Aug 10, 2019 at 4:55 pm #3605520
There’s not much that I’m willing to engrave in this stone.Aug 10, 2019 at 4:56 pm #3605521
This trip was a four night jaunt out of the Pine Creek Pass, between 7/18 and 7/22 of this year. Plans changed a few times leading up to the trip; I ended up being accompanied by fellow BPL’er Jacob D; we nearly met up with fellow BPL’er Matthew K.
Summary: Great trip, wonderful weather, a couple peaks, amazingly few mosquitoes, all with a hiccup or two along the way.
Long version below. If you just want the pictures, go here: https://flic.kr/s/aHsmFvRnMQ
In my write-up, I included footnotes. These don’t appear to be BPL software forum-friendly. I’ll try to mash them in somehow, but you can view the version with hyperlinked footnotes here: https://ontheswitchbacks.wordpress.com/2019/08/09/two-parts-splendor-one-part-minor-adversity/
Jacob pulls in front of my house at 6:30am on a Thursday morning. He is driving a 2015 Hyundai with a—unbeknownst to us—slightly swollen 12V battery.
I go out to meet him—in the literal sense—because I’ve never met Jacob before. But we’re about to go backpacking for five days in the wilderness together, so my fingers are crossed in the hopes that he’s pleasant and mellow, and at the very least, not very murdery.
We toss our backpacking things in my Jeep, and we’re off; each of us still not totally sure how murdery the other is. But we have a long drive ahead of us—from the bay area to the Pine Creek trailhead—so we have time to find out.
As we drive, we chat. We have many interests in common. So many that we catch ourselves lounging around at the Black Bear Diner in Tracy post-meal, enraptured by a discussion of running volume, as if there is no hurry to get off into the mountains. But we should probably be in a hurry; we’re supposed to pick up a permit, get to the trailhead, and hike over Pine Creek Pass to Hutchinson Meadow, where we’ll meet our third companion (whom we’ve also never met before), Matthew. We don’t want to keep Matthew waiting.
The rest of the drive goes fast—faster than usual, it seems. Over Sonora Pass, through Bridgeport, and into Mammoth, to pick up our permit. On the way, we receive a few InReach message from Matthew, who started a day earlier, from the Piute Pass trailhead. The good news is that he’s over Piute Pass, wandering through upper Humphreys Basin, and he’s loving it. The bad news is that he is doing so while coping with a bout of food poisoning, credited to a certain Bishop establishment that I won’t name here, for fear of legal repercussions.
At the Mammoth Visitor’s Center we wait in a line for our permit to be issued. The line is only a few people long, but it is not moving, because the permit-issuing ranger is in “a meeting”. I am pretty sure I know what that means. Eventually he emerges, and quickly issues our permits.
Soon another message from Matthew arrives—he’s bailing out; his stomach bug isn’t resolving. I ponder the hell that must be trying to traverse rotten suncups when your bowels threaten to burst with each step. At least he might get the chance to exact some revenge on one of those sun cups.
1 Although I’ve never met Matthew in person either, I’ve been e-mailing with him for a couple years, and at this point am pretty sure that he’s not very murdery.
2 Okay, it was El Pollo Loco. At 785 N Main St, Bishop CA, 93514.
AT THE TRAILHEAD, we make final preparations to embark. As I look through my gear, I realize that I have packed exactly one less than the typical (and preferred) number of gaiters. This is only a minor frustration, but it nags at me; in all these years, I’ve never forgotten a piece of gear on a backpacking trip.
Soon we’re ready, and we start towards the trail. After fifty paces, I pause. My inner Ultralighter is panicking. I still have a set of paper maps that I printed for Matthew with me, but Matthew won’t be there to receive them anymore. No. No, I can’t do this—I can’t carry them. I need to put them in the car.
I sheepishly tell Jacob that I need to go back to the car; that I have Matthew’s maps, but he doesn’t need them anymore. And although Jacob doesn’t totally know this yet, I’m a neurotic ultralight backpacker, and there’s no way I’m lugging 30 grams of redundant mappery all over these mountains.
As I stroll back to the car, I stumble, and my right ankle falters and twists. My poles are under my arm and cannot help arrest my falter, so the weight is borne by my twisting ankle. This is an ankle that I sprained in June; the shooting pain I experience in the moment of this falter tells me that I have now sprained it in July as well.
