Day 5: Magic (7-26-12)

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.


4 Responses to “Day 5: Magic (7-26-12)”

  1. Peter Hirst Says:

    I have to wonder whether this comes naturally, spontaneously or it is conscious art. The line of your story, from the curious, intimate encounter with the little lost pika, the vigor of the climb to the false summit an then ESP, and then the combination of the glory of the place and the intimacy of the sensory encounter with the water, the rock, and yourself is an absolutely stunning string of images, and a remarkable piece of writing, Laura. “Heart of Sequoia” is growing ever more apt: thanks for this, and keep it up


  2. The Hedgehog (Doug Forbes) Says:

    Captivating images and feelings, Laura. Kathy and I so enjoy reading your art. Please continue to treat all of us with you visions as time permits….Hope to see you soon – I miss the Sierra and all of my friends…


  3. This is beautiful, Laura. The ending brought tears to my eyes. Thank you for sharing your heart.

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