Archive for October, 2012

Day 8: Strength = Beauty (7-29-12)

Posted in Backpacking on October 31, 2012 by moosetracksca

Rousting myself from bed is never pretty; since I prefer to wake slowly, then cradle a few cups of coffee before I finally ease into the day. In the grey of this morning, though, I knew life might be slightly easier if I put my legs to work early. By 0700, the buck cocking his head at the load on my back, I was waving my goodbyes to him and stumbling down the trail away from Tamarack Lake. For the next two miles, I started a conversation with myself about the climb ahead, trying to convince my brain and body of how amazing it would be, the views it would provide, the long stroll down into Roaring River between the walls of Deadman Canyon. In an hour, I had reached the trail junction, and I stared up at the wall of manzanita for only a moment before I leaned into the steep path up.

“I am strong. I am powerful,” I whispered softly to myself. Poles and feet swinging in unison, I aimed for each turn at the switcher, promising myself a chance to rest once I reached it. My breathing was even, but I could still feel my brow furrow a bit, channeling sweat under my sunglasses and down my nose. The manzanita seemed to absorb every shred of heat from the sun and throw it directly at me, and as I stared up the trail, it stared right back at me at eye level.

Somehow, somewhere amongst the sharp, red branches reaching across the trail and snagging my legs; between the slender yellow-green stalks of old flowers withering in the heat of summer; in the momentary shade of a single juniper growing gnarled and hairy in the rocky soil, I lost my focus for a moment. My words slipped, and I found myself uttering, “I am strong. I am beautiful.” I wasn’t sure when the change came. I reached a switcher with a large stone, on which I would normally sit, but I simply shook my head. Gotta get up this hill, Molnar, I thought. Gotta finish in this heat and dust and light and rock. The load pulled evenly on my back and shoulders. I scuffled the pack up to adjust the waist strap. OK, let’s try this again…

“I am strong. I am beautiful.”

What? No. Beauty will not get this load up and over this pass. Power will get this load up and over this pass. Look: there! The top of the bench is just up there. Now, put your head down…

“I am strong. I am beautiful.”

I might say that the trail evened out, the grade lessened. The pack was just the right weight. I had been out for a week and my body had finally adjusted and strengthened to carry this load.

Or I could just admit that I gave into the strength that is beauty.

It was a physical feeling to me, something visceral. I just felt, well, lighter. My stride lengthened, my breathing evened out and slowed. I dabbed at my forehead with the sleeve of my shirt, but when I reached the next turn, I kept going, feeling little need for rest. The junipers were offering more frequent shade as I finally crested the face, and the trail gently undulated to the creek from Lonely Lake. When I plopped the pack down near the water to rest, it was because I wanted to give myself a gift for working hard on the first part of the climb, not because I was desperate to take a break.

1100 vertical feet in an hour from the junction, with more than 50 pounds still on my back. Yeah, I could live with this. I could handle this idea of beauty.

The doe made right for me as I lounged on a boulder over the stream, then right past me towards the spot where I had made my own water. She looked up as I laughed at her and I guzzled another bottle full of Gatorade. I could see her friends lingering in the green drainage further up the col. Cairns across the slab on the other side of the creek pointed me in the right direction to Elizabeth Pass. A grouse perched downstream and kept a watchful eye. A few flowers danced in the breeze along the banks.

Less than 2000 feet to go, and I was walking on air.

The trail is somewhat faded through the shifting colors of granite, but well-placed rocks mark the approximate route through the easy terrain. The trail is funneled between two sharp ridges, sprouting spires both broken and smooth. Foxtail pines carpeted the northern face towards the Tablelands, the view unobstructed to the west. I spotted a huge crowd at the pass, and stopped for a moment to watch the group slowly caterpillar its way down the scree and small boulders, two lagging behind. I smiled at the thought of the two being dear friends of mine to whom I had offered my itinerary before I left.

I stopped to chat briefly with the Outward Bound group, their two leaders – in back – relayed their route for the past two weeks. The 10 or so 17-year olds were from all over the United States, and were polite, inquisitive, and seemed to be happy for a little rest. “What is it like to be out here, alone?” asked one young lady. “Five years ago, it was a huge challenge, strictly to get the logistics right,” my reply. “This time, though, I just really miss my friends.” The kids had one more week of exploring across the Tablelands and the Westside, after resupplying at Bearpaw tomorrow. The same girl looked up at me with eyes wide with wonder at this magnificent place, and I shook her hand to say goodbye.

