October 7, 2018
Lake Ediza Vicinity, Elevation 9,333 ft
Last night I had an anxiety dream. I was climbing up a steep slope without my trekking poles, I was wearing my backpack and there were a few people behind me. I tried grabbing onto some branches that were exposed from the chalky soil that was eroding away, probably from people trying to grab onto something. I could not find a good grip and felt like I was starting to fall backwards. It was a nerve wracking dream.
The snow overnight last night and the howling wind made me wonder if climbing, and especially descending, the North side of Nancy Pass was going to be safe. The winds were whipping hard high up in the trees and more snow fell on us through the break of dawn. I decided to sleep in, because we needed the snow to melt off anyway, right? It was 8:15 am by the time I poked my head out of my bag. Hurlgoat was already up and out of the tent, and collecting his gear. I felt a little bad for sleeping so late again, he is always too kind not to wake me, but he’d been up for hours already.
We hit the trail by 9:40 am and made our way across the snow covered meadow, jumping over the little streams of water. Immediately my feet were freezing cold and I regretted that I chose to wear my clean, dry socks. Dang it. My other socks are hanging on the outside of my pack, in hopes the sun will shine them dry.
Nancy Pass was nothing technical, just very steep. Wake up legs! We climbed the 600 feet of elevation in just under an hour, but the distance was less than a mile. At the top we were afforded the most amazing views of the Ritter Range, with Banner, Ritter and the Minarets all lined up and enshrouded in moving misty clouds. The sun was shining by now and while we were dressed appropriately for the climb up the pass, we definitely needed to layer up for the windy descent. It was blustery as heck at the pass, and that wind carried a bite. We stopped in the calm sunny side of the pass and added sweaters, hats, gloves and coats to take on the next challenge. Where to now?
In our SHR notes it says to stay to the left and stay high as you descend from Nancy Pass, aiming for a set of trees below. We scrambled over boulders dusted in snow that had fallen last night. I had been worried about this snow, thinking it would cover the rocks and then freeze overnight, creating a dangerous and slick terrain for us. But this was not the case at all. The snow was sticky and perfect, and ironically I actually preferred it sometimes to the loose scree that we often had to negotiate. We still took our time though and went super slow to be safe. Actually, for all the anxiety I’d had about this pass, it was remarkably enjoyable. I think the views had a lot to do with that! Mount Ritter and Banner Peak are arguably two of the most photographed landscapes in the Sierra Nevada mountains, especially coming in from the Thousand Island Lakes area.
We made our way to the trees, down the slope, and then had to climb our way up an “inconspicuous saddle” as Roper puts it. He makes it sound so nonchalant, but there is always work to be done when hiking on cross country terrain. It is just so slow going, and you don’t even realize how slow your progress is. Up. Up. Up.
Our aim, was to make it to Minaret Lake for lunch, involved yet another climb up to the lake. In due time, we made it to our destination by 1:40 pm, very ready to eat! When we arrived we were stunned by the beauty, and walked around taking pictures of the lake and surrounding monoliths of granite, sitting like towers around the windswept water. The wind tore at my face as I squatted down to take photos, it’s bite was a stinging cold. Very quickly it became imperative to find a protected place to sit and take a break for a while. We had calculated our timing exactly right, it took us 4 hours from our campsite to get to the lake. When we looked at the mileage, we had advanced a mere 3.2 miles. Crazy!
We sat in the sun trying to stay warm, trying to stay out of the icy wind. We observed several (and by several I mean at least eight people) out there hiking by the lake. Huh? Why is it that when you think you are in the middle of frickin’ nowhere, you suddenly run into day hikers? I mean, the scenery is second to none, it looks like we are somewhere in Patagonia, and we worked so hard to get there. Hurlgoat was saying “I think this is the most beautiful lake scene I have ever seen in my life”. That kind of beauty. Well, apparently we were not the ony people who knew about this magical place. Turns out there is a trail called the Minaret Lake Trail that links to the JMT, and from there it is a mere six miles to the lake.
Nevermind the day hikers though, it was still just as special to be up there in the first place, and as we all know, as soon as you leave a half mile off the beaten path, you have the place all to yourself again. After lunch we followed a faint use trail around the East side of Minaret Lake, climbing another 600 ft up to a saddle that would lead us to Cecile Lake. These lakes are surrounded by pure, gigantic walls of towering granite with steep slopes that come crashing right down into the water’s edge. The true definition of a cirque.
The dusting of snow from last night only made everything more beautiful. We climbed the steep and rocky path up towards Cecile Lake, surprised at how challenging and technical this trail actually was. There were definitely class 2 and class 3 areas and several areas that were a little sketchy, but it was totally doable with some focus and concentration. Good thing we ate a solid lunch.
Coming around the saddle and down to Ceclie Lake we could see we had our work cut out for us still, as the entire lake is surrounded by talus and boulders. We would follow the East side of the lake once again, hopping and scrambling over talus and boulders the whole way. The sun was hiding behind the jagged peaks and cast the entire lake in shadow, making everything downright cold. We kept warm by keeping moving, scrambling, taking photos, and admiring the scenery. Where am I? Is this Patagonia? We both kept commenting on how amazingly beautiful it was. We kept stopping to take more photos, because, well, how often are you ever here? Today we are here. This is now, this is happening right now, I kept telling myself.