My initial reaction is disbelief. This can’t be happening. You see, the last backpacking trip I took was in October of last year, when I headed to Kings Canyon with three buddies, to go climb Arrow Peak. However, on the hike in—while strolling through benign Paradise Valley—I sprained my ankle. My three buddies went on to climb Arrow Peak, while I lingered restlessly around camp. I was extremely disappointed, but had gotten over it—Sh*t happens. And now, here I am, and here is the disbelief—is this SERIOUSLY [email protected]#KING HAPPENING AGAIN?
I test my ankle, and it is not good. It feels weak and floppy, and there is pain when rotate it, and a little pain when I bear weight, whether I step just right or not. But it’s not obviously terrible—at least not yet. I’m no stranger to the game of ankle sprains, so I know what happens next: I hike in on it, and maybe it gets better or maybe it gets worse, but there’s no way to tell right now. And we’ve got five days, so even if the first few are constrained by this, we still ought to be able to do SOMETHING fun.
I continue what I was doing; I put Matthew’s maps in the car, and walk (very carefully) back towards Jacob. The 30g of redundant mappery doesn’t seem like it would’ve been too much of a burden anymore.
“I twisted my ankle,” I tell Jacob.
“What? Are you okay?” He asks, with concern in his voice.
But he’s no stranger to ankle sprains either, so we do the only thing that makes sense, and begin making our way up the trail.
I can’t tell how altered our plans will be by my misstep, and that nags at my mind.
And perhaps, now that I’m nearly a thousand words into this, I should share those plans:
I had originally planned an exciting route to visit some new (to me) terrain; it looped over high divides, and followed creeks that I could find no information on, nor any records of anyone having previously followed (although they undoubtedly did).
But then conditions got worse; our slightly-higher-than-average snow year because a much-higher-than-average snow year. It is mid-July, and we are unsure about conditions, other than being certain that we aren’t going to bring ice axes or packrafts, and that we’d simply turn around if we came across anything that didn’t beckon wholeheartedly.
I scrapped the original lofty plans, and modified them to be much more conservative: We’d hike in on the first day and hike out on the fifth day; in the intervening nights, We’d basecamp at Hutchinson Meadow, or at the Merriam Lake trail junction in French Canyon. From there, we’d do a few dayhikes if the conditions (and now, ankles) were agreeable: We’d climb Pilot Knob, and explore the Humphreys/French Canyon Divide; we’d wander towards Gemini, hopefully summiting that as well; we’d ascend Royce/Merriam Saddle from Merriam Lake, and climb Royce, Merriam or both.
The danger with plans featuring a basecamp is that it can entice you to bring more than you otherwise would, because—hey—you don’t have to lug all that weight very far. Both Jacob and I fell victim to this siren song, and as a result, we were moving slower than we anticipated on our climb out of the Pine Creek trailhead. And my ankle wasn’t helping.
Many would be loathe to start the climb out of the Pine Creek Trailhead at 2:00pm in July, but fortunately, Jacob and I appear to cut from a slightly different cloth than most.
We pause at Lower Pine Lake to gather water, and it is amid this act that Jacob’s Sawyer Mini chokes and his squeeze bag erupts, jetting water out of multiple rapidly evolving ruptures. His filtering system is clearly kaput. This is of no real concern, since we still have my BeFree, and plenty of Aqua Mira tabs.
We are slow in the last half-mile over the pass; snow covers the trail, and a creek snakes threateningly beneath the suncupped snowfields leading upwards. We navigate sometimes by where we think the trail is, and sometimes by simply going in the most amenable direction that leads upwards.
Around 6:30pm, we crest the pass. We’ve been following footprints, and we find their owner; a Japanese man, setting up camp atop the pass. We talk to him briefly—he plans to follow the trail down to Piute Creek, and to descend that, then loop back to the trailhead via Selden Pass, Hilgard Branch, Lake Italy and Italy Pass.
Atop Pine Creek Pass
I hesitate, and warn him about Lake Italy—that the shoreline is probably still snow-clogged; that it may be surrounded by 45 degree snow slopes threatening to dump less-than sure-footed hikers down their slopes, into the icy lake. He seems fully aware of this threat.
Jacob and I descend the north side of Pine Creek Pass, enjoying the scenery of Upper French Canyon. Miraculously, the mosquitos appear to be relatively tame here; we do not even consider head nets or DEET.
We chat as we hike, because we have a lot in common, and also because chatting is easy on the descents. We talk about cameras—Jacob knows a lot about cameras; more than I do.
