Arlo, Marshall and David spend a week backpacking in the High Sierra west of Bishop, California.
I took my first backpack trip at age thirteen while attending summer camp in the foothills of California's Sierra Nevada. Since that time I've been on many backcountry trips, often leading kids on their first-ever journeys into the wilderness. This time around Arlo, Marshall and I decide on a week-long trip to Humphreys Basin, an expansive alpine area due west of Bishop, CA. There are numerous lakes and peaks, and plenty of opportunities to explore off the trail - I'm excited as it has been some time since I've planned a backcountry adventure like this one.
Hurricane Katrina slams into the Gulf Coast right at the end of this trip; I'll include snippets concerning that event as a sideline to this story.
I leave Santa Rosa a few days in advance of meeting up with Arlo and Marshall. I like to camp out in solitude and I use this time to release the worries and stress of my professional life, all the while soaking up the quiet beauty of the natural world. I start by driving my Tundra over the Sierra on Hwy 50, then head south on Hwy 395. The day is nice and sunny, with a little cloud cover thrown in to make things interesting. I stop at Conway Summit and snap a few pictures of Mono Lake, then head down to the Mono Craters where I make camp for the evening. I find a secluded spot and other than a few Jeeps trying the 4x4 trail nearby, I have the evening to myself. I take a short hike up the side of the nearest hill; gravity proves harder to surmount than I wish, especially since the volcanic talus is a two-steps-forward-one-step-back activity.
Self portrait at Mono Craters; Sierra in the background.
The Thursday morning sun sees me drive down Hwy 395 towards Bishop, skirting along the east side of the Sierra. The mountains stand up to my right, peaks reaching into the sky, fueling my excitement for the backpacking trip to come.
Mt. Tom (13,652'), from Hwy 395 north of Bishop.
Upon arriving in Bishop I pick up a few items at Vons, then drive west on CA 168, climbing up into the Sierra along Bishop Creek. I make camp at North Lake, home of the Paiute Pass trailhead and our route to Humphreys Basin. After setting up camp, I hike to Upper and Lower Lamarck Lakes. The day is beautiful; my eyes drink in green pines, azure lakes, and salt and pepper granite. I plan on spending as much time as I can hiking and sleeping at elevation, hoping it will help me adjust, and give me a little more energy for climbing up the trail to 11,200 ft. Paiute Pass with a full pack on. Fingers crossed.
Pauite Crags from the Paiute Pass Trail; jagged and loose.
Wildflowers; Lower Lamarck Lake behind.
Looking north across Upper Lamarck Lake.
The next day I hike up to Paiute Pass and explore nearby areas, including a couple approaches to Mt. Emerson, a 13,000 foot peak immediately to the north of the pass. Mt. Emerson has a Class IV route (no ropes "needed") up its west face and I'm interested to take a peek at the approach. It's not like I'm an active mountaineer these days, but the allure of climbing high peaks still remains strong. Many high Sierran peaks have low risk scrambling type routes to their summits, perhaps we'll climb one on this trip...
I make it up to the pass at 11,200' fairly quickly and enjoy the workout in the crisp morning air. It's beautiful out and I enjoy myself greatly. The trail up to the pass climbs almost 2000' feet, I wonder what it'll feel like carrying a backpack full of stuff...
Yesterday I went right; today it's up to the pass.
The west face of Mt. Emerson (13,325'); there's a Class IV route over there somewhere...
Mt. Humphreys dominates this area and offers impressive and steep faces to anyone who intent on reaching the summit. There's a Class IV route on this mountain as well, but given the challenging nature of the climb, it is doubtful that Arlo and Marshall and I will do more that appreciate the mountain's impact on our view. Even though ropes are not technically "required" there are several steep spots near the top where one might fall too far for comfort. Again my history with rock climbing leads me to research routes like this, but I'm really just fantasizing and understand that presently I'm not up to an adventure of this caliber and commitment.
Mt. Humphreys (13,986') from Paiute Pass.
Small un-named lake with Mt. Humphreys in the background; is that an incipient iceberg?
After poking around near the pass for a while, snapping pictures and eating lunch, I trundle back down the trail to my camp at North Lake. Even though it's all downhill, the return trip seems to go on forever. I sleep especially well this night.
I drive down to Bishop's airport to meet up with Arlo and Marshall, waiting only a few minutes before spotting Arlo's GlaStar coming in on its final approach. He and Marshall spend 90 minutes to get here from Watsonville; compare that to my 8 hour drive. We load the their gear in the truck and head over to Von's Supermarket to pick up the last of our food.
