Mono County Fall 2013 Road Trip

After two straight droughty winters, many experienced fall leaf seekers of the Eastern Sierra Nevada were wondering what that meant for the aspen groves? During this summer of 2013 there had been somewhat above usual thunderstorm activity east of the Sierra Crest that helped normalize plants. Finally in the third week of September the first reports of near normal color change in upper reaches of the Bishop Creek basins signaled a typical cycle of change was unfurling. As an older 8-5 m-f Silicon Valley hi tech worker, I planned to use 2 or 3 of my PTO days during the fall period to make the long drive to the Eastern Sierra, the best of fall leaf color in California. For the vast majority of people in the state, fall leaf color is an oxymoron. Huh? There are of course myriad folk out here who grew up in eastern regions of the country where the changing autumn colors of deciduous trees is an annual season of wonder.


But in California in the large urban coastal and central valley areas, fall brings increasingly shortening chilly days with many trees and landscapes a drab dry brown looking like approaching death. The Eastern Sierra on the other hand is out of sight, out of mind, several highway hours distant. A place most residents have never even visited. Web and media reports before the usual peak weekend of October 5 & 6 assured most photographers and leaf seekers that yes it is finally time come up because most groves are now near peak. Thus the bulk of visitors spent that weekend making their rounds along with most of the many participating in fall photography workshops.

As someone that has been photographing the groves well before the current digital camera generation, I already have an abundance of strong material for which usual sunny conditions were not likely to add images of significance to my body of work. At the end of September the forecast for weekdays before and during that peak weekend were showing certain sunny skies. Thus declined making that trip and instead by midweek NWS technical forecast discussions were hinting on some kind of trough possibly visiting during the following work week. So on Monday put in for short notice PTO and the next day Tuesday October 8 left late afternoon as clouds from an impinging cold front moved over the northern state.

Interestingly Yosemite National Park officials, still reeling from the monsterous Rim Fire and dealing with the goverment shutdown, knowing what was coming, closed SR120 over Tioga Pass earlier in the day before I left. In any case I'd already decided to use SR108 over Sonora Pass and drive to an area just off US395 at Conway Summit on the Virginia Lakes Road where I could pull over then sleep inside my Forester. By 11pm with stars missing in the inky black skies, I was doing just that. When 5:30am PDT or an hour plus before sunrise arrived, I woke up as is normal for my system and began organizing myself to get moving for the morning shoot. As a long time alpine skier that enjoys skiing powder during storms, I know how to dress in foul winter weather. Expecting snow with sleet at times, on went warm clothes with my Helly Hansen Voss rain suit on the outside and Sorrel Caribous on feet.

Snow flurries had already started in the dark Wednesday pre-dawn, bouncing with tinkling sounds off my Subaru's windows. Outside was a balmy temperature of 32F degrees indicating the storm would not leave much snow down at lower aspen grove areas and what did accumulate would likely melt back rapidly since ground temperatures during this early period of fall were still well above freezing. Additionally after the storm passed, leaves already on trees at mid and lower grove elevations would not exhibit the dreaded blackening and dulling that occurs if temperatures dip into the teens. I drove south over the summit to the Mono Scenic Vista pullout. Snow began to fall more moderately so I abandoned the notion of doing any work at sunrise and instead drove back north to survey the Conway Summit aspen groves that in the weak dawn skylight appeared to have little variation from orange? After watching the slowly whitening scene awhile from the highway scenic pullout with snow becoming heavier, I decided to drive south on US395 to survey nearby Lundy Canyon groves. By time I reached the beaver ponds near the unpaved road end, there was already an inch or two on the ground though most landing flakes continued to melt on road surfaces. Lower areas of the canyon were 33F and later as I passed the shores of Mono Lake currently with a level of 6380 feet, it was 35F.

Topographic map at Mono Basin


I next visited lower Lee Vining Canyon areas that were still mostly green just as web reports had related. Then drove south looking up at the Parker Bench areas where the higher groves like east of Mt. Wood looked mostly just orange. Much less than normal color variation just like those I had seen at Conway Summit. Winter storms in the Eastern Sierra tend to concentrate over the higher elevations cloaking the towering mountains in white clouds. Valley areas to the east in Owens Valley at from 3k to 5k and basins to the north at 6k to 7k feet tend to be in a rain shadow of intermittent lighter showers with more broken clouds. Further south at the Mammoth junction about noon I could see the Laurel Creek groves, the image at left, snaking up its sagebrush slopes glowing nicely in peak color and free of snow showers.