I pushed on to Elizabeth Pass, driving hard for the last few hundred feet in excitement to see the other side. Moose Lake shimmered behind me on the far side of the plateau, and the trail wound through the orange-gold granite, across the moraine at the head of the bowl. In the breeze, I leaned up against the sign marking the Pass, and remembered back to how miserable I had been when I last stood on this spot. My camera had disappeared at Hamilton Lake back then, and I was so devastated that I had considered cancelling the rest of my trip, walking out to the west side and trying to figure out a way home. But now, with two cameras on my belt, and what was supposed to be a drudge of a climb behind me, I skipped down the trail, almost running under the load out of the thrill of seeing Deadman Canyon once again.

Stretching for nearly 10 miles from its headwall to Roaring River, Deadman Canyon is perhaps one of the most scenic and grand spots in the Sierra. Standing on the moraine and gazing north, I could envision the mighty ice floes carving away at the granite, compressing and smoothing the rock into a perfect “U” shape. “God’s Vert Ramp” I called it then. A thin strip of green hugged the riverbanks far below as I stumbled and bumbled down the broken-rock trail, my ankles screaming as they rolled and fought for purchase. I couldn’t help but laugh at myself, as I looked across to the slabs and wondered why I was tolerating such a crappy section. At the first big water, I threw my pack down again and tanked up.

“Wearing mostly orange. Probably from Bishop. Trail name of Moose,” said a voice, and I turned to see a man I didn’t know, followed by another man and woman. “Your friends told us to watch out for you, and let you know that they stayed at Ranger Meadow last night.” Friends? What friends? I asked. Did you get a name?

“Don’t remember his name, but he had one hell of a mustache,” he said.

Trail telegrams. It’s not a perfect system, but word can, and does, get around back here. Maybe its because our signals aren’t as crossed as in the front-country, where we are overstimulated and constantly in a state of catch-up with the latest and greatest information. But, I do admit, it does help to have a color scheme and a small moose hanging from the axe-loop on my pack. So, the Dittli’s were indeed out here!

With a quick wave, I set out once again, my feet flying down the canyon, my smile growing wider in the early afternoon breeze. The canyon is a series of benches that keep dropping, and dropping, and dropping; crossing meadows and dashing in and out of thick pine forest. The wind whispered through trees, branches creaking and groaning. The heat was oppressive: when I stopped to munch I pulled my gummi candy from my bag, only to find they had all melted into one giant piece of sugary awesomeness. Jiminy, where the hell was the bottom of this canyon?

At long last, the ranger cabin at Roaring River appeared, and I wearily dropped The Beast near the bear lockers. The flag was up, but no one was home, so I left a long note for Ranger Cindy, thanking her for her help and support (and the beer!) five years ago; how that trip had changed my life. The usually busy station was deserted that evening, a welcome quiet after a tiring day. I soaked in the river under the bridge, finding a hole just big enough to lean back and hook my arms on the rocks, my feet and legs floating, my hair tickling my shoulders in the current.

After dinner, I strolled around the main area, looking for signs of my friends, and found their entry in the register outside of the ranger station. John and Leslie were the last to sign in that day, their “route” described only as, “Searching for an elusive Moose.” The thought brought tears to my eyes, and I signed in below them. “I’m right here! Where are you guys??”

The hunt was on.

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Day 7: Rest (7-28-12)

Posted in Backpacking with tags , , , , , on October 29, 2012 by moosetracksca

I am often surprised at my own ability to just sit quietly, to soak in the sun, the reflections off the water and granite, the only noises of cascades and birds and wind. The sun had crested the ridge above camp, and I was awakened to a twinkling on the walls of the tent. I stretched and groaned, rested my head on my pillow for five more minutes before unzipping the door. I stared up into the branches of the pines and rubbed my eyes to ensure I was really seeing what I thought I was seeing. A gentle breeze riffled the surface of the lake, and all the trees held the twinkling lights reflected in the morning sun. The trunks and branches sparkled as if wrapped in Christmas strands. I perched on my cooking rocks and stared as I slowly boiled water for coffee and breakfast, fastened duct tape around my injured fishing pole, organized my tackle box.

Along the southeastern shore of Tamarack Lake, shallow slab extends fifty feet out into the water, never more than a foot deep. Small trout dart back and forth in the shallows, occasionally cracking the surface with their mouths or tails. My knees tucked into my chest, I absently filed my nails and squinted up to the spires towering to the north. What a magnificent day! In the warmth, I strolled into the lake and dunked my head before sprawling on the rocks and slathering sunscreen everywhere. My journal in hand, I scribbled an endless stream of random consciousness onto the pages. “What a wonderful thing to have a day of no priorities! No rush to pack; no last-minute glances on the map; no worries about starting late in the heat. How am I going to eat all this food???”

