Trip 3, Devil's Postpile-Tuolumne Meadows-Agnew Meadow, out of Mammoth
Day 2, 10:00am (retroactive), Minaret Lake.
I. Hate. Rain.
Got a permit in the morning in Mammoth. Had spent the night on BLM land between Benton Crossing and Crowley Lake, hoping for a good view of the meteor shower. No luck. Heavy overcast and high clouds; not even many stars visible. Came into town and had breakfast at the Stove; finished reading American Gods, picked up some lunch at Safeway, drove up to the ski area, repacked again. Took the shuttle down to Devil's Postpile, fiddled, and finally got on trail around 2:00pm. Late, again. South shortly, then a bridge across the San Joaquin River, then headed back north. It started to rain about 2:45pm and continued on and off, occasionally hard, right up to sunset. There was standing water on the trail up to an inch deep; I felt like I was in the Cascades. I'll have to think about that in planning for next summer (tentatively a large looping road trip and backpacking through the Northwest and the northern Rockies), because I heartily dislike being wet. Or is it that I just don't associate rain with the Sierras? Waited out the harder rains below trees with some success; never got truly drenched.
A late start got me just to the outlet of Minaret Lake right at sunset. Phenomenally sharp spires clawing straight up out of the lake, like teeth (cartoonish carnivore teeth, at that). Maybe some good shots with backlit clouds behind the Minarets.
Psychologically, it felt like I'd traveled one-third across the country. I began in the Great Basin in the morning, drove to the Sierras, hiked through the Cascades and a section with blocky metamorphics and cascades similar to the Snowy Range, and ended up at a timberline lake that feels like the Rockies -- except that the Minarets, a signature sub-range of the Sierras, are towering above. It's greener and more lush than I expected here, too.
No dinner. Still OK from lunch. Had a balance bar and went to sleep early, about 9:15pm.
Day 2, 3:30pm. Lake Ediza.
Quite short a distance today, about 3.5 miles. Up the north shore above Minaret Lake, over the pass to Cecile, down to Iceberg, then down to Ediza. There's a use trail around the eastern shore of Minaret Lake, then a willow-covered slop on the north shore; there are a couple of nice campsites tucked in the trees there. There was a use trail up the slope, then a route steeply up the notch to the right (east) of the major obvious saddle, avoiding the headwall. The route stays above a small round lake, at the base of a low ridge, climbing shortly to a small saddle above Lake Cecile. I followed the eastern shoreline and didn't mind the talus-hopping, but it looked like the western shoreline -- although longer -- would have been easier. Like Minaret Lake, it was greener than I expected. More of the Scottish-Highlands-on-steroids look, like some of the upper basins from earlier in the summer. Not lush per se, but wetter than I expected from the east side.
Down a rough trail -- almost worse than the pass -- to Iceberg Lake. Strange to think that I'd been there ten (?) years earlier; the conjugate shear fractures that I'd remembered as excellent were only mediocre at best. Down to Ediza through overgrown brush. Nicer and more impressive than I'd remembered. I think it was '94 that I was here with Mom and Dad, Amy, and Jim Lynch as a day hike. I was between IUGFS and the Beartooths Keck project -- the second time that 1994 has come up this summer. Pomona's 10th reunion is coming up this May, too. Have I been successful in the intervening decade? I think so. It hasn't always been easy or a smooth path, but it's one that I'm ultimately content with, I think. I'd do individual things differently if I could, but not the general path.
Thunderheads are rolling in, big ones. A couple of pealing rolls; no visible lightning yet. I hope this one goes over relatively quietly; I really don't want to get rained on again like yesterday.
Watching the clouds roll by and the patterns of the colors on the lake change; a wind is coming up. A lot of the grasses are yellow-green and most wildflowers are past peak. Ediza is looking particularly New Zealandish with the remnants of snow and the storm rolling in. Have to tuck this journal away in a ziplock before any rain starts.
Day 3, 9:15pm. Thousand Island Lakes.
