Sunday, August 12, 2012

Eastern Sierra Adventure on the JMT

Banner Peak over Thousand Island Lake.
I must admit that this summer has been one of the best ever for outdoor adventures as you can see from many of the great stories I have already posted. Continuing in the seemingly never ending quest for adventure was a backpack trip put together by a good friend Erica whom I hike with bi-weekly at Turtle Rock. She inquired if any of us regulars at Turtle Rock would be interested in a week long backpacking trip along the John Muir Trail (JMT) in the Sierras in the summer. Nearly all of us had expressed early interest in such a trip so the plan was put in motion to make it a reality back in the early Spring.

Erica was able to grab a permit for us to depart from Silver Lake along the June Lake Loop following the Rush Creek trail. Our plan was to head up from there to Thousand Island Lake and spend several days exploring before heading on north via the JMT over Donohue Pass and dropping into Lyell Canyon and finishing our hike at Tuolomne Meadows where we would catch a bus back to where we started. We had lots of time to complete the hike which was only about 28 miles without our exploration days and for a bunch of folks who normally head out to climb big peaks and pound out excruciatingly long distances this sounded quite pleasant. The trip would consist of Erica as our group leader, Alex, Jason and his wife Alisa, CP and I. I had backpacked with all of them before except Erica whereas she had never backpacked with any of us. I knew we would have a great time together. All of us were very experienced backpackers, all with different styles but certainly all very fit, easy going personalities and ready for whatever we would face.

Group photo, less me, at the start of our trip.
When working out the logistics I suggested a 3AM departure from home on the day of the hike. While some question the very early start I always like to sleep in my bed the night before a trip and travel the desert in the darkness and watch the sunrise as I approach the southern end of the Sierras. Everyone agreed and we met up in Mammoth a little after 8AM for breakfast after picking up our permit in the ranger station. We were all excited to begin a great adventure together. Half of us had recently completed a trip up Halfdome in Yosemite and the thought of being together again on the trail for another epic adventure was overwhelming. It shouldn't be legal to have this much fun, but I won't tell if you don't!

Arriving at our trailhead near Silver Lake we sorted out our group gear. We would only bring two stoves, my MSR Reactor for our hot water needs and Jason's traditional canister stove with fancy homemade windscreen and fry pan for cooking. Two water filters and enough canister fuel rounded out the collection. We rolled out of the Rush Creek trailhead just before 11AM. It is a fairly good elevation gain on the first day, about 3,000 ft., with full packs on a very sun exposed trail before dropping into the basin containing Thousand Island Lake at 10,000 ft. Along the way we passed several reservoirs that feed the hydro power generation along the way. While the water is nice they still look a little too man made so we all appreciated it once we got back into the wilderness far enough to leave man made stuff behind and get a taste of the real backcountry where the only stuff we saw was from nature except for a few trails to aid us in getting there. Lunch was taken along the Clark Lakes and most of us opted for a swim to cool off from the climb that was now behind us.

The group, less CP, as we arrive at Thousand Island Lake.
We rolled into Thousand Island Lake that afternoon and it was everything the pictures I had looked at made it out to be and more. Banner Peak rises majestically at the end of the lake making it a very picturesque place, probably why EVERY photo you look at on the Internet of Thousand Island Lake includes a shot of Banner in the background. The lake itself is rather large and had many islands, nowhere near one thousand but lots is good enough. I have heard about the beauty of this lake and have wanted to day hike it while in Mammoth in the past but it is a 20 mile round trip day hike from Agnew Meadows which does not leave much time to enjoy the location. We arrived at the lake about 3:30PM and headed far off the JMT to try and find a more secluded camp location at this very popular destination. Near the JMT people were camped  literally right on top of each other! We all agreed that we did not come to the backcountry to camp next to others like a campground so we explored the distant northwest shore of the lake where we found a good location with a lovely rock to make our common kitchen area on that sported a great view, comfortable rock ledges for natural seating and backrests, and as Alisa pointed out, plenty of large black ants to provide a cleaning service for any crumbs we happen to drop to keep us bear safe!

