Backpacking in the High Sierras

My mom invited me to go on a backpacking trip with her, and I jumped at the chance, but I was also a little afraid because I’ve never backpacked for more than one night. My fear of the unknown kept making me look for excuses not to go, and I had to remind myself that I will get to spend some quality travel time with my parents and also see parts of California that I would never otherwise get to see. So I got a backpack and a checklist and realized that I am savagely unprepared yet to hike with the pros. I borrowed a sleeping bag from Tim, with the assurance that he’s used it to sleep in the snow. Later I learned that you shouldn’t take a sleeping bag recommended by someone who never sleeps with more than a thin comforter. I borrowed my sister-in-law, Jeannie’s, hiking pants and a trekking pole, and borrowed another pole from my parents. I’m SO glad I had trekking poles. The pants were cool, too, because you can unzip and remove the bottom half of them and you don’t even have to remove your shoes. I also had a lot of good REI freeze-dried meals in my earthquake kit, as well as a nice collection of energy bars.
There were five of us: Mom, Dad, my two new friends Rob and Joan, and myself. Rob and Joan are a couple that my parents have been going camping with for several years now. We went to Big Whitney Meadows, Rocky Basin Lakes, The Siberian Outpost, and a section of the Pacific Crest Trail.
This was the view of the trail from the visitors’ center, where we stopped to get our back country passes:

We started at 3:00 on Monday. I was wearing a 28 pound backpack, and it was only that light because my parents were carrying the stove and more than their share of the food. I borrowed a tent from Rob that was extremely light. I don’t know how people did it in the early days of backpacking, because they didn’t have super light tent stakes and luxury designs on the backpacks. The pack is built to allow airflow between it and my body! You can also put a camel pack in that area, which then stays cool for a long time, keeping your back cool. In spite of this, my back was hurting immediately. I think I spent the first several hours staring at the feet of the hiker in front of me, just trudging forward and afraid that I was in for a world of pain. We had our first break about an hour in, and I though, I can do this, as long as we stop this often.

Early on in the hike I discovered I had Elton John’s “Don’t Go Breakin My Heart” stuck in my head. We must have heard it in town when we were having our last lunch at Subway.
The first day had us trekking up switchbacks and gaining 1200 feet in one day. My feet weren’t that sore, but my calves were burning. Think: taking the stairs for 2 straight hours, with an occasional 10 min break, and a heap of cross-country walking thrown in. Later in the trip I learned that I actually do better on uphill than on cross-country. I have no idea why this is the case. Whenever we were in level terrain, I would eventually start lagging behind everybody.
The first campsite was alongside the trail. Thinking about it right now, I kind of miss it. We set up next to a little stream that made a soothing sound all night long. My Mom, Dad and I had Miso soup and then a noodle soup with Tuna, and I had to put them under the mosquito mesh to eat them, so I looked like a desperate hobo who was afraid of getting his food stolen. Thank God for the tent! I mean thank Rob. Everything was great about the site except for the mosquitoes.
It was during this first night that I discovered that my sleeping bag was desperately inadequate. You know how you can get comfortable and then you don’t want to get up for anything, even when you know you have to, like if your bladder is too full? I woke up comfortable but cold and had to sit up and readjust things every 1 or two hours, pulling a new piece of clothing out of my pillow and putting it on my body.

The cold was rudely pushing into my bones while I lay there and shivered and couldn’t find a comfortable position. Also, that Elton John song just kept blasting in my head whenever I’d wake up.
This first night of little sleep also gave me an opportunity to lay in bed thinking about the fact that I was sleeping in a tent in bear country. Every now and then I’d lift the covers off my head and lay there listening for bears. This fear had lessened the second night, and so on, which led me to wonder how many days it would take until I passed out in my tent with a fragrant peanut butter sandwich hanging out of my mouth, or maybe I might fish for dinner and leave the leftovers next to me in the tent.
The next day we got on the trail at around 9. My calves were incredibly sore, and I was dirty, but I do love waking up in a tent, and I love walking through the woods and coming out into a beautiful meadow. At that elevation, the grass is pretty and green, and there are little flowers sprinkled everywhere. There were streams that meandered through the meadow that we had to find our way across. On the second crossing I managed to jump over the creek, but felt like I tore my calf muscle in the process. I was limping after that, and was so afraid that I was going to ruin everybody’s trip by having a big injury, or would have to turn around and hike out. I just resigned myself to walk slowly and not limp. Also, I think my calf muscles are pretty tough. If it was any other muscle in my body, I wouldn’t have as much faith in it healing so fast.

We crossed that big giant meadow and then gained another 400 feet in elevation, mostly switchbacks. I was only able to keep up with the others when we were hiking uphill. I don’t know why that was the case. I stretched out my calf muscle, too, and it was actually feeling better when we got to the next camp. Somewhere along the way I got the theme song to Growing Pains stuck in my head, too. Each of the two songs would take turns dominating my brain.
We set up for two days next to a small lake that was nicely nestled into the mountains. My mom and I jumped into the lake and got clean. It felt so good to jump into that pretty lake.

The first night by the lake was pizza night (!!). It was delicious. We used fresh pita bread from the Greek vendor at Farmer’s Market, and there was pepperoni, roasted cashews, a Parmesan-herb mix, pepper jack cheese, dehydrated mushrooms and olive oil. It was delicious and we were beyond full.

Day 3: I woke up fully refreshed after a good night sleep, grateful to camp among lakes and pretty scenery, and also felt like I could forgive Growing Pains for having such a bad theme song. We spent the day day-hiking around 4 beautiful lakes.

The trees up there look like Bristlecone Pines, but taller and just a little less gnarled. Their trunks are a beautiful blonde. Everywhere we went, these pretty trees had pushed their way out of the ground between huge granite rocks, sometimes their roots are still holding onto boulders after they’ve tipped over. The rocks are still gripped by their roots, held up in the air now and waiting for the tree to rot so the rock can tumble back down to the ground.

