Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Miter Basin, July 2012, Day 6

Day 6: Lay Day Number Two, or The Hanging Gardens of Primrose Lake and the Lagavulin Highlands (3 miles)

One of the interesting features of Miter Basin is its isolation from anyplace else that is anywhere near as interesting. Mt. Whitney is two days away, the Kern River is two days away, and anything worth seeing in the Golden Trout Wilderness is probably also two days away. From our campsite in the trees below Sky Blue Lake, our choices were to hike over Crabtree Pass and down to Crabtree Meadow, which we had already decided not to do, to hike back toward the trailhead and tour some of the small lakes on the other side of New Army Pass, or to hang out one more day and explore more of Miter Basin. In a wetter year the Golden Trout Wilderness might have been a more interesting alternative, but the Golden Trout is all stream camping, and we weren’t sure how reliable the water would be. So this wasn’t a hard choice. Miter Basin was the coolest spot around, and we were already there.

When we awoke that morning, the sky was cloudy, and it was a good bet that we were going to see rain before the end of the day. Under the circumstances Primrose Lake looked to be a fine day hike, offering a little bit of challenging climbing, an intriguing destination, and the chance to take a nap in the afternoon.

From our campsite, Primrose Lake was just a short stroll down the Rock Creek Valley, a nice little climb up Primrose Creek, and then we’re there. In fact, we arrived so quickly that none of us were really satisfied by the effort. 

Nice little climb up Primrose Creek. (Photo ST)

“We could climb to the top of the green,” Oliver said, pointing to the far end of the lake. A small stream flowed into the lake from the valley above, and the area around the stream was an oasis of green with bright wildflower highlights in the otherwise gray landscape of tumbled rock and steep cliffs. 

Primrose Lake. (Photo ST)

We all agreed. The scramble around Primrose Lake was easy, although there were a few spots that required clambering in, around, and amongst the boulders that lined the lake. As we hiked around, I kept one eye peeled for fish. I finally did see one, a pretty golden trout, plump and maybe ten inches long, lounging around right where the little stream entered the lake. It was easy to see why this one was so big and fat—she got first dibs on anything washing down the stream. In the minute or so that I was watching, I saw a smaller fish try to sneak into her little pool, but he took off when he realized that he was more likely to be lunch than to get lunch.

Primrose Lake is a pretty lake, with soaring spires of crumbling rock along both sides. At the far end a series of hanging valleys disappear into a jumbled moraine below the cliffs that line the head of the valley. The camping at Primrose Lake is rocky and exposed, but better than Sky Blue Lake. Flat ground extends for several hundred feet at the lower end of the lake, and there are plenty of spots where one could set up camp without running afoul of any pesky environmental considerations. Nonetheless, there was nothing there that cried out for an extended visit, or offered enticement for a return trip. 

MountainGuys at Primrose Lake.

The climb “to the top of the green” at the upper end of the lake was steep, but no more dangerous than anything else we had been doing, and probably a good bit safer than Oliver’s cooking. We were climbing not because of inspired vision or high expectations, but for lack of anything better to do. So we were unprepared for the mystical enchantment of the Hanging Gardens of Primrose Lake and the Lagavulin Highlands.

At the top of the green was a most wondrous garden of meandering watercourses and green tundra, of boulders hewn from the mountain in stark geometric shapes and arranged for dramatic effect by God’s own hand. This was a place that inspired philosophical reflection and joyous revelry in the wonderment of the natural world. It was a place where one could find clarity and peace. So naturally we did not dare stay long. Wonderment and revelry are terrific, but philosophical reflection is a heavy burden, and clarity and peace are simply too far beyond the writ of the MountainGuys. 

Hanging Gardens of Primrose Lake.

The green continued up the mountain to the next little hanging valley, and our mission was to climb to the top of the green. So we continued on. The next little valley was completely different and marvelous in its own way. A trickling stream flowed through a meadow of muted colors and hardy grasses. The ground was soft underfoot, and the smell of peat was strong in the air.

“If I ever come back here,” said Snow Toad, “I’m going to set my tent up right over there.” He pointed to a flat spot on some soft ground above the meadow. “I’m going to bring a bottle of Lagavulin (scotch), and I am going to carry it in the glass bottle. I’m going to set up my chair right there, and breathe in the scent of peat, and toast the heavens and enjoy the hell out of this place.” This last seemed a bit of a mixed metaphor, but none of us could argue with the sincerity of the sentiment.

Lagvulin Highlands.

The ribbon of green climbed on above the Lagavulin Highlands, and so did we. This last little section was steep and treacherous, climbing the face of the moraine below the cliffs. Beyond the face of moraine was a tumbled landscape of broken rock, and had we continued, most likely broken bones. We had completed our goal of climbing to the top of the green, the only remaining question being the location of Mt. Pickering. Oliver maintained it was at the head of the valley, I was quite certain it was off to the west, and Rick found himself reluctantly agreeing with me.  I say reluctantly because Rick and I have known each other for a very long time, and it is painful for either of us to admit that the other could be right about anything. But Rick would probably take exception to that.

Where's Mt. Pickering?

The time was getting on towards noon as we started the hike down. We stopped for lunch in the Hanging Gardens in the lee of a large boulder, but the clouds were getting thicker, the air was cold, and the wind was picking up. Our lunch break was short. We wanted to make sure we got back to camp before the rain started, or at the very least make the climb down to the valley floor before the rain arrived. The climb up to Primrose Lake was not bad, but there were steep sections, none of which would have been any fun on wet, slick granite. 

Unnamed pond, Rock Creek Valley beyond.

