For the past seven days I have been backpacking in the Sierra Nevada mountains with three other men. Those three men, Bud, Tom and Steve, are all younger and fitter than me (though Steve is only 10 days younger). Tom has been a competitive bicycle rider, Steve is strong and determined, and Bud is a hunking six-foot-five alpha male who runs half marathons for fun and who wants to win at everything. I do not believe any of the three are better looking than me, or smarter, but those are my impressions only, and subject to debate, and anyway those qualities don’t count for much when you are slushing your way up a 1000 foot climb through snow and ice. Bud, Tom and Steve are genial guys, though, good Christian men, and great hiking partners.
What made these three men somewhat unique hiking partners for me is that they are all surveyors who work for Caltrans (the California Department of Transportation). Being surveyors and cartographers, they had a peculiar interest in reading maps and contour lines, looking at compasses and hand-held GPS devices, and wanting to blaze their own trails through the wilderness rather than follow the trails that other, thoughtful people had worked so hard over many years to locate and make easy to follow, hard to lose your way, and relatively smoother and saner than the overland routes these three divined. Though I have backpacked all my adult life, I had never hiked off trail like this. It was the hardest, most dangerous, most exhausting, and the most exhilarating hiking I have ever done.
In addition to wanting to blaze their own trails, my three hiking companions had an inexplicable affinity for hiking and camping above 11,000 feet, where the air is thin and cold and no trees grow. Bud also seemed to think that the best way up a mountain was straight up; Though it also occurred to me that, quite possibly Bud only knew how to follow the GPS literally “as the crow flies.” I survived this week of physical self-abuse, in part, by concentrating on the inimitable beauty of some of God’s best and least-known work, i.e. the high mountains off the beaten trails. And over the course of the days of exposure to this unique beauty and stress, some new heights were reached by me, and some insights new to me were gained.
It will be my intention to share some of these new insights over a series of blog entries, but today must be the description of the hardest day of our hike, the trek over the snow-and-ice covered 12, 040 foot Ruskie Pass, into the snow-and-ice covered Seven Gables Lakes basin. [Note: The wives of Steve, Tom and Bud should stop reading here, lest these noble, adventure-seeking men never be permitted, ever again, into the wilderness without responsible, adult supervision.]
Wednesday, July 14, 2010. Day five on the unmarked trail. We awoke at dawn again and had steaming coffee and instant hot oatmeal while watching the sun rise. The cold white light of early morning was slowly erased by bands of golden light that lit up the mountains to the west of our camp. First, the highest tips of the peaks were lighted, and then, slowly the golden light slid down the rocky, barren slopes to the western edge of Lake Miriam. Once the sun’s rays hit the lake, it didn’t take long for them to reach our camp on the southeast shore. When the sun’s light actually got to us, we could finally see the sun crest over the ridge of mountains to the east of us, and instantly when the light was on us it was warmer.
When the sunlight was upon us, we quickly went about the business of setting out dewy tent rainflies to dry and breaking down camp. Our personal needs were taken care of and we were dressed and our backpacks were packed and ready to go within a half hour, and after our daily ritual of a short group prayer of thanksgiving, and wishes for our loved ones, and petitions for safety and good health on our journey, we shrugged on our packs and filed out of Camp Miriam at 8:05 a.m.
We hiked to the back side of Miriam Lake (more or less the north side) where a large waterfall was spilling large amounts of singing water into the lake in two separate streams. This waterfall and these streams of freshly melted snow water had serenaded us through the night, as we had been serenaded by water each night of this trip. Not all moving water sounds the same. Some sounds gentle, some sounds more urgent and powerful, and some sounds like a crashing, torrential spill. This Miriam Lake inlet waterfall was somewhere between powerful and crashing. We stripped off our boots and socks, as we had done a number of times already, and forged across the streams, then re-donned our boots to ascend the steep bare granite up the mountain on the west side of this inlet.
