High Sierra Peaks and Passes

August 4th, 1996

San Francisco – Sunday, August 4, 1996. Yesterday I returned from my 17th (since 1991) Sierra Club National Outing trip into California’s Sierra Nevada range. The excursion was a seven-day, rather challenging backpacking trip headed up by veteran leaders Charles Hardy and Richard Caviness (assistant). Our group of fourteen (11 men and 3 women) hailed from California, Tennessee, New York, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and Colorado. We gathered at the Onion Valley Trailhead in the John Muir Wilderness high above the Owens Valley town of Independence on Saturday evening, July 28th. The overcast skies turned to rain shortly after we’d set up tents and it continued to come down rather steadily until sometime after midnight. However, inside tents and sleeping bags, all were warm and dry.

Sunday morning dawned clear and, at 6:30 a.m., a bit cool. Dana, my passenger from New York, and I joined those gathered in the backpacker’s parking lot for introductions and apportioning of the group commissary (food and cooking gear), and a review of the appropriate Wilderness “do’s and don’ts”. By 9:40 a.m., with Richard leading, we were off on the long climb up to 11,800′ Kearsarge Pass, which we reached by 2:50 p.m. After a short rest and the requisite photo sessions, it was down the other side to the Kearsarge Lakes area in Kings Canyon National Park for a campsite. We had been forewarned by a local Ranger that there was a severe bear problem in that area, for the cute, not-so-little critters love to steal and consume human food. We found space near one of the lakes and made camp around 4:30 p.m. that afternoon. Our food was stored in a nearby “Bear Box” (a very strong metal container), however, the night passed without a bear visit.

Monday morning, following a 6:30 a.m. breakfast, we were on trail by 8:40 a.m. on a cross-country route down past beautiful Bullfrog Lake. There we connected with the John Muir Trail and proceeded south to the junction with the Bubbs Creek Trail at Vidette Meadow, where we encountered several dozen, or so, hungry mosquitoes. Most hurried away from the meadow continuing the journey south and up towards 13,200′ Forester Pass (the highest trail pass in the Sierra). Around 2:30 p.m., the darkly threatening clouds produced strong winds followed by rain and then hail. I was scouting ahead of the main group a half-mile or so and about 500 feet above them. After putting on their rain gear, the main group moved to an area of the trail where they could set up a bit of shelter to wait out the storm. I was not aware that they had stopped, and continued to climb up the trail in search of a good camp site. I found an acceptable spot above the 12,000′ level about the time some rather impressive lightning and thunder added a bit of theatrics to the storm scene. By that time my rain gear was filled with steam from heated body sweat, and I faced the choice of seeking cover and risking certain hypothermia, or staying warm by moving along the trail and the real possibility of an encounter with a bolt of lightning. My decision was an easy one – if it’s my time to buy out, I’d much rather fry than freeze, so I continued to move down the trail. By the time I reached the main group many hundreds of feet below, the storm theatrics had ceased, leaving only a steady rain. At 4:00 p.m. we set up tents and made camp off the trail at an elevation of 11,600′, above the timber line. That night we were visited by two bears. The first managed to grab a large mouthful of our food before being driven off. Later that night, a second bear visitor was confronted by Leader Charles Hardy and it was offered a choice of either his body ….. or nothing. Mr. or Ms. Bear preferred the second choice and left us in peace the rest of the night.

Tuesday, after drying out from the night’s storm, saw us hiking up the trail by 9:30 a.m. We reached the top of Forester Pass by 11:45 a.m., where we stopped – again for rest and the requisite photos. Afterwards it was down a 600′ drop on the other side to a small lake where we had as much of our day’s lunch as Bear Number One had left for us. We continued down the trail until mid-afternoon when we began a cross-country segment destined to lead us over to the Lake South America area. However, with one more climb over a ridge saddle before us, we opted to stop an hour or so short of our goal and instead made camp at 5:00 p.m. Everyone in our party had become quite tired, so we decided to steal a couple of hours from next day’s layover in order to get some badly needed rest.

