Thursday, July 29, 2010

Desolation Wilderness, Day 4

Day Four: Clyde Lake to Echo Lakes, or Carl Sexton Please Phone Home (9 miles)

By the fourth day, our routines were well-established and our duties were clearly determined. At the first hint of morning light, it was my duty to get up, recover the food bags, and get the coffee going. While clothed in the garb of public service, this early morning ritual was actually performed to relieve the pain from lying too long on hard ground and to slake the needs of a true caffeine addict. While my fellow MountainGuys were keenly aware of the self-serving nature of this morning ritual, they were nonetheless appreciative.

Despite planning a trip to one of the most heavily traveled backpacking spots in Northern California, there were very few people in the backcountry. Clyde Lake was no exception. We had the entire lake to ourselves, and at no time during the trip had other people intruded on the privacy of our camps. However, while waiting for the second pot of coffee to percolate, a small plane flew in low over the Crystal Range, circled Clyde Lake, and then flew off. Ten minutes later, while we were impatiently watching the hot cereal water come to a boil, the same plane flew back over the lake. This time, though, the pilot was taking no chances that the four of us were unaware of his presence. As the plane was directly overhead, a voice boomed out “Carl Sexton, this is Search and Rescue, please move out into the open.” This message was repeated several times. Perhaps sensing that our lack of responsiveness indicated that none of us was Carl Sexton, the pilot flew off again.

Carl Sexton must be an elusive character, because he did not answer this hail as it was broadcast down the Rockbound Valley. But Search and Rescue is nothing if not persistent, and perhaps concluding that their lack of initial success was due to Carl Sexton’s fear of airplanes, they sent a helicopter over Clyde Lake to broadcast the same message: “Carl Sexton, this is Search and Rescue, please move out into the open.” Still nothing.

By this time, Search and Rescue was getting a bit desperate, so they decided to change tactics, first broadcasting, “Carl Sexton, please phone home”, and finally “come out, come out wherever you are.” Carl never responded, and for good reason: Search and Rescue had been misinformed about Carl’s whereabouts by the jilted and somewhat petulant girlfriend. Carl Sexton was not lost in Desolation Valley, but was at home in “Destination Valley”, a housing development in Southern California. They found him two days later drinking coffee and eating hot cereal on his back porch after calling his mom.

The day looked to be a long one, and despite the distractions posed by Carl Sexton, we were on the trail by no later than 9:00. It’s amazing. The hike from Clyde Lake to the top of Mosquito Pass was much shorter than we had anticipated; within half an hour we were at the crest of the pass. The trail quickly descended down from the pass into the Aloha Basin, where it traversed along the northern shore of Lake Aloha. From on high, we could clearly see that there was no land bridge across Lake Aloha. Whose idea was that anyway?

The plan was to luncheon at the southern end of Lake Aloha, before starting the long trail out of the Wilderness Area and past the Echo Lakes. It was a good plan, but for the lack of water in much of the lake. As we rapidly proceeded down the trail, our highly trained backcountry senses discerned a distinct dryness to the lake bed. With a long hike ahead and no easily available water until the spillway at the far end of Lower Echo Lake, we were forced to regroup, rethink, and then double back to find the elusive waters of Lake Aloha.

As luck would have it, by charting a course back up the dry lake bed we were able to find a fine lunch spot on a large rock outcropping, perched over a deep and clear pool. On a hotter day this would have been a fine swimming and diving spot, but the prospect of having to repackage shredded feet, along with the cool breeze, was enough to dissuade us from swimming. However, a makeshift boat, in the form of a weathered chunk of wood tossed into the pool, made a fine target for rock-throwing MountainGuys standing on the bluff above. In other contexts, tossing rocks at a stick floating in the water would be no more than good fun. In the wilderness, with danger all around, rock tossing is an essential survival skill, a skill to be honed as a way to ward off dangerous animals or to hunt for supper. But sometimes it’s just better not to tip your hand: no animals—neither dangerous nor dinner—were likely to lose any sleep as a result of this particular display of rock-throwing prowess.

