Stranded In The Southland

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Cirque Peak and Better Living Through Chemistry

This weekend, I finally got a chance to do real backpacking in the Sierras. I'd been training for this for awhile, taking my short car-camping trip to Sequoia and Kings Canyon NPs, and making a short backpack trip into the mountains near home. I'd also got a prescription for Diomox to fight my altitude sickness, and successfully tested it out on trips up above 10,000'.

Friday morning didn't start too well. I hadn't packed yet, my SO had lent my sleeping pad to the downstairs neighbor and hadn't gotten it back when she finally lent him the much more comfortable aerobed, and the handyman was coming by at 10AM to recaulk the tub to prevent more leaks down into the neighbor's kitchen.

The handyman never showed up, it took about 20 minutes to get back the sleeping pad, and I hit the road at 2PM instead of noon, but I made it. Traffic was heinous on I-15, and the Miata overheated whenever I had on the A/C in the stop and go traffic. Once I hit 395, though, things went great and I made it to Lone Pine for (a bad) dinner by 7PM.

I got into camp by 8PM, driving up 20 miles of tight switchbacks to Horseshoe Meadow. I settled into the walk-in campground at the trailhead for Cottonwood Pass, set up my tent, and chatted with my neighbors, who turned out to be on a different Sierra Club hike. They were surprised that two hikes were going from the same place, and when I checked my instructions, it turned out I was supposed to be at the Cottonwood Lake trailhead, about a mile away.

Screw it. I settled in, slept through a freezing cold night to find frost on my tent and my car, rushed through breakfast and packed away everything so I could get to the right trailhead by our 7:30AM starting time.

As usual, people were pretty relaxed -- I needn't have fretted so much. We hung out at the trailhead for quite awhile, chatting, and weighing our packs. Mine was nearly 42 pounds, although a terribly thin young woman was going to be toting nearly 47 pounds, while most everybody else had about 35 pounds -- I gotta lighten it up!

We headed out eventually, feelin' pretty good. The trail was gently rolling, and it was easy going for the first few miles. Then we started to climb. As the going got a bit rougher, the group spread out on the trail, but still managed to keep up okay.

S., our leader, decided after some consultation to bail on our plan to camp at Cottonwood Lake #3, as everybody we met on the trail was headed in that direction, and to instead camp at Long Lake, which was a bit farther. This turned out to be wonderful -- Long Lake was situated in a huge col, surrounded by high granite walls, with ancient relatives of Bristlecone Pines growing all around it.

We set up camp, and some of the folks set off on a nice day hike to see some of the other lakes. I stayed in camp, feeling a bit out of sorts from the altitude. While my brain was kind of frozen, I still didn't have a headache or nausea, so the Diomox was working out. I enjoyed just kicking back, watching the clear blue sky and the beautiful lake, and chatting with my fellow slackers who opted out of the deathmarch to the lakes.

I also got to use a filter for the first time. K., our co-leader, was kind enough to lend me her Katadyn filter, which was very easy to use. I'm definitely going to get myself one before my next trip. I had naively tried to boil all my water, but that took far too long.

We had an early "happy hour" -- no alcohol, just appetizers, alas. I'd brought sausage, and was chagrined to discover that I'd forgotten that so many people were vegetarians. Other folks were cleverer, and brought stuff like pita, feta, and plums (an amazing combination I'd never have thought of!) or brownies, so maybe next time I'll make sure I leave out the meat.

We all headed to bed early, as we'd be starting for the peak at 6AM the next morning to avoid any afternoon thunderstorms. I'm usually the grumpy guy who heads off to bed early, leaving the partyers to stay up late, but this time I was the one up late -- I didn't get to bed 'til 7:30PM.

One of the hikers had a very lightweight rig -- her pack weighed only 30 pounds. Alas, she'd just brough a blanket to sleep in, and the night before had been pretty frosty, so I lent her my silk sleeping bag liner. At least it benefitted somebody!

Thanks to a full 250mg tablet of Diomox, I slept like a log, awoke at 4:50, and got ready to go. I was a bit groggy, so instead of preparing hot chocolate, I managed to dump an envelope of chicken noodle soup into my mug. I had the soup, hot chocolate, and oatmeal for breakfast, but it was going to be a long morning, so that was probably good.

I also managed, for the first time in my not-so-young life, to take a crap in the woods. I've been in plenty of pit toilets, and I guess as a teenager in the Boy Scouts I'd just hold it in all weekend, but it kind of amuses me that this is the first time I've ever squatted down and let fly. Woo hoo -- what a landmark event!

Our hike up to Cirque started out okay. We headed up the trail to New Army Pass, and then headed off trail towards the summit. It looked so steep, but S. made it look easy, picking out a path zigzagging up the rocks. We eventually wound up stepping from rock to rock, but it all stayed pretty non-technical. We had to use our hands in a few places, but it wasn't bad at all.

We didn't get to the summit 'til nearly 10AM, as one of the hikers was having a tough time of things, and kept falling back. We probably spent an extra hour waiting for her, but I've been there before, and didn't mind waiting. In fact, I thought it was cool that she was toughing it out.

