It didn’t matter that mosquitoes were swarming around and biting me in places where the sun doesn’t shine (and where I couldn’t put on DEET). I wasn’t about to go in my pants. And it was during one of the three or four Nature calls did I also manage to break the fly on the zipper on my pants – further adding to the dustiness, the stickiness of the sunscreen and DEET, and the overall general discomfort of not having showered for a while…
- Day 0: EQUIPMENT MALFUNCTION
- Day 1: GETTING OUR ASSES KICKED
- Day 2: SLOW DAY
- Day 3: WHAT’S THE RUSH?
Day 0: EQUIPMENT MALFUNCTION
It was Thursday and my high school buddy Ed and I decided to take this day off so we can make our way up to Big Pine without any rush. The invite was made at least a couple of months ago when Ed’s wife, Cindy, had to tend to the needs of their newborn so I was basically Cindy’s replacement.
I knew Ed and Cindy went pretty frequently on these backpacking trips. So this was going to be my first time on one of their Eastern Sierra trips set up by Ed’s former law firm.
Actually, there was no rush this morning because after picking up the compact rental car as well as myself en route, Ed still had to tend to some spending time with his wife and kids in the early morning, and then (at his insistance) we had to start packing in his garage afterwards. He predicted we wouldn’t be out on the road until around lunchtime.
Now being as antsy as I was, I thought we could’ve started much earlier. But since I was about to go on a backpacking trip for the first time in at least five years, I’m sure Ed knew something about preparations that I didn’t.
So by around 8:45am, after his wife sent the older daughter to pre-school and babysitting the son, we finally started to get the packing started in earnest. It was quite hot already in the morning in his garage. And since I had packed minimally, I was already sweating into my hiking clothes before the actual hike commenced!
Since I was anxious about not having truly done an overnight backpack in so long, I decided to try pitching my tent worried something might malfunction. I was worried because many of my stuff sacks were sticking together (especially on the inside). I had suspected that was the case because our rental home doesn’t have air conditioning and the insulation was pretty much non-existent so sometimes we’d have 90 degree F temperatures inside the house!
And it already wasn’t a good sign that the rubber band holding the tent poles together were melted.
But when I pulled out the poles and tried to assemble them, the strings holding the tent poles together weren’t even stretching nor compressing. In other words, the tent poles won’t snap together and it would be a big pain to try to force the strings (that are now clearly too long) into the holes of the poles so the poles could be in a position to be bent.
So in the end, we decided not to bring my two-person tent. And the debate about whether each of us should or shouldn’t bring our own tents was settled.
Yep, we’re gonna have to get cozy with each other.
More pre-trip preparations were being made with the food situation. I knew Cindy and Ed were real good at bringing enough food based on my experiences on the couple of backpacks I had gone with them.
And it wasn’t just trail mix and REI backpacker food. It was actually pretty good stuff from Trader Joe’s and some Asian shops. And this time, Ed packed some Japanese curry, miso soup, Indian food, some bagels, energy bars, and trail mix (consisting of raisins, nuts, and M&Ms). No way we were going hungry on this trip, I thought.
It was a good thing we took this time to figure things out about what to bring because I realized that there were some things I had forgotten. So I had compiled a list of things that I forgotten to bring or additional things we needed, and it ended up being a list of 10 items including Nalgene bottles, trekking poles, sleeping bag liner, and some clothes to sleep in for a little more nocturnal comfort.
By the time we left Ed’s house, it was just before noon. And as we made a stop at my place, we decided to have a lunch with Julie. The Vietnamese food we’d be having would probably be the last substantial meal before roughing it.
By 12:20pm after I kissed Julie goodbye, just Ed and I left home in the rental car, and we finally embarked on our trip.
Traffic still remained somewhat light as we headed out of town. We killed most of the time in the car discussing various things (mostly regarding real-estate, the environment, work, and politics). It’s always interesting to hear other points of views from someone living life experiencing very different things and meeting very different people from myself. Besides, most of these topics couldn’t really be discussed with strangers and even friends depending on how open-minded they were.