In the back of my mind, I could hear the echoes of my peak-bagging friends: “But what of Triple Divide Peak or Lion Rock? You’ve come all this way! They’re right there.”

I was purely and thoroughly content to sit still.

Have you ever taken the time to lie in the cradle of a sun-warmed boulder? Allowed its warmth to permeate you, even the hair on your head? How fast can you feel yourself melting into the granite, cares and concerns fading as you close your eyes? Birds might think you part of the stone and venture close. The breeze feels chilly compared to the rock. The textures soften, the curves fit my own as I sigh and start to dream.

The buck appeared first in the mid-afternoon, creeping up from the outlet and narrowly circling my camp. His antlers covered in velveteen, he circled and searched out my spots for peeing, pawed the ground in an effort to feed on the salt, I presumed. He played briefly with a female nearby, but was rebuffed in a crash of branches and rocks. He’s brave: I chased him off twice to keep him away from camp, as I tried to avoid getting kicked.

Sunset burned the high peaks once again as I finished my tea. I think the rest day helped, although I yawned through dinner and was happy to clean up my camp and head to the tent for bed. I know tomorrow’s climb to Elizabeth Pass is daunting, but I am looking forward to both the challenge and a new strategy for getting up the hill. As I shut my eyes, I could still hear the buck nosing around the trees, and I envisioned grand corridors of pressed, perfect, granite canyons beyond the spires above me.

Day 6: New Friends (7-27-12)

Posted in Backpacking with tags , , , on October 27, 2012 by moosetracksca

The sun was already warm as it crept over the ridge above camp, and I let my mocha cool as I packed up. I hummed absently, smiled as I looked down from my perch to the lake, as if we shared some small and intimate secret. I grabbed my laundry from the rocks, and suddenly realized my hat – which I hadn’t rinsed – was gone. Damn marmots: at least it wasn’t my camera this time. I tossed a “hope you choke on the polyester” into the morning breeze, and brushed my hair back into a ponytail.

The first guy walked by without so much as a glance, so I turned to reach for the Beast and start the day. “There’s only one woman I know that wears that much orange,” said the second man strolling down the trail. “Wait, I knew that was her!” exclaimed the first as he bounded back up the trail. I blushed, not knowing either of them, but they had read my old reports and chatted with me through the Whitney board for some time. John (lambertiana), and his friend Mark had been exploring Colby Pass and the Picket Guard drainage for the past week. I begged them to pull up a rock and sit a spell, where they excitedly regaled me with stories of granite benches, mistakes in the topo maps, and ridgelines reflecting in the lakes. “What are you doing on the Westside?” John asked, eyebrows raised.

Together we tramped down from Precipice Lake, hugging the cliffs of Valhalla’s northern wall, testing each other’s knowledge of flowers and trees. Giggling, we passed through the tunnel, squinting at the stanchions poised to hold the old suspension bridge over the void, the cable still coiled on the side of the trail. Our small talk never waned as we zigged and zagged down ever closer to Hamilton Lake, the Red Firs bordering the deep blue gem. The crowds along the slabby shoreline made me all the happier to have stayed high the night before in the quiet of Kaweah Gap.

In the shade of the red firs, the three of us continued to banter and laugh, each breaking out maps to show where we had been and where we were going. The men basked in the glow of knowing they were headed home to good meals, warm showers, and soft beds. I was bursting with anticipation at what was yet to come. At the next outlet crossing below Little Hamilton Lake, the guys allowed me to take my leave, as I planned on regaining all the elevation we had lost that day as I turned north towards Elizabeth Pass.

I could see both the bridge below and the high crossing trail on the western wall as I tucked under a copse of oaks. A mother and son also rested there, knowing the switchers ahead for them involved a long, hot afternoon of walking. “I have a pipe dream,” she said. “I want to see Precipice Lake. And my son is allowing this to happen.” Their system was simple: while mom walked slowly and carried as little as possible – having had three surgeries in the past three years – her son would follow with his pack for ¼ to ½ a mile. He would then stow his pack, return down the trail for hers, and haul it up. Her smile was beaming, her tears genuine. His handshake was strong, confident. Neither showed any signs of fatigue.

