Monday, July 2, 2012

Mt. Whitney, August 2011, Part 2

In our minds, the entire day had been given over to making the summit. The rest of the day was just bonus. Yet the rest of the day was not noticeably less exhilarating than summiting. We had lunch, we did laundry, we kicked back, I caught my first golden trout, and then there was the helicopter.

I was returning from fishing the inlet to Guitar Lake when the helicopter swung into view down the valley, above Crabtree Meadow. The helicopter made a beeline up the valley, roared less than a 100 feet over my head, and then settled down in the meadow just above the lake. The arrival of the helicopter brought out the entire tent city. People appeared from up the valley and across the lake. They waded across Whitney Creek and swung down out of trees—or would have if there had been any trees to swing down out of. They climbed out of tents and crawled out from under rocks. There were a hundred people camping at Guitar Lake, and every single one of them came out to witness the arrival of the helicopter. This included Christopher and Snow Toad, who were making a beeline of their own up the valley to join the congregation.

I met Don back at camp, and Christopher joined us a few minutes later. Christopher reported that a guy had dislocated his hip climbing on the rocks, and that he was getting airlifted out. That was exciting news, although not so much for the guy himself. Other people’s tragedies always add spice to any event.

The helicopter took off about half an hour after it arrived, flying low over our heads just as it had on the way up. Snow Toad returned to camp not long after that, sporting a big smile. “That was such a cute little helicopter! I wish I had the chance to get up close and get a good look at it.” He let out a big, happy sigh.

“I didn’t know you were such a helicopter guy,” I said.

“Oh, yeah. If God had pointed down at me and said, ‘Snow Toad, you can either fill your life with helicopters or with women. What will it be?’ I would probably have picked helicopters. That was such a cute little thing.” Again, the big sigh.

What a day this was turning out to be! Catching my first golden trout was exhilarating, the helicopter was amazing, and, of course, summiting Mt Whitney was transcendent. And yet the day was not done. The weather was fine, the sky bright and blue, too early for dinner, too late to start anything more ambitious than a snack. So we were all just kicking back and relaxing when Ranger Rob strode purposefully down the use trail and straight into our camp.

Ranger Rob was a legend among the backcountry rangers, a man of rare knowledge and commitment who had been patrolling the Crabtree area for the last 20 years. Admittedly, the glowing reports were turned in by Rob’s wife and her best friend, both also backcountry rangers, but our short association with Rob convinced us that the legends are justified. Looking for a campsite? Ask Ranger Rob. Curious to know about the trail conditions over Crabtree Pass? Ask Ranger Rob. Want to know what the weather will be two days from tomorrow? Ask Ranger Rob. He won’t know either, but a brief conversation will leave you awestruck by the vast unpredictability of it all. And should you get hurt, Ranger Rob will be the man on the scene with the radio to call for a helicopter.

So it was that day. Ranger Rob was the man with the radio who supervised the airlift of the injured hiker, and was on his way back to Crabtree when he passed through our camp. He greeted us with a cheery wave, while he quickly scanned our campsite for violations of any backcountry regulations. Our food was properly stored, our tents more than 200 feet from the creek. No fire ring was evident, no trash littering the ground. No one was washing his clothes in the creek, and none of us was obviously drunk. This assessment could not have taken more than a few seconds, and as the evidence mounted in our favor, his steely gaze softened, replaced by a look of…, well, admiration. 

“Nice campsite,” said Ranger Rob. This was high praise from someone with his credentials.

“Thanks,” Don replied. “We wanted to find a spot that was a bit off the beaten track.”

“Yeah, camping at Guitar Lake with a thousand other people did not seem very appealing,” I added. “I couldn’t believe how many people there were up there when that helicopter arrived. Not sure why everybody wants to camp by the lake, although I am grateful that they do.”

“Does get kind of crowded at this time of year,” Ranger Rob said.

We talked for a few more minutes about campsites, the injured hiker, the conditions over Crabtree Pass, and the quality of the terrain in Miter Basin. Ranger Rob confirmed that Crabtree Pass was free of snow, mostly, and that traveling off-trail through Miter Basin was slow but doable. We thanked him for the information, and then Ranger Rob was off, on his way back to Crabtree.

The information about the conditions in Miter Basin was helpful, and we discussed the merits of hiking out that way over dinner. Snow Toad really liked the idea of a cross-country trek, but not so much that he was willing to go it alone, Don was ambivalent, Christopher was silent, and I was a loud voice for hiking back on the trail. Going cross-country is great when one has time to get into trouble and then get out of it, but we were 23 miles from the trailhead with only three days to play. Eight miles a day does not seem like much, but eight miles going cross-country is a really long day. In the end, I persuaded Snow Toad of the merits of hiking back on the trail, although he grumbled about it and called me a wuss. It was a ruthless tactic, but ineffective for all that. I would not be goaded into abandoning my zealous lack of ambition. Mine was a principled position, and one I would defend against all attacks, because I really didn’t want to work that hard. In the end, my principled lack of ambition saved us all a great deal of trouble.
__________________     __________________

Big, puffy white clouds started to drift in at 8:30 on Friday morning. By 9:30 there were very few patches of blue sky to be seen, and by 10:30 it was raining. Snow Toad and I had hiked out ahead to the stream crossing below Crabtree Meadow, where we were waiting for Don and Christopher. They had decided to take advantage of the toilet at the Crabtree campground, not too far from the Crabtree ranger station. This toilet has a legendary reputation, and Don was curious to learn more. The toilet did not disappoint, oriented as it was with a truly phenomenal view of the Kern River Valley and the Great Western Divide, and Don was not shy about extolling its virtues then and now.

Most excellent toilet. (Photo DS)

Don and Christopher rejoined Snow Toad and me at the stream crossing just as it was starting to rain. We figured that it was a summer thundershower, albeit unusually early in the day. But by 10:45 the rain was coming down hard, and by 11:00 we were being pummeled by 3/8-inch hail. The sky was getting lit up by lightning in every direction, and thunder was booming all around. At first we tried to keep going, but the conditions were miserable, and the temperature had dropped from a nearly tropical 55 degrees to a somewhat less balmy 40 degrees when the hail started to fall. Don and Christopher had tied their rain coats over their packs in an effort to keep their gear dry since neither of them were carrying pack covers, but as a result, they were both flirting with hypothermia every time we stopped to huddle under a tree to avoid being beaten silly by the hail. Eventually we had no choice but to abandon all thoughts of progress and to set up shelter to stay warm and dry. 

All hail.

As the conditions worsened, we wondered aloud about Spider, a guy we had met on the trail just two hours before. He was hiking the Pacific Crest Trail by himself, and he was not enjoying it. But his misery was not the immediate kind caused by discomfort; his was a deep-seated misery, a soul-infecting dispiritedness that permeated his whole being and radiated outward, so much that standing next to him would bring the happiest person low. This was a man who had dared to dream, only to discover that the dream was not what he wanted after all. Now, those who know my writing know that I pretty much stick to the facts of the case, but I am going to change tacks and venture to speculate. Spider discovered that he had been dreaming the wrong dream, but he had also sold everything to it. He could not back out for fear of humiliation at the hands of people who lacked his imagination to dream and his courage in pursuing it, so he trudged on, each step more labored than the last. Spider had expected to find joy and redemption, and instead had found loneliness and misery. This rain wasn’t going to help.

