This year’s trip began with a full pack in Horseshoe Meadow and the New Army Pass trailhead at 10,000 feet elevation. I wouldn’t recommend counting steps while going over New Army. Only a 2,500-foot gain, it is one of those days that has me ingesting Diamox for a goodnight’s sleep after concluding day one. Other than a mild heel blister, I felt reasonably well after reaching the day’s destination on the shores of Lower Soldier Lake. It’s a pretty campsite to be had on Lower Soldier, a kind of peninsula on this beauty of a 10,500 foot lake. It is a location I can’t help but revisit; equally important is the convenient and quick access provided to a cross-country entrance into the beautiful Miter Basin over the shoulder of the General Major. Blue skies and relatively warm weather characterized the beginning of this adventure, not a bad way to start out. But I like mildly inclement weather for more dramatic photography. Careful what we wish for!
Days Two and ThreeDay two was devoted to rest and planning a Class II, Crabtree-Pass entrance into Crabtree Basin. I’m not much for difficult off-trail passes, but others had convinced me Crabtree was not all that difficult, even if viewing it from a distance, appearances suggest otherwise. Looking at a passes from a distance is never a welcome site. They either look impossibly steep or they keep reappearing with one false crest after another.
The plan for day three entailed establishing camp somewhere near one of the Sky Blue-basin Lakes. Hiking the floor of Miter is always inspirational. Miter ranks among my favorites within Sequoia and Kings Canyon. It reminds me of Yosemite, only without all the people, yet alone paved roads; credit goes to Ansell Adams on that count!
The weather remained calm as I made for the night at a lakeside campsite near 12,000 feet not far from Crabtree Pass. The highlight of the day had been the sighting of three male Bighorn Sheep! They were beautiful in their thick winter coats and relatively undisturbed by my presence. I tried to follow them as they gracefully vanished over the next ridge, a foolish endeavor while under the burden of a backpack. The effort paid off in ascending an extra one or two hundred feet never to see these creatures again. What was I thinking?
Breaking camp the following morning, I followed cairns and reappearing trails while making the approach over Crabtree Pass. The going was slow, but I had no reason to hurry. I was keeping to an easy early schedule, saving my legs for the more strenuous days to come. Just on the other side of the pass, I came upon a young lady putting together a multi-piece antenna as she faced Crabtree Basin. She appeared to be listening through earphones hidden underneath a stocking hat. It took three escalating “HELLOS” before I had her attention from above and behind. I did not want to startle her and cause an accident! I could have easily walked right up and tapped her shoulder before she would have otherwise been aware of my presence. The wind was blowing, muffling my approach, not to mention her earphones and concentration elsewhere. When I inquired, she explained the high tech communications gear was an effort to find Bighorn Sheep, members of what is known as the Langley Herd. Two of the sheep are collared and the communication gear was for locating one of these tagged beauties. Alex, an environmental scientist with the Sierra Nevada Bighorn Sheep Recovery Program, was happy to impart some basic knowledge of the current status on these endangered species. I shared with her my sighting and offered to email the photos I had taken the previous day. She was grateful, having yet to spot any herself. After passing me her card, I made my way down the pass. It was steep going, but well defined and not nearly as difficult as originally feared.
Days Four and FiveMaking my way into Crabtree Basin, I approached the eastern edge of the middle of the three largest basin lakes. Upon turning around to see Mt McAdie, I immediately recognized the compositional details for a promising photograph and decided to set up campsite number four then and there. The resulting image is all about the light, the same reason I return again and again. Sierra Nevada light is incredibly dynamic, one can never know what to expect. It is why I carry a camera. I want to preserve and share those moments in time. The composition of Mt McAdie was one of those extraordinary moments. Although no clouds are visible in the background, as the sun became lower, clouds formed to the west and cast shadows in front of the sun conveying a wonderful sense of depth, both transcendent and inspirational. When the show was over, it was time again to fish out my trusty MSR stove and prepare dinner.
