Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Miter Basin, July 2012, Day 9

Day 9: Upper South Fork Lake to Cottonwood Lakes Campground, or It’s All Downhill From Here (5 miles)

Upper South Fork Lake proved to be a good camping spot for the last night of our trip. We were up early and ready to hike by 8:00 in the morning, and by 10:00 we were at the trailhead. 

Cottonwood Lakes Basin.

The trailhead parking lot was much less crowded than it had been when we left, but the trail was still all buggered up with people. Most of the folks that we met were day hikers, although quite of few of them could have been hiking in for a week or more, given that their backpacks were larger than a lunch sack.

Shortly after we started hiking, we ran across a couple of guys who were resting by the side of the trail. What was striking about this pair is that they were young (early twenties, tops), but they were carrying full-size backpacks, maybe 70 liters capacity. That’s the same size as my pack.

“How long you going in for?” I asked, as my companions kept on hiking.

“Just over two weeks,” one of the guys replied. “We’ll make it to Miter Basin today, and we hope to climb Whitney tomorrow. If all goes well we’ll be in Yosemite before our food runs out.”

Two weeks to Yosemite seemed mighty ambitious to me, and I said so.

“Yeah,” the guy continued, I know what you mean. This pack is killing me.” He looked over to his friend who was nodding in agreement. “I mean, it weighs almost 34 pounds, including water, but I got almost 20 pounds of food.”

“You were able to fit 20 pounds of food in a bear bin?” I asked, incredulous.

The two guys smiled. “We’re not carrying bear bins. We plan to sleep with our food, and we’re prepared to defend it from bears if we have to.”

Now, I’ve seen bears peel back the outer skin of a car door with their bare paws to get inside. These two guys were young and athletic, but I’m thinking a bear could take them. So I said so. They were pretty sure that a bear couldn’t. We talked for a while longer, and when I turned to go, one of the guys said, “Hey! Is that a chair on the back of your pack? That is so cool!”

“Yeah,” I said proudly. “It’s the best backpacking chair you can find.”

The two guys looked at each other, one of them said, “Wow, those guys carry chairs. Man, I hope I’m never that old.”

“You keep baiting bears,” I said back, “and you won’t ever be.”

“You got that right,” the young man retorted. So we parted company, with those on both sides of the debate feeling just a little bit smug.

We were all very glad to reach the trailhead, which was somehow much further than we remembered. Light packs certainly help, but no matter what, there are no shortcuts when the shortest route to the car is five miles, and the last two miles are always a lot longer than they seem on the way in. 

The last two miles are the longest.

Our experiment with lightweight backpacking had been a great success. We didn’t do anything that we couldn’t have done with heavier packs, but I don’t think anyone missed the things we left behind. I am sure that there is still more that can be shed. Packing light is a process, the goal being to carry only what is truly needed. We will never be those guys whose pack for a weekend trip weighs 10 pounds. When the MountainGuys do lightweight backpacking it’s a lot less light than it could be. We carry chairs and sit in them at every opportunity. 

Still smiling. Our packs must be very light,

Monday, May 13, 2013

Miter Basin, July 2012, Day 8

Day 8: Milling About in the General Vicinity of South Fork Lakes, With a Side Trip to Cirque Lake (3 miles)

Our decision to stay at Upper South Fork Lake was one of convenience, putting us about five miles from the trailhead for our hike out on the last day, but it was also a stroke of good fortune. From the Cottonwood Lakes trailhead, there really aren’t that many places one can go on the east side of the ridge. The Cottonwood Lakes are the place where most people go, probably because the Cottonwood Lakes are quite pretty and the South Fork Lakes much less so.

Nice camping at Upper South Fork Lake. (Photo ST)

Upper South Fork Lake is really more of a pond, or perhaps a sump, than it is a lake, and by the end of summer it may be just a damp spot on the ground. There is a small stream that feeds into the lake from the mountains above, but the catchment area is small, and the stream was barely flowing at the beginning of July. Curiously, the South Fork Lakes are a separate watershed from the Cottonwood Lakes. Their headwaters share the same basin below New Army Pass, but a small spit of land separates Upper South Fork Lake from Long Lake, though they are only a few hundred yards apart and at about the same elevation.

