ALL-TROUT 2008: Elevations
Onion Valley to Gilbert Lake to Charlotte Lake to Rae Lakes to Kearsarge Lakes
to Onion Valley
August 6 – 10, 2008
Charles, Kevin, Steve
I am in familiar territory as I make these entries; Charles flyfishes to my left (he has caught and released three brook trout already), and Kevin sits across the bay, watching the action and enjoying some well-deserved rest. We are surrounded by just another of the Sierras’ wonders: beautiful Rae Lake (the middle of the three Rae Lakes, actually), which by itself is surrounded by breathtaking peaks (including Fin Dome, Painted Lady, and Dragon Peak) that spire another 2,000 feet above us, making our own altitude of 10,538 feet seem relatively moderate. Our trek here, however, is a testament to the fact that neither this particular lake nor either of its sisters has an altitude or an accessibility that can be described as “moderate.”
Our journey to these shores, in which this writer’s sore and ill-used feet currently rest, involved – no, demanded – the 2,600 ascent to Kearsarge Pass at 11,845 feet, and a second ascent of 1,600 feet to Glen Pass, which itself reaches 11,978 feet. And now, as six o’clock approaches and the sun threatens to dip behind the massive peaks at our backs, Charles has caught and released his seventh brook trout. I will, in the few minutes remaining before the evening’s dinner preparations begin, try to summarize our journey thus far. First, it should be noted that while we find ourselves at this serene and expansive lake, which with its beauty begs us to stay for a day or even a week, it is present in all of our minds that the retreat back to civilization will not wait, and that we have two passes in excess of 11,800 feet and more than eleven miles of trail to conquer before our journey’s end a day and a half from now. We’ll see how that unfolds.
Day 1 (Wednesday): Onion Valley to Gilbert Lake [1.5 Hours, about 2 miles]
This writer put in half a day’s work at the office, and headed north to another perfectly-timed rendezvous with Charles and Kevin outside Independence. A quick left on Market Street and a 12-mile drive took us beyond Grays Meadows and to the Onion Valley trailhead. Due to our late arrival (just after five o’clock), we contemplated staying a night at the Onion Valley campground and starting our hike the next morning. The call of the Sierran trail could not be denied, however, and we found ourselves hurriedly stuffing our backpacks for a short hike to Gilbert Lake or perhaps Flower Lake. We opted for the former, so as to preserve some of the escaping daylight to use for camp selection and the preparation of dinner.
So, after a brief, 90-minute climb and with two miles under our belts (and having outpaced a group of teenage backpackers who with their youth should have left us far behind), we set up camp above the inlet of Gilbert Lake. A very pretty spot, but the uneven pitch left us rolling around in the three-man tent, which had been graciously loaned to us by Andrei, who had to forego the trip in view of family commitments. He did the right thing by opting out, of course, but his presence has been missed. As for his part, he missed a dinner of freeze-dried stroganoff (by Mountain High), which scored a collective 6, and Mexican-style rice and chicken (by Mountain House), which was a big hit and scored an 8. The night of sleep was restless and interrupted for all of us, which is not uncommon for the first night out but which was exacerbated in this instance by our uneven floor.
Day 2 (Thursday): Gilbert Lake to Charlotte Lake [5 Hours, about 6.5 miles]
Charles was up before the sun, which had the unfortunate effect of waking this writer and perhaps Kevin (it being difficult to exit a tent quietly), but yielded some beautiful photos of Gilbert Lake at dawn (taken by Charles with this writer’s new camera, a welcome addition to the trip despite its weight). We ate a leisurely breakfast (the usual fare of oatmeal/cream of wheat and coffee, which for the rest of this log shall be stated as “breakfast”), after which we began the arduous climb to Kearsarge Pass at 11,845 feet.
