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Day 9: Garnet Lake

I was not eager to emerge from the cozy confines of my little pyramid-tent this morning. The crisp air – carrying the coldest temperature of the trip thus far – wasn’t penetrating my quilt. Being encapsulated it it, with my head hidden inside the puffy hood of my anorak, gave a rather pleasant feeling of warmth and security I didn’t really want to exchange for the chance to click a shutter button during the golden hour.

Nevertheless, the panic of wondering if this is the final alpenglow I may ever observe (a panic I feel every morning I’m waking up on the eastern side of a mountain crest) motivated my actions and I was soon hopping lakeshore talus with camera in tow to find a more perfect vantage point from which to convey the imagery of this majestic basin to those not fortunate enough to be here this morning.

Satisfied that I had achieved this short-term photography mission, I returned back to my tent, started a pot of hot water, and crawled back into my soft down cocoon. Soon a plume of steam was billowing from the little hole in the top of the pot, so I snuck an arm out to shut off the gas, added the coffee, and started the brew. I withdrew the arm, tucked the quilt wings around my shoulders, and closed my eyes, perfectly content to allow the coffee to brew itself with no help from me.

Minutes later, as the sunlight began to kiss the very tip of my pyramid home and cast its pointy shadow westward, I took the first glorious sips and felt the surge of caffeine course through my groggy brain, and with it, the excitement of the unknown that comes with a new day of wilderness living!

I started my morning routine with some reading (an essay by Leopold and journals from T. Roosevelt’s wild descent of the “River of Doubt”) followed by a long session of writing – my own journals, then gear notes and finally the text of an article for Backpacking Light about technology in the backcountry.

I walked over to the lakeshore and found a pod of trout swirling and making the most delicate dimples in the surface I have ever seen. Not once did I see a brookie’s snout break the surface film, nor did I see insects on the surface. I was baffled. Then, remembering my age, I pulled my folding reading specs from the pouch that holds my miniature fishing tackle kit, put them on, got on my stomach, and brought my face to within a few inches of the water’s surface. Here, as if I crawled through a wormhole into another dimension, I found an ecosystem only millimeters high and teeming with life: countless little midge flies in the surface film. Some of the little worms were below the surface, twerking madly in their struggle to break out of the underwater world and fly free. Others were stuck in their shucks in the film itself, entrapped by capillary forces of such magnitude that this would be their cause of death. Others, a small fraction only, had made the full transition and were standing on top of the water, fluttering a wing here and there to dry out before they took flight.

The size of the adult flies were not more than two millimeters in length. After peering into my fly box, and realizing that my smallest fly, a size #22 CDC midge, was large enough to mimic a terrifying predator of the flies that were actually hatching, I had no choice but to laugh and let the trout be, allowing them the peace to snack on their little mustard seeds without my intrusion.

I also watched a chipmunk for quite some time this morning and observed an unusual display of relaxed playfulness that I did not normally equate to this quirky creature, which would seem better off as the poster child for a Xanax publicity campaign. I associate chipmunks with constant anxiety, confusion, chaos, and fear. How can an animal with a heart that beats two hundred times per minute be anything but?

Nevertheless, the little creature I observed this morning may have gotten into a stash of some sort of therapeutic wilderness herb he’s not telling his friends about. Five yards in front of my tent was a cluster of tall grasses with seed pods at their crest. The chipmunk scampered to the base, looked up, and seemed very excited to have discovered breakfast. He tried to nibble the base of the stalks to bring the timber crashing down, but this proved to be too much work, the cellulose being too tough and stringy for recreational chewing, I suppose. Instead, he hunched down like a coyote getting ready to pounce on a mouse, and began to twitch and flutter, with its hind end swaying to and fro. Then without warning, he converted the potential energy stored in his quads and glutes to vertical flight, launching his body upward more than a foot off the ground. Although his aim was imperfect, like a trapeze artist he managed to grab the top of the stalk on the way down with his little hands and ride its bending pole to the bottom, landing slowly and gracefully. He then nibbled away at the seeds, released the stalk (now bare) with a fling to its original position, and then rolled, spun, and hopped in apparent glee before repeating the process over and again.

