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High-altitude Heaven (Days 1-2): Mammoth and Mono Pass

Quick on the heels of our mosquito-ridden adventure from Leavitt to Kennedy Meadows, Bill, Eric and I decided to head for Pioneer Basin. It’s a spectacularly beautiful area Bill identified on the Eastern side of the Sierra, one that offers a fast and relatively easy entry to the high country, good fishing, and a number of epic day hikes.

Here’s the quick summary of our adventure:

If you want a little more detail, keep reading. In the entry below and the one that follows, I’ll break down our journey day by day; I’ll also share a few odds and ends from the experience. It’s really one I’ll never forget…Probably the best five-day camping trip I’ve ever done.

Day 0: San Francisco Bay Area to Mammoth

The trailhead at Mosquito Flat (where we’d start our adventure) is a bit above 10,000 ft in elevation. On top of that, the drive from the Bay Area to the Mosquito Flat trailhead is about 6 hours (not including stops). Combine these two facts, and an overnight in Mammoth the day before the trip starts to make a whole lot of sense. It gave us the chance to acclimate a bit (since Mammoth is around 8000 ft), and also meant that we could hit the trailhead early on our first day. An early start was critical, since the initial ascent up to Mono Pass is on an exposed trail with Southeastern exposure; a late start would have put us in the sun, unprotected, for more than two hours. Bill gets really cranky when he gets hot, so the die was easily cast, and we stayed a night in the village in Mammoth.

Bill and I hit the road early, leaving Oakland around 8:00am; Eric planned to meet us in Mammoth later that day. Sadly, the drive in to Mammoth was less than ideal. The Rim Fire had been burning for roughly three weeks, which meant that CA 120 was closed and the entire area north of Yosemite was shrouded in smoke. Bill and I crossed over Sonora Pass via Hwy 108, dropped through Bridgeport, then grabbed a quick lunch at the Whoa Nellie Deli (aka Tioga Gas Mart) in Lee Vining (at the CA 120 / US 395 junction). Visibility was terrible; Mono Lake was nearly hidden from view, save the Western shore. Even so, we had a nice lunch surrounded by some intrepid high-altitude runners who had braved the smoky conditions to run in Yosemite.

After lunch, we blasted down to Mammoth through the high-altitude valley, with no signs of the smoke abating even as we drove south away from the fire. We stopped at the Mammoth ranger station to pick up our backcountry permit (which basically just noted our entry and exit dates and location), then tried to get information from the rangers about conditions down in Pioneer Basin. They couldn’t really say much; about the best we got was, "Well, all this smoke could either blow away or stick around. It all depends on the wind." With that helpful insight, we headed over to Mammoth Mountaineering Supply, where I picked up the 7.5-minute 1:24000 USGS topo for the Mt. Abbot area.

Bill and I tried to check in at The Village Lodge, but our room wasn’t ready, so we decided to head out for a brief drive around the Mammoth. It’s a beautiful area dotted with lakes, surrounded by epic Eastern Sierra peaks. Our little loop drive up Lake Mary Road took us past Twin Lakes (and Tamarack Lodge), Lake Mary (shrug), Lake Marnie (with overlooking Wildyrie Lodge), eerily desolate Horseshoe Lake (see below) and Lake George (a beautiful spot…need to check out Woods Lodge for possible future stays there). Bill and I took a quick hike around Lake George before heading back to The Village, where our room was finally ready. We checked into our fabulous two-bedroom suite, and just as we started to muck with our gear, Eric showed up right on queue.

It was a beautiful, warm, late-summer day, so we decided to make the most of our last few hours of civilized luxury by having a few drinks and snacks outdoors at Gomez’s, followed by dinner at Smokeyard BBQ (both of which weren’t too bad). It was with full bellies, then, that we returned to the room and started the camping trip. For our crew, the first step of every trip is to spend time poring over maps, holding forth authoritatively about places you’ve never been, talking smack about previous trips, optimizing gear, and trying to glean as much as possible from guide books before hitting the trail. With a head full of topographic images and stories from intrepid mountaineers, I tried to go to sleep. I never sleep well the night before a big trip, but I still managed 4-5 hours of fitful rest, filled with plenty of tossing and turning, fueled by anticipation (and maybe a little trepidation about the ascent we would follow the next day).

Day 1: Mosquito Flat to Mud Lake

We woke around 6am the next morning, packed up our gear as best we could, then headed out for breakfast. Fortunately, The Good Life Cafe opens early and serves good food, which meant a hearty, calorie-packed meal to fuel our first day of hiking. A quick drive down 395 brought us to Rock Creek Road, then a 2-mile drive in landed us at Mosquito Flat, our trailhead and entry point into the John Muir Wilderness and our adventure in Pioneer Basin.

