Sierra backcountry adventure: Leavitt to Kennedy Meadows 2013 (Part II)

This entry continues the travelogue of my 2013 journey through the Sierra backcountry with my buddies Eric and Bill…The previous entry left off at the midpoint between Cinko Lake and Middle Emigrant Lake…The rest of the journey unfolds below.

Day 3: Cinko Lake to Middle Emigrant Lake (cont’d)

Elevation profile from Cinko Lake to Middle Emigrant Lake

Elevation profile from Cinko Lake to Middle Emigrant Lake (View Garmin GPS data)

The path to Middle Emigrant Lake was a half-mile slog through a muddy bog…For me and Bill it was no problem, but Eric had a tough time with his light-weight hiking boots (aka tennis shoes). Once we made it through the bog, we found a good spot and dropped our packs at a provisional camp site, explored the nearby area, had a spot of lunch, then split forces to explore other possible sites further away. Eric went right around the lake, while Bill and I went left, the plan being to join up back at our lunch site and decide the path forward. This whole divide and conquer plan was predicated on a specific calculus for camping sites:

  • Minimize mosquitoes
  • Optimize wind (windy enough to deter mozzies, but not too windy)
  • Be close to water
  • Offer proximity to the trail
  • Have adequate tent sites
  • Provide a good kitchen

Bill and I hiked along the Southern Edge of Middle Emigrant Lake, heading up along a small ridge…It was a steep climb; we found one possible camp site, but continued on until we reached the edge of the lake. At that point, we discovered a small dam (complete with a well) that had been erected to divert the lake’s flow. We hopped across several rocks near the dam, then made our way towards the natural outlet of Middle Emigrant. Once we crossed, we found several sites that looked prime for camping. After scouting for 15 minutes or so, we saw Eric approaching along the lake and waited for his arrival. A quick conference ensued, and we decided to head back to grab our gear then return to what we had dubbed Tyrol Vista (the site at the outlet of Middle Emigrant Lake).

Bill takes in the view

Bill takes a break near Middle Emigrant Lake dam

Tyrol Vista proved to be just that…A beautiful site, with views across the mountains, but with a bit of a chill that you might find in the Alps. As it turned out, on this day, there appeared to be a fire burning somewhere to the West, which led to smoke over our vista. Instead of obscuring the view, the smoke actually fueled some beautiful and rich colors at sunset. It was a fine backdrop for our dinner…In fact, I couldn’t think of anything that could be better.

Smoky sunset

A smoky sunset over Middle Emigrant Lake

Given that Tyrol Vista was technically in Emigrant Wilderness and above 9000′, we were prevented from building a camp fire. Aside from losing the general fun of building fires, this also meant we lost a key source of warmth. What this meant for me was an abbreviated night, given that I generally get cold more easily than my camping buddies. The wind picked up, the sun disappeared, the temperature dropped like a rock, and I jumped into my sleeping bag while Bill and Eric kept gabbing in the kitchen. I caught up on my daily journal, then headed to sleep.

Stats for the day:

  • Time on trail: 4+ hours (not including scouting)
  • Elevation change: +700′ then -400′
  • Distance: ~9 miles (including scouting for sites at the lake)

Day 4: Middle Emigrant Lake to Relief Reservoir


Elevation profile from Middle Emigrant Lake to Relief Reservoir (View Garmin GPS data

The day started at 6:30am, as it had the day before. It was cold as I woke (maybe mid- to high-30s), but once I felt the rays of the morning sun, the day started looking up. Breakfast this morning was Backpacker’s Pantry Huevos Rancheros, which I’ll skip in the future (again, too much of a PITA to cook). Given that we had a potentially long day ahead of us, we packed up as quickly as we could and broke camp by 8:20am.

The trail leading away from Middle Emigrant Lake towards Emigrant Lake disappeared fairly quickly, and we were left to our own devices. We wound our way through a small meadow, criss-crossed with the outlet from Middle Emigrant Lake, until we reached a point where another water crossing had to be made. Fortunately, we’d all been through this drill a few times before on this trip, so what was one more water crossing, right?


rPm makes the water crossing near Middle Emigrant Lake

We lost the trail briefly again after this water crossing, but eventually found our way down to Emigrant Lake, which was blanketed with whitecaps as the wind whipped across the valley. Another water crossing followed, and then we reached the trail junction to Mosquito Pass. At this point, we weren’t sure whether or not Emigrant Lake could be a camping destination, so we dropped our packs and set off to explore. A brief foray along the Northern shore revealed a few sites that were potentially good, but they all had signs restricting camping…After a 30-minute detour, we ultimately decided to make the long trek. We would cross over Mosquito Pass and make our way to Relief Reservoir. I knew it would be a hard trek, but reality proved a far harsher mistress…

The ascent out of Emigrant Lake was actually fairly short, and once complete, we were greeted by an absolutely beautiful meadow that extended into the distance, offering us a glimpse of Mosquito Pass.

Mosquito Pass meadow

Meadow vista on the way to Mosquito Pass

The trek through this meadow, and up and over Mosquito Pass, proved to be one of the best surprises of our journey. Given its moniker, we had expected Mosquito Pass to be a bug-infested hell hole. We didn’t see a single mosquito….Instead, we were greeted by majestic vistas, a beautiful valley, and a graceful crossing over to the West side of the Sierra.

Mosquito Pass

Mosquito Pass vista

Taking it all in...

Bill takes in the view

After a quick lunch just below Mosquito Pass, we made yet another water crossing, then headed downhill to Relief Reservoir. Downhill is the operative word here…Other than a brief ascent after dropping out of Mosquito Pass, it was pretty much ALL downhill to Relief Reservoir (about 1200′ actually). While on the face of it, this might seem like a good thing, in reality, it can be a bear. The descent was punishing for me.