The open basin turns into forest, and soon we reach the creek draining Merriam Lake. We must cross it, but it is not feeble. We scout the banks, looking for a reasonable crossing—the water is swift, deep and tumbling, everywhere. I find something that may work, and enable TunnelVisionModeTM, wherein I stubbornly engage whatever task is immediately at hand whilst ignoring everything else in the universe. In this particular instance, one of those things in the universe—one that I probably should be paying attention to—is Jacob, telling me that I probably shouldn’t proceed. But I’m in TunnelVisionModeTM, so his guidance falls on deaf ears. I cross the tumbling stream; things are a little sketchy in the beginning and in the end, but I make it across, without toppling or slipping.
Jacob begins to follow, but he is too smart. We scout a little more, and find a better spot, which he crosses with ease.
The icy water, at least, is relief on my ankle, which has been a good sport throughout the afternoon, but is beginning to show signs of degradation. I can feel it swelling in my shoe, but I can’t tell how much. I am neither particularly optimistic nor pessimistic.
We arrive shortly at Hutchinson Meadow, and begin to setup camp. I pitch a tent—borrowed from frequent hiking partner Andy. I haven’t backpacked with a tent in seven years, but I’m basecamping, and feared the mosquitoes, so here I am.
Jacob starts to pitch his shelter, when he realizes that he brought the wrong shelter. From the outside, it looks very similar to the shelter that he intended to bring.
“It is a first world problem to have multiple nearly-identical cuben HMG shelters…” Jacob admits.
This mishap too is of little concern, since a resident high-pressure system is expected to linger for the duration of our trip, delivering bluebird days and clear, cloudless nights.
The shelter Jacob did bring requires a ~6 ft center pole, which he did not bring. Instead of the conventional pitch, he instead pitches it in a low-height lean-to fashion, to manage condensation. This is undoubtedly a good move; we are camped near the humid creek, and those cloudless nights will expose us to the infinite, cold radiation sink of the universe above.
We sit around camp, eating our dinners. Jacob’s dinner is real dinner; he brought a stove, and has meals like curry and burritos and such. I eat the usual things instead—bars and Slim Jims and Fritos and tortillas and cheese and whatnot; the same hodge-podge that I eat all day.
The mosquitoes remain tame, which is a pleasant surprise; we never do don our headnets.
We chat for a while, discussing plans for tomorrow. My ankle is the big unknown. I suggest that we hike towards Pilot Knob in the morning, and we’ll just see how it goes.
I take two Ibuprofen and head to bed, hoping that the ankle gods look more favorably upon this trip than my last trip.
Hutchinson Meadow signage
Pilot Knob in the starlight
I creepily photographed Jacob as he tossed and turned beneath his lean-to
WE SLEEP IN, and are late to get moving. This is okay, because it is that kind of trip—we have far more daylight than stamina.
We pack daypacks, leaving the majority of our things behind. Jacob leaves his bear can, and I put some food in it, so that I don’t have to lug it all along.
We are on the trail, and nearly immediately, we are faced with a legitimate crossing–the creek that drains French Canyon. Fortunately, it bifurcates here, making an impossible crossing a potentially manageable one. We scout the crossing options, but there is nothing appealing. We follow the bifurcating forks downstream, where the terrain is slightly flatter, and find a series of manageable options. Since it is morning, it stands to reason that the crossing would change character later in the day. Would it become easier, or harder? The unwashed masses on the internet would say harder: “Always cross streams in the morning,” they say. But I question that thinking, and therefore remain optimistic that this will still be passable (nay, easier) in the afternoon.
As we walk, we intermix discussions of math with those of hiker stereotypes. I regale Jacob with my “Five categories of hikers”
When it feels right to do so, we meander off-trail, and begin ascending wooded slopes towards Pilot Knob. We make steady progress, and soon arrive at the picturesque shores of Knob Lake, which dangles beneath the saddle one must ascend to reach Pilot Knob. We pause by the lake shore, filtering water, snacking, and gazing upwards at the relatively unimposing peak above.
A few minutes of easy cross-country walking brings us to the saddle. We enjoy the views to the north, over French Canyon, which we descended yesterday. We turn our focus to the obvious route to the peak, which looks quite scrambly, from here. We drop poles and commence the scramble, immediately encountering large boulders, requiring moves that are either third class, or just feel that way, due to our state of fitness and mind–at this point in the season, our boulder zen is immature.
“This is supposed to be Class 2, right?” Jacob asks.
“Yep,” I respond, recalling Secor’s thorough description of the route:
Pilot Knob. Class 2 from the saddle.
Very soon, the going is easier. We scramble upwards, then along an infinite ridge line before reaching the summit proper. We enjoy expansive views of the entire region as we relax on the summit. I point out a number of neighboring peaks and features to Jacob, who has never been to this part of the Sierra before. My own knowledge surprises me.