Day five brought me into the Lower Crabtree Meadow where I was to meet Rick (The Chief) in a re-supply effort. This trip was originally planned to be my longest ever with 13 nights and 14 days of exploring the rugged mountains of Sequoia and Kings Canyon. I can’t carry a 14-day food supply with my exceedingly heavy camera gear, thus mandating a resupply effort. Rick showed around 4PM at the prearranged bear box location. I was conversing with a PCT through hiker by the name of Dan from New York when Rick came into sight. After the 11-mile trek over Mt Whitney’s Trail Crest earlier in the day with over 5000 feet of net elevation, Rick looked weary from the effort. It turns out he was suffering from early flu symptoms! I gave him my water as he setup camp nearby, and then fetched more for dinner. Rick’s arrival was met with the relief I’d be set for the rest of this year's trip. However, to my dismay, supplies were the least of concerns as Rick explained the latest weather developments. A series of early winter storms was headed my way. High winds and five feet or more of snow was predicted for mountain passes! I had three days before the first of the storms was to arrive. My previous two trips in October had met similar fates. In particular was the Oct. 2009 storm that had me struggling for four days, at times waste deep in snow as I made my way out of a fearful situation, a situation I had no intention to repeat. I reluctantly agreed with Rick the remainder of the trip should be canceled. Escaping October was preferable to becoming snowbound.
Day six was my hardest, but I was rested and prepared. I had decided to exit over New Army Pass by way of Guyot Pass. I’d make a campsite on the shores of Long Lake or in the nearby Cottonwood Basin that afternoon after 15 miles and some 4000 feet of net elevation gain under the burden of a 62-pound resupplied backpack. Ugh! The winds were already picking up by the time I made New Army. The temperatures were dropping, too. I like hiking in cold weather as it considerably reduces the need for time consuming water stops. I knew I had made the correct decision to exit early as regrettable as it was. By the time I made Long Lake, the sun was dropping quickly and Long Lake was looking more than adequate for an overnight stay.
Days Seven and EightDay seven began cold and windy, but with only a short 3 hours of hiking to the vehicle. I had already decided, with Rick’s advice, to remain in the Eastern Sierra for a few days of day hiking into places I had never been; McGee Creek, Upper Rock Creek, and Convict Lake. The idea was to seek out peeking fall color, an effort to salvage something out of what had become an abortion for a backpacking trip.
I got a room in the Dow Villa that afternoon and enjoyed a delicious crab salad for dinner. After laundering my fragrant garments, I turned in for a night of deep sleep. The unscheduled comfort of a warm bed did little to deny my sense of defeat.
The next morning, the weather showed the first of three fronts not too terribly severe. I had to go back in! First in order was visiting the ranger center in Bishop to secure a permit for entry into the John Muir Wilderness via Mono Pass above Rock Creek. By 11:00, I was on the trail, feeling fresh and energetic with an objective to establish camp in Pioneer Basin. After 4000 net-feet gained and 9 miles trekked, I made camp as the clouds began moving in and the winds began to escalate. I had just enough light to run the basin in search of the ideal photographic composition. By the time I had finished, my socks and camp shoes were socking wet and snow had begun falling. I found little sleep until the wee morning hours when the tent-rattling wind finally abated, leaving only the steady pitter-patter of icy snow against the tent.
Arising before sunrise the following morning, I found myself in a mildly snowy landscape and total whiteout. I setup my camera in the predetermined location and patiently waited for the days early light to unfold. I was rewarded with another of those fantastic Sierra light shows! I was hooting and hollering, mindful at the same time another larger storm was on the heels of the current one.
After sunrise, I quickly broke camp. The temperatures remained freezing above 10,500 feet with a welcome occasional ray of sunshine as I neared Mono Creek. I had little energy, the only day of the trip I felt drained, but managed all the same while plodding through the deepening snow over Mono Pass before reaching my vehicle below.