As with every trip, we spent about 30 minutes doing last-minute gear optimizations and preparation at the trailhead (which I described a bit for the last trip). (I’ve got a separate post brewing related to gear, where I’ll talk about this stuff in greater detail, so stay tuned; gear is a pretty deep topic.) So, with packs tightened down, water bottles filled, and boots strapped on, we were ready to make our ascent. The conditions were near perfect (clear blue skies, ~60 degrees), and we were all fired up to get up the mountain before it got too hot.

Map geek note: The graphic below is an illustration of the hike we took on the first day; I’ll provide a similar graphic for each day of the trip. Data is collected using a Garmin eTrex 30, which captures real-time data about the precise path we took. When we get back, I use Garmin’s Basecamp software on my Mac, export each Garmin track to a GPX file, which I then import into Google Earth. Perspective is rotated to provide a sense of the terrain (although it can occasionally be tricky to assess, since satellite image data may be slightly out of date). The legend at the bottom of the graphic shows both elevation (pink line, scale at left) and ground speed (blue line, scale at right). Note also that the Garmin GPX file can be imported into Lightroom, which allows me to match GPS data with all of my photos (useful since my Panasonic Lumix LX-5 doesn’t have GPS).

Ok…Enough preamble. Let’s get on with the trip!!

Rock Creek trailhead to Mud Lake

Mosquito Flat trailhead to Mud Lake (Click for full-size image)

  • Garmin GPS data
  • Elevation gain: 2503 ft
  • Elevation loss: 2326 ft (loop trek)
  • Distance: 9.77 mi
  • Max elevation: 12,014 ft (Mono Pass)

Part of the reason I had a tough time sleeping the night before was anticipation of this first day (shown above), which promised to be the hardest. Winnett’s Sierra South guide characterized our planned route as "a tough hike into Pioneer Basin," and given that these books are often prone to understatement, I was a little concerned, even though I’d done some training before the trek. As it turned out, my worries were misplaced, geographically speaking: what I thought was going to be really hard wasn’t too bad, and what I thought wouldn’t be too bad turned out to be really hard. So, on balance, I’d say "tough hike" is a pretty fair assessment.

The trail out of Mosquito Flat follows a relatively straight, slow ascent along the beautiful Little Lakes Valley. After 0.9 miles, we branched right onto the Mono Pass trail, and continued our steady, slow ascent to Ruby Lake (roughly 1 hour of hiking over 2 miles and 900+ feet of elevation gain). Given our early start, the sun wasn’t yet baking the Southeastern slope of Mt. Starr, which was to be our next segment, so we pushed on without much of a break, all feeling pretty strong. The trail out of Ruby Lake steepens significantly and heads into a series of dry, dusty switchbacks heading up towards Mono Pass.

The best thing to counteract a relentless, muscle-burning, sweat-inducing set of switchbacks is a breathtaking view, and the Mono Pass trail didn’t disappoint. It didn’t matter what direction you looked; every view offered it’s own version of the Sierra at her finest. Jagged peaks with near-vertical granite faces, the verdant Little Lakes Valley dotted with dozens of azure oases, the series of 13,000+ ft peaks to the South…Take your pick. I was hot and tired, and my calves were on fire the closer we got to the pass, but none of it mattered.

After 3.5 miles and almost exactly two hours, we reached barren Mono Pass. At slightly over 12,000 ft, we had left treeline behind long ago, hiking amidst sand, boulders, and steep, craggy peaks. The pass itself is a shallow saddle, beyond which lies Summit Lake and an expansive vista of mountains to the North.

As we walked through this gap in the mountains, Eric remarked about the silence, and this is the thing I’ll remember most about Mono Pass: absolute, deafening, dead silence. The air was nearly still, and we were alone as we walked along that desolate stretch of trail in this high-altitude moonscape, wrapped in the grandeur of our surroundings. No birds. No animals. No people. No planes. No wind in non-existent trees, missing bushes or invisible shrubs. No babbling brooks or streams. Nothing. If you think about it for a moment, you’ll realize that living in a city, living just about anywhere, you almost never experience absolute silence. We’re constantly bathed in noise, at the very least the ambient hum of our grids and cars and houses, or the wind through the trees. To have that comforting blanket of noise stripped away is both amazing and a bit unsettling.

Our transit of the pass was brief, and the silence ebbed as we began a long descent towards the valley that holds Mono Creek. A bit past Summit Lake, we dropped our packs and took a brief scouting detour to look down on Golden Lake, then resumed our journey. From this point, the trail follows a small ridge above Needle Lake (mismarked on the USGS topo as Neelle Lake, oddly enough), which offers a startling vista over Pioneer Basin and distant peaks.

And this is where things started to get interesting. The descent to the head of the Mono Creek Valley (where Mono and Golden Creeks intersect) is significantly more challenging than you might think. Exhausting is the word that comes to mind. Through a series of dusty, rocky switchbacks, you lose nearly 1500 ft of elevation over two miles…the lion’s share of what was gained coming up over Mono Pass. The trail is steep and heavily traveled by horse trains carrying people and supplies into the backcountry, which makes for a one-two punch: (1) a heavily rutted, uneven trail and (2) a whole lot of horsesh*t. By the time we reached this point it was around noon, and given the trail’s west-facing orientation, we were baked in the sun for most of the 1.5-hour descent, along with all the dung we had to sidestep on our way down.