It was 3:45pm by the time we arrived in Lone Pine, and boy was it hot! We didn’t expect to be here this soon, and it was a bit too early for dinner. So we basically bought some calzones from the Pizza Factory to keep for dinner while buying some veggie subway sandwiches for the trail tomorrow. We took our time, and it wasn’t until around 4:40pm when we left.
By 5:30pm, we made it to Big Pine. It was 105 degrees F according to the sign right in front of the Bristlecone Motel. As we were checking in, I saw a photo of an ancient bristlecone pine tree and asked the receptionist how feasible a trip to see them would be.
The guy said it would be at least 40 minutes each way. So that would probably mean another two-hour excursion had we gone. But instead, we opted to just chill out and get as much rest as possible for the backcountry hiking up ahead. However, I’m sure we might regret this decision not to go eventually.
The room itself was roomy though we were supposed to crack the windows to keep the air conditioner working (which seemed counterintuitive to us). After we had ourselves a quick shower and I had cleaned my completely brand new filter (which hadn’t been used at all and we bought it some two or three years ago), we did some last minute packing while munching on our hour-old calzones.
While we were eating, the trip leader Larry had arrived. He was an interesting over-70-year-old guy with plenty of stories of previous backpacking excursions as well as some law firm stories (most of which I couldn’t relate a whole lot to, but did enjoy getting some insights to what goes on in that line of work).
Ed used to work with Larry, who was one of the partners at that law firm before he left. And most of the people who go on these annual trips (sometimes two or three times per Summer) were from that law firm. Sometimes I wished we could get something like this started at my work, but most of those folks were more into going to Vegas or going to the beach. I knew it’d be a stretch to get some of my fellow engineers to try the outdoorsy thing.
Anyways, Larry made us regret not using the rest of this afternoon to check out the ancient bristlecone pine trees some 25 miles away. Ed and I actually thought about doing it, but it had already been a long day and we decided to just rest for the remainder of the day.
So we spent the rest of the day watching Survivorman while Ed was already missing the kids. I think this was his first backpack without the wife, and it looked like he was still thinking about what he’d be doing had he still been at home.
Day 1: GETTING OUR ASSES KICKED
Ed and I awoke at around 5:30am. According to Larry, we were supposed to be leaving the motel at 7am. So we figured we’d give ourselves a lot of time to have breakfast and get ready. It was already 75 degrees F this morning, but I couldn’t help but notice the alpenglow on the mountains behind the motel.
This wasn’t a sight we get that often, but even more surprising was that no one besides Larry and us were ready to go at this time. The rest of the party were either still asleep or getting ready, and Larry didn’t seem terribly pleased. There was also another pair of people who weren’t even here.
“This is the first time this has happened,” said Ed. “Usually everyone is ready when Larry’s ready to go.”
By 6:35am, we followed Larry (or at least tried to since he was driving very fast) to the pack station barely 10 miles west of the town of Big Pine. The rest of the party would have to catch up.
We managed to arrive and drop our packs at the pack station at 7:15am. The plan was to let the pack train take our heavy gear up to 5th Lake. But we’d have to pack and carry our stuff on the way out. So this was kind of like a half-backpack and I figured it wouldn’t be a terribly difficult day.
Larry waited for the rest of the party to arrive which occurred some 20 minutes later. And by 7:40am, we finally started hiking on the Upper Trail. Ed and I were joined by Heather and Gabe. There were two 18 year-old boys (one of them related to Gabe) and with their youthful energy, they shot off way out in front of us.
The views from this part of the trail was towards the South Fork of Big Pine Creek. The imposing head of the valley was very scenic, but it turned out that we weren’t going that way. A little after 8am, we veered around the base of the hill to our north and went to the right along the North Fork of Big Pine Creek.
At least the trail was mostly in shadow. And I was able to notice some cascades both below the trail and in the distance. These cascades must’ve been the First and Second Falls, which I had read about a little bit in the trip research prior to this trip.
However, I fell behind the pack taking many photos of the Second Falls as it was much taller and substantial than I had anticipated.