We sign the summit register, and high-five. We both consider the entire trip to be a success with just this summit; the whole trip was based around uncertainty in conditions and fitness, but with the views from up here, and the happiness that a Sierra summit has rewarded us with—we could leave now, and we’d be content.
We descend to the saddle, then pause to consider whether or not to continue south along the ridge line. Doing so was our original plan, but we’re low on water, and we don’t know if that ridge will go. We decide to descend to a shady tarn for a break, where we ultimately spend an hour snacking, resting in the shade, and enjoying—still miraculously, to me—a mosquito-free high Sierra. My ankle has been okay with all the scrambling. Definitely better with the ascent than the descent, but still, it’s a good sign for the days to come.
Jacob shows me a trick using sticks and shadows that can be used to determine which direction north is. It is some pretty Bear Grylls-style shit.
We amble onward, only half-motivated to continue exploring Humphreys Basin. We ascend a nearby ridge, on our way towards Square Lake, but once we determine that we’re still one ridge away, we abandon any further exploring, and descend towards Piute Creek, to return to camp. The scenery along the descent continues impress, and we stop frequently for photos.
Our progress back to camp is quick,. The creek crossing is easier than it was in the morning.
Back at camp, Jacob rigs an ingenious center pole for his tarp, using two trekking poles and a two-looped section of cord to provide tension. I wander down to the banks of Piute Creek, where I establish some measuring gauges to measure the relative flow height of the creek. I will monitor these gauges through the evening, to determine when peak flow occurs, and when minimal flow occurs.
We settle in to another mostly-mosquito free evening. This time, our head nets come out, but only at dusk; after the sun sets, the obedient mosquitoes head off to wherever it is they go when they’re not trying to annoy the shit out of mammals.
We chat for a while, but my ability to converse is waning; I started the trip with a sore throat, and although it isn’t bothering me much, it has manifested itself in both a frequent cough and a hoarse voice.
4 The only reference I could find to a name for this creek was in an old Department of Fish and Game publication, hosted by High Sierra Topix, here: here, where it is named “French Canyon Creek.” Note that both modern and historical USGS and USFS maps do not name it; neither do any of the USGS hydrology shape files that I’ve come across. If you know more than I do about this, please let me know!
5 You can read about them, somewhere in the middle of this BPL TR/diatribe: Crammin’ it in in the Sierra.
6 Sticks and logs. With NIST-traceable calibrations. Maybe.
From the saddle, looking NW
Jacob on the ridge line
A view westward, down Piute Canyon
I look like a jerk who took way too much space in the precious real-estate of the summit register, but really I was intending to leave room for Jacob
A really good Honey Waffle ad
Mount Humphreys is a thing we’d see from almost everywhere we went
We couldn’t move very quickly on the descent, owed to the beautiful scenery
WE ARE AGAIN SLOW to get going in the morning, but we are faster than the day before. Our goal for the day is to proceed in the general direction of Gemini, but we are unsure how close we will get. That is okay; we’re in it for the adventure, not just the summit.
After a few short trail miles, we again depart the trail for cross-country travel up steep wooded slopes. There is minimal tedium and minimal bushwhacking, and soon, we arrive at a pond, hanging like a basket above the valley below. It is a literal oasis.
I pause by the shore to mix some Perpetuem. I take a sip, then gag violently.
There is a new taste in the Perpetuem. It is not just Caffe Latte, it is Caffe Latte with… a chemical? I sip it again, and nearly vomit. I sniff it. Peppermint?
I discuss my findings with Jacob. We hypothesize that the day prior, when I left this Perpetuem in his bear can, it absorbed the smell from something. Perhaps his toothpaste, which was sitting right on top of the Perpetuem.
It is only a slight taste, but for some reason, my stomach is having none of it. However—I am stubborn if nothing else—I continue to sip the vile drink. Jacob jokes that it could be Hammer’s newest Perpetuem flavor. I ponder hypothetical names for such a beverage.
We continue ascending the drainage, passing multiple lakes, wading through their inlets and outlets as necessary. Continuously wet feet is a theme of this trip that is beginning to emerge.
Soon we pass the 11,000 foot threshold, and the world becomes mostly snow-covered. Above 11,400 feet, snowfields dominate. We climb towards Stough Pass; I opt for the snow, while Jacob sticks to the rock. We reach the top at around the same time, taking care to leave distance between us and the possibly heavily-corniced north face.
The final ascent to Gemini is now fully in view, but our hearts are only half in it—the route up looks like tedious scrambling for 700 feet or so, then a questionable traverse on a ridge that might not go, due to the visible snowfields folded over the ridge’s precipice.