From the luncheon spot, the trail was just over 5 miles back to the car. This distance was quickly traversed, and by 3:00 we had shed our packs, changed our clothes, packed the car, and set out on the long drive home. The perfect weather featured on the trip gave way to scorching 90-degree temperatures in the Central Valley, but by the time we reached the Ashby BART station in Berkeley, the temperatures were back into the comfortable 70s. It was here that the MountainGuys parted company, another chapter added to the annals of MountainGuy lore, and the planning for the next trip—to the San Juan Mountains in southern Colorado—already well underway.

The End

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Desolation Wilderness Day 3

Day Three: China Flat to Clyde Lake, or Easy Street (4 miles)

Day three once again began with me hopping out of the tent to get the coffee going. This hopping was enhanced by the lack of a sleeping bag, a largely—if not wholly—unsuccessful strategy to reduce pack weight, but one that has yet to be adopted by other members of the group.

With coffee percolating and the water heating for hot cereal, the remaining MountainGuys slowly emerged from their down cocoons. We faced a choice this morning: to continue on the long loop trail that had appeared so seductive from the comfortable confines of our living rooms, or to short-circuit the loop and return to Clyde Lake, just below Mosquito Pass. The long trail offered adventure, a chance to explore new lands and see new sights, and a chance to go over Dick’s Pass, which at 9,200 feet is the highest trail in the Desolation Wilderness. The short circuit offered a day of leisure, a chance to rest weary feet, and the opportunity to set up a modest 9-mile hike on the last day. Adventure had no chance.

With no real press to get on the trail, we spent a relaxing morning cleaning up the camp and getting things ready to go. By 9:45, we were ready to hike, and by 10:15 we were hiking. How do we do it?

The trip to Clyde Lake was only about 4 miles. Most of this hike was a gentle uphill through China Flat along the Rubicon River, although the last half-mile or so was a steep climb up toward the pass. The trail to Clyde Lake intersects the main trail only half a mile below Mosquito Pass, and leads steeply downhill from there. Clyde Lake is a pretty little lake set in a deep bowl below Mt. Price and the ridgeline of the Crystal Range. Most of the shoreline is tumbled rock and steep slopes, although there was one flattish spot on the top of a slight rise on the northern side of the lake, and several spots around the western side that looked promising.

Since this flattish spot was located where the trail meets the lake, our first inclination was to search the western side of the lake for a supreme campsite that would ensure privacy and truly spectacular sleeping accommodations. However, the going was hard and the outcome uncertain, so in spite of our intrepid and adventurous nature, we turned back and took the flattish site that was known to be adequate. In the end, this decision proved a good one, as privacy was not an issue, the site offered good water access for swimming, and once dressed up with tent and tarpage, the site was really quite nice. The tent was set up behind a rock wall that had been thoughtfully provided by previous tenants, while Oliver’s tarpage was carefully developed on the other side of the wall. The wall also enclosed a space large enough for cooking out of the wind—not much of a problem this trip, but by the gnarled look of the trees along the lake’s edge, a problem much of the time. As is his usual practice, Rick found a flat spot to lay out his sleeping bag around the corner from the main camp, so as to enhance his nighttime star-gazing and to isolate himself from the courser qualities of fellow MountainGuys in sleep.

The first order of business after securing the site was to eat lunch. The lunch buffet was set out on a flat rock at the water’s edge, between two rock peninsulas that each offered superb swimming opportunities. Lunch included cheese and salami on tortillas, bagels, or rolls, dried fruit, trail mix, nuts, apple slices, and cookies.

With the sun out, it was very warm sitting out by the buffet. A swim sounded good, so I abandoned the lunch venue, and wandered out to the end of the northern peninsula. However, I had not had my shirt off for more than five seconds before large and malignant cumulus clouds stationed themselves between the sun and me, greatly reducing the appeal of a quick and refreshing dip. I could have walked all the way back up the hill to my backpack to get my towel, but that sounded hard, and it was too cold to swim without it. So I put the idea on hold.