To the south of Upper South Fork Lake is a long, low shoulder of crumbling granite that juts out from the ridge below Cirque Peak, and on the other side of that shoulder is Cirque Lake. With one more day to enjoy and no real reason to move camp—other than the sheer joy of packing and unpacking—we decided that a third lay-over day was just the ticket. Cirque Lake offered a unique combination of promise and proximity that made it a must see destination for a short but vigorous day hike on an otherwise kickback day.

The climb to the top of the low shoulder of crumbling granite did not take long, perhaps 15 or 20 minutes, which, even by our decidedly unambitious standards, was not enough. From the top of the shoulder we had an excellent view of the lake and of the cirque surrounding it. Cirque Lake is very pretty, and had we known we might have been tempted to move. There is one good camping spot on the northwest side of the lake, and several sites in the meadow below the lake on the eastern side that would have been okay. On the western side of the lake, the ground slopes very steeply up toward the high ridge and Cirque Peak. Across the lake on the southern side was a well-defined glacial moraine hanging about midway between the lake level and the high ridge behind.

“Maybe we should go explore that moraine,” Snow Toad suggested. “See how it slopes down the lake level? We could just follow it down and then explore the lake.”

No one had a better plan, so we agreed to go explore the moraine. The only question was how to get there. Climbing down to the lake level and then back up would have been the most sensible route, but sensible is for lightweights. We might have committed ourselves to the principles of lightweight backpacking, but we had not adopted lightweight sensibilities. No, climbing down would require climbing back up, and a more direct route, scaling the cliff face above the western side of the lake, was available. So it was settled. We would go explore the moraine, and we would scale the cliff face to get there.

The easy way across.

This was one of those things that made more sense while standing securely atop a rounded mound of crumbled granite than it did as we clung to the rocks, fly-like, suspended two-hundred feet above the lake. But after the first few steps—which included squeezing between two big rocks, sliding carefully down a steep, slick chute, jumping over a narrow ravine onto a broad patch of deep sand, and then carefully wading through the sand while hoping that it would not all start sliding down the mountain—we were committed. Without knowing what lay ahead it was easy to imagine that it had to be easier than turning around and jumping from deep sand over a narrow ravine and into a steep, slick chute. It wasn’t. Our reward for crossing the deep sand was an opportunity to scramble across scree-covered rocks, around a loose boulder that Oliver nearly dislodged, and onto a narrow shelf that allowed us to shimmy past a 20-foot vertical cliff. Once past the cliff, we found ourselves perched on a broad flat rock with an opportunity to relax for a moment before continuing. From there, Oliver and Snow Toad charted out an excellent path that had us fighting our way uphill through prickly bushes that were all growing downhill, carefully sidling along a another little ledge and around a big tree that was growing right on the edge, up through a sand-filled chute, and then across a large, smooth, sloping rock surface that was suspended above a 30-foot fall and lubricated with sand. All in all, it wasn’t too bad, and clearly better than hiking all the way down and then all the way back up.

Cirque Lake.

The moraine was hardly worth the effort. What looked to be an easy stroll from across the lake proved an arduous exercise in bouldering once there. The entire moraine was a giant jumble of large rocks, which makes sense once you sit back and think about it. But we hadn’t sat back and we hadn’t thought, so there we were. No matter what direction we set out in, we had to climb up, down, or sideways to get there. Our goal of exploring the moraine was laudable, even noble perhaps, but the MountainGuys do not award badges for nobility, and it was nearly lunchtime, so we abandoned the moraine and climbed down the lake.

The moraine looked more inviting from afar.