Charles’ Sunrise at Gilbert Lake
The climb to Kearsarge Pass was difficult, but our legs were fresh and our spirits high. It was also helpful that Charles and I knew what trial to expect from Kearsarge Pass, as we had day-hiked it some 8 years prior. The slight cloud cover was welcome to cool us off during the ascent, but it did hamper the picture taking from the pass. We lingered at the pass only long enough to take some photos, have a snack, and chat with some other hikers from Costa Mesa (who we would see a few more times during the weekend) and a dayhiker from Switzerland (who we would not). Part of our reason for not staying long at the pass was that we still had some four miles ahead of us, to Charlotte Lake.
Kevin and Charles at Kearsarge Pass
We took the “high trail” from Kearsarge Pass to Charlotte Lake, which gave us a spectacular view of the valley below (through which the “low trail” passes, which we would travel on our journey home), the Kearsarge Pinnacles and Bullfrog Lake.
Kevin and Bullfrog Lake from the High Trail
Charles, Steve and Bullfrog Lake from the High Trail
Our five-hour hike (all travel times including lunch and photo stops) put us at Charlotte Lake around three thirty, at which time we promptly did nothing, until dinner. Charlotte Lake was nice, and larger than most of the Sierran lakes we’ve visited. Because we were too busy (doing nothing), however, we (Charles) did not try the waters for fishing. After freeze-dried potatoes with beef, and sweet and sour pork (both by Mountain High, and scoring a 6 and an 8, respectively), we retired to the tent for some Texas Hold ’Em poker. We each began with 10 pebbles (Charles’ hand-selected pebbles borderlined on stones), each worth 1 unit of “High Sierra currency,” 10 twigs, worth 5, and 10 pine needles, worth 10. We were planning on setting the stakes as “free dinner in Lone Pine on Sunday” but we never clarified the wager with sufficient detail. As a result, Charles won the game, but we’re not exactly sure what he won.
Day 3 (Friday): Charlotte Lake to Rae Lakes [5.5 Hours, about 5.5 miles]
This writer was the first to rise, with a trip to distant Rae Lakes on his mind. After snapping a few photos of Charlotte Lake in the early morning light and fetching some water from the still waters, this writer enjoyed his breakfast in solitude, pouring over the map and wondering if he would be day-hiking to Rae Lakes on his own or backpacking for an overnight stay with his comrades. Either way, he knew it was his destiny (or at least his desire) to visit Rae Lakes. After Kevin and Charles arose and contemplated the journey over their coffee, it was decided that our entire party would hazard the climb over Glen Pass and down to the Rae Lakes basin. Easier said than done, it turned out.
Charlotte Lake in the Morning
From Charlotte Lake, the climb to Glen Pass was “only” 1,600 vertical feet over five miles, but it would turn out to be the most difficult of all our days’ hikes. Coming from the south side of the pass leaves the backpacker exhausted physically from the enduring ascent, and fatigued mentally from the foreboding peak ahead and the difficulty in calculating how any trail could possibly deliver us from “down here” to “up there.”
We Have To Climb Up THERE?
Kevin and the Switchbacks
Charles Atop Glen Pass
(Rae Lakes to the Left, Charlotte Lake to the Right)
The trail did deliver us (or perhaps “allow” us is a better word), as most trails do, and we were rewarded with spectacular panoramic views of both where we had been and where we were going. The hike down from Glen Pass was no picnic, however: 1,500 feet of descent over a brief two miles, broken by many rest stops and a nice lunch some three or four hundred feet above the lakes. Despite the difficult trek (which brought to the forefront the structural deficiencies in this writer’s left knee), the Rae Lakes are unquestionably worth the toil. As described previously in this log, the area is impossibly beautiful, and really should involve a layover stay.
The Painted Lady
The afternoon’s events already having been noted previously in this log, suffice it to say that after watching Charles flyfish and then watching a helicopter land at a nearby meadow to airlift a hiker with severe altitude sickness, we dined and retired by eight o’clock – which would have been embarrassingly early but for the toil of the day.
