Testing the waters in the cold High Sierra

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Trip Report
California, United States, North America
Date Climbed/Hiked:
Dec 1, 2008
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Testing the waters in the cold High Sierra
Created On: Jan 12, 2010
Last Edited On: Jan 12, 2010

The drive and permits

My eyes open to the sound of an alarm buzzing at 3:30 am Friday morning. At first I hesitate to leave the comfort of a warm bed, after a few seconds I decide to get going. It is in this split second decision where I realize that the journey we are about to take is going to happen. All of the planning, strategizing, pre packing, reading trip reports, looking through maps and big dealin’ it to my friends wasn’t the point where it was actually happening. Now is the moment, now!

The smell of coffee dominates my senses as I enter the kitchen a few minutes later as Jill had set the timer for the coffee to be ready by the time I woke. I pour a fresh cup into my favorite mug and mix in one level scoop of cappuccino mix for flair. I send a text message to Pawl to verify he is still onboard for this trip. No response. I decide to head over to his house anyway. 5 minutes later I arrive at his driveway and !PING! his phone to again try and get an answer. No response again. Should I go on alone? Is that smart, no I don’t think so, but I am already packed... come on Pawl, answer your phone.

A few minutes later Pawl emerges from his front door carrying what looks like a 100 pound bag full of what I assume is his backpacking gear. Sigh of relief. Ok so he’s in, this is really happening.

We both load his gear into the back of Jill's trailblazer. Its 4:05 am, North Las Vegas , NV... and we're off.

For the most part it’s an uneventful drive with the most interesting banter is Pawl's complaining about the car..., again. The chevy goes way too slow compared to the honda.

After a few hundred miles we arrive at the Lone Pine Ranger station in you guessed it, Lone Pine, CA! It’s now 7:45 am and they open at 8:00am. I'm sure the honda could have made it there by 7:15 am, but that’s neither here nor there, it is what it is. There are only a few cars in the parking lot and for the first time since I have seen it everyone is waiting in their cars instead of at the front door. I wonder if the cold has anything to do with that, I would guess so. The chevy says its 43 degrees outside, I'm sure the honda would concur.

Just like an efficient government office should be, the ranger station opens its doors at 8:03 am. We spot a woman starting to unlock the doors from the inside, so we dismount the chevy and head for the front door. We are greeted with a smile and a friendly hello, the gestures are returned and we head inside to see the permit man.

Pawl takes the lead with the permit man since this trip is his. From the get go Pawl has had creative control over the destination for this trip, as he should since on the last one I allegedly manipulated the votes to satisfy my own agenda.

The destination for our trip is set to Onion Valley and Kearsarge Pass trail, more specifically Flower Lake about a mile east of Kearsarge pass. Mr permit man attempts to sell us a bear canister and I quickly assure him that it is in fact after November 1st and bear canisters are no longer needed in the High Sierra (per logic since they are hibernating, and more importantly their own rules). Permit man does not like this and ceases to provide friendly talk. He also attempts to tell us that fires are not permitted in this area, and once again we mention that fires are indeed allowed if the fire is below 10,000 ft. Once again we disappoint him when we quote the rules to him. This is indeed an area where the principle 'less is more' should have been utilized. The line that he gives us that stands out above the rest is this "well you probably will have the whole area to yourselves, you won’t see anyone out there." which we of course interpreted to mean that we can have a fire wherever we want.

It is now 8:20 am and we are heading into Lone Pine. We decide that we should camp at the trailhead the first night so we can have a blazing fire and test out our new gear with no risk since the car is right there. First task is to eat. Mt Whitney cafe will do for now and we take a seat near the back. I order the special, but request a substitution of 2 biscuits n gravy for the 2 pancakes that came with the special. Our waitress happily obliges me with a smile. Pawl is of course less of a problem and orders something right off the menu with no changes or substitutions.

Our food comes out and I quickly notice that I only have 1 biscuit n gravy. I bite my tongue, and enjoy my breakfast which consists at this point of 2 scrambled eggs, 2 strips of crispy bacon, hash browns and 1 biscuit n gravy. It’s delicious. Pawl pays the bill and we head out.

At this point we decide that we should get some breakfast sandwiches from McDonalds to take with us on our hike to reheat in the mornings. 6 sausage mcmuffin w/ eggs please, and 2 large 69 cent sodas. Dr Pepper for me, Diet coke for him.

