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.
Day 2 (Thursday): Gilbert Lake to Charlotte Lake [5 Hours, about 6.5 miles]
Kevin and the Switchbacks
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]
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.
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.