My return to the lunch rock and the endless mountain buffet was immediately rewarded with the re-emergence of the sun, which in turn rekindled the desire for a swim. Yet the clouds had not stopped their fun quite yet, passing across the sun with a frequency that deterred swimming without entirely precluding the possibility. Finally, a large break in the clouds appeared, and Dan, moving with a speed that belied his earlier napping repose, quickly stripped and dove into the cold, clear waters of the small bay between the peninsulas. I rapidly followed suit. Without scientific instruments it would be hard to know, but I’d have to guess that the speed with which I entered the water was no greater than the speed with which I exited. The water was really cold. Dan lingered in the water a bit longer, but even his swim could be measured in seconds rather than minutes. By the time that the clouds returned, we were both dry and comfortably reclothed. Rick waited for the next cloud break, and then he too (briefly) sought out the cold yet spiritually cleansing waters of Clyde Lake.

By this time, Oliver had left the lunch rock and was productively engaged in a new and elaborate tarpage undertaking. But he eventually found his way down to the cold waters after the tarpage was complete, ensuring that all of the MountainGuys would be awarded the Really Little Dipper badge.

Stricken and somewhat pale from his exhausting swim, Dan quickly retired to the tent for a recuperative nap. (Man, that bar is set high.) The rest of us were left to pursue our own quiet afternoon activities. Oliver was now remodeling the kitchen and garage space in his tarpage, while I set out on a brief walk to secure a food-hanging tree and see the lay of the land. Rick spent his time on a rock hunched over his mangled feet, which suffered from blood blisters, regular blisters, bruises, and at least two severed toes. The toes were reattached with moleskin, and each toe on both feet was individually wrapped and cushioned for transport the next day. For this Rick earned the Bloody Stump badge, a badge awarded not for achievement, but for heroic efforts in dealing with mangled body parts while on the trail.

Mountain work is rigorous and requires discipline and order. Safety and comfort are enhanced when shortcuts are not taken, when important activities are not overlooked. Returning to the camp after my short hike, I determined that in the best interests of safety and comfort it was time for afternoon coffee and a snack. It is this kind of attention to detail that sets MountainGuys apart from run-of-the-mill weekend hikers.

Invigorated by strong, fresh coffee, and after debating its merits for quite some time, Oliver and Rick concluded that a game of Precision Mountain Flying Disc was in order. Dan and I joined in, though reluctantly at first. Precision Mountain Flying Disc is a dangerous game played on a field of strewn boulders, steep embankments, small trees, and significant water hazards. One misstep is the difference between catching the disc and tumbling down the mountain and into the lake. The potential for a lost disc is always high, and the possibility of real embarrassment is ever-present. Not content with the inherent challenges of the game, we took turns stationing ourselves on a large boulder, thereby risking a fall of six to eight feet onto a patch of sharp granite rocks before tumbling down the mountain and into the lake. Needless to say (as is true of this entire account), but a game of Precision Mountain Disc has rarely been played at a higher level (8,200 ft).

Dinner on the third night had been a mystery for the duration of the trip. Oliver had planned this meal from afar, and had not shared its content with any of the other MountainGuys. Dinner was Tortilla Soup, served with hot quesadillas. Dessert was a delicious fruit compote, served hot, on the peninsula, from where the MountainGuys could watch the sunset down the Rockbound Valley.

Tortilla Soup
(serves 4)

Heat two tbsp. Olive oil in a 2 qt. pot. Stir in reconstituted dehydrated vegetables, retaining the water. Add tomato paste and two 7 oz. packages of chicken, and fry until lightly browned. Add vegetable water and additional water to make six cups. Add chicken-tortilla soup mix. Cook for 10 to fifteen minutes to let flavors meld. Serve hot and add blue tortilla chips to each serving. Serve with hot cheese quesadillas.

Fruit Compote
(serves 4)

In medium pot melt 1/2 cup butter or margarine. Add two finely sliced Fuji apples, dried apricots (sliced), jumbo raisins, and any other fruit on hand. Fry until warm and the fruit is coated with the butter. Add 1 cup apple-blueberry granola, 1/4 cup brown sugar, and cinnamon and salt to taste. Simmer to heat the granola and melt the sugar. Add dark chocolate and a splash of brandy, if available. (On this trip only scotch and tequila were available, and were deemed by the SpiceGuy to be unsuitably dry for the compote. They were served separately.) Cook only until the sugar crystallizes on the granola, and not until it burns on the bottom of the pot. Serve hot.

