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.
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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.

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