Rain showers came and went throughout the afternoon, but never amounted to much. Oliver and I set up my tarp tent as a communal space just in case (I was sleeping under the tarp I brought along because the flat spaces were so small), but it was never really necessary. I spent the afternoon fishing, and caught about 25 fish. They were all small and scrawny, so I didn’t keep any of them. Oliver and Rick played at least two rounds of golf, and maybe three. Snow Toad had been making a point of getting some serious chair time in, but with the inclement weather he went straight to naptime. For his determined efforts in the face of enormous hardship, Snow Toad was awarded the Dan T. Badge (formerly the Sleeping Beauty Badge, renamed for Dan due his extraordinary achievement in the field of backcountry napping). Snow Toad is the first of our companions to earn the badge other than Dan T, and in a sleep-off between the two of them we would be hard-pressed to predict a winner.

When I returned from my fishing expedition, which had ranged far and wide across the Rock Creek Valley in search of a fish bigger than eight inches, Oliver had set up his cooking operation in the tarp tent and was preparing hot and sour soup. The soup course was followed by a main course of sticky rice and beef, and for dessert he prepared fried tortillas with cinnamon sugar and peanut butter. Snow Toad had ramen.

We all retired to our tents early that night in anticipation of an early start the next day. Our goal was to hike back over New Army Pass, and the trend in the weather had been deteriorating, with clouds and showers arriving earlier each of the last two days. Besides, Snow Toad was exhausted from all his napping, both Oliver and Rick were suffering from arm fatigue, and I was felled by a serious case of fisherman’s wrist. Scotch helped, but was not the cure-all I had hoped for.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Miter Basin, July 2012, Day 5

Day 5: To the Pass and Back, or Close Enough to Know Better (4 miles)

When I got out of my shelter in the morning, I was surprised that I was the first one up. I wasn’t surprised that Snow Toad was not up, since he is inclined to sleep until the sun makes his tent so hot and uncomfortable that getting up is the only remaining option. But Oliver wasn’t awake and neither was Rick. I always enjoy getting up first, starting the coffee water, and having a chance to ease into the day without having to answer any difficult questions like, “How are you?” “Shit, I don’t know. I just got up.”

Crown of rocks.

The sun was just highlighting the crown of rocks circling the mountaintop to the west, a brilliant spotlight on the fragile and unstable monoliths that might come crashing down the mountainside at any time. This was both a striking and slightly unnerving train of thought, but if the rocks start to fall, one’s only real hope is to be elsewhere at the time. So I gave up feeling vulnerable to better enjoy the morning.

By the time Oliver crawled out of his tent and made his way to the kitchen I was already kicked back in my chair with a hot cup of coffee in my hand.

“You’re up early today,” said Oliver in a slightly accusatory tone, no doubt remembering my slow pace from a couple of mornings before.

“You know me,” I replied, “I always like to get up early on the days we aren’t planning to hike.”

I handed Oliver the pot of hot water so that he could make himself a cup of coffee. Then he, too, planted himself firmly in his chair.

Until now the weather had been spectacular and bright, with only a few puffy white clouds floating by in the later afternoons. But on this morning there were clouds building in the southern sky and the sun had not even had the chance to burn off the morning chill. Early morning clouds often presage afternoon thunderstorms, and we did not want to be on a ridge top when they occurred. We had not made an allowance for inclement weather when we planned our hike to Crabtree Pass. However, this was an exploratory mission and our camp was already set up, so even if the weather turned sour, we could just turn back and find dry warmth in our tents.

Rick was not far behind Oliver, and even Snow Toad was up before the sun peeked over the mountains to the east. The hike to Crabtree Pass was not long, perhaps 2.5 miles each way, but it was all off trail and about 1,400 feet of elevation gain from our campsite to the pass. Our plan was to get an early start. That didn’t happen, but by 9:00 a.m. we were ready to hike.

Ready to hike.

Now, there is off trail and then there is Off Trail; the hike up Rock Creek to Crabtree Pass is the former. There may be no official trail, but the contours of the land tend to funnel the traffic into a relatively orderly path, and there is enough traffic that that path begins to look like a regular trail in a lot of places. For example, one could go around Sky Blue Lake on the western side, but it is a steeply sloped jumble of irregular boulders and scree piled down to the water’s edge. The eastern side is flat with a pleasant meadow through which to stroll. No surprise then that the eastern side is the way most people choose to go.

Should there be a trail through Miter Basin? That’s a question we pondered throughout our stay. A trail would invite more traffic, which would add to the number of campers and campsites and general use, but there is already a lot of traffic and a trail might reduce the damage to the fragile meadows and tundra that all those people cause. Past Sky Blue Lake the trail would require a lot of maintenance, however, since the rocks are in constant motion and the trail would have to be largely rebuilt every year. So I guess on balance it is best to leave the area without an official trail, even though a trail could protect the most vulnerable areas.

The hike to Crabtree Pass is not difficult, although there are a few tricky spots. Perhaps the most challenging bit is the cliff face right below Sky Blue Lake. There are numerous ways to get to the top, and by traversing the slope just above the trees where we were camped, we could have avoided climbing altogether. But what fun is that? I found a neat little rock chute that offered a modest challenge without being too technical, Oliver and Rick climbed up the waterfall, and Snow Toad followed another chute that looked a lot like a rock staircase but with handholds and a 30 foot fall off to one side.

Sky Blue Lake is a strikingly beautiful lake, framed by rock slicks and tumbled boulders. The Miter rises above the lake on the eastern side, and to the north the land climbs steeply up toward Crabtree Pass. To the south one has a view of the Rock Creek valley and the Major General. 

The Miter.