Snow by late morning had already started in areas far to the south so the whole range was obscured. I drove out on the dirt road to Sherman Creek then climbed up beside the line of Laurel Creek aspen with full gear of over 35 pounds 700 feet or so but as a very picky view camera person, declined exposing any film while only taking for the record shots with my Canon G10 digital compact. I did find some frames worthwhile coming back for at an earlier time of day though not this trip. Next I walked some areas along Sherwin Creek noting some nice landscapes that were still not good enough to take my camera out for. By then it was midday so drove into Mammoth Lakes for a burger, gas, and some groceries. For years have been exploring lower stream areas in the sagebush belt that contain more variations of leaf hues given quaking aspen, black cottonwood, creek dogwood, water birch, gooseberries, and fireweed than at the large aspen groves others visit. Some of these areas also have active beaver ponds. There are many many miles of these virtually ignored riparian stream courses in the Eastern Sierra where I've never seen another person more than short distances from dirt roads from, much less photographers about.


In the afternoon drove as far south as Lake Crowley surveying more familiar spots. I'd found some superb subjects but there was now too much bright white snow on them that detracted from their wonderful leaf colors. What to do? Simply snowing too hard to bother working with a sleety snow level about 7000 feet and the freezing line a bit below 8000 feet. Many winter storms are windy which if also snowing hard can present some interesting fresh leaves on snow closeup subjects. However breezes were light during this storm. Eventually drove back north to Mono Lake below the snow and set up a dispersed camp spot where I ended the day while organizing my gear for Thursday morning on what was queing up to be the big day. I considered how Wednesday had been rather useless without even taking my view camera out of the daypack. But then again I had re-visited some lower creek areas hiking around at each, finding absolutely stunning conditions that I now could target without wasting time elsewhere. The most important image I hoped for on the trip was a just before sunrise exposure from north of Conway Summit at 8000 feet across the large aspen groves in fresh snow towards 12,349 foot Dunderberg Peak. Years before I had faced the same optimal fresh snow and aspen conditions but my exposed film was simply too dim marginally usable. So now years later I had a chance to redeem that missed opportunity. The following is a NOAA site 24 hour snow map for the October 10, 2013 storm that dropped amounts of snow one only sees a few times each decade in early October.


Thursday morning I was awake at 5am and during the night noticed stars had appeared as the storm pushed east. By 6:30am had driven back up to the Mono Lake Scenic Vista to survey skies again that looked promising with a mix of mostly cloud with some open skies. Thus continued on north over Conway Summit to set up my view camera with Dunderberg Peak at center in my frame's background. Temperature was nicely at 28F, no winds, with snow beside the highway dry and powdery. The big metamorphic peak had a large cloud cap hiding its summit and the vast landscape in between was all white with a half to foot of new snow. The aspen groves were a dim orange, branches bending down under loads of snow. What a wonderful landscape! And not surprisingly absolutely no one else was parked along the highway as I expected would be the case midweek even though what was about to unfold was probably the most impressive fall leaf scene that would occur in the Eastern Sierra for 2013. The optimum time for an image is when orange to pink pre-sunrise sunlight are just hitting clouds above the crest peaks illuminating that warm colorful light onto the optimal white landscapes below. By time the sun hits the peaks it will be too contrasty on snow surfaces plus will have lost the warm hues.

Right before sunrise another car with a photographer arrived with a big DSLR setup and probably nailed some fine images. Setting up my view camera on my tripod next to the highway guard rail, I spent about 10 minutes carefully focusing in the dim light the 150mm Nikor lens I had mounted. Pushed in a 4x5 sheet film holder with Fuji Provia 100F film. All my ducks are set up I thought. I know what to do and how to get the job done. What could go wrong? Looked at the sky and it didn't seem like anything was going to happen for a bit.