I managed to catch up to the party once we got closer to the top of the Second Falls. Out here, we were out of the morning shadow and into the accumulating heat of the morning sun. The trail was still gradually climbing, and once we got to the very top of Second Falls, there was a sign that told us we were entering the John Muir Wilderness.
Apparently, Stan (another trip member) also caught up to us or waited for us over here despite his late start. It seemed he took a different trail (perhaps the Lower Trail) to get here because we didn’t see him at all up until now.
We continued hiking into more shade as trees provided the needed shelter from the relentless sun while the loud sounds of rushing water paralleled the trail for the moment.
At around a historic cabin area, a pack train caught up to us and then passed us. It turned out that was the pack train that carried our gear, and Larry was riding on one of the mules. Ed commented that Larry used to do the full backpack with the group, but he must be getting old now.
It wasn’t until another hour or so did the trail continue climbing and we were beginning to feel some of the effects of the high altitude as we were now around 9950ft. At this point, we went ahead of Heather and Gabe.
Several minutes later, we caught our first glimpses of First Lake. And as advertised from our trip research, this lake was a very deep green due to the amount of silt in the water – a classic glaciated lake.
Looming behind this lake was a series of jagged peaks, which we suspected was Temple Crag. So we spent some time here taking photos taking advantage of the bright sunny skies adding plenty of color to the scene. But we started seeing some mosquitoes around here so it was time to start applying the DEET.
Continuing further along the trail, it wasn’t long before we saw the Second Lake. In my mind, this lake was way prettier than the First because it was more directly fronting the impressive Temple Crag.
After this lake, it seemed like a relentless uphill climb passing by the Third Lake (we didn’t bother trying to get close to it), and it was during this stretch that both Ed and I started to experience throbbing heads while we were straining to breathe. Each uphill switchback was met with slow plodding and frequent breaks. It also didn’t help that we were running out of water at this point.
Clearly, this trail was kicking our ass, and we were both carrying day packs. I couldn’t imagine how much harder this would be with a full backpack on. Good call by Larry to let the pack mules carry our stuff in.
At around 11:50am, we decided to take a break in the shade of one of the switchbacks and have ourselves a lunch. This extended break merely delayed the pain up ahead as we were wondering when we’d finally get to the 4th or 5th lake.
There were a handful of mosquitoes as we took our extended rest, but we trusted our toxic chemicals to do their jobs keeping the mozzies at bay. Meanwhile, the apple tasted really good, the trail mix provided the much-needed carbs and proteins, and the soggy veggie Subway sandwich gave us a little bit more nutrition.
We were wondering how Heather and Gabe were doing since our struggles might mean they’re facing the same physical struggles, or worse. Plus, we hadn’t seen the two young boys Charlie and Gabe since First Lake either. We at least expected to be passed by them.
Eventually, we had to get up and continue up the swtichbacks. With both of us just about out of drinking water, it was vital that we find some kind of stream or watersource to keep the altitude sickness at bay.
After a couple more switchbacks, we found a tiny stream full of mosquitoes that served as our watersource. That was when we put my filter to use and filled Ed’s lone Nalgene and both of mine.
As we were pumping, we were joined by both Heather and Gabe. They seemed to be doing pretty well so it was good that they weren’t nearly as overcome with altitude sickness symptoms as we were.
After a few minutes of continuing our hike, we noticed a more substantial stream that seemed less still (thereby not as teeming with mozzies).
“Aw, we should’ve stopped here to fill up,” said I. But we knew we couldn’t take the chance of dehydrating with altitude sickness so we had to pump at first chance.
However, clouds have covered the area, and we sensed that we had better pitch our tents so no one has to pitch them in the threatening thunderstorm.
By 2:45pm, we pretty much had our tents set up as well as assisted on other people’s tents to speed things up. But the mosquitoes here were very annoying! Looked like we’re gonna have to deal with them for the next couple of days. For if these mozzies were already out (and it wasn’t close to dawn or dusk), they were certainly going to get worse when they’re expected to be out!