The GlaStar arrives at Bishop.
Marshall (left, behind) and Arlo.
After we escape the supermarket (whew), we head up CA 168 to North Lake, leaving civilization behind us for a while (yahoo!). We spend the afternoon and evening messing about with our gear, consolidating and packing food, and discussing the itinerary for our coming adventure. Arlo brings his camera and shoots many photos of our trip. His eye for pictures is well developed and the shots I like best are usually his. Marshall also snaps a few pics here and there, some of which you will see here. Many thanks to both you guys!
Our itinerary calls for seven or eight days on the trail; packing is a tradeoff between being prepared and having a light pack. By the time I hit the trail, I end up leaving many items behind to conserve weight. Over and over I ask myself "Do I really need this?". This is also my first time backpacking with bear cans, a park service requirement for bear inhabited areas. A bear can is a tough plastic container that requires human dexterity to open. The can is too large for bears to crush with their jaws, so even though they can smell the food inside, they give up when they realize that they can't get to it. Or so the theory goes; we don't see any bears this trip, so technically we each carried three extra and unnecessary pounds for the entire trip.
The next morning sees us rise early but leave later-ish. The first time I attempt to fit everything into my pack doesn't work and I dump it all out and try again, this time with a few less items. By the time we are each ready to hit the trail, it's getting close to 11am. All our packs are heavy, each weighing in at well over 50 lbs. We take a couple pictures, park the truck in the overflow parking lot, and start on up the trail to Paiute Pass.
Arlo is ready; notice David messing with his pack in the background? (Photo: Marshall Krase)
A note about three 40 something guys on a backpacking trip: we are each nursing an injury or infirmity. Marshall sprained his ankle a few months ago and it still bugs him a little. Arlo's knee is giving him a small amount of grief. And I'm wearing a splint on two broken fingers. So, it's no real surprise that we quickly dub ourselves "Geezers on the Trail" and make up song lyrics, set to the Doors' "Riders on the Storm".
Geezers on the trail
Don't know when they'll fail
Geezers on the trail
Finger, ankle, knee
What a sight to see
Geezers on the trail
As we work our way up the long hike to Paiute Pass, it feels like my "conditioning program" hasn't had much effect. It is difficult going; I huff and puff up the steeper sections of trail.
Lunch stop at Paiute Lake; salami, cheddar, and crackers. (Photo: Arlo Reeves)
Marshall pumping the water filter for the first time; by the end of the trip we are each well acquainted with this process.
After lunch, I find my lowest gear and, putting one foot in front of the other, step my way up the trail. We stop a few times for a gulp of water, or nibble on an energy bar, and sure enough we make it to the top of the pass. Humphreys Basin spreads out to our west, blue lakes set in gray granite, low lying shrubs and grasses dotting the bleak landscape. We are above tree line, and the scrubbed glacial terrain testifies to the passing of ancient ice. Several times during the Pleistocene all but the peaks here were buried by sliding ice and the "smoothed over" look of the topography attests to the grinding power of uncounted tons of frozen water. There are still tiny glaciers dotting the Sierra here and there, shrinking remnants of prior glories.
A snow bank near the top of the pass; suggestion of glaciers past. (Photo: Arlo Reeves)
Looking west at Humphreys Basin from Paiute Pass, Muriel Lake at far left.
We have a somewhat painful last mile to go to before we eventually make camp on a low ridge overlooking Muriel Lake. The scenery is stunning, and even after many hours of slogging away on the trail, we still have the energy to get excited about where we are. Marshall brings out his shot glass and tequila. Arlo produces the limes. We take advantage of both.
Happy to be done with the hiking!
Salute! (Photo: Arlo Reeves)
After cocktails we set about making dinner. Arlo gets his stove fired up and we put on water for the noodle mix. Cooking is a group event, with everyone watching and contributing to the process. And no matter how it turns out, it always tastes great when you've hauled it up the pass yourself.
Dinner in the making; Mt. Humphreys in the background. (Photo: Arlo Reeves)
The next day we move over to a cool campsite right on Muriel Lake. We end this "rest day" with a short hike towards Goethe Lake. Mt. Goethe (13,264') has a Class III scrambler's route to its summit, but we decide to save it for another trip.