Then all too soon for about 15 seconds color exploded all above on the underside of the cloud deck illuminating the landscapes below superbly but then dimmed except over the crest where it lasted another 30 seconds to a minute. The sun apparently had suddenly popped through some clouds to the east and that caught me off guard unready. First I had to run off an image with my Canon G10 set to minimum f8 aperture at ISO 100 that showed a shutter speed of 1/50 second was required to capture an optimal exposure on its trusty LCD screen. That equates to standard exposure value EV11.7 and is the image above. I also made a quick reading with my Polaris 5 degree digital spot meter of the sky and snow landscapes that showed readings of EV9 to EV12, so that verified EV11.7 or maybe slightly lower was the exposure setting I should use.


Working a large format view camera is a complicated, slow, tedious task with many ways to end up with poor results. There are no batteries in a view camera as it is all mechanical. Thus one needs to evaluate exposures with other tools then set the lens aperture and shutter speed manually. Although I had an EV chart in my fanny pack, because I had only seconds to expose a sheet before the light would change, I did all the calculation in my head and set my lens midway between the f22 and f32 notches with a shutter speed of 1/4 second. Removed the dark slide and was able to depress the shutter cable release exposing a sheet of film while there was still some very nice pink skies above Dunderberg Peak. Then flipped the film holder over and took a second shot after the best light had waned. Then got another film holder out and repeated the process of taking exposure readings as sunlight began hitting the top of Dunderberg whence I exposed both sheets again.


Unlike digital cameras most people have switched to that records an image in flash memory which may be immediately reviewed and re-shot if necessary. With traditional color sheet film one must send the film out for development at some distant lab so it takes a week after I return home from field trips to know what results were. There is no trial and error, either get it right or one has nothing. During road trip evenings, working inside a light tight black change bag, I'll remove from film holders all a day's exposed film then insert fresh unexposed film sheets into holders. Each sheet of film costs about $3 and development is another $2.50 so as a peon in this world, one does not shoot but a few sheets of film on a given day, rarely bracketing, with each exposed valuable sheet receiving a well considered effort.

Later that Thursday evening I indeed pulled out my film change bag and did so which is done by feel in darkness. Later on Thursday I'd exposed 3 sheets during the morning and 6 late afternoon for a total of 13 sheets, a big day. However upon removal of the film I found that I loaded 2 sheets of film into holders backwards! One side of film has chemical emulsions while the other is the plastic backing. One differentiates which side of film is which by feeling irregular notches on the edge of the film sheets. I immediately tossed those sheets into the trash and dreaded which of my day's work was now wasted? The first time I'd ever made that mistake after loading a few thousand sheets of film over the years. Probably happened weeks earlier when loading film at the end of a 5-day August backpacking trip to Pioneer Basin in the Sierra. Eleven days later I found that the two sheets were among the four I related above exposed at sunrise on that superb Dunderberg Peak fresh snow landscape. And the other two sheets that had been loaded correctly were very dim maybe 1.5 stops low. Still can't understand why that happened and will at this point never know? Thus will have to wait a few more years for try number 3.

After exposing the 3 sheets on the north of Conway Summit aspen groves, I drove some distance in this Virginia Creek basin to a location where I parked and walked into an aspen grove with large trees I've visited many times. My task was to quickly take a few images at known locations before the rising sun coming over hills to the east shined on the groves that would make everything much too harshly contrasty as fresh new snow is strongly reflective. My first subject 11 days later turned out to have been exposed about 2/3 stop over exposure thus at that point I was zero for five though didn't know it at the time. Setting exposures correctly during dim light is the most difficult part of using film in a view camera given the complexities of natural light on complex outdoor subjects. Making that more difficult, color transparency film has a narrow latitude one cannot be off more than about a half stop for. Accordingly, few people could ever be successful using these classic cameras.

My next two exposures were however perfect in fine light including the image at page top above, 13-K-3.jpg. It is one of the largest quaking aspen trees, populus tremuloides, I've seen anywhere and can be nicely isolated against skies. The below image of 5 aspen trunks, I'd first captured in 2001 and is on my website home page gallery in the 6x7 section. Do believe that I am going to prefer this new 4x5 image with snow. In the fine detail of the big transparency, individual snowflakes can be seen in the near foreground though not on this puny for web downsized image. Thin high clouds still covered most of the sky above providing nicely even white illumination.