We left camp in the late morning just as the sun was cranking up its heat. We immediately started walking uphill, aiming for a low pass in the ridge dividing the Davis and Thousand Island basins. I desperately wanted to avoid the JMT (John Muir Trail) and stay off trail, just for principle, and we successfully gained the ridge via a steep grass-and-talus notch to the west of where the JMT crossed.

During the climb, inspired by the fact that much of Muir’s exploration here was fueled mainly by bread and tea, we engaged in a lengthy discussion about applying the principle of reductionism to backpacking food. We agreed that a few bulk ingredients would satisfy most of our emotional and physical needs, but also decided that we weren’t the hard men that Muir proved to be.

After reaching the crest of the ridge, we made a long diagonal traverse back down to the upstream end of Thousand Island Lake where we took a long break and successfully fished for large rainbows there.

We then ascended our final divide of the trip – the low and easy pass dividing Thousand Island from Garnet Lake. In the headwaters basin above Garnet, we picked up our gear cache that we’d left a week before, retrieving the stash from beneath a massive glacial remnant in the middle of the braided creek, hidden by piles of stones. We then walked down to the head end of Garnet Lake, where we are camped tonight in an expansive meadow adjacent to the lakeshore. Banner Peak’s majestic east face is behind us and the mini-ocean of the island-pocked Garnet Lake is in front. On our last night on the trail, we are at yet another place of such awe-inspiring beauty that I cannot hope to convey in words what it’s like here.

We spent the evening swimming and fishing, the latter activity providing us with a gourmet meal fit for a king. After steam-baking the trout to separate its meat and bones, I added a garlic-and-pepper spice base, olive oil, and rehydrated shiitake mushrooms, leeks, shallots, and cabbage, fried the mixture to a state of mild crispness, and spooned it into flour tortillas for the finest brook-and-rainbow fish tacos the world has ever seen.

As I get ready for bed, the night air is even crisper than last night’s, and I can see the exhaled mist of my breath. Between the cold air and changing color of the tundra from greens and yellows to reds and purples, I get the sense that fall will be coming to these mountains very soon.

We have had a great time out here and it comes with no shortage of bittersweetness that we walk “out” tomorrow. To be reunited with Stephanie is always something I look forward to and I’ve missed her fiercely for the past 10 days. But to say that I feel most at home and at peace in the mountains, living the rhythms dictated by sunrise and sunset, would be a gross understatement. To have to go back to the noisy, confusing, complicated, and demanding first world where I spend most of my time gives me no shortage of anxiety and trepidation.

I will miss these mountains and I’m grateful for the time spent here, and for the intimate moments shared with trekking companions and friends of the highest caliber, Daniel and Chase.

Tomorrow: Agnew Meadows.

Godspeed and thanks for following along,
RJ

Photos:

– Sunrise in the Davis Lakes Basin.

– Chase, Ryan, and Daniel at the Thousand Island-Garnet Divide.

– Chase with a nice Garnet Lake Brookie.

Be sure to check out http://instagram.com/backpackinglight as there are many more photos and mini-stories from this trip also being posted there.

// Enjoy live dispatches and photos via satellite from this trip online at http://ryanjordan.com/highsierra2015 and receive updates at:

@bigskyry on Twitter (http://www.twitter.com/bigskyry)
Ryan Jordan on Facebook (http://facebook.com/bigskyry)
@backpackinglight on Instagram (http://instagram.com/backpackinglight).

Day 8: Davis Lakes

I awoke well before dawn this morning and couldn’t fall back asleep. So I grabbed my camera, walked around, and practiced shooting the pre-dawn light, with which I have little experience, save perhaps a few “end of the night” portraits back at Washington State in the early 1990s.

Since we were back on the eastern side of the crest, with big east faces of the peaks above us, I was excited to watch the morning alpenglow here. To see it completely unfold, moment by moment, is a special thing – the light changes subtly but continuously, and within the span of minutes, the whole scene is gone, to be stored in the mind’s memory or on pixels, or perhaps enjoyed live again, 24 hours later.

The day would promise to be a hot one again, and by 8:30 AM I was baking and already craving a swim. I walked up the lake a bit, to spare my mates the shock of having to know that I was planning on a skinny dip, and found a nice secluded bay with a deep drop off.

