Backpacking the Sierra High Route ~ Tuolumne Meadows to Twin Lakes ~ California

Day 13 ~ Beginning the Northern SHR ~ Tuolumne Meadows to Saddlebag Lake

We actually had to set an alarm. I know, right? What sort of vacation is this anyway? So we shower and breakfast and pack up to catch the 8:30 YART to Tuolumne Meadows. By now, I know Tim well enough to be ready by 7:30 so he can’t panic that I’m not ready in time! I have a costume change as I found a new pair of pants in Mammoth and tossed my black pair that wouldn’t stay up any more. The elastic failed, which happens to all the clothes in the humid Pacific…

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To answer the question everyone wants to ask…

A few tasks in Tuolumne: drop off extra items for the hiker box and secure backcountry permits for our new northern route. Our packs (mostly Tim’s pack since he has both bear bins with all the food) are really heavy with supplies for 10 days. We were told by the ranger that we couldn’t camp where we were planning to camp on the first night, so have to go much farther than anticipated on a late starting day.

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The contents of Tim’s pack, now that he has all the food. It was much too heavy for me. Luckily he is strong like an ox!

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At the trailhead for section 3 of our trip.

The bus dropped us off at Tioga Pass, and we hiked up about a mile to Gaylor Lakes and the Great Sierra Mine ruins.

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Dark clouds are forming and we start hearing thunder. It is very smoky to the south, with fires now burning in Yosemite as well as the Sequoia (Rough) fire. It starts to drizzle as we begin working our way down steep slopes of boulders and scree to the valley. We are climbing down a gorge when lightening shows up about four or five miles away. We are down to the valley floor, past Shell and Fantail Lakes, when the drizzle turns to hail. The temperature drops 15 degrees and we can see snow on Danner Peak.

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Approximately half an inch of hail fell, so we took shelter under a tree to wait it out.

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New snow on the peaks

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Out site at Sawmill walk-in camp, complete with bear lockers.

Luckily we see smoke from campfires at Sawmill walk-in camp so can find it despite the low clouds and hail. We find a log bridge over the creek and head up to the camp. A nice Buddhist lady explains the camp set-up, and we find a site and settle in. Crazy Tim heads down to the river for a bucket shower. It is late and we are tired, so a quick dinner and into our beds.

Day 14 ~ The Storm Arrives!

We are up at 8 and there is blue sky above us, but clouds over the mountains. We hiked along the creek and then up the hillside to the upper lake – which has a dam! Saddlebag Lake is ugly and brown, with two boats, an RV park, and a few day hikers. Two miles along the lake, and we arrive at Greenstone Lake and are in beautiful country again. The clouds are darkening, so we plan to get up to a legal camping area by Steelhead or Cascade lake and hunker down. We walk along an interesting geological division with white and pink rocks to the left (west) and grey and green rocks to the right (east) ~ all along the ridge, between the lakes, and on the cliffs ahead.

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Costume change! Warm clothes and new pants.

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Crossing a tributary of Lee Vining Creek

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Greenstone Lake

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Our sheltered area to wait out the storm.

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Playing gin. It isn’t very cold yet!

The trees are short and sparse, but we find the best spot we can and set up camp in the drizzle next to an unnamed lake around 2 pm. We hide from the weather under the tarp and play gin. During a break in the storm, I decide that I need warm soup and tea. Tim decides that he needs a bath, so proceeds to take a bucket shower with icy lake water in the 45 degree afternoon. Needless to say, he quickly dried off and put on all his clothes to get back into his sleeping quilt. After more hail, around 6 pm, I convince Tim that he needs to eat (though he doesn’t want to bother). We can see the edge of the front over Saddlebag Lake. After a quick dinner, we are back into our bags for the night. I’m quoting ” ’twas the night before Christmas” and singing “Rudolph”. Tim is talking of people finding our dead bodies the next summer…

Day 15 ~ The Storm

So there we were, camped between Steelhead and Cascade Lakes. And there we stayed. In our sleeping bags. For 40 hours.

It was storming with rain and strong winds all night. At 6:30 am we woke because the hail or freezing rain was too heavy on the tarp and was pushing down on us. The rain and sleet are causing flooding below our feet. We whacked the tarp to knock off the ice. As soon as we were afforded a respite, we went out to batten down more and dig drainage troughs.

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We can see the edge of the front and hope it is clearing… Turns out: Not so much…

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Hunkered down to wait out the storm. For 40 hours.

It was nasty out all day. It was too cold and windy to heat water for tea or food, so we lived off bars, nuts, and candied ginger. We hardly drank, as it was too cold to get up to pee. Tim almost got knocked over and his toilet paper got blown away when he tried to go. He was brave though, and got out to fix the tarp and get food. I was too cold and only got out once all day! We considered hiking out, but would have had to pack up wet gear and be miserable. In our bags, we were warm and the tarp was doing great (luckily), so we opted to wait it out at least one day. Tim had a bivy sack, and I put a trash bag around the foot of my bag.  All day: 40 to 50 knot winds, snow, sleet, hail… It was too cold to play cards, so we talked, snacked, and slept. Around 5 pm, we saw some blue sky and hoped it would break up overnight.  Ha.
The storm was even worse that night, and was too noisy for sleep much of the time!

