Day One, September 26, 2010
This year’s trip was a continuation of last year’s. Having become snowbound last year, I never made my deepest destination, Picket Lake Basin. An additional objective this year was to visit an old favorite, Miter Basin. The underlying motive to all destinations is photography. Attempting to record the essence of this beautiful country with photographic composition is an endeavor full of riddle and mystery. A good part of the solution to successful conveyance is inclement weather and therefore my growing preference for October Sierra adventures. However, the additional challenge less comfortable weather demands can discourage an already taxing effort to limits beyond one’s capacity for endurance.
Picket Lake Basin is deep, approximately 35 miles and a rough accumulation of 15,000 vertical feet from an entrance over New Army Pass. To manage such an effort with enough time to study and photograph requires carrying more food than will fit in one bear can, not to mention a crippling amount of additional weight. As it was, carrying five days of food along with a generous amount of photography equipment, my pack weighed 56 pounds upon arrival to the Horseshoe Meadows Trailhead. To get around the dilemma of adequate supplies, I paid the Cottonwood Pack Station to drop an additional 10 pounds at a food locker in the lower Crabtree Meadow of what was to be a 12-day photo safari.
Day one found me at my destination near Miter Basin, a wonderful site along the shores of Lower Soldier Lake, just below a cross-country entrance into Miter Basin.
My initial photographic objective entailed two dead fox pines on the shoulder of the General Major. These two trees have fascinated my imagination for years. In death, these lifelong companions have fallen into one another’s arms in a touching embrace, holding one another upright for unimaginable centuries to come. They were companions in life and remain so in death. They serve as gatekeepers to Miter Basin.
The skies remained cloudless and the temperatures warm the morning of day two. I was tardy in waking up to make the 400-foot climb from camp before the golden hour of morning light had passed. Yet seeing those two trees was like visiting old friends going back over 25 years. I moved camp to within 100 yards of these trees inside Miter Basin so I’d have better access and opportunity to catch them in ideal light. Unlike day one, I was completely drained by the time I had moved camp. The shock of high altitude underscored with strenuous physical exertions called for a mid-day nap. It was too hot to nap for long, but a brief shuteye did abolish my debilitating lethargy.
The morning brought spectacular cirrus clouds and slightly cooler weather. Located at an elevation of 11,200 feet, I spent two hours working the “Gate Keepers”. I lost my gloves in the morning having laid them down on the rocks while maneuvering and working the composition. It ended up taking over two additional hours to find them! Little did I appreciate at the time how much those gloves would have been missed given the volatile weather yet to arrive.
Time to make my way to the food drop in Crabtree Meadow. With 13 miles and a climb over the 11,000-foot Guyot Pass after dropping to 9,300 feet along Rock Creek, I appreciated the physical demands the day was to bring. Upon arrival, I was relieved to find the food drop intact and on schedule.
The Crabtree Meadow campsite was near a bluff overlooking the Whitney Creek drainage cascading 2000 feet into the Kern River Canyon. Many campsites are near cascading water. The sounds from these cascades come up through the ground inside one’s tent where they transmute into a cacophony for the imagination. Whitney Creek’s signature underground echoes reminded me of an India bazaar.
The clouds were continuing their sky dance. Excitement impaired sleep. My feet were tired but blister free. Pack sores were mild and remedied with medical tape. The following morning, I was prepared to move on and I felt grand!
With the additional supplies, my pack weighed 58 to 59 pounds. I was carrying much less water than when entering on day one, allowing for less an increase in pack weight than otherwise. There were plenty of streams to stop here and there with which to take the necessary water, so I saved three pounds by leaving my camelback empty and relying instead on a one-liter Nalgene bottle attached at the belt.
From 10,300 feet in Crabtree meadow, I hiked down into the Kern River Canyon along Wallace Creek, an incredibly scenic descent. Crossing the river at 8000 feet is the only caveat. What goes down must go back up!