The summit had a beautiful panoramic view of the Sierras, the White Mountains, and I think the Panamints beyond. We could see Whitney easily.

After signing in on the big fancy SPS register (set in a nice looking, big ammo box), we hung out and ate lunch. Just as we were ready to leave, a guy came zipping up the hill. He'd set out from the trailhead at 4AM, hoping to surprise his wife, who was on a different Sierra Club hike, at the top with a fresh pineapple(?).

Unfortunately, her group had summitted the day before, so he laughed, signed in, and cheerfully set out to try to catch the other group before the broke camp. What a sweet, goofy thing to do!

We headed back to camp to pack up and head out, but our straggling member slowed us down quite a bit. Our leader cut us loose to walk the final half mile to camp by ourselves, and it took nearly another hour for that final member to make it down. She then slept for an hour, giving us plenty of time to get our stuff packed up and ready to go.

We headed out around 2:15PM, and things looked good at first -- we were all keeping up. After a couple miles, though, our lagging member fell further and further back., while the rest of us waited and waited. Finally, with a couple miles or so left to go, S. pressed on, and got us to the trailhead.

We emerged at around 5:10PM; our finally member staggered out at 6:10PM or so. I had thought that she was laid low by altitude sickness, but it turns out that it was just bad conditioning. Oh, well. I've been the tail-end charlie (during snow camp, when I had AMS), and I'm sympathetic. Most of us waited 'til the bitter end, 'til she came out, then headed down for pizza.

I had an amazing time. I was so happy to learn that Diomox really let me get up in the mountains without the agony of AMS, and that I could actually hike six or so miles with my full backpack. I still had some energy left when we came out, although me feet were killing me -- that'll teach me to go on a 13 mile dayhike just the day before a big trip!

I had most of the right gear, although I wound up leaving behind my heavy bear canister, and shared a much smaller, cooler canister with W., one of my fellow hikers. I lugged my one-pound camera the whole way, only to discover that in the confusion of packing up, I'd left behind the compact flash memory card, and couldn't take any pictures. Other than that, it was wonderful. I can't wait to get up into the Sierras some more!

[One of these days, I'll figure out how to write a short trip report. As it is, I guess there was alot that I remembered, and wanted to record for future reference. Oh, well, maybe I can work on it later.]

Heart Bar Peak, Onyx Peak #1, Plus a Bonus

Thursday morning, I woke up at 5AM to bag a couple peaks in the San Bernadino Mountains. This would normally be great, but I'd been up drinking and carousing 'til late the night before, because I hadn't gotten the final word that we were going until pretty late. Doh.

I was hating life during the drive out -- I had considered just dropping off my maps (my two compadres didn't have topos of the area) and going back to bed. My sweetie convinced me I should go, and the group agreed to start off with the easier of the two planned peaks, Heart Bar Peak, leaving the harder Sugarloaf Mountain for later.

Once we got on the ground, I felt a bit better, although I still moved pretty slowly. The directions weren't entirely clear, but it sounded like we were supposed to stick to the well-maintained dirt road we were on until we got to the summit, passing a few intersections on the way.

Unfortunately, as we staggered up a really steep section, and checked the map again, it became clear that we'd missed a turn. By this point, G. was out in front by about 10 minutes, trying to keep warm in the chill air, and M. and I were scratching our heads. We were almost at the wrong summit by then, so we went ahead and finished off the last mile or so and enjoyed an unnamed, unlisted summit.

After a bit of a break, and a chance to catch up with G., we headed back down, watching more closely for the right trail. It turned out that the "old, overgrown road" was so overgrown that only a small pile of rocks marking a small trail clued us in. After walking back a hundred feet or so, the remains of the road became apparent.

We wandered on for a half mile or so, on and off of the road, which was choked with brush and fallen trees, staggered up to a couple of false summits, and finally found ourselves on Heart Bar Peak. It was kind of nondescript -- the register was a who's who of HPS list finishers, since that's about the only folks foolish enough to trek up there.

After our bonus hike up to the unnamed summit, we dropped the idea of hitting Sugarloaf Mountain, and bailed to Onyx Peak #1, which should've been a short, one-mile hike. Unfortunately, last year's rains had messed up the road enough that M. wasn't comfortable taking his van on it (as a guy who's turned around more than once on rough roads, I'm sympathetic).

We wound up making a six mile roundtrip hike -- to rub salt in our wounds, the gate was open for the last mile, and we could've driven the whole way! Still, it was fun to grab the peak, and we enjoyed some great views out into the desert.

On the way up, I'd spotted a wrecked vehicle down by the side of the road. On the way back, we watched for it all the way down, but couldn't see much. By the time we'd made it back to the road, I was wondering if we'd be able to help out some poor folks who'd gone off the road and not yet been spotted or helped.

Alas, we were about 10 years too late -- when we finally drove up to the right spot and spent five minutes walking back and forth along the road to find the vehicle, it turned out to be an old junker (still shiny white, though) that'd crashed long ago, and obviously been explored and investigated. Oh, well, that's probably better than finding some poor folks in distress.

After my five hours of sleep that night, I staggered home, showered, and napped -- 'til 7AM the next day, when I started packing for my weekend backpack to the Sierras!