Water flows out of Cirque Lake at the eastern end, through a broad meadow, and eventually into South Fork Creek. The entire eastern shore is shallow, with a fine little sandy beach. The breeze was blowing cool off the lake, but we found a large, black rock to lean up against and it was plenty warm in the sun. From our lunch spot we had an uninterrupted view of the cliff face we had climbed across earlier, and had to admit that it looked pretty dangerous. Of course that filled us with a sense of pride in our mountaineering accomplishments. But proud as we were, we knew where the real danger lay, so we also took a sacred vow not to share the details with our wives and girlfriends.

Our path took us across the top of the sand chute. (Photo ST)

Lunch spot.

There are three lakes in the South Fork Lakes. The upper lake is more of a sump than a lake, and the middle lake is little more than a vernal pool. The lower lake is small, but genuinely lake-like, with deep blue water that sparkles in the sun.

There is a semi-maintained trail from the lower lake to the Cottonwood Creek trail, and it’s a pretty good bet that the semi-maintained trail continues on to the upper lake, even though it wasn’t shown on our map. But no matter, we were in off-trail mode, so when Oliver suggested we hike up South Fork Creek to get back to camp, none of us so much as hesitated. We should have. From the trail the hillside sloped steeply down to the lake. A few lousy campsites had been established on the flattish spots, but one would always have to beware the risks of rolling out of bed and all the way down to the water. Hiking up the stream was a lot like hiking on the moraine—large boulders blocked our path in every direction, and every step had to be carefully planned to avoid rolling a stone over and ending up underneath it.

Hiking up South Fork Creek to camp.

Upper and Lower South Fork Lakes are separated by only half a mile, but the hike up the creek took almost an hour. Leaping from boulder to boulder is fun for the first 200 leaps (give or take), but after that it is just tiring. So when we finally crested the rim of the upper sump at about 2:00 p.m., we are all exhausted and grateful. Snow Toad was painfully behind in his “chair time,” Oliver and Rick (well, Oliver anyway) were looking forward to playing golf, and I was anxious to fish. This was our last afternoon in the wilderness, and there was still so much to be done.

Although Upper South Fork Lake was a very modest affair, it did have one very important feature: the fish were ravenous and feeding on the surface pretty much all day long. I had done some fishing the previous afternoon, catching at least ten fish, all on mosquitoes and ants. The ants worked best. But I had not kept any of them because I didn’t feel like cleaning and frying fish in the rain. On this last day of our trip, I was determined to catch the biggest, plumpest fish in the whole lake and eat them. I even had the temerity to tell my companions of my ambitions. You can imagine their surprise when I walked into camp with two big, beautiful golden trout, and after catching about 25 fish, I can say that these were very likely the biggest fish out there.  

I fried the fish in a little oil and carefully removed all of the meat from the bones. Between us, Oliver and I had two extra tortillas, so I fried those up one at a time, threw on some cheese and some fish and some hot sauce, and made fish tacos as an appetizer. These were so good that Snow Toad couldn’t help himself and even had a bite. For my efforts I was awarded the Golden Taco Badge for high achievement in wilderness fish taco cuisine.

Dinner that night was curried rice with salmon and vegetables. And even though we were committed to the whole lightweight thing, on this last day we had to have a complete three-course meal, including raspberry crumble for dessert. Snow Toad, however, had recovered his equilibrium, settling back down after his brush with fish taco exuberance, and had ramen.

Resting easy at the end of the day.

As always the last night was a bittersweet affair. I drained the last of my scotch, and Oliver his tequila, as the four of us watched a lightning storm out over the Owens Valley more intense than the finale of even the biggest fireworks display. The lightning flashes lit up the towering thunderheads, crackling off with barely any break for more than an hour. Overhead we had clear skies and bright stars. The lightning show was dramatic and exciting, and we were all really glad that it was 15 miles away.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Miter Basin, July 2012, Day 7

Day 7: Miter Basin to Upper South Fork Lake, or It’s Not Really as Steep as It Looks
(8 miles)

Rain showers came and went throughout the night. When the alarm went off at 5:30, the sky was just getting light through a thick layer of low, gray clouds. Fortunately, the showers held off while we were breaking camp and making breakfast, and by 7:40 we were on the trail. 