The spot where we stopped was not far from our second-night campsite, but any chance that campsite might provide us meaningful refuge was dashed when we discovered that the meager trickle we had to dam up three days earlier was now a roiling, boiling, cascade of muddy brown water. So we waited where we were, and hoped that the rain would stop falling and the lightning would stop flashing and the rivers would stop rising early enough to make our way over Guyot Pass and down to Guyot Creek. Ranger Rob had advised us that this was better camping than Rock Creek, and had the added benefit of being about two miles closer.

The rain started to subside about 4:00 in the afternoon, and by 5:00 the conditions had settled down enough that we could safely make our way over Guyot Pass. As bad as the conditions had been where we stopped to shelter on the north side of the pass, they had apparently been even worse on the south side. The trail was washed out in many places, and where it had not washed out completely, it was rutted and uneven. We reached Guyot Creek about 7:30 in the evening, spent and cold and wet and miserable. The creek was running high, with lots of debris and silt in the water, but this was the only water source until we reached Rock Creek, and there was no way we were going any further.

A bit of cheery blue sky greeted us as we were setting up camp, but the sun was down behind Guyot Peak, so while the clear sky was welcome, it was not accompanied by the warm sun. The campsite that night was not bad, but it could have been better. Fires are not allowed in Sequoia above 10,000 feet. Our campsite was at about 10,023 feet, but we did not know that. If we had continued just a hundred yards further down the trail, we would have passed a sign indicating that no fires were allowed above that point. A fire would have been most welcome. We could even see the back of the sign from our campsite, but we were all too tired to make the effort to find out what it said, and, in truth, we would all have been too tired to move camp even if one of us had taken the time to walk over and read the sign.

Saturday morning dawned clear and bright. I was up early with the intention of drying out some of my gear, but the air was heavy and damp, so there wasn’t much drying going on. Don and Christopher were up not long after me, but Snow Toad did not crawl out of his tent for some time. Between the lingering fatigue from the day before and the chance to dry out our tents, we did not get on the trail until after 10:00 in the morning. By then, puffy, white clouds were starting to drift in, and more rain looked inevitable.

Trying to dry things out.

Our plan for the day was to hike to Rock Creek, and then on to Soldier Lake. This would not be a very long day, so if the weather was good, we could hike over New Army Pass and spend the night at one of the Cottonwood Lakes. If the weather was lousy, we could stop at Soldier Lake for the night, or continue on toward Cottonwood Pass and head out the same way we hiked in. All of these plans, however, were contingent on being able to cross Rock Creek, a fairly good-sized stream that drained all of Miter Basin.

Snow Toad was predicting that the creek would be impassible, and spent most of the hike down to Rock Creek trying to get someone to bet against him. Eventually he just gave up because none of us was willing to take the bet without odds so long that a 50-cent wager would yield a $200 payout. As it turned out, Snow Toad gave up too soon. He easily could have earned himself an extra $1.50 by betting against the three of us.

The rain started to fall again before we got halfway to Rock Creek. We stopped briefly to put on rain gear, not wanting to repeat the mistake from the day before when we waited too long and were already wet before we tried to stay dry.

When we reached the creek, the bridge was washed out, and a backcountry ranger was stationed on the far side, one foot propped up on a log, both hands wrapped tightly around a long, wooden staff. “You cannot pass!” his booming voice barely audible over the roar of the swollen creek. “I am the Ranger of Rock Creek Station, Wielder of the Mighty Book of Regulations, Keeper of the sacred Radio of Rock Creek. You cannot pass!”

We looked at each other in bafflement. “What?” we all said.

The ranger started laughing. “God, I love saying that. I crack me up.” He wiped away some tears from laughing so hard with the back of his hand. “But all kidding aside, you cannot pass.”

“What if we can answer three questions?” asked Don, clearly getting into the spirit of the moment.

“Don’t be silly,” responded the ranger, “that’s Monty Python. I’m channeling Gandalf during his confrontation with the Balrog at the Bridge of Khazad-Dûm.”[1] Clearly, this ranger needed to get out more. “But that aside, there is only one place to cross the creek between here and the little lake below Miter Basin, that log right there, but I wouldn’t try to cross it.” He pointed to a large log that straddled the churning maelstrom. The log was slick and smooth, the bark long gone, wet and slippery from the rain. The stumps of large branches stuck up and out at random intervals, sharp and jagged from having the limbs torn off while the tree was falling.

The four of us walked up the creek to inspect this “bridge” more carefully. Immediately upstream was a large jam, with two or three other large logs piled up against the bridge, countless bushes and smaller pieces of debris stacked up in and around the larger logs. We studied the bridge for some time. If we had a rope, and were in dire straits, perhaps being chased by a bear (a very slow bear so that we would have time to set up the rope), we might have been tempted. Otherwise, the whole operation appeared a bit desperate. We might have been wet and bedraggled and miserable, but we were not desperate.

The bridge. (Photo ST)

“I wouldn’t try it,” shouted the ranger, who had walked up the other side of the stream along with us. “You cannot pass.”

There was no question that the ranger was right, but his persistence was slightly annoying, an unwelcome reminder that we live in the age of the nanny state, in which people who by all rights should be victims of their own ignorance or stupidity are prevented from stupidly or ignorantly killing themselves, ultimately at great cost to the rest of us. But that was a conversation to be had some other time, so I shouted our assurances that we would not try to cross, and told him that we would hike cross-country to the little lake with no name below Miter Basin.

“I guess you might be able to do that,” the ranger responded, and, satisfied that we were not going to stupidly kill ourselves on his watch, went back to guarding the river crossing.

In the event, the cross-country trek was not difficult, and really rather fun. There were no dangerous rock faces to scale, no chasms to leap across, no log bridges from which we could slip and fall. The worst we faced was a soggy, muddy meadow less than a quarter of a mile up the creek from the crossing, and if we had known to abandon the creekside a little sooner, we could have avoided that mess entirely. 

Going cross country.

From the moment it started the rain just kept falling. It wasn’t like the day before, when we were inundated by torrential rain and hail and lightning and thunder, but it was steady and mostly pretty hard. Our concern now was whether the creek would be running too high to cross even at the higher crossing. About two-thirds of the way up to the lake we caught up with the trail where it crossed back over the creek. There was no way to cross there, and only would have led us back to Rock Creek ranger station in any case. The trail was easier than going cross-country, at least where it wasn’t under water, and we made good time the rest of the way to the little lake with no name. 

The trail.

Despite its anonymity to the mapmakers, the little lake with no name is not unknown to the backpackers who ply this bit of backcountry. It is a popular camping spot, one with very little charm and no good camping, so we hiked on by to the creek crossing. The crossing was a wide spot in the creek where it spread out before entering the lake. The water was flowing pretty good through this spot, too. Crossing might have been possible, but the prospect was not inviting. So we left the little lake with no name behind, and headed up Rock Creek for a ways to find a better way to get across.

Above the lake is a broad meadow. Rock Creek flows down the western side of the meadow for a few hundred yards, but above that is a narrow canyon, through which the creek flows. We did not get far. The ground was soft, we were tired, and the creek was running just too high to safely cross. So we returned to the little lake with no name, hoping that the rain would stop, the creek would drop, and we would be able to continue on our way.

The rain did not stop, the creek kept on rising, and we had no choice but to set up camp and make the best of a bad situation. Don and Christopher spent the entire afternoon in their tent, while Snow Toad and I wandered about aimlessly, looking for something to do. Finally, I got so tired of being pummeled by big, fat, wet raindrops that I pulled the footprint out from under my tent and set it up as a tarp. I was still just as wet. I was still just as cold. But I was not getting as pummeled, and that was a huge relief. I was really glad I had a chair.