Although beautiful, all of the camping at Sky Blue Lake is mediocre and in violation of the rules governing wilderness camping. There are flat spots, but all are within 100 feet of the water. That did not stop people from camping there, however. We came across one group that was camped on a rock shelf not more than 15 feet from the edge of the lake, and passed by another group that was camped on a large, flat rock that was surrounded by water on three sides. These campsites were scenic but exposed, and would have been miserable in any kind of inclement weather. But if camping on a rock-hard surface out in the open too close to the water’s edge is your kind of camping, then Sky Blue Lake is a place for you. 

Sky Blue Lake looking south.

From Sky Blue Lake the easiest path follows Rock Creek, which winds its way through a narrow valley. Just above the lake one has to scramble across a moraine and onto a granite shelf that defines the edge of the narrow valley on the southern side. It was while picking our way across the moraine that I met a father with his two adults sons hiking down from the pass. They had climbed over the pass and down to the Crabtree Lakes the day before, but the fishing was lousy so they had came back over the pass and were planning to camp at Sky Blue Lake. Although their mood was grim and they were not in a mood to talk, I did learn that there was a trail marked by cairns on the west side of the pass, but that they were hard to see on the way up because all the rocks just blended in. They also said there was a lot of sand, and that once over the pass it was more of the same on the other side.

I had to admit that this sounded pretty dreary, and as much as I wanted to say I had climbed over Crabtree Pass, I did not want to say it so much that I wanted to climb over it twice or spend three days hiking out along the Pacific Crest Trail. I might very well have started lobbying to not climb the pass right then and there, but all of the other guys had pressed on while I was talking with the father and sons, and there was no one around to lobby.

Bits of well-trodden earth were evident in the sandy spots on the shelf, and an occasional cairn added to sense that we were on the right path. I watched Oliver and Snow Toad and Rick disappear over a small rise of sculpted granite, but when I reached the top, they were nowhere to be seen. From my vantage point I had an excellent view of a large, deep lake nestled between steep walls of granite on the eastern and western sides. The shelf we had had been following formed the southern edge of the lake; to the north a steep slope of jumbled rocks and sand and scree continued on up toward the pass. At first glance, the trail appeared to continue in a northerly direction over the rise and around the west side of the lake, and I figured that was where my three companions were headed. But closer inspection suggested otherwise.  

Climbing the moraine.

From the top of the rise the ground fell steeply to the edge of the lake. There was no obvious way down without risking life and limb, or at least a quick dip in the lake, so I continued along the top of the rise to the east, which slowly descended to the lake outlet. The outlet was dry, but there were plenty of footprints in the soft sand and cairns stacked up on the far side. From here I could see that the trail continued around the eastern side of the lake. 

MountainGuy Lake. Unnamed on the map, claimed as our own.

The eastern edge was very steep, and the trail descended down to lake level before climbing over a small promontory that jutted out above the water. From the top of the promontory a rough use trail scrambled across the steep scree slope and then back down to the water’s edge. I could just make out the outlines of a path on the far side of the lake that would begin the climb up to the pass.

It was now about 11:00 in the morning. My companions clearly had gone the wrong way once they reached the granite rise above the lake, and while I was supremely hopeful that they had come to no harm on the steep rock, I figured that in an emergency I would be more capable if my stomach wasn’t growling. So I sat down on a rock in the sun to eat and wait for their arrival. I am not sure if I could quite see the pass from my rock perch, but I had a pretty good idea of where it was, and nothing I could see looked like anything I wanted to do.

“We were wondering what happened to you,” said Oliver, as he came around the corner and found me relaxing in the sun.

“Well, by using my finely tuned sense of, ‘I don’t want to climb down that slick rock face,’ I was able to skirt the dangerous cliff and discover the relatively well marked trail,” I replied.

“Yes, but you missed a great chance to do some excellent, if unnecessary, climbing. Plus, I don’t think that we even came close to dying more than two or three times.” Oliver was positively ecstatic.

“Put it that way,” I said thoughtfully, “and I’m really sorry that I’ve been sitting here comfortably in the sun eating snacks.”

“An excellent idea!” Oliver sat down on the rock and started looking through his pack.

Rick and Snow Toad came around the corner and extended greetings, then they, too, sat down to eat.

A fine lunch spot.

“That’s the trail over there,” I said, pointing to the use trail climbing over the promontory. Follow that line there over that steeply sloped and unstable scree and boulder field, and then back down the water, and that’s how you get around. I’m pretty sure that’s the pass up there.” I pointed to ridge top at the head of the narrow valley.

“What is our reward for climbing over that pass tomorrow?” Oliver asked.

“We either climb back the next day, or we spend three days hiking out along the Pacific Crest Trail,” I responded.

“I don’t want to do that,” said Snow Toad. “And I don’t need to climb any further. My self-esteem will be just fine from here.”

“Mine, too,” Rick nodded in agreement.

Oliver looked up at the pass, measuring the effort-reward involved. “I don’t need to go any farther. And if we head back now, we can still make our tee time.”

The trip back from MountainGuy Lake, claimed as our own because the lake was unnamed on our maps, was pretty quick. Even so, we did not make the tee time. Fortunately, the course was not crowded, this being one of the middle days of the week—Wednesday, I think—so we were able to push our tee time back. But Wednesday is also laundry day. When traveling light, one of the luxuries left behind is that second pair of underwear and another set of clean socks. In the interests of hygiene, as well as avoiding the discomfort associated with seven-day-old undergarments, tee time had to be pushed back even further to accommodate the wash cycle.

Puffy white clouds had been drifting by throughout the day, and while the sun was warm, the air was chilly when a cloud obscured the sun. All of which is to say that clothing hung on a line to dry was not drying quickly, and Oliver was getting more anxious by the moment. Eventually he could wait no longer, donning his still damp clothing so he could go out and play golf. Rick was carrying a good bit more clothing than either Oliver or I, so he, too, was ready to play. However, while my underwear had dried enough so that I could dispense with the towel I had been wearing, my pants were still wet and I was in no mood to wear wet trousers.