Day 16 ~ the Sun!

At sunrise, there was actually a little blue sky! We had planned to go back to town if the nastiness continued, but didn’t need to bail. It was still very cold and windy, but we started to dry our things out. Hot tea and oatmeal warmed me up. We were pretty excited that our horrid nights were over and we could continue instead of retreating!
I wasn’t feeling good at all: spacy and weak and stiff and nauseous… Probably from the altitude combined with inadequate food and dehydration. We both had sore backs from so long in the tent…

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Blue sky, but with clouds still over the high peaks.

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The tarp survived! Tim’s rock wall helped prevent too much rain from getting blown in.

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Cascade Lake and North Peak. Our camp had been to the left of the lake in the trees.

We went slowly in the morning, and were on the trail around noon. I still struggled all day. My heart was racing and actually hurting so I had to keep stopping for rest breaks… I should be more acclimated by now!!
Up the hillside we went, past Secret Lake and then up and across the ridge. We came across what appeared to be a small tour group. One guy was not at all helpful and basically ignored any friendly questioning. The guy in the back at least answered Tim. Too bad, as most people we meet are very friendly and helpful.

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View of Steelhead and Saddlebag Lakes from Shepherd Crest.

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Brrrr.

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Secret Lake and Shepherd Crest

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Over the pass, in the Shepherd Lake area

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Sunset over a meadow

We saw Shepherd Lake and continued down the valley along a creek and set up camp just before a large meadow. It stayed cold, and we wore heavy clothes and long underwear the whole day. I couldn’t feel my hands, face, or teeth for a good part of the day. I pant so much with the altitude that my chest hurt from inhaling such cold air! Tim was worried about me all day because I was so spacey and off-balance and we were crossing a high ridge. We had been seeing evidence of bears for most of the afternoon, upturned rocks and scat, and I had been worried when he got too far ahead!
Our campsite this night is at a lower elevation (only 8000 ft or so), so we both are hopeful that I will feel better in the morning. After a dinner of alfredo rice and veggies for me and garlic lemongrass rice noodles for Tim, with camomile tea for warmth, we were in bed by 7:30.

Day 17 ~ A walk in the woods to Virginia Canyon

The sky is SO blue! No clouds when we woke up, hooray! But our clothes are all frozen, there is frost on our packs and tarp, and dew on our sleeping bags. It took until about 11 to thaw everything and get going, but the sun was warm and it was delicious to bask in the sun in a tank top for a while!

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Tim’s frozen shirt.

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Tim’s socks are frozen enough to keep their shape when flipped over!

We decided to cut across the hillside to Virginia Canyon. We had a lovely day walking through the forest. We saw a lot of scat, but no bear or deer. As we were searching for the trail late in the day, we found three very nice ladies! One was an interpreter for Yosemite, one a teacher, and one an artist. It was startling to see them after all day alone in the woods. They happily answered a whole list of questions that we had been accumulating about the local floura and fauna! The trail turned out to be about 20 feet further…

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Onion Creek

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Trail found!

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Wildflowers are rare with the severe drought, so I appreciate any that I do find.

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Sunset at our campsite in Virginia Canyon

We hiked a short way more and camped along the creek. We had one of our favorite (and certainly easiest) days with blue skies and no clouds and nice smells of pine. Our new tentative plan is to head to Twin Lakes in the next two days and find out if the fires are supressed enough for us to finish our trip over Mt Whitney as we had originally planned.

Day 18 ~ It’s good to be alive -or- Sliding down Stanton Pass on my belly…

I feel elated, energetic, stronger than I have, and really really happy (almost manic). I can’t stop singing “I’m on top of the world” in my head.
We had a slow morning waiting for the sun to rise to us, but it warmed fast. We left camp around 10:45. We had a nice walk up Return Creek, seeing lots of marmot holes and chewed up pine cones. I had a rest and lunch break at Return Lake while Tim went walkabout to see small lakes below Twin Peaks. I filled my water, then started up. The view of Virginia Peak, Twin Peaks, and the rest of the valley is spectacular. We head up, up, up and over, over, over, working toward Stanton Pass. It is a class 3 scramble with amazing views. We were both really excited, and were thinking how few of our friends would actually do this. What would Carolyn say? We can hear pika everywhere.

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Return Creek and Virginia Canyon

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Marmot holes

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Bear Scat!

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Virginia Peak and Twin Peaks

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Return Lake with Virginia Peak and Twin Peaks

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Getting a liquid boost (in the form of Gu). We’re about halfway up in elevation from the lake, and are headed for the pass behind me!

We reached the crest of the pass at a notch over 11,000 feet. The descent is a down-climb that seems more of a class 4 with packs. Some parts I just slid down on my belly, which worked well until I was turned and looking for a foothold… and my pack slid sideways and became pinned against the rocks. As I’m sliding on my right leg (and cellphone), Tim says “is something tearing?” Well, yes, but I did get free! Luckily we always we able to find decent handholds, so the very vertical descent wasn’t particularly frightening. I was feeling extremely grateful to all the guys from the Aggie Speleological Society who taught me to rock climb in college!

