Surrounded by towering granite walls that seem so permanent, Yosemite Valley is America’s poster-park for enduring beauty. But in the grand geological scheme, there’s nothing permanent about Yosemite. In my lifetime Yosemite has been visibly altered by drought, flood, and rockslides (not to mention human interference). Predating my arrival, Yosemite’s Anglo conquerors had a profound affect on the flora and fauna that prevailed in its prior centuries under Native care. And predating all human contact, glaciers performed their carve-and-polish magic on Yosemite’s granite.
But Yosemite’s history of change goes back much farther than that. Though it’s just a drop in the 4 1/2 billion-year bucket of Earth’s existence, let’s flip the calendar back to 100 million years before the glaciers scoured the area we call Yosemite, when layers of sediment deposited beneath a vast sea had been injected with magma that cooled to become granite. This subterranean granite was gradually uplifted by a slow-motion collision of tectonic plates that formed the mountains we call the Sierra Nevada. (Yes, I know this is a gross simplification of a very complex process.)
That’s a time-lapse I’d pay money to see, but lacking an actual 100-million-year time-lapse, I think Yosemite’s clouds make a wonderful metaphor for the park’s constant change. In fact, Yosemite storms are subject to the same the laws of nature that build and erode mountains. Each is the environment’s response to heat, moisture, pressure, and gravity—albeit on a different clock. Different in many ways, there’s also an interconnectedness to these natural processes: Just as the mountains have a profound affect on weather patterns, the weather is the prime force in the mountains’ erosion.
A month ago I got to watch the special choreography of Yosemite’s clouds and granite. Drawn by the promise of snow, I arrived as the storm built during daylight’s last couple of hours. Continuing to build under the cover of darkness, the storm was in full force by the morning’s first light. I woke to find snow covering every exposed surface, while overhead the mesmerizing dance of form and flow played out atop unseen air currents.
My first stop that morning was El Capitan Meadow. In summer, gawkers tailgate here to watch climbers monkey their way to the top of El Capitan. On this frigid morning El Capitan’s summit was a memory beneath a gray shroud, so I turned my camera to earthbound subjects within the small radius of my vision. In intense storms like this, ephemeral glimpses of Yosemite’s icons are a coveted reward that keeps experienced Yosemite photographers glancing skyward. Ever the optimist, despite a seemingly impenetrable low ceiling, I directed frequent glances in El Capitan’s direction as I worked.
The first suggestion of El Cap’s outline above the trees looked more like the faintest hint of a shadow in the clouds. I recognized what could be about to happen and quickly made my way to a better vantage point, watching until the shadow darkened and vague granitic detail appeared. Anticipating further clearing, I worked fast to beat the monolith’s inevitable reabsorption, switching lenses and framing a wide shot. To minimize tree-tilting perspective distortion, I raced across the road to increase my distance from the forest, raising my vantage point by scaling a snow mound piled atop a low fence by snowplows. With a breeze blowing the trees, I’d been shooting all morning at ISO 800, and the morning’s flat and constant light meant was no need to adjust my exposure. When the clouds parted just enough to frame El Capitan’s nose, I focused on the nearby trees and clicked several frames before the hole snapped shut.
An image like this is as much an opportunity to capture Yosemite’s snowy splendor as it is a revelation of something special about El Capitan. And that morning, my only thoughts about the clouds were wishes they’d disappear to show more granite. But as I started working on this image at home, I couldn’t help think about how clouds often provide the change Yosemite photographers seek in this (seemingly) unchanging place. That got me thinking about the nearby scar from last August’s tragic rockslide. On a clear day from the right vantage point, the scar is clearly visible on El Capitan’s east flank. another reminder that the only thing in Yosemite that’s permanent is change.