Saturday, January 15, 2011

Flat Tops Wilderness, Day 3

Day 3: Imaginary Trails and Beachfront Living (6 miles)

Our plan for the third day was to briefly follow the Chinese Wall Trail until we came to an unnamed “brown” trail. There were two types of trails shown on the map: main trails in black, and imaginary trails in brown. This brown trail would take us past Surprise Lake, and if time permitted, we would continue on the next (unnamed) lake beyond.

I was up early in anticipation of our first cross-country day, and because I was no longer able to get comfortable among the hillocks and humps that made up my sleeping spot. The bear tree was well away from the campsite, over a small hill, through some bushes, around an old log, up a hill, over several more fallen logs, and then just right there. About half way to the tree, I was startled by the clatter of falling rocks down by the lake. When I looked over, I saw a bull elk standing atop the steep embankment at the end of the lake. This was the first elk I had ever seen in the wild, and I must say, he looked so much bigger without a fence between us.

 I figured I would have to make two trips to get the food bags, but I wanted coffee without delay and managed to carry all 90 pounds of food back in one trip. After a quick breakfast of hot coffee, oatmeal, and dried fruit, camp was packed up and we were on the trail by 9:15 a.m.

One of the odd things about the Flat Tops is that every small ridge and shallow valley looks the same. One could twist the map in any direction, and land features that matched the terrain on the map could be identified. However troubling this might be to some travelers, it was of little consequence to us. We found no trail whatsoever, imaginary or otherwise, where we believed the map to be showing a brown trail veering off to the northwest. No problem. The map was aligned in the general direction of our feelings on the matter, the path to be followed was agreed upon, and we set off.

 Real view looking south from our imaginary trail.

Going cross-country is always great fun, adding an element of uncertainty to the adventure. This morning’s hike was no exception. The broad meadows made for easy hiking, and as a bonus, we could choose a path around the bushwhack bushes, rather than through them as the ancient race of trail builders had done. All was right in the world; we’d be at Surprise Lake by 11:00 a.m.

Our imaginary trail appeared to lead over a high spot to the northwest, so we set out to traverse a high spot to the northwest. Wrong high spot, turns out. Despite the careful calibration of the map with our feelings, we had trended too far north. The high spot we traversed was the highest high spot around, but apparently the imaginary trail passed over a lesser high spot to the west. The lake off in the distance turned out not to be Surprise Lake, but the small, unnamed lake beyond. To reach the lake from our eagle’s perch on the highest high spot we would either have to backtrack or climb down a steep, crumbly cliff. MountainGuys do not backtrack.

In a situation such as this, there was only one thing to do: stop for lunch. A quick repast, in the lee of a large stand of bushwhack bushes to get out of the frigid wind, was just what the situation called for. Now filled with the kind of confidence that only comes from eating tuna on really dry bread, we once again shouldered our packs and set out for the lake. 

 Confident MountainGuys.

However, we did not get far before reaching the edge of the cliff. Large vertical monoliths peeled away from the mountainside, creating impassible cracks and unstable footing on the edge of a 150-foot drop. Perhaps this is why the imaginary trail shown on the map did not go over the highest high spot. From our vantage point we could see that the path to the lake would be easy once we reached the meadow at the base of the cliff, but there was no obvious way down. For the next half hour or so, we slowly picked our way down the mountain, working our way from one small shelf to the next. We managed to climb about half way down to the meadow by shelf hopping, but eventually reached a spot where the hillside sloped steeply up to our left and fell away down the cliff to our right. We would have to climb down or backtrack.

Just as we were starting to give backtracking a rethink, even though it’s against company policy, Oliver found what looked to be a way down. It was a small v-notch in the cliff face, with three distinct steps to a large boulder perched above a steep scree field above the meadow. Oliver continued to scout along the cliff face for another 100 yards, but no better path could be found. The climb down through the notch was not that bad, except for the loose gravel, the giant rock perched dangerously next to the notch, and the five-foot leap down onto the boulder at the top of the scree slope. This would have been hard with packs, though, so our plan was for Oliver to climb down to the boulder, and Dan and I would lower the packs to him on a rope.

