It was full on dark by the time I reached the brink of this steep chute and tried to peer down into the abyss beyond the intervening brush and scrub pines. All I saw was inky blackness hemmed in to the east and west by steep barely perceptible slopes coming down from the adjacent ridges. “This should be interesting,” I said to myself.
A short time later I came to a junction where another trail branched off to the east. This was not on the map (the 1953 edition of the 15' Mount Pinchot quad). Didn't matter. I stuck with what I perceived as the main trail and continued on down.
After a couple of quick switchbacks, the trail came to an abrupt end at the edge of a steep smooth slab. The upper part may have been do-able, but the steepness increased as it went further down. I couldn't get close enough to see what was at the bottom about 50 or so feet below. It was coated with a slick layer of sand and I decided that it might be a bit too risky to venture down too far.
I wondered if decades of winter avalanches had stripped away this part of the trail. Maybe the other trail that I'd passed earlier was a newer bypass to this area? Reluctantly, I turned and went back up the trail to the junction I'd passed.
As I hiked back up, I saw a flash of light out of the corner of my eye. Great! Just what I needed. A thunderstorm. The flash had been very faint, so I knew it must have been a long way off. I had noticed thick discontinuous layers of clouds to the south and to the east before the sun had set. Maybe it was in one of those directions. I looked up and saw stars in my vicinity, but to the south, there was mostly just blackness. Hopefully I would have time to get off the mountain before the storms started popping up.
I got back to the trail junction and started following the other trail. This trail was heading in an easterly direction toward a huge rocky ridge that defines the eastern side of the chute that I wanted to descend. I hoped that eventually it would turn west and contour back down into my chute.
As I hiked I continued to see those occasional flashes of light out of the corner of my eye. They definitely seemed to be coming from the east. I scanned the horizon, hoping to see distant lightning- perhaps deep in Nevada, but I saw nothing but blackness out there.
At last the trail reached the crest of the upper part of the ridge and I had an unobstructed view of Owens Valley. Even at night, it was a magnificent sight. The lights of the two towns within view, Lone Pine and Independence, reminded me of colorful star clusters in outer space. (Yeah, okay. I probably watch too much Star Trek.) Tiny slow moving headlights could be seen plying north and south along the main artery of the valley- US395. I saw an occasional vehicle negotiating the twisting switchbacks of Onion Valley Road far below- seemingly at my feet.
There was another flash from the corner of my eye- then still more. This time, after a significant delay, I could hear popping sounds. Were they associated with the light flashes? I realized that they were coming from down below in the valley somewhere... Then I saw a bright flash just north of Independence. It was followed by several more and seemed to be coming from a open field just north of the town. (The airport maybe?) They were different colors- Red, white, bl... Of course!!
“Today's the Fourth of July!” I exclaimed aloud.
I stood and watched the distant show for a short time. Kind of a unique experience- watching a fireworks show from above. I was surprised at how seemingly low the shells were bursting and how small the resulting explosions seemed to be. From the perspective of someone down below them, they seem so big and burst so high.
I thought about the hot dogs, burgers and cold beer being served at the celebration down there and my stomach growled. It was time to get moving. I hoped that there would still be someplace that was open to buy some food and beer later that night.
I followed the trail down the ridge and soon some large rock outcroppings loomed up ahead in the dark. The trail started to traverse around on the east side of them and then, unfortunately, made a switchback back to the north. Just as I'd feared, the trail seemed to be heading down the vast eastern slope of Kearsarge Peak. It was likely built to access the mining areas down below in that direction. I could only guess, but it probably continued down past those mines and back to the Onion Valley Road at a point where it traversed across the lower east slope of the mountain- much further downhill than I wanted to go. It would add several unwanted hours to what had already become an excessively long day hike. I backtracked up the trail to where it had left the crest of the ridge.