After stripping, I walked to the edge of the water, ankle deep, and found the glacial-fed lake to be astonishingly cold. I spent several minutes mustering up the courage to go for it, and inched my way ever so deeper – now up to my knees. And there, all alone, except for me and God, I tapped into all of the remaining bravery of a 45 year old man with little left to prove, and dove into the deep.

What happened next is not entirely clear to me. A combination of my brain freezing, my heart stopping, my manhood disappearing, and my muscles seizing eventually brought me to the surface of the water, where I planned (just minutes ago) to whoop with joy. Instead, a decidedly unmanly yelp escaped my lips that sounded more like a poodle getting her poofy tail slammed in the RV door than a manly mountain man taking a swim in a glacial lake.

Oh well, it was worth a shot.

I washed up, did some laundry, dried in the sun, and waltzed back to camp like it was #nobigdeal.

“Yeah, so I took a swim.” I announced when I returned. “Water’s a little chilly.”

We left the beautiful Marie Lakes Basin around “late morning” and headed to the trail leading out of the basin – the first man-made track of any substance we’ve seen in several days. We traveled two hundred yards on it, had enough, and peeled off to the south down a pathless talus-and-tundra draw.

After dropping two hundred or so vertical feet, we found ourselves once again among sparse stands of large whitebark pines and easy walking through meadows towards the northern aspect of Mount Davis.

We stopped for a break at the “nearly” fishless Rodgers Lakes in a pretty meadow way below Clinch Pass – the col we climbed and descended yesterday. Looking up at the rubble, we were glad for an easier day today.

We then climbed the easy col separating Rodgers Lakes and Upper Davis Lake, descending stable talus down to the lakeshore. I walked along the shore casting my tenkara rod and managed to pull in a few pan-sized brookies as well as a whole bunch of smaller ones.

At the outlet, we took a break and scouted down valley for a possible camp in the basin, peering over the edge of the hanging cirque down to the lush and shady-looking Lower Davis Lake. We saddled up the packs and walked down huge granite slabs to the water, walked around its northern shore, crossed the outlet, and found a beautiful campsite with a view up-valley to Mount Davis and its glaciers, with Lower Davis Lake unfolding its mass of water before us. Best of all, a lovely stand of ancient whitebarks provided us with heat-of-the-day shade.

As we unwound and enjoyed the fruit of a shorter trekking day, I entertained the thought that I might want a trout dinner. Chase had already left camp with his tenkara rod in tow, in a mild state of panic over our dwindling food rations. (“Why is this dinner so small?” / “Because it’s designed to be supplemented with trout, you know, to save weight!”)

I joined up with him as evening wore on and we managed to catch a panful of brookies on our circumnavigation of the lake. We steam-baked them in the fry bake with oil and spices, and enjoyed a hearty first course. The second course consisted of the remaining anemic portion of stroganoff. I added a packet of almond butter and some cream cheese along with a dollop of brown sugar, stuffed the goulash into tortillas and fried them to a crisp. Yes, it was amazing.

A colder evening hopefully means a better night’s sleep for me, but I’ll likely not want to miss the early morning alpenglow on Mount Davis, so my pyramid shelter doors will remain peeled open again!

Tomorrow: more trout hunting as we continue to make our way south back to Devil’s Postpile.

Godspeed,
RJ

Photos:

– Morning alpenglow at Lower Marie Lake.

– Descending into Lower Davis Lake.

– Chase enjoying stroganoff remnants as the light fades.

Be sure to check out http://instagram.com/backpackinglight as there are many more photos and mini-stories from this trip also being posted there.

// Enjoy live dispatches and photos via satellite from this trip online at http://ryanjordan.com/highsierra2015 and receive updates at:

@bigskyry on Twitter (http://www.twitter.com/bigskyry)
Ryan Jordan on Facebook (http://facebook.com/bigskyry)
@backpackinglight on Instagram (http://instagram.com/backpackinglight).

Day 7: A Sierra High(er) Route

My favorite part about Roper’s Sierra High Route is the vision he had to create a timberline trek that minimized the effort required to confidently enjoy such spectacular and reasonably comfortable, if not rather intimidating terrain. More important, he gave people the confidence to leave the trail, and perhaps, do a little exploring of their own. Steve Roper was (is) one of my wilderness heroes and is responsible for inspiring a great deal of my own style and preferences for wilderness travel.