This was the start of a 1000-plus foot vertical climb from Miriam Lake, at 10,930 foot elevation, to the top of Ruskie Pass, at 12,040 feet. With Bud leading the climb, we quickly ascended the granite and discovered what we suspected; The talus slopes of the mountain we were to ascend to Ruskie Pass were covered in snow and ice. In the winter the danger of ascending this slope would be of an avalanche. In these spring/summer conditions, with melting snow, the biggest danger was that of falling through holes in the snow, what hikers call “post-holing,” and twisting ankles or knees, or breaking bones from the fall. Hiking over snow covered rocks and boulders in melting snow conditions is particularly dangerous and prone to post-holing, and this slope, under the melting snow, was pretty much all boulders and rocks.
Bud and I had crampons, which are metal spikes that attach to your hiking boots to give you traction in snow and ice.
So Bud, being the alpha guy, led, then I followed, then Tom and Steve followed in our footsteps. The snow slopes were gradual at first, and became increasingly steeper the higher up we went. Everyone post-holed a number of times. But Bud, as the leader, had the most danger of post-holing, and post-holed the most times. His shins were bloody from scraping rocks and boulders when his feet fell through the unsupported snow, and he lightly twisted his left ankle in one incident. Usually, but not always, if we planted our feet where Bud’s had been upheld, we were o.k. But one time I post-holed my left leg up to my crotch.
It happened in an instant. I stepped lightly in Bud’s track, and boom! The snow gave way. Loose snow fell in the hole while I was falling and packed the hole around my leg and boot, making it impossible for me to pull my leg or boot out. It was an awkward position to be stuck in, with my left leg buried in snow up to my thigh (and we were only wearing shorts, by the way, although I did have on gators to keep the snow out of my boots) and my right leg squatting awkwardly on the surface. I also was carrying a 40 pound pack, which limited my ability to lift myself with my right leg only, even if my left leg hadn’t been stuck like it and my boot were in concrete. And all the while the cold snow was quickly freezing my exposed skin from the top of my gators at mid shin to the bottom of my shorts at mid-thigh. After I got over a brief moment of panic Tom and Steve quickly came to my assistance, and we knocked the packed snow away from my leg and boot with our hiking poles, and within five minutes they were able to lift me out of the hole. But I wondered what could have happened to me had I been hiking alone in such conditions.
After quite some time of struggling up the increasingly steep snowy slope, with occasional patches of snowless boulders to hop across, we reached the top 30 feet of the mountain below Ruskie Pass. The exposed granite there was nearly impossible to climb, and the snow there was nearly vertical. Bud clawed and kicked holds in the snow and, using his crampons and a lot of will power, pulled himself up the final 20 feet, finally cresting the top. I used the same toe holds Bud had kicked out with his crampons, but one foothold broke out and I started to slip down the steep slope. Bud called for me to hold my hiking pole up to him, and he helped pull me over the edge of the slope. However, without crampons neither Tom nor Steve could stay in the toe holds Bud and I used, so Tom hacked his way through the snow, and wedged himself between the snow and the granite, and Steve followed him into the groove, and Bud and I hoisted their packs to the top, and then Bud hoisted up Tom and Steve.
We were elated to reach the top, and relieved, and a muted celebration occurred; Hugs and high-fives all around. A "woo-hooo!" or two. Others had been there, atop Ruskie Pass, no doubt. But, though we had followed largely in Bud’s footsteps, we had not followed any other footsteps there. This was our victory, and we were literally and emotionally on top of the world.
Later that night, after an equally grueling hike down into a frozen Seven Gables Lakes basin, I told my three exhausted hiking companions that the experience of the day ranked in the top ten days of my life. Tom, after reflection, was incredulous that it only made my top ten. For all of us, the experience of this day was up there somewhere, and we were up there somewhere, and God was up there somewhere, and it was awesome.
Lower Seven Gables Lake, from our camp site, looking up at the back side of Ruskie Pass.