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.

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