Eventually, we reached the Golden Creek junction, and after a quick water break, we continued down the valley to the trail junction that would lead us into Pioneer Basin. The descent had pretty much sapped the strength in my legs, and by the time we reached that junction, I was more than happy to dump my pack, sit down, and have a bite of lunch. We rested for maybe 30 minutes, then donned our packs and pushed on towards the lowest-elevation lake in Pioneer Basin (aptly named Mud Lake).

I’m not sure what it was, but the last push killed me. I had felt pretty strong all day, and had been keeping a solid pace, which may have been my undoing. I might have benefitted from taking it easier on the way up (and down). Whatever it was, I had to do everything I could to keep putting one foot in front of the other over this last set of switchbacks, which led us back up roughly 400 ft over the course of 0.75 miles. Eventually we entered a clearing and spied Mud Lake, what was to be our home for the next three nights. We made our way around the West side of the Lake, and after a bit of searching, discovered a small outcropping above the lake that yielded a spectacular view to the South. We’d found our basecamp, and after scouting for flat spots, we set up our tents and took a bit of a rest; the view from my vestibule was probably the best I’ve ever had.

After a rest that could have lasted another hour, we got moving and set to the task of getting water, which proved more difficult than we’d planned. Running water was very hard to come by at Mud Lake, given the time of year and the fact that we’ve been in a drought. No running water meant scouring the muddy shoreline for a spot deep enough to offer a clear patch of water, which is pretty much the last thing you want to do after hiking all day, but there you go. Once we had enough water to last us through the night and morning, we set up our kitchen and cooked up Backpacker’s Pantry Shepherd’s Potato Stew and Kathmandu Curry (both gluten-free and quite tasty after a long day). With dinner done, we went through our evening rituals (clean up kitchen and dishes, brush teeth, secure gear, switch into warmer clothes), then pulled up on the rock overlooking the lake and watched the glorious sunset (see below and blog header):

As dark enveloped the camp, we sat out on our rock overlook and watched a million stars come out, along with the Milky Way and a smattering of satellites. Talk turned to camping, astronomy, life…you name it. And in between the talk came occasional silences, bringing back echoes from our epic day crossing up and over Mono Pass into Pioneer Basin.

Coming next…

Day 3 of our Pioneer Basin expedition will stay in my memory as one of the best day hikes I’ve ever taken. Stay tuned!

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?

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

The last big camping trip I took with my buddies was in 2005, an outing into Desolation Wilderness that we dubbed Cold Camp (given that we froze our butts off due to unseasonably cold temperatures). After an 8-year hiatus, a backcountry adventure had been long overdue, so when my friend Bill approached me with the idea of heading into the wilderness again, I jumped at the opportunity. What follows is an extended travelogue of our five-day, 44-mile Sierra journey from Leavitt Meadows to Kennedy Meadows in June. For those with an appetite for photos, the full trek is captured in my Flickr photo set for the trip.

Day 1: Leavitt Meadows to Fremont Lake


Elevation profile from Leavitt Meadows to Fremont Lake (distance in miles; View Garmin GPS data)

The first day of any backcountry trek is invariably the hardest, and it proved no different on this trip. We left the Bay Area around 7am, our gear packed into two separate Toyota Land Cruisers. Our first stop was breakfast at the Sportsman Coffee Shop in Twain Harte, a quintessential local diner. With bellies full of carbs and coffee, we gassed up, then headed to the Pine Crest ranger station to check out the situation. We had two different possible trips in mind, and planned to choose which to pursue based on snow and mosquito conditions. Temperatures in the area had been fluctuating in the two weeks prior to our trip, and it looked like the snow had melted to the point where high-elevation passes could be crossed. We’d seen some anecdotal evidence from other hikers that the skeeter situation was potentially grim on the East side in Emigrant Wilderness, so we wanted to check things out.

Sadly, the rangers at Pine Crest proved to be less than helpful. The first guy we talked to (Ranger Barney) basically had no idea about the conditions, and called over the greybeard senior Ranger Andy to give us the lowdown. Ranger Andy thought that mosquitoes would probably be bad on the West side (from Gianelli Cabin up along Burst Rock), and opined that our proposed through trek from East to West sounded like a good plan, though he hadn’t spoken directly with any of the rangers in Bridgeport (who would actually know the conditions on the East side). Based on his shaky-yet-challenging recommendation, we got a backcountry permit for Emigrant Wilderness and headed out on our trek from Leavitt to Kennedy Meadows. In the future, we decided it’s best to call the ranger station at Bridgeport to get accurate information about the Eastern Sierra; the guys on the West side have no clue, and don’t appear to make an effort to stay in touch with their Eastern counterparts.