A mediocre sunrise. Heavy clouds to the east delayed sunrise from 6:15am to just past 7:00, by which time there was little warmth to speak of. I got a medium-scale shot of a flag pine that I want to see how it turns out, though. Packed up and went out down the Shadow Creek trail. Quite beautiful; I stopped often and twice unloaded the camera gear and tripod to shoot. There was a healthy creek, forest, occasional clearings with high peaks far above -- elements similar to the middle fork of the King's, although not quite to that scale.
I found I'd camped in a closed section upon talking to a ranger... on the map, I saw the total closure around Shadow Lake but didn't catch the diagram of Ediza on the same page. In my defense, I was on a 3' by 8' patch of grus that couldn't have been hurt and the ranger in Mammoth didn't point it out. Still, it left a bad aftertaste in my mouth.
North on the John Muir. Thunderheads were already building up by 11:00am. Early. Went over a pass at roughly 10,2' with a trail crew just below and to the south. I gave back a tape measure I'd picked up a little off trial while shooting a bristlecone/ juniper (?) earlier -- they'd left it months ago on an earlier project. One of the crew had a walkman or MP3 player with mini-speakers. Strange to hear music while on trail. Odd to be amongst so many day-hikers, families, and dogs while halfway through a five-day backpack. This is solidly the most people I've seen outside of the lower Bishop Pass trail.
Had lunch overlooking Garnet Lake. Really beautiful: long, big, dark blue water, right about timberline, a basin-like look to the west end, and Ritter and Banner looming above with glaciers or snowfields on the flanks. It's almost nicer than 1000 Island Lake. Over another ridgeline and down to Ruby Lake. Photographed a lichen-dotted cliff coming straight down into aqua-green water. Numerous attempts; hope I got the intended effect. Quickly past Emerald Lake and on to 1000 Island. Really notable geology throughout this trip's region so far: metamorphics and country rock in abundance. It's jarring against my simple bias of uncomplicated granite in the Sierras but -- like a couple of other things -- that's a misconception I'm going to have to lose after this summer. Mineral King is similar.
1000 Island is crazy. Packed. Walked fifteen or twenty minutes past eighteen or twenty parties to find a spot, almost at the west end of the lake. Got here at about 4:15pm or so. Disappointingly, between photographing, rest breaks, a long lunch, and a sixty-plus pound pack, I seem to average only 1 mph. Slow. Heavy clouds. Thunder. Only a couple of visible lightning strikes; most strikes had an eight to fifteen second delay before the thunder. Clouds were streaming over the Carson Peak/San Joaquin ridgeline like fog made solid. Very low ceiling; the top of Banner was in the clouds almost all evening and sometimes below the glacier, down to 11,2'. Glad I wasn't up there. Thankfully, no rain to speak of. A couple of brief light showers and one short flurry of hail. I have to say, watching 1/4" hail bounce 18" off the tundra is kind of amusing... Hail on the lake sounded a little like brushes on a snare drum. Thunder sounds different up here, too. It's louder and more resonant, but mostly less muffled. It's crisper, clearer, as if there's a high-pass filter at sea level and moderate elevations that's suddenly gone. It sounds like there's a little reverb on all that extra treble, too. Maybe it's just the acoustics around here, but the echoes literally seem to fill the sky, like Washington Irving's early New York Dutchmen imagining games of ninepins in the mountains... it's as if the thunder is reflecting not just off the peaks and ridgelines but off the clouds themselves as well.
I watched the clouds for over an hour: there were three distinct layers, each moving differently. The lowest level was moving the fastest, to the west, like the ten to twenty mph ground wind. The middle layer slowly moved NNW; the upper layer seemed stationary. Considering how thick the clouds were all through the early evening, we got an amazing sunset. Right at 7:45pm they started to thin to the NW and we got a great show of peach to orange. Incredible. It must have been completely clear to the west, too, because the last underlighting of faint red-orange lasted almost an hour, until 8:45pm. I just hope I got something that does it justice.