By the time the dishes were done, the stars had come out and the moon was peeking over the ridgeline above the Lake. After a long, exhausting day, even the promise of Cuban cigars could not entice us to stay awake. Oliver made a valiant effort to read by candle lantern, which is a sort of romantic notion but tiring in practice, and the effort was quickly abandoned.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Desolation Wilderness, Day 2

Day 2: Lake Aloha Spillway to China Flat, or A [Land] Bridge Too Far (7 miles)

Saturday dawned bright and clear. Anxious to get on the trail, I hopped out of the tent at the crack of 7:00, and with an assist from Oliver, retrieved the food bags so that the coffee could be started. Camp was quickly disassembled, a quick breakfast of hot cereal was prepared, and the packs were quickly repacked. Experienced MountainGuys know how to get underway in a hurry. None of that experience was evident on this morning, however, and by 9:00, maybe 9:15, camp was struck and we were finally underway.

Desolation Valley is so named because of the wretched and tumbled landscape that dominates the valley floor. In spring and early summer, Lake Aloha covers much of the valley, but by early October most of the water has been allowed to flow through the spillway. What is left is scoured granite, a network of small lakes, and granite boulders that have tumbled down from the high mountains surrounding the valley. It is very rugged terrain. From a distance (or on a map with 80 foot contour intervals) it looks quite flat, but steep gullies and broken rock make travel through the valley difficult.

Our original plan was to spend the first night near or just past the Lake Aloha spillway, and then to go off trail around the west side of the lake and pick up the trail at the north end of the valley as it climbs up to Mosquito Pass. However, the ruggedness of the landscape and the uncertainty of the trail led us to reconsider this plan before setting out that morning. A new plan was prepared: we would backtrack to the main trail with the hopes of getting in some miles and making it all the way to Camper Flat (about 6 miles past Mosquito Pass down the Rockbound Valley). This new plan lasted about 200 yards. In the waning sunlight of the previous day, Desolation Valley had looked terribly uninviting; in the warm morning light of a clear October day anything seemed possible. The new plan was jettisoned, the old plan was reinstated, and once again filled with confidence, we set out to find a way around Lake Aloha.

Although the map suggested that the proper course would be to slip around the lake on its west side, from a vantage point high on some rocks above the spillway it appeared that we could save a lot of time by working our way straight up the valley toward a spur of rock that jutted out from the main flank of mountains on the western side of the lake. Early in the season, this “land bridge” leading straight up the valley to the rock spur would have been inundated by spring runoff, and given the unevenness of the terrain, there was still some chance that our path would be blocked by another finger of water from the lake. But the path looked clear, so we set out at a rapid pace, and quickly found ourselves scaling the rock spur.

[Editor’s note: Although it is generally against company policy to report any conversations had by MountainGuys while in each others’ company (so not to offend the young, the fair, the old, the infirm, or anybody else with any shred of decency), it is important to note here that while crossing the land bridge, a quorum of voting members debated and then conferred full MountainGuy status on Dan. This was not an honor he sought, applied for, or in any way encouraged. He had, in fact, successfully avoided it through three previous trips. The honor was granted nonetheless. But this is as it should be: the original MountainGuys were awarded that noble title through an accident of time and geography (Kresge College, 1978-83). So too with Dan: short of running away, there was no way he could dodge the honor being bestowed upon him. Congratulations Dan!]

Our quick and easy success left us feeling smug and quite full of ourselves. Hubris reigned. We could do no wrong. From high atop the rock spur, we gazed down upon the main body of Lake Aloha. With its twisted contours, rock formations, and shallows, there looked to be many ways that the lake could be crossed without the bother of going all the way around. “Ha Ha,” we laughed aloud, “we should be able to scale Mosquito Pass by 10:30, and we’ll be in Camper Flat by noon!” So once again, throwing caution and common sense to the wind, we set out across the rock formations that criss-crossed the Lake to find the marvelous and mythical land bridge that would speed us on our way.

