Volume 4, Number 1, Four Times as Much as One Needs to Know
The Desolation Wilderness Adventure
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.