Next we are off to the local grocery store to buy some water n wood for tonight. Got it, now we are off to independence 15 miles north, then turn left on market street that leads up to onion valley trailhead.

The Trailhead


It’s a slow and windy road up there and we are greeted with a snow covered road at roughly 10:15 am. There is one snow-covered black jeep Cherokee at the parking lot already. I glance down at the thermometer as I put the chevy in park next to the bathrooms. Ok, its 23 out there now, and it’s sunny! We sit there for a few minutes... then I use the bathroom and get back in the car.

After a few minutes of discussion Pawl decides that it is best if we don’t camp at the trailhead and instead start heading up the pass and we will find a spot up higher. We begin packing our packs; I finish in a few minutes, Pawl doesn’t.

I take a photo with my phone and send it off to Jimbo who was going to go with us until he had to cancel for reasons allegedly not related to the trip itself. He responds as predicted, friendly insults with remorseful language about not being there. But hey, there's always next time.

On the trail

11:00 am and we are off on the trail, finally. Progress is very slow going; I think the cold air entering our lungs with every gasping breath could have something to do with that. Also being very mindful of our internal body temperature so that we do not start to sweat contributes to our slowness. We stop many times to adjust clothing so that we don’t get too hot, or cold.

It’s now 12 noon and we have made it to the first frozen lake along this trail. The lake is small, and there is water flowing out of the bottom which quickly flows over the rocks and down to the valley below via a waterfall.

The next lake, Gilbert Lake, is right around the corner and we stop for some opportune photos. This lake is partially frozen and the view looking up towards university peak and independence peak is stunning. There is an indescribable stillness that exists on this cold, sunny, calm day. There is no wind. It feels like if you were to take a deep breath, close your eyes and slowly exhale through your nose. It feels like the mountain is doing just that, it’s just calm and peaceful.

We take the fisherman's trail that hugs the edge of this winter-esk lake instead of the main trail that continues off to the right, but they merge a few hundred yards later. After only another 10 minutes along the white trail we come across another body of water, Flower Lake. Again we take in the beauty while we set our packs down and decide to have our lunch. Conveniently we enjoy 1 sausage mcmuffin w/ egg each.


It’s at this point we notice that the sun is not that far from disappearing out of sight behind the towering monstrosity in front of us that is represented here as university peak. It is with this observation that eventually convinces us to set up camp nearby instead of heading over the pass which would take us at the very least 2.5 hours to reach another suitable destination with a lake. Considering that we are in fact testing out new gear it’s probably smart to stay within a reasonable distance of our safe exit back to civilization.

Pawl picks out a campsite that will suit us just fine. It has less snow than surrounding areas which would lead us to believe that it will receive abundant sunshine throughout these short winter days. Snow is pushed aside to make room for my two man tent, dubbed the "tent of inequity" by Pawl on a previous trip. I find it interesting at this juncture that Pawl is not setting up his bivvy. He instead proceeds to collect wood and comment about the views, which of course are worth commenting about. I turn on my phone to see if there is any service up here, surprise! There is! I take another picture of our campsite and send it to Jill and Jimbo. At this point I call Jill as well to let her know we are still ok and that I can’t talk long because my battery is dying fast being this far from the tower.

Now this lake is likely above the fire restriction of 10,000 ft elevation, but its close and there is an abundance of wood around with evidence that other people had fires in this area as well. We decide that the likelihood of seeing a ranger or any other human at this point is remote, so we consciously decide to break the law and have an outlawed fire. We collect wood for a few minutes and create a petite fire ring close to the tent. I cover the frozen dirt that is the bottom of the fire ring with pine needles and continue to build what I call the one match fire kit. A napkin, the mcmuffin wrappers, small twigs and larger twigs make up a teepee style structure. Ok, now this is ready to be lit later on. Time to move on to more important things.

The sun is getting closer to setting, so we decide to go filter some water since we are running low. We head down to the lake and take note again of the beauty and snap some photos. As we get closer we see someone’s failed attempt of food storage away from animals. They hoisted a bag of food up in a tree with some twine. Apparently they got it too close to the tree and some type of squirrel or chipmunk must have gotten to it, because it was no longer in one piece. Lesson learned, let’s move on. Once we get to the lake we pump 5 liters of water. Pawl sees some more large pieces of wood and carries them back to camp. I refuse to carry any more wood up there since I believe that we have enough already and walk back to camp empty handed (other than the water filter and the camelback).