We instead decide to ascend a nearby knob: “Peak 12,120+”. We relax on top, snacking, and enjoying the immense views—we can see lots from up here: Seven Gables, Hilgard, Gabb, Abbot, and Dade; we can see Royce and Merriam, which are potential destinations for tomorrow.
The world around us is stunning, but it is also stunningly bright. No shadows are cast at this time of day, and it feels as though the solar reflection off the snow has been slowly cooking my brain. I decide that my sunglasses just aren’t dark enough, and are letting in too much light, particularly around the periphery of the lenses. During our break, I fashion some Gorilla Tape sunglass mud flaps, and attach those to the bottom of the lenses. I don them, and the tape seems to work well, although it does cost me some peripheral vision.
This photo was taken later in the trip. Aside from it being the nicest photo taken of me in the last decade or so, it does offer a fine depiction of my Gorilla tape sunglass mud flaps. Which I would think about selling, but Gorilla tape basically already does, because they are made out of exactly four pieces of Gorilla tape.
After lounging for nearly an hour, we begin to descend. The descent is quick; the snow is soft, and we are treated to some epic glissades, where the slopes are steep enough to support it. These glissades are largely uneventful, save for the hidden icy anus punches that inevitably occur every so often when conducting glissades like these.
At some point in his hiking career, Jacob earned the nickname “Leaves Single Trace,” because although he espouses LNT principles, he always seems to leave something behind. On this particular trip, Jacob lost a water bottle at some point during our descent of Stough Pass. We still can’t recall any actions during which it would be possible for a water bottle to slip out of the loose side pocket on his day pack.
As we descend the drainage, we deviate from our ascent route, in order to visit more lakes, and more fully explore the basin.
Jacob has been hankering to swim in a lake. I joke with him above Upper Moccasin Lake:
“It would make a good photo to have you swimming in a lake with an iceberg!”
But he takes my joke seriously, and obliges. Then I jump in. It is refreshing, although after a few seconds the body takes over whatever the brain had in mind, clearly hell-bent on survival.
Zoom all you want, but the buttocks in this picture have been pixelated. Pervert.
We relax, rewarming our cores as we lie lizard-like on the granite slabs surrounding the lake. There is nary a mosquito around, which is a fortune that I’m willing to gladly accept—I’ve been on the other end of that equation far too many times.
The world is mostly lovely, but there is a bit of bad news; Jacob’s contact has gotten shoved back into his eye, and he cannot get it out. However, his eye won’t accept another contact while the former is in there. For the time being, this means hiking with one eye, which is definitely about half the number of preferred eyes for cross-country travel.
We continue our descent, three-eyed, past the idyllic pond, down the wooded slopes. Soon we are back at camp. We decide to pack up our gear, and move two miles up French Canyon, to the Merriam Lake junction. It will save us a few miles of back-and-forthing on that section of trail over the next two days if we do this.
I take one last measurement of my Piute Creek depth gauges, record the results for later analysis, then join Jacob and begin walking towards the Merriam Lake junction.
On our way, we encounter a descending hiker, and we stop to chat. He is day hiking up and down French Canyon. We discuss where we’ve been, and he understands; he has that Backcountry Wizard air about him. After leaving his company, I realize that with my mud-flapped sunglasses, I too probably have that Backcountry Wizard air.
We set up camp at the Merriam Lake trail junction, and do a bit more chatting as the sun sets. Jacob’s contact still hasn’t rectified itself, and this now threatens what Jacob may do tomorrow; he certainly can’t scramble one-eyed, nor can he spend much time above the tree line without sunglasses. He is bummed and feeling powerless.
“They usually just come out,” he says. “It’ll probably come out by morning.”
I can tell there is little conviction behind his optimism, but there is nothing we can do but wait.
7 “Fluoride Macchiato” or maybe “Gustatory Apocolypse”
Red points represent observed points; the y-axis is in arbitrary units. The line is an “eyeball spline”. I am a little over specific with my annotations above; all I can really say (assuming a nominally symmetric, diurnal pattern) is that max flow occurred sometime between 12:45am and 4:30am, and min flow occurred between 12:45pm and 4:30pm. This seems consistent with the scientific literature I could find on the topic, but inconsistent with what many rambling internet ghosts seem to advise.
Gemini’s northwest (and highest) summit is the summit directly above Jacob (that appears lower). It is still around 900 feet above us. The route that we think may work is to descend past the tarn, keeping it on our left; ascend the snow to the right of the island of talus amidst snow, then scramble to the up-and-right to the right of the rightmost snowy chute to make the ridgeline. From there, we’d traverse to the summit. We opted to sit on our tuchusses instead of all that.