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Almost to the crest of the pass! (Or so it appears. It is still quite far.)

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Rocks and more rocks. Not so bad when they don’t all move… Still headed up to the pass.

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Virginia Pass. The lake on the right is Return Lake, where we had lunch. The pass to the left is Horse Creek Pass ~ our destination for the next day!

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Sunset

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Sunset with the moon from our campsite.

We saw a guy from LA heading up as we went down. He was glad to see where we had come from so he could find the route up and over. The glacier-carved Spiller Canyon valley was an amazing site as the sun began setting behind the cliffs. We headed for a small lake partway down the hillside. It was talus and boulder fields the whole way. We set up camp and ate dinner while watching the sun set, the moon set, and brilliant stars become visible. We watched another group setting up their camp by headlamps across the valley near the next pass. I feel that I am getting stronger, but my knees are quite swollen and sore.

Day 19 ~ Horse Creek Pass to Twin Lakes

I am tired. The sunrise was amazing, with one side of the valley (west) having all white rocks and the other side (east) having all dark green rocks. I struggled down to the river, then struggled up to the pass. Today’s music theme in my head is the Grateful Dead ~ Sugar Magnolia and Uncle John’s Band.
We met at a lake just before the pass for snacks and to refill our water. Tim is walking probably twice as fast as I can today (so he goes ahead and filters water while I drag in half an hour later!). We met two guys who were setting up to climb Whorl and Matterhorn mountains. One was from the Bay area and the other from Portland. The latter told us about a new bike/bus/walk bridge in Portland that changes color like a giant mood ring.

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Spiller Canyon. The notch is our destination: Horse Creek Pass.

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Wildflower!

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Horse Creek Pass. A great example of the interesting geology: the white rocks on left are west, while the green and dark rocks on the right are east. The split is demonstrated for miles and miles like this!

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Unnamed lake just below Horse Creek Pass.

We step over the summit of Horse Creek Pass and the change is unbelievable ~ fallen rock and mixed up colors. We crossed paths with two women who noticed my American Samoa Association of Paddlers shirt… and we talk paddling for a while! I’m pretty glad I chose to wear that shirt, as it initiated quite a few talks about Samoa that wouldn’t have been triggered otherwise. Anyway, the women were also climbing two peaks and were able to relay a Rough fire update for us: 60% contained!
We scrambled down huge rocks to… a glacier! The water just disappeared under the rocks. Then we continued on a long downhill. Long. Downhill. Rocks small and large. We arrived at the spot where the creek reappears from under the rocks and met 4 young Indian guys from LA who had already hiked up, climbed Matterhorn, and were going back down. Ah, to be 23…

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Horse Creek Pass, looking east.

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Seriously large gravel.

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Glacier. That was a surprise! Most have melted with the low snowfall and 4 year drought…

The trail was seriously steep down Horse Creek. The scenery changed dramatically over the next 4 miles and 1500 feet or so: greener and more lush. We passed beaver dams and aspen groves. Down and down some more to Mono Village. My feet HURT, my toes and the balls of my feet. My knees are screaming. Tim’s feet actually hurt, too. We arrive at Twin Lakes around 6:30, and then are confused by the maze of trails. We get to the Mono Village RV park and are fairly overwhelmed by all the people and activity!

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Peaks around Horse Creek Valley

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Beaver dams and aspen at lower elevation.

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Aspen and more greenery.

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Culture shock at the RV park!

We decide to try to hitch to Bridgeport ~ my first time. Nearly immediately we see a truck with three guys and I stick out my thumb. They are staying at Doc and Al’s about halfway to town, but can take us that far. Tim tosses his pack into the bed just as I am climbing over the tailgate… and warn him to be careful as the bed is covered with blood and mud. I assume it is from a deer, while Tim assumes it is from the last hitchhikers they picked up!

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A good start to my hitchhiking career?

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Twin Lakes and the mountains that we just left.

We thank the murderers as we hop out, and are sort of worried as it is dark now. Luckily a nice couple pick us up and take us into Bridgeport. We check into a crazy old hotel and find out it is opening day of deer season (ah ha!). The Bodie Hotel has red shag carpeting, crooked stairs, a player piano, and wallpaper with relief fuzzy shapes on every surface including the door frames! We are in the Mark Twain room.
We head down the street to a diner and see the same guys from the first truck. They apologize for the mess in the truck and explain that they had killed a deer that day. Tim convinces them that he thought it was from previous hitchhikers…

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Bridgeport is busy with opening day of deer season

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The historic Bodie Hotel, Bridgeport CA

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The living room at the Bodie Hotel

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Entryway, player piano and very crooked stairs. Nice shag carpet!

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The Mark Twain Room. I don’t have any idea how they chose the names…

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A seriously impressive wallpaper job!

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We investigated the bus schedule, and found that it doesn’t run on weekends, so we decided to try to hitch to Independence the next day. After a dinner of a large G&T, green salad, and a huge baked potato… I am ready for several showers to get the grime off and sleep.

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