At this point Pawl still has yet to set up his bivvy, I take note and ponder what his intentions are. So I pose the question of him staying in my tent. He quickly accepts the offer and the bivvy does not make an appearance this time around. On previous trips, trips that yielded the not so flattering name for my tent, Pawl talked a big game about his bivvy. Like his honda, the bivvy was sleeker, lighter, more trendy and most importantly enabled him to be faster. This was indeed a surprising turn of events.

We set up our sleeping bags and pads inside the tent in preparation for the cold night ahead of us. The sun is down but it is still light out. Pawl convinces me to start the fire so he goes to his pack to get his lighter. I was reluctant at first because it was only like 4 pm, but I see his logic that it is very cold and it would be nice to sit by some heat as we eat our dinners. After a few minutes of Pawl rummaging through his pack looking for his first aid kit, which contains the lighter, he comes back empty handed. Apparently he forgot to bring the first aid kit, good thing I carried one as well. So I retrieve the red bic lighter from my first aid kit located inside the front pouch of my backpack. As I walk towards the fire pit I set the stage for failure as I usually do by saying "I hope this lights, I don’t know if it will."

Minutes later we are sitting next to a healthy fire. It was indeed a one match fire (or the equivalent since I used a lighter). Larger and larger pieces of wood are added to the small fire pit in order to build up some coals. Now we can feel the heat! I notice that the water is freezing in my camelback so I set it closer to the fire.

Dinnertime. I elect to try a new freeze-dried meal that caught my eye the last time I was at wal-mart waiting on my cars oil to be changed, beef stew. I add two cups of boiling water out of the jet-boil and seal it up. Pawl has some sort of Asian spicy soup. 12 minutes later I open my package and take the first bite of what will become an excellent meal. We both have some hot chocolate along with our meal.

The rest of the evening is filled with the typical fire activities, such as staring into the fire and enjoying light conversation and jokes.

7pm is when we go to bed. It’s cold at first when you get into the tent but you quickly warm up inside of the sleeping bag. We put our water supply under our sleeping bags on the side of the sleeping pads in an effort to keep them from freezing as the temperature is now below 20. I cannot accurately determine the temperature because the only thermometer I have gives off some very suspect readings at times. It does read 18 at this point though.

Up to the pass

I guess you could say that it was a typical night of sleeping in the backcountry. Sleep for 1 hour, wake up, fall back asleep for 2 hours, wake up, fall asleep for 30 min, wake up, sleep for 2 hours, etc... We emerge from the tent at 7 am and I'm feeling great. 12 hours later and probably at least 10 hours of sleep really did feel good! Pawl agrees, but does point out that he had some cold spots at night when he would press his sleeping bag up against any object that wasn’t his pad. This makes sense and we decide that sleeping on your side would be warmest since it limits your contact with any surface while sleeping which compresses the bag and reduces its insulation capabilities. Another good lesson to be noted.

We start up the jet-boil to make some coffee and hot chocolate as we start our day. What seemed like 30 minutes later we have boiling water and two satisfied campers. We both take note of the morning and realize that it is a little windy today. We elect to not make a fire this morning even though we have plenty of wood. Our initial assumptions of this campsite were spot on; there was plenty of morning sunshine where we were.

I add an adapter to the jet-boil so it can hold a pan and we start heating up our sausage mcmuffins. This process takes about 10 minutes since they were of course, frozen. We both enjoy our first one and unanimously decide to both eat our last one as well so I begin to heat them up too. After breakfast we convert the jet-boil back original in order to boil some more water. We both have some instant cappuccino, french vanilla flavored.

At 10:00 am we pack our daypacks with enough gear for, you guessed it, the day, and start hiking towards Kearsarge pass. Again it’s very slow going on the trail. One hour passes before we reach the top of the large rock "shelf" before we can see the pass up ahead. From this vantage point we can see Heart Lake down below, Flower Lake further down and even Gilbert Lake.

It’s really amazing at how well a light coating of snow really outlines where trails are. This is probably the best way to find old and rarely used trails for the first time. This is clear from where we stand on top of the shelf looking towards Kearsarge pass because we can see many different trails heading up there with varying degrees of difficulty. The new trail has many switchbacks and the old trail has none, a direct route straight to the pass. We start out on the old trail but the further we get along the more we realize that we will have a difficult time if we continue on this course of action as the end section is very steep with scree and rocks. We pause to come up with another plan of action.