Wednesday we were hiking by 9:00 a.m., crossing the top of the 12,150′ saddle by 9:45 a.m. and in our layover camp at 11,790′ by 10:30 a.m. While Assistant Leader Richard Caviness and Eben took off to scout the next day’s route, others went for day hikes, swam, fished or just occupied their time resting. Ed, a former Forest Service Ranger, proved to be an adept fisherman, for he hooked several large trout, which

he prepared for us as part of the next morning’s breakfast. That evening Larni, a Trial Lawyer from Boston, and I comprised the cook crew, a task we performed in the open while assaulted by both mosquitoes and rain, in that order! Our main product was tortillas covered with beans and other gas-producing ingredients.

Thursday produced what was perhaps the biggest challenge of our trip – the route over 12,700′ Harrison Pass and down the non-existent trail to East Lake at the 9,720′ level. We reached the pass around 10:30 a.m. and saw that the regular route down the steep scree slope (similar to loose sand) was blocked by an impassable ice/snow wall. Fortunately, Rich Caviness had brought along his climbing gear and he set up a rope and belay so that our group could descend the most difficult portion of a 100′ loose rock chute. Over a five hour period, Rich and his gear assisted 16 backpackers (including a husband and wife team of local college professor geologists, who had asked for our help) down that steep section (four of us rappelled down while others preferred to climb using the rope for safety backup from slips). Afterwards, because of the loose falling rock, individuals were sent out one at a time to descend the next 300′ over the remainder of the steep scree slope. By 4:00 p.m., our entire party had managed to reach a small lake at the 11,600′ level, where we had lunch and a bit of a rest. Unfortunately, Eben, one of our strongest hikers had suffered a freak fall in the snow, slipping in a big sun cup, which caused an ankle sprain. Nurse Lisa (well, she’s not really a nurse, but a darn good substitute), and Doctor Tom – and yes, we really did have a physician amongst us – advised us how to proceed. We split up Eb’s load and, after repeated dunks in cold lake water, the foot received proper bandaging. Afterwards we spent the next three hours trying to negotiate our way down the 4 mile, 3,000′ drop to East Lake. We managed to traverse the mostly cross-country terrain without further incident and made camp around 8:00 p.m. Since we were below the 10,000′ elevation level, the opportunity allowed us the only open fire we were permitted on the whole trip – a most welcome and enjoyable occurrence.

Friday, after a late 7:15 a.m. breakfast, it was back on trail by 9:30 a.m. for our return to the Kearsarge Lakes area. We reached the trail crossing of Bubbs Creek at Junction Meadow by 11:00 a.m. and found that a couple of friendly hikers had rigged a rope across the swiftly moving water and they very kindly allowed all the members in our party to cross using their rope as an assist. The crossing was accomplished safely and without incident. At 1:15 p.m. we reached the Vidette Meadow area where we had lunch; afterwards some took advantage of an opportunity to wade, swim or bathe in a nearby creek. Following lunch, we continued our climb back into the Kearsarge Basin, making camp at 4:30 p.m. on the shore of the lowest of the Kearsarge Lakes (10,770′ elevation), next to an empty Bear Box. The lake was almost warm and practically everyone in the group took the time to swim and/or bathe in its waters. Sometime during the late afternoon, Dana came out of the forest and reported that she’d noticed a bear watching her, and she’d found the experience to be a bit unnerving. Though a search was mounted, the bear was not immediately located. Later it was seen on the periphery of our camp. That night, even though all our food was in the box, we were still visited by one or more bears, but without incident. However, apparently others fared much worse than we, for throughout the night the sounds of howls, whistles, screams, yells and even a gun shot sound coming from the lakes above us, which let us know it was certain that one or more bears were visiting the other areas.

Saturday we were up and on trail before 9:00 a.m. for the final climb back out over Kearsarge Pass and down to the trailhead at Onion Valley. Naturally the top of the pass required a stop for  — more photos, of course! Afterwards it was down the trail at one’s own pace. By 1:00 p.m. the entire group had safely reached the trailhead. We drove down to Independence and had our final meal together within the air-conditioned confines of it’s only eating establishment, the Pine’s Cafe.

This was a particularly enjoyable excursion for me. Our group of hikers were evenly matched in terms of abilities and the different personalities meshed rather well together. Our leaders, Charles Hardy and Richard Caviness are two of the best I’ve had the privilege of hiking with. They both were especially dedicated to insuring our comfort and safety, and proved themselves to be tireless workers whether leading or working with the commissary gear. I can think of no higher praise than to report that both are extremely professional in their conduct, they provided us with an extremely worthwhile and pleasant experience and it is my firm intent to hike with them again at some near, future date

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