Ice, Snow, and Falls of Fire

“Nature is best enjoyed with thousands of strangers, long lines, and lots of rules.”No one ever

Here’s the thing, I love national parks, but like many outdoor enthusiasts I find myself rather conflicted about visiting them. On the one hand, they encompass some of our nation’s most iconic and beautiful landscapes, but on the other, they’re usually packed with the worst sorts of tourists, too busy flocking to cheesy gift shops, using selfie sticks, or complaining that there’s no cell signal to enjoy the beauty around them. That’s why I choose to visit our nation’s great parks during the off-season when lines are short and, for the most part, I have the place to myself. On occasion though, exceptions must be made, and Yosemite’s Fire Fall is one such exception.

For those who aren’t familiar with it, the Fire Fall happens once a year for about two weeks in February. During this brief time, the sunset aligns perfectly to illuminate Horsetail Falls in just the right way to appear as if it were on fire, a torrent of magma cascading over the sheer edge of a canyon wall. I had seen photos of this phenomenon before, and I had always known I would eventually need to experience it for myself. It was filed away under “someday” in the back of my mind, but when fellow photographer Pete Pham shot me an invite just a week before the fall commenced, I began to wonder if it was time to make someday today.

“It’s going to be freezing cold,” the text read, “probably with record snows. We may not see anything through the storms. Heck, we might not even make it into the park at all if they close the roads.” At the time I was camped out in southern Arizona, and I glanced out the window of my Airstream at the sunny desert. Did I really want to leave this warmth and drive two days north for a bleak chance of seeing anything? I mulled it over for a minute, then googled Yosemite in snow. The photos told me everything I needed to know, and I typed my response. “Screw it; I’m in. See you in a few days.” I hooked the Airstream to my Excursion, set the GPS, and turned my land train toward the park.

As predicted, while I was heading north, a massive winter storm was heading south. It dumped record snows on the park, closing roads, burying campgrounds, and stranding tourists. As we approached the outskirts of Yosemite, we began to see more and more vehicles in ditches. The rangers on duty were checking for winter tires, chains, and four-wheel drive, and if their looks didn’t tell you they were fed up with the cold, their tone sure did. Unfortunately for them, the snow wasn’t showing any signs of relenting. Enormous flakes drifted slowly down to earth, covering everything in a thick white blanket that seemed to make the park even more beautiful than I could have hoped for. The storm scared off most of the tourists so that we could enjoy this winter wonderland in relative peace.

There were two tiny drawbacks to all this fresh powder though. First, we wouldn’t see the Fire Fall on day one, and second, nearly every campground was buried or damaged. In fact, only Camp 4, the climber’s hangout made famous by folks like Yvon Chouinard and John Long remained open. This isn’t a bad place to be by any measure, but it is a tent-only camp, and I hadn’t brought a tent. Not that it would have mattered, because I didn’t fancy digging out a hole in a snow bank when I had a perfectly warm truck to crash in. We decided instead to move on to a quiet parking lot and tuck our trucks in between a few other “empty” cars for the night. I had been told a nearby spot was okay to sleep in, but I had my doubts. Apparently, others did too, because as we approached the lot, I could see the faint glow of headlamps flittering in windshields as people hid them under sleeping bags and pillows for our arrival. With the weather deteriorating and drowsiness setting in, the location’s questionable legality would have to do, so we shut down the trucks, crawled into our bags, and drifted off to sleep watching the snow slowly cover the windows.

We were up before dawn and greeted by clear skies and crisp air. Fortune was in our favor, as it looked like we might see the fire fall after all. I rolled over in my sleeping bag to check the thermostat, which read 24 degrees. That was warmer than I had expected, but plenty cold for the Excursion’s 7.3L diesel to complain, so I cycled the ignition several times to let the glow plugs do their job before firing it up. The engine grudgingly rattled to life, and then settled into a low happy idle. I cranked the Espar heater to 65 degrees to fill the cab with warm air and then crawled into the front seat. We had a lot of photos to shoot, and our first stop was just up the road along the icy banks of the Merced River. I waited for the motor to hit operating temperature, and then looked over to Pete across the parking lot—a thumbs-up, and we were ready to roll.