Day 4, 8:45am. 1000 Island Lake.
Short note here as I need to pack up and get on trail. Phenomenal sunrise, almost perfect conditions: clouds over Banner, calm, no clouds, clear to the east. Venus high and beautiful in the dawn twilight. The sunrise was like a gift. It's enough to make me think I wasn't really being a photographer -- you just had to show up, wake up, be present and not screw up. No artifice. Even now, 2 1/2 hours later, I keep looking over and thinking I should get one more, just as insurance. (No shots of Banner last night, BTW: totally in clouds and no illumination. All the light was to the north and northwest.)
Quiet this morning, despite all the people. Nice. No hummingbirds, though.
One last thing: this bivy sack (REI element) doesn't work properly. Condensation inside it this morning, as has happened before.
Day 4, 9:30pm. Kuna Creek Meadows, Lyell Canyon.
Ecstasy, agony, ecstasy, oddity...
Over Island Pass (washed up), past the Davis Lakes turnoff, past the Rush Creek turnoff, past the Marie Lakes turnoff. The Davis/Rush/Marie section was really quite pretty; timberline country with many small creeks. Moving OK. Solid high clouds by 10:00am or so; nice not to have to wear a hat. Long approach coming up over Donohue Pass. Some amazing 270( panoramas from the shoulder; at one point June Lake ski area, Mount Morrison, and Ritter and Banner (jutting above a ridgeline in the middle ground) were all visible simultaneously. I'll have to try to climb Banner or Ritter at some point after this trip -- they're both so prominent and dominant in this area.
The upper section of Donohue Pass really got to me, though. Rough trail, with seemingly thousands of interminable steps up/down/over, always watching your footing. Tiring with a heavy pack. Windy and cold at the top. Got a picture with me in it at the top for Mom; I'm afraid I won't be looking too happy.
Amazing views of Lyell from the top and coming down the north side. Big glaciers and snowfields -- improbably large. Geologically speaking, I don't know if there are any true glaciers left in the Sierra, with enough new accumulation/weight to cause it to move. There might be only remnant icefields now.
Slowly picked my way down to Kuna Meadows, on the south end of the floor of Lyell Canyon. Really beautiful set of meanders -- six or seven -- at the head of the meadows, where the Lyell Fork changes from high-energy (steep gradient) to low energy (more flat). Came down through a section where there was so much hail it looked like snowfall. Muddy trail. A little over 1800' descent. Feet hurt, pushing it. I feel like I'm wearing down over the course of the summer rather than getting stronger. Had to stop numerous times just to rest. The idea of big mileage, 16-20 miles per day, seems completely foreign and unattainable. Am I just overloaded? Barring the camera gear, I think almost everything else is pretty minimalist. I don't know where else I would seriously cut weight. Morbidly, I want to know how much the pack weighs, now, so I can know if I'm hurting this much and only carrying 40-45 pounds... I waver between thinking I'm doing well and being blow away by people who (claim) that they're going to cover what took me six hours in three hours. Undeniably, though, I only did 9 miles of hiking in 9 hours, all stops included. That just isn't a very good average.
The weather is just amazing. Total heavy overcast all day, strong hail, cold wind at the pass... and it just clears up for sunset -- but with a few lingering clouds over Lyell and McClure. You couldn't script it better as a director. One would have been enough, but three is an embarrassment of riches. I feel like I should go try for Cathedral Peak if this system holds. Framed a few shots with Lyell and McClure and the river in the foreground.
And then, as dusk was fading, I started to hear a faint keening. Obviously artificial, then a bass rumble. At first it sounded like some kind of a drum circle, then -- bizarrely -- like a train with an off-kilter whistle. Finally, when I was starting to get slightly freaked, a ghost-like herd of 15-20 horses (one with bells) came rumbling by, galloping through the fading twilight. I can still head the bells in the upper meadow. As if all this weren't enough already, while I was waiting for dinner to "cook" (cornbread stuffing to rehydrate), I saw a double-handspan shooting star above the eastern ridgeline, leaving a glowing trail in its wake. Amazing.