I continue to have trouble cramming my gear into my internal frame pack. Everything does fit (I hauled it up here, didn't I?) but unless I pack it just right, I end up with stuff left over and no more room. The pack is basically one big duffle bag that opens at the top, and as you might imagine, the item I want is always at the bottom. Both Arlo and Marshall have external frame packs, the kind with zippered pockets all around the outside. I notice that they don't have to dump everything out each time they need something, the pack functioning like a chest of drawers. I am frequently envious. They are frequently waiting for me to get ready.
The day starts crisp and clear. We take our time with coffee and breakfast, letting the morning sun warm us up while enjoying the stunning scenery. Our campsite is great, with easy sitting rocks and flat tent spots all in close proximity.
Morning light on Muriel Peak (12,608'), Muriel Lake reflects it well.
Morning cuppa joe.
After our leisurely morning, we take a cross country route up by Lost Lakes towards the Keyhole, a slightly sketchy pass to our south. We don't have an aggressive agenda, just a nice hike around the high country without full packs on. After lunch, Marshall and I elect to climb up to the very highest lake, which we find still covered with snow. Everything gets steep from this high point near 12,000', so we head back down, saving the Keyhole for another trip.
Notice the high tech snow gear (Photo: Marshall Krase).
David and Marshall at Lost Lakes; Keyhole is somewhere up on the right side of the rim above Marshall. (Photo: Arlo Reeves)
Marshall breathes easy; Arlo pumps more water.
We eventually head back to Muriel Lake and our camp. Along the way I take a little side trip to one of the lower Lost Lakes and meet up with a marmot, who pops out from behind a rock 15 yards away before vanishing.
Marshall surveys the horizon, Muriel Lake below. (Photo: Arlo Reeves)
Back at camp we hang out, pump more water, and enjoy the rest of the afternoon. We discuss plans for the rest of the trip and decide to head to Knob Lake tomorrow. Diner time comes and we whip up another fine concoction of noodles and pasta sauce. After dinner we hang out by Muriel Lake and enjoy the last of today's sunshine.
Marshall kicks back, David pumps more water. (Photo: Arlo Reeves)
Working on dinner; looks like noodles again...
David and Mt. Humphreys. (Photo: Arlo Reeves)
After dinner glow; so famous we keep our shades on. (Photo: Arlo Reeves)
The next day we break camp and head to Knob Lake. We take a short side trip Desolation Lake, a large and unprotected area where the winds blows pretty hard. The rest of the today's journey is strictly off the trail and frequent map reading is helpful in reaching our destination. At Knob Lake we find a spacious campsite overlooking the clear blue water and call it home. I should mention that I brought along a pint of anise flavored liqueur called Sambuca. We've been downing a few shots after dinner and agree that the sweet yet strong drink invigorates the palate nicely. Cheers.
Marshall takes a sip of water, Desolation Lake in the background. (Photo: Arlo Reeves)
Marshall prepares to down an after dinner cocktail - Sambuca! (Photo: Arlo Reeves)
Today the National Hurricane Center names the 11th storm of the 2005 hurricane season ... Katrina.
The next morning brings clear skies and still air. The surface of Knob Lake is perfectly glassy, reflecting the surrounding mountains with great clarity. I rise early and it feels so clear and perfect that I don't even want to make a sound for fear of breaking the moment. After breakfast, we pack a lunch and begin our ascent of nearby Pilot Knob (12,245'). The east ridge is supposed to be a Class III scramble, probably rock and boulder sized talus, with no real climbing moves or steep cliffs.
First morning at Knob Lake; Marshall and David pump more water. (Photo: Arlo Reeves)
Arlo pauses while ascending Pilot Knob, Mt. Royce in the background to the north.
Marshall looks down at Knob Lake. (Photo: Arlo Reeves)
Due to the high altitude, the climb proves physically challenging, even though we're carrying light daypacks. I am easily winded and every fifteen or twenty steps I need to pause and catch my breath. Geezer on the trail. While the greatest danger is probably nothing more than a turned ankle, we pass by a few near vertical drop-offs and I find my fear of heights unexpectedly rising, eating away at my enjoyment of the climb. I remember from my rock climbing days that being comfortable with heights takes regular practice and it has been many years since I've been high on a mountain. Even so, I continue up the ridge, eventually reaching the top.
Marshall and David working through boulders high up on Pilot Knob. (Photo: Arlo Reeves)
Marshall at the top of Pilot Knob, Mt. Humphreys in the background.
