13 June 2008

Epic journey

When J and I were dating he told me of some epic backpacking trips he'd been on. They were the kind of trip where things go wrong, but everyone is fine in the end and has a great story to tell afterwards. You've heard stories like this: the backpacking trip where it torrentially downpoured the entire time and they had to sleep in a lighthouse. Or the time they went up the wrong drainage, so they had to navigate cross-country and dry camp for a night. Things like that. Well, up until now J and I really hadn't had anything you could call an epic adventure. Sure, we've gotten lost out on the dunes, finding our way back to the car at dusk and missing my bellydance class. But nothing quite like this hike.

We started out with the intention of J showing Doodle and I some of the area around the Mammoth Lakes. We planned a 6-ish mile hike, going from Horseshoe Lake past McLeod Lake, through Mammoth Pass and down into a meadow between the Red Cones (route in yellow on the map). We would then backtrack on the same trail to return to the car. Piece of cake. Nice, simple afternoon hike.

The road to Horseshoe Lake was still closed, so we had to park and walk in a little ways. No big deal. J had mentioned that there are increasing CO2 levels around Horseshoe Lake due to Mammoth Mountain's activity and that trees are dying. I expected dead trees. I did not expect skull-and-crossbones signs like these posted all around. I was alarmed, but since we were merely passing by the lake and quickly heading to higher elevations it was fine. Just unnerving.

So we skedaddled onward and upward toward Mammoth Pass. The trees looked healthy just past Horseshoe Lake, and everything was beautiful. We started to hit pockets of snow between the trees just past McLeod Lake, and were slipping on them a bit as we hiked uphill.
Doodle was giggling as we slid on the snow until I fell hard and she bonked her mouth on the back of my head. We decided that J is more stable and surefooted than I, so we traded loads and resumed hiking. We found our way through Mammoth Pass using the blue diamonds nailed to trees to mark trails in winter, as the snow between the trees obscured the trail. After lunch and a snowball fight we hiked down into the meadow between the Red Cones. There was still patchy snow in the meadow and it was too early for wildflowers. We heard a chorus of frogs on the far side of the meadow, and Doodle saw some trout swimming in the stream. (Photos: J and Doodle in the Pass, one of the Red Cones seen from the meadow.)

While we sat and played, J proposed that we make the hike into a loop. It was going well, we had enough supplies to go further, the weather was nice and Doodle was enjoying herself. Why not? The proposed route (in orange and pink) went down ~1600m into Red's Meadow via the Pacific Crest Trail. We would then see if the bath house for the Red's Meadow hotsprings was open, and maybe take a quick d ip. Then back up the trail out of Red's Meadow, through Mammoth Pass, and back to the car. It would add, we estimated, about 5 miles to our hike. We could definitely make it back to the car way before sunset. After all, it was only 1pm. We decided to go for it. With Miss Doodle back in her pack we set off for Red's Meadow.

The hike was gorgeous, and the trail was in great condition. After a little while we realized that our map must not be accurate, as it said we were supposed to be reaching tight switchbacks and instead we were slowly meandering down the hill via winding traverses. Oh well, we thought. We were still heading in the right direction. It was just taking a bit longer than we anticipated. Then we made it to the burn. A few years back this area east of Devil's Postpile National Monument was burned. It is now covered in downed trees, standing dead trunks, tree debris and small shrubs. It was a beautiful but eerie setting. Fortunately the trail had been cleared of debris, so it was still easy going. (Photo: view of Devil's Postpile from the Pacific Crest Trail between Red Cones and Red's Meadow.)

Doodle was napping, the area was gorgeous. And then, a stream crossing. It's silly, really. I have crossed roaring torrents on teetery logs and slippery rocks. This involved none of that. It was a little stream with large, easy flat stones to walk across on. The only problem was that a few of the stones were kind of resting on/supported by a log. The water passed around these stones, then dropped below the log in a mini waterfall. This left some gappage between some of the stones and the log, where one could look down and see the hillside below. Not problematic for some. Very problematic for me. I have been terrified of things just like this my whole life. Just ask my mom about her adventures with me and those open staircases where you can see between the stairs. Yep, terrifying. So when I went to step on the second stone and not only was their a hole that I could see through, but the stone WIGGLED...it was all over. I panicked, wobbled, and promptly stepped into the stream. The cost: two wet feet, and no spare dry socks. Crap. Nothing to do but continue on, now squishing and squelching. J kept asking how my feet were, which was sweet. But they were still wet. We slogged on.