Snow Toad had rigged his footprint as a tarp over his tent. He was using the “dew cap” that he had designed to cover the ventilated area at the top of the tent, but that cap does not cover the non-waterproof walls or the doors, and he had to do what he could to keep his gear dry. When he finished rigging the cover, I invited Snow Toad to join me under my makeshift tarp. So we spent the afternoon under the tarp, watching the rain fall, occasionally fetching things for Don, glad to have a comfortable place to sit without being pummeled by raindrops, and hoping that the rain would stop eventually so we could cross the creek in the morning.

The rain stopped falling about 8:30 in the evening. There was still a bit of light in the sky, so I crawled out from under the tarp to go study the creek. Snow Toad had long since made his way into his tent so that he could lie down and really be dry. The creek was running just as high as it had earlier in the day, but no higher. This was encouraging news. I returned to camp to report what I had found. The conversation was a bit disjointed since Don and Christopher were in one tent and Snow Toad was in another, and I was relaying the conversation back and forth. However, they all agreed that I should get up at first light to assess the level of the creek. If it was crossable, I should then come back and let them know, and they would get up. When I asked why the task was mine, they all agreed that since I had just assessed the level of the creek, I would be the one best placed to evaluate if it was down. This was a more cogent response than I was expecting, but it still seemed a bit unfair. Nonetheless, I agreed to take on the task.

The creek dropped six to eight inches overnight. The creek was still running high and fast, but the sky was overcast when we got up, and we all knew that it was going to start raining at any time. So now was the time to be crossing the creek. We packed up quickly, making no effort to dry out our gear. When we reached the creek, I pointed out the spot that I thought would be the best option. The water was knee deep on the near shore, shallow in the middle where there was a little gravel bar, deep again on the other side. Don and I were discussing the merits of various paths when suddenly there was a great splashing sound, and we looked up to see Snow Toad running across the creek. The water was thigh deep on the far side of the gravel bar, but there was nothing for it so we all just jumped in and waded across. I was slightly resentful that Snow Toad had not waited until I had made a completely thorough assessment of the situation, seeing as he was one of the guys who had voted me that job. However, the assessment would not have resulted in anything different, we were across, and that was all that really mattered.

We stopped for breakfast about half a mile up the trail in a small clearing beside the creek. The mosquitoes were brutal, and would have eaten us whole if the rain had not started to fall. Talk about an unpalatable choice: we were either going to have oatmeal fortified with mosquitoes engorged on our own blood, or thin, watered-down coffee. Thin coffee is truly tragic, but better than the constant torment of the little blood-sucking bastards.

From our campsite at the little lake with no name to the trailhead at Horseshoe Meadow was about ten miles. We hiked nine of them in the rain. Just like the day before, the rain was steady and hard. This was not all bad news. A lot of the trails above treeline in this part of Sequoia are a course sand of decomposed granite. This makes for very tiring hiking when the ground is dry, because the sand is soft and your feet sink deep into the sand with each and every step. Stop too long in one place and you might sink up to your waist or even disappear forever in the dry quicksand. The wet sand is much firmer yet still soft underfoot. But that was pretty much all the good news. I was sweating in my waterproofs, though the wind was cold where it came into contact with my wet clothing. My food was mostly depleted, but the wet tent and wet pack and wet pack cover probably added half that weight back, so my load was pretty heavy. And the rain precluded any extended stop for rest or for lunch. After three days of heavy rain, there were no dry places to sit down, so we just kept on hiking. Lunch was an energy bar and a bit of granola.

Despite the conditions, we met a lot of people hiking in. The rain was predicted to stop later in the day, and gentle, summer conditions were expected to return the following day. Snow Toad reported that a ranger he met on the trail told him that this had been the worst summer storm in 30 years. Whitney Portal had flooded and had to be evacuated during the thunderstorm on Friday, and several hikers had to be airlifted from the trail above Trail Camp. What they were doing climbing Mt. Whitney in the middle of a thunderstorm was not immediately apparent, but I sure hope that this airlift was not being performed at taxpayer expense. If you are stupid enough to climb to the tallest point for 1,500 miles in any direction in the middle of a thunderstorm, you deserve to be roasted alive.

The last three miles, from the top of Cottonwood Pass to Horseshoe Meadow, was very trying. Snow Toad and Christopher took off down the hill, while Don and I were trying to keep up. Snow Toad was trying to leave Christopher in the dust, but as Snow Toad said, “Every time I turned around, the little shit was right behind me.”

By the time we reached the campground, about 3:00 in the afternoon, the rain had completely stopped. All that was left were a few big puffy whites floating by. The campground was mostly full, but we were able to secure the same campsite we had used on the night before hiking in. We even had a bit more wood stashed in the car for a fire. All of the food we had stored in the bear boxes at the campground was gone, whether taken by hungry campers (far more dangerous than bears) or removed by Forest Service personnel we don’t know, but we still had enough food in our packs for one more meal.

The party that night was fine. Our gear was mostly dry from the full afternoon of sun, our food bags were depleted but not so empty that we were hungry, and the fire was a happy, warm reminder of just how pleasant camping can be. We sat around the fire until the firewood was gone, telling stories and reveling in the trip we had just completed.

One perfect day. That’s all we got. But it was totally worth it.

Big party at Horseshoe Meadows.

[1] From the Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien, Book 1, The Fellowship of the Ring.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Mt. Whitney, August 2011, Part 1

One Perfect Day
On Which We Climb Mount Whitney

By John Tuma
Copyright 2012

One perfect day. That’s all we got during our eight-day trip to Sequoia National Park. Of course, there were other memorable moments—floods and fires, hydrological marvels to collect scarce drinking water, and the most perfect toilet seat anywhere—but the one day that had to be right was just right. One perfect day sandwiched between three days of poisonous fumes and three days of torrential rain.

Our prospects appeared dim on Wednesday afternoon, when we made our base camp on a rocky shelf beside Whitney Creek, just below Guitar Lake. Snow Toad and I were quarreling, Don was exhausted and suffering from a touch of altitude sickness, and Don’s son, Christopher, was just wondering what he had been thinking when he agreed to join a bunch of old guys on a long wilderness trek.

Smoky skies viewed from Timberline Lake.

“I’m parking myself right here,” announced Snow Toad, who had found a flat, sheltered spot behind a large boulder.

We were hiking off trail to find some decent camping, but instead found ourselves scrambling up a steep, rocky slope, with nothing but boulders and rocks and scree and a few tufts of some hardy grass growing on the flatter spots. The air was thick with smoke from a fire that was burning about 30 miles south, so thick that the mountains around us were shrouded from view and all we could see looking down the valley was a wretched, gray haze. Our eyes were watering from the smoke, our throats and lungs were raw.

I looked over Snow Toad’s site. “That’s kind of a crappy spot. And besides, there are no other spots for the rest of us.”

“Not my problem,” said Snow Toad, pulling the pieces of his tent out of his pack.

“Just hang on a moment, Snow Toad, while I scout around that corner over there.” I was really hoping that I wouldn’t have to pitch my tent on a little flat spot between a bunch of boulders, where I would spend the night rolling around uncomfortably trying to find a position that did not include a small rock pressing into my hip or between my shoulder blades.

“Fine. You go get in touch with your feminine side looking for just the ‘right’ spot. I ain’t moving.” Snow Toad pulled his bear bin out of his pack and set it on the ground.

From where we were, barren, rocky ground sloped gently down to Whitney Creek on one side, and a steep wooded slope climbed up to the top of a small knoll on the other. The wind was blowing cold up the canyon so it was cold down by the creek, but there was no place up in the trees to set up camp. I clambered up and down the lower reaches of the knoll, but found nothing. But about 200 yards to the east of Snow Toad’s boulder, the higher ground of the knoll wrapped around to the south, creating a natural break between the flat, open shelf along the creek and the higher ground around Guitar Lake. The breeze seemed to subside here, and there were a few very nice tent spots situated far enough from the creek to be legitimate. I returned to Snow Toad’s boulder.