With that preface, we left the Sierra High Route this morning at Twin Island Lakes to see if we could enchain walkable terrain between there and some place cool up north. Our maps wouldn’t guarantee success, as their 20m contour lines were insufficient to identify the minor but substantially impassable cliff bands that could impede our progress.

Above Twin Island Lakes, a surreal and beautiful world of jumbled and rocky topography exists. The seemingly benign contour lines on the map simply cannot be reconciled with what the eye actually sees. Therefore, one realizes that the map’s best place is in your pocket and your own two eyes, combined with some inductive reasoning flex and a bit of blind faith, should be relied upon the most when moving north to the headwaters of this vast cirque.

By doing so, an amazing world of labyrinthine corridors of tundra and heather unfolds as you walk between ominous cliffs. After a bit of walking (an hour or two or three, depending upon your objectives), you find yourself at the highest tarns in the cirque, wondering which of the unholy-looking notches in the cliffs above will allow your passage back to the western side of the Sierra Crest. Wondering about this myself, I started doing the math, reconciling our remaining food quantity with the distance to an alternative exit point, and I wasn’t really liking the answers I came up with. So we continued up.

We found ourselves early in the afternoon seeking shade behind a tiny cliff, refuge from the scorching orb in the sky we so desperately wanted to escape. By the seventh day into a Montana trek, I’m usually cursing a snowstorm and wishing for the warmth of the sun, but today I was feeling some disdain for it and felt like it was against me. Its heat and UV exposure have been relentless up here!

After careful scouting, we decided to climb a notch that would lead to the Rodgers Lakes Basin on the other side of the Sierra Crest. Viewing the col from below, the terrain looked imposing and seemingly vertical, with cliff bands at the top, but we knew that a head-on perspective would lie to us so we proceeded towards it in faith.

Tundra turned to talus in short order, and talus turned into steep talus. Steep talus – of the sort you crawl up on all fours rather than walk up, led to unstable talus and then unstable and slippery scree leading up through giant parallel cliffs splitting the fall line of the col. Keep in mind, this is all good old fashioned Class 2, Type 2 fun, and we do this voluntarily for entertainment.

Fortunately, the walls of the cliffs provided good handholds, and little ledges, with a few welcome Class 3 moves that can allow you to maintain stability and stay out of the bowling alley of the main scree gully, a nice option when traveling with others. This sort of maneuvering constitutes the final and very exciting last few hundred vertical feet, and soon you are at the crest looking down towards Rodgers Lakes and in the far distance, the weirdly out of place Waugh Lake Dam and its reservoir.

With a few more than a few hours of daylight left, we decided to try a totally unknown route (to us) and see if we could hold our elevation at around 11,000 feet, heading north. We hoped that this contour line would lead us into what we only suspected was the magical realm of Marie Lakes.

The whole idea worked out rather well, actually, and it turns out that only very small amounts of easy climbing – a few Class 2 and 3 moves here and there – were required to traverse the ledges leading around several buttresses all the way to Lower Marie Lake. Some of the ledges traversed over the top of alarmingly large cliffs. The degree to which one becomes alarmed, however, is directly proportional to the time spent looking down over them, so it’s best to ignore the exposure and keep walking.

We arrived at Lower Marie Lake in the late evening and enjoyed a final sunset descent to her shore, where we are camped for the evening.

The Marie Lake where we are camped is in the midst of rugged, open country. A several-hundred foot high waterfall roars into the lake at its head end from the giant hanging valley where Upper Marie is found, and the high peaks of the Northern Ritter Range surround our cirque, looming a few thousand feet above to the southwest our of camp.

Once again, there isn’t a soul in sight, and we’ve been completely alone with no encounters with humans since our ascent up Glacier Lake Pass four days ago.

Today was our hardest day, but also our most rewarding, having completed a route where we had almost no beta, and wondering most of the day where our destination would really be. We had secretly high hopes of making the route to Marie Lakes a go, so it is immensely rewarding to be camped here tonight!

