical pit he’d dug in snow below Little Charlton Peak. In the picture, he reached over his head as far as he could with the shovel. The blade barely touched the edge of the pit.
The pictures also showed a twisted pine rising out of the snow next to the pit. The lifeless tree would be my landmark.
It was still dark when I headed off-trail into a tangled meadow littered with scores of downed trees. A lot of snow had fallen on slopes above in the winter of 2004-05 - enough to unleash avalanches that snapped thick trees more than 40 feet tall.
In the distance I could make out a profile of ridges and summits that form the highest mountain spine in Southern California. I headed for what looked like the shoulder of Little Charlton Peak. By first light, three hours from the trailhead, the low-angle slope steepened.
Staying off slick patches of ice and snow, I leaned into the grade and used steel-tipped poles to keep traction on shattered rock and loose dirt. Gasping for breath as the altitude increased, stepping slowly from tree to tree, I looked up occasionally to where tall evergreens gave way to shorter, gnarly limber pines.
Relief came about 9 a.m. when the slope eased to a level knoll, a few hundred feet below the summit. The map indicated roughly 10,300 feet above sea level.
A twisted tree stood where I thought it would, though it looked taller. I pulled out the photos. Details matched. It was the same tree.
The ground at the base of the tree was bare rock and dirt. A tiny patch of snow covered a few pinecones. I looked up at where the soles of my boots had trudged on snow 22 months before.
State water officials stopped measuring snowpack in the Santa Ana River watershed in the 1990s. Comparing May 2005 and March 2007 at the same spot just shows there was a lot of snow two years ago, and little snow now.
Whether snowpack this year has anything to do with global warming - and what it means for mountain forests still blighted by drought and infestation - is for scientists and politicians to debate.
Simpler observations indicate what we might see this summer and fall.
Fire season nearly covered the calendar the past 12 months. At lower elevations this spring, from Hesperia to the Hollywood Hills, wind-driven fires have already chewed through acres of chaparral.
Earlier in March near Lake Arrowhead, San Bernardino County officials celebrated cutting down a symbolic millionth “hazard” tree. No one knows for sure how many more millions of dead trees are still out there, in the nation’s most urbanized mountain forest.