The descent begins

Eric and I get ready for the descent

Yet we trudged on. And on. And on. The downhill trail was actually a bit treacherous, given the mix of loose rock, running water, and generally uneven terrain. I kept having to stop to catch my breath, while Bill and Eric just kept plunging along. After what seemed like a downhill eternity, and with a few damaged toes as a result of the descent, we reached our destination: Relief Reservoir. Camp sites on the reservoir are actually a bit off trail, which meant we had to break through the woods to find our camping spot. Fortunately, Bill knew roughly where we were headed, so all I had to do was follow. Eventually, we reached a beautiful site overlooking the reservoir.

Relief Reservoir

Relief Reservoir vista

As breathtaking as this site was, the lack of tent spots was a problem, coupled with the fact that previous campers had left garbage strewn around the site. And so, as we seemed to do at every location, we dropped our packs and went in search of a better venue. Ultimately, we found our spot. It was a small, flat area above a small beach in the reservoir. It offered good tent sites, a kitchen, and a nice little fire ring. After what seemed like an interminable day on the trail, we dropped our packs and rested before dinner.

I'm tired

Eric grabs a little rest before dinner

Dinner was another Shepherd’s Stew, along with Black Bean Chili Pie (supplemented with some beef). After a long day on the trail, I could have eaten Rat Stew and Boiled Bog Moss and been happy. Once dinner was done, we built a small fire, although wood scavenging proved to be quite difficult. Despite that, we managed a medium-sized blaze, and enjoyed our last night out on the trail.

Relief campfire

Bill and Eric ponder our last day on the trail

Stats for the day:

  • Time on trail: 8+ hours (not including scouting)
  • Elevation change: +600′ then -1800′
  • Distance: ~14 miles (though it felt like more)

Day 5: Relief Reservoir to Kennedy Meadows


Elevation profile from Relief Reservoir to Kennedy Meadows (View Garmin GPS data

And so it came down to our last day. We rose early (as usual), had breakfast, broke camp, and hit the trail as quickly as we could. After a short uphill to a nice vista, it was all downhill to Kennedy Meadows. Despite our grueling previous day, we all felt pretty strong as we headed out; maybe our steps were lifted by the fact that we were heading home. The descent to Kennedy Meadows provided a few highlights, the first of which was all the abandoned equipment that had been used to build the dam at Relief Reservoir in the late 1800s (e.g., heat exchangers and winches). Once we’d made it most of the way down, we encountered a sole hiker with his dog, a man in his mid-60s by the look of it. We talked trails, weather, and fishing, then continued on our separate ways. It was a brief conversation, but renewed our faith in the fact that other people enjoyed and respected the wilderness as much as we did.

Ready to head home

Bill and Eric above Relief Reservoir

The final leg of our journey was mostly flat, following the road through Kennedy Meadows to the lodges. Once we arrived, we stopped for brunch and savored every bite, then picked up a few wilderness guides at the local country store. Once we packed our gear into Eric’s car, we headed back over Sonora Pass to pick up Bill’s car at Leavitt Meadows. As Bill had predicted, his battery was dead, but after letting it charge from Eric’s car for a few minutes, we were able to get it started and begin our drive home. And so ended another camping expedition in the Sierra.

Stats for the day:

  • Time on trail: ~2.5 hours
  • Elevation change: +300′ then -1300′
  • Distance: ~4.5 miles

Final thoughts

When I got home, bruised and tired and definitely the worse for wear, Elaine asked me why I go on these adventures, given the toll they seem to take. It’s an important question, and I didn’t have a ready answer. It took me a few days (or longer), but here’s what I came up with:

  • Survival: Very, very few people in the modern Western world have to worry about their survival. Food and shelter are pretty much universally available, which means that most of us don’t have to think about dying on any given day. When you’re out in the wilderness, you get much closer to that survival line. Living closer to that line makes life more precious, more tenuous, more real; it also heightens your awareness of your surroundings. All of these things are good, in my opinion…Most of us live very comfortable, complacent existences, and it’s good to get a wake-up call every once in awhile. There’s nothing like the real possibility of being attacked by a bear to make you value your life.
  • Camraderie: I would never do one of these trips without my buddies. Aside from the added safety of having experienced companions, the shared experience is nearly unparalleled. Not only does it provide endless fodder for future discussions, but it builds a deep sense of trust. I know if I got into a spot of trouble, my buddies would be there for me in a heartbeat, as I would be for them. It’s almost unspoken when you head out onto the trail that everyone has everyone else’s back. I would almost say it’s a given; if you didn’t trust your companions implicitly, under any circumstance, you simply wouldn’t do it. In the real world, that’s just not the case…sadly.
  • Nature: I love nature. Who doesn’t? But how many people really experience it? I think the only way to really immerse yourself in a natural experience is to remove yourself completely from civilization for an extended period of time. Backcountry backpacking is one clear way to achieve this end, and I think it leads to the best possible result. After a few days on the trail, you forget about your email and your deadlines and your work and all the bullsh*t of modern life…You just think about what’s in front of you. Now. Here. In this moment. You want a true Zen experience? Try carrying 40-lbs up a mountain…Pretty soon, you’ll only be thinking about the next step in front of you.
  • Appreciation: It follows from everything I’ve stated above, but an essential outcome of a backcountry camping experience, at least for me, is appreciation. I look at everything I have in a different light. Suddenly, it doesn’t seem so routine, so given. It seems like a gift. It seems magical. And at the end of the day, isn’t it?

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