The junction for Elizabeth Pass is at 7400 feet, well within snake zone, and I sucked in my breath at what lay before me. Whereas the path five years ago had been overgrown, now ferns and grasses stood shoulder high, and there was almost no evidence that anyone had recently broke the slender stems with their passage. The creek tumbled to my left, hidden amongst the emerald green. I breathed deeply, stomped the ground with each step, and frantically waved my poles out in front, hoping to scare off anything that might just be hiding in the damp and humid forest. The early afternoon heat was oppressive and sticky, and I slowly plodded up and away to the slabs above. Atop the first bench, I collapsed under a tall juniper and drank deeply, frowning back down to the hidden trail below. A pool and slabs just beyond offered the chance to dunk my head and wet my shirt.

The valley to Tamarack Lake lies quietly between Elizabeth Pass and Valhalla, granite spires lining both ridgelines and Lone Pine Creek tumbling across moraines and meadows alike. A lone backpacker rested in a campsite not more than a ¼ mile from the junction, and he waved with a smile as I strode up. Doug, as it turned out, is an elementary school teacher in Pasadena, and was out on his annual walkabout. “I’m almost ashamed to say I only make about six or seven miles a day,” he lamented as we shared adventures. Ashamed? I proclaimed back. Look where your feet have  brought you! Look at the gift you have bestowed yourself! With this, he smiled broadly, and I wished him well for the remainder of his journey.

The two miles to the lake climbs steadily across benches and meadows on good trail, but I was dying for a breeze. At last I rolled into the camp area at Tamarack Lake, a falls crashing into the reeds on the far side, and a few fish ruffled the surface as I pitched camp. Systematically, I shed my clothes and stepped down the bank and into the lake, the soft mud sucking my feet in. Instead of diving forth, I stood as still as I dared, allowing the muck to settle and the fish to swim within inches as if to inspect this invader.

Over dinner, I watched Mt. Stewart and Lion Rock burn in the alpenglow, noted the ripples as the fish continued to rise. In the quiet evening, I thought of all the stories I had been told that day, and instead of searching for routes up the far bench, I looked for broad, flat spaces to lie and reflect. In the first six days of travelling, I hadn’t yet allowed myself much time to sit. This beautiful lake, ringed by forest, cliffs, and waterfalls, would make a perfect rest day.

Day 5: Magic (7-26-12)

Posted in Backpacking with tags , , on October 24, 2012 by moosetracksca

The pika was out of place on the forest path, huddling completely still in the middle of the trail. I gently tossed a light pine cone at it, worried that perhaps it had been bitten, or was holding still in fear. The cone bounced off its small nose, and the critter barely flinched. Eyebrow raised, I gave the animal space as I continued on up the trail. When I turned after 20 steps or so, the pika had disappeared.

Ahead, the trail opened into broader meadows, Big Arroyo Creek spreading more widely across granite slabs. The grasses had already begun to yellow in the water-starved earth, purple hiker’s gentian in stark contrast. The trail had sharp edges here, the soft dirt full of tracks from the constant flow of human traffic. Between sections of talus, the walls of the canyon were pressed granite, polished by heavy ice and snow so long ago. Not a single cloud crossed the sky, and I walked in silence up the valley towards Kaweah Gap.

I had hoped to climb Eagle Scout Peak five years ago as I had strode by: read that it could easily be accessed from the Gap. The entrance to the bowl south of the peak pulled on my attention, the simple slabs climbing gently towards the western ridge. Around 10K, I pulled off the trail and strode across the meadows, winding around a few scrub pines to find a perfect, flat boulder on which to rest The Beast. After stowing the food away from the pack, and hiding one camera deep in the main compartment, I set out across the grass and willows to the ascending steps and ledges.

Water flowed meekly at the top of the first bench, after offering only a darkening of the black stains on the ledges. I looked around at the bowl, sized up the talus above. I thought back to my notes, to ascend from a saddle south of the peak. To my left was a definite low point, the ridge to a summit sweeping long to the west, a small high point on the eastern terminus. To my right, rock spires towered, looking a bit too tricky to be only class 2 as the route description had indicated. OK, then, I’ll head left, my brain surmised.

My feet jumped between the blocky talus to gain the saddle, then up the ridge. I spotted a single cairn amidst the rocks, but no real boot track in the sandy sections. I scrambled up the final cluster of rocks, peering over the top and down, eagerly expecting Precipice Lake far below…

Not so much.