This journey’s leg brought me 11 miles deeper after a 6-hour effort to the exact same campsite where I was snowbound last year above Rockslide Lake in the Kern-Kaweah River drainage. It is a beautiful place to be stuck, but being stuck anywhere in the Sierra backcountry is something I’d prefer to never repeat. With ample photo opportunities, I was content to make this a two-night location. My kitchen was perched above the confluence of the Kaweah and Picket Creek drainage, a fantastically beautiful configuration of multiple and steep cascades. My view extended unobstructed to the eastern Sierra escarpment some 20 miles distant.
It began raining.
The rains remained sparse and scattered. Occasional rumbles of thunder could be heard, but it stayed relatively warm. Cloud cover makes for excellent lighting as goes photography, creating a giant softbox effect. I spent most of the day in a non-stop effort pursuing an attempt to capture the ever-fleeting essence. However, what the mind’s eye sees and how a camera records are two vastly different realities. Within this conundrum lies a solution, allowing the photographer to transcend in conveying one’s intent. Success is precious and infrequent. I’m no Edward Weston with a camera nor John Muir with a pen, but I do have their passion and stamina.
Going on three days of mostly cloudy skies and intermittent rainfall, I did a dry run climbing out of the canyon and into the Picket Lake Basin. I did not want to make this first effort with a backpack, although a more confident mountaineer might not have hesitated. Peering into Picket Lake Basin was a thrill! It made me feel like Alice in Wonderland.
With increasing lightening and thunder throughout the night, I awoke early to break camp only to find everything wet from overnight showers. However, I was graced with morning sunshine and managed to dry out before packing and heading for Picket.
The hike was not terribly strenuous, given the short distance and only 1000 feet of climbing. My only worry was the weather, which was growing darker and colder by the hour. Upon entering Picket, I made camp within minutes of more rainfall, just in time to pitch and load the tent. Snow was now visible within the high peaks of surrounding mountains.
After a rest, I explored the basin during the rainfall. I even managed some photography during the occasional respite. Although comfort levels in such weather are marginal, mildly rainy conditions can help in distilling the essence by simplifying the scenery. As they say in art, less is more.
Woke up to freezing conditions after having had rain off and on throughout the night. My lakeside campsite was in a pea-soup fog upon exiting the tent. My day’s objective was to visit Kaweah Basin. Off and on rain with off and on photography punctuated the day’s adventure. By the time I returned to camp, I was deteriorating into the physical state best defined as a bonk. Consuming an extra Power bar had me back up to speed within half an hour. Subsisting on a diet of only partially adequate caloric density in warmer weather conditions, I was finding the cold weather sapping my energy reserves. I suspected I was losing weight at a greater rate than anticipated and my body could feel the difference. Otherwise, I remained in good spirits and fine physical form.
Waking up to well below freezing temperatures, my morning Power bar was frozen hard. When I finally manage breaking off a chunk, foolishly using my teeth, the half remaining in hand painfully jammed into my nose! After a choice word or two, I laughed at my folly, and from then on, I warmed the Power bars in my pants pocket until they came to a more agreeable consistency. The dropping temperatures were also cause for frozen water bottles. If it did not start warming up, I knew the water bottles would need overnight sleeping-bag storage, nothing like cold water bottles in bed! By this time, the stormy conditions had persisted for six days. Surely, any day now, hot blue skies must be just over the mountain!
I began pilfering an extra day’s worth of food rations. By eating a 3oz bag of mixed fruits and nuts at night, I found not only would my body have the necessary energy to warm up, the extra rations enabled a rapid fall into a deep sleep, overcoming what was a cold-induced insomnia. While falling asleep, sounds emanated through the ground from Picket Creek reminding me of a distant carnival. With extra food in my belly, and sounds of celebration under my tent, I adventured into dreams of a life left behind.
It began snowing.