I remember the first time I hiked up to the Banner/Ritter peaks in the vicinity of Thousand Island Lakes. It was 2013 and I was hiking the JMT. This was my first time solo backpacking for more than a few days and I was on about day 4 of my epic adventure. I had come over Donahue Pass and descended through Island Pass on my way to Thousand Island Lakes. I distinctly recall seeing Banner and Ritter for the first time. I stopped dead in my tracks. What the?? I thought peaks shaped like this only existed in places like Patagonia. You can only imagine how stunned and excited I was to discover that this existed in my own home state of California. I was beyond stoked and new doors burst wide open for me that day.
I travelled to Patagonia in 2017 for my 40th birthday. It was everything I hoped for it to be, I hiked in Torres del Paine National Park for 9 days and witnessed sunrise at Las Torres (pictured above). You really can’t compare mountains to mountains, but what you can compare is the feeling you get when you stand beneath these imposing forces of nature. In both cases, I am humbled, awestruck and so grateful that the Earth is designed with such beauty, that I can amble over with my hands and feet, and become a part of the big picture in my small little way.
As I scrambled around the boulders, touching so many of them with my cold, chapped hands, I noticed some fossilized imprints on some of the rocks. I started to feel not only like I could be anywhere on the planet, but I could also be anytime in history. How long had these rocks been here? I am here now, just a passerby, I will come and go in the tiniest little blip of time compared to how long this place has been here and how it came to be the way it is today.
I thought about these things as I made my way to the far end of Cecile Lake. Then, I started to realize how far we still had to go. The next goal was Iceburg Lake, which we would drop down into and then take, again, the East side of that Lake. Following that, we were going to take another trail part of the way toward Lake Ediza, who’s vicinity we would be camping near.
By this time, I think it was somewhere around 4:15 pm or so. We made it to the saddle where the outlet from Cecile drops into a cascading stream, several hundred feet down, feeding into Iceburg Lake. There was still a faint use trail, and it was steep, rocky and loose. There was also still lingering snow and the wind had picked up tenfold. It was freaking freezing wind! I kept thinking that maybe as we descended it would let up. Well, it didn’t.
The next 45 minutes took some grit. The slope and the scene, with the sound of the waterfall, the loose talus and scree, the snow, the cold and the lack of sun, were all enough to trigger my emotions about the accident from earlier this Summer. There were too many similarities. For some reason, though, I don’t know how, it didn’t get me upset. I took note of this as I made my way down. I’m okay, I thought. Hurlgoat was close by, sometimes ahead, sometimes behind me, but always in talking distance. I think this helps my mental state a lot.
The wind was fiercely blowing, I needed to pee badly, and I was shivering. My nose was running like a faucet with snot dripping down my face and down the back of my throat, uncontrollably. Finally, after bracing myself, tightening my entire body with every concentrated, well placed step, I reached a spot where I could stop. There was enough room on the ledge to take off my pack, get out my down jacket, and make some needed adjustments. That helped tremendously, but I never regained my warmth during the rest of that descent, and I still had to pee.
We had to hop over talus and boulders once again, all the way around the East shore of the lake. It wasn’t too technical, just requiring concentration and careful placement of feet and hands once again. By now my knees were definitely sore and aching, and I yearned for an actual trail that I could simply walk on. Soon, it will happen soon. I could see across the other side of the lake, there was some grass and dirt, and magically, a trail, hooray! Alas, we made it to the actual trail and from there it was a nice, relaxed walk for a full 10 minutes, just imagine!
I turned and looked back at what we’d just come down, and as always, it looks so treacherous in retrospect. The pass this morning, Nancy Pass, looking up at it from our campsite, looked so intimidating, steep and impossible. Yet, we did it with relative ease. I mean it was no walk in the park, but totally do-able. We are getting used to this, I think. Looking back at the slope that came down from Cecile Lake to Iceburg Lake, that looked intense, but we had just done it, and we were already on to the next task, which was finding a place to camp. Yay!!
By now it was at least 5:30 pm, so we knew we still had a little time to walk and scout out a good campsite. Our utmost priority was to be protected from the wind, and secondarly we wanted to be in a nice flat spot, surrounded by trees and close to water. Is that too much to ask? Oh, and could there be some stellar views of the Ritter Range at well? Apparently it’s not too much to ask, because it’s exactly what we got. The power of Manifestation.
We followed a light trail that led to and from Ediza Lake, toward our route, which was up higher than the lake. We are now nestled in a semi-protected completely flat tent site, with trees on one side, rocks on the other, views of the peaks and a creek nearby.
Life is good!
We made camp and cooked our dinners as the stars began to emerge. It is a totally clear night, there is no moon whatsoever, and we are so far away from any light pollution. You should just see these stars! Above our heads the Milky Way spreads out like confectionary sugar and the constellations and planets shine like white holiday lights against the ebony sky. I amall bundled up here in the tent, trying to keep warm, my nose is an absolute icicle. I am planning to go out and attempt some night photography because the sky is so dark tonight. Believe me, I really just want to roll over and call it a night, but how often do we get to see a sky like this?
Tonight I do. I am seeing it right now.