The benchmark had no name stamped in it, only an elevation, Pk. 12,022, some 20 feet shy of Eagle Scout. I faced north and looked at the next high point on the ridge, imagining the view down to Kaweah Gap over the edge. Nice work, route-finder. Well, what would Bob Burd do? No brainer: back down the ridge, cross the bowl, and up the other side. No way I was giving up on Eagle Scout Peak that easily. (Actually, Bob would have scrambled down the north face of this peak and across the top of the bowl, but that’s because he’s Bob…)

Laughing, I sat at the edge of Eagle Scout Peak’s summit block, my feet dangling a few thousand feet above Precipice Lake, the trail winding down from the Gap and etched into the cliff above Hamilton Lake. I took the “mom don’t look at this picture” shot, then backed up to peruse the register. The view into Valhalla was perfection, forested slopes dissolving into the blue haze of the Central Valley. The undulating granite of the Tablelands almost completely hid Moose Lake, and I better understood the glacial valleys between me, and Elizabeth Pass. I wanted to explore further into Nine Lakes Basin as I gazed at the enormous pools. I smiled at Black Kaweah just east of me.

Diving down the sand and the slabs, I was quickly able to spot my pack resting below. A feeling of contentment washed over me as I slung The Beast on my shoulders once more and strode back to the trail. It was early afternoon: I had but a few hundred feet to climb to Kaweah Gap, all on good trail; I had bagged two more peaks; my favorite lake awaited my return. A huge group, presumably boy scouts, played in the cascade just below the Gap, their mess of tents filling the flats between trees. With a few breaks on the last switchers, I reached Kaweah Gap, and stole more than a few long moments staring back at the Big Arroyo.

A light breeze riffled the surfaces of the small tarns along the trail. A marmot’s nose peeked out from between the rocks edging the trail, but it was too shy to get a good picture. Around the corner, the jewel of the high sierra emerged, it’s blue-green waters sparkling beneath grey cliffs. The rush of small cascades broke the pristine silence of the cove, grassy patches offering more color against the black-streaked rock. The lake itself is not large, but it carries a sense of solitude and power much larger than its shores. I perched above the lake and just stared, my pack providing a perfect backrest. I didn’t need to hurry away.

The campsites on the edge of the world lured me into staying the night, along with the desire to see sunset on the lake. Once camp was established, I grabbed an armload of cameras, water bladder and bottle, hairbrush, and dry, warm clothes and stumbled down to the outlet below. Although the lake is immediately on the trail, I wasn’t expecting many people to pass due to the mid-afternoon hour. Nor did I particularly care: this lake was calling for me to enjoy it, and the gentle, golden slabs at the outlet provided an easy entrance to the cold waters.

I stripped slowly on the slabs, dropping each piece of clothing lightly to the rock in a small pile. My gaze shifted around behind me, expecting to see a gawking backpacker or perhaps even a curious rodent taking in the sights. I shivered in the afternoon breeze, gooseflesh rising on my arms out of nerves from being seen and the chill. I wrapped my arms around my chest, hiding breasts pale against the tan lines from my shirt. The water was so cold on my feet as it brushed in and out along the rock. But the lake was calm and gentle, lapping quietly against the shore. The falls trickled down the cracks on the far wall. Like climbing into bed with a new lover, I stepped forward into the water, drawing my breath in anticipation.

Inch by inch, I lowered myself into the emerald lake, sliding my feet down the gradual granite, the water creeping up my thighs. My hands slid from across my chest and into the water, forming circles at my sides with my palms, then wrists, then forearms. I shook my head and shuddered at the cold, biting my lip and breathing deeply through my nose as I took another step down. Ahead, the dark waters beckoned, the cliffs diving deep and reflecting in the rippling lake. With another step, I drew my breath in hard, and it seemed as if I would scream from the cold. I raised my hands to my face and hair, carrying the chill and joy, and I smiled and laughed out loud. With a final rush of air into my lungs, I plunged into the deep waters, kicking hard into the middle of the lake and surfacing with a whoop of joy, of pain, of cold, and of love. I was embraced by Precipice Lake, surrounded by rock and grass and snow, the cold breaching the very core of me and releasing a warmth I had never known.

With strong strokes, I reached the slabs once more, and reached out with my toes for purchase. My hands gently brushed the water from my face, and, my incredible body standing tall and strong on the shore, I wrung the water from my hair. My breathing was still quick from the rush of the cold, and I crouched to the slabs, lying supine to absorb the warmth of the afternoon sun and the rock underneath me. I may have slept for a few moments, but I was aware of the light breeze caressing my skin and nothing else. When I opened my eyes, I thought for a moment that I was in the Ansel Adams photograph from 1932: all color had been drained and I was left with the most simplistic way of viewing the world.