“Just play in your boxers,” Oliver chided. “Who’s going to see?”

“No one is going to see,” I replied, pretty sure that a picture of me playing disc golf in skivvies would be posted on Facebook if I went out there. “I’ll just lounge around camp in my underwear drinking coffee until my pants are dry. Maybe I’ll join you for a second round when you get back. Ask Snow Toad. He can use my disc.”

“Don’t ask Snow Toad,” said Snow Toad. “He has some serious chair time scheduled, and he may have to take a nap, too.”

When Rick and Oliver returned 40 minutes later, my pants were dry. Oliver had beaten Rick by a stroke, and was leading two games to one on the Miter Basin Tournament Course. This next game looked to be a bit of a grudge match. 

Disc golf warriors.

The first tee started behind a rock in the kitchen area, or rather a line between the rock and that tree, or actually anywhere in the vicinity of either the rock or the tree. Considering this was their fourth time playing this course, a lot of the particulars were still unsettled. This should have been a clue.

The first hole required a tricky shot between the trees and down the hill to the stream, the target being a dead tree behind those two dead trees there. The stream was out of bounds. I threw last. My first shot was a good one, leaving me in a good position to birdie the hole. My second shot was even better, swooping around the two dead trees and hitting the targeted tree.

“Wrong tree.” Rick smiled. “We meant that tree there,” pointing to a small stump about six feet further on.

“Too bad,” added Oliver. “That would have been a nice shot.”

And so it went. Every time I made a good shot, the target would change due to some unfathomable misunderstanding about the object in question. Oliver and Rick professed to being perplexed. Neither of them could remember having such a hard time describing a course, and they were insincerely apologetic throughout. I think I finished about 36 strokes back after nine holes. I suspected foul play, but the only other witnesses weren’t talking. As for the grudge match, Oliver took the last game by a stroke on the ninth hole, when Rick’s tee shot took off and ended up in a bush.

The clouds that had been drifting by all day thickened up in the late afternoon, and a smattering of rain started to fall about 5:00. Snow Toad was already in his tent, and the rest of us took the rain as an omen to follow suit. Oliver was concerned about his burrow tent, which he had once again located amongst the roots of a large tree, fearing that in a heavy rain he might end up in a small pond. Fortunately, the rain never amounted to much, and as soon as it passed on, Oliver was out of his tent building a series of dikes and ditches to channel the water away from his burrow. The effort netted Oliver the Army Corp of Engineers badge, with environmental epaulets for the sustainable design and use of all natural materials.

Dinner that night was a delicious butternut squash ravioli in marinara sauce, followed by cookies and chocolates for dessert. Snow Toad had ramen. 

Kicking back for dinner.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Miter Basin, July 2012, Day 4

Day 4: Middle Soldier Lake to a Bitchin’ Spot Just Below Sky Blue Lake, or We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Trails! (3 miles)

We were greeted by mellow, MountainGuy Oliver when we woke up that third morning. He did not get up at 6:00 in the morning, and he was not packed and ready to go at 7:30. Corporate Oliver had finally decided to take the rest of the week off, and for that we were all grateful. Even without the grumpy drill sergeant, our experience and professionalism were discipline enough, and we were ready to hike by 9:00 a.m.

Even now our plans were in flux. Our goal for the day was to hike into Miter Basin and find a good campsite, but beyond that all was uncertain. We could hike over Crabtree Pass at the far northern end of Miter Basin, and from there down to Crabtree Lakes and Crabtree Meadows. But once at Crabtree Meadows our only choices would be to turn around and hike back over Crabtree Pass, or to return via the Pacific Crest Trail. Snow Toad and I hiked that section of the PCT the year before and found little to recommend it. So aside from going over Crabtree Pass (12,600 feet, all off trail), that option looked like a lot of work with scant reward. A second idea was to hike out of the Basin to the south, and head into the Golden Trout Wilderness. This would open up a lot of interesting possibilities, all of them featuring a lot of hiking in places with little water. Finally, we talked about taking a layover day in Miter Basin, and then revisiting the issue with one less day to work with.

From our campsite at Middle Soldier Lake, we hiked northwest through a heavily wooded section on the lower flanks of the Major General, a large promontory that guards the southeastern entrance to Miter Basin. We started out following a faint use trail that wound its way through the trees above the lake, but the problem with use trails is that one never really knows where they go unless one has been on them before. In this case that trail petered out at the edge of a small meadow about a quarter of mile from where we started. In a wetter year, we probably would have had to climb around the upper reaches of the meadow, which even in a dry year was oozy and soft. On the far side of the meadow was as steep rock scramble, covered in loose stones and dense brush. Had we known better, we would have chosen hiking down meadow rather than climbing up on the far side, but the thick forest and steep terrain meant we couldn’t really get a good sense of the lay of the land. And besides, who doesn’t love a good rock scramble, especially when covered in loose stones and dense brush? 

Scouting the rock scramble.

By the time we reached the ledge at the top of the scramble, we could see that our chosen path had taken us too high, and that traversing the meadow lower down would have led us to a trail and onto a nice little plateau across which we could have strolled into Miter Basin. But there was no turning back now, because that would be what sissies and smart people do. I think we climbed halfway to the top of the Major General that morning in an effort to maintain our elevation so that we would not have to hike up what we had just hiked down. The view was excellent, but as a practical matter, all that our efforts produced was an opportunity to climb down all the elevation that we had just climbed up.