We heard some thunder in the sky and it wasn’t long before we were inside our tents trying to get our Thermarests pumped up. It was during this time that we could hear some droplets of water hitting the rainfly of our tent.
Ed’s two-person tent was a bit more cramped than mine, and I could see why he originally wanted his own tent.
The sprinkles were on and off as we spent most of the time pumping Larry’s jugs of water for cooking while I had filled our own bucket for more water pumping from 5th Lake.
By 6pm, it was still sprinkling a little bit, but it was also quite windy. And with the wind, it seemed like the mosquitoes were blown away, which was a bit of a relief. However, the quick change in weather also made things a bit chilly.
Nonetheless, it was dinner time and we used my little Pocket Rocket to boil water in my new cookset (again bought two or three years ago and got its first use today). On tap for this meal was Indian food, of which there were three pouches – one of Pav Bhaji, one of Dal, and one of some curried eggplant. The rice we tried to make was a bit hard, but with the limited space in my pot, it was the best we could do.
Still, it all tasted good, and it really hit the spot. I always knew Ed (and Cindy who was back at home with the kids) were great backcountry chefs.
By 8:15pm, we were done eating and chit chatting with the rest of the camp party (all 8 of us here). As we were wrapping things up, the winds were dying down and we could see the storm clouds were quickly dispersing. The light show that ensued was fantastic as alpenglow was on the distant Mt Sill and Mt Gayley above the Palisade Glacier.
It was the kind of scenery I hadn’t seen for at least a half-decade, and it was reminiscent of some of the mood lighting I saw in the late Galen Rowell’s Eastern Sierra photographs in his book “Mountain Light.”
Unfortunately with the light show and improving weather, the mozzies were back out and it seemed like there were dozens at a time on each person. Definitely lots of futile swatting going on.
By 8:45pm, I was inside the tent trying to sleep. I was joined by Ed later. But it seemed like for most of the night, both of us had some trouble sleeping.
I wasn’t sure if it was because we were both sharing a rather small two-person tent with each other or because it seemed warmer than usual out here. In any case, it wasn’t exactly a restful night, and the morning light couldn’t come soon enough…
Day 2: SLOW DAY
At 5am, I awoke to my alarm. Ed had no trouble getting up because he told me right then and there that he pretty much hadn’t slept all night. He always lamented that he can’t sleep in these conditions and this seemed no different. But it also seemed like I wasn’t able to sleep since 1:30am after I had to pee in the middle of the night under starry skies (and relatively few mosquitoes).
Unfortunately, as soon as we looked up at the sky, we could see that there were already several clouds. This wasn’t good.
Not only did this conspire to mess up our hopes of capturing morning alpenglow, but this also meant there was sure to be a stronger thunderstorm than the all-bark-little-bite one we experienced late yesterday afternoon.
In any case, we spent the better part of the early morning taking a bunch of shots of Mt Robinson, Two Eagle Peak, and Fifth Lake from our little “kitchen” spot overlooking the mouth of the lake as it drained into an area of rapids and ponds below us.
And this exercise in patience was excruciating as mosquitoes just swarmed all over us apparently undeterred by the DEET we had slapped onto ourselves.
We eventually took our photos, but it seemed like the clouds did their best to scatter the soft orangish morning light. So we didn’t quite get the alpenglow that dazzled us yetserday afternoon or yesterday morning.
We then had ourselves a breakfast of oatmeal and bagels.
Only Stan was up by the time we had breakfast so we did some conversing about local Southern California waterfalls as well as other high sierra scenery from trips he had taken in times past. He got me psyched up about Evolution Valley since he learned I liked waterfalls, and that remote valley was home to a real big one.
He said he was also doing two more High Sierra backpacking trips later this Summer. It seemed out of the question in my mind considering how this trail was hard enough for me.
By about 7:45am, we were done talking with Stan and retreated back to the tent considering no one really seemed to be out of their tents besides Stan, who was about to do the Palisade Glacier by himself.
So we tried to get a little bit more nap time before we heard more commotion outside about an hour later.