I rose from the granite to turn over onto my belly, pressing onto my knees and arms, and was greeted with the water stain of my body on the rock. Below me was the shadow of beauty: broad shoulders and hips, a narrow waist. Runnells from where my arms rested connected the two, my hair released drips along with tears that I had not expected. How had I never seen this? I lowered myself to the warmth of the slabs, my arms outreaching to embrace the heat. The sun crept ever closer to its western horizon, and the waters calmed. I could feel my hair drying in the afternoon sun, wisps gently tickling my cheek.

Decked in my evening fleece, I crouched among the rocks to watch the sunset. My curvy water stain had long since evaporated, but my perch at the outlet provided me with a perfect view of the still waters reflecting the cliffs above. Quietly, the light set the rocks afire, sliced by the angle of shadow from the ridge dancing up to Eagle Scout Peak above. Over the small flame of my stove that night, I watched the last light sparkled on tiny puffs of cloud above Valhalla, tucked the fluff of my bag up and under my chin to stay warm against the night’s chill.

I slept soundly.

Day 4: Confidence (7-25-12)

Posted in Backpacking on October 16, 2012 by moosetracksca

Stepping cautiously off the trail out of Big Arroyo, my eyes scanned the grassy slope for any signs of other snakes. Working diagonally up and across the steep meadow, I jumped onto the broken slabs and edged up and away from the trees. The sun was already warm as I crept through the foxtail pines, crossed the seeps and small creek meandering at the first bench. A quick hop up the boulders brought me to a deep blue tarn, its waters calm and reflecting the walls all around. Finding a flat spot, I dunked my bottle into the water, then sat back to admire the face above.

The southwest face of Black Kaweah is nothing less than intimidating. Above the crumbling moraines and talus fields rise the dark, segmented chutes; arêtes and gendarmes standing sharp. In keeping with the theme of the trip, I was just happy to be so close to this peak, to have this moment of gazing at grandeur all to myself. I relaxed, telling myself that anything I accomplished today was enough, accepting that perhaps today was not the day to climb it. The breeze swept across the lake and across my face, tickling my ear with the little hairs I can never seem to tuck under the brim of my hat.

Who was I kidding?

My eyes scoured the slopes to each side of the lake: slabs to the left, moraine and sand to the right. I could see an arcing path leading steeply through the rocks, knew that circling the lake to get to the even sidewalks would take more time. My summit pack loaded, I simply let my feet crawl away from the tarn and the blue-black water shimmering in the breeze. In my pocket, the notes from my book crinkled with each step. Secor had said something about a 100 foot black rock waterfall…

“Wherever you get to, Laura, it’s enough. This day is only about exploring.” I kept looking for the harder scrambles, a nagging in my brain convinced that I had read about how tricky the scrambling was up here. A few loose rocks echoed against the dark and broken walls as they tumbled, despite my best efforts to step cautiously. Cairns were sparse but perfectly spaced, the small towers doing their best to maintain my focus on the main chute. Only once did I stray, reaching a chockstone and a move I wasn’t sure I could reverse. I squinted at the narrow chute above and retreated, only to find the next small stone pile just above my view from before.

I paused to breathe and look around as the angle lessened, the chute opening to a ramp leading up and right. I shook my head to clear my eyes: was I already topping out? My left hand rode the wall as I stepped up to a small notch, a small gasp catching in my throat at the sheer drop back to the Chagoopa Plateau and south to the rest of the Kaweah Crest. Within a few moves, I was upon the summit, and in awe I simply sat upon the blocks to stare at the whole of the Sierra at my feet.

To the north, lines of simple clouds swept across bluebird skies, and my eyes were drawn to the Great Western Divide rippling north towards Bubbs Creek. Darker slopes covered in trees rolled to the west, and a faint darkening on the horizon gave away the coastal range. To the east, my high Sierra was the golden crest of the building wave of mountains, its rocks set to pour into the Owens Valley.

The tears came, welling up from deep inside my heart. Sobs born of fear and frustration, of regret of letting myself go for a year and losing all I had worked so hard to gain. In the thin air of the summit, I purged all the anger and self-loathing, threw it out into the wind and allowed myself to revel in the wonderful thing that is my body: my big, strong legs carrying me across the scree and talus, up the faces; my eyes to search the route for the safest path; my arms to help the balance and hold the rock as my feet found purchase. Everything had worked in concert to bring me to the sacred ground, this thin place.

