I’ve decided to trade-in a weekend of booze and grabass for pure, unadulterated nature while on this TDY (read: business trip)… and I intend on continuing this on any future TDYs as well. Not only is it food for the body and soul, but I’m sure it offers Pam some peace of mind while she’s stuck at home with the kids.
After a bit of research, I figured the first destination would be the backyard of Mt. Whitney (the highest mountain in the lower 48 States) in the Inyo National Forest. Backpacker magazine had a little showcase on Honeymoon Lake: a trailed 3,000 ft ascent that ends 6 miles later at a lake. That sounds like a perfect way to cut your teeth and ease youself into mountaineering! Realizing it’s still early April, I started researching the temperatures for where I wanted to go: highs in the 50’s and lows in the 20’s. My thoughts? Well, 50°F over the span of a week should practically negate any chance of running into massive snowed-in trails. By this time, another one of the dudes (my Kiwi buddy Benjo; he’s an outdoors nut, as well) was interested in going too. We were a “Go!”
You see this picture?
It’s from the Lord of the Rings, where they were crossing the tops of those snow-covered mountains on their way to Rohan… I now have a very deep respect for Gandalf and the boys based off of what they went through (of course, I know it’s only a movie).
You see, it all started out easy enough. Grab the gear, hop on the trail and go. I won’t lie though: I was winded after the first ½ mile going uphill. I’m just not used to 7,000 foot air (or lack of). By 1 mile in, I honestly think it took me more effort (in both leg muscles and heart-rate/breathing-rate) to get to where I was than it does to run 6 miles on the flat sea-levelled land! I was sweating my ass off in a short-sleaved shirt… and it was only in the high 40’s!
And then that’s about the time we started seeing snow covering the trail. At first, it was only 6 or so inches deep. Just when I got into my rhythm hauling it uphill, I’d now take a step, sink in 5 inches, slide around a bit, stabilize, take a step with the other foot, slide, break through the crust and sink 5 inches, stabilize, another step… you get the idea. This was pretty tiresome… and wearing breathable running shoes probably wasn’t the big one at this point:
Aside from my feet starting to get cold, the snow seemed manageable. Soon thereafter though, my feet would sink about a foot instead of 5 inches or so. It was getting deeper.
I think it was about this time that we came to a span of about 6 feet long where the trail was washed out by snow… I’m talking about a trail that ceases to exist (probably because it’s halfway down the mountain) and a section of snowy mountain that was on a 50°+ slope downward. Benjo knew what he was doing and started to cross. I played it cool on the outside, but on the inside I was kinda freaking out after I saw little mini-avalanches escape their way down the mountain just from the disturbance my “step, slip, sink, stabilize, step…” sneakers caused in the snow. In my mind, those little balls of snow loosing themselves had the potential to be me! With great care and a mind-over-matter suppression of “fight or flight,” I made it to the other side and continued following Benjo. The snow was still getting deeper, but that I could deal with after the “trail-out landslide crossing” adjusted my continuously-computed tolerance… damned if I was gonna do that again (except for on the way back home, obviously)!
By now, there were patches of snow bank where I would sink through to my knees. At the 2-mile mark, we rounded the corner and the trail was gone (buried in feet upon feet of snow obviously). There was nothing but snow-covered 50°+ pure mountain slope. My heart sank as Benjo trudged on. With my brain using 90% of its power to suppress panic, the remaining 10% was used to place my feet in the foot-holes that Benjo had already made, I dropped my gaze and purely concentrated on my next step… one foot in front of the other. At one point, I couldn’t believe it and, with my inside hand in the snow to ensure stability (oh yeah, with the running shoes also came the absence of gloves), I used my outside hand to pull my iPhone from my pocket and try to capture the slope. Bad idea: panic almost froze me in place. I sat down in the snow… well, it wasn’t much of a sit, more of a stand and lean my butt into a foot or three of powder… while I mentally regrouped.
I continued on in the same fashion: following Benjo’s tracks, very near-sighted, with one foot in front of the other. In some parts, the slope wasn’t as bad… but it was ever-present past the 2-mile point where we rounded the mountain earlier.
We continued making our way up-slope with no “trail” in sight. As we kept pushing onward and upward, I kept sinking more deepward and downward into the snow… to the point where I was waist-deep in some places. With the snow getting deeper and the sun getting lower, Benjo blazed ahead some 500 ft in elevation to see if the terrain got any better; it didn’t.
We turned around and followed our footsteps back across the slopes of the mountain. To be honest, I was content on hiking back down to the bottom and setting up camp there (where there wasn’t any snow), but Benjo suggested a cliff-spot on the mountainside (8,800 ft up) we passed on the way down. I had a sleeping bag rated to 15°F (the Big Agnes Lost Ranger, with accompanying – but sold separately – blow up insulated mattress), and weather said 20°F would be the absolute minimum, so why not? As the sun was setting over the mountain, we pitched camp on the flattest spot we could find along the face.
With all the snow, we had an inexhaustible supply of water. Using Benjo’s alpine stove, we replenished our stock of drinking water and heated some water to rehydrate our dried out meals.
After that, my snow-saturated running shoes were off and my feet (and the rest of me) were in the sleeping bag trying to get warm. By 9pm, I was making a solid attempt to sleep… but keeping my eyes off the stars took my last bit of energy:
It definitely dropped to 20°F that night. I know because I put on my Patagonia Nano-Puff sweater and wrapped my feet in fleece to stay warm in my sleeping bag. Even with that, I probably got about 5 total hours of sleep for the 10-hour period I was in my sleeping bag. Some of it was because I was slightly cold, but some of it was also because I was on a 15% gradient and falling into the bottom of my tent every time I moved. I think next time I’ll invest in a sleeping bag liner to up the statistics on cold-temperature comfort.
I woke up as the sun rose (like I always do)… my running shoes were two blocks of ice. I was dreading putting my feet back in them… but I did, and my dread wasn’t for naught. It shocked me awake.
On the plus side, I saw why Benjo wanted to stay up on the mountain (as opposed to me wanting to go in the valley): look at the view! We definitely wouldn’t have got that down in the valley.
On the way back, I figured out why a good portion of the trail was snowed in: because the sun shines in this area (due to the mountain tops) about 4 hours a day. It never really gets a chance to melt until the summer. As I looked around (now with a more discerning eye), I noticed that snow was absent from most of the mountain that was exposed to sun throughout most of the day. Boy, did we pick the wrong path!
This is the second time I’ve planned a big trip and haven’t reached the destination due to circumstances (the first one here). Despite that, I deem this one a success:
- I learned and gained confidence hopping around like a billy goat up snowy mountainsides. I know there’s much more impressive/intimidating stuff out there, but I’ve never done this before and you need to start somewhere right?
- Unlike Gandalf and the boys, my feet don’t have the barefoot cold-resistance like that of a Hobbit. Need… more… gear…
- This is a first that I’ve done sub-freezing camping. It’s really not that bad as long as your sleeping bag can cope with it. Though getting up at night to pee instilled the fact that I need to invest in a drinking bladder that I can use as a piss-bag.