You know, not once this summer have I woken up thinking that I should move to wall street, trade bonds, and make money.
Day 5, 9:15am. Kuna Meadows.
Woke up this morning to dew/condensation everywhere. This never happens in my normal travels. Watched steam rising up off the ground as the sun hit. Between the horses last night and the dew (shades of a DWP hydrologist: "My god, there's water everywhere, and none of it where it should be..."), I feel like I've slipped into an alternate reality.
Day 5, 6:00pm. Tuolumne Meadows Store.
Out. Up at 7:30am, packed, waited for the bag and bivy sack to dry, started. On trail by about 10:30am. Straight out down Lyell Canyon; started hitting dayhikers a few miles out. Just trying to keep a good pace and move well. Down to the ranger station by 2:30pm. Got a permit to go back in over Parker Pass tomorrow. Back up the use trails to the lodge for a shower. Waited 1/2 hour, but worth it. The only problem is getting back into the same clothes.
Walked back down to the campground, called Mom. Walked over to the store/grill and had dinner. Strange. Like culture shock in your own country to see all of the 'normal' tourists mingling with the climbers...
Day 6, 10:30pm. Uppermost Parker Creek drainage.
Late. Long day but okay.
Met four others yesterday at Tuolumne Meadows Grill when they sat down at the open spaces at the table I was sitting at. Johnny, Nate and Trisha, Vera. Johnny's in the resort business working and living in Puerto Vallarta MX; Nate's a professional climber just back from six weeks on big walls in Greenland; Trisha works for 4-corners school of outdoor education out of Moab; Vera's a Czech emigre living in Orlando but vacationing out west for about three weeks. Johnny and Nate grew up together in Telluride and were playing in Yosemite on some moderate multi-pitch climb; Trisha had been in Oregon on her way back from climbing in BC. Vera, like myself, somehow got invited in ad hoc. Shared a campsite, conversation, a fire. Breakfast this morning. Talked to Trisha about teaching; she taught middle school in Tacoma for a few years then a year of high school in Salt Lake before going back to get a master's in Envi. Ed. and working for 4-corners. Talked about volunteering with them just to get some experience and check it out. Vera, married and divorced and single in Orlando and seemingly a little stuck there, sort of quietly invited me to dayhike with her for a few days then she'd drive me back down Mammoth. Clueless as always and mulishly stuck on the idea of getting in 30 days (and honestly wanting to hike back down just to do it), I stayed with my original plans. I'm not saying anything would have happened, but from our small conversation waiting for sunset on Lembert Dome and to hear her talk about semi-disastrous mixed group trips, I think she'd've appreciated the company. Chalk another one up to being slow on the uptake.
Ready by 9:15am, decent, but found out to my chagrin that the "extended" shuttle to Dana Meadows and Tioga Pass only run at 9, noon, 3, and 5. So I caught the 9:45 shuttle back to the lodge and walked from there, adding an extra 4.7 miles to the day. Through woods a couple miles, missed the trail (if it's there -- I didn't see it come back in later) and took a turn I shouldn't have, crossed the Dana Fork, and ended up having to walk an hour-plus on the road. Bleah. Ultimately got to the trailhead a little before noon.
On trail, moving well. The jerky sticks I picked up for lunch food are downright nasty, though. Through woods again from 9600' to 10,5'. Dropped the pack and popped over the half-mile over Mono Pass to a view of Mono Lake, Walker Lake, and the Sardine Lakes. Interesting metamorphics, gneiss, boudinage, and sigmoidal shears. Came back, headed up to Parker Pass. Noticing the elevation.