Jacob, sitting on his tucchus.
Seven Gables Lakes
Typical scenery for the day
An idyllic oasis. Pilot Knob is to the left, with Mount Humphreys peering over its right shoulder; Humphreys Basin is to the right, Piute Pass is the low saddle in the background.
These probably have a name. I call them “the reddish orange ones”
The creek draining Merriam Lake, near our campsite
Jacob’s tent and Pilot Knob
Pilot Knob and the Milky Way
WE ARE UP AND MOVING in the gray dawn. We eat breakfast and start gathering things to hike. Eventually I muster the courage to ask:
“How is your eye?”
Jacob shakes his head. “Contact is still in there.”
This is a bummer; it means Jacob will most certainly have a limited day.
Jacob tries a few more times to free the offending contact from his eye, but has no luck. We commit to ascending to Merriam Lake together, and agree to put off decisions about what to do next until we are there. It is early and the sun is not intense, and most of the climb to Merriam Lake is under the canopy, so it is not a particularly bad place to not use sunglasses.
We arrive at Merriam’s shores without event. Jacob’s eye is still troublesome, so he decides to relax by the lake shore while I head upwards, towards Merriam and Royce Peaks. He makes one last attempt at freeing his contact, and—miraculously, he does! Upon inspecting the offending contact, Jacob finds it was folded over, which is not a good condition for any lens, much less one that must make intimate contact with a spherical eyeball. He quickly replaces it, and just like that, he is back to 100%, in both mood and vision. We leave the lake shore together, headed upwards, towards the Merriam-Royce Saddle.
On our meandering route upwards, we opt for rock whenever possible. We have, quite simply, had enough suncups. We summit a ridge above a nearly entirely frozen lake, representing the last water before the saddle, and here, need to make a decision: We can either descend directly to the lake, for water, then ascend the saddle, or we can contour to the saddle, perhaps climb a peak, then drop to the lake.
We decide the water is non-optional. However, the best way down to the lake is not obvious; the snowfields we are atop lead straight down, but their slope is indeterminate; they drop off to infinity before rising back into view near the lake shore. There are routes atop rock that can get us there—or mostly there—but the rock looks tedious. I tell Jacob that I am going to diagonal across the snowfield to a convenient finger of rock, then will take the rock from there. But once atop the snowfield, I feel its siren-song—I can skip the tedious rock, and slide down this effortlessly, on my buttocks. Or so the lyrics of this particular siren song go. I am in TunnelVisionModeTM again, and off I go. The glissading is phenomenal! it is right at the cusp of being steep enough to lose control without ever exceeding that grade. In a matter of moments, I’ve dropped 150 feet, and am now walking along the frozen lake shore.
Jacob, above, is not willing to entertain this glissade. This is smart; he left his microspikes at camp, being pessimistic about the prospects of his one-eyed day. Those microspikes are just the thing you need to keep a glissade like this from turning into in an inadvertent swim in an icy lake.
I make my way to the northeast end of the lake, where it appears to be thawed. But it is not thawed, and I have to break my way through 1 cm of ice to access water. Soon Jacob joins me; we take a brief break in the shade of a boulder, then ascend the easy XC towards the saddle above.
The views from the saddle are worthwhile in their own right, but I have my mind on the nearby summits. I ask Jacob which he likes—Merriam is lower, shorter distance, but perhaps more tedious, and certainly steeper; Royce is—well, the opposite of those things, and according to Secor, “sandy in spots”, to boot.
Jacob likes Royce and I’m happy with that. The ascent is uninteresting, and within an hour, we have climbed the thousand feet from the saddle, and are on one of two summit blocks. It is not the higher summit block, but the views are stupendous, so we pause for quite a bit. We then make our way to the other summit block—easy XC walking across a flat plateau links the two. The views from the second summit block are also stupendous. We look around for the summit register, and find what appears to be it; a tiny pill bottle hiding in a cave; a cave whose ceiling is formed by the slabby summit blocks above. While looking for the register, I also find a map, apparently dropped by a recent summit-goer. I pick up the map, intending to carry it out. We relax on the slabby summit block, and prepare to sign the register, before realizing that the pill bottle has no writing utensil within. Fortunately, Jacob does have a writing utensil. We sign the register (a single sheet), then decide to upgrade the register, with both the map I found, and Jacob’s pencil. Leave No Trace and all that—but I think this is okay.
