Saturday, July 17, 2010

Independence to Mammoth Lakes

Hello from the town of Mammoth Lakes!

What a week it's been. It's hard to know how to sum it up. It's been one of the most challenging weeks so far. A roller coaster ride literally and figuratively. A week filled with snow, hail, rain, thunderstorms, treacherous river fords, wet gear, soggy feet, alpine passes, hordes of mosquitoes, just to name a few of the challenges.

I was telling Indie earlier in the week, it seems like the Sierra is doing spring cleaning at the moment. It's almost as if she has said, "You can come over to the house, but be forewarned, I'm in the process of power washing the deck, scrubbing the hallway floor, mopping the kitchen, cleaning the bathroom, washing the windows. The decorations aren't quite up yet and there is a mess in the living room. Come over if you dare!"

This week, we hiked (or should I say maneuvered) over Kearsage Pass, Glen Pass, Pinchot Pass, Mather Pass, Muir Pass, Seldon Pass, and Silver Pass. The amount of snow still remaining in most of these passes was truly breathtaking- again literally and figuratively.

Mather and Muir passes were the highlights this week. Mather earned the nickname "Mather f***er pass" due to it's toughness. Just so you know, a pass is basically a gap in the mountains where the trail crosses from one area to another, and so far in the Sierra, each has been above 10,000 feet. While hiking Mather Pass, I teamed up with Ursa Major, Stax, Indie, and Chipper. While approaching Mather, I crossed paths with a park ranger named Miles heading the opposite direction.

"Didn't you know today is hike naked day?" the ranger asked me.
"I thought it was June 21st," I replied.
"The two guys in front of you are hiking naked," the ranger informed.
"Oh, they have this ritual!" I explained to ranger Miles.

Ursa Major and Stax have a ritual where they swim in one of the glacial lakes at the base of the pass, and then hike the rest of the way up the mountain naked. (So far, they are six for six.) Mather was our second pass of the day, having done Pinchot earlier in the morning. Indie and I watched Stax and Ursa from a distance and followed their route up the mountain. Again, much of the south side was covered in snow, so it was a combination of rock scrambling, and using the ice axe in the snowfields. It was extremely steep and the trail was often nowhere to be found. Basically, Indie and I aimed for the pass and found any means necessary to reach it. Chipper found his own route down below, singing as he was dwarfed by the huge boulders and snowfields around him. Indie and I met Stax, Ursa, and Chipper at the top around 6:30 pm. Way down at the bottom, we could see Answer Man and Blackgum just beginning their ascent. After a round of pictures, we began our descent which seemed more dangerous than the ascent, mainly because the north side had twice as much snow. Once again, we basically maneuvered our way down the mountain, an exhausting trudge due to the melting snow, bouldering, and constant hiking through trail filled with water and ice. We reached camp around 9:00, Answer Man and Blackgum arrived an hour or so later. That night I set up my tarp for the first time in about a month because the ranger said we were in an unstable weather pattern for the next few days. The rest of the guys chose to "cowboy camp" or sleep under the stars, mainly due to exhaustion, and I believe because no-one wanted to break the streak of consecutive nights without a tarp. In Indie's case, I believe it was 50 something days at that point. Sure enough, around 2:00am, I heard the sound of rain splashing against my tarp, and the sound of my hiking bros scrambling to set up tarps in the dark and the rain. I'd be lying if I didn't admit to feeling a tiny bit of satisfaction knowing I made the right choice and could drift back to sleep in my warm and dry sleeping bag!

Muir pass was surprisingly difficult. In fact, I though it was the most physically challenging day of hiking the entire trip. We heard rumors of a lot of snow. It's hard to imagine unless you actually see it. Answer Man, Indie and I teamed up to tackle Muir. The snow line began about two miles from the summit. Before reaching the snow, the three of us had given up on the idea of keeping our feet warm and dry. There simply was too much water on the trail. It feels somewhat odd to walk straight through streams without removing the shoes or trying to find a dry route. Usually there is a moment of "oooooo, that feels good!" which is then usually replaced by "damn, my feet are cold!" Anyhow, the ascent took several hours. The trail was completely covered, often footsteps went in various directions in the snow, and one had to rely on instinct to find the correct route. I think since Indie and I had done the JMT in previous years, this helped with navigation. We reached the summit late in the afternoon, Fozzie joined us the last final climb, and Chipper again appeared over the snowfields with an exclamation of "Wasn't that great?!" After a short lunch and a round of pictures we began our descent. Snow was all we could see, as well as a storm brewing above us. Again, it was a slog for the next several hours. Thankfully, since a storm was coming in, the sun was not allowed to melt the snow so there was very little postholing. Instead, rain began to fall overhead, and we gave up any hope of staying dry. We finally reached the snow line late in the evening, the showers had tapered off, and Indie and I camped with Fozzie at Evolution Lake. We were treated with an amazing sunset over the lake, and a near death sleep that night.