We notice some more old switchbacks that lead from the old trail to the new trail up above (the new trail is now higher because of all the switchbacks it did that we bypassed). So set a new plan to use these short switchbacks to reach the new trail. To get there we angle our way towards them and we start to go a little bit cross country through the scree. Once we get closer to the switchbacks we notice another pathway that leads straight to the new trail at an angle to the left (which is in the direction of the pass) so we follow that, walking slightly to the left of the path to stay off of the snow. It is interesting how the snow stays on the path and it either melts off of the scree or perhaps blown off. Pawl had an interesting observation here that it was perhaps thermal energy stored in the rocks from days previous that melted the snow faster than on the path. At this point I break away and head for the pass which is now within reach. Pawl reaches the pass only minutes behind me.

Atop Kearsarge Pass

It is now roughly 12 noon and we can see what seems like hundreds of miles throughout the high sierra. Mt Brewer dominates the western horizon and stares us down. Earlier this year on a trip to East Lake we attempted to climb Mt Brewer only to meet defeat at the hands of fatigue and dwindling daylight. Even though I was slow to admit defeat as I stutter stepped the retreat by first deciding to solo the rest of the climb after Pawl came to terms with reality and decided to turn around. 15 minutes later after staring at what seemed to be an enormous ridgeline that pushed me over the edge of confidence and stability, I returned to find Pawl in the vicinity of where I left him.

Anyway... Mt brewer... some other day. For now we take in this awesome view from atop Kearsarge pass and enjoy a 2 hour lunch. Still the wind howls and we promptly put on more clothing. Pawl moves around a bit trying to find a good spot that breaks the wind and is comfortable to sit on. He pretty much comes up shorthanded and just has to rough it.

While looking at the nameless pyramid I get an urge to do some class 3 climbing. So along my sightline towards the Nameless Pyramid there is what would be in comparison a miniature version; another pyramid 100 yards in front of me. From here it looks as though there is roughly 30 feet of class 3 maneuvering with very limited exposure. So I give my camera to Pawl and head out. When I get over there I soon realize that this will not be as easy as I first theorized. First of all, everything is covered in either snow or ice. This complicates things somewhat because now even walking on a slab that is almost flat could potentially be dangerous if I lose my footing. Now every move I need to have 3 points of contact to continue. I slowly make my way up to the top of this mini nameless pyramid. Pawl looks on and takes a few candid photos of me sitting on top. Pawl asks me if its windy up there, I first say no (to his surprise), but what I meant was that it was no more windy than down where he was. After a few minutes of looking around I start my down climb.

I return to Pawl and we share some trail mix and cheez-its. My water nozzle out of my camelback has again frozen and I have to bite and suck on it applying heat through my mouth to melt the nozzle. Luckily the line was not frozen so flow was not further restricted. I decided here that I will now carry a bag of mixed nuts on future hikes after eating a few handfuls of Pawl's, man they were really good.

Back down to camp

It’s now around 2:00 pm and we start to retrace our steps back to our camp. It is during this hike where we postulate our activities for the rest of the evening. First we decide to filter water, set up the fire ring again (as I had destroyed it in the morning in an effort to hide the evidence of our outlawed fire the night before) and then make dinner. Then we thought about the air show that going on in Las Vegas this weekend. We would need to wake up at 6 and leave camp at 7, then to get home at 12 (with no restaurant stops) to make the end of the air show on Sunday.

... This is when we asked ourselves the following question: what would be gained by staying another night? Realistically it would only be another evening of sitting around the fire. Logically the right move was to break camp when we got there and head home now! What started out as possibly a 4 day adventure is starting real fast to look like a day and a half trip. That’s ok we tell ourselves, we accomplished what we set out to do, test out new equipment to see if they will hold up to colder temperatures than we have ever been in ourselves. I know I was never uncomfortable and would be able to sleep out there again and be sure that I would be comfortable. This is important to know if we want to discuss doing a longer journey that puts us more than a day from the safety of our car... or another human being for that matter.

So that is exactly what we did, when we got back to camp we started taking everything down and packing it up. We got to camp at 3:05 pm, camp was broke at 3:37 pm and we started to head down to the car. Before we left I arranged the remaining wood we gathered that was sitting in our "wood burning pile" which was so obvious, into a functional wind break for anyone else that might be camping there. Pawl looks on and verbally approves of what I am doing, while simultaneously tells me with his body language that I am overreacting.

