A Woman’s Journey to the Great Western Divide

Originally posted on the WPSMB on 8-11-08

Every trip changes you. Yup, it’s that simple, really. If it doesn’t have some sort of effect, you’re just not paying enough attention. On August 7, 2007, I embarked on a trek that changed my life. On August 7, 2008, I hit the trail again, but with such a different outlook, a different perspective, that the events of the past year couldn’t help but be laid in front of me for examination. I was off to visit the Great Western Divide.

Day One (8-7-08): Work
Onion Valley to Charlotte Lake, Mt. Bago

I shooed DougSr away from my monster-pack Wednesday afternoon at the Portal, knowing that it was beyond silly. Three of my buddies had asked for my help in a resupply, and I had gladly
accepted, that is, until I saw just how much space in the pack their stuff would take. The weight was the same as last year’s trek, but would increase when I added a certain “package” to be taken to the summit of Mt. Bago for my boys participating (notice I didn’t say ‘competing’) in theSierra Challenge . So here I was at Onion Valley Thursday morning, the sun shining hotly through the windshield, clouds dancing above the peaks, light shifting between pine and granite. With a grunt, I loaded up, bent forward a bit, and trudged up the hill, only to be passed 15 minutes later by a packer and his mule . I hear they have a 75 pound limit: Wimps.

After 3.5 hours of steady climbing, resting on big, flat rocks so I didn’t have to take the pack off, I reached Kearsarge Pass and gazed upon what last time had been highlighted only by the full moon. It was from here that I could see my big objective for the weekend, Mt. Brewer, as well as South and North Guard Peaks, which would be secondary ‘targets’. But for now, I trudged on down the Kearsarge Basin to Charlotte Lake, where I met Ranger George Durkee . I picked his brain about current conditions, and he was warm and cautionary, telling me to “not pull any of those big rocks down on your head”, as well as that Mt. Brewer had claimed the lives of two men in the past two years. Ben and his brother, Bill, were resting just down from the Ranger Station as I headed to the bear box, so we found and made up camp, and ate at the water’s edge as the clouds darkened a bit overhead. I had one final delivery to make, so I packed up a few things and headed up the loose rock that makes up Mt. Bago’s north east face and ridge.

Light pulsed in and out between the clouds during my ascent, occasionally spitting a few cooling drops at me, but nothing more. I reached the summit in 90 minutes from the Lake, picking my way up crumbled granite and some scree. The view into the Bubbs Creek Drainage was spectacular, the drop to the floor immense. Charlotte Dome reflected some of the broken rays, and I viewed the climb into East Creek Canyon , which was Friday’s goal. The ” package ” was delivered, laid beneath the register with a note specifying to whom it belonged. By 1630 I was back down at camp, rigging my fishing line and tossing the hook into the lake: dinner . Two unlucky but very tasty little trout were definitely a nice addition to the Italian sausage and tomato sauce pasta! I got caught up with the boys’ adventures on the trail, then hit the sack early, just a mite tired from the day’s exertions.

Day 2 (8-8-08): Stretch
Charlotte Lake to East Lake, Lake Reflection

Our group cruised out of Charlotte by 0730: Ben and Bill headed for Kearsarge and home, Tom and Roleigh headed south on the JMT, myself to Vidette Meadows and down Bubbs Creek to Junction Meadow before climbing to East Lake. Flowers abounded along the trail, the foliage still green and lush besides numerous streamlets. The skies, now clear, provided sharp contrast to the steep cliffs of granite on either side. Bubbs Creek roared to the south, especially at it’s steepest falls about 1/2 a mile east of Junction Meadow. I rested at the overlook here, listening to the tumbling so intently that the arrival of another hiker startled me out of my trance. We walked together down into Junction Meadow , where I waved goodbye and headed into the forest. Crossing Bubbs Creek was not difficult, but the water was knee-high to me, the cold piercing but refreshing. Somehow I forgot what 1300 vertical feet meant as I climbed to East Lake. The trail winds along the canyon floor, paralleling
East Creek, then climbs and switchers the eastern face after crossing a stout bridge .

I pulled into an empty campground around 1300, the water and sun encouraging a lounging lunch on the shore , then a swim (three strokes rule, right, Jack and Betsy??) and stretch out on a slab to warm back up. My original plan had included an ascent to Longley Pass via Lake Reflection and up South Guard Peak, but my legs were happy to not have the load any longer and I decided a nice stretch up to Lake Reflection would do. The trail above East Lake is less worn (nice to see) but well- ducked , and I strode through meadows lush with lupine, dense pines, and polished slabs to emerge at the base of Mt. Jordan , it’s scree slopes diving directly into the south shore of Lake Reflection. A solid breeze impaired the lake’s title, but you could still hear the rush of water flowing in from below Milly’s Foot Pass. I found yet another boulder on which to stretch out , watching the waves shimmer as the wind breathed across the surface. I was content here: I didn’t NEED to climb South Guard today; just knowing I could get to this point was enough.