In gratitude and happiness, I pulled in the deepest breath I could manage, cupped my hands to my mouth, and sounded a long call across the Sierra. The echo reverberated down the canyons, bounded across the peaks. My arms overhead, I laughed out loud.

This was the woman for whom I had been searching, who made herself known on Mt. Huxley a few weeks before.

 

The fire had been lit.

 

Day 3: Fear (7-24-12)

Posted in Backpacking on October 10, 2012 by moosetracksca

My pack is a never-ending source of amazement for a lot of people. It’s not only the size, but how well I pack it up, then show people how to clean and jerk the Beast onto my leg and then over my shoulders. My neighbors this morning were no different, the woman laughing as she attempted to even get the pack off the ground. Most think I enjoy lugging around a few anvils, but, in truth, I was already thinking that I should have paid for a resupply on the west side instead of trying to remain self-contained for two whole weeks. Before the sun crested the eastern rim of the Kern Canyon, I waved goodbye and bounced down the trail once more, looking for my next junction to start my climb up to the Chagoopa Plateau.

I swung through the gate above the river, choosing the steeper up path and turning west once more. Shallow switchers crawled up the western wall, the canyon broadening to the south and fading into forest. I kept my eyes peeled for movement, knowing the warmth was bringing out more and more critters of the slithery persuasion, searching for a sunny basking spot often in the middle of the trail. I paused at Funston Creek, glancing under a log to make sure I wasn’t disturbing anyone’s nap, then guzzling the cold water and munching away at the day’s snacks. A few flowers brought their blaze of color to an otherwise dry and not-so-recently burned area, green leaves dull and limp from lack of water.

A trail crew bustled about a half mile ahead and off the trail, I suppose breaking rocks for replacement steps or filler as the path wound through the young, rebuilding forest. I remembered this place so well from before: the trees at that time had looked like simple, needled ground cover. I never imagined so many would survive and thrive, now mostly up to six feet tall and never more than a foot apart from one another. Crowning a rise, Sky Parlor Meadow opened to the west, and my views finally included Big Kaweah and the peaks bordering the western edge of the Big Arroyo. Knowing I had reached my first hurdle of the day – climbing out of the Kern – I laughed out loud and practically skipped past the trail sign marking the turn to Moraine Lake. I had but a mile to go for the whole day, and it was only early afternoon, plenty of time to swim in the relatively warm waters of Moraine Lake.

The buzz was sudden, and unmistakable, despite my only ever having heard it a few times before. With almost sixty pounds on my back, I literally jumped off the trail to my right, spinning in midair and running back a few steps before I spotted the huge snake off to the left of the trail. Whimpering, I slowly moved back and right, and watched as the big animal raised the front half of its body as it slithered in the opposite direction. Horrified it might coil, I finally stood still and held my breath, willing myself to stop shaking out of terror. These rattlers are my worst nightmare, for some reason scaring me more than any exposure on a tall peak. And here I was, alone, the trail crew probably out of earshot (although I can get a bit of volume when necessary), and this creature was… OK, it was moving away at this point, it’s ten-rattle tail raised behind it like a wagging finger saying, “Now, now: I want to be left alone.” I managed to snap a few shots as the monster retreated across the open ground towards the tightly grouped pines to the east.

Fuck. Fuck. Arms rigid at my sides, I couldn’t slow my breathing through clenched teeth as I started to walk around the meadow. The fact that the trail was mostly overgrown with tall grass did not especially inspire confidence, either. I whacked at the grass and stomped viciously, thinking any other snakes might feel the mini-earthquakes and would vacate immediately. I tried to stop and enjoy the huge meadow, the reddish hued Big Kaweah rising tall overhead and the Whitney Crest glowing gold in the distance. I sped through open spaces, then slowed to crash through the grasses again, trying to reach Moraine Lake without further incident.

Never mind the buzz: the hiss is something I’d never heard in person until that moment. I passed a big tree near the final stretch into the lake when this snake decided I didn’t even warrant a warning rattle. As I slowly turned and backed away again, I spotted the red giant relaxed at the base, its head pulled into a strike position and its body slowly moving together. A whole new set of whimpers burst forth from my throat, already raw and tight from the last ¾ of a mile. I shakily took a few steps back and watched the rattler turn south through the trees, allowing me a few pictures of its huge, almost five feet of length. It wanted nothing to do with me, but the fear had been instilled, and it was all I could do to keep moving. A hundred yards later, I met up with three men and a boy headed the opposite direction. In warning, I pulled out the cameras and shared my pictures of the snakes. “I told you guys we had to keep our eyes peeled here,” said one.