With my headlamp, I spotted what seemed to be a use trail heading to the west into the chaparral. Maybe it would lead across to the floor of the chute that I needed to descend. I followed it down and it didn't take long to discover that it was in fact just a game trail for what must have been very small game. I continued to push and shove my way through the brush hoping to pop out of it and find a clear path back to a continuation of the trail that had ended high above.
The going got rougher and rougher. There were places where crawling was necessary and more than once a rigid branch tore my headlamp right off my head. Shit! I finally reached a spot where I was encircled by thick brush- with cliffs below and rock outcroppings above. I don't know how this would be in daylight, but at least I would have been able to spot weaknesses in the brush and perhaps thrash my way to easier ground. At night, this was crazy as well as futile. I gave up and retraced my route back up to the trail in defeat.
Once again on the trail, I began the long weary slog back up to the junction- the one that was not shown on the map. I decided to check out that other trail branch once again- the one that seemed to agree with what the map showed. Maybe I missed an important section. Maybe that sandy slab wasn't so steep as I thought and I should try to descend it. This time I would take it slowly (in my exhausted state did I have a choice?) and really thoroughly search around with my headlamp.
By the time I returned to the trail junction, the fireworks show was over and all was quiet and normal in the world once again. Once more, I slowly followed the western branch of the trail down into the chute. I held the headlamp in my hand and flashed it around looking for any sign of a hidden trail. But there was nothing. I once again came to the top of the steep sandy slope. I took a tentative step and realized that it was just too slippery. A sprained ankle or worse would be unacceptable up here. Using my headlamp, I didn't see any way to bypass it. Drat!
Reluctantly, I turned and began slowly hiking back up the trail to the junction. I didn't carry a watch on my trips back then so I didn't know precisely what time it was. My internal clock said that it was probably sometime past 10pm. I knew what I had to do. For the first and only time in my mountain 'career', I was going to have to bivouac.
I went up past the trail junction to where I remembered that there were some flattish areas peppered with plenty of scrub pine. I found a spot that had a nice view of Independence and the Owens Valley and sat down on a rock. In spite of my situation, it felt good to finally stop hiking for the day. I pulled out my altimeter and noted that I was at about 10,600 feet above sea level.
But... what now? I've never had to bivouac before. Time to take inventory. I took off my day pack. My back was damp with sweat and I felt a chill. My food supply was barely adequate: A few pepperoni sticks, a hand full of 'gorp' and a small bag of cashews. My water supply was cause for concern: maybe about two inches in only one of my Nalgene bottles. The snow I'd packed into them earlier had melted into only a small amount of actual liquid. The two hours or so of searching for the correct route up and down the mountain had created a great amount of dehydration and thirst so I drank up a lot of water thinking that I was only a couple hours or so from the car. Oops. The snow fields that I'd passed earlier were a good thousand feet or so back up the mountain. Shit! This small amount of food and water was just going to have to last until I got back to the car tomorrow.
What else did I have? A rain poncho, a wool button down shirt (which I was already wearing), a windbreaker, wool leather palmed gloves, and (thank goodness!!) a down jacket with a down hood. I also had a wool balaclava which I put on immediately in lieu of my broad rimmed hat. For equipment, I had a fire starting kit of matches and some chemically treated sticks. A small camp shovel, a Swiss Army Knife, and my headlamp.
I realized that maybe I deserved some credit. I was actually fairly well prepared for this and I even found myself kind of looking forward to it- an unplanned bivouac in the High Sierra. Funny, only a week or so earlier I'd been lamenting to Dave (my climbing partner) that most of our trips for the last few years have been kind of routine and mundane. There didn't seem to be much adventure to them anymore. Well, as they say, be careful of what you wish for...
I chose a medium sized scrub pine to serve as a rudimentary shelter and spread my poncho out in the slightly cramped space beneath it as a ground cloth. After putting on my extra clothing, I ate a 'dinner' of 1 pepperoni stick and the 'gorp' while I watched the slow moving traffic on US395 far below.