On the trail out of Miter Basin.

Upon leaving our campsite in Miter Basin, we had several options to reach the trail to New Army Pass. We could retrace our steps to Middle Soldier Lake, but none of us was anxious to climb back up to the ridge through all that sand. We could hike down Rock Creek, and pick up the trail well down the valley by a small lake with no name. Or we could hike to Lower Soldier Lake and pick up the small spur trail that ended there. This last course required that we navigate along the 11,000 foot contour line and then climb down a steep cliff to the lake level about 400 feet below. Since this last alternative did not involve climbing up sand or hiking down an extra 400 feet of elevation only to hike back up, and also included the potential for an extremely dangerous scamper down a cliff face, this was really the only alternative that we considered.

Following the 11,000 foot contour line.

The hike to the edge of the cliff above Lower Soldier Lake was brilliant. From the open rock of the Rock Creek valley, we soon found ourselves hiking through small meadows and a mature forest of foxtail pines. Our already light packs were lighter still after three days of eating and drinking, and we were feeling good about getting back on the trail. Following a contour line is not difficult across open terrain, but it gets more complicated in the trees and over uneven ground. We made good time until we got into the trees, at which point we split up, each man following the path he thought best. Without question, mine was best, although Rick probably would not agree, and Oliver and Snow Toad would refuse to comment. Despite our fundamental disagreements about the proper path, we all found ourselves perched atop the cliff above Lower Soldier Lake at about the same time, each of us vexed about the next step.

“There’s the lake,” said Oliver.

“That’s a pretty steep slope.” Rick gave voice to what we were all thinking. “One false step and one of us could die.” Rick has a way of lightening the mood in every situation.

Rick contemplating mortality.

“I don’t want to die,” I said, peering over the edge. “We should be very careful.”

“Well, if you do,” responded Snow Toad, “don’t expect any of us to follow your example. But I think we can do it.”

With that, Snow Toad started down the slope, Oliver close on his heels. Rick and I held back, waiting for them to get clear ahead so that any stones we might set loose would not pummel them about the head and shoulders. Although steep, we were able to pick our way down the mountain without too much trouble. At one point Snow Toad climbed himself out to the edge of a 20-foot vertical drop and had to turn back, but he was forthright enough to announce his mistake before any of us could slam into him from behind and accidentally push him over the edge.

From there, Oliver took the lead in climbing down. I am always leery of following a trail that Oliver is blazing because his natural athleticism enables him to do things that mere mortals cannot, and when a stone gave way beneath him, causing him to glissade down a smooth granite slope for about ten feet, I had real doubts about his chosen path. But the little chute he had been climbing down was still the best path, so we followed carefully, hoping to avoid his sliding maneuver that surely would have been the end of the rest of us.

We each breathed a sigh of relief upon reaching the bottom, congratulated one another, and in a moment of shameless self-adulation, agreed that we were all worthy of a Billy Goat Badge. And why not? With no one else around to celebrate our modest achievements, it was up to us to do it.

Lower Soldier Lake is a beautiful lake, set in a deep bowl of carved granite. Like many of the places we had been, though, the camping was mediocre. Most of the spots were too close to the water, and the best spots, down by the outlet where the stream flowed out of the lake, were restricted for habitat restoration. But as is frequently the case, some excellent camping spots could be found just a short ways down the trail along the stream. Lake camping is always nice; stream camping is often better.

Cliff of Doom from a distance.

A little bit of success is a heady brew, and we were riding a success high. You might even say we were feeling cocky. After all, we had successfully followed the 11,000-foot contour line, we had successfully negotiated the cliff above Lower Soldier Lake, and we had successfully positioned ourselves within three miles of New Army Pass. The sun had come out from behind the clouds, and with Lower Soldier Lake behind us, we were now hiking on level trail through trees with an occasional view down the Rock Creek valley. With all that sun and all that success, we could not help but anticipate clearing the pass before storm clouds returned. 

