Trip 4, The Matterhorn Country, out of Twin Lakes / Bridgeport
Trip 4, Day 2 (retroactive), 8/24/04, 9:15am. Barney Lake.
It might be trip 5 or trip 6, depending how you count it. Was Mammoth-Tuolumne/Dana-Mammoth one trip or two? Does Whitney count from earlier in the summer?
It's the 24th, about nine or ten days before I have to be back at Idyllwild. The summer feels both long and short; on the one hand, last school year seems immeasurably far away, yawning over the back horizon. On the other hand, graduation seems like yesterday. It will be strange next year not to have the kids I've grown up alongside at Idyllwild: Maya, Bree, Sarah, Nathan... They feel as much a part of the school as Lowman's bon mots or the crush lunch lines at noon. It'll be different without them, to be sure. And to have Greg, Anne, and Steve also leave? Combine that with Dick and Sharon's retirement and a significant fraction of the school's character will have changed during my short time there. Hard to believe I'm now institutionally "older" than all of the kids. And yet, while (not to sound morbid, but it's true) those departures are a loss to be mourned, I'm also excited by the direction the school as a whole is taking. Anna's instituting some necessary changes, tightening up a system that grew up around fewer students tan we now have; there's the possibility of overhauling the entire schedule (at least we're talking about it); and, for the first time ever, the faculty is getting the chance to give some feedback directly to the board. Last year, I was excited to teach some of the departing seniors; this year I'm intrigued and enthusiastic about the school as a whole. How can I help assist that transition? What's best for our students, and how can we/I foster it?
As you can see, my thoughts aren't really on my surroundings. I'm already mentally gearing up to get back to work. I think that's a good thing; I'm not dreading it and trying to escape from it until the last possible minute (despite the fact that I plan to arrive back in Idyllwild at basically the last possible minute: I should drive from the bay area to Idy. on Friday the 3rd and show up just in time for the party at Sean's ( hopefully with enough time to get in a run and a shower beforehand). I do feel fairly centered and I know my thoughts are less jumbled than they were at the beginning of the summer. I'm seeing wildlife pretty often, even out of the corners of my eyes, so I know I don't have blinders on. But, in all honesty, I don't have a concrete reason why I'm on this trip. It's an area I've only driven past before, never hiked, so there's nothing I'm looking for. I'm burned out on photographing (as much as I hate to admit it) so I only have the small tripod, Elan 2, 28-105, and filters (although I thoughtlessly forgot the ND grads) but I'm not actively trying to get a certain shot. In fact, I doubt I'll be positioned correctly for good light; most of this trip I'll be south of the crest.
Nor do I anticipate any epiphanies or revelations. Surprisingly, that occurred mid-way through the first backpacking trip (day 5, King's/Kern divide) and so it must have been coalescing for some time before its arrival, like a seed crystal dropped into a super-saturated solution. Nothing else this summer seems to have indicated another one of those coming, and I'm probably not going to be pushing myself hard enough physically to precipitate it, either. That seems to be a necessary component for me, and this trip is designed to be more laid-back, more of an opportunity for casual exploration and reflection.
Late start yesterday, seemingly as always. Hadn't decided until the last minute whether to go up to Tuolumne and try to photograph Cathedral Peak or to come up here. Finally thought that Cathedral really would be pushing my luck and asking for divine intervention to correct my hubris, so I came up here for something quieter. I don't know how, but I think my lack of enthusiasm would have come through any photography anyway, somehow. And really, if I wanted to try for Cathedral I should have done it immediately after getting back to Mammoth, and I wasn't ready to do that.
Showered, said goodbye to Sarah, breakfast from Annie's/Joseph's, read the paper in Bishop -- Deena Kantor took 3rd in the women's marathon in Athens! Bought yet more food from Vons, drove up 395 to Bridgeport, bought this notebook, got a permit. Lunch in Bridgeport, left a message for Mom and Dad, drove up to Twin Lakes, paid to park, final repack. It's a pretty short hike in without too much elevation gain; Mom and Dad will have to come here at some point. Showers available upon exit, too.
Have to check with Shambo about a hot tub this year.
Day 2, 10:30pm. Kerrick Canyon, below Kerrick Meadows. Arendt Lake?
Left Barney Lake, past Crown Lake, Crown Point, Snow Lake, up and over Rock Island Pass. Down to Kerrick Canyon and upper Rancheria Creek (the same one, I assume, that forms Rancheria falls on Hetch Hetchy, although my map doesn't go that far south).