Moraine Lake offered no comfort for me, knowing that two large snakes were in the vicinity. Like other animals, I probably would never see them again, but my brain would not rest out of fear. I rested only briefly in the camp area before making the decision to put as much space between me and those creatures before nightfall. Big Arroyo was only seven miles and 1300 vertical feet away, and that might just be enough to allow me to sleep that night.

I slowed on the climb out of Moraine Lake, at times struggling or stumbling over the blocks and rocks, leaning onto the boulders to regain my breath. I was emotionally spent, but each step up was a step away from the fear. I recalled the grand overlooks into the Big Arroyo and south to Mineral King, and stopped at each one to try and rest, eat, and shoot pictures in an effort to calm my rattled nerves. Fine dust poofed with each step as I descended from the high point of the plateau and into the upper junction of Big Arroyo. Quiet grottos of pines and ferns and flowers replaced the dry duff and rock of Chagoopa. I swung in behind the old cabin, claiming a flat campsite near Big Arroyo Creek. I scrubbed the remaining fear out of me in the cold water, shivering after the sun tucked in behind Lippincott Mountain.

I doubt the other campers there that night ever knew just how happy I was to have someone nearby.

Day 2: A New Name (7-23-12)

Posted in Backpacking on October 10, 2012 by moosetracksca

I popped the valve on my mattress as a signal to get my butt out of bed. Beyond the tent door, steel grey clouds billowed and the ground was cool and wet from the previous day’s storming. I stretched, aching muscles and tight shoulders complaining after the opening round of miles and elevation. Huddled over my stove, I slowly munched my first round of Grape nuts and blueberries, efficiently breaking camp while keeping everything as dry as possible. I stood over the Beast, arms akimbo, and breathed out through puffed cheeks. With one eye on the sky, I heaved to, cocking the Beast on my thigh before swinging it across my shoulders and cinching the waist strap. My legs felt solid beneath me as I crossed the logjam over the miniscule creek. I dug the poles into the dirt of the trail to start the day.

As it would for much of the beginning of the trip, my thoughts drifted back to my last trek in this direction. I slowed on the quick up-ticks of the trail, knowing my pace, breathing the moisture-laden air deeply. My legs and lungs didn’t quite groan as much this time around. Descending into Wallace Creek, the clouds hovered up near Mt. Tyndall, and I couldn’t quite tell if the breeze was blowing fresh rain or residuals from the pine needles. While resting at the junction, a green uniform and big pack caught my eye as Laura made her rounds of the campsites. We hugged and laughed hello, spoke of adventures ahead and offering plans to each other for the future. With a wave, she crossed the creek to get back to work while I strode on down the northern side of Wallace Creek, dropping slowly to the great Kern Canyon.

Darkening clouds gathered and spread before me, waves capturing the peaks in all directions. As I traversed high above the river, I could see the wall of rain advancing north in the big ditch. A bear cub dashed across open rock above Junction Meadow, and I paused to both throw on my jacket in time for the squall and look around for its mother. The open forest of yellow pines swallowed the trail, and I dropped my pack heavily in the site where I had slept back then. Another tall, solo woman soon joined me under the trees, and we spoke of the storms rolling through. Lauren was a PA in Oakland, and she seemed as pleased as I to meet another strong woman on the trail. She had seen me yesterday, rolling hard to get down from Trail Crest as she had ascended, and said she couldn’t get my color scheme, or our greeting as we passed, and my smile out of her head. “Do you have a trail name?” she asked after a few minutes more. “Well, I’ve been known as MooseTracks for the past five years or so,” my reply.

“Doesn’t suit you,” she said with a shrug and furrowed brow. “I hope you don’t mind, but I have another name for you.”

I cocked my head to one side. This ought to be good, I thought.

“Heart of Sequoia,” Lauren said, matter-of-factly.

I sat back for a moment, stunned, then misty. I always give my friends nicknames, some way of telling all the same names apart. But this was more than just a simple nickname. I didn’t know what to say, how to react, other than to smile humbly and hug my new acquaintance. We loaded up again, waving one last time as she headed up to Colby Pass and I turned south to follow the Kern. Breathing deeply, a cool breeze followed the day’s storms, and I positively floated up and down the gentle undulations of the trail.

In late afternoon, I finally reached the Kern Hot Spring and set up camp above the small groups already there. All had already taken their turn in the tub, so I eased into the hot water to soak my sore shoulders and listen to the river. With a deep sigh, I watched the shadows creep across the narrow canyon and up the opposite wall, knowing I would sleep well that night.

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