After three nights in Picket Basin, time was high to begin heading back. Crabtree Meadow was to be the day’s destination. The clouds were dense throughout, with snow again commencing at the 8000-foot, Kern River crossing. Temperatures had not risen above freezing for well over 24 hours, but conditions were favorable for hiking. Plus, I was dry! I’ll take cold and dry over less cold and wet any day.
One more remarkable observation: I heard a tree frog! I heard it at night, only a couple of forlorn sounding "croaks," and again in the morning. For the life of me, I cannot fathom an amphibian, awake, yet alone alive enough in such freezing conditions, to manage vocalization!
I made Crabtree Meadow and set up camp while it was snowing. With the snow growing from a light dusting into a thin carpet, I was becoming concerned with when this weather system would be out of my way! I slept in my parka and every additional layer of clothing available to ward off the chill of night, falling asleep to the sounds of the India bazaar.
Upon rising in the morning, the coldest yet, I immediately packed and moved out, heading for Soldier Lake, my last stop before exiting the park over New Army Pass.
Along the way, I would stop on occasion, fighting to slow my labored breathing, the air still, snow falling, and listen to the silence. One could never experience a more absolutely quiet environment. The sounds of a grey squirrel climbing a nearby pine tree were loud and crunchy, so much so, I initially failed to recognize their source. The call of a bird would pierce the air with a clarity and fidelity exceeding the finest manmade acoustic devices.
Seven hours later, upon arriving alongside the Lower Soldier Lake, the snow was coming down heavier than ever before! Near blizzard conditions, I quickly pitched the tent and stowed all gear. I seriously considered trying to make New Army Pass before setting camp. I struggled to deny my growing anxiety for an early exit with the looming possibility of becoming snowbound for a second year in a row. But my fatigue told me otherwise. Better not to make a late go and suffer an accident in haste or panic. All the same, my final objective to revisit the Gatekeepers for one more photographic effort appeared hopeless with the stormy conditions prevailing. It was time for a sleepless nap in what were dark and stormy conditions at 2:30 that afternoon.
Awakening to brighter cloudy skies and blankets of snow, I decided to make a go and work, for one last time, the Gatekeepers. I knew the snowfall would transform the landscape. It was 4:30 PM; I figured I had two hours to go up and back, leaving adequate time for dinner preparation. What I found in the Gatekeepers made for a climatic end to the longest Sierra outing of my life. The snow, the light, the shifting fog of clouds, the vastness of Miter basin, and the trees, made for a sight like nothing I had ever before witnessed! My excitement was palpable and my hands freezing cold. I worked the camera for over an hour while watching a woodpecker come and go, lighting upon the Gatekeepers as I took frame after frame, the light in a constant flux with partially clearing skies. The smallest ground squirrel widely circled my position repeatedly, adding to the moment’s entertainment and delight. The little guy was so frenetic with energy; it presses the imagination to comprehend adequate food consumption to meet such high-octane demands!
When finished, I knew my work was done and tomorrow would bring an exit. One of the best days of such a trip is the last day, and I can’t recall ever having a better last day.
Day Twelve, October 7, 2010
In the first of mornings for several days, I awoke to clear blue skies! It was time to embark the final leg with conditions warming above freezing. Ironically, these last three days of 24-hour subfreezing temperatures kept my feet dry, providing a warmer level of comfort! Not today, as by the time I reached my car, feet and boots were sopping wet. One more night, and I’d be putting on rock-hard frozen boots.
Hiking out was complicated by a trail hidden in sections under snow, and the higher the altitude, the deeper the snow. New Army Pass was much better defined on its eastern and steeper downside. Having not seen another person the previous seven days was one thing, but throughout my final leg, trekking through one of the most visited regions in the South Sierra, I remained alone! And my vehicle, to further my amazement, was the only car in the entire Horseshoe Meadow parking lot! It was like the Sierra had skipped the month of October.
Nine pounds lighter and anticipating a hot meal to be followed by a soft, warm bed, my adventure had come to a wonderful conclusion, with memories worthy of a lifetime and photographs to cherish for years beyond.