Friday, January 28, 2011

Flat Tops, Days 5 and 6

Day 5: Sometimes You Just get Lucky (8 miles)

We awoke the next morning to sunlight. I was the first up, and went to retrieve the food bags before starting a fire. We got a bit of rain overnight, but still had some dry wood under the tarp that started pretty readily with empty oatmeal bags as kindling. Breakfast featured an array of oatmeal choices, granola, dried fruit, and hot coffee. We packed up the camp in crisp MountainGuy fashion, and by 9:15 a.m. we were ready to hike. 

 Hiking out of the Deer Lake basin.

Clouds had started to move in again, and it was beginning to look like we would see some more nasty weather. Our trail headed up past the waterfall behind our campsite, then switchbacked up the steep rock wall that formed the basin for Deer Lake. The view from the top of wall was spectacular. Spires of weather-eaten rock stood like sentinels just below our vantage point, perhaps to dissuade anyone from climbing up the 800-foot cliff. They were certainly persuasive in making the case not to climb down. 

 Rock sentinels at the edge of the cliff.

 Dramatic views from the trail.

The trail we followed went south toward Island Lakes, then climbed a steep slope back up to the Flat Tops plateau. We had been hiking for an hour or so when we reached the junction between the main trail and the Island Lakes loop. This seemed a promising place to stop for a moment, have a snack, and get ready for the climb. However, black clouds were forming over the peaks to the southeast, and rain was beginning to threaten. The prospect of going over a ridge in the middle of thunderstorm seemed unpleasant, so we put on rain gear, hoisted our packs, and set off again.

From the Island Lakes junction to the base of the rock wall could not have been more than half a mile, but the weather continued to deteriorate. The rain started to fall, and to the south we could hear thunder coming from over the ridge. The climb was steep, but short. It took only 15 minutes, yet by the time we reached the ridge, the rain was really coming down and we could see and hear and feel the lightning not more than half a mile away. Hair on the back of the neck was standing up and sphincters were tight: there would be no gas allowed in that explosive environment.

The trail we had planned to follow took us southeast, right up through the area of lightning activity, so that seemed a bad alternative. The trail we had been following veered off to the west, back toward Trappers Peak and away from our destination on the southern flank of Shingle Peak. We might have spent a bit more time studying the map had the conditions been different, but now there were lightning strikes to the northwest, sandwiching us in between, and getting off the ridge in a hurry seemed the best bet, irrespective of the direction. We set out to follow an imaginary (brown) trail, but probably lost it before it was ever found. No matter, we were going down and down was a good place to go at that moment.

By my reading of the map, the imaginary trail traversed down through a broad valley, skirted a small pondlet, and then continued south to round Shingle Peak on the eastern side. Oliver was of the mind that the trail stayed up along the ridgeline to pass around Shingle Peak to the east. Oliver was probably right. My map reading throughout the trip was so bad that the MoutainGuy Editorial and Grand Oversight Board (MGEGOB) demanded that I return my prized Here-We-Be Badge, but I successfully argued that since we never exactly knew where we were while we were hiking, the board couldn’t really say I was wrong. I kept the navigation badge, but it is tarnished.

The rain had been intermittent once we got off the ridge, and by the time we got down to the small pondlet, it had stopped completely. From that vantage point we sighted a small copse of trees that appeared to offer a bit of shelter and perhaps a flat spot to stop for lunch. This proved to be the case. We shed our packs, got out some provisions, and sat down for a brief respite. The sun even came out for a moment, and we basked in our small island of warmth, for the clouds and the rain were around us on all sides. In that moment of good cheer, Dan observed that but for a bit of luck, a cloud shifts half a mile one way or the other, we might have been charbroiled MountainGuys.

Lunch was brief. The sun had been fleeting, and in short order the clouds closed in and the rain returned. We repacked our packs and got going once again. Though our plan had been to travel around Shingle Peak to the east, the slope of the land and status of the imaginary trail conspired to push us downhill to the southwest. When we reached the valley floor, it was clear that the easiest path would be to hike through Sheep Dip meadow and return to the Trappers Lake trail. Fortunately, all 5,000 sheep and the six immense dogs tending them were gone.

The hike around the west side of Shingle Peak was much longer than our planned route would have been, and it also meant that we had to retrace our steps along a trail that we had followed on the way out. This violated the loop principle, which is a central feature of an adventure, but in the event, we retraced our steps for only 39 minutes, which meant that the loop loophole clause (Section 7, paragraph 2: definition of an “Adventure”) applied and we were not condemned to the fate of a “Robust Jaunt”, or even worse, a “Pleasant Excursion.”

As we rounded the southern side of Shingle Peak, it became clear that the rain had been much more intense here than where we had been. The ground was wet and muddy, and small patches of hail-snow could be found in the sheltered spots under the trees. Hail-snow also covered the ridge to east of Shingle Peak. But for the heartfelt desire to get off that same ridge during the lightning storm and a bit of bad navigation, that snow could have been ours to trudge through. Sometimes you just get lucky.

 A dusting of hail-snow on Trappers Peak.