To the Pass!

But success is also ephemeral, and 2.3 miles of uphill, starting at 10,880 feet and climbing to 12,310, will severely tax all but the headiest of brews. Our brews were not that heady. The trail is well graded, a brilliant piece of engineering, really. The views are spectacular, which helps, and the headstones, presumably honoring those that have died while seeking the pass, are a cheery touch. But 2.3 miles is a long way to go uphill, even with packs as light as ours. The clouds began to drift back in about the time we started the climb, and by the time we reached the pass itself, the sky had taken on a menacing, gray pallor. Lunch would have been welcome, but getting off the pass was more welcome still. Unfortunately, events would conspire to prevent us from reaching camp before the weather arrived.


Rick reached the top of the pass first, and by a wide margin, demonstrating the determination that makes Rick the man he is. If there is a job that requires beating one’s head against a wall until the wall gives way, then Rick is the man for the job. He does not go about this business in a flashy way, and while he is beating his head he will tell you all the reasons why doing so is less than optimal. But he will outlast the wall. His past is littered with crumbled walls, his present colored by a bruised forehead. Once he started climbing he would not stop, and for his determination, he was awarded the Keep Pounding Away Badge.

But Rick’s long stay at the top of the pass would also make the events that followed that much more remarkable. For one of the interesting features of his overstuffed and misshapen pack is that for all its overstuffedness, still not everything fit inside. He has shoes tied to the outside, and a jacket looped under the hood, and a cup and a bell and a whistle, and just for good measure, his sleeping bag is also strapped outside his pack. As many of you know, the sleeping bag is a critical piece of gear, and its loss could be uncomfortable and perhaps even tragic. But for some reason, on this one occasion Rick neglected to check the strap tension on his sleeping bag, even though he had plenty of time to do so. Maybe it was the elevation and the thin air, maybe he was gassed from the climb, or maybe he was too busy eating snacks. But whatever the case, the sleeping bag parted company from the pack shortly after we started down the eastern side of the pass.

Oliver was out in front, as he usually is on the downhills, and Snow Toad was not far behind. Rick and I were hiking together about a hundred yards behind them. We were all going fast. The wind was picking up, and we could feel the moisture rising in the air. We would get rain, and we did not want to be out on an exposed rock face if the rain was accompanied by lightning. So when we came to a particularly sharp switchback, Rick swung around the corner like a driver in Le Mans, his heavily cantilevered sleeping bag whipping through a 180 degree arc in a fraction of a second. I was hiking behind him, and I watched in fascinated horror as the sleeping bag hurtled through the air in its dirt-brown stuff sack, and down the steep slope.

“Rick! Stop!” I shouted.

Rick turned around. I pointed to the sleeping bag, which was still bounding down the hillside, bouncing off rocks, and finally coming to rest under a large square boulder, easily distinguished from all the other large square boulders as long as we did not take our eyes off of it for a second. So what Rick should have done is dropped his pack right then and there and climbed down to get the sleeping bag. But the slope was very steep, and from where we stood, it looked as though climbing up from the trail below would be much easier than climbing down from where we were. So we did our best to take bearings and identify features that would uniquely identify this square rock from all of the others, and then we headed down the trail after Oliver and Snow Toad.

Rick was pretty well panicked by the time we reached to turn for the next switchback, and as we gazed up to the peaks to get our bearings, we realized our error. Every square rock looked the same, the unique features of “our” rock washed out in the completely different perspective we now had from down below. We hastened down the trail, trying to estimate how far we had hiked on the previous switchback, and finally, when he could stand it no longer, Rick threw his pack off, and started climbing up the hill. His path was random, as he slowly picked his way across the steep rock slope, looking for a dirt-brown bag amidst a field of dirt-brown rocks.

By now Oliver and Snow Toad had realized that something was amiss, so they pulled up and waited for us about 200 yards down the trail. After ten minutes of watching Rick engaged in his fruitless search, I did what I should have done ten minutes earlier: I hiked down to where Oliver and Snow Toad had stopped, explained what was going on and opened a betting line on whether or not Rick would find his bag.