“I found a much nicer spot. Good tent sites, good water access, little bit out of the wind, room for all of us.”

“I ain’t moving.” Snow Toad was sitting on his bear bin, his best obstinate expression on his face.

“Fine,” I said. “If you want to huddle behind your boulder out in the cold, swirling wind, shrouded by smoke and a sense of manly righteousness, you be my guest. I’ll take the nicer spot.” I picked up my pack and started back to the end of the shelf.

Don and Christopher had remained silent through all this, huddled behind a rock to stay out of the wind. Don was looking much better for having a bit of rest, and he and Christopher, who, like me, would have been left with a substandard tent site, quickly followed.

“All right. Fine,” Snow Toad growled. If you’re all moving, I guess I’ll move, too. But this spot better be better, or I’m coming right back.”

At that particular moment, I was sort of hoping that Snow Toad would hate the site I had found so that he’d go back to his god-forsaken boulder and stew in righteous misery. Fortunately, even though my mind was behaving in a juvenile way, my mouth had the good sense to remain closed. How often does that happen?

We set up camp in silence, each of us concentrating on getting the job done. Well, not quite in silence. Don and Christopher were sharing a tent and stove on this trip, so they were talking about pitching the tent, and getting water, and what to have for dinner. Snow Toad and I each had our own tent, our own stove, our own food, and our own simply grumpy demeanor, so we were working in silence.

Excellent camping.

The mood around camp improved as the afternoon wore on. The smoke started to blow off to the east and south, and the air quality was no longer toxic. By the time the sun started to set, the smoke had mostly disappeared, with just enough fine particulate in the air to make for a really nice sunset.

Nice sunset.
__________________     __________________

We had seen this same pattern the previous two nights, although the air quality was much worse on Wednesday than on either of the two previous days. Our first night (Monday) was spent in a grove of trees near the junction between the Pacific Crest Trail and the Siberian Pass Trail, about eight miles from the trailhead. Just below the grove of trees was a large meadow that straddled Siberian Pass Creek. The creek was barely a trickle that high up, but we were glad to have even that little bit of water. Fishing was out of the question. Don was suffering from altitude sickness, a condition that was made much worse by blowing up his air mattress. It takes a lot of breaths to fill an air mattress at 10,000 feet. The only good news in the whole sorry episode was that since he had blown up his mattress, Don had something soft to lie down on when he passed out. The smoke was not so thick that first evening, and it cleared out quickly as the sun went down and the breeze shifted from blowing uphill to blowing down as the night cooled off.

Tuesday night found us camped next to an even smaller trickle just north of Guyot Flat. Fishing was even more out of the question. In fact, we had to build a small dam to create a pool large enough to fill our water bottles. The dry conditions were surprising considering how much snow we received the previous winter, but I guess in an average snow year, this unnamed trickle would have been dry by the first week of August. On the plus side, the fact that Fickle Trickle did not flow reliably meant that our campsite was pristine, with lots of forest duff under the trees.

Map of the Whitney Adventure, 2011.

We did not reach that campsite on the second day until 4:00 in the afternoon, and the smoke was so thick that Mount Guyot, barely a mile to the south, was largely obscured. Despite the late hour, I sat down to make coffee as soon as my tent was set up. The view of the meadow from our campsite was pleasant, and the shrouded sky added to the sense of isolation created by the pristine campsite. Christopher joined me on the rock overlooking the meadow. I was pleased to have the company, and even more pleased that Christopher was starting to feel comfortable. The first day and half, his face was frozen in place, trying to mask the abject terror he must have been feeling about his decision to join his dad and two really old guys on an eight-day trip. You know that feeling, when you get yourself into something and all you can think is, “What the Hell was I thinking?!” I’m pretty sure that’s what was going through Christopher’s mind. Heck, I am one of the old guys, and that thought goes through my mind every time I get up in the morning and realize who I am traveling with.
__________________     __________________

As we watched the sunset fill the western sky on Wednesday night from our campsite below Guitar Lake, we could only hope that the next day would be clear. The sky had been clear on Wednesday morning, just like the previous two days. The smoke didn’t start to blow in until the sun warmed the air. So we could not feel confident that the smoke would not return Thursday afternoon when we were scaling the peak.

The last thing we wanted was to be like the young lady with the ring in her nose that we met on the trail from Crabtree to Guitar Lake. She was hiking the Pacific Crest Trail by herself, so we knew this young lady was made of much sterner stuff than we. How much sterner we were about to discover. She had climbed Mt. Whitney on Tuesday afternoon, but the smoke was so thick that there was no view. So, knowing that she wouldn’t have another chance to climb the peak, she spent the night by herself under an emergency blanket on the floor of the little cabin at the top of the mountain.

“Yeah, it was kind of cold and uncomfortable,” she admitted, “but the view this morning when the sun came up was totally worth it!” Her big, brown eyes were glowing so bright as she recalled the moment that the ring in her nose began to glow as well. The effect was at once captivating and creepy, and I can honestly say that if you can make the ring in your nose glow from your x-ray vision, you probably don’t have to worry too much about the rats and bugs and other creepy-crawlies that inhabit the floor of an empty mountain cabin.

Despite the uncertainty about the conditions the next day, or perhaps because of the uncertainty, we were a nervous and excited bunch as we honed our plans. Don and Christopher were methodically preparing their packs for the next morning, and Snow Toad was bouncing around, barely able to contain himself. I was wandering about, trying to figure out what I would need for the 10-mile hike to the summit and back, mulling over in my mind the plan that had been outlined by Don and Snow Toad.

“You want to get up at 4:00 in the morning?” I was incredulous. “How about 5:30?”

“Nope,” said Don, “we want to be hiking by 5:00.”

“Besides, you won’t be able to sleep!” Snow Toad hopped from one foot to the other, as if his hyperactivity could somehow make it morning now. “We’ll wake you at 4:00. This is going to be great!”

We all retired early, but as Snow Toad predicted, sleep was elusive. I must have drifted off eventually, because I was startled awake by Don’s announcement that it was 4:00 a.m. I am a bit hazy on the details, but a couple of things really stand out about that situation. The first is that 4:00 a.m. is really early. The second is that at 11,300 feet, 4:00 a.m. is really cold. I think Snow Toad slept in his clothes and would have started hiking at 4:01, but there was no way I was going anywhere without coffee and breakfast. So we all had breakfast and watched the procession of lights way in the distance along the ridge between Trail Crest and Whitney. By 5:00 a.m. my traveling companions were ready to go. By 5:10 Snow Toad was chewing gravel and spitting out sand. This did not help me concentrate my early-morning sensibilities. But by 5:20 I had my things sorted out, and by 5:30 we were on the trail.

The sun was just filtering into the eastern sky as we hoisted our packs and left camp. Christopher had gone on a scouting mission the previous afternoon, discovering a use trail that would take us up Whitney Creek to the outlet from Guitar Lake, and from there to the main trail. Finding the main trail would not have been a problem—we knew it was off to the north somewhere—but his discovery saved a good bit of trouble scrambling over the rocks in the dim morning light to get there.

Guitar Lake is on the western side of the monolithic escarpment that reaches its crest in Mt. Whitney, so there was no direct sun to warm us up on our climb up to Trail Junction. Normally hiking uphill would be enough, but our packs were light and the air was cold. Really cold. So cold that there were little patches of ice on the puddles along the trail. And it was late July! This actually makes for very productive hiking conditions. Too cold to stop, so you just keep going.