Made it to Red's Meadow, which was pretty. We saw a couple of deer. Walked to the hot springs, and since the road to the meadow was still closed, the bath houses were too. Bummer. Added bummer: the hotsprings were all capped/diverted such that we couldn't even stick our feet (mine clammy) in the warm water. Ah well. We instead soaked our feet in the frigidly cold stream very quickly, then donned our shoes and packs and headed for the trailhead back out. Time check: 5pm. Later than we'd planned on being out, but that's okay. We'd hop on the trail up the hill and be back to the car in no time. Right?

Wrong. I mentioned that our map was inaccurate with the trail from Red Cones to Red's Meadow. Well lucky us, it was also off on the trailhead out of Red's Meadow (this part is in pink on the map). We couldn't find it. This meant trekking cross-country up a large hill (remember the 1600m elevation drop we just did? Now we had to go back up it). Cross country travel is much slower than trail hiking, particularly when you get to the aforementioned burned area. All that woody debris? We had to walk over it, around it, climb on it. Rough stuff. After a serious quad workout of high-stepping over logs we finally we found a trail heading the right direction. That trail met the trail we needed to be on. Hooray! We were heading the right way, things were looking up. The sun was getting lower in the sky, but we were making progress.

Until...the pass. Remember the pass? The snow, the obscured trail? Yep, still there. But this time we got off the trail AGAIN, and now couldn't find the little blue diamonds on the trees to guide us. Crap crap crap! More cross-country travel, slipping and sliding on the snow as it was slowly getting a little bit darker. At one point in this I started crying, afraid that we'd be spending the night in the wilderness (Ansel Adams Wilderness - see photo below), which I was not at all excited to do. J reassured me that we were heading the right direction, that once we were through the pass it would be easy going. That he knew where we were, even if we couldn't find the trail. He gave me the compass as reassurance that he really was heading east, the direction we needed to go. We would make it out of the pass, then downhill to the lakes and back to the car. We could do this. I was silently fuming, but very grateful that J was willing to pause and talk rationally with me in my moment of panic.

We pushed onward. I watched the compass, making sure we were going the right way. I scanned the trees frantically, searching for those darn blue diamonds. Finally, I saw one! (A small part of me had wanted to see the trail markers before J as a spiteful little "Ha! I found it. Now I can get us out of here!" But once we saw them, I was just relieved and my crankiness subsided a bit.) We were back on the trail. Soon we found McLeod lake, then the snow subsided and we quickly made it down to Horseshoe Lake. The sun was now behind the mountains at our backs, and it was getting dark. Fast. But we were on the last little stretch, which was pavement back to the car. We were tired, sore and hungry. My feet were still damp and starting to blister up. Doodle was tired and a little fussy in her backpack, but still quite the trooper. (Side note: If you're looking for a baby backpack, try this one. It is WONDERFUL.)

We finally made it back to the car after 9:30pm. It was dark and cold. But we had made it. What a relief. We piled in, and headed back to the cabin. The next day we were feeling the effects of the scrambling and extended hiking. I had blisters on my feet. J and I had legs so sore we could hardly move. I had tender spots on my clavicles from a too-big daypack. We decided to relax, and let Doodle have a day of freedom from constraints. She earned it, after many hours and nearly 13 miles of hiking in her backpack.

In all, it was a good hike. We saw beautiful scenery. We had fun. We did learn that we need to re-evaluate our collective limits, and that maybe next time we'll just go for that 6 mile out-and-back hike. But we also learned that when we have to, we can do the 13 mile, lots of elevation change hike with soggy feet and a toddler and survive to tell about it. And now we have a family epic hike story we can tell.


Matt said...

Epic, indeed! So glad that it worked out all right. A little surprised that the open-staircase/wobbly-rock syndrome doesn't have a homeopathic remedy for it.
Ah, yes. An epic adventure, worthy of telling and re-telling for future bug-lovers and doodles and all others involved.

Amy said...

Your trip sounds so much like some of the HAIRY ones Aaron and I have taken! Where Aaron says "Why don't we try this?" And I'm looking at him like "Okay?" And then, at the end of the fiasco, he will turn to me and say "Maybe that wasn't such a great idea!" and all I can do is just nod and say "uuummm"! One time while we lived in Idaho, we stopped in Twin Falls and Aaron got this idea to drive through Sundance to get home. Well, it is normally a 5 hour drive from my dad's house to our old house, it took us 10 hours to get home. We had NO cell coverage, so my dad was literally FREAKING out because he couldn't get a hold of us! Finally, when we got home, Aaron turns to me and says"Maybe we shouldn't do that again! That took a little longer than I expected!"

Knotty Britta said...

Chris and I, and my old best roommate ever took a hike like that once too. It's a great story that I won't bore you with, but we ended up hiking miles out of the way through poison oak and wading across a river...