“I don’t think he’s going to find it,” said Snow Toad.

“That’s going to make for an uncomfortable night,” added Oliver.

“The line is now 62 to 1 against finding the bag,” I noted. “Any more bets?”

“I like those odds,” exclaimed Snow Toad, “here’s another dollar.” He handed me a crumpled bill. “You know, if he doesn’t find that bag, we will probably have to hike out a day early.”

“That would really suck,” said Oliver. “Maybe we should help him find it.”

“Give me my money back,” Snow Toad demanded. “I don’t want to hike out early and I don’t like to bet against my own interests.” I reluctantly handed Snow Toad his money back. I had no doubt that Rick was going to find his bag, because he was going to comb every square inch of the mountainside until he did. It was just one more wall that would eventually crumble from him beating his head against it.

Rick did find his sleeping bag, but not before he had climbed all the way back up to the trail above. After I reminded him that the bag came off when he went around the corner, he followed the trail back up to the next switchback, and then climbed down the steep slope to the big square rock, just like he should have done in the first place. The whole episode had taken at least 30 minutes, but it was not a complete waste of time. We learned some important things. First, we learned that it is very important to tie one’s gear securely, especially if it is a critical piece like a sleeping bag. And second, we learned that even at 62 to 1, no one was willing to bet against Rick’s hardheaded determination.

The weather continued to deteriorate while Rick was conducting his search, and the rain started to fall before he finished. This was not a hard rain, but enough to encourage those of us who were just standing around to put on a jacket and to cover our packs. Fortunately, we did not get any lightning, although we could hear an occasional thunderclap on the other side of the pass. The sound of thunder is a real motivator, so we motored down the trail until we got past High Lake, and almost down to Long Lake. Most of this terrain was still out in the open, but we were well off the ridge and still we had not seen any lightning on our side of the mountain.

We had hiked for about seven miles from our campsite in Miter Basin, the last four and a half on the trail. Our goal for the night was Upper South Fork Lake, and from the map it looked as though we could bypass the last bit of trail and go cross-country directly to the lake. This proved to be a bad decision. We quickly found ourselves hiking in a dwarf forest of foxtail pines and junipers, through thorn-covered bushes while picking our way over crumbled rocks the size of bowling balls. The rocks were sharp-edged and irregularly shaped, so each step was a sprained ankle waiting to happen. Oliver eventually got so fed up with our direct path to the lake that he abandoned it in favor of a longer route through a boggy meadow on the south side of the lake. The rest of us stuck it out a bit longer, but for no good reason, so we eventually followed Oliver down to the meadow. 

Stunted forest, thorny bushes, rocky path.

The rain, which had stopped while we were passing High Lake, now returned, this time with a bit more conviction. The dwarf forest had evolved into a forest of greater stature, but the bushes amongst the trees were no less thorny, and the ground no less rocky. The camping in the trees was just plain shitty, and the meadow, while soft underfoot, was lumpy and increasingly bog-like the closer we got to the lake. When we finally found a small flat spot on the edge of the meadow that was not covered with sharp rocks, our joy was entirely out of proportion to the quality of the site in question. But it was a flat spot, we could have found a way to fit our tents, and we were prepared to make do. Fortunately we did not have to. Before committing ourselves to camping in such a lousy spot, we decided to scout out the forested area adjacent to the lake a bit more thoroughly, and found some great camping up in the trees away from the meadow. The site was well used, and even offered excellent access to the main trail, just 150 feet away.

The rain came and went through the afternoon, including a downpour for about 15 minutes. But the showers cleared before sunset, leaving behind clean, pine-scented air, brightly colored clouds, and an opportunity to kick back in the kitchen area while Oliver made dinner. On the menu were bean and cheese burritos with chicken and onions fried in olive oil. Snow Toad had ramen.

Sunset over Upper South Fork Lake.