DUE NORTH: Mineral King to
installments may be seen by clicking on Mineral
King to Kings Canyon above
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
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.