Parker Pass is downright bizarre. The last 200' or so of elevation gain are nearly flat, through short grass and scree-sized metamorphic chips. Low, rounded topography except for the shoulder of Kuna Peak -- which has an abrupt face, canyon, and snowfields. Tremendously long sightlines, almost up to Mount Conness. Otherworldly. I couldn't even compare it to anywhere else. Primal. Dropped over the pass into the Parker Creek drainage. After not seeing anyone else for a few hours and experiencing the mental dislocation of the pass itself, it was strange to meet someone else: Daniel of Groveland, CA -- who was finishing up a four-day circuit around and over the Kuna Crest, solo, and without seeing anyone for a few days. We camped in adjacent flat spots and swapped stories of solo trips on and off trail in the Sierra and the psychology thereof. He'd left Santa Cruz, paid for a house in Groveland (east of Yosemite on the 120, about two hours from Tuolumne) and gets by with bodywork and miscellaneous other work, coming up to the Sierras as much as possible.
Stormy weather near sunset; some light rain. Heavy clouds over the Great Basin -- highly unusual, in my experience. Can see the lights of cars on 395 in the far distance, beyond Parker Lake and Grant Lake. There's no trail down from this point; the only options are Parker Pass and Koip Peak pass. Only 100' lower (elevation, not horizontal distance) than camp, metamorphic cliffs plummet towards Parker Lake and the June Lake loop. Chossy, crumbling, and shot through with felsic veins and dikes. Visually impressive, but I don't want to go anywhere near it. Waterfalls lead down to the lakes below. Rich red, brown, dark-grey, and rare purple-grey metamorphic rocks. The snowfields around Kuna and Koip peaks may actually be glaciers; the creeks and lakes run aqua-turquoise. Since that color is a function of glacial rock flour suspended in the water and diffracting the light that enters the water, wouldn't that mean that there has to be active glaciation? Any suspended sediments would get carried out by the flow of the water, right? Like I said, otherworldly. Mischievously, I'd like to show Rick a slide of it and see if he can identify where it is. It certainly doesn't look like California, much less the Sierra.
Day 7, 8:30am. Uppermost Parker Creek Drainage.
Woke up for sunrise over the headwall cliffs above the canyon over Parker Lake. Shot the actual sunrise, remembering Heart Lake three weeks ago. Later photographed the reflections on the pocket lake with the dark red-brown metamorphic cliffs behind it. As much as I dislike waking up early, particularly in the pre-dawn cold, there's something deeply ritualistic about watching the sun rise and observing, even slightly participating in the gift of the beginning of a new day. Had largely finished when I saw four bighorn sheep on the opposite side of the lake. Just watched at the beginning, scared even to move to get the camera for fear of disturbing and driving them off. Bighorn in the Sierra are so rare, so endangered at this point, that most of their habitats are closed to travel by humans and even many rangers will go years if not a career without seeing them directly. Finally after waiting about ten minutes in semi-breathlessness, I carefully moved towards the camera; when that didn't seem to bother them, I walked over and switched lenses to the 150mm -- grateful that I'd chosen to bring it on this trip -- and got eight or ten pictures. I might crop one of them to 35mm and mount it as a slide. Got Daniel up and watched for about 45min or so. It looked like three females and a male (or at least I think I could pick out one with a set of large horns; I didn't have binoculars and my eyes aren't perfect.)
So cool; an unanticipated blessing.
Day 7, 10:10pm. Above Gem Lake, near Rush Creek.
Late start to the morning, talking to Daniel about consumerism, collecting memories, environmentalism, population curves, personal responsibility, health care, education, and Idyllwild Arts. Long, digressive. Many similar opinions, but how much of that comes from the self-selection inherent in being a (white male) solo backpacker in the Sierra? I don't run into many people out here who are also Hispanic libertarians who own an RV and tow their powerboat behind it...