Twenty minutes later, we realized it was not so much ourselves that we were full of, but something much more aromatic. No land bridge had been discovered. All paths were blocked by water too deep to wade. There were but two choices: to swim the packs across, or to return to the rock spur and work around the west side of the lake. The latter course was chosen.

Although conceptually simple, “working around the west side” proved to be rather daunting in practice. The western shore of the lake backed right up to the side of the mountain, which was a steep tumble of jagged boulders. The trip around was probably not more than half a mile, but it easily took an hour to complete as we had to pick our way up and down the boulders along the shore. Oliver quickly outpaced the rest of us, and had set himself up on a fine flat boulder next to a small sandy beach (with time for a swim!) before Dan and I were two-thirds of the way around. Rick, who battled foot problems throughout the trip, was even further back. For his quick work on this treacherous terrain, Oliver was awarded the Scamble-Foot Badge (new this year!).

Upon our own arrival, Dan and I also went for a quick swim in the refreshing, if surprisingly continuous, waters of Lake Aloha. Rick joined us after his long scramble around the side of the lake, at which time we all settled down in the sun for a much-needed lunch break. Lunch included cheese and salami sandwiches, trail mix, dried fruit, and cookies. As in previous years, Dan found a quiet spot (this time in the middle of the lunch rock) and drifted off to sleep, once again demonstrating his lock on the Sleeping Beauty Badge. Thus far, he is the sole recipient of this highly coveted award.

“Lunch Beach” turned out to be only a few hundred feet down the slope from the trail over Mosquito Pass. After packing up, we quickly scaled the pass and headed down the trail through the Rockbound Valley. At this point, the goal was still Camper Flat, about six miles up the trail. After an hour of hiking, Camper Flat didn’t seem so desirable a destination. After two hours, it was right out. The trail down the Rockbound Valley followed the course of the Rubicon River, which was but a series of unconnected ponds so late in the season. Although water did not appear to be in particularly short supply, we quickly realized that the intermittent nature of the stream could be an excellent excuse to stop hiking.

Shortly after passing the trail leading off to Rockbound Pass, the decision was made to stop along the river for a brief rest. I offered to search the far side of the river for suitable campsites, even though the sentiment of the group still seemed to be to go on. Once again, fortune smiled upon us, for just across the river I found an excellent site that offered good access to one of the river ponds, fine deep duff upon which to lay sleeping bags, a good open cooking spot, and privacy from the trail. After a short conference, we decided upon our strategy: we would move our packs to the campsite, rest for half an hour, and only then make final the decision to stop hiking for the day. The site was secured, snacks were set out, and the coffee pot was set to boil. The stove that had been so balky while preparing dinner the previous evening and while heating water for the morning meal was now performing flawlessly, thanks to Rick’s efforts to replace the clogged needle valve. For his efforts, he was rewarded with sooty hands, dirty nails, and most importantly, the MechanicMeister Badge.

The discerning reader will no doubt realize that the MountainGuys, despite their elaborate strategy, were not going anywhere. Once the coffee was started, Oliver began working on his tarpage (a complicated construction involving tent poles, rain fly, ground tarp, and 300 yards of light braided line), the tent was set up, and the food-hanging tree was secured. While finding and securing the food-hanging tree can sometimes be a time-consuming group project, Oliver managed to accomplish the task quickly and efficiently when left to himself. For his solo work in setting up the food-hanging tree two nights in a row, he was awarded the highly desirable Well Hung Badge. Dan moseyed off to the tent for yet another nap, setting the napping bar so high that the rest of us could only despair of ever earning a Sleeping Beauty. Instead, we turned our attention to Mountain Frisbee, a highly entertaining game that involved short bursts of speed, diving catches, and a lot of forest pruning.

Dinner that night comprised an hors d’oeuvre course of sardines on herb crackers, a main course of Mountain Jambalaya, and dessert of orange chocolate and Belgian chocolate chunk cookies. Once again, I prepared the dinner with a seasoning assist from Dan, whose manipulation of the two-year-old spices has the stuff of legend written all over it.

