A mountain has an infinite number of profiles, though it is one form. Seen from one side it’s a dog, from another an angel, spiny sharp or fluffy soft. It is ominous and scary or friendly and inviting. A mountain speaks hospitality or it does not.
I continue up the refound trail, past the sign that said Donohue Pass rises this way. I look up at the mountain thrusting its immense rugged brow up into the sky and thought it friendly at last, that all my earlier problems of this day were past and I would cross over the mountain to the interior of the great Sierra wilderness.
The trail comes into a meadow at 10,300 feet with tiny flowers and a frigid creek, both speaking strongly of a springtime long past in the lowlands.
I ascend along the eastern slope, hewn to the rocky course of an ancient glacier. Dark white snowfields lie ahead and above me, and dark ledges of rock like bones of perished monsters. Sitting on a rock to rest, I let it take the weight of my pack, unbuckle the hip belt and chest strap, and step free from its shoulder straps.
There is something motivating and stark about the dry, cold, air of the High Sierras. It is like danger and joy and bright futures all mixed together in a bowl of pleasant uncertainty. When reaching for the summit, it is all the possibilities of a bright future; upon reaching the summit, it is pure joy. I sat there quietly, sending my senses out into the snow and rocks.
I encounter a small snowfield and walk easily across it. Then the trail disappears under snow so large the trail might emerge anywhere on the other side. Had it not been for a set of footprints coming the other way, I might have lost the trail again. But following them brought me out perfectly.
Donohue Pass—a cold and desolate pass. At the summit I peered over and saw immediately a tiny lake perched like a bird nest high in the crown of a rocky tree. And beyond the lake, another large snowfield obscures the trail. So I picked a way along the snow’s edge, figuring that the trail would surely appear somewhere in this direction. And thankfully it did.
I see treetops far below me now, far down in Lyell Canyon into which I’m descending, with peaks high above. It’s good to be hiking downhill instead of up. I rally somewhat with the lighter effort, both on my legs and in my psyche. There is still plenty of daylight for getting down into a reasonable camping area by the river, but I’m not feeling as good as I should. It’s not disorientation as with altitude sickness, but a combination of pains—a heel that hurts from some rock on which I must have landed too sharply, several blisters, and tiredness that seems unjustified.
The tick-tock of my paces, left-right, life-right. They are measured now, not too fast, not too slow. Balance the need for speed and the need for safety. Discipline would have to take the place of optimism, and conservation of energy for side explorations. I am behind where I should be for this time in the total trip, I know that, but I think that if I feel better tomorrow I can make up the difference.
By the time I reach the floor of Lyell Canyon, I am walking slow and start looking for a place to camp. I come to where the trail crosses the river, but not even a log bridge is here. I figure that if the water were lower, as it probably was before that thunderstorm, then a person could cross by stepping on exposed rocks. But today I waded across in two feet of water, boots sloppy full. On the far bank stands a grove of pines with a good flat place for the tent. I take it. Mosquitoes swarm about my face as I set up camp. Repellent keeps them from stinging, but their incessant buzzing, buzzing!
Most of what I write here is a compilation from notes written along the trail and at campsites. But the following is straight from my writing paper:
Gray prose like this is not my usual style; I find bright spots in most bad situations. I slide into the tent early to escape the mosquitoes. The river is full of unknown noises, whispers in an unknown tongue, snaps and crackles, footsteps of creatures.
Thursday, July 29, 2010
I awoke Tuesday morning, July 20, to a brighter light on the shore of Waugh Lake, 9400 feet up in the Sierras. My little thermometer said 38 degrees. I crawled out of my tent and looked at the lake in morning light and almost fell over backward. The peaks were touched by sun and glowed like beacons. Slanting rays lingered on the craggy ridges, giving greater depth to the dark gray and purple of their rocky sides. In the long undisturbed endurance of this arrangement, duplication of mountain crag in still water, which for centuries has adorned this valley, unnoticed by human eye; it must have molded the destinies of these rocks. How can they escape—so breathtakingly calm and stunningly reflective!
I stuff everything into my pack. Everything I have is little and light. Only water is heavy, and I get it at the many little creeks that drain the melting snowfields. I notice recent erosion along the trail, and since no clouds have come up in the last few days, I assume it is the result of the storm four days ago. I stopped at a ranger station that day to get my wilderness permit and was warned not to enter the mountains that day because severe thunderstorms were pounding the Sierras. A picture of them is in my July 16 post. I remember the shuddering of distant thunder that day, sounding like the breast of one who struggles with a mighty grief. And the mountains seem hurt by it, part of their soil washed downward.
reached the other side unharmed.
this tree and me
our shaggy bark ripped open
our strength exposed
our legs still firm
Perhaps it was from thinking grateful thoughts and pondering how it might have gone that caused me to lose attention for the way. I thought I was on the trail, but suddenly it was gone. Normally, I would go back and find my mistake, but I saw just enough evidence of a trail to be lured onward. It must be the recent erosion, I thought, the trail will appear again soon. See the rock cairn to the left; it was placed there to mark a trail. And see the blazes cut with an ax into a lodgepole pine. They too are trail markers. And so I trudged on. Maybe this trail is so little used that only the markers remain.