Up and over Koip Peak pass in a little over an hour. Like Forester Pass, most improbable. Just a foot-wide path in the metamorphic chips, switchbacking up a steep face to a rounded saddle. You could set an almost infinite variety of paths here and each would be nearly as good as the others. I though about climbing one of the peaks -- they're not much higher than the pass -- but that's not what this trip is about. A good thing I didn't considering the next few hours. Stopped on the way down to photograph the best patch of wildflowers I've seen this summer, sprawling up a drainage below the pass, when a storm started. Not up out of nowhere; clouds were building earlier, but nothing to indicate the ferocity that would come. Rain at first, then quickly worse. Hail, heavy at times. Major lightning and thunder. Motored down to the Alger Lakes basin in driving hail and wind; just wanted to get down off the shoulder. The jacket was working well, but the pack was quickly soaked and my legs were cold -- I didn't have rainpants, so the only real strategy was to stay in shorts and keep moving. The air temperature wasn't too bad; upper forties or low fifties. As long as my core stayed dry I wasn't really worried about the cold. It was the lighting that worried me; intense. Three or four times there was a brilliant omni-directional flash of white, then a two-count before an explosion of sound erupted from the sky and echoed off the peaks. Many similar strikes slightly farther away, counts of three to eight seconds. Again the unusual crisply resonant reverb throughout the sky that I heard at 1000 Island Lake. Nothing to do but keep walking. Stopped briefly in the lee of a flag pine by one of the Alger Lakes to gobble a Clif bar then kept going. Pack heavy from being wet. Talking to myself, important to keep moving.
Changed to a mix of rain and hail going over Gem Pass. Boots, socks, gloves thoroughly soaked. Tried to suck the moisture out of the fingers of the gloves, mostly unsuccessfully. Stopped at Gem Pass to wring out socks and pour water out of the boots. It's amazingly unpleasant to put cold, wet socks back on your feel while standing still in the cold and moderate rain. It looked like a trail led down from Gem Pass towards the June Lake loop. Had to evaluate: was the weather bad enough to bail out? I knew somehow I could catch a ride once out, and I did not want to end up in a local newspaper article about an idiot SoCal hiker who didn't know any better, particularly when I've spent significantly more time in the backcountry than most locals. The weather looked like it was clearing to the west, though, and -- most importantly -- the trail, although obvious at the top, wasn't marked on my map. I didn't know if it a fisherman's trail to a creek below and cliffed out somewhere, requiring a hike back up. Pressed on to Gem Lake. Change to rain, then tapered to clearing. Even a spot of sun! Held a yard sale and changed clothes to what was only lightly dampish, leaving everything else to try to dry. Mostly unsuccessful; clouds rolled back over the sun and there was intermittent drizzle the rest of the afternoon. A legitimate bailout option at Gem Lake, but the worst was over. I felt that, if I had to, I could walk all the way out to Mammoth if I had to. It wouldn't be pretty and it would hurt, but I could do it if I had to.
Rain finally stopped about 6pm. There was a nice, large packer's campsite near the Rush Creek trail intersection and I decided I'd had enough. Daniel'd given me a copy of Walter Moseley's "Devil in a Blue Dress"; I read through dinner until bed. Too drained even to photograph sunset, although I don't know what I would have done with it. Some "reflector" clouds lighting the forest understory, maybe. Out tomorrow and recover. That storm was pushing my limits. Not beyond them, but at the margins.
Day 8, 4:00pm. Mammoth Mountain.
Out. Packed up early, lingered at bit, finally started up. Over Agnew Pass with views of the Ritter Range. Decided to follow the PCT along the "high trail" rather than descend down to the "river trail". I was worried initially that the entire route would be in open sagebrush, but it was actually a mix of sage, aspen and pine. Quite pretty at times. About four hours or a little more of hiking time. Came out through Agnew Meadows, caught a bus back up to the ski area. Strange to be around so many people so suddenly. I'll head back down to Bishop to shower at Sarah's and pick up more food and film, then back out. Another thunderstorm this afternoon, but only individual raindrops on me; it looked like it was mostly north of Banner Peak and 1000 Island.
I should try for Cathedral Peak and the Tuolumne high country if this weather system holds.
Two full days off in Bishop, then left the morning of the third. More to follow.