We dropped Eric’s car at Kennedy Meadows, transferred all his gear to Bill’s car, and headed out for Leavitt Meadows. The drive over Sonora Pass was spectacular as always, and after the ascent and descent, we reached the trailhead at about 12:30pm. What followed at the Leavitt Meadows trailhead parking lot was typical for backcountry adventures: the last-minute gear shuffle.

Camping in the Sierra is always tricky business, especially at the cusp of seasons. Weather conditions can change rapidly, which means if you don’t have the right gear, you can get into a world of hurt (e.g., hypothermia) pretty quickly. It had been warm the two weeks prior to our arrival, but the temperature was dropping quickly, and snow was still in evidence at higher elevations. As if fickle weather weren’t enough, none of us had been on a backcountry trip in awhile, which meant we just weren’t sure about what we’d really need. Living in the comfort of modern convenience, one tends to forget what the absolute essentials are in the backcountry, at altitude, 10-20 miles from the nearest sign of civilization. A camping gear calculus takes hold as you try to balance a few things:

  • The need for warmth and dryness
  • How much you can handle carrying (i.e., pack weight)
  • How much food it will take to survive
  • Non-essential creature comforts (nice to have, but maybe not necessary)

Eventually we converged on what we felt like was the minimal set of gear, then headed out onto the trail. I chose to leave behind a fleece pullover, my hard-sided Nalgene water container (in favor of collapsible canteen), my book, and a bit of food. As it turned out, I didn’t miss any of these things, so I guess I chose well. I could have used the fleece one night when temperatures dipped near freezing, but jumping into my sleeping bag got me through that one cold spot.

Intrepid adventurers

Bill and Eric, ready to hit the trail at last

The trek on Day 1 began at the Leavitt Meadows campground, where we then followed the trail through Leavitt Meadows towards Roosevelt and Lane Lakes. Bill and I had hiked this trail last year, and knew it to be relatively flat and manageable. The only problem on the day we hiked this time was heat…Given that we didn’t get on the trail until 1pm, that meant we were trudging along in roughly 80-degree heat, completely exposed to the sun. While the sun might slow down some hikers, it has the opposite effect on Bill, who usually leads the way. His dislike of heat is only matched by my hatred of rapid elevation gain, which meant he set a breakneck speed in an effort to get out of the sun as quickly as possible. While I appreciate that desire, the fact that we had just gained over 7000′ in elevation (sea level in the Bay Area to 7200′ at Leavitt Meadows) meant that I was huffing and puffing by the time we reached our first pit stop at Lane Lake. We hid from the sun for about half an hour, then continued on our journey. From Lane Lake, the trail bends slightly to the East side of the Walker River and heads up. We passed through several beautiful Aspen groves, continued rising, and then were presented with a gorgeous overlook of the West Walker River as it heads towards Leavitt Meadows.

West Walker River panorama

West Walker River panorama

From our Walker River vista, we descended rapidly down to the river, then followed its course for several miles. We passed the junction for Hidden Lake, rose in elevation a bit, then ultimately found the junction to head towards Fremont Lake (which actually required a bit of backtracking). At this point, we met our first water crossing of the trip. We had come prepared, knowing that the runoff from the snowmelt would swell various rivers and streams that we might have to cross. The Walker was slow-moving at the point we chose to cross, relatively shallow, and maybe 20′ wide. The biggest challenge of the crossing was swapping out footwear in the midst of a swarm of hungry mosquitoes (the first of many such hordes we would encounter this trip). I was trying out my new Keen Clearwater sandals given that I never do well in bare feet with a pack, and they worked like a charm. Once across, we swapped back to our hiking boots and headed up towards Fremont Lake.

The short ascent to Fremont took every last drop of gas I had. I’m not sure if it was the elevation change, the length of the hike, me being out of shape, or all of the above, but I had to stop about every 100 feet to get my breath before I could continue. Bill just plowed along and Eric held back with me to make sure I didn’t die on the trail. Eventually, we made it to Fremont Lake, and it was a sight for my sore eyes (and legs). The East side of the lake proved to be swarming with mosquitoes, so we headed around towards the South side. We found a few different spots, and eventually settled on one large open area right near the lake. We set up camp, found a good kitchen spot, then settled in around sunset for our first meal on the trail (Backpacker’s Pantry Kathmandu Curry and Chana Masala, split three ways).