I felt a small thrill (or maybe it was a chill) in knowing that nobody in the world knew where I was at the moment. Remember that I'd changed my plans from the Shepherd Pass trail to Kearsarge Peak at the last minute and didn't really have a convenient mechanism for informing my people at home. Oh, well. I won't be overdue until Monday. If something terrible happens to me, I'm sure it would be easy to find my truck in the parking lot in Onion Valley...
Shit! I just remembered my truck down in the day parking lot. Oh crap. There was probably already a citation tucked under the windshield wiper. But, what if it gets towed? Was that a possibility? I didn't want to think about it until morning.
The temperature seemed typical for my elevation in the Sierra at night in the summer. Probably in the low to mid 40s. There was only a slight breeze coming from the west or southwest. No moon. Skies were mostly clear. This could have been a lot worse.
I enjoyed the night time views for a short time before crawling under the tree to my makeshift bed. I drank one good sized swallow of water before I laid down to attempt sleeping. I used my empty rolled up daypack as a crude pillow.
As tired as I was, it quickly became apparent that sleep would not come so easily. The ground was very hard and rocky without my sleeping pad. My down jacket alone was not enough to prevent my body heat from escaping into the cold ground. I curled up into a fetal position and closed my eyes. Eventually, I reached a state of semi consciousness similar to sleep. I stayed this way for perhaps several hours. My own personal 'Twilight Zone'.
It was while I was in this 'zone' of semi sleep that I slowly became aware that I was not alone. Others had silently arrived and seemed to have encircled the scrub tree where I lay. They were saying something I couldn't quite understand. They seemed pretty determined for me to understand their message, but I wasn't quite getting it. I just wanted to sleep. They weren't going to let me. Why don't they leave? Who were they and why were they up here on the southeast side of Kearsarge Peak?
Wake up! Get out of there!
Yeah, right! Leave me alone!
Get up and move. Dance!
Dance?! Who were these people. Were they lost up here too??
No! You are! Now, GET THE F**K UP!!
I opened my eyes and my mind reacquired the cold reality of the real world.
“I'm alone!” I said aloud. “...and I'm cold.” Very cold. Shivering, I crawled out from under the scrub pine and stood up in the cold darkness. It had all been in my own mind! I had been trying to wake myself up to move around in an effort to warm up. But, the 'others' had seemed so real! This was not the first time I've had an experience like this. Usually it's brought on by extreme fatigue. How weird is the human mind! (Okay, okay. Maybe just my mind.)
I started pacing up and down around my bivvy site. I warmed up a little, but I needed to dance. I'd read recently about how... was it Norman Clyde? Or John Muir? Maybe it was Clarence King. Anyway one or all of them used to dance like Indians at night to ward off the cold. Now it was my turn. I bounced, hopped, twirled squatted and jumped. I continued to do this for several minutes- even singing like an Indian as well. I was glad no one was there to watch or listen.
After about 15 minutes, I stopped. I was warmer, but I was getting tired and, also, I didn't want to raise a sweat. I sat and felt the heat that I'd generated slowly drain away.
I realized that I would need to make a fire. I didn't have enough water to douse it if something went wrong, so I decided to make it very small. I made a fire ring only about 8 inches in diameter and used just small pieces of dead-fall which was very abundant around my bivvy site.
The dry wood lit very easily and after being in darkness all night, the brightness actually hurt my eyes. I suddenly worried that maybe someone down in the valley might see it and mistakenly think that it was a distress signal. Oh well. Whatever. Even with its small size, it was surprisingly warm and comforting.
I sat for quite a while in front of the fire occasionally getting up to gather an armload of small wood pieces. If only I had more food and water- I might actually have enjoyed myself despite the discomfort of spending the night in the open without camping gear.
I looked up and saw that the sky to the east was beginning to brighten. Was it my imagination or just wishful thinking? Nope. It was definitely getting brighter. The long night was finally coming to an end. I spread my poncho out on the ground next to my fire and laid down. As I let the fire die, I fell asleep absorbing the warmth of the rising sun. I think I slept for about an hour. When I finally woke up, it was full on day time.