We spend about 45 minutes at the top, drinking in the 360 degree view and taking pictures. My fear of heights eases somewhat and even though I really like it up here, another part of me won't be completely comfortable until we're back down.
Marshall squeezes through a tight spot.
Three intrepid travelers relax. (Photo: Arlo Reeves)
After dinner, I climb into my sleeping bag, my mind filled with images of Pilot Knob and our hike. Something about climbing mountains - no matter how difficult the experience - fuels my desire for another climb. There are many third and fourth class peaks surrounding Humphreys Basin; each one whispers me to sleep, seeding my dreams with granite adventures.
Katrina comes ashore tonight as a Category 1 storm, hitting the Florida coast just south of Ft. Lauderdale and brings 80 mph winds and 12 inches of rain.
This is our last full day in the high country. We elect to take it easy and poke around Knob Lake, looking under rocks, jumping in the very cold water, and cooling our heels by a small un-named lake in what we come to call The Garden. It's a magical day, with little wind and a nice warm sun. Our conversations range far and wide and we solve the world's problems many times over. Everything is much so simpler in nature.
Marshall at The Garden. (Photo: Arlo Reeves)
The Garden's lake at the left, Knob Lake on the right, Pilot Knob in the background.
David hangs ten at the Garden. (Photo: Arlo Reeves)
Arlo and Marshal workin' up a sweat!
Marshall's water bottle received many admiring looks.
Today Hurricane Katrina crosses the Florida Peninisula and quickly gains strength over the Gulf of Mexico. The storm grows swiftly, with sustained winds topping out at 100 mph. By the end of the day the storm is less than 500 miles from the Gulf Coast.
Today we hike east to Paiute Pass, then down to the trailhead at North Lake. Our packs are considerably lighter than at the beginning of our trip, yet this will also be our longest day on the trail, and the first few miles are uphill to boot. I'm thinking about a shower, a nice motel bed, and a restaurant dinner. After one last trip to Knob Lake to pump more water, we shoulder our packs and start hiking. We pass by a few new lakes, including Tomahawk Lake. My camera's memory card fills up this morning, and given the awesome nature of the trip, my backcountry soul fills up too.
Pumping water at Knob Lake for the last time. (Photo: Arlo Reeves)
Marshall and David discuss our cross-country route. (Photo: Arlo Reeves)
Glacial polish - thousands of tons of ice scraped this rock. (Photo: Arlo Reeves)
Indian Paintbrush and Tomahawk Lake. (Photo: Arlo Reeves)
Stopping for lunch on the descent from Paiute Pass; Marshall's feet look pretty good for all the miles they've covered. (Photo: Arlo Reeves)
Larry, Curley, and Moe; returned from the backcountry. (Photo: Arlo Reeves)
We pile into the truck and drive down to Bishop where we find a motel, showers, and a sit down dinner. Marshall orders liver and onions, Arlo and I try not to wince. Even though I am happy for the comforts of civilization, I already miss the beauty and simplicity Humphreys Basin.
By Saturday night, Hurricane Katrina's winds reach 115 mph and the storm's circulation covers the entire Gulf of Mexico.
After a nice breakfast in Bishop, I take Arlo and Marshall back to the airport, where I watch the GlaStar lift them up and over the Sierra that we so laboriously traversed just yesterday. Every journey is composed of smaller journeys, each lending a different perspective and pace to the overall trip. I jump back into the Tundra and begin my highway journey home. Looking back from 2009, this trip feels like a great success. No accidents, no geezer injuries, no bears eating our food, and we never got lost. Writing this account has been a blessing, allowing me to return one more time to Humphreys Basin and enjoy life-long friendships amidst granite peaks and sparkling blue lakes.
By the time I get back to Santa Rosa, Hurricane Katrina becomes one of the most powerful storms ever to form over the Atlantic, barreling down on New Orleans with 175 mph winds and 40 foot waves. Over the next few days Katrina thrashes everything in its path, leaving changed lives and tremendous physical destruction in its wake. My stepson Jason evacuates from Gulfport to a motel in Alabama. His home, only 15 blocks from the ocean, loses a porch and suffers some roof damage, but remains intact. When Brenda and I visit Jason two years later, many of the roofs in his neighborhood still have blue tarps and there are boarded up properties all over. Returning from out backpacking trip and learning about Katrina is somewhat startling to me; the wilderness feels so nurturing that it's hard to imagine that the "real world" still goes on, disasters included.