Day 6: New Friends (7-27-12)

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.


One Response to “Day 6: New Friends (7-27-12)”

  1. Laura: This segment is especially touching: it is the piece of your route I know the best, as we laid over last year in Valhalla and rested about where you met the mother and son. Just above the E Pass turnoff one of my party bumped up against exhaustion. We rested, sipped and and had some some salty snacks under that same copse of oaks while we recovered and looked over exactly the view you describe: the switches down to the Lone Pine Creek Bridge, and up the inviting drainage to the north. I am at once envious and grateful for being able to vicariously share this trail with you. You made more friends than you knew at the time in this short stretch between PL and the E Pass junction.

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