The trail to the junction with the Whitney trail is a marvel of trail building, climbing the dizzying heights one incremental switchback at a time. Of course, there are moments when it feels as though you are perched on the edge of the abyss—one false step and you are back at the bottom in an instant—but overall the trail is not particularly frightening. But it is up and up and up. From our camp (11,300 feet) to the junction (13,484) is about three miles and 2,200 feet of elevation, with half of the elevation gain in just the last half-mile. Yet, somehow, it is not a hard climb. 

Guitar Lake.

The view is spectacular, more so as you climb. Hitchcock Lakes reside in frigid blue splendor in the deep bowl between Mt. Hitchcock to the west and Discovery Pinnacle to the east, windswept and barren. The color of the light filtering over the ridge changes with each switchback, from the purple gloom of first light, to the bright red of sunrise, and then an ever-brightening rainbow of colors, as the sun climbs higher in the sky and you climb higher up the mountain. The Great Western Divide, on the western side of the Kern River, emerges slowly from the inky depths of night, morning light first coloring just the jagged white teeth of the mountain tops, and slowly flowing downhill to reveal the black-bearded slopes below the tree line. In the Whitney Creek Valley, the structure of the landscape is slowly revealed by the contoured shadows, the mountains alive with the motion of the sun, a daily dance that has been performed for eons. 

Excellent view.

Trail Junction is where east meets west and both paths join the high ridge trail that climbs to the top Mt. Whitney. Most of the traffic to the top of the mountain comes from Whitney Portal on the eastern side. Crazy people do the hike from Whitney Portal (8,365 feet elevation) to the top of Whitney (14,495 feet) and back in a day—22 miles round trip and over 6,000 feet up and 6,000 feet down. It is a brutal hike. More than two-thirds of the people who try to climb the mountain in a day do not make it. Our day was half that, plus we had been at elevation for several days before attempting the climb. It is a much more civilized way to do it.

There was very little traffic on the trail from Guitar Lake to Trail Junction. This was surprising since we were climbing the mountain at high season, and many of those who might have gone earlier in the year would have been deterred by the snow cover that had persisted in many places until mid July. I would have expected at least some of those folks to be trying to make up for lost time. But for whatever reason, we had the slope pretty much to ourselves, and that suited us just fine.

There were many surprises that day, but one of the most endearing was a beautiful little flower known as “Sky Pilot”, which only grows at very high elevations. It appears fragile, like it would blow away in the first big gust of wind, and yet it clings to the rocks with graceful ease, a reminder that life is extraordinary and robust, even if fragile. A ranger I spoke with later told me that in the early days of the Sierra Club, hikers would bring back a Sky Pilot to prove that they had climbed some tall peak, and that the practice actually threatened the species. Fortunately, that is no longer accepted practice, because the extinction of such a beautiful life would surely be a tragedy.

Sky Pilot.

The air was very cold at Trail Junction, and all four of us stopped to put on more clothing. From the junction, it is only 1.9 miles to the top of Mt. Whitney, and we all set off in high spirits. Snow Toad, in fact, was positively giddy—if I had wanted to run, he would have wanted to run just a little bit faster. Don had kept up a good pace climbing to the junction, but the cold air and the altitude were starting to take their toll. Christopher would have been prepared to outrun both Snow Toad and me, but with his dad suffering from the altitude, he wanted to hang back with his dad.

The trek from Trail Junction to the top of Whitney may be only 1.9 miles, but is a long 1.9 miles. We finally started to encounter some traffic on the trail, and there are numerous spots along the way where single file is the only option. The trail trends mostly up, but there are also plenty of places where one has to climb down to climb back up. Snow Toad and I were hiking together when we came to what is probably the spookiest spot along the trail, a narrow bridge with a near-vertical chute of slick granite on the east side, and a 65 degree slope of scree and talus on the other. The bridge was not more than 20 feet long, and easily 4 feet wide at its narrowest point, but it was still a bit unnerving, especially because the breeze was quite brisk blowing through the gap. Until now, we had the benefit of a solid wall on one side, which did nothing to prevent tumbling to our doom on the other, but it was a psychological comfort and also meant that there was no frigid wind tearing at our clothing and messing with our balance.

On the trail to Trail Junction.

The trail follows a northerly direction for most of its length, but hangs a left to the west at Keeler Needle, and then a sharp right back east about a quarter mile later. It was in this section between Keeler Needle and the sharp right that we encountered the last bit of snow on the trail. The drift was only 100 yards long, perhaps not even that, but it was a real bottleneck with one-way traffic through the well-worn groove over most of its length. This whole section of trail was in bright sun, but the air was still cold and the snow was icy. Snow Toad and I had to wait while a party of four cleared the snowfield, and once we had started, the snowfield was ours and everybody else just waited patiently for their turn. There were no written rules, that I know of, yet the snow crossing was orderly, and no one seemed to be too troubled about the inconvenience.

With less than a quarter of a mile to go, I was determined to ignore the pounding in my head, but each step was a labored effort. We were at about 14,000 feet, and finally I told Snow Toad that I had to stop and take some ibuprofen before continuing. Snow Toad stopped briefly, looked at me, and said, “I can’t stop. I gotta go. I’m just so excited that I think I might burst…” He had been bouncing from one foot to the other, just like the night before, and without waiting for a response, he turned back around and ran the last quarter of a mile to the top.

That last quarter mile was really tough. My head still hurt, and there was no speed slow enough to avoid the pounding in my temples. I must have looked distressed, too. But assistance often comes in unexpected ways. I had climbed on a rock to let two hikers pass. The first one said, “You’re almost there!” Her smile was encouraging. Her hiking partner added, “You can see the smokestack on the cabin from here.” He was pointing up the hill. And that was all I needed. I was within 100 vertical feet of the top, and I was going to get there, even if I had to crawl. My head still hurt, but all that mattered was making the summit.

This was the culmination of six months of talking, three months of planning, two weeks of shopping, and one unspoken decision that we had each independently reached while driving to the trailhead. Our original plan was to hike cross-country through Miter Basin to get to the mountain, and if we summited, cool, but the trip was really about getting there. But as the trip grew closer, Mt. Whitney became the objective. I decided that if the other guys wanted to do the cross-country trip, that would be okay, but I was going to hoof it to the mountain. When I told Snow Toad of this, he said that he had decided the same thing, and so too had Don. 

Top of the mountain, the world beneath our feet.

The cabin at the top of Whitney is a curiosity. I knew there was a cabin, I’d even seen pictures, but still its presence seemed an oddity. The cabin was larger than I expected, a testament to the enduring popularity of the destination. The cabin was completed in 1909 with funding from the Smithsonian Institution, just five years after the completion of the first trail to the summit. The current trail took two years to build and was completed in September 1930. So the summit of Mt. Whitney has been a place of regular activity for a long time. It is not wilderness, even though it is a wilderness destination, but it is still very cool.

There were seven people at the summit when I arrived, and one of them was Snow Toad. Don and Christopher arrived about ten minutes after me. It was 9:30 in the morning. By then, two of the other folks had left, and a short time later, so did the other four. For 15 minutes that morning, we had the entire summit to ourselves, and every other one of the 320 million Americans who live in the lower 48 states (as well as everyone in Hawaii and almost all of those living in Alaska) “are beneath the bottom of my boots,” as Snow Toad put it.