But for one small detail, this was an excellent plan: Ricochet wanted nothing to do it, even though we explained it to him several times. He started down after Oliver, but quickly retreated back up to the top. Oliver called him, and Ricochet tried, but he could not climb down by himself. In the end, I handed Ricochet to Dan, who in turn handed him down to Oliver. There was one dicey moment where Ricochet could have sent both himself and Oliver tumbling off the boulder and down the scree slope, but Oliver was able to cradle him in such a way that Ricochet calmed down enough to be carried. There was another scary moment after we had climbed down through the notch when Dan’s footing gave way as he picked his way through the scree, but he was able to splay himself out and stop the slide. From my vantage point it looked as though Dan would have suffered serious bruises and scrapes, but fortunately he was wearing his leather undergarments and all was well.

 Climbing down from the cliff.

Once again hiking through meadows, our path traveled north toward the unnamed lake, and soon we came across the imaginary trail shown on the map. (I still hoped to find Surprise Lake, and even did a short reconnaissance mission down the trail to find it, but the surprise, I guess, is that there is no lake.) The unnamed lake lay at the edge of the meadow, ringed by steep hills on the northern and western sides. Once again, camping spots were hard to come by. Oliver and Dan scouted around the lake to the west, I scouted round to the east. Most of the ground was sloped, but even where it was flat it tended to be lumpy and choked with bushes.

We ended up camping in small dell between two hillocks on the southeastern end of the lake. It was a nice enough site to put tents, but there was no place for a fire except the tinder-dry meadow. Happily, the little lake featured a fine little beach that was just perfect for lollygagging, lying about, and picnicking, and there was plenty of room for a fire. With the tents set up, and a tarp erected between the tents in case the clouds drifting by portended more than just shade, we packed up all of our remaining gear and headed down to the beach for a picnic away from camp. 

 The best campsite we could find.

The beach was a fine, level spot with soft ground to lie on, and the afternoon was spent relaxing, napping, and laying about. We swam, we snacked, we played Frisbee, and generally just frolicked on the beach. Okay. The thought of three hairy, old guys frolicking is a bit disturbing, so forget that I said that. But we had a good time. As the afternoon wore on, however, the breeze picked up and there was a fall-like chill to the air, especially when clouds passed by. 

 Lively beach party.

With the temperature dropping, it was time to get back the business of camping. While Dan and I built the fire ring (Hot Rocks Badge!), Oliver scouted far and wide for a good food-hanging tree. But as with the previous two nights, such trees were hard to come by. He finally managed to get a rope over a good size branch in a tree about 1/4 mile from where our tents were set up (around a small hill, across a stream, up another hill, and into a small woods). Heck, just finding the damn tree is worthy of the Well Hung Badge.

Dinner was served on the beach with the fire going and the sun setting behind the hills on the western side of the lake. The clouds made for a nice sunset, the red and orange light dancing across the wind ripples on the water. Dan and Oliver reviewed the menu choices, and decided on pesto pasta, with “Cherry Blast” for dessert. The pesto was prepared in the skillet over the stove while the pasta water was heating on the fire. There was a lot of pasta, but even so the fire went hungry. Until the Cherry Blast. After carrying the same bag of this freeze-dried delicacy on at least three MountainGuy trips, we discovered that it really wasn’t good. Starved for any of the pasta, the fire ate it anyway.

 Lakefront kitchen.

In the last of the waning daylight, Oliver and Dan packed up the food and hiked up to the hanging tree while I tended the fire. By the time they returned, the last daylight had faded, but the moon had not yet peeked up over the hill. Even so, the bright yellow food bag could be seen hanging amongst the trees. The sky was covered in thin clouds, but a few stars twinkled in the sky and reflected off the surface of the lake. We drank a last toast, put out the fire, packed up our belongings and returned to camp. The picnic on the beach had been a great success.

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