After setting up camp, Jason and Alex headed off to try their hand at fishing, something they had both been very excited about. While I do enjoy fishing and have spent lots of time doing it in Alaska, I really wanted to spend my time exploring and swimming on this trip and left the fishing gear at home. I guess for me it is something I enjoy much more with my boys so exploring and swimming with friends sounded more appealing to me. The remainder of us went for a swim in what was left of the afternoon sun as it would be dropping behind Mt. Davis to the west of us in the late afternoon. The water was rather chilly as is expected in the Sierras but sure felt good on the feet and offered a chance to get semi clean after a hot and dusty hike in.

Our camp kitchen on our first night.
Full moon over Banner Peak.
Our fishermen returned empty handed. The lake was too shallow at our end for good fishing which likely explains why we did not see anyone else trying to fish near us. It was now dinner time and to make our evenings a little more fun we had agreed that each of us would bring a dinner to share with everyone. This not only gave the element of surprise as it related to what was for dinner but also gave us all a break as we only had to prepare our meal on our night and got to just observe and relax in camp on all the other nights. Jason went first as he tends to bring lots of fresh ingredients that may not keep too long. He worked up quite a feast with some tortillas he cooked up made with some powdered masa and filled them with some peppers and sausage he had grilled up along with some cotija  cheese. It was a very nice first meal together and Erica who was really only used to seeing traditional freeze dried meals on the trail was most impressed. CP who typically brings wine on backpack trips figured the alcohol to weight ratio was no good on wine and this time elected for some scotch! I had a small plastic measuring cup, AKA shot glass, that was filled and passed around to liven up the evening a little. We enjoyed a great meal together and headed off to bed shortly after nightfall as the full moon rose just thereafter casting it's reflection along the lake before us. What a great view to go to bed with.

CP and Erica with Garnet Lake below.
Day two was to be an "easy" exploration day. We all decided that a great day trip would be to travel cross country (no trail, just a map and compass to guide us) over a nearby ridge to the south and drop into Garnet Lake. The hike over was spectacular, both the scenery and terrain occupied our minds during our travels. It did not take too long before we were over the ridge and descended into a very lush valley holding Garnet Lake and the creeks that feed it. The views there were incredible as well as it was much greener on this side of the ridge. The other surprising thing was that there was nearly nobody at this lake as they were all packed around Thousand Island Lake right off the JMT! We got down to waters edge and half of us went swimming while the other half fished. The first fish was snagged by Jason as soon as he put his pole in the water and before we could even get our shoes off to swim! This was a good sign for the day for sure. A couple more fish later and Jason held class on holding fish. Erica who used to catch and dissect eels for Environment Canada was a little uneasy with these local trout. She gave it a try but quickly decided the job was not for her. Jason's wife Alisa was ok with holding them however and posed with a fish she caught for a picture.

The girls show off one of the prized first fish.
It was lunchtime shortly thereafter and Erica and I swam out to an island to have our lunch. We thought others would be joining us but it turned out they were having too much fun fishing. I decided to take my small daypack with me, holding it up out of the water with one hand. I figured I swim regularly and should be able to manage about 100 yards this way. Well, I was wrong! About 75 yards out I found it very difficult to hold the pack out of the water and found myself struggling. Erica, a former lifeguard and regular swimmer, offered to take the pack. I told her I had it but she insisted. I handed it to her, who weighs about half what I do, and she began to sink almost instantly and handed right back! At this point I figured better to let the pack get a little wet, whatever was inside can dry, and I swam the remainder and got on the island. Ugg! That was not fun, perhaps it would have been easier had we not been at 10,000ft.? Our friends on shore cooked up some trout while we dined on the island. I was not looking forward to the swim back and the wind had picked up as well, blowing against the direction of our return. We waited for the wind to die down AND we drank lots of the fluids I had in the pack to lighten it. Ultimately we figured a way to attach it to my head so I could swim back with both arms and this proved to be no problem.

Alex takes in the view before dropping into Ruby Lake.
Once back on shore Jason offered up some fresh trout. Erica shared with us that she had never eaten something she had seen killed before. Needless to say, this was the freshest fish she had ever had and we all enjoyed it. After our feast it was time to swim again, back to the island, sans pack, with Jason, Alisa and I for a little sun before returning to move onward. We had chosen to head back by cutting over a different spot on the ridge and cruising by Ruby Lake. Along the way we noticed a little swimming hole that felt fairly warm, at least compared to the others swiming spots, so we all jumped into that one. We had to have been the best smelling backpackers in the entire area with all this bathing going on! We finally got out and headed over the ridge to Ruby Lake and hung out there for a short time before heading back to camp. Jason and Alex once again headed out to catch fish while the rest of us relaxed in camp.