Mountain Jambalaya 

(serves 4)

Heat two tbsp olive oil in 2 qt. pot. Add medium onion (diced) and 1/2 cup diced salami, and fry until brown. Add one package of hot & sweet tuna and brown lightly. Add 1 beef and 1 chicken bullion cube and stir into the hot oil and meat. Add one cup of reconstituted freeze-dried vegetables along with the liquid, and season with oregano, salt and pepper, thyme, and hot peppers to taste. Add 4 cups of water and cook till flavors meld (2 to 20 minutes, depending on hunger level). Add one box (4 cups) instant rice, and simmer and steam until done. Scotch for the cook and tequila for the spice master greatly improves this meal.

Dinner was finished and the dishes were done just as the moon was rising and the stars were beginning to shine. With no fires allowed in the Desolation Wilderness, bedtime came early, and we all retired by 9:00. In the middle of the night, coyotes could be heard howling somewhere up the valley, but otherwise all was quiet.

Friday, July 9, 2010

MountainGuy News©
Volume 4, Number 1, Four Times as Much as One Needs to Know
The Desolation Wilderness Adventure
October 2003

The Desolation Wilderness lies just north of US Highway 50, and just west of Lake Tahoe in California’s central Sierra Nevada mountains. The Desolation Wilderness is home to dozens of lakes, high granite peaks, and lush, forested valleys. The Crystal range defines the western side of the wilderness, while the eastern side is defined by the high peaks that overlook the southwestern shore of Lake Tahoe. It is rugged and dangerous terrain, terrain that is challenged by only a few thousand people each and every year. It is this spirit of adventure that makes being a MountainGuy such a compelling one-weekend-a-year kind of experience. Many have tried on the mantle of MountainGuy, many have sought to earn the badges, but only the very few keep returning, against all odds, to face near certain hardship and intestinal gasses.

Four members of the group were able to attend this year: Rick, Oliver, Dan, and me. Several of the other MountainGuys, forewarned of the impending trip, quickly found other things to do or claimed mysterious ailments that prevented their participation. And several invitations to join the group went unanswered, aside from some nasty phone messages with rude references to telemarketers and “do not call” lists, suggesting that MountainGuys no longer are viewed in the same positive light as cowboys, rodeo clowns, and sheepherders. Who knew?

Day 1: Union City BART to Echo Lakes Trailhead, and Echo lakes Trailhead to Lake Aloha Spillway (7 miles)

The gathering of the MountainGuys, as in previous years, proceeded as smoothly as a fine piece of machinery. Oliver’s flight was delayed by almost an hour, and Dan’s BART train disappeared altogether, forcing him to take a series of trains to unintended destinations before finally arriving at the Union City station, where his fellow MountainGuys had waited so long that they were facing loitering charges. Serious troubles were averted, however, with a timely offering of powdered donuts to the BART police.

Despite all the early setbacks, we arrived at the Echo Lakes trailhead at 11:30 a.m. By 12:30 p.m., the food was divvied up, the donuts were gone, and we were ready to hit the trail.

The trail skirts the northern side of Lower and Upper Echo Lakes. At some time in the past these two lakes were somewhat distinct bodies of water, but a spillway built at the outlet of Lower Echo Lake brings the level of the lower lake up enough so that a boat taxi can ply the waters of both lakes. Of course, the water taxi wasn’t running in the early part of October, so we had no choice but to trudge the 2.5 miles along the lakeshore to the entrance of the Desolation Wilderness.

A quick lunch was had at about 2:00 just inside the wilderness boundary. Till that point the trail had been relatively level as it wound its way around the Echo Lakes, but from the wilderness area boundary the trail quickly climbed out of the Echo Valley and up to Haypress Meadows. At Haypress Meadows we came to a fork in the road. The main trail continued more or less straight on to the eastern side of Lake Aloha, while the other trail veered west and down to Lake of the Woods. A fork in the road is always a good reason to consult the map, and after consulting our map for no less than the eleventh time since starting out on this exceedingly well-marked trail, we concluded that the trail leading off to Lake of the Woods would be a bit shorter path to the spillway on the western side of Lake Aloha, which was where we planned to camp.

