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.