I returned to East Lake, meeting only a few people along the way, including two young men who were my new ‘neighbors’ by the lake. They were new to backpacking, and had stuggled a bit on the way in from Road’s End, but they intended to spend a relaxing day Saturday at the Lake before starting to head for home on Sunday. They offered the same response when I told them of my plan to climb Mt. Brewer the next day: “Where’s that?” followed by, inevitably, “By yourself??” (I’ve asked a few of my buddies about this, btw. They always get the first question, but never the second. Hmmm…) I nodded confidently and described my route to them, even saying that if they saw my camp tomorrow night and didn’t see me, that something would be amiss and help might be needed. There. Bases covered. I awoke a few times that
night to clear, starry skies and the calm flow of the outlet stream near camp.

Day 3 (8-9-08): Climb
East Lake to Mt. Brewer via the East Ridge

I awoke Saturday morning as the light turned the world grey and to a shuffling beyond my tent. A flip back of the door revealed a beautiful 4-point buck, calmly munching the grass lining the water’s edge not more than 50 yards from me. He raised his head at my good morning, then turned and walked across the meadow, meeting up with another young buck (3-points) 50 yards in the other direction. This was my good omen for the day, and after a
few final preparations, I crossed the outlet at the log jam and headed diagonally up the west slope towards the undulating slabs. Keeping a westerly course, I walked across meadows and over streams to reach treeline. While route descriptions encourage following the Ouzel Creek drainage to the south, I wanted to see if the slabs connected without loss of altitude
or cliffing out. This turned out to be perfect, and an easy walk up the granite to the toe of the East Ridge. I was maintaining 1000 vertical feet/hour, mostly because for once I wasn’t sliding around on rocks and scree.

The bouldered face of the east ridge became somewhat steeper , but was a Class 2 step-exercise to gain the main ridge. The small snow patch was completely avoidable on both sides, although I chose the right on the ascent with rocks instead of sand. It’s obvious where the East Ridgemeets the South Ridge: not so obvious on where to exit. Both Secor and Bob Burd’s page on summitpost.org describe a ‘notch’ to the left, surrounded by Class 4 and up rock on either side. You can’t see the chute until you’re in it, apparently, but I did find it and started the final scramble to the summit. Part 1 is climbing the Class 3-4 summit block : I squeezed to the base of the block and looked at it for a few minutes before stopping my thinking process and forcing my way up. I patted the top and lowered myself down, a little shaky but happy for doing it. I then continued along the ridge to the west, taking in the views of South Guard and Big Brewer Lakes below the steep western ramparts of the mountain. I evaluated the descent and scramble over to North Guard , deciding to save it’s Class 3 western face for another day, preferably with friends along for the ride. Finally, across and back to the NE summit, which houses the register . I had the mountain to myself, the sun shining brightly, the winds calm. I spent over an hour basking on the summit before willing myself down.

The descent was careful, George Durkee’s words ringing in my mind as I worked to lower myself to the slabs. I startled a few more young men on the edge of East Lake as I emerged from the woods. It was early, only about 1430, and I had thought about moving my camp back to Vidette Meadow in order to make the hike out Sunday a bit shorter. But after meeting up with the two young men (Mike and John), as well as another, Isaac, who recognized me from my reports, and realizing that they had lugged a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black Label all the way from Road’s End, I decided to help lighten their load. It was a glorious afternoon of sitting by the fire, comparing trip notes, and having discussions that never waned.

Day Four (8-10-08): Home
East Lake to Onion Valley

I wanted an early start to avoid the heat of the day on the climb up from Junction Meadow, so by 0645 I was headed down East Creek Canyon. Once again, the Bubbs Creek crossing was knee-deep
but not hard, and the sun found me downing a Gu and an Emergen-C before starting the climb up. It’s a 1400 vertical foot climb out of the canyon to Vidette Meadow, but my legs felt strong and sure beneath me, and I reached the JMT junction by 0910. Once again, as I ate breakfast, two bucks emerged from the meadow and ate their own meal not 50 yards away. We all turned and headed up the hill, the towering hulks of East and West Vidette watching our retreat. It’s a tedious climb to the Bullfrog Lake junction, and I dashed between patches of shade in the increasing heat of day. Just above Kearsarge Lakes, I caught up with a Sierra Club group led by Alexander Smirnoff, and heard someone call out my name. It was Keith, one of the gang from Mt. Goddard, and we chatted and caught up as we ascended the final switchers to the Pass.

I was ecstatic to be headed for home after a nice climb out, and I set my stopwatch. I had one final test for myself while carrying this pack (now down to about 40 pounds): how fast could I get to the car? I bounded away down the rocky trail, pulling over for those climbing up, even stopping for pictures and talking to a family with two young girls (all with packs) headed “we’re not sure how far we’ll just see how we feel…” I ticked off the Lakes: Pothole, Heart, Flower, Gilbert, Little Pothole, and the road, then the parking lot, came into view. Top to bottom in 1 hour, 17 minutes, 4 seconds. No shortcuts. No running. Just the strong stride of a confident woman completing another journey.

A few more pics from the weekend:

From the luckiest girl in the world:
Climb Hard, Be Safe.



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