Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Miter Basin, July 2012, Day 1

View of Miter Basin from Upper Soldier Lake

  The MountainGuy News:
Miter Basin, Sequoia National Park
July 2012
The Lightweight Edition

Lightweight backpacking is all the rage. The MountainGuys did not start this trend, but there is no one out there more lightweight than us, so we could have. Given this natural affinity we decided to try it. Gone were the elaborate three-course meals, the fancy campsites, the heavy packs, and the tired groans of overburdened MountainGuys. In their place were much lighter two-course meals, kitchen areas barely large enough for six to eight people, and lightweight, slightly-larger-than-average daypacks. Well, maybe not quite. Lightweight backpacking may be all the rage, but that’s not how MountainGuys do it.  When MountainGuys do lightweight backpacking, it’s a lot less light than it could be, and comfort still counts. We carry chairs.

Nonetheless, as we gracefully slip into middle age, weight matters more. Last year, on an eight-day trip to Mt. Whitney, my pack weighed 57 pounds, including fuel and water and two bear bins. This year my pack weighed 47 pounds, including fuel and water, one bear bin, and scotch. Through careful planning, thoughtful elimination of less-often-used gear, and aggressive use of my credit card, I was able to shave ten pounds off my load. I like to joke that it costs $100 dollars to get the last half a pound out of anything. You do the math.

Mine was not the only success story. Oliver, too, managed to get his load to less than 50 pounds, and he even added the chair. Snow Toad’s total pack was lighter still, somewhere around 42 pounds, but he doesn’t eat anything except gruel and the occasional Top Ramen. Rick took a different approach, losing 40 pounds of body weight through a carefully controlled diet and a punishing regimen of climbing small mountains with a massive pack on his back. Rick’s pack could not have weighed less than 60 pounds when we started the trip, and was stuffed so full that the bag was grotesque and misshapen from the strain. But overall he was lighter, too.

Lightweight packs. You can tell because we are all still smiling.

We were lighter in other ways, as well. Dan T. was unable to make the trip because he was scheduled to get shoulder surgery, Kevin dropped out due to pressing family matters, and Dan S. waffled so much that he was invited to become the IHOP spokesperson. (He’s still trying to decide if he wants the job.) So in addition to pack weight and body weight, we also shed the weight of three heavy personalities. This would truly be a lightweight trip.

The venue for the MountainGuy trip this year was the Miter Basin in Sequoia National Park. Miter Basin lies just south of Mt. Whitney, and is a well-worn cross-country route from the Cottonwood Lakes trailhead to Crabtree Meadows, a major staging ground for those planning to climb Mt. Whitney from the west. We were all looking forward to a cross-country trip. Our plan was to hike in from the Cottonwood Lakes trailhead, climb over Army Pass, descend to Upper Soldier Lake, and from there we would hike into Miter Basin.

Once in the basin, we figured we would have many options. We could climb over Crabtree Pass, head down to Crabtree Meadows, and then hike back to Cottonwood Lakes via the Pacific Crest Trail. Another alternative would be to hike down Rock Creek, which drains Miter Basin, and into the Golden Trout Wilderness. Both of these options were long on hiking and short on layover days, but with our new, lightweight approach to backpacking, no big deal. A third option, which seemed far-fetched in the planning stages, included up to three lay days in the itinerary so that we could explore Miter Basin. Such an easygoing approach is unheard of for a MountainGuy trip, except when Dan T. and Dan S. come along, because they are always advocating for more lay days. Then we hear about it a lot. Imagine the irony: the year that we decide to have three lay days on an eight-day trip is the year that neither of the Dans was with us.

Despite our commitment to getting lighter, that commitment did not extend to the first night barbeque. This was the 10th Annual First-Night Barbeque and MountainGuy Extravaganza, and there was no way we were going to cut back there. The menu featured steaks, onions, potatoes, and vegetables grilled on the fire, served with a fine selection of beer, wine, tequila and scotch. However, the entire operation looked doubtful for a time, even though we were packing all the supplies.

Annual Barbecue Extravaganza. (Photo ST)

Who knew that the week of July 4th would be such a siren song for backpackers from far and wide? When we pulled into the Cottonwood Creek Campground, it was mayhem all around. The walk-in campsites were all taken, there were backpackers stretched out on the asphalt parking lot and spilling out of cars, and there was a constant stream of even more backpackers emerging from their week-long sojourn in the wilderness. July 4th fell on a Wednesday this year, so I guess people figured they might as well take Thursday and Friday off too. But if you’re taking three days, might as well take Monday and Tuesday, and get a whole week. If you have a whole week, you can go someplace far away—like the east side of Sequoia National Park.

Good fortune smiled upon us, however. After stationing Oliver by a flat spot in the walk-in campground adjacent to one of the walk-in sites—just in case—Rick, Snow Toad, and I set off to find a better spot. We found one on the far side of the horse campground, far away from the mayhem, but not so close to the small herd of horses, mules, and wannabe cowboys that we could smell them. Rick and I walked back to get the car and collect Oliver, we paid the fee (twice as much as the fee for the walk-in sites, but well worth it), and then stretched out for a fine evening of gear talk, drinking, and excellent food.

First night campsite at Cottonwood Lakes campground.