Erica enjoys her first day of eating fresh fish.
That night was my turn to cook. I made my favorite, trail tacos, and they were well liked with fresh cheese and avocado and this time even a little dehydrated sour cream. We once again had some trout that Jason returned with before dinner. Erica proclaimed her love of fresh trout and was first in line to have a little. Jason cooked it up with some fresh peppers and sage from his garden making it all the better. That night Erica broke out a card game she had brought called Quiddler. It is kind of a card game version of Scrabble. We found it very fun and played a few rounds before bed. Erica was quite good at it and made sure we all knew it, she did not realize that she had just signed her Quiddler death warrant!

Jason and I at North Glacier Pass.
The next morning we were up a little earlier as our destination was Mt. Davis, another day excursion from camp. This peak was just over 12,000 ft. and we needed to go cross country over North Glacier Pass to get up to it. The off trail travel was fun and route finding fairly easy. We made it to the pass and found out how absolutely beautiful Lake Catherine is at this high pass. The deep blue water was something not often found in the Sierra's and likely the result of the glacial waters that drain into it from the Banner/Ritter saddle. We admired it and moved on. Now the travel got a little more difficult with some rock scrambling and route finding required. We made it up to about 11,500 ft. and viewed what might be Mt. Davis, or not. The path ahead was loads of talus and the climb up appeared a little too much for a fun excursion for all but Jason and I. The rest opted to head back to Lake Catherine while Jason and I pushed on.

Jason and I atop Mt. Davis with Banner and Ritter behind us.
Alisa goes all in back at glacial fed Lake Catherine. Brrrrr
The rest of the trip to the summit of Davis was not as bad as it first appeared. Several hundred more yards of difficult talus before we got onto some snow for easier travel and then to smaller rock that was not too bad. I had estimated that when the others turned back we were only and hour from the peak, I was close, 50 minutes later we were signing the summit register! Jason and I had lunch and enjoyed the incredible views offered from this vantage point. Banner and Ritter were very prominent to the south, Thousand Island Lake to the east, to the north was Donohue Pass which we would be crossing the next day but it was hard to make out. We headed back down, making very good time as Jason and I are very quick in this type of terrain together. We crossed over the pass and came across CP and Erica at the bottom of a short glissade. Jason and I yelled a hello down to them and then got on our butts and slid down in the glissade path they had created and rejoined the group for the final descent back to camp. We heard of their swimming stories in the frigid lake and we shared our tales of getting to the summit. Back in camp it was dinner time, preceded by a swim, some relaxation and of course a game or two of Quiddler. CP proved victorious this time. It was Alex's turn for dinner and he did a fresh pasta carbonara with parmesan and salami that was very delicious.

A little more fresh trout for the evening with lemon.
Our forth day we decided to pack up and move over Donohue Pass and drop into Lyell Canyon. It was another long day on the trail. We started by travelling cross country over a nearby ridge to rejoin the JMT, shaving at least a mile off of the days travels. It was to be about a 8 to 10 mile day to get to where we thought we would like to camp where the river would run slow and wide giving Alex the perfect conditions for his fly rod that as of yet had not landed any fish. Along the way we came across a father with his 7 year old son hiking from Devils Postpile all the way to Yosemite Valley. They were fun to talk to and we gave the youngster a lot of praise for his efforts and hiked on by. Lunch was yet again along a river and offered a chance for a little foot soaking before pushing on. We only had to climb 1,000 ft. to get over the pass but for some reason it felt just as tough as the first day to me. Not sure why but I cannot help how I feel.

