Martha arranged a backpacking trip to spend three days in the eastern Sierras hiking out of a trail head near Bishop Calif. She had done a similar hike a few years ago with her Girl Scout troop and wanted to introduce me to the topography. I expanded the trip to eight days and invited family and friends on the outing as well.
Over the next few months we outlined a trip using a topographical map of the area. We would hike over Lamarck Col in the Eastern Sierras. Our group totaled eight people. We planned the menus and went shopping for the food. We met in the employee break room at the vet hospital one evening to weigh the gear and ingredients, so everyone carried their fair share of the load. We divvied up the food and instructed
everyone to meet back at the hospital parking lot at 6:00 am Saturday morning with their backpacks ready to go.
There was too much gear for eight people to get everyone and their stuff packed into one van. So, four people rode in my Toyota wagon and four people went in brother Mike’s van. Six hours later we pulled off Hwy 395 to search for our trail head at North Lake. Just as we were getting out our map and compass to see where to head, brother Rick announced he forgot to bring his sleeping bag.
“How could you do this?” I was incredulous considering the extreme planning we had done to make sure every piece of gear would be there for us. We were hiking in August, but the elevations were high enough to warrant bringing winter jackets to keep us warm. I decided Rick would be given everybody’s coat at bedtime, and it was up to him to stay as warm as he could. He was sharing a tent with Mike, so possibly the two of them could figure out a better heating option. We later found out this warmth was factored in. Both Mike and Rick each brought a bottle of Jack Daniels whiskey in their backpacks, the elixir that opened Mike's eyes into the distant past.
The North Lake trail head is at 9,400 feet. Our trip over the Lamarck Col took us up to 12,900 feet. A col is a depression between two mountain peaks. It is higher than a valley but easier to pass through than climbing either of the two adjacent mountains. We were pressed for time and opted not to spend a pre-adjustment overnight at this two-mile height change from home. It would have been better to come a day early to allow the body time to physiologically acclimate to the stresses of keeping itself alive at a mile and a half high. It's not an undoable feat, but one that needs more prepping than a six-hour drive. Because of this, we were easily winded as we trekked our way toward the col.
I pulled out the map. The route was inked in, and I needed to coordinate my compass settings with the physical landmarks to chart a way up the mountain. There were no other hikers we could discuss a route with, so Martha and I shot a compass course as best we could. This was inaccurate, however, because we both forgot to figure in the magnetic declination! This is the change that occurs on a map between true north and magnetic north, and it changes depending on where you are in the country, and you have to correct the route on the map by altering the magnetic declination to fit the particular area. We had not done this calculation, and our hiking trail was off about 12 degrees from where it was supposed to be, taking us on a harder and longer route along the face of the mountain instead of near the bottom. This ended up costing us time and energy. If we had not been so paranoid about the accuracy of our trail, we could have eyeballed the valley and seen an easier way. But the terrain was foreign, and the crew was new, so we stuck to the map coordinates.
Two hours behind schedule, about three in the afternoon, we finally made it to the bottom of Lamarck Col. We looked up to see if the top was in view. It wasn't; all we saw was a giant ice sheet going up into the sky until it dropped from sight. The entire mountain approach was covered in snow and ice. And it was the only way, in the snow. Because of the steep sides and large boulders, we couldn't see a pathway along the rocks outside of the ice sheet. We would have to walk up the icy face of the mountain. Martha and I prepared for the ice fields. I pulled out a pair of crampons which are one-inch long spikes that strap to your shoes and give you the bite necessary to walk up an ice sheet. We also packed a length of rope, and an ice ax, allowing us to work our way up the ice sheet.
Rick and I walked and picked our way up the icy face, carving out a landing spot every sixty feet, where we threw the rope down to the others and help bring them up to the current landing spot. We repeated this maneuver four or five times until we reached the top of the col. Dusk was starting to settle, but we could make out the dramatic change in topography as we scanned the horizon in front of us. Below us lay Darwin Canyon, and farther away was Evolution Valley. There were no trees here as far as we could see, just snow and mountains. Massive granite peaks marched away into the distance. Nothing grew higher than a few inches in this arctic/alpine climate zone of forever coldness.
Gigantic boulders were strewn haphazardly down the Darwin side of the col. I felt the canyon and valley were aptly named. Mike wanted to call the place Dinosaur Land. After working his way to the summit, brother Tim walked over to the side and threw up. The combination of extreme altitude, haphazard mountaineering, and snowy ascent was too much for him. Sister Jackie did the same thing when she made it to the top. We hiked into Darwin Canyon only a few hundred feet below the col before we made camp for the night, far from our charted destination. Cooking a quick dinner, we erected the tents and fell asleep at 12,000 feet above sea level.
That first day was the hardest; each day after became easier. Abandoning our meticulous compass readings, we used the map topography to chart our way. The maps showed the mountain peaks and, once these were identified, we visually charted a path between them. We walked south from Darwin Lakes to Evolution Lake where we found a campsite. At Evolution Lake, we intersected with the John Muir Trail but never did run into anyone else during our trip.
Next, we followed Evolution Creek north as it emptied from Evolution Lake into Evolution Valley on its way to become the San Joaquin River in central California. The trail through Evolution Valley is flat and the elevation is low enough to support forests and meadows. We spent Monday and Tuesday hiking down the valley and scheduled a rest day on Wednesday. All we did was bathe, eat, and recuperate from our first four days. Martha and I had a side trip planned, but no one wanted to go.
Thursday was the turnaround point of our odyssey. We began to focus on home. Continuing down Evolution Creek until it intersected with Piute Creek, we turned east to follow Piute Creek to its origin three thousand feet up the mountain. It was a climb our toughened bodies performed more smoothly.
Friday, we continued climbing, losing all the trees, and camping near a few ice-cold lakes, aptly named Upper and Lower Golden Trout Lakes. Somehow, they were stocked with trout. There were so few insects that catching these fish was the easiest fishing I have ever done in my life.
Saturday morning, we had four hours of hiking to do to get back to our trail head. Still climbing, as we left the trout lakes, we traveled up a rocky boulder-strew trail all the way to Piute Pass, another eastern slope. The landscape changed back to the icy wonderland of Lamarck Col, with slippery boulders and rocks encased at the bottom of the frigid glacier.
This time, though, we looked at the ice with excitement instead of trepidation. The odds were in our favor now. During the week we acclimated to the altitude, whipped soft bodies into excellent physical condition, emptied the packs of all the dense food, and now we were going downhill.
The snowy ice was pure white on the top and a dark, pure blue color underneath. We slid down it easily. The magnificence of the moment forged an unforgettable memory in me. As the elevation decreased and the snow receded the most massive boulders showed their warm rocky heads. We maintained our downhill speed by hopping down the bigger rocks like mountain goats.
Further down we encountered hikers who were just starting the arduous trek up the mountain. We waved and smiled knowingly at them. They were naive young-uns just as we had been only days before. Now we were tested, we passed, and we were superior.
Audiobook coming soon