Rae Lakes (Again)
For the culinary recap, dinner was Lasagna (Backpacker’s Pantry) which scored a solid 7 but which was not the exquisite Mountain House lasagna from the prior year’s trip (which undoubtedly would have rated a 10), and another course of stroganoff, which was another fine Mountain House product and scored a 7 to best the Mountain High stroganoff we’d had on Day 1.
Day 4 (Saturday): Rae Lakes to Kearsarge Lakes via Bullfrog Lake [6 Hours, about 7 miles]
Not ones to let the moss gather on this trip, we packed up early (for us, anyway) and hit the trail by nine o’clock. We knew our longest walk, although perhaps not the most difficult, lie ahead: a seven-mile hike starting with a 1,500 foot climb to the intimidating Glen Pass. We weathered the climb as would be expected: with our slow pace, we appeared almost to pick our way along the trail with a deliberate lack of speed, when actually we were moving at full gait.
Leaving Rae Lakes
The extreme difficulty of the walk, made even more so by the weight of our packs, with the silence broken only by our breathing, the pounding of our hearts and the sound of our footfalls (speech being too difficult to manage), gave the mind ample time to investigate and analyze the events and circumstances that comprise and populate our existences. This writer, thankful for his knees’ recovery (but still aching in the left knee and forced to use the full brace on that leg during the descent from Glen Pass), did not for an instant forget that admission to the back country can be easily revoked by the infliction of an injury or a conflict with work or family responsibilities. How thankful this writer was to be present in such beauty, even during the most difficult parts of the walk, when participation rests on such a thin line. This writer pledged each footfall for those who are unable to make them, and took in all the beauty of this rugged land to share with those who, through no fault of their own, are unable to enjoy pleasures which the rest of us take for granted, flitting through our lives with carefree ease while others struggle to reconcile the world around them. When you hike for someone else, the most difficult and even painful steps can be endured with no matter. And so this writer, and his cadre with their own inspirations and motivations, reached the summit of Glen Pass, down the absurdly steep south side, and along yesterday’s trail to the junction above Charlotte Lake.
From there we headed down into the valley to explore the more wooded areas of our trip along the “low trail,” and had lunch on a peninsula penetrating towards the center of Bullfrog Lake, itself an example of the Sierras’ finer points. It was difficult to get up after relaxing and having lunch on Bullfrog’s shores, but we did just that. We finished off the day’s hike with a mile walk to Kearsarge Lakes for what would be our final camp of the trip.
Kearsarge Lakes are nestled at the bottom of the Kearsarge Pinnacles, which themselves are a series of 11,600 foot plus peaks of pointed, jagged stone. There are three Kearsarge Lakes grouped together, with our camp on the eastern shore of the largest lake, and a fourth Kearsarge lake off on its own. The lakes are a popular starting-off point for backpackers beginning their treks, as well as a convenient place to camp on a last night out (as is our case). As a result, the lakes are densely populated (“crowded” would be too strong a word), at least by Sierran standards.
We arrived around three o’clock, with plenty of sunshine to enjoy a relaxing afternoon (the closest this group has seen to a layover on this trip). Charles flyfished, of course, and this writer turned to his pen and log. Kevin observed both from his perch on a rock, which he preferred to the soft grass that bordered the lake. After not too long, the call of the lake was overwhelming (as was the desire to wash away four days’ worth of “trail dust” – to put it politely), and this writer climbed into the lake. It was a brief stay, but the rejuvinative effects were well worth the momentary frigidness. Drying off while sitting in the sunshine on the grass by the lake made the hikes of the last four days seem that much more worthwhile, and that much more distant. Kevin and Charles soon appeared on my private beach, having seen my antics from a distance, and they too found themselves subject to the siren’s song of the lake. Charles was first, and his brief stay matched my own. Kevin was last to enter the waters, but his entrance put Charles and me to shame. He’d spied a deep pool in my previously-private beach, and he jumped into the lake as easily as someone would dive off a diving board and into a swimming pool. He was not bound by the timidity and caution exercised by Charles and me, now seemingly unnecessarily. For good measure, he dunked a second time before exiting the lake. This writer is credited for instigating the events, and Kevin collects first prize for form and substance. Charles is the middle-child of lake swimming, and his efforts are best forgotten.