 Where we went and how we got there.

What the map did not reveal, given its 80-foot contour intervals, were all of the ups and downs that would have been avoided had we stayed on the main trail. From Haypress Meadows, the main trail descended gently into the Aloha Basin, about 200 feet over a mile and half. By contrast, our chosen trail climbed about 100 vertical feet over a small rise, descended steeply down to Lake of the Woods, perhaps 400 vertical feet over not quite half a mile, then climbed over a steep rock outcropping on the far side of Lake of the Woods (200 vertical feet), before descending about 200 vertical feet in the Aloha Basin. So for our trouble, we added about 600 feet of elevation and saved about a quarter of a mile of hiking. Now, Lake of the Woods is a beautiful lake, but it really wasn’t worth it.

By the time we descended into the Aloha Basin and picked up what we thought was the Lake Aloha Trail, it was about 4:30 in the afternoon. We were tired, and anxious to reach our destination. However, the trail we were on did not seem to be going where we wanted to go, and no amount of manipulation could make the trail on the ground match the one on the map. By our reckoning, the spillway was due west, but the trail continued for no obvious reason in a southwesterly direction. So after a quarter of a mile of hiking and a series of intense deliberations, we decided to abandon the trail, and simply set off in the direction our MountainGuy instincts told us to go.

At first, this strategy seemed very promising. The granite landscape proved easy to negotiate cross-country, and with Pyramid Peak and Mt. Agassiz as reference points, we made rapid progress in our gut-inspired direction. However, after bustling along for several minutes, Oliver, who was in the lead, discovered, in a rare moment of empathy, a new appreciation for the wisdom of the trail builders. There was water in the way. Indeed, the Lake was giving us the finger, which meant that our apparent gains from leaving the trail were now lost. Suitably chastened, we slowly worked our way through the dense brush that lined the sides of the finger. At its southernmost end, we found the trail neatly wrapped around the water’s edge before continuing on in a westerly direction. Had we stayed on the trail, we would have reached this same point, the only difference being that we would have saved ourselves about 15 minutes of clambering through the brush on the side of the lake. It was a valuable lesson, and one we all agreed would not be forgotten.

The lesson in humility was quickly forgotten. We had not traveled more than 200 years on the trail before deciding that we still didn’t like where it was going, so we abandoned the trail and set out cross-country in search of the spillway. But once again, our progress was halted by a finger of water extending southward from the main lake. It appeared that our losses were now compounded. But as fortune smiles upon the bold, this finger was actually American Lake, a small body of water that lies just below the spillway. By our reckoning, we should not have been anywhere near American Lake, but none of us were in a particularly reflective mood, so we chose to count this as a navigational coup d’etat and ignore the fine print. And as an added bonus, the path we had taken led past the only decent campsite within a mile of the spillway. Mere luck, or some sort of MountainGuy sixth sense? You decide.

Dinner that first night was Rotelli pasta served in a tomato sauce. The sauce came from a package, but was fortified with onions and salami fried in olive oil, freeze-dried vegetables, and porcini mushrooms. Dan suggested frying the tomato paste, but too late (alas), as the reconstituted vegetables, and their water, had already been added. A refinement to be added next time. Although I was the cook that night (thereby earning the Aluminum Chef Badge), Dan stepped in to add some spice to the meal. Spices included oregano, salt, pepper, garlic, and a packet of (at least) two-year-old hot peppers from Domino’s Pizza. [Editor’s note: for that authentic mountain cooking flavor, all of the spices should be stored for two or more years in old film canisters out in the garage.] This is a role that Dan would take on each night at mealtime, so earning the SpiceGuy Badge.

It had been a good first day. Despite the late start, we had hiked about 7 miles, we had a chance to go off trail, we had eaten powdered donuts, and we’d discovered the best campsite within any reasonable distance of our intended destination. Self-satisfied and full, we made our way to bed at 9:00 under a bright moon about half full.