As I implied this morning, it's a quieter section of the Sierra. Secor categorizes it as the northernmost region of his "High Sierra", and I suspect he largely includes it due to the Sawtooth Ridge, which I'll circumnavigate but not really explore too deeply into. To really see it, the map seems to imply northern approaches through some alpine canyons. The region I'll be traveling through looks like lower relief, moderate elevations in the 8k' to 9k' range, and a mix of wooded/meadow/rock environment. Flirting with timberline again. I'll briefly touch on a segment of the PCT (I could walk home! Given enough time and resupply. Of course, you could walk home from anywhere, given enough time... I mean that I could walk on trails home.)
Some dwarf lupine in the meadow south of Rock Island Pass and some paintbrush along the creeks running through the (otherwise) drier sage sections, but generally few wildflowers. Many aspen along Robinson Creek and a handful of leaves are already starting to turn. Similarly, most of the grasses are yellowing if not there already, and some of the ground cover is going to red as well. Bridgeport's ranger station listed overnight lows in the high twenties (like Wyoming, that may be a function of the open valleys and cold air masses descending out of the mountains rather than sheer altitude ( I don't think it was that cold last night, and Barney Lake was at a higher elevation.). The windy, cool mornings feel like low fifties or high forties before the sun clears the treetops. It's not high summer here. Late summer, perhaps, and I don't mean late summer as expressed by heavy dry days with hot winds as you wait for the temperatures to crack ( I mean late summer with hints of fall if you look for them, with a rippling undercurrent of the coming winter. There's maybe a month left in this high country before it gets its first solid snow, then a brief Indian summer, then six long months when only the rare ski mountaineer will venture up, if that. Assuming global climate change hasn't mucked it all up, of course.
I'm not going to be used to the heat when I get back to Idyllwild. Like a lot of southern California, September is hot (low nineties; hot for my tastes) even in the mountains. I'm certainly not ready for track workouts in Palm Desert, either. For the third or fourth year in a row I've dodged the height of the summer; this time by going to the high mountains rather than Laramie. (This is the first summer since '96, I think, that I will have not left the state at all during the summer. There's a lifetime of exploring to do in California, so it's not like it's a hardship... just strange.)
Wonder what running will be like when I start back up. This is the longest extended layoff I've had in years, possibly since college. I feel like it should be a great "sub-basement" foundation, carrying a fifty to seventy pound pack at elevations mostly above 9000 or even 10,000'. I don't know, though. I'd like to run a good marathon and also break my PR for the 5k, if those aren't too disparate goals. Should get a heart rate monitor and use it, although I've never liked them. It would help make sure my training is more specific, though. Climbing in the spring, too?
Still don't quite know what I'm doing here, this time.
Day 3, 7:10pm. Benson Lake.
Perhaps one of the classic High Sierra lakes. Among the cognoscenti. One of the backpackers I passed on the way in called it "The Riviera of the High Sierra", and he might not be wrong. The north side, as improbable as it may seem, is an honest-to-goodness beach with a grassy area backing it, then woods behind that. The beach is mostly grus with a little sand, and it's a little coarse on bare feet used to the security of boots, but still... Who would expect it, way out/up here? The water's still too cold to swim in, but walking barefoot on the beach is awfully nice. There are aspens here at the narrow ecotone between the grasses and the thicker woods. It's bizarre to see a lake with a beach, in the High Sierra, bordered by aspens.
Fingers already a touch cold. One thing I do not like about these northern Yosemite canyons: the sun drops below the ridgelines a full hour to hour-and-a-half early and rises correspondingly late. Bleah.
Downhill nearly the entire day today. Down Kerrick Canyon, briefly up Seavey Pass, lunch off-trail with utter privacy, then a 1600' descent to Benson Lake. I'm fairly certain that, at 7600', this is the lowest elevation I've been on any of the trips. Certainly to sleep. Even the other trailheads higher than this, I think. Windy, though; it's been windy all day. After a brief break for food, my eyes naturally lit on a spot in the sun and sheltered from the wind by some large rocks. No effort; that's just instinct to look for. Set up the tarp behind the shelter of a large and brushy tree. I like that it happens without me really thinking about it; I feel like it's a sign of my adapting to the environment, rather than trying to force the opposite.
Finished the last remnant of Robert Jordan's "Crossroads at Twilight". Good. Shouldn't have brought it in the first place. Now I can get back to paying attention to what's in front of me, now.
