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DUE NORTH: Mineral King to Kings Canyon

Previous installments may be seen by clicking on Mineral King to Kings Canyon above

                                          — Day Three—

Monday, July 21, 5.5 miles— If anyone thinks it’s impossible to be hungry after a gourmet dinner like the one we had been served the previous evening that is typical of the fare served at the Bearpaw High Sierra Camp, then take a hike with teenagers. As we began settling into our tent cabin for the night, two starving kids hiked back up to the kitchen where Carolyn, the High Sierra’s angel of mercy, saved their lives by preparing peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for them.

We were up at 6 a.m. on Monday. The torrential downpour of Saturday night seemed as if it was going to be the exception rather than the norm, judging by the blue, cloudless sky that greeted us.

While awaiting the breakfast bell, we began loading our packs. The mattresses, pillows, and chairs in our tent cabin, and the hot, home-cooked breakfast we were about to have, would be luxuries we would not again experience for the duration of the trip.

But that’s the point, really. To be left to our own devices with just the sheer basics of survival — food, shelter, water.

Then again, if that’s all we had, why was my pack so hard to lift off the ground? Why were we all out of breath just carrying our gear from our sleeping quarters to the dining room porch?

Are we crazy? Once in a while we think so, but then we experience a day such as the one the day before or the one that lay ahead of us, and we remember why we made the pact that we’ll always take an annual backcountry trip together.

About mid-morning, we said our goodbyes to newfound friends and old acquaintances at this High Sierra home away from home. Our goal for the day was to climb up and over Elizabeth Pass, which is five and a half miles north of Bearpaw and a gain in elevation of about 3,500 feet, but because of our socializing, we were getting a later than usual start.

We began on the Tamarack Lake trail, climbing east then north out of Bearpaw. There are two trail options in this area that go in our direction. Since we were carrying packs, we opted to take the steeper, yet maintained trail to Tamarack Lake that climbs east then north out of Bearpaw, staying high on the mountainside west of Lone Pine Creek before descending slightly to arrive at our trail junction on the westernmost end of Lone Pine Meadow.

The other choice was to take the High Sierra Trail to Lone Pine Creek, then follow an unmaintained trail north along the eastside of the creek bank to where it meets with the Tamarack trail just south of its junction with the trail to Elizabeth Pass.

As we reached Lone Pine Creek, we settled in for an extended break at the water’s edge. It was sunny and humid, so the kids took advantage of the opportunity to take a dip in the ice-cold creek.

Just beyond Lone Pine Creek, the trail turns east and climbs through Lone Pine Meadow to Tamarack Lake. We instead turned due north and immediately began ascending steep switchbacks up the ridge of the Kings-Kaweah Divide.

The views became expansive as we climbed. To the south, we could see our route of the last two days and the peaks and passes of the Mineral King cirque. We tested our knowledge of the names of peaks of the Great Western Divide to the east — Triple Divide, Eagle Scout, Mount Stewart, Lippincott Mountain — and the Kaweahs beyond.

In the vicinity of Lone Pine Meadow, we could see signs of a trail crew camp. Soon we passed some shovels and other hand tools alongside the trail, but since it was past the noon hour, the workers were off-trail toward the stream for their lunch break.

As we switchbacked higher and higher, we soon could see the maintenance crew back at work on the trail below. Also on this steep, rocky stretch, we met three backpackers who were heading down, the only people we would see face-to-face for a couple more days.

After a nearly 1,000-foot climb, the trail levels off slightly and traverses a sidehill that was in peak bloom with wildflowers. It was a spectacular sight with fields of blooming lavender lupine highlighted by shooting stars, columbine, and more. The trail turns east slightly to cross a rather substantial creek that is the outlet of Lonely Lake, unseen in its bowl high up on the divide.

After the creek crossing, the trail gets serious about conquering the next 2,200 feet to Elizabeth Pass and tackles the mountainside head on and straight up. The scenery was captivating, however, which offers a constant excuse to stop and rest.

Without having a map in hand, we began trying to pick out Elizabeth Pass along the ridge. We couldn’t pinpoint where we would cross these mountains until the trail turned from north to east.

Then, almost straight ahead of us, looking deceivingly close, yet still more than 1,000 feet above, was Elizabeth Pass. We stopped and rested on a large, flat boulder near the trail.

In analyzing the final push to the pass, we were concerned with the thunderheads gathering along the ridgeline. We also noticed three tiny figures way in the distance, working their way toward the pass.

They were moving slowly toward this destination, stopping often. We made note of their location, then began timing them, so we, ourselves, would know how long it would take to reach the pass.

We then observed that our rest stop would make a comfortable campsite. It was a large, flat granite bench on the north side of the trail with a creek about 200 yards south and an endless view down the Kaweah’s Middle Fork canyon to Castle Rocks and beyond.

It was about 4 p.m. We stopped for the day.

It took the party ahead of us just over a half hour before they went up and over the pass; we estimated our time in reaching the saddle would be about 45 minutes from where we now were settled. But we knew if there was a decent campsite immediately on the other side of the mountain, they would be in it.

We were glad we would be putting some space between us and them. In addition, we have learned that we like to be on passes earlier rather than later in the day for a couple of reasons. One, if there is an afternoon buildup of clouds, it is unwise to spend much time on these exposed ridges and, two, we like to stay as long as possible on high.

After all, we work so hard to get there, and there is so much to see, explore, and photograph. We were satisfied with our decision to stop short of our goal of being up and over the pass on this day.
We settled in with camp chores — setting up tents, filtering water, preparing dinner. With the western exposure of our camp, the sun didn’t set until 8 p.m.

We were absolutely awestruck by the alpenglow on the granite peaks that surrounded us on three sides, especially on the artistic rock formations looming directly over our campsite. Recalling that pre-1905, Elizabeth Pass had been known as Turtle Pass due to the shape of a rock there, we named a distinctive outcrop here in honor of this historic place name.

The clouds had magically disappeared, and the sunset was an unforgettable sight as the mountains became bathed in various hues of pink then orange until the shadows of night gained hold.
The only sign of humanity was the overflights of military aircraft just before nightfall. A few years ago, we considered this bothersome; since 9/11, we realize it’s necessary.

As the sun set, the wind picked up, streaming downslope from Elizabeth Pass. Although we had erected our two tents side by side, we realized that one would have to be relocated to where it could be better anchored.

We carried it to where the occupants would have a bird’s-eye view from the very edge of our granite perch. There was enough decomposed granite here that it could be properly staked.

Remembering the torrential rain of two nights before, the kids asked if it was going to rain during the night. I looked at the cloudless sky and assured everyone that it wouldn’t.

I proceeded to explain the pattern of the afternoon buildup of clouds that occurs during summer Sierra summers that cause intermittent showers in the latter part of the day but then dissipates quickly.

In the morning, after a rainstorm that began at 2 a.m. and continued until dawn, and then became the norm every night for the rest of our trip, it became evident that I would be reminded of my failed attempt to second-guess Mother Nature for a long time to come.


Continued... Day Four



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