Every tenth tree seemed like it was violently split open by lightning, cracked open and charred black all along the insides of the split.
On the evening of Day 3, I had an interesting find. Rob and Joan had retired to the tent and my mom and Dad and I were walking through the trees about 30 feet or so from the trail, and I found a camera on the ground, in a black case. I think it caught my eye because it looked like my dad’s, which was usually hanging from his neck. It was an almost new Canon Elph, and it started right up. We started looking through the pics, and the last time stamp was from 3 weeks earlier. There were some beautiful pics from India in the beginning of the memory card, and the recent pics were from what looked like a full backpacking trip. I think they were headed in the direction we came from, since they’d already been to the upper lakes and the Siberian Basin. I spent an hour looking at the pics after I’d gone to bed, searching the photographs for some kind of personal information so I could track down the owner.

There were over 2000 pics, and they appeared to have done a huge amount of traveling in the last 2 years.
In the morning, it turned out that Rob and Joan recognized some of the people in the photos. So it wasn’t going to be hard at all to track down the owner, and Joan might even have their e-mail address. And then it wasn’t until later that morning that I realized I should use the camera, since there’s plenty of room on the card and the battery was doing well. In fact, it would have lasted fine if I hadn’t been sitting up late the night before draining it.
Folks, the brain doesn’t work that well at that altitude.
So I photographed my way across the Siberian Outpost, plus a nice side hike that took us to a high plateau for lunch.

I also took a cue from the owner of the camera and took a few photos through the binoculars.

We took an S-shaped hike along what we could have done in a straight line with minor altitude changes. This was not clear at all from the beginning, but totally clear from the other side. We hiked fairly close to the stream all day, occasionally walking on the sandy parts that were sprinkled with pretty purple flowers. At the end of the day the purple-pink flowers all across the Siberian outpost (or meadow?) were lit up for just a little while with the setting sun.
This was also that time of day that my mom would say, “Hey, you want some chocolate?”
I don’t know how I’m going to ever be able to go backpacking without my mommy and daddy. She also fixed a nice warm soup every evening before dinner, just as it was starting to get cold. Dad worked tirelessly at pumping water through the filter for all 3 of us every day, and carried a huge load on his back, including the bear-proof container.
It was a beautiful sunset over the meadow, lighting up those blonde tree trunks.

We spend our 4th, and what turned out to be our last, night in lightly forested foothills where deer seemed to have been everywhere. We also had a marmot hanging around in the distance, peeping over at us like a little prairie dog. If there were a bear story in this trip, it would have taken place on this night. However, there wasn’t, because you see, we were lucky. Also we were very diligent about the bear canisters. So luck, bear canisters, and bears’ healthy fears of humans.

Likely bear dookie. Definitely a carnivore. And fresh. Note the small quantity. A hungry bear? A baby bear?

The next morning we got out bright and early and got on the Pacific Crest Trail, which by then was 2/5 of a mile away. Our goal was to get to Cottonwood Pass and hike just a little longer, then find a nice place to camp before finishing the last few miles in the morning.
The Pacific Crest Trail is beautiful!

You definitely feel how populated it is, by passing people every hour or two. But it’s beautifully maintained, and makes a person want to just follow it forever. We kept getting glimpses of the meadow we had just hiked in, and the one we hiked across on day two.

Here is a pic of the Siberian Outpost from both sides, with the red arrow indicating where the other picture was taken:

It was a nice way to round out the hike. We also started being able to see thunderclouds and rain in the distance. It was one of those tidy little Adams Family rainclouds that was just hitting one spot really hard.

We got a few drops and contemplated putting our rain gear on, but then decided to just put it in the tops of our packs so it would be handy. We trudged along, ready to get ready for any change in the weather. I also sort of desperately tried to get a Paul Simon song stuck in my head, just for a change of pace. It worked, a little.
Then, as we rounded the crest into a pretty view of Chicken Springs Lake, we started getting bigger drops.

We stopped for lunch near a couple that was gearing up for rain with their 18 month old in a backpack, and we finally decided to gear up. My dad has a very efficient pair of rain chaps. I put my rain coat on, a pair of windbreaker pants, and put a Glad bag over my backpack. I don’t recommend that.
We stopped taking pics at this point and started jamming, to get off the crest. Just over the other side of the Cottonwood Pass, the switchbacks started right up. Looking back, this was probably the point in the hike that was going to determine whether we should hike our or consider staying another night. We were practically skipping down the mountain, passing people on their way up who were slowly trudging their way up, and they looked so tired. We were full of energy, but then again, gravity was on our side.
We had a mini-meeting when we were getting towards the bottom of those 1200-foot drop in elevation switchbacks, and decided to go ahead and hike out. We didn’t get rained on much that day, but we just missed a big storm in the Horseshoe Meadows area. The stream had surged, and there were big frothy puddles to walk around.

The last mile seemed to take forever, because I was getting what we call ‘hot feet’ in a way that I hadn’t during any other part of the trip. I kept seeing things through the trees that I swore had to be the parking lot, but they were just big blonde tree trunks, made brighter by being wet.
When we finally did make it to the car, I was actually glad it took us so long. There had been a fierce rain storm, causing rocks and mud to fall onto that incredibly steep mountain pass. The pass with no side rails.
We topped off the afternoon with a huge meal at Mt Whitney Restaurant, and I wondered to myself, how long did it take John Muir to turn right back around and go back into the mountains for more adventures? High Sierras, we’ll see you again soon.
Thank you, Joan, Rob, Mom and Dad for being my guides to such a nice adventure in the Sierras!

The rest of the photos are on Flickr.