At this point in the trek, appetites are increasing and food rations are running low. Today I was hungry enough, and confident enough in my tenkara rod’s ability to do its job, that I began stealing food from the rations of days not yet lived. It should work out ok, unless like a pyramid scheme, collapses somehow before judgement day comes at the end of the trek.

I also get less picky and less INTJ about what I’m eating. Tonight’s dinner: three ounces of freeze dried beef stroganoff, five ounces of smoked wild sockeye, two ounces of my tsampa cereal mixture, a one ounce packet of almond butter, and a bunch of Parmesan cheese, crushed red pepper, and trout fry seasoning. It might sound gross to you, but frankly, it may have been the best meal I’ve ever had.

Tomorrow: turning south, in the general direction of our cache, which we’ll pick up in a few days.

Godspeed,
RJ

Photos:

– Climbing Sierra rubble (talus) to exit the headwaters of the basin above Twin Island Lakes.

– Chase at the top of the col leading to Rodgers Lakes.

– Dan on the ledges above Lower Marie Lake in the evening, before starting our descent to camp.

Be sure to check out http://instagram.com/backpackinglight as there are many more photos and mini-stories from this trip also being posted there.

// Enjoy live dispatches and photos via satellite from this trip online at http://ryanjordan.com/highsierra2015 and receive updates at:

@bigskyry on Twitter (http://www.twitter.com/bigskyry)
Ryan Jordan on Facebook (http://facebook.com/bigskyry)
@backpackinglight on Instagram (http://instagram.com/backpackinglight).

Day 6: Trout Tacos at Twin Island Lakes

I enjoy the act of walking with a pack in a remote wilderness – trekking, as I like to call it.

But I would be fooling both the reader and the writer if I did not admit to some anxiety about passing by a lake so teeming with beautiful and tasty trout and not being able to fish there, let alone enjoy them in a meal in scenic surroundings.

Twin Island Lakes is one of those locations, and come hell or high water or exit a day late, I was going to have Twin Island Trout Tacos before the day was done.

We left our camp at Ritter Lakes Basin at the “mid-morning hour” which is to say we started walking earlier than usual. The probability of fish tacos was looking pretty good.

Instead of following Roper’s High Route through this section, we rolled the dice to see if we could bypass the Class 3 slab pile he recommends on the north side of the “80 foot waterfall”. We descended instead to the south of the creek, following easy grass, ledges, and talus from the lowest of the Ritter Lakes, and found ourselves at the bottom of the waterfall having barely touched our hands to a rock. We’ll call our route Class 1+ with a fear factor of nearly zero, in contrast to the white slabs to the north.

After a great deal of fiddling with cameras, sun angles, and poses at the beautiful pond that receives the falls, we crossed the creek and made our way down to a hanging meadow. Peering over the lip of the meadow, we couldn’t see how steep the cliff was, but a stone falling off of it would take many Mississippi’s to reach the bottom (a map check later would reveal a precipice in the neighborhood of 400 feet in height).

After leaving this dramatic location, we walked a tundra bench into the head of a hanging valley with cliffs above and below us. Our route followed a sinewy patch of grass that sneakily kept us out of danger and allowed us to make good northward progress. We dropped to a little brook to rehydrate in the blazing heat, walked out of the draw, and began our descent into the valley holding the headwaters of the North Fork of the San Joaquin River, and Trout Taco Heaven: the Twin Island Lakes.

Class 2 benches of shattered slate, intermingled with a few cliff bands with nice foot and hand holds brought is into lush meadows, and the upper end of North Twin Island Lake. The creek was already full of the rainbow-golden hybrids that would be spawning soon. We found good pitches in meadowy bowls amongst glacial-polished rock slabs and domes.

It didn’t take Chase long to get down to business, and by the time I had downed a liter of water he had landed a few dozen trout.

I heard the words of Bruce (of Finding Nemo fame) sing in my head: “I’m havin’ fish tonight!”

With tenkara rods in hand, the three of us spent the remainder of the day catching rainbows and hybrids in the 8 to 14 inch range. Daniel and I kept several for dinner and the reality of a Trout Taco dinner made me happy.

I ate a lot – at least a pound and a half of fish. In fact, it was the first time after any meal on this trip where I felt completely satiated, and it felt good to not cry after finishing the last bowl licks from a 5 ounce freeze dried dinner.

