Monday, September 12, 2011

Massive Dissapointment / Best Backcountry Trip Of My Life.

Well, we finally went. This trip has been several years in the making. We tried to go last year, but the way that the permitting was set up, and with a long winter, we were unable to go before the area closed. Lakes were still frozen solid in mid July.

If you bum around the High Sierra corner of this shady world wide web long enough, and you have a penchant for the piscine, you will catch whispers. Sometimes just a word or two, here or there, an infuriatingly obfuscated post there, and maybe, just maybe a picture or ancient article pertaining to this watershed.

Somehow, in an impressive feat of contradiction, our target is poised simultaneously way up high in the Sierra and yet buried down in a moonscape pit of misery and spite. But, as the whispers would have you believe, this place of lore has in it's waters a sparkling little trout found nowhere else in California besides these few remote lakes. At least they are alleged to live here. So, being the kinda guy I am, I have had an overwhelming urge to travel to their beautiful, remote lair, find these amazing and rare creatures, admire their beauty, and ultimately jab insanely sharp chunks of steel through their face and yank them out of their natural environment.



Friday 4:30 PM
In Transit

Brandon, my would be hiking accomplice, arrives at my house. We drink a beer. We prepare for a 6 hour drive across California. We subsequently depart on said adventure. By the time we hit Bridgeport, we were already bored to the point of trying to catch moths at 70mph with our hands out Brandon's sunroof. Ridiculous. But fun. About 30 miles short of Bishop, we were pulled over. Apparently, at some point during our journey, someone felt that Brandon's driving abilities left some to be desired. Someone besides me. Someone with a cell phone. After enduring a 30 minute barrage of roadside sobriety tests, we were once again cleared for takeoff. Exciting trip already. We found awesome sleeping accomodations in the car, in a shifty truck lot in Lone Pine.



Saturday 7:30 AM
Pain, Misery, Switchbacks, Bureaucratic Horse Shit

Our lovely first day was started off with the insanely laughable lottery at the Interagency Facility. This gem of an idea was designed to determine just who they should serve first when they open their doors in the morning. In true federal fashion, it was a 20 minute process designed to save 4 minutes of waiting. Genius. I still got drawn to be served first. There is a silver lining for those that claim I am an eternal pessimist. We took the Rallycrawler down this nice road to get to our trailhead.



Upon arriving at the trailhead proper, the dread began to set in. We knew what was on the slate for today, at least we thought we did. It was gonna suck. We were gonna leave the car at 5,500ft in elevation, and after a total of 6,000ft of gain, would find ourselves camping near 11,000ft that night. Our camp for the night was not only a whole hell of a lot higher than we were, it was also 10.5 miles away. Big day ahead folks.

The trail doesn't give you much of a chance to loosen up before it starts kicking your ass. It was already a pretty hot day, even at 9AM. After about three quarters of a mile, the steep, long switchbacks start, and they dont let up. For hours. It was an all out assault on the mountain, and as is the case in war, the high ground has the advantage. TAKE THAT HILL!





By noon we had accomplished the first big climb. It was about 3,500ft of elevation gain. We were hurting already and we had a long ways to go. Fortunately the people who cut this trail were most likely on Peyote, so we quickly gave up a bunch of that elevation so that we could get it back later!





See that farthest saddle in the background? That is where we were headed. This is AFTER the initial death slog up the mountain. We were hating life by now, but the views were already spectacular. The southern Sierra is a big beautiful place.



We perservered. But it was really tough. The switchbacks just refused to stop coming. Big long old bastards that would take you away from your intended destination for hundreds of steep yards, just to turn you back again. Our minds would have been numb from the monotony, if it wasnt for the pain. Brandon wanted to go back to the car and abort. But he ultimately stuck it out. We knew this day was gonna suck, and we thought that our minds had made it worse than it was gonna be. Despite how pessimistic our minds were, the trail was worse still. By the time we drug our sorry asses into our mosquito infested camp site, we were done. Barely had enough energy to cook up some trail pizza and hit the sack. Trail pizza was bomb. Frying pan- tortilla - marinara packet - string cheese - salami - tortilla. Heat, flip, heat, eat. BOMB trail grub.