Say what you want about visiting national parks, but there is no denying that they are beautiful. As the sun crested over the mountains, and a faint glow began to cover the valley, I found myself entranced by the smallest details around me: the crunch of snow beneath our feet, the babbling of water over rocks, and the distant thunder of ice breaking away from mountain peaks. We set up shop right along the bank of the river and put some snow in the Jet Boil. I snapped a photo here and there as the light shifted, but when the coffee was ready, I found myself setting the camera aside to savor this rare and wonderful moment. It’s not often that we can escape the constant bombardment of electronics, advertising, and media that we’ve come to accept as life, and I wasn’t about to waste the opportunity. We sat there drinking our sweet caffeinated nectar until our stomachs began to rumble with hunger, and we retreated to cook egg burritos at the trucks. Well, Pete cooked egg burritos; I drank more coffee.

Mid-day brought new friends and new plans. With the storm subsiding, the forecast for Fire Fall was looking good, and people were starting to pour into the park. We rendezvoused back at Camp 4 with our new crew and began to plot out a course for a shooting location. We weren’t sure exactly where we were going, but we had no intention of packing ourselves into the small viewing area with hundreds of other tourists. Instead, we would snowshoe and ski our way up into the hills in an attempt to capture the spectacle from a different angle. That seemed simple enough, and for the first half of the day it was, but evening brought new challenges and some unexpected twists.

You know that friend who insists they know the perfect camp spot but ends up getting you lost for hours without finding it? Well, imagine you’re following that friend on snowshoes, and if you don’t find this perfect place before sundown, you’ll have to wait another whole year to try again. Then as a bonus, you’re on top of a boulder field buried just deep enough to conceal crevasses, but not deep enough to prevent you from falling into them. That was pretty much our situation just an hour before the Fire Fall commenced. I’m exaggerating a little, and our fearless leader actually had a pretty good idea of where he was going, but the rest of us were worried. Every few steps, the ground would suddenly give way beneath our feet, revealing a hole that would consume us to our calves, thighs, or even waists. It was slow going, and our ankles were taking a beating as our snowshoes dropped into holes and twisted. Eventually, we reached the top of a lookout, and our friend was spared from a merciless array of harsh words.

As it turned out, we wouldn’t capture the fall itself that night, but the angle gave us an ideal vantage to witness the flow of snow and ice over the cliff. Sure, we’d have to stumble our way back through the maze of rocks in the dark, but that was a problem for future Us. Current Us just wanted to sit back and enjoy the show, and what a show it was. The sun burst through the ice crystals in a vibrant display of color, which deepened further from orange into red as the evening faded to night.

As we had expected, the walk back was a terror. Those of us with snowshoes made our way through the boulder field while rolling ankles on rocks and dropping through crevasses. Things were even worse for Pete, who couldn’t wear hi skis in the tight terrain. With headlamps on we carefully advanced bit by bit back towards the trucks, and eventually arrived in desperate need of hot drinks and warm sleeping bags.

The next day brought even warmer temperatures and more blue skies, but the previous night’s escapades had done a number on my already bad ankle. Our plan had been to ascend the opposite side of the valley for a long shot to the falls, but I was in no shape to make the trek. We decided instead to do something even riskier—hang with the tourists.

Nobody wants to be surrounded by strangers, so we figured if we were going to see hundreds of people, we might as well make friends with them, and there’s no quicker way to do so than with free food or beer. With that in mind, we loaded up our packs with both, strapped on our skis and snowshoes, and headed out into the valley.

Fortunately, it didn’t take us long to reach our destination. The path was straight and easy, so we arrived with plenty of time to stake out a good spot for the fall, albeit amidst countless other photographers. We cracked open a beer and passed some around to our new tourist friends. They hailed from every corner of the globe: Australia, China, Korea, and England were just a few of the countries we heard listed off in those hours of waiting. There were folks living full time on the road, others who had flown in just for this event, and a few who made the pilgrimage to Yosemite every year. It was inspiring really, that something as simple as light through water could bring people from so many different cultures and backgrounds together in mutual admiration. The Fire Fall transcended language, beliefs, political views, and so many other things that are often seen as insurmountable differences. As the sun set, and the Fire Fall began, it seemed more vivid and beautiful than imagined. This shot amidst the tourists, rangers, and regulations may not have been the angle we were hoping for, but it was certainly the perspective we needed, and possibly the one we were meant to find.

Born and raised in Dallas, Texas, Chris didn’t receive a real taste of the outdoors until moving to Prescott, Arizona, in 2009. While working on his business degree, he learned to fly and spent his weekends exploring the Arizona desert and high country. It was there that he fell in love with backcountry travel and four-wheel drive vehicles, eventually leading him to Overland Journal and Expedition Portal. After several years of honing his skills in writing, photography, and off-road driving, Chris now works for the company full time as Expedition Portal's Senior Editor while living full-time on the road.