Fremont sunset

Sunset over Fremont Lake

Given that we were below 9000′, we were able to build a campfire, which we did in earnest. The mosquitoes decided to pack it in around 8:30pm, which meant we were able to finish the night by the campfire without the biting hordes. We called it a night around 10pm, happy to be in the wilderness again, and at least for me, even happier that we’d made it through the first exhausting day successfully. All in all the day’s stats were pretty impressive:

  • Time on trail: 5.5 hours
  • Elevation change: +1000′
  • Distance: ~10 miles (including scouting for sites at the lake)

Day 2: Fremont Lake to Cinko Lake


Elevation profile from Fremont Lake to Cinko Lake (distance in miles; View Garmin GPS data)

After a fitful night’s sleep, I got up around 6:30am, boiled water, and fixed breakfast before Bill and Eric were out of their tents. The morning’s fare was a Backpacker’s Pantry Spicy Omelette, which while good, was kind of a hassle to cook and clean (boil water, add to bag, hydrate, then pan fry with provided olive oil to remove excess liquid and finish cooking). The mosquitoes didn’t wait long in the morning, which meant we packed up and headed out as quickly as we could. Even so we didn’t get on the trail until about 9am.

From Fremont lake, the trail dropped quickly to the junction we needed to pursue, and then followed a quick ascent. The trail was rocky and exposed to the morning sun, and things heated up fast. After a lot of ups and downs, we passed through Chain of Lakes and Long Lakes, at which point we crossed the PCT trail and continued along the Walker River. From the river junction, mosquitoes dogged us along an uphill trudge to the Cinko Lake trailhead. Shortly after we branched onto this trail, we had our second water crossing of the trip, after which it was a fairly rapid 100′ ascent to the breathtakingly beautiful Cinko Lake.

After a little exploration, we decided the site on the North side of the lake near the trail was actually the best, so we dropped our gear and set up camp. Even though the site was dry, partially exposed, and windy, the mosquitoes were as fierce as ever. After lunch, we retreated to our tents for a short siesta and escape from the mozzies. None of us had ever experienced mosquitoes like this before, and I for one hope I never do again. Basically, we had to wear mosquito nets continuously, cover every inch of skin (i.e., long pants, long sleeves, hats and gloves), and then douse ourselves with spray repellant. Even then, I managed to get bites along my forehead (where my hat pushed down my net) and my fingertips (because I was wearing fingerless gloves). A few pro tips I learned on this trip, just in case you’re headed into the thick of mosquito territory:

  • Keep moving…A stationary target is a bitten target
  • High and dry is usually good, but not always
  • Sometimes your tent is the only escape
  • Spray mosquito repellant is your friend, and your buddies will probably want some too…Bring extra
  • Think mosquito head nets are for sissies? Wrong…They’re for smart campers

Mosquito map

Mosquito checks out our location, decides to stay

Mosquito Camp blues

Men and their mosquito nets

The one upside to being in the thick of the first mosquito hatch was that the fish in Cinko Lake were going crazy. After a long winter, the trout were jumping completely out of the water trying to scarf down as many mosquitoes as possible. Bill did a little bit of fishing, but after hooking a fish every cast for about 10 minutes, he just gave up; it was too easy.

Despite the mosquitoes, we built the last fire we’d have for a few days and settled in for dinner. As luck would have it, it turned out to be our best meal of the trip (Backpacker’s Pantry Shepherd’s Stew and Chicken Vindaloo, again split three ways). We ate around the campfire, then just sat and watched the light fade over Cinko Lake. As the last rays of the sun disappeared, we saw and heard bats skimming across the lake, having their fill of mosquitoes, and once darkness had fully descended, we were finally left in peace. Simple, quiet moments like this one, spent with friends in a breathtaking place, make all the exhaustion worthwhile.

Cinko sunset

A quiet moment by the Cinko Lake campfire

Stats for Day 2 were similar to those from Day 1, although the elevation gain occurred over a shorter distance:

  • Time on trail: 3.25 hours
  • Elevation change: +1000′
  • Distance: ~6.5 miles

Day 3: Cinko Lake to Middle Emigrant Lake


Elevation profile from Cinko Lake to Middle Emigrant Lake (distance in miles; View Garmin GPS data)

We rose early on Day 3 of our journey (6:30am). Maybe we were less tired, maybe eager to cross the pass. Sleep is never really prolonged or sound at elevation, at least not for me. Sunrise on Cinko Lake was picture perfect, and improved by the fact that we had a brief respite from the mosquitoes (until about 7am, that is). It was a cool, still morning, and the lake was like glass, reflecting both the morning light and the snow from the mountains that formed its shoulders.

Cinko sunrise

A peaceful sunrise over Cinko Lake

Given the rapidly escalating mosquito activity, we had a quick breakfast (Mountain House Scrambled Eggs, ham and peppers – not bad), packed our gear, and bolted as quickly as we could. We were on the trail by 7:50am…A quick descent dropped us to the stream, and a rapid search revealed where we had crossed before. Once we’d found our crossing, we went through the same ritual we’d done twice before (drop packs, remove shoes, don water shoes, cross, remove water shoes, dry feet, don socks and boots, hoist pack). With the ritual complete, we hit the trail on our way towards the chain of Emigrant lakes.