From there, we conversed with the newly awakened trip members while simultaneously battling mosquitoes.
It seemed like a real slow morning as it took a while for everyone to be ready for the day. All the while, we could see some of the clouds coming from the south drifting around us and heading north. I even spent some of that time taking more photos around Fifth Lake.
It wasn’t until 10:30am when we finally left for our day trip. Our group only consisted of Larry, Heather, Gabe, Ed, and I. The two boys, Gabe and Charlie, were going to do some swimming and some hard hiking at some yet-to-be-determined location. Stan had already gone off by himself on the more strenuous climb up to the Palisade Glacier beneath the foot of Mt Sill and besides the Sam Mack Meadow.
The hike started off rather sluggishly as Larry realized that he forgot to bring his First Aid kit. He told us that usually luck works out such that the one time a first aid kit isn’t brought would most likely be that one time it’s most needed. He wasn’t going to test Murphy’s Law and it was probably a wise move considering Nature needs the utmost respect. So we were chilling by 4th Lake as both Larry and Gabe went back to camp to pick up the First Aid kits.
Finally, when they rejoined us, we continued along the hike along the western edge of Fourth Lake before we took a wrong turn, boulder hopped a creek, and saw a group of pack mules. We were told by the two pack station workers that Sixth Lake was up the other trail we missed (actually Larry had originally chosen that way before Gabe thought it wasn’t as obvious as the trail we were on).
In any case, we were now having to go up several switchbacks. And with most of us breathing heavy from the altitude, it wasn’t fun. Plus, the mozzies were still out, and not really letting up despite the increasing heat of the day.
At about noon, we made it to Sixth Lake. There were lots of mosquitoes here, and it appeared that the trail also ended here. We were debating whether this was Sixth or Seventh Lake, but Larry’s topo map along with my compass resulted in Larry concluding that we were indeed at Sixth Lake. Plus, Heather and I were getting lessons on how to triangulate and use the compass/topo combo as demonstrated by Larry.
We had ourselves a lunch while simultaneously battling mosquitoes. Larry noted that not many were going after him because he was wearing a bright white shirt, and he contended that mozzies are attracted to darker colors because that must mean you’re a living breathing thing.
So Ed and I had some peanut butter and jelly bagel sandwiches while the rest were having their trail food.
As the skies were darkening, we left the Sixth Lake (didn’t bother to scramble further up for Seventh Lake) and Larry decided to take us on a shortcut back to our camp.
It turned out that we steeply descended on some trail before it disappeared into a large boulder field. Even though our camp was visible in the distance, we had no choice but to traverse this steep boulder field (full of loose boulders) with the thunderclouds roaring.
This boulder field was no place to be in a lightning storm!
Fortunately, we made it back to camp at 1:15pm without any further drama. It was significantly quicker going this way, and at least we made a loop out of this short day hike.
So we spent the next few moments lounging around playing frisbee with the disc that the boys brought. They had just returned from a climb up to the shoulder between Mt Robinson and Two Eagle Peak. Larry didn’t believe them, but the iPhone photos proved otherwise.
It was during this time that the clouds had pretty much organized and covered the skies. We could hear the thunder again and I could see a squall coming down over Mt Sill.
And by 2:15pm, it started to rain hard and we all retreated into the relative dryness of our tents. This time, the rain lasted for a pretty significant amount of time and we could see the droplets accumulating on the parts of Ed’s tent where didn’t tighten the rainfly enough.
Still, we were dry, but we wondered whether the mosquitoes would get worse now with all this standing water thanks to the thundershowers.
By about 5:30pm, the rain seemed like it subsided a bit and we decided to play some card game called Wizard with Gabe, Heather, Ed, and the two boys. It was a good time killer while Larry was napping. Stan arrived from his day hike during our game though he did have to hike in the rain. He mentioned that the group of campers next to us (turned out we weren’t alone in the backcountry out here) weren’t as prepared for the thunderstorm and he made them turn back from the glacier (some of them were wearing cotton and jeans).
In any case, Stan went for another hike towards 6th Lake. I guess he was totally full of energy.
