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.

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