The air temperature could not have been more than 40 degrees, but the bright sun chased the cold away, and there was no wind to speak of. It was glorious! The skies were clear, the view uninterrupted in every direction. We could see a bit of residual smoke in the Owens Valley, and on the far western horizon, beyond Kaweah Peaks, a few wispy clouds were taking up residence. Neither the smoke nor the clouds were much to blemish the spectacle from the summit, and I suspect we were all relieved to know that we would not have to huddle under an emergency blanket in the cabin overnight to get our chance to see the view. I cannot speak authoritatively for the other guys, but I know I don’t have x-ray vision, and would have had to worry about the creepy-crawlies on the floor of a mountain cabin.

Our timing could not have been better. We hit a small seam, a gap between the early-morning crazies, and the late-morning throngs of people who had started from either Whitney Portal or Trail Camp on the eastern side. As we gathered our gear, they started to filter in, a few here, a few there, but it was clear that the summit was going to be one big high-altitude rave for the rest of the day.

We encountered no fewer than 150 people who were hiking from Trail Junction to the summit as we were hiking down. They came in a variety of shapes and sizes, some well provisioned, others not, a few looking like they were having fun, about a third of them looking rather sick from the altitude and the exertion. Some of the hikers were friendly, some all business, some a bit of both. At one point all four of us were hiking together, and we all stepped aside (to the uphill side, of course) to let a man and a woman pass. He raised his hand in thanks, but didn’t even break stride. The woman who was trailing behind saw this as a chance to stop for a moment.

“How much farther? Lie to me if it’s more than a quarter mile. I hate hiking uphill.”

“It’s about a quarter mile,” said Snow Toad. “Maybe a long quarter mile.”

“That’s what I figured,” she grunted. “I don’t know how he talked me into this. I hate hiking uphill. But I’m gonna kick his ass going downhill. I always kick his ass going downhill.”

The man, who had stopped about 20 yards up the trail, shouted, “Shut up, woman. Hike!”

The woman snorted in disgust, but she started hiking again. “Don’t you tell me to shut up. You ain’t gonna get any tonight. I’m gonna kick your ass going down, and you ain’t gonna get any.”

“You always say that,” replied the man. “Now let’s go.”

“Yeah, but I mean it this time…” As they hiked away we could hear them continue to jabber back and forth. This had been going on for a long time, probably years.

“Let’s go,” said Don with a smile. “I’m gonna kick your asses going down.”

“No news there,” I said. “Everybody kicks my ass going down.”

As we were approaching Trail Junction, we ran across a guy who was climbing the peak with his 10-year-old daughter. We had met these same folks three days earlier as we were hiking in at Cottonwood Pass. They had spent the night at Chicken Spring Lake, which is just west of the pass, to start getting acclimated. Their plan was to hike out, spend Monday night at the Cottonwood Pass trailhead, spend the next night at Whitney Portal, the following night at Trail Camp, and then climb the peak on Thursday. This seemed a mighty ambitious agenda for a 10-year old girl, but the dad didn’t appear overly concerned with making the summit. If they made it, great, if not, they would have a good time anyway.

Both of them appeared comfortable and happy to be hiking, with no ill effects of the altitude, and no grumbling about the hardship. The time was getting on toward 11:00 in the morning, or just about as late as you would want to be making the ascent with another mile and a half to go. Small, puffy white clouds were starting to form in the western sky, and the top of Mt. Whitney (or anywhere along the ridge trail) is not a place to be in an afternoon thunderstorm. So the closer we got to Trail Junction, the more harried and uncomfortable the oncoming hikers appeared. Whether they got a late start or were just not quite up to the task I can’t say, but the easygoing dad and the happy 10-year-old daughter stood out in sharp contrast to the late tide of the sick and the disgruntled.

On the hike down.

We reached Trail Junction just shy of 11:30 a.m., and left behind the eastern hordes as we headed back to our camp along Whitney Creek. The sun was now high in the sky, the landscape transformed by the bright light of day. Even now, traffic on the trail was scarce, but as we neared Guitar Lake, the crowds I had been expecting finally materialized. There were big groups and small groups, and every flat—or sort of flat—space, no matter how small, sported a brightly colored tent of one size or another, several of them two stories tall. The whole lake was a rabbit warren of people, crammed into every available spot. So it was with a sense of profound relief that the four of us rolled into our own campsite, a vast site that might very well be confused for wilderness given the lack of noisy neighbors and views uninterrupted by a small city of tents. It was 2:00 in the afternoon.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Yellowstone Report, Day 7

[This is the last installment of the Yellowstone Report, by guest author, Oliver Lignell.]

Day 7 – The last day: Carbon Totems and Car Trouble (6 miles)
After six days in the backcountry, breakfast and packing was efficient. No one lingered in their tents. While the hike out was short, less than six miles, a 10 hour drive home was still ahead. Not much conversation took place around the camp as we all were occupied with thoughts of our return – spouses, families, work, etc. However, at least for myself, this was not obsessive or depressing, but actually refreshing. It had been some time since thoughts from normal life had been considered and we were hiking through beautiful, treed trails under blue skies. The air was fresh and crisp.
After a mile, we started to climb to the top of a ridge where we saw the bigger picture for the day – and the bigger picture in Yellowstone, for the first time. Between dense woods, the Bechler River Canyon, and close, low hills we had never truly seen an unobstructed view of the greater Yellowstone landscape. But, from the ridge, we finally had a bigger view and saw snowcapped ranges to the west and to the north of us. It was a reminder of the non-Alpine nature of this shuttle trip. While we had all enjoyed the canyons, rivers, falls, geysers, and – of course, Mr. Bubbles – we had not touched on the high Alpine experience. And I, for one, vowed that next year would involve off trail and high altitude hiking.
(Author’s note: see the Popo Agie blog for details on how well we hit that mark)
The other observation was the change in the landscape due to the Yellowstone fire. We had not seen any signs of fire in our route so far, but the bulk of the trail ahead of us had been scarred by one of the 17 fires that blazed just over a decade before. This accounted for our ability to see to the mountain ranges more than 50 miles away. While there was a healthy and abundant growth of bushes and small trees, none of them topped more than 12 feet.  Also of interest were the burned trees that had not been consumed in the fire. Some lay on the ground, but there were occasional standing survivors bare and sere like lone sentinels over the new growing forest. I had dubbed similar trees in the Gila Wilderness of New Mexico Carbon Totems. I shared this with Kevin and Rick and they agreed it was descriptive.
A carbon totem stands tall.