I knew from my map to follow the canyon upstream until I came to a small side canyon heading up to the right; that would be the way to Donohue Pass at the crest of the Sierras. If I missed it, I would ascend into a glacial cirque and arrive at a group of lakes, called Marie Lakes, a dead end as far as getting over the crest. I oriented the map with my compass and looked carefully for the side canyon, proceeding slowly.
After going for what seemed like too far, I decided that I had missed the turn. I went back and looked again, wasting time and energy, never finding it. Lost, confused, and somewhat afraid, I decided to sit and think and wait for clarity. It never came. I was headed for Marie Lakes, it seemed, and had no good idea for getting back on track.
It was on that rock that I decided to alter the entire course of the hike. I would go to Marie Lakes and camp, perhaps for two nights. Then I would find my way back to Waugh Lake and camp again there. Then I would walk back to my car and end the hike. I was afraid to cross the rotten log again, but it seemed unavoidable. That seemed like the safest and best alternative.
So it was that for the second time today, I made a complete re-assessment of my situation and a complete change of plan. I would cross Donohue Pass after all and would continue the hike as planned. The four hours I had lost would be reclaimed somewhere along the way.
When I came to the sign at 10,000 feet, I knew there was enough daylight left to make it over Donohue Pass and camp on the other side as originally planned. I will continue this strange day’s events in another post, probably tomorrow.
Tuesday, July 27, 2010
In truth she is more like a bear who one day wandered from her wilderness home into the camp of man, smelled man-food, tasted, and decided to stay. She licked her fur because, while living in the wild she felt no need for cleanliness, now in this new environment it felt better to be clean. In time, she felt at ease and reclined on a mattress and slept inside a house, especially during rainstorms.
But after living in comfort for a long time, she felt a pull back to solitary, self-sufficient life in the woods from which she came.
It was in this bear-like mood that I started excitedly up the steep trail from Silver Lake on July 19. I felt strong and ready as I shouldered my pack after breakfast, full of pleasure in the simple act of breathing out of doors, moving away from civilization and into the backcountry. I looked down on my civilized car parked where it would stay for over a week, and having on my back food and shelter for six days. Two opposing thoughts fought within me: I had finally escaped from an oppressive peopled emptiness into a warmth and friendliness; and a pain of leaving a few who care and think this urge of mine a bit foolhardy.
A little unnamed lake
Finally I come to my planned destination and set up camp at Waugh Lake by mid-afternoon. Nobody else is here. The lake is like a private artificial pond for my amusement. I disturb the equilibrium of nature it seems, come as an outsider not fully part of the culture. I want this attitude to change, and it may take days before I become the creature who wandered out of the wilderness into the camp of man and is finally returning.
I have come to the wild before, for a week at a time, but that was so long ago that my tuning is off, I don’t harmonize like I did. I hung my food back then, tried to get it 20’ high, above reach of bears. Now, we are told to use a heavy plastic container called a bear canister and lay it on the ground a hundred feet from the tent. So I did this after dinner, a meal of dehydrated enchiladas which was quite good. I cooked it on a little propane stove which you can see in the picture of me at the top.
I came by choice to this isolated place to sleep on this hard bed. I am in some indefinable way, the essence of innocence—not the coy, shy innocence, but the fearless innocence of wild things. For a long time I lay musing on this scene—this person that all these years have made. My great design kept me broad awake and watching. The short summer night seemed as long as the winter darkness, but finally I slept.
Sunday, July 18, 2010
As my time on the outskirts of humanity draws short, I think about what brings me here. What I did by scheduling this adventure was to start things, and now that they are started, it is time to let them drag the rest out of me. I is the way I have always done things: think up a destination, start moving toward it, and if nothing stops my progress, carry through. I am talking a lot these last few days because I can’t talk for the next six. While the solitude I will experience in those campsites high in glacial carvings will relieve some of society’s pressure, they will also draw me, each one, closer to the destination and return to the people I left.
June Lake and the village
Creatures seem to love these beautiful surroundings as much as I do.
Gull Lake is a short walk from the village
Silver Lake was astoundingly beautiful this morning with the sun just entering its valley and lighting its island and parts of the shoreline before the wind came up to disturb an utter stillness.
The trees around Silver Lake must be the happiest in the world
Saturday, July 17, 2010
Before wandering into the wilderness, to the high elevation, where I’ll have to attend to whatever befalls and keep from falling, it seemed best to acclimate. For this I am staying for three nights at a motel in June Lake at 7,600’ taking baby steps into the high country. Today I ventured a climb up to Fern Lake at 9,000’ taking it easy, having never done such a climb at such an age. And took lots of pictures.
I feel like a yellow squash plant that has never grown a squash. I hesitate, anxious to move ahead, sensing the wonders around me, but reticent to move away from the way things have been.
Bonsai tree in a Japanese garden, set among rocks so placed by craftsmen to appear at peace in their longstanding positions. Or rather a tree that found it best to grow this way in this particular place.
Fern Lake rests in a glacial cirque where all ice has melted and the basin carved by the ice is home to trees, water, and fish, all in proportions that a Japanese garden builder might find worth adopting.
Water gushes out from under the remaining snowfields and cascades down into Silver Lake and June Lake.
As if it were planted by someone, a garden grows along the trail to Fern Lake.
Silver Lake, not far from June Lake where I am staying.
You can click on any picture to make it bigger.