On the map, the small lake on the southern flank of Shingle Peak looked like promising camping territory. It was not. It was really more of a shallow, bilgewater and mud type of sump, so shallow around the edges that there was no way to float the prefilter for the water pump and avoid clogging the filter. However, it was also the only water source before we started our climb down Turret Creek, so this was our destination, good camping or not.

Our campsite for the night was located on a small saddle above the lake. It featured a couple of flat sleeping spots, a great view of the southern face of Shingle Peak, a small fire ring, and a lot of soft, wet ground. Not quite the campsite home run of the previous night, but good enough to discourage any further exploration.

Shelters were erected with some dispatch, as the weather was threatening even though the rain had stopped for a time. Oliver offered to make the long trudge back to the lake to get water, and Dan and I set out to rebuild the fire ring and start the fire. Anything lying open on the ground was wet from the rain, but we were able to forage dry wood from the nearby deadfall. By the time that Oliver returned from his water expedition, the fire was crackling and that homely little campsite seemed pretty hospitable.

Dinner that night was a perennial MountainGuy favorite: Mountain Jambalaya. And true to the original spirit of the recipe, no two jambalayas have ever been the same. This year, the recipe went like this:

Sauté 1/4 onion (or all that you’ve got) in olive oil with salami and bacon and tomato paste (8oz. tube). Add Dan’s secret Cajun Spices, aged a year in old film canisters in the garage, and cook until the tomato paste is nicely browned. Heat 2 quarts of water in a large pot and bring to a boil. Add the sauté, Jambalaya soup mix, and 1 box Uncle Ben’s Spanish Rice. Add crab now (if you’re Oliver). Simmer until done, perhaps 20 to 30 minutes. Add crab now (if you’re Dan). (The timing of the “crab add” proved to be the most contentious moment of the trip, nearly coming to blows several times. Fortunately, both combatants were weary from the long day, and no one got voted off the saddle.) While the jambalaya is simmering, take a tortilla and clean the sauté spoils from the frying pan. Add a small amount of oil to the frying pan and place the tortilla, spoils side up in the pan. Add cheese, habanero sauce, and garlic, and place a second tortilla on top. Flip the quesadilla and brown both sides. Cut into pieces and eat while warm.

The rain started to fall about 8:30 p.m. We smothered the fire and retired to our tents. It rained most of the night. The moon came out briefly and the rain stopped for a time round about midnight—I know because I took advantage of this moment to free my bladder of its burdens—but soon returned and did not stop. For all we know, it might be raining still.

Day 6: The Long Slog Out (8 miles)

The rain was falling when we woke up. I retrieved the food bags, which now weighed no more than 30 pounds, and brought them back to my tent for a cramped breakfast of cereal bars, dried fruit, dry granola, and dry instant oatmeal eaten straight from the bag. There was no coffee, and little cheer. This was strictly a utilitarian breakfast to get us going. Our plan was to get on the trail early (we were hiking by 8:00), and then stop for brunch when we reached the first crossing of Turret Creek. With our water supply replenished, we would then be able to make coffee.

 Snow on Shingle Peak in the morning.

Camp was quickly packed up in the rain. The snow level had crept down Shingle Peak to within about 200 (vertical) feet of us, so it was cold but not quite freezing. We donned our packs and started down the trail, which was more a muddy creek than a trail. Now, I have hiked muddy trails before, but this one was special. The mud was formed from a mixture of fine dust, decaying plant matter, and horse poop. It was slippery, black, and really smelled quite bad. By the time we had gone half a mile our boots were caked with this black goo, adding at least a pound to each footstep. Though the hiking poles had been little benefit throughout most of the trip, on this day they proved to be invaluable. 

 All dressed up for the hike out.

At the first crossing of Turret Creek it was raining, so we did not stop for coffee. At the second crossing it was raining, so we did not stop for brunch. As we hiked along the creek it was raining, our only stop to fix a broken shoelace. The rain continued nonstop for the first six miles, and did not stop for more than ten minutes all day. We never did get coffee or brunch. 

We reached the cars not much past noon, having hiked out at least eight miles in just over four hours. We were tired, hungry, and smelled of decaying plant matter and horse poop. But the cars started right up, Dan S. and Kevin had left their packs and taken their bikes, so we knew they were not lost in the mountains, and all was right in the world. It had been a fine trip, packed with adventure, good hiking, great food, a couple of adrenaline moments, and even a bit of challenging weather. There was just one thing left to do: lunch at the Sweetwater Resort and Recreational Complex.

Though we changed shoes and wiped off as much mud as we could, we entered the restaurant wet, scraggly from six days in the wilderness, and smelling of horse poop. In other words, we fit right in; we could even have been confused for locals. That 1/2 pound buffalo burger tasted great, as did the strawberry-rhubarb pie ala mode. Even the weak-ass swill they were serving for coffee tasted pretty good. A fine ending to an excellent trip. Next year: Utah!

1 comment:

  1. Sounds like a great epic hike! i really like the photos esp. the one with you guys all on the cliff edge. Keep up the great writing. I finally got a new hike posted if you want to check it out.