Thursday, January 24, 2013

Work in the Mountains

Not everyone goes to the mountains just for fun.  Of course, I work in the mountains all the time.  While guiding, I'm on the clock, but having fun.  In my case, however, someone else is indeed there for fun.  That makes the ultimate goal of the trip, even if I am working, some sort of recreation.  Many folks go the mountains and have fun (or not), but the primary mission is something other than recreation.  

Alex relieved to be in the sun.  Rush Creek, June Lake, CA. 
Mountain environments provide relief.  Geographic relief, that is.  That relief influences weather and wildlife habitat.  Weather and wildlife habitat are unique in mountains.  Among those that keep track of unique wildlife there will be some that keep track of mountain wildlife.  My lady, Alex, is one such biologist.  She keeps tabs on the elusive and endangered Sierra Nevada Bighorn Sheep.  On most days that means crunching numbers and looking at a compilation of data points gathered remotely from collared sheep.

Sometimes, however, it is necessary to go out and see some sheep.  Notably, when a radio collar indicates that the sheep has been stationary for too long, the alarm is sounded.  This could mean the sheep is dead.  In that case, getting there before the coyotes and ravens do their scavenging could yield additional data on the health of this particular sheep and the herd as a whole.  

Alex isn't the only one to work in the mountains.  Historic Rush Creek
hydroelectric infrastructure.  
Relief in mountain environments drives an orographic effect in the weather.  It also drives significant gravitational forces.  Orographic precipitation falling on high mountain environments eventually runs off those landscapes.  When that water tumbles down the slope, it does so with a great deal of energy.  Humans have learned to tap into this inherent and ever-renewable energy in running water.  Since 1917 Edison has been making electricity along Rush Creek.  While the Rush Creek Powerhouse is located right among homes and roads in the lower canyon zone of June Lake, the aquaducts and dams that feed the turbines are up the mountain, inaccessible to traditional wheeled travel.  A historic cable tramway still moves supplies up and down in the summer months.  Avalanche hazard and deep snow block tram operations in the winter.  Major infrastructure, all winter long, exists and functions in an inaccessible winter wilderness.  

In order to monitor the equipment and water available for hydroelectric production, Edison employs a savvy crew to patrol the high country.  This group performs snow surveys to measure available water and forecast runoff rates as well as checks on the function of their expensive equipment.  Just more folks working in the winter wilderness.  

Two hours into the day, and still in the midst
of significant human presence. 
Hydroelectric interests are not the only folks concerned with snow amounts in the high country.  The entire state of California depends on Sierra snowmelt.  Residents, industry and agriculture all rely on the water that orographic snowfall melts into.  As a result, the State keeps a crack team of snow surveyors on call to monitor a number of standardized "snow courses" in remote and high corners of the range.  This team, a ragtag group of lifestyle "dirtbags" holding onto their sought-after positions despite abysmal pay and a dangerous work environment, patrol the High Sierra measuring snow on the ground over the bulk of the winter months.  They get paid to ski 10 days a month and have access to the only real network of high-country, fully-stocked huts in the state.  Not a bad gig.  And just another example of folks working in the mountains.  
Alex listening for aliens.  Or being the alien, investigating the natives.  

Last week I joined Alex for one of the above-mentioned sheep missions. Radio signals from a sheep on Mount Wood indicated abnormalities in the sheep's behavior.  Abnormalities in the behavior of Alex and I reveal a tendency to take on big days in the mountains.  What's better than a big day with a mission?  Where at least one of us can stay "on the clock"?  Let's do it.  

Sheepy terrain.  Alex terrain. They like this kind of thing?  Weird critters.  
We didn't find the sheep.  That's the bad news.  The good news is that we were able to conclude that the sheep is still alive.  Mission accomplished.  We did much of the work on the way up through Rush and Alger Creeks and up the backside of Mt. Wood.  We left the frontside "untracked" and unvisited until the end.  Not that tracks made any lick of difference.  Firm conditions barely allowed an edge, much less a track.  But we did see new terrain the entire day and get ourselves in position to gather excellent radio information from the sheep in question.  

Down the front was not exactly "work" but it wasn't the normal definition of fun, that's for sure.  Fast, firm windboard swept us down and down to the shores of Silver Lake.  

"Man, this work sucks.  I hate my job"

"This cubicle is so confining"

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