Trying the "burrito bowl" tonight with black beans culled from Vons's cup-of-soup. We'll see how it goes. A good dish if it works; tasty, filling, assembled with off-the-rack ingredients, not too expensive. Definitely not enough fruits and vegetables this summer, though, and too many processed carbohydrates. Not good in the long term.
8:00pm now, after a break to wander around. The sky is the steel-grey purple of twilight and fading quickly. Almost time for the headlamp again. Wonder if Lydia and Lauren are back from Europe, or if they're still over there. Different summers. One of these years I'll have to take off to Ireland and give that a try. I have the sinking feeling that I have way more summers planned than I'm committed to teaching. That might raise a problem in the long run...
The lake, bordered on three sided by rounded rock rising to low mountains, feels like a miniature Hetch Hetchy. Darker rock than the Valley, too; also similar. It's popular. There are five or six parties, like a small cluster of nomads who have accidentally discovered an anachronistically-preserved overlooked reservoir site and are determined to enjoy it before anyone recognizes the error. It's de jurÚ wilderness; it should be protected forever, right? Hopefully.
The moon is waxing. It's already up to 3/4 full, bright enough that you can't see the Milky Way any more at night. It's rising above the eastern ridgeline now, with the very last light of alpenglow (no warmth, just brighter) on top of the ridge. I might be able to get moonrise over a lit ridge tomorrow.
Day 4, 8:45pm. Matterhorn Canyon, south of the trail junction.
The fire is at my favorite stage. The edges of the embers are glowing, almost breathing, and small blue flames are appearing and disappearing, dancing like ghosts. Why shouldn't we say that the embers are breathing? It's not just anthropomorphism; they're taking in oxygen and putting out carbon dioxide in order to feed an exothermic chemical reaction, just like aerobic respiration. Breathing. They do seem alive.
I'm almost certain that this is the first fire I've ever built in the backcountry. "Built". An odd choice of words, indicative of a constructive practice when it's really the opposite. Unless there was some group trip a long time ago, college maybe, where we had afire; I'm pretty sure those were all cold camps or in the front country. It was scarily easy. Some paper trash for ignition, dry pine cones and small twigs for kindling, and whoosh! Down and dry wood everywhere here; it took only ten minutes of work to collect about a cubic foot of flammable material, from finger-thick branches to chunks of tinder-like decomposing trunk core. Enough for a couple hours, it it's a small fire and not a white man fire. (White man fire, as defined by Gary Gray: one that's too large, such that you have to stand back more than, oh, three feet from it. Commonly found in most drive-in campsites and many RV gathering spots.) Of course, I'm feeling al little guilty for having one at all, but I am legal and safe and it's really nice to have an external heat source. Not very LNT, though. The flames are beautiful to watch; hypnotic. It makes waiting for the Sicilian lentil soup to cook almost painless.
Up from Benson Lake, below Volunteer Peak, to Smedberg Lake. Lunch and a sunbath at Smedberg. Up through a couple of high meadows, over Benson Pass, down Wilson Creek to Matterhorn Canyon. Topped out at 10,1' or so at Benson Pass. Many dry creekbeds in the higher regions; it felt more like the East Side than the wetter forested canyons yesterday and today. More people on trail than I expected. A popular loop, evidently, despite the slightly more remote trailhead. I keep seeing two guys hiking together, from Jersey and Georgia. They also camped at Barney and Benson, and now we're playing tag on the trail today.
Washed up in the creek this evening. Cold, but it felt good. Especially nice to lizard afterwards, to sit there and suck up heat from the sun.
Still not much photography on this trip and, despite trying to relax and enjoy what's here, I find myself thinking of coming out early. I need to do a sit. My head's not really here; it's out there somewhere else, and this trip begins to feel like a mild physical exercise rather than an experience. It seems unfair to this place not to give it the attention it deserves.
Saw a doe and fawn after lizarding, though. The least habituated I've seen this summer. Across the creek and about forty yards away but still skittish. I had to stand very still for three or four minutes before they got back to browsing. So beautiful to watch their graceful walking stride, with the delicate movement of their rear legs picking through the tall grass like a heron wading, the fawn occasionally bounding to catch up. I could feel my hear beating faster.
Day 5, 7:45am. Matterhon Canyon.
Woke up first at 5:30am. All the down had migrated to the edges, again, leaving a fat cold spot in top. Frustrating. Slept/dozed fitfully until getting up at 7:30. Sun still isn't up over the ridgeline. Ice crystals in the water bottle. I don't think it's summer here, boys and girls.
I wonder if Liz has had her baby yet.
Day 5, 9:30pm. Upper Horse Creek.