5 minutes into our walk down we come across Gilbert Lake which looks absolutely stunning at this time of day so I take a few pictures in a futile attempt to capture the beauty of what is seen here. This time we follow the main trail instead of the fisherman's trail around the lake.
Gilbert Lake


During the descent we find many areas to cut switchbacks to save many steps; many of which are very trivial and can be found with ease. What was by far the biggest discovery on this trip was the old trail that pretty much cuts off about a mile of trail. In order to find it on your way down (as I would not suggest taking this path on the way up because of the sheer steepness and difficulty of up climbing it) you need to leave the trail to the right (east) when you run into the "welcome to the John Muir Wilderness" sign. You will also notice that at this point is where the trail stops heading towards where you know the car is. The trail diverts north and your car is due east. After a bit of easy walking you approach a much steeper section. It was at this juncture where you can see the old trail, again primarily due to the light dusting of snow being on the trail and not the ground. Just as you would think it heads straight for the parking lot. We follow this trail straight to the car.

Packs in the car, shoes off, socks off, long johns off, shorts on, new socks on, comfortable shoes on... let’s go! We leave the parking lot at like 4:30 pm.

Heading home

Most of the conversation on the way back to independence consists of us convincing ourselves that we made the right decision to leave early.

Once we get to independence Pawl convinces me to go to the local museum which has a tribute to Norman Clyde. This museum was free and had a lot of interesting stuff about him, a must see in my mind. I think it would be a good idea to return at some point when I have more time.

We arrive at the Carls Jr/shell gas station. I pull up to the pump closest to the restaurant (Carls Jr). After fueling I reverse out of the stall and back into a parking space next to the dumpsters in the parking lot of the Carls Rr. Walking to the restaurant I notice that it is still windy and I'm actually cold (I am now wearing a short sleeve shirt).

After short discussion over whether or not they will have a jalapeño burger we quickly see that they do in fact have one. Pawl makes a comment about the barbeque ranch burger, and I'm hooked. I deviate from the original plan to get the jalapeño $6 burger and get the barbeque ranch $6 burger (it has onion rings on it; I mean how can you go wrong right?). Pawl asks for his to be "supersized" and the merchant (who has two black eyes) asserts Pawl that he can’t say that in Carls Jr and re-asks him if he wants to get a "large size." Pawl gives him the body language version of "whatever" and the merchant asks me what I want. I order my meal (the one with onion rings) and while deciding if I want to get it "large sized" I see the pricing. It’s like $1.50 to get it large sized!!!! I mean you have got to be kidding right? How much does that extra bit cost really? I see that the medium size is like $0.60 so I get that and my drink is not much smaller than Pawl's. Free refills anyways and we were eating inside. Dr Pepper for me, Diet coke for him. After about 10 minutes of shivering inside this icebox of a restaurant (drinking cold Dr. Pepper didn’t help much) the black eyed merchant delivers our sandwiches only. He tells us that our fries will be "right out" as he is cooking them now. Ok, I can dig that, I eat the burger first anyway all the time. No big deal.

We finish our burgers and there are no fries in sight. Meanwhile an angry customer in the drive thru line storms off without paying or receiving his food. I stop and think to myself the prayer for patients (“Lord, help me to accept the things that I cannot change, change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference between the two.”) and smile at the situation.

I throw our trash away and we both fill up our drinks one last time before we exit the establishment for the evening. As we are walking out I say to the black eyed merchant "so could we just get those fries to go?" and he kindly honors that request.

A fairly uneventful drive home ensues and I drop Pawl off at his house and then head home to mine where I am locked out when I get there. I can get inside the garage, but no further. I call Jill (it’s now like 10:00 pm) and ask her what she’s up to, and she says that she’s upstairs on the computer. I ask her to go downstairs to the garage and she comes down and lets me in and the trip was over.



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climber555 - Jan 15, 2010 5:10 pm - Voted 10/10

Right on

Good report. Very detailed. Sounds like a fun time. Good read.


pdavester - Jan 17, 2010 8:26 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Right on

thanks! yeah we had a lot of fun on our first cold weather overnighter. A good learning experience for sure!

Viewing: 1-2 of 2