We hiked quickly as we came down from the ridge and soon the trail widened in to two tracks. Within the hour we were at the Shoshone Lake trail head. But alas, there was no waiting car with the Dans. What had happened? Had our meticulous plan gone awry? With various attitudes of disgruntlement, we dropped our packs and snacked, read the trail signs, and considered jumping one of the few cars parked at the trailhead. However, our lack of patience was eventually rewarded. The car pulled up about 40 minutes after we had arrived.
After the necessary greetings, we got down to the details. What had happened? Well, this was a bit of a longer story as the two filled us in on their travails from the last two days. When the groups had split, both Dan S. and Dan T. knew that they had faced a really long day of hiking. What they did not realize was that the entire way would be hard scrabble hiking up and down interminable rolling landscape from hills surrounding northern shore of the lake.  They had both started out with foot challenges and, by the time they finished, those foot challenges had escalated to foot crises. Dan T. had blisters that had blisters. Huge bubbles, some bleeding. This explained why, despite his sunny disposition, he hobbled over to greet us.
While Dan T. hobbled, Dan S. limped. It turns out that his boots did not fit very well. As he grudgingly explained, he toes had been bumping up against the inside of his boots for days and the pounding of the last hike out was the last straw. Both big toes were quite bruised and he expected to lose the nails. But the look of chagrin on his face was more than just pain. As he explained, that was the least of the dilemma’s they had encountered the day before.
As planned, my car was at the trailhead waiting for them. They hobbled and limped over. Dan S. pulled out the electronic key and pressed unlock. No beep-beep. No nothing. He tried it multiple ways: over his head, resting on the door, pointing at the engine, between his legs. Nothing worked. Dan T. grabbed it and tried his techniques. No go. They scratched their heads and determined that the battery must have died and there was not enough charge remaining to unlock the doors. They found and slid out the emergency key, but it did not fit and they were unable to open the doors.
So, on to the backup plan. They did have a cell phone and were able to call Yellowstone village and have a tow truck come out. As they waited, they tried other approaches, but nothing worked. Finally, with no other options, they sat down and finally had some food. They hadn’t eaten for hours in their focus to hike out. After Dan S. finished his energy bar, he reached in his pocket for another one and found another key. Suddenly, it all came together. He pulled it out and pointed it at the car. He pressed the button. Beep-beep, the car unlocked.
As Dan later explained to us, he had first pulled out his car’s electronic key and tried to use it on my car. And it wouldn’t work. Go figure. Once he had some calories in his brain, as he put it, he realized he had two sets of keys and used the other key. The one I had given him. Then it worked. The car started right up and they threw there packs in. It was right about then that the tow truck pulled in.
Dan S. rushed out waving his arms. “We don’t need you now,“ he said. “We got it started. Thanks anyway.” Dan started to walk back to the car.
“Well, just a minute,” the mechanic said. “I drove 30 miles to get here and I’m glad you got it started, but whether I helped you or not, you still have to pay the service fee. That’s $139 and 52 cents.” He enunciated the amount with precision and satisfaction. Perhaps he had memorized it.
Dan S. was silent as his natural thrift, or as his friends would say – cheapness, struggled against his impulse to do the right and ethical thing. This took some time. Dan T, who witnessed this struggle, spoke up.
“You know, Dan”, he said. “I’m happy to help out with that if you want to, you know, maybe split the cost”. Dan T. is very generous at heart and meant every word. Or almost every word. Dan S. must have sensed that this was offer was over the top. Even he couldn’t make Dan help pay for his own bone-headed mistake.
“No”, Dan S. said. He sighed. “I’ll take care of it.” With that he gave the credit card to the mechanic, who had been whistling with some delight as he waited for the problem to be solved.
“Well”, he said, as he started up the tow truck again and started to pull out. “You all have a great day!” He tipped his hat. Dan S. grumbled. And, as he later related this story to Rick, Kevin, and I, he was still grumbling. And, if truth be told, at the time of this writing, Dan S. is still grumbling.
However, despite their pain that day; physical, financial and emotional, the two did reach their goals. They did see Old Faithful, they did spend the night in real beds, and they did have hot showers. This would explain why they looked a whole lot whiter than the rest of us. They also had retrieved Dan S’s car, so we were all ready to roll. We sorted out packs and equipment and began the long drive home broken up of course, as planned, with a stop at the Gannet Grill in Lander, where good burgers and fries were had by all – and beers by those not driving.
Another memorable MountainGuy adventure was complete. One more bucket list item was checked off. Our only regrets were not having John along and the lack of peaks. Well, we knew that we would remedy that in next year’s hike. It would have been even more memorable to have seen Grizzly bears, but we decided that was ok. As we drove back some of us were already thinking about where we would go the next year. And, to be completely honest, some of us were thinking about sore feet and whether they would go at all. For the record, that was not me. I still think about Mr. Bubbles.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Yellowstone Report, Day 6

[This is a continuation of the Yellowstone Report, by guest author, Oliver Lignell.]
Day 6 – Almost blown away (11 miles)
The next morning was bright and sunny. The MountainGuys were all business as we organized to move quickly in our different directions:  packs down, food made, and then the more time-consuming activity of foot preparation and gear re-organization. These later activities took substantially more time than it should have. I believe I was all packed except for food while Dan T. was only on the third protective layer on his right foot. However, this did provide an opportunity to confirm who was going to take what and the routes we would take. For instance, the overnight crew would take food that needed to be cooked, and the hiking out group would take the trash. My headlamp had died and Dan S.’s was something just short of a lighthouse – in size and brightness. We traded, that was worth carrying for one night, at least.
I studied the map with the primary goal of confirming our plans for the Shoshone Geyser Basin, but I was also curious about the route that the Dans wanted to take. I scratched my head.
“Ahh, Dan?” I asked Dan S. “ Do you realize that you guys are hiking out 14 miles following the North Shore in one day while we are taking two days to go 17 miles in two days going via the Basin? I don’t want to be critical, but why would you do that all at once?”
Dan took immediate affront to this innocent question. “I told you”, he said with some aggravation. “It’s because our feet hurt.” As if this was obvious and made total sense.
“Well”, I said reasonably. “It seems to me that your plan might actually be a little harder on your feet. But,” I added, “I’m ok with your rationale. Even if it makes no sense to me.” I thought this was very generous.
“Oh, thanks for your permission, your highness!” said Dan derisively. “As if I cared with what you thought anyway. I’m going that way and you can’t stop me.”
Dan T. was looking as if he suddenly developed doubts about 14 miles with a grumpy MountainGuy. I, on the other hand, felt as if a couple of days with a smaller group sounded like a great idea. We finished packing in silence. However, with the natural resilience and optimism that are such hallmarks of the true MountainGuy, we were all in great moods and raring to head out just a minutes later. We hiked together as a group back up from the lake to the Shoshone Lake trail and said our good byes. The Dan team headed toward the northern shore and the rest of us headed to the southern shore and the geyser basin.
(Author’s note: there is no written record to document the escapades of the Dan team, so the reader will need to reference the secondary source material gathered and reported by the Author when the team re-united.)
The hike back down the lovely Aspen- and Ash-shaded trail was fast and easy. The 3 miles back to where we first reached the lake was completed in less than an hour. Ten minutes past that junction, the thermal features began to surface - literally. There was so much to see the next two miles took us several hours to navigate. Our first sights were steaming hillsides and vales. These looked as I imagined the surface of Venus would look: weird and twisted landscape, grey lifeless rock and gravel, with steam rising from numerous vents and fumaroles.  And, two major bonuses: first, we saw no one else – we were completely on our own. Second, unlike the publicly accessible thermal features of Yellowstone, there were no barriers, no signs, and no controlled areas. We could go wherever we liked. If we wanted to fall into boiling water and stew, we could. The freedom was great. We wandered across the landscape.
As we hiked deeper in to the area, the terrain flattened out in to a gravelly baked plain with a stream running through it. While we did not spot any large animals, we did find mighty evidence of mighty bison. This led us to believe that the Buffaloes enjoyed the warm water and air around the hot spots. As we followed the trail closer to the stream, we actually saw a hole in the bank of the stream constantly spurting shots of water in to the stream. Right past this, we dropped our packs so we could pursue extended exploration. My goal was clear – hot pools! Kevin, on the other hand, pulled out his camera and cruised for photo opportunities. Rick wandered through the site looking everywhere as he munched a trail bar.
Despite serious looking, I was disappointed in my search for a hot pool. My technique was scientific and extensive. I got in the stream with my Crocs and cruised up and down the stream, splashing closer to hot springs and spouts pouring water in to the stream. But none were big enough or hot enough to create any opportunities. I hauled myself out a bit downstream from our packs on to the grey hard pack of a flattened geyser dome. About twenty yards away, a large spout hole loomed. Nearly 4 feet tall and about 10 feet across, is looked like an immense melted candle. I approached cautiously and peered inside. Except for a little steam and bubbling sounds, it was quiescent. It’s twisted and tortured interior was fascinating, but did not require more than a few minutes of sightseeing. Being a little cool at this point, I returned to the packs to put on more clothes. Kevin and Rick wandered over to check it out too. Suddenly, I heard a shout.
“It’s gonna blow!” Shouted Kevin. He was running wildly back towards the packs, yelling about increasing noise from the spout. Rick hustled away in the other direction, maintaining a dignified air but moving quickly. Less than a second later, the geyser exploded, shooting a boiling jet of water close to 50 feet in the air. I was so glad this had not happened two minutes earlier when I had been looking down in to its guts. I would have had a fresh body and a cooked head – not an enviable situation, even for someone as burly as a MountainGuy. I was tough, but not that tough. Fortunately, Kevin’s lightning reflexes paid off. For keeping us from being blown away, Kevin earned the rarely earned Geothermal Sensitivity Badge.