The trail out of Cinko Lake is what the map referred to as "unimproved," which meant that no rangers maintained the trail actively. As we ascended away from the lake we discovered pretty quickly what that meant — downed trees, washouts, and a trail that was occasionally hard to follow. Despite these setbacks, we made our way up the trail to a gorgeous saddle that passed over into the meadow below Emigrant Pass.

Looking East

The view Eastward from the saddle above Cinko Lake

Snow and mosquitoes…Mmm

Snow and mosquitoes on the trail

It was a relatively quick climb up to 9500′, where we encountered our first snow of the trip. Even so, it was still quite warm as we passed into the mushy meadow below Grizzly Peak. As we wove our way across the grassy flat (with no trail to be seen), we noticed that the ground was criss-crossed with small dirt mounds, almost like above-ground burrows. After a little thought, it occurred to us (actually Bill) that not too long ago, this meadow had been covered with snow, which meant they were effectively underground. In all likelihood, we were looking at a complex network of runways used by local Voles to move around in the meadow.

Critter tunnels

Mystery mounds in Grizzly Peak meadow (probably vole burrows)

After we crossed the meadow, we made a gentle ascent up to the broad saddle near Emigrant Pass and below Grizzly Peak. Once we reached the saddle, we were offered a gorgeous vista encompassing the meadow we’d just crossed, Grizzly Meadows to the West, and Grizzly Peak to the South. After a brief photo pit stop at the junction of the trail to Emigrant Pass and Upper Emigrant Lake, we made our way through Grizzly Meadows (a bit swampy after the recent snow melt). Two small, unnamed lakes rest in Grizzly Meadow, and we stopped for a snack at the second one along the trail. The air was crisp here, and the wind coming up from the valley below these lakes was cold; even though it was a potential camping spot, we chose to keep moving. A short hike up from these lakes led us to another small pass, one that offered a grand view to the West (towards Brown Bear Pass).

Crossing the divide

View of Emigrant Meadow Lake and Brown Bear Pass

Through a mix of snow, mud and rocky trail, we made our way down to Emigrant Meadow, which proved to be just as swampy as Grizzly Meadow (i.e., no decent camping in sight). At this point, we faced a tough decision. If we continued on the trail directly West, we would cross Brown Bear Pass, heading in the direction of our ultimate destination (Relief Reservoir and Kennedy Meadow). The problem with that route was a distinct lack of lakes, which meant camping might be poor; we’d have to go 10 miles to Relief Reservoir for decent camping. If we instead chose to head Southwest along the Blackbird Lake trail, we’d hit Middle Emigrant Lake, which might offer better camping nearby. The problem with this route was that it led us off course, which meant we’d either have to double back, or take a longer loop across Mosquito Pass.

Even though it was still relatively early (around 11am), we’d already been hiking for about three hours, and I wasn’t really in a mood to push through Brown Bear Pass and the 10 miles it would take to reach Relief Reservoir. We were also curious about what Middle Emigrant Lake would have to offer (and possibly Emigrant Lake itself a little further on). And so after a little debate, the die was cast: we would head for Middle Emigrant Lake…

Stay Tuned!

The journey’s not over yet…The next installment (Leavitt to Kennedy Meadows Part II) covers the rest of the trip, including our night at Tyrol Vista, water crossings galore, a walk through majestic Mosquito Pass, and the pseudo-death march to Relief Reservoir.

Forty-six trips


Birthdays are like signposts, and as we hurtle down life’s interstate, we pass these silent markers once a year. They don’t ask us to stop or slow down or yield, but if we’re smart, we’ll pause to reflect when we meet them, thinking on all we’ve seen on the road in the last year.

Yesterday marked my 46th trip around the sun. Hard to believe I’ve already passed that many signposts. If I’m very lucky, I’ll pass that many yet again before riding into the sunset. What’s more likely is that I won’t. As I sit here today, then, I think about what I’ve achieved (or haven’t), and wonder what I can still do with the time I have left…But that’s the problem, isn’t it? One never knows how much time there is.

The great illusion of time

And indeed there will be time
For the yellow smoke that slides along the street,
Rubbing its back upon the window panes;
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.

– T.S. Eliot, from The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

For many people, that’s the way life feels when you’re young…Time and the possibilities it contains are endless. We will live forever. No need to rush into things. Plenty of opportunity to explore, have fun, chart the best path, find our future. Eventually. No need to plough headlong into things like marriage or buying a house or having kids; all in good time. Better to think things through, do the right stuff, avoid making big mistakes. At least, that’s how I wound up approaching my life.

In most cases, fear held me back from doing things I should have been doing. I was afraid to get married because I worried that it might not work out, that maybe I was making a mistake, like the mistakes my parents made (repeatedly, unfortunately). I waited to have kids because I thought there was time, because I wanted my income to be more stable, because I wanted to be sure, because I worried that maybe I wouldn’t be a good parent. I waited to buy a house because I was afraid to commit myself to something that big for that long. I waited to leave jobs that were wrong for me because I was afraid I might be making a mistake, that maybe if I stuck it out just a little longer, everything would work out.

