Everybody I know who loves to hike in Desolation Wilderness comes to have an up-close personal relationship experience with the awesome natural surroundings of the wilderness. In other words, they come to immerse themselves in the presence of the mountains, the bare granite expanses, the streams, the lakes, and the beautiful flora found everywhere.
Most of the time, however, hikers give little attention or thought to the sky because on too many previous hikes, it has been an empty blue backdrop devoid of anything to attract their attention. Seemingly, the only contribution the empty sky brings to the otherwise awesome scene around the hiker is its blue reflection off the surface of lakes and streams. In fact, though, the sky is a colossal venue waiting for the action to begin. Send in the clouds!
When clouds are present, the sky is in a position to compete strongly for your attention. If all of the natural mountain features: the granite, the streams, the lakes, and the flora, were competing for my attention, a sky with impressive cloud formations would clearly be above the rest. The full wilderness portrait is incomplete without clouds. The presence of clouds brings the wilderness experience to life. I personally like the puffy cumulous clouds, but the other types offer aesthetic enrichment also. Without getting into the science of weather and cloud cover in terms such as partly cloudy, partly sunny, overcast, and the use of fractions to report cloud coverage, I will discuss how the presence of clouds contribute so much to the total experience of the wilderness.
Besides looking visually appealing, clouds affect people personally in ways that bring added enjoyment and pleasure to the already promising experience they will receive from hiking in Desolation Wilderness. Clouds produce positive moods and emotions like delight, happiness, and joy, along with drama, and perhaps some potential thrilling moments. Over the years, I have had the good fortune of being entertained by the joyful play of passing clouds from the great fluffy ever building cumulous to the rapidly approaching storm clouds which on occasion have released their moisture on me.
Certain clouds can bring concern and foreboding if the clouds take on storm like qualities that portends the arrival of thunder, lightning, and dangerous winds for which caution must be observed. It is a visual treat to witness the vertical development of massive storm clouds – far away in the distance though — not too close.
Once, two friends and I were hunted down by some low dark storm clouds. Surprisingly, they seemed to make an unexpected yet intentional turn in our direction as they came up over the crest and toward us. When the clouds caught up with us, we were peppered with an unrelenting downpour of hail sufficient enough to leave a temporary white presence on the granite around us! Afterwards, as a result of my friends sensible urging,
my alleged claim of golf-ball sized hail was downgraded to what we all could agree was pea-sized graupel. At the time, it seemed more menacing and a little painful when the wind driven pellets hit our cheeks and the exposed backs of our hands.
Clouds invite the lakes and ponds to mirror the heavens above enabling scenes of artistic cloud reflections in the water that would not be
there without clouds. Clouds offer the viewer a new dynamic for appreciation: motion on an impressive scale. Movement across the sky, sometimes rapid and at other times turtle slow, can be hypnotic. Below, again the lakes and ponds contribute to the visual action as they carry cloud movement images across
Clouds continue to shape this artistic wilderness masterpiece into existence by seamlessly joining together the foreground scene with the sky scene above to become a personal moving wilderness experience for hikers. During these moments, they will likely see clouds shapeshifting,
building, stretching, towering, and diminishing over time and in size across the fullness of the sky.
In this spectacle, the opportunities to capture outstanding photographic results are never-ending as the cloud show is ever-changing. Not only is viewing pleasure enriched but also digital photographs gain an extra brilliance and significance with clouds as part of the total wilderness
portrait. Looking closely, shapes can sometimes be detected within the clouds reminding you of animals and other things from life away from the wilderness. I have made some interesting discoveries in my cloud photos but not always in the moment. They seemed to reveal themselves at home where I had the luxury of time in examining my digital photos on my computer. My advice: shoot as many digital shots as you can during the cloud show while not allowing this focused attention to intrude on your otherwise sweeping view of enjoyment. There is always time later for a longer look.
Clouds not only add artistic drama and beauty to the mountain-sky scene, they provide a new and distinct dimension of vastness to both. The seeming depth of the cloud sky receding into the distance appears to pull the foreground along with it making the far distance appear endless. The impression of elevation is affected too by both the granite mountains and cloud mountains; the former reaching for the sky, the latter already high in the sky and climbing higher. The perceived visual hugeness of the granite landscape with its mountains and a cloud laden blue sky on top of it cannot be over stated. While the sun releases a multitude of colors from the landscape, clouds can block out the sunlight causing a grayness to the granite lying in their shadows contrasting beautifully with adjacent sunlit areas appearing across the mountain landscape. The brightness of the landscape can be dimed by clouds blocking the sun light to create shadows and even filling the sky completely to create overcast conditions. If the blue sky becomes totally overcast, it becomes, for some people, an unappealing dull steely gray cast in the sky and across the landscape; almost changing your view from color to black and white. But even here opportunities exist for some fine photography from the contrasting dark and light mix
Clouds distribute color. Clouds invite the sun to paint the sky in a display of many colors especially at the times of sunrise or sunset.
Regarding color, let’s not overlook rainbows. Clouds are at the top of the chain of events necessary to produce a rainbow. One of the most impressive experiences I have had with clouds occurred on the day when there were countless individual cumulus clouds building from the southwest and continuing to grow as they passed over the Crystal Range. They were all across the sky: Separate puffs of clouds not joining but expanding in their own space; overhead above me, beside me, and all around me rather than just on the horizon. And they continued to combine and grow in size as they proceeded to the east. I was very much in awe.
Just to conclude, let me mention preparations to take prior to hiking in a mountain environment where clouds are present. Depending on the regional weather patterns on any given day, the sky can remain empty all day long for days on end; however, empty sky mornings can be followed by clouds being introduced in the afternoon – sometimes with the threat of thunder and lightning. The Sierra Nevada is famous for its sneaky afternoon thunderstorms that seem to come from nowhere. So caution is advisable. The ethic of ‘Leave No Trace (NLT)’ counsels ‘Plan Ahead and Prepare’ as the first of its seven tenets of wilderness conduct. Always check the weather forecasts for the area in which you will be hiking over the period of time you will be there. The website I like is NOAA https://www.weather.gov/ with the Spot Forecast Map feature and Hourly
Weatherly Forecast info graph. Go to the website and work your way down to the spot location you want, e.g. the location of Island Lake, move your mouse to it, and click on it. To get more specific cloud info, go to the Hourly Weather Forecast chart. One of the graphics shows the amount of predicted cloud cover for your hike. To learn more about clouds and weather in general, ask your favorite search engine to connect you.
Hopefully during your next hike into Desolation Wilderness you can devote some time to having “your head in the clouds” — enjoyably and safely.