By time I had gone back to my car, sun was already enveloping the grove. I drove south on US395 hoping to reach a few of the locations I'd surveyed Wednesday along lower creeks. However clouds except at higher crest areas were rapidly diminishing leaving intense blue sky. By time I reached areas of interest it was over. Oh I waited around hoping for one of the few passing clouds to hide the sun from targets. Instead wasted gas driving back and forth between a couple locations when it looked like a cloud might visit. They didn't. By mid morning, I'd given up. Landscapes with the new snow were going to be impossibly contrasty so decided to do the full visual tour on south to the Bishop areas and get some cheaper gas at the Paiute Palace Casino in the process. Thus visited several areas including out on the Buttermilk Road where I waited an hour while clouds above Basin Mountain refused to leave its rugged peak top.


Snow quickly melted back on paved road surfaces so the considerable numbers of leaf seekers slow to rise from their motels were now zipping along roads, stopping to take pictures in what looked like maybe 10 inches of snow in the higher Bishop Creek areas. Fed and gassed up at midday I was once again in a quandary of what to do?

Well from the weather forecast I knew the few clouds remaining were soon to vanish and Friday would likely be cloudless. The creek subjects were just too good to ignore so I decided to bide my time until later afternoon, then just after the sun disappeared behind canyon heights to the west, would work in shadows with the blue skylight that meant a dim EV6 to EV8. Ideally with a high thin cloud deck at midday one would work at EV10 to EV12, a condition where understory fall leaves glow magnificently and shutter speeds even with large format are reasonable. Note normal mid morning sunny front lit landscapes will meter about EV15.3. At ISO 100 with a digital compact camera stopped down to maximum at f8, EV7 equates to a one-half second exposure. The larger the format, the smaller the practical f-stop numbers and my large format lenses went down to f45 or f64. Thus instead of a one-half second exposure, at f45 it is 5 stops lower, an exposure of 16 seconds. Exposures that long require still air as quaking aspen got that name for a reason. Unfortunately by early afternoon modest breezes had developed so I was increasingly pessimistic. On an image one expects to print large with fine detail, blurry leaves are simply unnacceptable. With such intimate landscapes stopping down a large format lens to smallest apertures does pay a price in loss of resolution due to diffraction. Thus instead of being able to print on Lightjet printers to 40 inch widths, my maximum sizes would be reduced to about 30 inch prints while still maintaining a crisp look.

So I patiently bided my midday hours and by about 3pm it was time to drive to each of the several creek locations I'd surveyed earlier. Fortunately breezes had waned enough to allow longer exposures if I waited for the lull periods. I would normally have considered results from the first 2 subjects strong, however the next 3 were even better. My third subject was the below beautiful yellow aspen leaves on small trees with dimmer reddish hues of creek dogwood, cornus sericea and green and yellow hued water birch, betula occidentalis, leaves providing a fine contrasting background beyond.


My next subject below was exceptional. A large jeffrey pine had recently fallen parallel to a creek into a large patch of peaking red hued creek dogwood. On Wednesday I'd found this wonderful scene and while snow was covering the slippery trunk climbed out on it sizing up what was possible. Now Thursday afternoon almost all the snow had melted back though everything was still damp leaving a breathtakingly colorful scene even in the dim skylight. To the right of the stream were areas of water birch with yellow leaves while further upstream willow and birch leaves were a mix of yellow and green with another large jeffrey pine, pinus jeffreyi, rising above. To the left at the far end of the fallen trunk were yellow leaves of aspen and a few large trunks of black cottonwood, populus trichocarpa, On large format lenses, the mechanical shutters only work to one second. Beyond that I needed to use the manual bulb setting and time a long exposure by looking at my digital wrist watch seconds count. I spent a long time on this shot which was tricky because tripoding atop the trunk was awkward lest it fall and destroy my camera much less ending my road trip. But as an old guy that has done these things for years, sometimes on cliff ledges inches away from a death fall, such just needs to be approached patiently methodically. One advantage to the long exposures times would be the creek waters would expose to a smooth dreamy white blurring photographers love to capture. When I finally got my film back, seeing this once in my lifetime big transparency on my light table exposed perfectly was quite a relief.