Fear and waiting. Waiting, waiting, waiting…And through all this waiting, the clock never stopped ticking.

I’ve waited too long for too many things. I’ve squandered the precious gift of time through my fear and selfishness, and now time is taking its revenge. My body has started to show wear and tear, a menagerie or minor maladies swirl around me like gnats, and things that were once a given are now suddenly not so certain any more. Nothing ever was certain, actually…I just fooled myself into thinking it was. And the worst thing about all of this is that some people around me have suffered as a result.

At the same time, I look up and realize how many people find happiness despite the imperfections and messiness of life. They’ve been falling in and out of love, having kids, buying houses, making mistakes, struggling, and really living. I’ve been dodging mistakes and coasting and putting things off because I could, and because the people who love me were too kind to tell me to wake up and smell the coffee.

So now that I’m 46, with my life more than likely half over, my eyes have finally been opened and a realization sinks down to my bones: there is no time.

Luckily for me, it’s never too late to smell the coffee, and I got two big whiffs lately that helped me to wake up.

Get busy living

The first scent of coffee came when I learned my 17-year-old cousin-once-removed Jordan was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia. He is now battling this disease every day, undergoing extensive and protracted chemotherapy, but the prognosis looks good so far (roughly 80% of kids can be cured). When I look at the courage with which he faces this life-and-death struggle, and see him fight and still manage to smile, it brings all of my problems into stark relief, and shows me how tiny they really are.

The second whiff came on my birthday. My wife gave me a thoughtful hand-made card, packed with three simple sentiments:

  1. You are appreciated
  2. You are blessed
  3. You are loved

The next obvious conclusion one can draw from those three things, the thing she was too nice to say, is that I am lucky, in a thousand tiny ways and a few big ones. It’s unbelievable that I could complain under circumstances like this, and that I would be afraid to go after things in my life.

And so in the coming year, big change is afoot. I expect challenges. I expect both failures and successes. But most of all, I expect to embrace the next signpost I see on this long and winding road, because I’ll be seeing it after having really lived another year.

Deckocalypse 2011 – Day 15: Debris removal

Once the deck was complete, we had to clean the site, which meant removing all of the excess lumber and trash that had been generated over the course of the project. Even for a small deck like ours, there was quite a bit of waste: pressure-treated lumber, unused Ipe or ends of boards that had been cut, screws and nails, and just a bunch of random garbage.

Day 15: Debris removal

It was a great feeling to reach this final day of construction. The deck was precisely as I had imagined, and we all shook hands and felt the sense of satisfaction that comes with a job well done.

Deckocalypse 2011 – Day 14: DG, sanding and finishing

Now that the planter box was done, we could start wrapping things up. The first big chore was removing a large amount of dirt and decomposed granite that had accumulated over the course of the project. This meant digging and hauling out about 25 buckets worth of crap that I wanted out of the yard.

Day 13: A big pile of cr*p to deal with

Day 14: DG and dirt removed from yard

Day 14: DG and dirt leftovers

The last step involved using orbital sanders to sand the entire deck. This was done to remove any scratches introduced during construction, and to get rid of all the pencil marks that had been created for the screws.

Day 14: Sanding

After sanding, the deck was blown clean with a compressor and swept multiple times to remove as much of the dust as possible prior to finishing.

Day 14: Sand cleanup before staining

The deck was finished with a penetrating oil designed for outdoor hardwoods (called Penofin). The Penofin was rubbed onto the entire deck, then after about 10-15 minutes, wiped with clean cloths to remove any excess oil. Ipe is tremendously hard, and resists almost every finish you could try to apply, so the oil wouldn’t go very deep. Regardless, once it was done, the result was pretty spectacular.

Day 14: Penofin stain

Day 14: Penofin stain detail

Day 14: Completed deck

Day 14: Completed deck detail

And here are the guys who made it all happen…I owe our new outdoor room to Anderson and Roberto. They did a fantastic job with a smile, and were an absolute pleasure to work with every step of the way.

Day 14: The guys who made it happen - Anderson and Roberto

Deckocalypse 2011 – Day 13: Planter box

With all of the deck boards laid down, it was time to turn to another small project: a planter box on the West side of the deck. We wanted a spot where we could plant herbs and veggies, and there was a gap between the deck and the house that was the perfect spot.

Compared to the deck, the planter box was simple. It was to be constructed from raw redwood boards, bolted together, then dropped onto the surface beneath our living room windows. A few hours of work, and the box was ready to drop into place:

Day 13: Planter box slot

Day 13: Interior supports for planter

Day 13: Planter box construction I

Day 13: Planter box construction II

Day 13: Planter box construction III

Day 13: Planter box complete

Almost there…

Deckocalypse 2011 – Day 12: Boards, North (Part II)

Anderson and Roberto came back the next day with a solution. All of the 14-foot boards on the North side of the deck need to be pulled up and realigned, with a different system for measuring than we had used the day before. They measured each end of the board to ensure proper distance, anchored those points, then measured the midpoint, anchored that, and then screwed down the rest of the board with uniform gaps. Due to some minor variation in board widths (1/8 inch or so), this meant that the gaps between boards was not uniform across the deck. Despite this minor issue, it would lead to boards that were straight across the seam.