The geyser that almost blew our heads off.

After the brush with being parboiled, we exercised greater caution as we explored the remaining thermal area. Many more sights awaited us:  geysers, fumaroles, and even a double spouted fumarole that not only looked like a dragon’s snout emerging from the ground, but sounded like the snores of a giant with a congested sinus. But, even better: I achieved my goal. I had not given up on the hot pool and had kept my eyes peeled on every twist and turn of the creek flowing through the area. And, it paid off.
Not far from a cluster of thermal features,  I found a bend in the creek where previous visitors had lined up stones to retain the hot water trickling from a boiling hot pool less than a dozen feet from the creek. I was in my birthday clothes and in the water within about 30 seconds. Ahhh. Perfect. I relaxed for about 15 minutes before the other guys even noticed I was gone. However, even when the saw it, they weren’t that interested. I don’t know if it was the sight of me spread out in the pool or if they had become jaded after Mr. Bubbles , but whatever the reason was, I enjoyed a peaceful soak.
Oliver's solo hot pool
All good things must come to an end though and with 8 miles more to go before we reached our final camp for the trip, we had to move on. We took a final look at the last wild thermal area features and found one sunken pit where are tree had fallen in. It was impossible to tell how long it had been there, but it had a curious feature. The majority of the tree, below the surface of the water seemed perfectly preserved, while the trunk above the water was a riot of color. Just how the chemical treatment did this was not known, but we agreed it was pretty cool.
Pretty cool tree in sunken pool.
Leaving the geyser basin behind, we began a long hike around the southern edge of the lake and then north on the east side of Shoshone Lake until we reached the outlet and crossed it to our last night in Yellowstone. The terrain we followed was rolling hills broken by tantalizing glimpses of the lake. Before we left the shores of lake though, we saw a surprising sight. The southern shallow edges of the lake were covered in large mats of lily pads. For guys who primarily hiked in the mountainous western US, lily pads were more identified with southern latitudes and not lakes in Northern Wyoming. Again, we had no firm facts to guide our speculation as to cause, but that did not stop serious thinkers like us. We came to the conclusion, pending actual facts, that warmer waters from the Geyser basin and a shallow depth were enough, over the centuries, to encourage large expanses of lily pads.

Lily pad mat on southern Shoshone Lake

However, after leaving the shore, our glimpses of the lake diminished and we entered the slog-zone. Our bodies were hiking machines, grinding up the hills and cruising down the switch backs.  Dense pines restricted our vision to the path, tree trunks, and a narrow ribbon of blue sky. This focus served us well as we encountered our second fleeting evidence of large mammals in the park. The savvy reader will recall that large buffalo pies were spotted near the Shoshone Geyser basin. That evidence was easier to analyze. Our next encounter was tougher. Literally.
I believe I was in the lead at this point in the afternoon. I stopped when I encountered a large sign of animal activity approximately 7 inches in length and 1-2 inches in diameter. I was puzzling over this as Rick, and then Kevin arrived and stopped.
“What’s up?” Asked Rick.
“Animal sign”, I said, scratching my chin with the abstracted air of the experienced MountainGuy cogitating. “I don’t think it’s bear. There’s no sign of berries. In fact, “ I poked it with a twig, “that looks like fur in there. So, my guess is a carnivore of some kind.”
Rick nodded his head. “Yep, probably coyote”.
At this point, Kevin snorted. “Don’t you guys ever get tired of guessing?” He sounded exasperated. “We need facts. This is science!” With that remark he dropped his pack on the ground and started rooting in deep in the interior, muttering under his breath.
Rick and I looked at each other and shrugged. We knew this was not the time to harass Kevin. This was serious business. We soon found out exactly how serious.
“Aha!” Kevin exclaimed. He pulled out a magnifying glass from his pack and laid it on the bandana he had spread out. “Yes!”. He pulled out a small manual. “Gotcha now”, he exclaimed, and pulled out a caliper.
Before our amazed eyes, he began examining the scat through the lens and measuring the width down to the fraction of the millimeter. Then he opened his book and began flipping through pages.  I bent down to look at the cover. It read, “Scat Identification: Mammals of the rocky mountain west”.  I couldn’t stop myself.
“You carried a book on shit for the last 6 days?” I burst out.  Rick snorted. I think it was something between a laugh and a choke since he had been scarfing a power bar with a fair bit of energy when I spoke. I started laughing.
“Hey!” Kevin had a very serious look on his face. “This is a very useful book. See, we needed it now. And I have it,” he said triumphantly. “And”, he slapped the book on his hand several times. “This proves it.”
“Proves what?” said Rick, reasonably.
“It was a wolf,” said Kevin. Folding his arms and looking righteous.
I grabbed his book. “Let me look at that.” I looked at the pictures and the identification description. “Well, by god, you’re right!” I was now a believer. I turned to Rick, as if he had been the doubter.
“You see?” I told him. “ It was a wolf. It’s right here,” I slapped the book for emphasis. “Good work, Kevin, “ I concluded.
Both Kevin and Rick looked at me with some suspicion. I don’t know why. It was obviously a wolf, after all. For his scientific approach, instrumentation, and readiness to analyze, Kevin was awarded the CSI Scat Badge.
After this high point, the rest of the hike went quickly, with only a final challenge of crossing the outlet for the Shoshone River. This was about sixty feet wide and about 2-3 deep. We could see evidence that it ran at least a couple of feet higher earlier in the summer. As before, Crocs™ proved the crossing a minor event. However, Kevin and Rick opted to avoid wet shoes and choose to go bare foot. I did not know this at first as I was already back in boots and looking for the trail to the campsite by then. However, when I began to hear curses and shouts I ran back to the outlet and observed first Kevin’s and then Rick’s herky jerky dance across the river bed’s sharp rocks with packs swinging wildly as they shouted. For the record, it was only Rick that cursed. I started laughing, but quietly. It was clearly one of those moments and I did not want to be killed on our last evening in the wilderness.
Despite this last challenge, we were at our campsite in another 10 minutes. Finding our tent spots, organizing food and gathering water was the next activity. As usual, the last dinner was a conglomeration of nearly every remaining food item. This time we called it Paella. There was rice with saffron, salmon, chicken spiced with a hot and sour soup mix. Add fried onion and viola, it was complete. Weird and unusual as that sounds, we all actually enjoyed it and there was more than enough for all.  Topped off with freeze-dried Raspberry Crumble for desert and we were set. The sun went down over the west side of the lake as we finished up. Another excellent day filled with exploration and hard work. Fun, but tinged with some sadness as we contemplated our return to our quotidian lives.