Wow. Long day. Full day. Ironically -- on the last full day of backpacking for the summer -- probably the day I've felt the best. A normal late start from lower Matterhorn Canyon; despite what I wrote earlier, I was about 1/2 to 1 mile south of the trail junction to head over to Virginia Canyon. All the morning rituals: wake up early, doze until 7:30, grumble that the sun isn't direct yet, fumble with cold fingers to start hot chocolate, take down the tarp while the water's warming, linger over hot chocolate. Sipping slowly and cautiously at first, then faster. Wipe out the mug and start more water for oatmeal. Pack up the sleeping. One cup of mixed plain and apple cinnamon oatmeal and almond meal; add sliced almonds and dried cranberries. Organize a bit. Wash up the kitchen stuff, re-pack the bear canister after taking out lunch food. Pack the backpack. Go filter more water for the day's hike -- 75 strokes, rhythmically but unhurried to fill the gatorade bottle I'm reusing, then transfer that to the Camelback. Easier than dealing with the floppy Camelback directly. Finish packing the backpack. Two final steps: put on sunscreen, change into hiking socks. Then off.
Soon meet the cast familiar from yesterday: Archie and Rich, and the group of four that were coming down Wilson Creek. Moving well and comfortably on the gentle uphill but relatively smooth and level Matterhorn Canyon trail. Some light conversation, but finally -- finally! -- I'm starting to feel good and so pulled away from the others. Up until the high 9k', I feel totally adjusted. The pack's not at all bad, either. Mix of woods and small meadows, but aside from intermittent creeks and their corresponding muddy/swampy bits to cross, it feels much more east-side than Kerrick Canyon. Dry, dusty soil with pumice and pine needles, like Mammoth. Similar smell too. Some big walls, including one that is a yellow-orange tan color stained black with carbon like a Japanese water-color woodcut. In a couple of sections Matterhorn Creek runs over granite slabs with drop pools; in one small pothole I can see three large cobbles ready to scour it deeper in the next storm. Reminiscent of the Grotto and Strawberry Creek back home.
Finally coax my way above timberline for good and stop for a brief lunch in the shade of a boulder. The "pass" on the divide on the second amphitheatre south of Burro Pass is a no-go; it looks like too much of a headwall at the top. Continue on to the uppermost meadow below Burro Pass; unfortunately, I can't see the actual divide. Decide to go for it. At worst, I'll have to backtrack. About an hour of technically easy cross-country travel gets me to the upper amphitheatre. At the top, I watch a raptor (a falcon? Later, off trail at the Mono Lake visitor center looking through the Sibley guide to birds, it looks like a juvenile rough-legged hawk) with an off-white body, black wingtips and hood, riding thermals and circling for prey. The pass doesn't look easy; not class 1 but doable, maybe class 2. Foolishly, though, I follow a use trail on the north side when the south looked better; sure enough, from the top of the pass the south looks like the dominant choice. A couple of short class 2 moves get me across a low-angle face without too much of a problem, but I'm glad Archie and Rich didn't take me up on my invitation to join me. The top is nice: a view up to the Matterhorn, great views west across the northern Yosemite backcountry and Sawtooth Ridge and east into Spiller Creek and the eastern Metamorphic peaks.
The descent, however, is another matter. I scout three routes after dropping the pack before reluctantly picking the middle one. The other two cliff out; the middle looks like it might go. Fun to moderate without a full pack, a wary challenge with one. Not what my climbing friends would call "butt-puckeringly scary", but something to be careful about. Extended class 2 for fifty to sixty feet with a handful of class 3 thrown in for good measure. Still, Mom would kill me if I did something stupid and got hurt out here. Worse, the consequences are high -- no one else is likely to come by anytime soon.
In the back of my mind is "be careful, be cautious, be smart; this is totally doable and is at or below your level." In the front of my mind, I'm humming to myself "back in the alpine again, oh, I'm back in the alpine again..." For variation, I sometimes overlay a horrifically fake German accent over it.
Make it down, no problems, to the upper Spiller Creek drainage. It doesn't look all that amenable to camping despite views to the couth of the Conness range. It's about 5:30pm with at least a couple hours of light left, so I push on over the saddle into Horse Creek. Immediate change of geology and character. Solidly into metamorphics. Blocky talus, knife-like ridges, lots of dark grays and reddish-browns with occasional muted greens and purples. One of the faces of the Matterhorn (misnamed, in my opinion) is shot through with crazy lightning-like dikes. Rockfall from the ridgelines causes the colors to drip and bleed into each other. Strongly wish I knew more metamorphic petrology and this structure. Finally, ten years later, I'm seeing things for their process and implication, not just the scenery.