Climbing up now so we won't have to later. (Photo ST)

Miter Basin is mostly above tree line, windswept, barren, and starkly beautiful. The basin is ringed on both sides by peaks that are well over 13,000 feet tall, and in the center of it all is The Miter, a fortress of rock that is 12,770 feet high. Most of the rock in Miter Basin is granitic in origin, but despite the massive scale of the mountains and the hardness of the granite, the entire landscape evokes a certain fragility. The landscape feels old, though by geologic standards, the entire Sierra Nevada range is quite young. Tumbled piles of massive boulders and small stones and deep sand clothe the lower reaches of the towering mountains, evidence of rapid erosion and the impermanence of all one sees. Dozens of lakes are found in Miter Basin, several of them quite large. Some of them contain fish. Down the center of the basin meanders Rock Creek, following the crooked path of an old river with time to dawdle in deep pools and narrow byways. There were many fish in Rock Creek when we arrived. Miter Basin is a happy place.

Strolling into Miter Basin. (Photo ST)

At the head of the main valley, just below Sky Blue Lake, is one small stand of foxtail pines, out of place and well above tree line, the last vestige of evergreens in a sea of rock, willows, and alpine tundra. Rock Creek flows out of Sky Blue Lake and across a rocky shelf before careening over a small waterfall and down to the valley floor as a thousand rivulets and a wall of trickling water. The stand of trees is immediately to the east of the waterfall, a tiny bit of shelter in an otherwise vast and open landscape.

A thousand trickles equals one waterfall.

There are two campsites in the stand of trees. One is down at the edge of the meadow, and the other is well up the steep slope and well hidden. Rick and I arrived at the first campsite and set our packs down, a little disappointed that this mosquito-infested flattish spot would somehow qualify as “good” camping. Poor to fair, perhaps, but not good. So I left Rick to casually swat mosquitoes and watch for bears while I set out to scout up the hill to see if there was anything better. The news was good on several fronts. First, the higher I climbed, the less dense the mosquito population, and second, about 150 feet up the hill was a fine little site, or rather, a small shelf in the hillside that harbored several flat tent sites, an open spot for our kitchen, and an excellent view of the Rock Creek valley through the trees. We could even hear the tinkling of the waterfall in the background. The only thing that prevented us from achieving complete jubilation is that we would have to take back all of the nasty things we said about the helpful hiker we had met the day before.

Excellent campsite up in the trees.

Our arrival at the site coincided with lunch, which was both timely and a testament to our overall lack of hiking ambition. None of us was interested in hoisting our lightweight packs and hiking any further. When Snow Toad announced that he was going to take advantage of our early arrival and day hike to Iridescent Lake, both Oliver and Rick were quick to sign on. However, I had other fish to fry, or rather I had seen fish in the creek that I wanted to fry, so I stayed behind to get my gear together.

With the other guys gone, the woods came alive. I could hear the waterfall in the background, the flies buzzing about, and the wind whispering through the trees. I sat back to listen, but mostly what I heard was the wind telling me to take a nap. My tent was warm from the sun, and lying down felt mighty good. When the wind offers such excellent advice, best take it.

That is how the other guys found me when they returned to camp. My fishing gear was out and ready, and I was in and asleep. My napping did not last through their arrival, which was heralded by the sound of 10,000 trumpets, or the MountainGuy equivalent of that. They were laughing and stomping and snorting and talking, excited to be back and happy to have gone. I imagine there was some general enjoyment at my expense, but as soon as they quieted down enough to hear the wind, they too could see the wisdom of the wind’s advice. So the last laugh was mine, or would have been if I had been willing to get out of my tent to claim it.

Iridescent Lake. (Photo ST)

The fishing in Rock Creek, when I finally got there, was very good. The creek was running low and slow, and the fish were hungry and competitive. Most of them were pretty scrawny, too. The low water levels meant that many mosquito-breeding ponds were already dry by the first week of July, and there just weren’t enough bugs to go around. I had good success with mosquitoes (dry flies) and black ants (also dry flies), and with this one black ant fly in particular. Every cast seemed to catch a fish, even when all that was left of the fly was one small black feather and a hook. I caught thirteen golden trout altogether, and kept five, which we fried up and served on crackers as an appetizer.

Appetizer course. (Photo ST)

While I was fishing, Oliver and Rick were playing disc golf. The course ranged far and wide, starting from our campsite up in the trees, out over the stream, down to the valley floor, back and forth a few times, and back up to the campsite. There were rocks for tees and rocks for targets, there were trees as targets and tees between trees, and just like real golf, there were genuine water hazards and occasional cursing. I believe that they played 18 holes, or perhaps they were just really bad, because they were out on the valley floor a long time heaving and cursing and scaring the fish. 

When I returned to camp, Snow Toad was in his usual repose, which is to say that he was inside his tent. Snow Toad goes fast when he is hiking, but once in camp his lack of ambition is boundless. When not in his tent, he is in his chair with his stove on one side and his food bin on the other.

Oliver and Rick were sitting in the kitchen area, fashioned from an open spot amongst the trees that was too sloped for sleeping. Oliver was getting ready to make dinner, a project that was delayed by the arrival of fresh trout. Dinner that night was corn chowder, another in a long list of soups that seem promising but do not quite deliver as a main meal. Without bread or some other starch to fill out the menu, soups just don’t seem to have enough heft to really fill the belly when backpacking. Snow Toad emerged from his tent and took up station in his chair while we were eating the appetizer course, but he didn’t want fish and he didn’t want corn chowder. He was saving himself for ramen, accompanied by at least four cups of hot chocolate. I guess if you’re living large, you might as well go all the way.

