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.

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