At 6pm, we had dinner. This time we were having Japanese curry and miso soup. However, I was battling diarrhea at this time as Ed was preparing the meal.
I couldn’t figure out what was causing the stomach discomfort, whether it was ingesting too much DEET, or from the filtered water, or what. In any case, my bowels were telling me it was time to go, and it seemed like I was the only one with this affliction.
It didn’t matter that mosquitoes were swarming around and biting me in places where the sun doesn’t shine (and where I couldn’t put on DEET). I wasn’t about to go in my pants. And it was during one of the three or four Nature Calls did I also manage to break the fly on the zipper on my pants – further adding to the dustiness, the stickiness of the sunscreen and DEET, and the overall general discomfort of not having showered for a while.
In any case, we did some more chit chatting over dinner while Larry was relating more law firm stories as well as High Sierra stories. Again, it was fun listening to the stories and getting a glimpse of what life is like in another line of work. It at least kept our minds off the mosquitoes at the time.
Knowing that we didn’t need the cookware tomorrow morning, we promptly washed the set and packed the stove and utensils away in them. We also secured the bear cannister and left the water filter out knowing we’d probably pump one last time tomorrow morning.
At 9pm, I was already in the tent trying to sleep, which I managed to do albeit uneasily. And at around 1:30am again, I had to get up to pee and diarrhea. Ed was still complaining that he couldn’t sleep when I awoke.
But when I returned to the tent, Ed seemed to finally be able to sleep. It was good that he was finally able to sleep because I knew it wasn’t easy for him to sleep. On the flip side, I had trouble falling asleep and probably didn’t really sleep and dream until around 4am.
Day 3: WHAT’S THE RUSH?
At 5am, I awoke to the alarm again. With both Ed and I wanting to get home as soon as we could, we wasted no time deflating our Thermarests and stuffing our sleeping bags in their respective stuff sacks.
Not long after 6am, we had the tent mostly collapsed and my filter and cookware along with bear cannister was mostly packed. After eating some bagels and trail bar for breakfast, we could’ve easily started to leave before 7am.
“What’s the rush?” he’d say.
After saying our good-byes, we finally left a little after 7:30am.
We were making a very good pace though the shoulder straps on my pack seemed to already start weighing down on my shoulders. Clearly I wasn’t used to doing this for a while, and my pack wasn’t totally riding on my hips.
I was wearing my shorts and short-sleeved shirt on the hike out as my other hiking gear was both dusty and non-functioning (in the case of my pants with the broken fly).
We spent most of the hike out talking about our professions again.
By around 9am, we started to see backpackers going the other way. The first pair of guys we noticed was when we were descending beyond Black Lake. Apparently, this pair of guys were actually working as they were bringing up food drops and their own gear to meet up with those serious backcountry hikers probably on long hauls like the John Muir Trail.
The trail out seemed quite long. But we probably took our time taking photos especially as we caught glimpses of both First and Second Lakes backed by Temple Crag from our vantage point. Indeed, it was hard to pry ourselves away from the scenery.
Not much later, we rejoined the main trail and continued downhill amongst somewhat of a tree canopy. There was still a ways to go before we’d leave the John Muir Wilderness and be by the top of Second Falls.
At around 10am, we saw many more dayhikers and backpackers looking to go fishing.
In the mean time, I took off the boots, put on Chacos, and tried to rinse myself a bit in the nearby Big Pine Creek.
By 11:35am, Ed showed up at the Day Use Parking area. And ten minutes later, I reassumed the driver’s seat and we were headed out at last.
By 12:45pm, we arrived at Lone Pine for another round of calzones at the Pizza Factory. During the drive, we saw some lightning strikes as well as a couple of rising smoke coming out of valleys in the mountains (appearing to be wildfires).
It wasn’t until 1:25pm when we left Lone Pine and finally on the way back home. And by 5pm, we were back at Ed’s place so we could drop off his stuff and he could take his much needed shower.
About a half-hour later, I finally made it home and got my much-needed shower. But boy, was it hot in the house! So the shower I took was a cold one…
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