Upgraded summit register
We snack and take our time. Jacob doesn’t have Merriam in him for today, so there’s no rush to get moving. Jacob offers to wait at the saddle while I ascend Merriam, but I’m fine with skipping it—I’m still not feeling 100%, and have a frequent hacking cough that threatens to instigate rock slides.
Eventually, we pull ourselves from the summit; we make our way back down to the saddle, then the frozen lake, and eventually, across infinite fields of softening sun cups, to the shores of Merriam Lake. We take another lengthy break here. It is somewhat foreign to me to spend such leisure-filled days in the High Sierra, but owed to lack of fitness or the intensity of the sun, each of these days—despite the humane distances and elevation gains that describe them—feels like a reasonable effort.
Merriam’s shores are a far better place to fritter away the time than the meadow where we are camped below. We take our time, napping under the trees on the shore, snacking, and chatting. Today again the mosquitoes have been completely absent, and again I am surprised but wholly welcoming of this strange fact.
Eventually, we make our way down from the lake. We do not make it far before discovering a ledge that I have not previously encountered—it’s an amazing ledge that hovers over the meadow below Merriam Lake, with a view of the entire meadow unfolded beneath. We pause again here, to sit on the ledge. First, for a photo—but then, for an extended time, because it is such a fantastic place to sit.
Jacob enjoying one of the greatest seats in the Sierra
As we cross the meadow below Merriam Lake, I stay to the right of the creek. Jacob protests, suspecting that we came up on the opposite side of the meadow, but I shrug—we have the creek on our left; that should be all we need. But eventually, I realize that Jacob is right—the meadow is a sea of meandering creeks, and we certainly did come up on the other side. We traverse the lightly wooded lip of the meadow, re-intersect the trail, and descend to our camp below.
After a dip in the creek, we relax at camp. Jacob again cooks an impressive meal, while I subsist on bars, Slim Jims and Fritos. Jacob again does more chatting than I do; my voice is now wholly absent from time to time. I apologize to Jacob—both for the surely-annoying hoarse discourse, but also for the frequent coughing and hacking that accompanies most of my attempts to speak. He is, of course, a good sport.
Such a Prima Donna (not really!)
Jacob ascends Royce from the saddle
Wildflowers be poppin’
Royce’s summit cave
First ascenders of 2019 (or at least, the first to locate the summit register)
Jacob begins the descent from Royce to the saddle. The nearly-frozen lake is visible below. The Lake above and to the right of Jacob is Merriam Lake.
Meditation on the ledge
No words necessary.
I AWAKE AT 4:30AM, feeling like, at some point in the night, somewhat installed a vice on my head. Perhaps I fell asleep in a weird position. Regardless of the cause, for the next two hours I toss and turn, but cannot rid my head of the poignant throbbing, and consequently, cannot sleep.
At 6:30am, I shout something unintelligible towards Jacob’s tent. He shouts something unintelligible back, which gives me the information I need—he’s awake.
As I pack up, waves of nausea come and go. I am feverish and sweating even though the morning is cool. As I wait for Jacob, I consider hitting the trail before Jacob is ready—I think I will feel better if I can just move, slowly, methodically, for a while. But he is quick to pack, and soon we are on our way. It’s cheeseburger day—we’re just headed out and over Pine Creek Pass, so there’s no decisions to make; we just need to walk. And so that is what we do.
We cross the creek draining Merriam Lake. We cross in the spot that Jacob used on the way in, and it is uneventful. We fall into a rhythm as we move up the gentle slopes towards Pine Creek Pass, and I begin to feel better.
Soon we’re on top. There is significantly less snow here than there was just five days ago. We take one last look back towards Pilot Knob and the ridge separating Humphreys Basin from French Canyon. It’s a natural time to reflect upon the trip: we came into it with a lot of uncertainty—snow and creek conditions, ankles, questionably murdery companions—to name a few. But this trip was a home run in virtually all regards. Reflecting on this solidifies my position that regardless of weather forecasts, condition reports, or minor injuries or illness, you just need to go, and be smart about it whilst out there. Trips don’t always end up the way you want, but the only trips I’ve ever truly come to regret are those not taken.
Jacob and I chat as we descend. My voice seems to be bouncing back today, so even if my hiking is slowed by illness, my conversing is back on point. I still am not hungry, but I’m not feeling nearly as dreadful as I did earlier.
Our progress is quick, and by 11am we are back at the car. I scan the parking lot for any errant rocks—I had been contemplating the source of my sprain ever since it happened; I was so saturated with rage and disbelief when it occurred that I didn’t care to investigate the source. But nothing stands out; it has the characteristic featureless flat surface of most parking lots. Simple clumsiness appears to be the culprit.