And so with a full belly, and the satisfaction of having reached the end of a day filled with interesting trekking and very good fishing, we are simply left to enjoy this warm, dark, windless High Sierra night with nothing more than the bright Milky Way, and shooting stars, for entertainment.

Tomorrow? Veering off the Roper Route now and staying high – back over the Sierra Crest, perhaps, somewhere north of here.

Godspeed,
RJ

Photos:

– Finding secret passageways through cliff bands on the Sierra High Route northwest of Catherine Lake.

– A fry bake full of fresh trout.

– The “back” side (sic) of the Minarets as seen from North Twin Island Lake.

Be sure to check out http://instagram.com/backpackinglight as there are many more photos and mini-stories from this trip also being posted there.

// Enjoy live dispatches and photos via satellite from this trip online at http://ryanjordan.com/highsierra2015 and receive updates at:

@bigskyry on Twitter (http://www.twitter.com/bigskyry)
Ryan Jordan on Facebook (http://facebook.com/bigskyry)
@backpackinglight on Instagram (http://instagram.com/backpackinglight).

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Day 5: Rest and Recharge at Ritter

Today we remain at the same camp in the Ritter Lakes Basin, where we have observed the Sabbath and enjoyed a reprieve from carrying heavy packs.

We are camped at 11,000 feet or I which makes a nice jumping off point from which to explore even higher places.

So after breakfast, I climbed along the Class 2 benches on Catherine Lake’s south shore and exited a short screen gully onto the Ritter Glacier. After crossing it’s lower flanks, I skirted most of its bullet-hard blue ice and climbed it’s lateral moraine to the Ritter-Banner col, at over 12,000 feet. I spent some time exploring the Class 3 entrances to each of the two gullies splitting Ritter’s ominous north face, including the “right” gully that Muir climbed on the peak’s original ascent in 1872.

During my recon, I wandered across a vintage, button-up, knitted wool sweater made by the Olympia Knitting Co. (its silk label was still intact) that may have been worn by a climber more than 50 years ago. I wondered about the fate of the climber. Ritter’s north face has seen its share of serious accidents through the years and the entire basin is filled with unspoken history, from old sardine tins to unmarked grave sites.

After descending back to the col and snacking on a few pilot crackers, I took advantage of the warming sun to explore the Ritter Glacier, its surface now soft enough to ensure reasonable safe traction in my approach shoes.

Upon returning to Catherine Lake, I observed a large plume of smoke billowing up over the crest of Glacier Lakes Pass. It seemed close enough to our exit route that I posted a request on Instagram for info about it with a photo of the plume, and learned that it was a new fire started yesterday near June Lakes that is threatening structures and forcing evacuations. For now, we will take it day by day but don’t expect our exit plan to alter.

We spent the rest of the afternoon in camp seeking shade from the blazing sun inside a deep cleft in a massive slab that was large enough to house the three of us comfortably.

I swam and bathed in the lake, laundered my trekking clothes, took some photos, read a few chapters in a Louis L’Amour novel and a John Muir essay, journaled, did some bouldering around camp, and took an evening hike to scout the beginning of our descent to Twin Island Lakes tomorrow. Our route will take us through convoluted and complicated terrain with slabs, cliff bands, and gullies, and should provide no shortage of Class 2-3 scrambling entertainment.

As our layover day ends with the dark night sky filled with a zillion stars, I’m excited to see what lies north.

Photos:

– Our camp in the Ritter Lakes Basin as seen from the cliffs above.

– Daniel finding a shady reading nook in a rock cleft during the heat of the afternoon.

– Catherine Lake as seen from the Ritter Glacier.

Be sure to check out http://instagram.com/backpackinglight as there are many more photos and mini-stories from this trip also being posted there.

Godspeed,
RJ

// Enjoy live dispatches and photos via satellite from this trip online at http://ryanjordan.com/highsierra2015 and receive updates at:

@bigskyry on Twitter (http://www.twitter.com/bigskyry)
Ryan Jordan on Facebook (http://facebook.com/bigskyry)
@backpackinglight on Instagram (http://instagram.com/backpackinglight).