Sometimes a few minutes is the difference between a 3 hour drive home or a 9-12 hour trek around an entire mountain range. This October night in 2016, I pushed it right to the edge.
Yosemite’s Tioga Pass Road, peaking at 9945 feet elevation, provides access to the stunning Eastern Sierra, but can close suddenly during storms. The Yosemite photographers call this gamble “East Side Roulette”, and it’s a game of “will the storm close the pass before I make it home.”
After an exceedingly windy day exploring aspens with my family, the approaching clouds said it was time to go. I swear I heard the drums from the Braveheart soundtrack driving me to hit the road. If we didn’t stop to eat, it would be three long hours before the next food services. My wife wanted to stop and eat at The Mobile Station, but I convinced her to just get our food to go, the urgency of the storm in my head. I munched down my pizza while driving up the steep drop-offs of Tioga Pass to quickly worsening conditions.
As we reached the top of the pass, the snow was already starting to fall, as you can see in the zoomed in crop. I stopped to make one last picture as the light faded, as I knew some big life changes were coming soon, and I wanted to mark this personally meaningful day at one of my favorite places.
We resumed the drive, and snow started to cover the road, with no lines and only one fading set of tire tracks to follow, and no car lights behind us. I know the road very well, but it was still dicey. The knowledge that we would drop below the snow soon pushed me forward, and I was watching each landmark to measure how far we were from that safe haven. At this point, it was better to continue than go back. And soon we were below the snow, on dark, wet, rainy winter Yosemite roads. On our drive across the pass, we saw no one in front of us or behind us, even after stopping for a few comfort breaks. A few cars passed going the opposite direction, but then all traffic died. We had the road to ourself.
About an hour later, Flashing Ranger lights greeted us at the Crane Flat gate. We weren’t in trouble. It was just a Ranger closing the road. Eastbound traffic had been closed for some time as evidenced by the lack of cars passing us. And the west bound lane was only open for people to exit the Tioga Road. As my wife looked back, she saw the Ranger close the gate behind us. We were the last car across the pass.
Sometimes a storm only closes “The Pass” for a few days, but this was not the case in 2016. Once it started snowing that night, it never stopped. The second biggest winter in recorded history was upon the Sierra, that led to over 700 inches of snow in some locations.
I knew something epic was in the making that night, and the experience of being last car across that night is pretty cool. It was certainly memorable, and yes, I heard those Scottish drums from Braveheart driving me on the whole way.
2016-10-15 17:11:27.088, give or take an hour for DST
Nikon D810, Sigma Art 35mm f1.4, 1/30 sec f/4.0 ISO 800