The Semi-Private Beach
After the swim, we returned to our occupations of writing, flyfishing and observing. We then made dinner to the sound of distant (we hoped) coyote howls. The fare was Mexican, with Backpackers Pantry making a strong showing with Santa Fe chicken (an 8) and Mountain House providing Mexican-styled rice and chicken (also an 8). We carried our dinner to the same lakeshore boulder from which Charles had flyfished. His catch for the day was only one, although numerous other fish had shown a sincere interest in being caught but had been unable to affix themselves properly to Charles’ hooks.
After dinner we retired to the tent for some cards, the cold and the mosquitoes happily left outside, with the agreement that we would return to the out-of-doors to finally engage in some stargazing, which our prior nights had denied as a result of the search for sleep, the resting of wary bones, or the simple escape from the cold. And that brings this log up to date, for the moment anyway. We’ve just determined that Kevin’s cards (from the Sahara Casino in Las Vegas) has TWO jacks of spades. Not sure how this impacts Charles’ Texas Hold ’Em victory from day 2… We played a round of Rummy 500, which this writer was able to win despite the cunning and guile of Kevin (Charles struggled to finish the game in positive territory).
Sleep claimed Kevin first, and this writer and Charles lay awake, ruminating over the events of this trip and prior trips, and commencing the planning for future trips, until Charles at last and after not inconsiderable effort provided the necessary inspiration to ply this writer from the warmth of tent and proceed with the previously-promised stargazing. It was somewhere between eleven o’clock and midnight as we walked down to the lake, this writer clad in all of his clothes, pants, jacket, Patagonia, etc., and Charles clad only in his briefs. How he did not freeze, I never will know, as I was cold even with all my garb. Charles undoubtedly would explain this by stating that men will be men and boys will be boys (and perhaps dropping a causal reference to the Swiss blood that flows through his veins), whereas this writer would submit that Charles simply didn’t have the sense to know when he should have been cold.
In any case, we were rewarded with a most impressive display of stars, which was visible not only in the sky but also in the lake’s reflection with the same clarity and intensity as in the heavens above. It was indescribably amazing to see the entirety of the Big Dipper and countless other stars reflected in the lake; a polished mirror could not have done a better job. The peaks containing our valley were lit by the (half) moonlight and the starlight, which made them appear almost white against the black sky. Kearsarge pass, our final pass to re-climb on our way back to civilization, was also visible in the white light. The grass beneath our feet, as we walked from the lake’s edge back to our tent, appeared white as well, an almost phosphorescent hue, which caught my attention as well as Charles’. We are not sure if the transformation of the grass was a function of our headlamps or the dew or some other phenomena, but it was rather interesting. The combination of the stars, the lake’s reflection, the view of the surrounding hardscape, and the changing grass made for quite a rewarding and memorable event, one for which this writer remains thankful to Charles and his persistence; left on my own, I never would have ventured from the tent.
Day 5 (Sunday): Kearsarge Lakes to Onion Valley [3 Hours, about 5.5 miles]
The frost on our tent in the morning explained why we’d all been cold during the night (and perhaps contributed to the appearance of the grass during our nocturnal jaunt). Frost or no frost, however, we climbed out into the cold and packed up camp. We left by nine o’clock, just as the mosquitoes began to show up in force to mount their attack. We walked along two of the three Kearsarge Lakes, and then scaled Kearsarge Pass which lie just above our camp, a difficult climb of 1,000 feet but forgivingly short. We reached the pass in an hour’s time, and in another two hours we reached the Onion Valley trailhead, marking the day’s hike at something near 5.5 miles. Another trip completed. Until next year, boys, after the snows.