The Glenn Lightning Rod. Do not try this at home kids!
Erica, our group leader atop Donohue Pass with map in hand.
The weather was building up and looking like rain was nearby as we approached the pass. Not a good spot to encounter weather when you are at the high point of your travels and very exposed. Sure enough, we started to get a little light rain as we were climbing the final portion of the pass. Out came rain jackets and even though they are fancy Gortex breathable material it was still questionable if they kept more water out or trapped more in. Earlier in the day the group guessed what time we would cross the pass, Alisa was dead on in her timing, 2PM I think. We waited up top for everyone. Since I had been offered by our group leader to serve as the lightning rod for the group due to my height, I grabbed a few trekking poles and arrayed them over my head for a great picture of me doing my group duty. It was good for a few laughs for sure! While we waited on CP to arrive at the pass, Erica and I headed up to the top of nearby hill to get a better view. From the top we could see the peaks we were leaving behind as well as the meadows we were heading towards for that nights camp. We could also clearly see Mt. Lyell and the Lyell Glacier signifying we had crossed over Donohue Pass and were now on the descent to the lush valley below. From this high vantage point we could identify some of the peaks in the area, and the weather closing in upon us! We also came across the infamous Sierra mini bear, AKA the marmot.

The group below the Lyell Glacier.
We quickly descended the pass and took a break at an unnamed lake below the Lyell Glacier. It was quite interesting to look up at this glacier as it holds a little history to me. Once upon a time my dad and his college roommate were going to climb Mt. Lyell and glissade down this very glacier, probably after reading one of John Muir's tales or perhaps a story out of Roughing It by Mark Twain. Well dad got as far as buying the ice axe, which he still has in his closet to this day, but the closest he is ever going to get to that glacier is the picture I took at its base!

Fortunately the skies were clearing a little as we made our way down. We came across a spot that is popular with the JMT hikers to camp and once again they were crammed on top of each other like sardines in a can. We headed on down a little further to where the meadows began and found just what we were looking for about 500 yards off the main trail. We discovered the most incredible camp, used by the folks with the pack animals as best we could figure, ready for us to use. It had a great fire pit, stack of precut wood, plenty of spots to put tents and lots of local firewood and kindling as well as access to water nearby. All this with an absolutely incredible view of the meadows below us. We quickly set up camp and now that we were in an area we could have a fire, we proceeded to use this right and got one going right away! I harvested some wood from a downed tree nearby as I did not want to use that which had already been left there. We were in a Yosemite paradise. We could see folks on the JMT as they passed at a distance and we were fortunate to have stumbled across this location. While we did not swim this afternoon, most if not all of us did wash up down at the river before putting on our evening clothes.

Alex hanging out by our campfire in this perfect location.
Dinner was great as once again I did not have to cook! CP had brought some freeze dried lasagna as well as some beef stroganof. For dessert he also had a blueberry cheesecake as I recall, whatever it was it was good! We all enjoyed hanging by the campfire, quite a novelty when backpacking for many of us due to fire restrictions. As the evening progressed we noticed clouds building and heard a few distant claps of thunder. Before long and shortly after dark the lightning grew much closer and a full on rain storm came with it! Now this is exactly what I had been waiting for, something I was so accustomed to encountering when camping in Tuolomne Meadows as a kid. Off to our tents we went to ride out the storm. It rained fairly heavy for about an hour or so and the lightning continued for about that long as well. It was so enjoyable to be hunkered down in the tent, warm and dry, with the storm brewing outside. I slept very well that night.

Alex drops his fly in the water and is treated with an instant bite!
Hard to beat this location, Jason drops in a fly to test the waters.
Yet another morning was upon us. By this time in the trip I had really forgotten what day it was, how many days in we were and since I was not wearing a watch by choice to help me really unwind, (no pun intended) I had completely lost all relation of days entirely. It was such a great feeling!!! So in that spirit, on day whatever it was, we all got up late and had absolutely no plans whatsoever. Over breakfast we discussed what we might like to do. We knew Jason and Alex wanted to go fishing and this was a great location for them to fly fish. I wanted to explore but didn't much care where and CP and Erica liked that plan and Alisa wanted to enjoy camp and the fire. With those plans we all headed out with a plan to return to camp for a group lunch in the early afternoon. Jason and Alex were scouting the river for fishing holes while CP, Erica and I looked for good swimming holes. Our paths crossed right when the guys put their lines in the water. Both had bites almost immediately! This was especially good news for Alex as it was the first bite on his new fly rod that was ideally suited for this type of slow river fishing. CP, Erica and I continued downstream scouting out swimming holes and hiked on down river enjoying the views before rejoining the JMT to hike back to camp.

