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.

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