Another of the Kearsage Lakes
A few random notes:
This is the first trip where this writer replaced his annual Red Man consumption with beef jerky, in honor of Hacksaw’s victory over cancer (as well as an act of self-preservation). Not sure which makes a person less attractive, a wad of tobacco in his cheek as he works the trail, or a wad of beef. I suspect neither one does much to improve the user’s breath.
Kevin wanted a special note added that while they are not typical backpacker’s fare, his Oreo cookies and peanut-butter-filled pretzels were a big hit.
All of this writer’s lunches (Underwood’s deviled chicken or tuna on a bagel) were made much tastier by spice packets provided by Shannon. Thanks!
Notes regarding gas consumption for next year’s planning: we used two big cans and part of a small can over eight meals for three people. There has to be a formula in there, somewhere.
We stopped for lunch at the Ranch House Inn in Olancha on the way home. As much as this writer fancies that property, we were all left underwhelmed with our meal and will likely return to the Pizza Factory in Lone Pine next year.
Kevin’s impressive and fearless entry into Kearsarge Lake has earned him an alternate name, and perhaps an alternate existence, as “Cannonball.”
Charles has reminded me to include reference to the teenager, himself an ultra-marathon runner, who we saw running (or at least jogging) over the same Glen Pass which we struggled to ascend. We chatted with the runner on a few occasions, and learned that he was from Chicago and was backpacking with his parents. It was his practice to wake before his parents and leave camp in the morning, to jog to the next destination and back again, only to then put on his pack and re-hike the same trail with his gear on his back and with his parents, thus covering the same trail three times in the same day. We questioned his sanity (in polite fashion), but were pleased with his response: he said he was having the most fun running that he’d ever had. While we were all astonished by the physical feats of the runner, this writer was comforted to learn that after crossing Glen Pass three times in a day, the runner had “no interest in seeing that pass again for at least few days.”
In Charles’ words from an e-mail sent after the trip:
Our thoughts on this trip seemed to be reflected in the deep blues of the lakes. The camera served us well. Keep this in mind for out our future trips: going out on a cold night in my underpants makes me feel like a Superhero.
I don’t know if it merits a log in WT, but my thoughts keep coming back to the young kid running the ultras. He seemed to represent what we sought out on this trip, “to bag a couple of peaks” while keeping the journey near, as he expressed in his comments about how much fun he was having.
In addition, his presence also represented youth and energy for what has become to us as privilege “to be present in such beauty…when participation rests on such a thin line.” Leaving the high school kids in the dust in the beginning of our trek, deciding to overnight at Rae Lakes and watching Cannonball make WT history, we participated in a way that would contrast our first attempt at Kearsarge Pass when we first started the WT journey. At first, we passed by Flower Lake without noiticing, then we seemed to be looking at it as though trying to recover a feeling of what was there back in the year 2000. We have changed and have become Superheros, if only for one night a year.
And a few after-the-trip comments from Kevin (aka Cannonball) as well:
we covered some 26 miles of trail, and bagged a peak every day save the initial 5pm hike-in day. the relatively modest mileage belies the exertion required to carry man + gear over the passes in the thin mountain air. there were several points during the trip (either side of kearsarge pass, and either side of glen pass) where my heart rate was pegged, my lungs were working overtime, and my calf muscles felt as if they would split my skin wide open. the physical toll that the trail exacted from me, however, was fair exchange for the beauty of the sierra wilderness, and the lasting memories.
special thanks to Steve for supplying quantities of good, and better tequila (which as it turns out, tastes OK out of a nagaline bottle).
…thanks to chuck for driving a hybrid vehicle – that reduced our petrol costs by half at least.
a shout out to andrei. our comrade andrei was unable to make the trip this year. it was both unfortunate and understandable that andrei couldn’t make it – family trumps hiking any day of the week. i look forward to seeing andrei on a future trip to be detailed in these very pages.