With dinner done, we had finally reached a decision point. We could stay in Miter Basin another day and do some day hikes, or we could pack up and climb over Crabtree Pass. If we took a lay day in Miter Basin, we would still be able to hike over the pass the following day with enough time to hike back to the trailhead along the Pacific Crest Trail. After much deliberation, the decision was finally made. We would day hike to the top of Crabtree Pass and check things out tomorrow. If we liked what we saw, we’d hike over the pass the following day.

Sunset on the peaks above Iridescent Lake.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Miter Basin, July 2012, Day 3

Day 3: Cottonwood Lake Number 3 to Soldier Lake, or “Let’s Take the Long Way Around” (7 miles)

At the time we had no idea just how much Oliver was looking forward to going over the pass. Once again our plan was to start hiking at 9:00. When I crawled out of my tent at 7:30, Oliver was ready to go. He had already eaten breakfast, packed his pack, and was sitting in his chair whistling a mildly annoying tune. It might have been Stairway to Heaven.

Both Snow Toad and Rick were up and about. Neither had eaten although the contents of their packs were arranged in neat little piles in preparation for packing. This was all very bad news. My own gear was still strewn about, and all I could think about was making coffee. I would once again be the last man packed. Since I am always the last man packed even when I get a head start on the job, I did not see how this situation would end well. I would just have to hurry and hope no one (like Oliver) noticed my tardiness.

Unfortunately, my progress was slowed by having to make a repair on my brand-new, super-lightweight tarp-tent. With the light shining through the fabric in the bright morning sun, I discovered a section at the top of the tent where the fabric had ruptured. I was carrying patching tape, so making the repair was no big deal, but I resented having to make a repair on a brand new piece of gear that had not been subjected to anything more strenuous than a light breeze and a bit of sun. I had made the decision the carry this tarp-tent at the last minute hoping to save a few ounces. I would have been better off with the slightly heavier tent.

By the time I was packed, Oliver was once again fit to be tied. He had offered to help me pack. He had offered make my breakfast. He had offered to help lighten my load by throwing half my gear in the lake. Although each of these offers was sincere and heartfelt, I declined them all, just grateful to have such a helpful friend. By 8:30 Oliver could bear no further delay. He hoisted his pack and said he would wait for us by Cottonwood Number 4. Rick, too, had finished packing, so he put on his pack and headed out with Oliver. Snow Toad and I finished our own packing, did a quick sweep around the campsite to make sure nothing was left behind, and then we headed out as well, hoping that the high-strung corporate Oliver would soon be replaced by the mellow backpacking Oliver. The time was 8:55.

Rick and Oliver were waiting for us on some rocks just above the lake. The bright morning light provided an excellent view of the contours of the eastward-facing valley, which made it much easier to make out the outlines of the trail I did not want to take.

“Looks pretty doable,” said Oliver, clearly excited by the dangerous mission. “What do you think, Rick?”

“I don’t want to do it,” interjected Snow Toad, not waiting for Rick to respond. “You can do it if you want, but I’m gonna hike around.”

“Well, you want to do it, don’t you, John?” asked Rick.

“No, I think I was pretty clear that I don’t want to do it. What I said is that, in the name of solidarity and camaraderie and all that shit, I would take another look at the pass in the morning before deciding that I wouldn’t do it.”

Rick studied the pass for a moment. “I don’t want to do it, either.”

Oliver was crushed. Sort of. Perhaps he really did want to climb the pass. I’m willing to give him full credit. He was the only one whose man-card was not dented by the experience. But once we all decided to abandon him, Oliver decided he did not want to climb Army Pass by himself, so he agreed to join us on the hike around.

View of Cottonwood 3 from Cottonwood 4
In all, the detour around probably did not cost us all that much. We set out cross-country below Cottonwood Number 3 and above Cottonwood Number 2 to cut off a long hitch in the trail. This was a bit of a scramble at first, but we shortly found a well-used use trail created by all of the people who imagined they were going over Army Pass and then thought the better of it. 

On the right trail.

New Army Pass is an excellent pass. The climb is long, but the trail is well graded and the views are first rate. Rick led the climb all the way from Long Lake, and was the first to the top of the pass. That was the first time that any of us could remember Rick being the first to the top of the pass. He had been first to the top of several small hills over the years, but never first to the top of the pass. For his nonstop grind to the top, we all agreed that Rick should be awarded the Caterpillar (tractor, not butterfly) Badge.

Excellent views: High Lake, Long Lake, South Fork Lakes, and Owens Valley

Even with the detour we arrived at the top of New Army Pass by 12:30. The sun was bright, but it was none too warm as we stopped to enjoy some lunch and take in the view. New Army Pass is 12,310 feet. To the west and the east, the land slopes away, revealing vast distances and tall peaks standing sentinel on the horizon. To the south stands Cirque Peak (12,900 ft.), and to the north Mt. Langley (14,027 ft.), a reminder that as high as we were, we were still nowhere near the top in this part of the Sierra.

New Army Pass.

Lunch at the pass.

Army Pass is half a mile north of New Army Pass, and quite a bit lower at 12,000 feet. We took the time to peer over the edge as we passed by, and Snow Toad even ventured out as far as the rock slide of near-certain peril, and while I did not take a poll on this, I do not think any of us regretted our decision to go ‘round the long way.

From Army Pass there is a well-defined use trail to the top of Mt. Langley. Our plan was to follow the use trail for the appropriate distance, and then travel cross-country from there to Upper Soldier Lake. Both Snow Toad and I vaguely remembered reading a description of that cross-country route, but we had done so in anticipation of the trip we had taken the year before, so we were thin on the details. From the lay of the land, however, we could tell that we wanted to stay relatively high, at about the 12,200-foot contour line, before climbing down to the lake from the northeast.