Once the 14-foot boards had been re-installed, they set to work on cutting the last boards on each edge. These had to be slightly narrower to match the exterior framing dimensions.

Day 12: Ripping final edge boards

Day 12: Edge board I

Day 12: Edge board II

At the end of the day, it all worked out, and we could collectively celebrate the completion of laying down the boards for the deck.

Day 12: Anderson celebrates

Day 12: Roberto celebrates

Deckocalypse 2011 – Day 11: Boards, North (Part I)

The time had come to finish off the North boards on the deck. Anderson needed to rip a few boards down to narrower width, which meant cutting then routing the edges to match (since the boards were all rounded):

Day 11: Ripping a long board

Day 11: Router for curved edge after rippping

Day 11: Router edge detail

The final section was going to be easy. All 14-foot boards. We just had to match everything at a uniform seam in the deck, and then it would essentially be done.

Day 11: Initial boards on final section

Day 11: Final boards

Day 11: Almost done...

Once we laid all the boards, measured, drilled holes, and locked everything down, we cleaned up the equipment on the deck and took a look. Despite our best efforts, we realized we had made a mistake: the boards on the deck were not straight across the seam. The end of the 14-foot boards was off by 1 inch, which meant things looked crooked.

Day 11: Crooked across seam...Not done

An inch might seem like a lot, but over the length of a 14-foot board, you only need an error of roughly 1/16 inch per foot of board to generate that kind of difference. Even though each section looked great, the whole deck was slightly out of kilter. Initially, I thought it was no big deal, but after looking at it for a bit, we realized it was a significant enough difference to merit some rework. We broke for the day, and I left it to Anderson and Roberto to think about the best solution.

Deckocalypse 2011 – Day 10: Boards, South

Once the stairs and landing were complete, it was time to shift gears into laying down the primary deck itself. We decided to start with the boards on the South part of the deck, since these posed the greatest challenge (or so we thought). These boards would all run East-West and connect with the other North-South boards via a 45-degree miter joint.

In order to minimize waste, we tried to vary the length of the boards that were used across the miter (since we had to cut off whatever wasn’t used of each board). This meant using at least three different board lengths, then cutting down each board to the right length using Anderson’s miter saw:

Day 10: Mix of board lengths across miter

Day 10: Miter optimization

Once we had laid out all of the boards, we began the laborious (and entirely manual) process of marking every board for the locations of the screws. Rather than use one of the more modern attachment systems, we opted for old-fashioned screws (#10, 2 1/2 in). Because Ipe is so hard, you have to pre-drill holes with countersinks for every screw in the deck (over 1500 screws for our little platform). Screws needed to be aligned properly, and of course placed above the joists, which meant LOTS of measuring and marking (with pencils, naturally):

Day 10: Boards marked for screws

Day 10: Pre-drill holes with countersink bit

Once all of the holes were drilled, the boards went down relatively quickly. The trickiest part is making sure there is a uniform gap between boards, which we created using nails as spacing tools, coupled with a special clamp that allowed us to pull warped boards inwards to the desired tolerance when we needed to.

Once the top boards were down, we needed to install the facing board, which sounds a whole lot easier than it was. There were three things that made facing boards tricky to install:

  • They had to fit around the exterior framing without showing any bolts, which meant there needed to be inset holes drilled to cover the bolts on the framing posts
  • Ventilation holes had to be drilled in each facing board that matched those already created in the framing lumber…As it turns out, drilling circular holes through Ipe is so difficult that it literally burns the Ipe from the friction generated by the drill bit
  • Screws to ultimately hold the boards had to be placed at slightly different locations, either due to Simpson brackets or the height of the boards relative to the framing materials

Day 10: Facing board with room for support bolts

Day 11: Ventilation hole in exterior facing (matches interior hole)

The last task of the day was cutting the boards across the miter joint. Fortunately, Anderson had the perfect tool for the job: the Festool. It’s basically a circular saw that can be mounted to a precision track, thus allowing for long, straight cuts. Anderson laid the Festool guides down on the deck, aligned them with the 45-degree miter line, slapped down his circular saw, and let it rip. The result? A perfect miter joint (or rather, half of one).

Day 10: Festool to cut miter joint boards

Day 10: Festool detail I

Day 10: Festool detail II

Day 10: Festool detail III

Once the miter joint was cut, we hurried to measure, mark, cut and screw down the matching boards across the miter joint. Day 10 was a busy day, and we were incredibly happy with the progress made.

Day 10: First section of boards across miter

Day 10: Miter joint complete