Our return to the bay area is quick; we stop at the Whoa Nellie Deli (for all the obvious reasons), and in Twain Harte for gas. When we near the east bay, Jacob has the realization that if he drives back to the north bay immediately, he’ll face the full wrath of the commute traffic. So naturally, we go to an alehouse to kill some time (and some IPAs).
We eventually do return to my house. Jacob tries to unlock his car with his key fob, but his doors won’t unlock. When he tries to start his car—nothing.
We attempt to jump it to no effect—it still won’t turn over. We let it idle for a few minutes while connected to my battery, but it still won’t start. We check his battery voltage after we disconnect it from my battery, and watch it plummet.
So, our adventure isn’t quite over—but a quick trip to a local O’Reilly, where a battery-whisperer needs no benchtop testing to determine the health of the battery; he gently rubs the sides of Jacob’s battery, looks skyward, and says calmly:
“It is bulged on the sides. Inside, it is likely shorted. There’s no way it will hold a charge.”
He redirects his gaze towards Jacob.
“Have you left this in the heat?” He asks, with a slightly accusatory tone.
Jacob hasn’t—but we do realize that we dodged a bullet in taking my car rather than his to the trailhead, where it would’ve baked in the eastern Sierra sun for five days, and probably would’ve failed to start upon our return. Fortunately, his bulged battery has its warranty largely intact (it was less than a year old); they have replacements in stock, and we take it back to my house, install it, and his car starts without hesitation. And with that, Jacob is finally able to escape the east bay.
It may have been the 38th thing to go slightly wrong on this trip, but it was also the 38th thing that we pretty quickly overcame. I think that’s what matters.
9 Okay, maybe Matthew’s food poisoning wasn’t a home run.
Adieu, Pilot Knob
Upper Pine Creek Lake
____________________Aug 10, 2019 at 8:04 pm #3605542Ken ThompsonBPL Member
@hereLocale: Right there
Really fantastic report! Jacob is great company and I hope to do more trips with him. Glad your injury wasn’t too bad. Makes for a memorable trip.Aug 10, 2019 at 9:25 pm #3605548David PBPL Member
Tysm for this! Entertaining read, amazing shots… glad only 38 things went wrong!Aug 11, 2019 at 2:46 am #3605579
Thanks, Ken and David!
Ken–yeah, Jacob was pretty great. Not murdery in the slightest!Aug 11, 2019 at 3:55 am #3605584matthew kModerator
I’m super bummed that my trip ended like it did. It looks like you two had a great time despite quite a few challenges. Thank you for sharing the trip report and photos
Although my trip was short I enjoyed it immensely despite the feeling I was about to brown a snowfield. I learned a lot in a short period:
Aug 11, 2019 at 4:33 am #3605585
- I’m comfortable in the wilderness by myself. That’s only the second time I’ve gone solo and it feels natural.
- Off-trail is fun and Humphreys Basin is an easy place to experiment with off-trail travel.
- Postholing crotch deep is a very real thing, particularly when transitioning from snow to slab. The ability of rocks to convey heat below the top surface of the snow is quite dramatic.
- Lastly, stick to reputable eating establishments or bring food from home for the night before you start hiking.
…despite the feeling I was about to brown a snowfield.
I lol’d… wonderful new phrase that I will seek out opportunities to use.Aug 26, 2019 at 9:34 pm #3607697Tom KBPL Member
Great report, Adam. I enjoyed it from beginning to end. Adversity is indeed the spice that can raise a trip to the next level, as this report eloquently demonstrates. Thanks for posting.Aug 28, 2019 at 5:47 pm #3607951Alex WallaceBPL Member
@feetfirstLocale: Sierra Nevada North
What a great trip. Wonderful report, photos, and effort. Thank you for sharing it in such a candid manner.
“Reflecting on this solidifies my position that regardless of weather forecasts, condition reports, or minor injuries or illness, you just need to go, and be smart about it whilst out there. Trips don’t always end up the way you want, but the only trips I’ve ever truly come to regret are those not taken.”
Hear ye, hear ye!Aug 29, 2019 at 5:02 pm #3608118Rick WBPL Member
Looks like another awesome trip! Thanks for sharingAug 29, 2019 at 9:33 pm #3608148Dena KelleyBPL Member
@eagleriverdeeLocale: Eagle River, Alaska
This was a terrific, and humorous, write-up. I thoroughly enjoyed!
- You must be logged in to reply to this topic.