The view north from the pass. Our trail lies that-a-way.

Now, of course, there are no contour lines on the ground. This had not been a problem for us in the past, but in the name of lightweight backpacking Oliver had decided to leave his pocket weather station/altimeter and secret decoder ring at home. So we just had to estimate the elevation using the map, the compass, and our experience interpreting the lay of the land. In other words, we were guessing. And we guessed a little early. This left us scrambling across the rock-strewn slope about 50 yards below the trail as we made our way toward the top of the small knoll that separated us from the Upper Soldier Lake valley.

One of the great things about going cross-country is that even if you know where you are and where you are going, the best route is not always obvious. It was at one such moment, as we were studying the map, orienting the compass, and throwing out a flurry of guesses, that a passing hiker determined that we needed help and that he was the man for the job.

“The trail is down that way,” he shouted from the trail to Mt. Langley, pointing south to the steep valley behind us.

“What?” Rick shouted back.

That was all the encouragement the helpful hiker needed to abandon the trail and come bounding down the slope to where we stood. “We’re just coming back from climbing Mt. Langley,” the hiker said with obvious pride. We were all glad that he told us, because none of us would have thought of asking him where he had been or where he was going. “I just said that the trail was back that way,” again pointing to the south.

The trail to where?” asked Snow Toad.

“You know, the trail from the pass down to Rock Creek.”

“Well, I guess if we were headed to Rock Creek, we’d want to be on that trail,” Snow Toad noted with logical satisfaction tinged with hostility.

“We’re on our way to the Soldier Lakes,” said Rick, jumping in to prevent Snow Toad from browbeating the young man for assuming we were stupid. “And from there we’ll hike into Miter Basin.”

“Yeah,” Oliver added drily, looking up from the map, “we’re looking for the contour line.”

“You’re looking for the what?!” asked the helpful hiker, clearly taken aback.

“The 12,000-foot contour line,” Oliver elaborated. “The guidebook said we should follow that line before descending into the Upper Soldier Lake valley from the northeast. So we’re looking for it.”

“Oh,” said the hiker, still trying to be helpful. “I don’t think you’ll be able to find it.” He paused for a moment. “And the cross-country trail to Upper Soldier Lake is really difficult.”

“You’ve done it?” asked Snow Toad.

“No,” continued the hiker, “but I’ve heard it’s really hard. You might want to go back to the trail and take that to Lower Soldier Lake. That’s a nice hike. And once you get into the basin, there is one last stand of pine trees just below Sky Blue Lake. You want to camp there, because the camping at the lake is lousy.”

We thanked the helpful hiker for his helpful hints, and then went back to looking for the contour line as he returned to his party, no doubt anxious to tell them that we were a bunch of lightweight idiots. We never did find the contour line, but somehow we still managed to find our way down to Middle Soldier Lake. The hike was not hard.

Middle Soldier Lake is an off-trail destination, but well used nonetheless. It is easy to see why. It is a pretty little lake and the camping is very good. The lake lies at the western end of a small hanging valley. All of the camping at the middle lake is on the northern shore, although I guess one could camp in the alpine meadow that rings the lake’s eastern side. 

Excellent camping at Middle Soldier Lake.

Our campsite was on the edge of a large, sandy clearing, under the shade of a giant foxtail pine. At least, my tent was under the shade of a giant foxtail pine. Rick set his tent up on the edge of the clearing well away from the trees, Snow Toad found an easily defensible spot surrounded by a high bulwark of rocks, and Oliver nestled his ultralight tarp tent as a burrow amongst the roots of another large tree, far from the clearing.

It is our habit to spread out, but site selection is also highly dependent on equipment. My large tarp tent needs a large flat spot to pitch properly, and large flat spots are not all that common. Rick and Snow Toad were both carrying freestanding tents, and so were free agents and able to take advantage of spots with less-than excellent stake-holding properties. Oliver tried to save a few ounces by bringing along his tarp tent, remembering only after we arrived in the wilderness that he really wasn’t all that fond of it. His tent is pitched with a hiking pole as the main support, but it is very low to the ground and difficult to get in and out. After seven days of living in his burrow, Oliver began to resemble a burrowing animal, complete with mud-covered knees and whiskers.

Oliver's burrow tent.

Dinner that night included bean and cheese burritos with chicken and two types of salsa, followed by cookies for dessert. Snow Toad had ramen. We sat for a while after dinner, but days are long at 11,000 feet in the second week of July. The last light did not drain out of the sky until almost 9:30 every evening, and the last MountainGuy was usually in bed well before that. On this evening, though, I stayed up long enough to watch the stars come out, and was rewarded for my fortitude with a meteor that started out as a three small sparks streaking across the night sky, slowly growing brighter until the finale, when it exploded, probably from colliding with a star somewhere in the vicinity of Aquarius.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Miter Basin, July 2012, Day 2

Day 1: Cottonwood Lakes Campground to Cottonwood Lake #3, or No Question About It, This Is A Popular Spot (5.5 miles)

Sleep that first night proved elusive. The elevation might have had something to do with it, or it might have been the dry air. Perhaps it was the drinking or the excitement of being out on the trail once again. Or maybe it was the small group of campers that pulled into the site next to ours at 10:00 that night, unencumbered by any sense of propriety or decorum. Everything they did they did at full volume, blissfully unaware that their voices might carry in the thin air of a silent mountain night. Worst was a woman with a very large baritone voice, who did a fine job as a play-by-play announcer keeping the entire campground informed about what each member of the group was doing. When she announced, at 11:00, that it was time for bed, we could hear the entire campground, including the horses and the mules, let out an audible sigh of relief.

