Roadside ice and rock climbing from the Sierra’s high passes makes for a memorable start to winter
By Nick Miley

Ice skating on Lake Tenaya. Photo by Nick Miley

n many ways this winter in California has been completely out of the norm. It’s not like we had a six-week dry spell at the beginning of last winter. Oh wait, yeah we did. The difference: it was preceded by a few hundred inches of snow and followed by many more.

This year, well, it was preceded by bare ground. It was crazy to see the mountains ringing Lake Tahoe almost completely barren into the middle of January, save for some strips of manmade snow at the ailing resorts.
Despite the complaints of many, the acute absence of precip allowed for some very unique opportunities on the high passes of the Sierra. It was the latest ever closing dates for Tioga and Sonora passes.

Scraping 10,000 feet, Tioga Road (Hwy 120) through Yosemite is the highest pass (9,945 feet to be exact) in California. Sonora Pass (Hwy 108), topping out at 9,624 feet, is a close second. Usually these trans-Sierra routes are shut down as soon as the snow starts to fly in October or November. This year, Tioga didn’t close until January 17!

According to the National Park Service, which has maintained the Tioga Road since its completion in the summer of 1961, the previous record for the latest closure of the pass was January 1, 2000. The average date is November 1st.

While moisture was absent, winter did show up with some cold temps, at least at night if not through the day. Through much of the two-month dry spell, the weather remained consistently sunny and cold. As a result, there was plenty of exposed ice to climb on northern aspects of rock faces. Conversely, daytime highs provided south facing cliffs with some stellar rock climbing conditions.

Hearing of such strange happenings from other climbers drew this skier out of a powder-deprived stupor and motivated me to go have a look. Over three weekends in the beginning of the calendar winter I explored these passes — well known to me in summer — in a whole new hue.

Despite all of the great climbing, the true draw of the high passes is the tremendous alpine beauty accessible from the comfort of a car. Anyone who has driven over Tioga Pass will recall the perfect placement of Tenaya Lake. Ever matching the mood of its mountainous frame, Tenaya (8,150 feet) is the reflecting pool of Yosemite’s grand high country. No doubt the road along its northern shore has provided many a view of this gem who would have otherwise not made the journey, especially in winter.

Although it’s not unusual for Tenaya Lake to freeze, it is quite rare to be able to drive up to it in all its snow-free, glassy glory. On one trip over the pass some friends and I made our way out onto the thick, bubble infused, transparent ice. Sans skates we walked flat-footed to the center and took in the incredible view from a unique vantage point.

More than just providing access to frozen lakes, the open passes allowed the uncommon opportunity to approach the ice flows that formed up on the domes and cliffs bordering these roads. Websites featured tantalizing photos of climbers swinging their picks on blue, vertical ice.

At the end of December, I had the pleasure to climb a 110-meter flow on Drug Dome in Tuolumne Meadows. As we wrapped up the ice route we were dumb struck by the absurd notion that we should have brought the rock gear as well. The wind lay calm and the slanting sun beat down on the surrounding domes. Ice was not the only climbing medium in good condition. The juxtaposition of quality ice climbing on one aspect and comfortable rock climbing on another was bizarre, another seeming absurdity befitting the “Only in California!” cliché.

Ice climbers on Drug Dome, Tuolumne Meadows. Photo by Nick Miley

This peculiar reality factored into the plans for following weekends. On my final trip before the storm that ended our summery winter, a friend and I ventured to the top of Sonora Pass for some alpine cragging on a newly developed cliff. Although we packed down jackets, we were surprised to find that T-shirts were just fine. In fact, on the crag’s pumpy leads they became soaked with perspiration. On the following day we headed down to Yosemite Valley where the T’s were shed and we climbed in perfect fall-like conditions without another climber in sight — a phenomenon at least as rare as the weather!

For many of you, the quality climbing — or hiking or mountain biking or ice skating — was no substitute for sliding on snow. However, this unique opportunity to venture into a snow-free high country in winter was one worth taking advantage of, one that will provide memories long after the snow flies.
I’ll admit, I still prefer snow to ice or rock in January. But rather than pout, it’s infinitely better to adapt your outlook and outdoor activities to what mother nature has to offer. Therein, new discoveries and adventures lie.

Nick Miley is a freelance writer living in South Lake Tahoe. He spends his free time exploring the Sierra, learning its history and writing about his experiences. You can contact him at Read more at his blog: