October 5, 2018
Reds Meadow, Elevation 7,700 ft
Last night was definitely the coldest night we’ve had thus far. When I got out of my tent to go pee at 6:45 am my thermometer read 26 degrees F. I slept really well though in my own tent, with my own little space and my cozy sleeping bag. I looked up at the still white sky and tried to discern what today’s weather had in store for us. That early in the morning it’s hard to tell, so I just went back to my cozy space and started to heat water inside my vestibule.
By the time we hit the trail, it was 8:05 am and we were looking at blue skies, with sunlight pressing itself against the stark white faces of granite above Emerald Lake. Our morning began cold, but we knew we would be climbing right from the get-go, so we both layered down before we started walking. My toes and fingers were completely numb, and as I walked and began to breathe more rhythmically, so too was my face numb from the condensation freezing my lips and cheeks. The flattened yellow grasses were blanketed in frost that sparkled like glitter in the sunlight. I tried capturing it in a photograph, but some things are just meant for memory only. Here’s a couple sparkles.
We climbed steadily and I was honestly surprised that my body felt pretty good. My pack is definitely weighing in near 40 pounds, I’ve had a full 9 days off from hiking, and subsequently gained a few pounds, and I’m on my period. So, I did’t exactly expect that I’d be feeling so grand getting back on the trail. Especially with all the climbing we had to do right away. And I am totally amazed, I feel great! I walk with strength and purpose, stopping occasionally to take it all in. I am here, I am back where I belong. I am suddenly feeling so excited about what is ahead.
I’ve hiked over Duck Pass four other times and so today is the 5th, so I am in familiar territory. Sort of. You know, people always ask why I go back and do the same trail again sometimes. It is never the same trail, each experience is unique to the season, to the time of day, who I am with and to the context in which I am traveling. Each visit to the “same” place is unique to who I am at that time, who I have become since I was last there. Last time I hiked over Duck Pass was in 2016 on my PCT Nobo hike. A lot has happened since then!
I reached the saddle at Duck Pass very smoothly, popped up to a sunny spot and dropped my pack on a rock, remembering some of the other times I’d been up there. The beauty of this area never gets old, I can say that much. I snapped a few photos, and then I checked my phone for service. Lo and behold I have a signal! Two of my best friends have birthdays this week, so I texted them both, wishing them well from 10,300 ft. My friends are all used to this. This is who I am. This is who I have become.
Almost immediately after leaving Duck Pass, approaching Duck Lake, the Sierra High Route veers off to the right, and you can actually take a faint trail… if you can find it. We had already passed up said faint trail, and once we realized it, we decided to cross country it to cut off the difference. That backfired. We ended up going totally the wrong way, downhill when we should have attained a ridge. Somehow we both missed it. We were forced to backtrack and this got us on the trail up on the ridge. We scrambled up a steep rocky/scree slope that popped us up to a great view to the North.
From there we dropped down into a quaint “meadow” and I felt myself admiring the snow dusted mass of rocks to our left. We crossed the little meadow (more of a flat, grassy area instead of rocky) and began a quite steep descent to Deer Lakes.
By the time I reached lake level I was ready for a break. I needed to pee, I was overheating with my black thick tights and three layers on my body. I was getting crampy too and I was thirsty. Blah!! I dropped my pack onto the ground with a thud, went for a pee and then plunked my water bottle into the clearest most pure wonderful water ever. There was not even a speck of dust on the surface of this snow melt lake, the finest the Sierra has to offer. I hydrated happily and ate a snack of Muir Energy goo, Cacao-Almond flavor. These things are great, they are growing on me quite well.
We were fortunate still that we got a trail to follow for the next few miles. It gently climbed a ridge, gaining several hundreds of feet, maybe even 1,000 ft, I don’t know, because I don’t have an app that tells me these things, ha ha. Although we can use GAIA to get this information if we are recording the track, and Hurlgoat is recording it daily, we don’t have the information until after we’ve done it. Climbing this ridge proved to be a bit of a workout, but a good one, getting the blood moving, and at the top where the trail flattened out some, I checked our elevation and we were at 11,100 ft. Not bad.
The views were not bad from there either. Better than not bad. They were stupendous. These are some of the best all around high vantage point views we have experienced on the Sierra High Route thus far. Part of what makes these views so great is that you can see in nearly every direction, and in every direction it is all mountains all the time. Hell yeah!
This side of the ridge was dusted in a few inches of fresh snow, and I was reveling in the sound and squeaky texture of walking on it. I was following a set of fresh tracks, but neither of us could determine what animal it was? We were following the ridge for a mile or so, before we dropped into a sandy granite flat area dotted with short, stocky lodgepoles that were great at blocking the wind, but spaced out enough that we had an amazing view of the Ritter Range up ahead. This is the direction we are heading to tomorrow. I am really looking forward to seeing 1,000 Island lake from this totally different approach.
This view of the Ritter Range is to the North, supported by the Minarets, and to the West we could see how the cloud layers had thickened. The cumulus clouds were building into a giant mass, while thinner clouds twisted around Mount Ritter and Banner Peak, adding to the dramatic effect and making this “familiar” landscape have an otherworldly feel.
We stopped for lunch in the middle of an exposed sandy flat area, ducked beside a cluster of bushy lodgepoles, trying to get out of the wind. The sun on our bare feet in the gravelly sand felt amazing and we sat there soaking it up, drying out gear and gazing lazily at the views. Happy as ever. Damn this is the best view for lunch! We are so lucky to be here!
Feeling the wind pick up, and watching the clouds build, I decided I’d better check out a weather forecast from my InReach. “Looks like tomorrow we may get some precip” I reported to Hurlgoat “it says there’s a 34% chance, and the high for the day is gonna be 39 F.” Dang. Stuff’s gonna get interesting eh?
As we sat in that wide open sandy granite plateau, way off in the distance we spotted two little dots that were hikers. Humans! They looked so small, and we could see them heading West, across the plateau, not in the direction we were going.We speculated aloud where they may be going, we don’t know and we didn’t see them again.
After lunch, we headed North along this plateau, floating, laughing, making videos, literally feeling high on the beauty we were walking through and towards. Shortly we were across the plateau and descending into a new geologic zone.
The granite turned into a red metamorphic (?) and volcanic rock. Parts of it were flaming red, like a rock you would see in Sedona. Other parts were darker brown and yet others the color of caramel. These rocks were textured, and hillsides were made of small chunky pieces of this earth. Off in the distance we could see Horseshoe Lake above Mammoth pass, and even further yet, the area of Mammoth Lakes. We weren’t that far away from civilization, yet it felt like we were on the moon.
On our way down from the transition rock zone, we set foot on some local trails and began to run into day hikers coming and going from one place or another. One of these days hikers was a young German fella- who was lost. He literally waved us down and came at us in a jog, asking us questions. He needed to get back to Mammoth Pass trail and had been wandering around for over an hour, with no luck. We offered to show him to his trail if he was willing to follow us our way.
We were like the blind leading the blind there for a while heading toward Mammoth Pass Trail. We were headed to it’s intersection with the SHR, where German boy needed to be, and we figured from there we would part ways. We were trying to stay on somewhat of an already worn foot trail that existed, hoping it would lead the way. We ran into the same problems German boy did, these little footpaths were like a Bermuda Triangle. But he followed us, maybe we look like we know what we’re doing!
We led him down some steep slopes with deep gravelly sand, we scrambled over a few precarious rocks and bushwhacked through some dense trees, and he stayed with us. He was a really good sport and we eventually got him to his trail after some backtracking and a precipitous (to use one of Roper’s favorite words) scree and sand slope. None of it was dangerous, we just didn’t know what he was comfortable with and capable of. He did great though, and when we reached the Mammoth Pass trail intersection he thanked us and took off at high speed toward McCloud Lake. Hopefully he gets to where he needs to be.