The final Quiddler match following the NeoAirlympics
We all returned to camp and had lunch. Alisa had a group lunch for us that day and we had egg noodles with some fresh basil and who knows what else, it was just good so I really did not care. The guys had caught lots of fish but they were too small and were all throw backs. Not that big a deal as they had a great time catching. We had scouted a great swimming hole and wouldn't you know that the perfect camp spot we had picked out also had a perfect swimming hole just a few hundred yards away! Now to add to the afternoon swimming fun, Erica and I grabbed our Thermarest NeoAir mattresses and brought them with us. We had envisioned the NeoAirlympics as we were missing the official Summer Olympics in London while we were on the trail. We all got down to the water and tried out the air mattresses and found them to be really good as a water toy. We all participated in a few runs going head to head against each other before getting out and drying off and laying in the adjacent meadow to sun ourselves. Lucky for us, Erica brought the Quiddler cards again so a round of that ensued. We had a great time just laying there, playing the game, getting some sun and some much needed relaxation. Just as the sun was dropping over the nearby ridge we wrapped up the game, CP pulled off the victory again much to Erica's dismay. We needed to get back to camp for some warmer clothes. We got our fire going and settled in for our final meal. Erica had the final night, sweet and sour pork. It was really good and we found that the six of us could quite easily eat 10 servings with no problem. She had one of my favorite desserts, raspberry crumble, and we devoured that as well. Now this being the last night Jason put out the call for whatever extra food we all had. Some granola, oatmeal, chocolate chips, sugar and few other items came out. With a little olive oil he whipped up something with all of this stuff, kind of like a really grainy pancake like thing. At this point it did not matter, it was GOOD! Shortly after that we headed off to bed for our final night on the trail.

Group photo as we head down the JMT toward Tuolomne.

The final swimming hole near the bridge.
Our last morning was upon us and I think we all felt a little sad to be packing up for the final time. We dried our tent bottoms and packed up our gear once the meadow dried as the sun came out. We still had about 8 miles to go to reach our final destination, Tuolumne Meadows, where a fully stocked store awaited us as well as a bus back to our starting point. We got on the trail and happened to come across the father and son team we had met a few days earlier. The 7 year old was still doing great although his dad seemed to tag along on my heels for awhile for what I am certain was a chance to enjoy a little adult conversation. Having backpacked with my kids, I certainly understand this need. Come lunchtime we had found yet another great swimming hole so in we went, riding the current and enjoying a dip on a fairly warm day. It was now time to head out. Fortunately we were running a little ahead of schedule and we were able to stop one last time at a great bridge along the river where a trail from the Tuolomne Lodge crosses over the river to join the JMT. I have been there many times before and in fact just one year prior Erica and I missed each other there by one day while travelling with our families and we both agreed it would be a great place to swim. In we all went one more time. Now after a week on the trail we had to win an award as the nicest smelling backpackers ever!

Lembert Dome, the first and last "Peak" I did with my dad.
Just a mile to go from the bridge and we soon encountered a view of Lembert Dome, the first and last peak, if you can even call it a peak, I did with my dad. Thereafter we arrived at the Tuolomne store. This place has special meaning to me because as a kid I came here with my family every year. I would see, and smell, the backpackers cruising through and think how great that would be to do someday. My dad had talked about backpacking the High Sierra camps with me when I was younger but by the time I was old enough and in shape to do it, he was not. I have backpacked to many locations but finally I was the backpacker rolling into the Tuolomne Store, dropping my pack out front and raiding the store for everything sweet and salty I could grab. It may have taken me 35 years to make that dream a reality but it was finally MY reality. The finish did bring a tear to my eye as it was something I had been thinking about for many years. To have done this with GREAT friends, all of whom I have met through the Orange County Hiking and Backpacking Club made this trip something I will always remember. I head off with the Boy Scouts in a week to lead them on a Sierra Trek of their own. I hope it inspires them as much as I was as a young boy spending time up in the mountains. I want to follow through on the thought my dad had when I was younger with my boys, perhaps we will follow in the footsteps of the father/son team we met on this trip and hike from Devils Postpile to Yosemite Valley. Who knows, maybe I can get my boys to make the side trip over to the Lyell Glacier and complete an adventure hatched by their grandfather and his college roommate so many years ago. It would be even better if we can complete it and share the story and the pictures with him while he can still enjoy them. For symbolic reasons, I would likely take that ice axe from his closet to complete the adventure and give it back to him, with all the scratches and wear marks an ice axe should have after such a journey.

For all the pictures from this adventure please click here.

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