Relief was short-lived, however. At 4:30 in the morning, the whole herd of cowboy wannabes began stirring, banging pots, striking tents, gathering gear, and getting ready to head out. To their credit, they spoke in muffled voices and tried not to turn their one-million-candle-power spotlight in our direction too often, but there were at least 27 wannabes and noise was an unavoidable consequence. I would have preferred to sleep without distraction, but the annoyance was almost worth it when the lady with the baritone voice emerged from her tent at 7:30 complaining (at full volume) about the noisy neighbors.

Our plan was to start hiking by 9:00, but because of the goings on behind us, both Rick and Oliver were up early and ready to hike by 8:00. My packing took longer, in part because I had to organize all the car-camping gear and pack the truck, but mostly because I am not at my most efficient in the morning. By the time I had everything organized to my liking, Oliver was fit to be tied. His repeated offers of help were well intended, and might in fact have been helpful if I had a clearer idea of what I wanted to do. When he could stand it no longer, Oliver offered to hike to the trailhead and wait there. Finally, something he and I could agree on. Despite all the histrionics (his), catty commentary (Rick and Snow Toad), and bumbling efforts at getting organized (mine), we were at the trailhead and ready to hike by 9:00.

The parking lot was much less crowded this morning than it had been the night before, and the walk-in campground was largely deserted. We were hiking in on the Sunday after 4th of July, almost everybody else was hiking out. This was a good omen. Over the years the MountainGuys have sought out venues that are both spectacular and remote.  Sequoia is certainly spectacular, but it is not so remote that lots of people don’t go there. So it was with a sense of relief that most of the traffic was in the opposite direction. 

Welcome to the wilderness. (Photo ST)

Day hikers comprised most of the traffic in our direction, and unburdened by packs as light as ours, went zipping by at regular intervals. Occasionally we would pass another group of backpackers, or they would pass us, and it was on one such chance encounter that we decided to see what we could learn about the trail ahead.

On the trail. (Photo ST)

One of the vexing questions we had tried to answer before setting out was which pass to take to cross into Sequoia National Park. The main trail winds up past lakes Long and High before climbing over New Army Pass. However, since this was to be a cross-country trip, we planned to follow the trail up to Cottonwood Lakes with the intention of going over Army Pass the following morning. The main trail used to go over Army Pass, which is about 300 feet lower than New Army Pass, but Army Pass is prone to being snowed in until late in the season. So the new trail was built and the old trail was allowed to slowly disappear. The most recent reports we could obtain suggested that Army Pass was probably open, but no guarantees.

We had stopped along the trail to take a group photo when a young couple, each carrying a large daypack, hove into view. They agreed to take our picture and we agreed to return the favor. While we were thus engaged, Snow Toad asked what they knew of Army Pass.

“Army Pass is a miserable, sandy, mess. New Army Pass is excellent. We will go over the pass today, and maybe do some climbing. Think we will climb Langley and see how far we get. Maybe all the way to Whitney. We have a few days,” he added with a smug shrug of his daypack.

The young man seemed to know what he was talking about, but the packs these two were carrying were impossibly small for the trip he had described, and his perky demeanor and youthful zest were enough to convince us that he could not possibly be right. We would go over Army Pass.

Signs in the wilderness. Almost spooky.

There are six Cottonwood Lakes, conveniently named One through Six. Lakes One and Two are small, with nothing really to recommend them as campsites. Lakes Three, Four, and Five are very pretty lakes, and pretty good sized, although the camping is pretty mediocre. Cottonwood Six is tucked high above the rest of the lakes, on the southeast flank of Mt. Langley. Lakes Four, Five, and Six are all above treeline. The best camping is up in the trees at Cottonwood Three, although it is still pretty mediocre. I will say this, though: by putting ourselves up in the trees, well away from the water, the spot where we camped was little used and clean, almost like wilderness.

Campsite at Cottonwood 3. Almost like wilderness. (Photo ST)

The trail to Army Pass climbs between Lakes Four and Five, traverses the north side of Cottonwood Four, and then disappears into an ever-shifting mountainside of sand. But we didn’t know that yet. We arrived at Cottonwood Lakes at about 1:30, and so had a long afternoon to relax and explore our surroundings. Snow Toad spent the afternoon alternating between seat time and napping, and Oliver and Rick played 18 holes of disc golf. I took the opportunity to spend time fishing. Since Cottonwood Three is strictly catch-and-release, I decided to take the hike up to Cottonwood Five, which is catch-and-eat. The fishing was lousy, but the hike was nice and it gave me a chance to scout out the pass for our climb the next day. 

Cottonwood 5.

I spent a lot of time studying that pass, and I can honestly say there was nothing about it that appealed to me. Once past the lake, we would have to climb up a very steep slope of deep, grainy sand, clamber around a steep section of smooth rock covered in scree, and then work our way up a long shelf that leads to the pass. Just before the pass, there was one last troubling section where we would have to scramble over exposed rock, perched atop a cliff face; one slip would mean a very long fall to the bottom. New Army Pass was looking better all the time. 

Army Pass.

When I returned to camp, Oliver was in the midst of preparing a fine meal of tortellini with salmon. Fresh trout would have been a nice addition, but as I had none to offer, the salmon would have to do. Snow Toad had ramen. Over dinner, I reported what I had learned about the pass.

“I don’t want to go over that pass,” I said with conviction.

“Think we could do it?” asked Oliver.

“Yes, I think we could. But I don’t want to.”

“Well, if you think it’s doable,” said Rick, “then I think we should do it.”

“You did promise us a cross-country route,” added Snow Toad.

“Yes, I did. But there is no need to be dogmatic about this. I don’t want to go over that pass.”

“Great!” said Oliver. “I’m looking forward to going over the pass tomorrow.”