We were not to stay on a trail ourselves, instead, we cross countried from there heading due North, where we were to intersect another trail. I set my compass bearing to N and walked in a straight line through the forest, only turning off course to dodge the multitude of deadfall, as well as some big rocks and other obstacles. It was a fun little navigation game. Within about 30 minutes we reached the 2nd trail intersection, where we turned a sharp left and started a long ass descent into the Reds Meadow basin.
We were now in a beautiful, mature forest that was still steaming wet from rain and as the afternoon drew in, so did the clouds we’d had our eyes on earlier. As we began the long descent, we got deeper into the mist and fog, but the sunlight was still poking through from time to time, casting beams of light into the forest. Finally we reached the switchbacks that are exposed out on a Western ridge full of deadfall and trees that have their heads chopped off. It’s like the headless horsemen, except it’s trees, hundreds of them! These trees look so mysterious, but I’d learned previously what happened. First, they burned and then, massive storms came and the wind snapped thier weakened bodies in half.
I have hiked here several times too, and this evening was, by far the most enjoyable visit. It’s amazing what weather can do to the mood of a place. The thick clouds to the West were casting a gray hue to the overall ambient light with the sun striking through and warming up the barren looking trees, making them glow against the gray backdrop. The new growth trees that are only 10 feet high look so green and healthy, and give one hope that this forest, this slope, will fully recover someday.
It turned out to be a very pleasant walk down the switchbacks, with the wet scent of earth in the air, sweet wet sage, and fresh new growth everywhere. The sunlight faded as we descended, and finally, for the first time since lunch, we came across a stream of water! Water, yay!! We needed it, but we decided too wait until we got to camp. By now it was after 6:30 pm and we needed to be looking for a place to call home for the night. We pushed on just a little further, cutting through Reds Meadow proper, which was empty and desolate, everything boarded up, and made our way over to the campground.
My shoulders at that point in the day were burning in pain, and I was dealing with cramps in my low belly that spread down my legs. I am ready to be done, I kept thinking, Almost there. Hurlgoat’s knee was feeling worn out and painful too, as it had been bothering him since a few big mile days he tackled last week in my absence. I think he was feeling pretty done too. We needed to push on though, to find a suitable place to sleep for the night. It’s now getting dark, and cold.
Just a little further….
Finally we reach the Reds Meadow campground, which is at the end of a pleasant little trail lined by Aspens, and we see that we are not alone. How is this possible? It’s October, I thought the campground would be all closed up like the store and the cafe. Strange. We push on, we walk to the farthest away campsite there is and we find a lovely little spot tucked under some trees on a bed of pine needles. There is a restroom nearby with one door unlocked (flushing toilet, sweet). There is also a creek nearby with flowing water, a picnic table (which we didn’t use), and a bear box to store our food (which we did use). Perfect- this will do. We take a look at GAIA and she tells us we hiked 15.2 miles today. Not bad. We only climbed about 2,300 ft (must have been the beginning of the day) but descended over 4,500 ft (that I didn’t really even feel). Solid Day, I’m happy.
We set up camp and cook dinner sitting on the pine needle floor of the forest near our tent. I eat Annie’s Mac N’ Cheese and make Chamomile tea. The creek is rushing and it’s dark now. We do some stretching while dinner is cooking, and we read ahead in Roper’s book to see what tomorrow may bring. My muscles feel pretty tight and twingy like little ropes. I hope the stretching helps.
In the tent, I give Hurlgoat acupuncture for his knee and he falls asleep with the needles poking out of his body and his headphones tucked inside his ears, listening to an audio book. Me, I am going to turn my body over and relax on my back, finally, and read my book North, by Scott Jurek. Yep, I just started another book about someone speed hiking, or in this case, running the Appalchian Trail. I am enthralled.
It’s another night under the big open sky. I spent my whole day walking, sitting, staring, being outside, being free, being wild, I am larger than life. This is THE life. I am so damn grateful.