Sunday, July 26, 2009

Six Days in the Sierras

I've never much subscribed to the concept of a relaxing vacation (yawn...); my style is more toward seeing how much physical expenditure can be packed into each day -- to say, my Productive Vacation Day gauge is one that measures just how tired I feel at the end. Last week's Sierra sojourn was productive: I felt nice 'n wrung out by the end of the week. :)
The trip was conceived when my good friend Al decided he needed a respite from this year's soggy New England summer. We agreed: "Let's go to the Sierras!" We started off with Mt. Whitney, lucking out and procuring walk-up permits. With 6000 feet of vertical gain and 22 miles round trip, coupled with the fact that most people aren't acclimatized for the 14,494 foot summit, almost everyone starts at Whitney Portal well before dawn. Watching the train of bobbing lights snake its way up the mountain at 4 a.m. is kinda cool. Check out this geek!

We made it to the top under clear skies in about 5.5 hours--not blistering fast but respectable enough considering we came from sea level and Al underwent ACL reconstruction just four months ago! I decided to climb Keeler Needle and Mt. Muir on the way back to Trail Crest, the former because it looked really cool, the latter because it is a 14er. Scrambling up Muir's rocky pinnacle, I heard rumblings of thunder in the distance and knew it was time to descend. What was surprising was how many people continued to come up! (The attitude seemed to be "Dammit, we have our permits; we're climbing this sucker!" Yikes.) We were just below Trail Camp as the deluge of rain & hail, thunder & lightning hit, surely making the folks' day higher up very interesting.

Mt. Langley, another 14er, was on tap for Day #2. Also on the long side at ~22 miles round trip, Langley is one of the easiest California 14ers technically. I ran much of the lower miles, passing the beautiful Cottonwood Lakes en route to Old Army Pass. The trail up OAP was steep but enjoyable: I always like a trail that "gets to the point" quickly rather than slogging back and forth up dozens of switchbacks. Just below the Pass was a steeply sloped lingering snowfield that had to be crossed--a bit scary but totally do-able with careful foot placement. From there it was a long but easy schlep to the summit. About a half mile below the summit, I encountered three mules. They wore bridles but had no packs, no attaching ropes, and no human companions. What the...? They seemed content hanging out at 13,000+ feet, munching on the little bit of vegetation growing up there, but upon return to civilization I contacted the ranger station to report the rogue stock. Just to take a different route back, I descended New Army Pass which has a bunch of the aforementioned switchbacks but which are more conducive to running down. This day brought another, more intense thunder, lightning, and hailstorm. The hail was large pea sized and it HURT! Three rounds of it left the ground white and me huddling under protective tree branches laughing hysterically. I contemplated climbing one of the trees "a la John Muir," to experience the full effects of the storm. Not! (And FWIW, I just Googled it and found out that Muir most likely never did this... Yay. I always hate to discover that my heroes are whack jobs.)

Al agreed to join me on a fourth 14er on Day #3, White Mountain Peak, above. Yes, that is a road, and it is 7 miles up and 7 miles back, to say nothing of the 16 miles of rough dirt road to get to the trailhead. Yes, one could ride a mountain bike to the summit. Rumor has it that people have even unicycled up it. But don't believe those who call it "boring." It is the third highest peak in California and THE highest desert peak. (Except for Shasta which is in the Cascades and White Mtn. Peak, all the CA 14ers are in the Sierra Nevada Range). The White Mtn. Range is home to the oldest living things on the entire planet, the 4000+ Y/O bristlecone pines. How freakingly amazing is that?! There were also way more marmots than I've seen in the Sierras. I love marmots. Views of the Sierras across the Owens Valley can't be beat, and there is spectacular stargazing to be had on the ridge. Finally, there were many desert peaks passed en route, both in the car and on foot, and someday I hope to climb them all...
The morning of Day #4 was spent in one of my favorite towns ever, Bishop, enjoying exceptional coffee & cinnamon rolls at Great Basin Bakery, ogling the incredible photography at Galen & Barbara Rowell's Mountain Light Gallery, doing laundry, and stopping by Erick Schat's Bakkery (yeah, yeah, it's a tourist trap, but where else can one buy roasted turkey drumsticks? Yum-O!) on the way out of town before heading up to the Mosquito Flat trailhead to climb Mt. Starr via Mono Pass.
A segue about the Starrs: Walter Starr Sr. and a friend were the first documented persons to climb this peak. Walter Sr. was the father of Walter "Pete" Starr, author of the first guidebook to the John Muir Trail. In 1933 Pete went missing on a solo climb of the Minarets and was finally found a few weeks later by none other than Norman Clyde, who determined that Pete had fallen to his death. (If you don't know who the legendary Norman Clyde is, click on the link! And BTW, there is a wonderful Clyde exhibit at the Eastern California Museum in Independence right now.) Anyway, the Starr disappearance and search were the subject of the book Missing in the Minarets, by William Alsup, the first Sierra-related book I read upon moving to California. (An excerpt from the book.) The skies darkened and we once again got rained on a bit while hiking out. I blamed Al for bringing all the rain from New England. I like the colors in this photo:

Day #5 was a relatively quick & easy jaunt up Mammoth Mountain, a visit to the spectacular Mono Lake, fish tacos, beer, and live music at that famous Sierra gold mine at the foot of Tioga Pass Road, the Whoa Nellie Deli, before turning in early in anticipation of the final day.
My goal was to be good and wrung out for the last day, so decided on a 50-mile loop run connecting the five Yosemite High Sierra Camps: Vogelsang, Merced Lake, Sunrise, May Lake, and Glen Aulin (six in all if one includes Tuolumne Meadows Lodge), spaced about 7-10 miles apart. The most comparable "hut" system in the U.S. is probably the Appalachian Mountain Club's White Mountain Huts in New Hampshire. I'd completed four point-to-point hut traverses when I lived back in Vermont--it's quite a popular testpiece--but am not aware of the Yosemite version being very popular with runners doing the loop in a day. Ultrarunners surely do it, but I'd never heard of this loop before reading a description in a backpacking book. Except for water, I did not partake of any of the camps' offerings (i.e. food).
Beginning at first light, 5:30 a.m., I proceeded in the clockwise direction from Tuolumne, reaching Vogelsang in about two hours and Merced Lake in another two. Views were stunning all day, with Yosemite rock, waterfalls, and intense sun almost constantly. I had to focus on staying hydrated and electrolyte balanced on the ovenlike climb to Sunrise Camp, reapplying sunscreen as it sweated off, then had a bit of trouble finding the correct trail near Tenaya Lake (did an extra half mile or so on the road there!) having never done any of these trails before, save for the JMT. Upon reaching May Lake, I knew I had it in the bag. The mosquitoes at McGee Lake were ferocious but were soon forgotten at the sound & sight of the Glen Aulin waterfalls. WOW. Incredible. The last few miles to Tuolumne Meadows were pretty albeit mosquito infested, and on the open granite sections I was glad it was still daylight since it would've been easy to get off route. (Carried a headlamp but never had to use it.) I finished the loop at 8:30 p.m., happily spent.
About 125 miles for the week-- all in all a nice Sierra sojourn!


edmunds said...

hi sue,

i was caught on white mtn in a lightning / hail storm in 2005. nevada's high point - boundary peak - is in this range and could be an interesting, remote hike from a much less-traveled direction.

you know, if you weave your stories together with a bunch of the historical info you often mention, you'd have yourself a great book!


Michael P said...

What a great adventure!