Yesterday, I hiked through three thunderstorms. I was soaked all day long. The third storm snuck up on me like a bat out of hell. I had an amazing view of the storm from a distance, or so I thought. I was sitting on a rock, eating a snickers bar, basking in the gold Sierra sun, watching lightning strike some dramatic distant mountain peaks. I watched rain pour through the valley and blanket the mountains. I watched the clouds move away from me it appeared. "I'm fine here," I told myself. "I think the storm is hung up over those mountains." All of a sudden, the rain seemed to get closer and closer. "I've got to get out of here!" I exclaimed as thunder began booming around me. I literally started running down the trail trying to stay in front of the rain. I could see blue skies in front of me. As I continued to run, the thunder was getting louder and louder. The wall of rain was right behind me, closing in. "Run, run!" I yelled to the surrounding trees. "I've got to set up my tarp!" I screamed to no one in particular. As I was running down the trail, I was looking for a flat spot to set up my shelter. The rain drops began to fall and I threw my pack down and retrieved my tarp. "Come on, set up the tarp!" I yelled. As i began fumbling with the thin plastic, the rain started to grow heavier. "Steady, steady!" I screamed. The wind began to pick up now, pulling the stakes out of the ground. "COME ON!" I yelled into the empty forest. Again I tried to hammer in the stakes but the ground was like sand pulling them out and collapsing the tarp. "DAMMIT" I screamed. "AHHHHHHH!" I was beginning to lose it as the hail began to pound my head and shoulders. "DON'T DO THIS TO ME!!!" I screamed again to what I thought was an empty forest. At this point, I was soaked and throwing my stakes and cursing my soaked tarp lying limp on the ground. At this point, a mule train with two cowboys came galloping down the trail. "Are you OK?" they asked as they passed down the trail. A bit embarrassed, I told them everything was fine, I was a bit mad at my inability to set up my tarp. "Glad everything's OK" they said as they galloped to Red's Meadow in the soaking thunderstorm.

Again, it was a week of highs and lows. After giving up on my tarp, I hiked in the rain for the next 20 minutes grumbling against the weather. Then, all of a sudden, that familiar gold, warm, Sierra sunshine made it's way through the clouds. I was standing in the greenest meadow I'd ever seen, the dark clouds still filling in behind the pines. I stood warming myself in the sunshine for the next five minutes. "Oh, that is what I need right now!" All of the anger melted away as I stood basking in the warmth. Then I got bit by a mosquito.


  1. Great stories Mark. LOVE reading about your adventure. The last time the Sierra had a big snow similar to this winter's was the summer I turned 50. To celebrate, my son and a friend and I went for a backpack from North to South Lake. We began July 1st. It was the hardest trip I've ever done, including the JMT, because we a./ had 101 freezing cold water crossings a day (though this did prove to be a good way of keep the feet from swelling), some of which were quite scary b./ since the packers couldn't get over the passes, debris from the winter-downed trees, rock slides, huge boulders to maneuver-were still on the trial which slowed us down even more, and c./the snow was abundant. When we crossed Muir Pass we had a solid snow field from about 2 miles before Wanda Lake, all the way up and over to the bottom lake before you head into LeConte Canyon (we called it "Frog Lake" because there were many as it is in an area that is being made fish-less by the forest service in order to help the frog, insect populations replenish). We estimated 9 solid miles of sun cups, post holing, mush, wet and bright snow. Whew. The only folks we saw were the PCT thru hikers--a motley crew for sure.

    Tell us about crossing Evolution deep?

    And, Evolution Lake is one of my favorite spots in the world. Glad you got to enjoy! No wonder John Muir was so fond of it!

  2. These are the sort of things you'll remember the rest of your life. :D

    Been years since I've hiked in the area, but there's a picture of me in a box someplace in this house of me standing next to the sign for Kearsarge Pass. Quite a sense of accomplishment.

    I also took a day hike once from South Lake to Bishop Pass. Looking over into Kings Canyon National Park, I just kept thinking how desolate that area looked. The eastern side, however, was a wonderland of alpine lakes and gurgling brooks. I think there might have even been a transplanted population of golden trout living in there. Spectacular!