I stop to put on gaiters, then follow a decent (if intermittent) use trail down Horse Creek. At this point I've been going over seven hours, but mostly I feel good. For the first time this trip, I'm in the moment, really engaged with my surroundings, and I don't want that to stop.
Finally have to stop at about 7:30pm. I'd passed up a better campsite earlier, but there wasn't much light left. Scratch out a small 1.5 x 7' space from the chippy scree and rig the tarp using rocks as anchors. Have to get water by headlamp, going back up the trail to a side stream; Horse Creek looks to be carrying a decent sediment load (grey to milky-white, despite the permanent snowfields above) and I'd rather filter the clearer side stream.
Long day, really long entry. Maybe it was the class 3 moves, maybe the metamorphics, but like I said: the first time I felt engaged. Not a bad way to end up this sequence of trips. Each of them has had a distinct flavor; each has offered something different to learn. Hopefully, I have enough humility (a stretch for me, but there it is) to listen. I know that's starting to sound too new-age and California zen-lite, but I think it's true. The question is, can you take these experiences outside of your normal life and put them into practice in a different context? Is it sustainable? That's the tricky part.
So, if it's not too trite, after 31 days in the backcountry this summer: try to pay attention to your surroundings, the other species you're sharing it with. Better, try to be engaged with it on its own terms. Try to do one thing at a time. If the hot chocolate is ready and cooled to the perfect temperature, enjoy the hot chocolate. If you see a photo that wants to be taken, take it. If something catches your eye and mind that might make a good photo, look for it. But don't force it. Just because a great photo can't be made somewhere doesn't mean it isn't worthwhile or doesn't deserve attention. Try to see for yourself. Other artists who have gone before you have their own images (performances, characters, movements, words) and they can be seductive, but they're not yours. If you find them beautiful or inspiring or moving, ask yourself why and try to learn from them, but try not to duplicate them. Your work needs to come, ultimately, from your life -- and why would you want to live someone else's life?
Grace, whether a meadow with an almost-perfect s-curve oxbow, a hawk tracing circles on thermals, a shooting star, bighorn sheep, or even a summer thunderstorm of frightening intensity, can come at any point and at any time. For the most part, the less stuff you carry, the more you can be a part of and enjoy what's around you. Selfish pleasures are not always bad. Who you are is defined by what you do, what you have done, and the memories collected from having done it, and by the people you choose your life with. Are you cultivating these things?
Solitude is good, but company can be good, too. Company is good, but solitude can be good, too. The Sierras (like most things, probably) are more complex, more nuanced, and therefore more interesting than they might seem at first glance. It's good to have a home to come back to, even if it's a temporary one with friends you haven't known too long. No matter what else you are, at 5:45 in the morning at 12,000', you are primarily a radiator trying to heat up empty space -- which you will fail at.
Day 6, 9:05pm. Mono Lake.
On trail about 11am, right about the time that I heard (but didn't see) other people. 22 hours solo. Picked my way down the use trail before losing it, then flailed my way through some nasty brush, decided to go upslope to pick through large talus. Probably lost twenty or thirty minutes. Dropped down to try to reach a meadow, frightened two deer (their posture and body language I read as male ( is it too fanciful for me to imagine that I can pick that up?), and saw the trail immediately below me. Sometimes it's easier than you think it's going to be...
A full trail, a veritable highway, made the walking easy. Hit the dayhikers about a mile out. Smooth, moving well. Got down about two in the afternoon. Repacked the car, showered, picked up more water at a forest service campground, came out to Bridgeport. Had an ortega cheeseburger. Caught up on some of the Olympics at the Bridgeport public library. Called Mom and Dad. Debated staying at a hotel and watching some of the Olympics, but ultimately decided to come back down to Lee Vining and stealth camp at Mono Lake. Completing another circle...
Steak and ceasar salad at the mobil station in Lee Vining after browsing the Mono Lake Committee's bookstore. Two points: one, I already own a surprising number of titles they stock. Two, there are a lot more I'm interested in. They've got a great collection. As I ate, I thought that I wouldn't change anything about this summer. I'd do it all again, but for two things: I wish I hadn't had the Subaru repair in San Francisco, and a girlfriend would be nice... of course, if I keep leaving and spending six weeks on the east side and 32 days in the backcountry, I'm not likely to find one anytime soon.