Finally I drove off to the last of the creek locations where I had to struggle through willows and thorny gooseberries to reach the below scene where I had another difficult tripod spot at the slippery awkward edge of a stream. My CT113 graphite Induro tripod was set low in order to keep beneath some branches just above that would have been too close for any possible depth of field. The background was brighter than the previous landscape up at EV8 so I just needed a 7 second exposure. This scene was about a bright yellow leaf jungle of birch and willow with a small patch of red and green hues of creek dogwood. A large flat boulder just across the steam was covered with freshly fallen yellow hued aspen and black cottonwood leaves plus jeffrey pine needles. And the stream could not have developed on the film more beautifully. Will be a nice subject for someone's living room. With such long exposures, during intermittently breezy conditions, one often actuates the cable shutter release that opens a lens aperture only to moan some seconds later when another pesky breeze suddenly jiggles leaves ruining a sheet of film. Guessing when to gamble on starting an exposure is about experience with being closely tuned into all ones senses of outdoor places.


I drove to the always popular Lee Vining Mobile restaurant where I bought one of their delicious pepperoni pizza slices and the attractive young woman behind the counter gave me a second free. Afterward drove to a favorite dirt road in the lower Lundy area to disperse camp at in peace. Given the government shutdown that closed all the Inyo National Forest public campgrounds, I noticed numbers of people apparently unfamiliar with dispersed camping, parking roadside overnight on Los Angeles Department of Water and Power lands which is illegal despite thousands of warning signs. Those city lands cover large areas of the valley east of the Sierra that one can easily avoid by buying the Inyo National Forest Map that colors such areas yellow. My main task that evening was changing out the 13 sheets of film I'd exposed. As noted above, that was also when I discovered 2 sheets had been installed into film holders backwards.

Friday morning I didn't bother rising until sunrise then worked a couple of areas where I did several miles of hiking. Two day old snow was still melting in many grove areas so my Sorrel's continued to be put to use instead of my regular summer hiking boots. As expected sky was cloudless with blue skies contrasting strongly with aspen leaves. In such conditions one must be sensitive to the glow of leaves depending on the orientation to the sun. The best light is usually late morning with a side lit sun orientation. Of course even at mid day the sun's altitude is relatively low compared to summer. Here the sun is off to the left:


The below small grove of aspen with many large trees is next to a wee permanent stream I car camped at Friday. Down a lonely 4WD route where strong smelling sagebrush scraped the bottom of my Forester much of the way. Although there are many such roads on every east of the Sierra 7.5 minute USGS topo, there are many more often more primitive dirt roads that are not on the maps. Loved the dry blond grasses which the big 4x5 transparency shows fine details on. Shrubs at middle ground are willows.


View into my 2007 Forester's sleeping quarters. Either of the rear seats fold down nicely flat and fitting my short 66 inch height nicely even with the rear door closed. Marmot Pinnacle atop an old green North Face synthetic bag, atop my yellow colored Thermarest Neoair, atop a heavy duty red colored closed cell foam exercise mat.


Next to my camp some leaves had dropped atop wet dark volcanic soils:


During the miles of exploring Friday, I had sized up exactly where I wanted to hike to Saturday morning in order to capture some more expansive large grove landscapes. So as the sun rose on Saturday morning October 12, I drove out, got gear together and set out on the most strenuous hike of my road trip that included elevation gains of about 1000 feet. But it wasn't the elevation gains that were so tough but rather the terrain of sagebrush and dense aspen groves with all manner of down logs and dense gear tangling trees to monkey through. Now three days beyond the big storm, snows had melted back nicely so the larger landscapes were not so contrasty. The sky that morning also delivered a few hours of nice high clouds. By mid morning I reached an exceptional location I'd analyzed weeks before on the topographic map while using Google Earth to find locations of aspen groves not viewable from roads below. Unlike the north of Conway Summit and Mt. Wood groves, these trees were now just peaking with a mix of colors including some nice reddish orange hues. And the scene was not just leaves as the receeding row structure of trees included areas of white trunks providing detail and separation. I just needed a single EV14.8 1/30 second F28 aperture to capture this optimally.


By noon clouds suddenly vanished replaced by wind. Within an hour while I was heading back down through the deep center of the grove, leaves were rapidly leaving myriad tree tops and floating down to understories.


A good deal of shallow unmelted snows still remained now covered densely by leaves. Below red leaf aspen I searched for leaves on snow and found these Halloween candy corn colors of uncommon orange & red aspen leaves with more common yellow atop the 3-day old snow.


   David Senesac

   email: info@davidsenesac.com

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