Sunday 6:40 AM
HATE DAY

We awoke unwillingly to my infernal alarm clock without alacrity. Sore. Mosquitos everywhere. Another miserable assault on the steep granite slopes of this alpine heaven/hell. To the top of the pass we go. Switchbacks on top of switchbacks. Loose talus. Snowfields. Good day.





Just when we thought that our uphill toils would never end, we were smacked in the face by the awe inspiring sight of Mt. Tyndall and the top of the pass.



Talk about lifted spirits. We had made the climb. We were Tenzing Norgay and Sir Edmund Hillary as far as we were concerned. We dropped our packs at the little lake near the pass. Our plans for the rest of the day were to venture into the much anticipated bowl and Sequoia National Park in search of our rare quarry.



First though, a respite. What better way to relax than to harass the local inhabitants. Rumored to be small Golden Trout, but we were gonna find out for ourselves. As soon as I strung my rod, I had a victim in sight. A few quick strips of my poorly tied bugger and he had a lip piercing. Not a Golden, and not very small. A nice suprise.



We spent half an hour fishing, just long enough to make sure that the fish were sufficiently cowed. Cool little lake.



But, we had more important business to be about. We opted to leave our packs where they were, grabbed our rods and some water, and headed for the Bowl. It had been 3 years in the making, today was the day. We were gonna get some of these little Sierra unicorns.

The views up to the top of the bowl were absolutely stunning. Almost overwhelming to me. Like very few places on Earth, this place had me completely captivated. The drudgery of the day before seemed so worthwhile. The mountain loomed, the meadow sprawled, and my recently battered soul seemed to be soaking it all up like much needed medicine.





Upon reaching the rim of the bowl, two thoughts hit me in quick succession. First, oh my god, what a beautiful place. We are finally here. Second, holy shit. This thing is big, deep, gnarly, and gonna suck.



What these photos are failing to convey is the scale of what we are working with here. That lake on the left is probably the size of three football fields and 800ft below me.There is no trail down into the bowl. It is just a mad scramble down hundreds of feet of steep granite boulders. We headed for the far lake, higher in the bowl. It was the easiest to reach of the lakes that I understood to have fish in it, and the lake where they were most plentiful. Despite being only a half mile from where I stood, it took well over an hour to get there! Rough, rough country. Up, down, around cliffs. Ugh!







After the aforementioned trek across the bowl. We arrived at a stunning alpine lake.



My rod was already strung and I was casting within seconds. I kept casting. And casting, and casting. My eyes were straining for any sign of these mythical little fellows. But my historically exemplary fish-o-vision was giving me no positive signs. I had that feeling. Every fisherman has had it. Something is wrong. This day WILL suck. With only this dayhike to provide what were supposed to be a very easy to catch specimen, we decided to change venues and drop down to another of the lakes. Another 30 minutes of scrambling down farther into a lower circle of granite hell. Same story. No fish to be seen, smelt, or felt. I couldnt believe it. All of this anticipation, all of this planning, all of this effort, defeat looming. In a last ditch effort, we tried a third lake and at this point were unsuprised to find the exact same results. We were out of time, we were out of energy. There was no way we could or even would go down to the lowest lake. Our mission had failed. The terrorists won. We exfiltrated from the bowl.



Ive taken some walks of shame in my life. Lots of lost basketball games. Lots of Saturday morning escapes from the houses of immoral ladies. But none like this. Utter defeat. My mind raced with explanations. It is an exotic species, perhaps they rotenoned them. Perhaps they somehow, after 50 years of self sustaining, winterkilled after this gnarly winter. Perhaps it was the worlds most elaborate and mean spirited snipe hunt. That was the explanation I find most enjoyable.

I retreated to our earlier fish poking spot at the top of the pass and set up camp. Then I proceeded to take out my frustration on its constituents.




Monday 6:40 AM
The Dawn of a New Age

We managed to wake up with a positive outlook for the rest of our trip. Today we were going cross country into Sequoia National Park in search of some Goldens. After filtering some water, we were on our way across the valley.



What a beautiful place. The terrain was pretty flat and we were just taking our time and enjoying the stunning beauty of this place.



As had been the rule on this trip, the reality was much much bigger and farther and steeper than the maps would lead you to believe. We worked our way across the next little glacially scoured valley and I took a moment to karate chop this boulder. It looked me directly in the eyes. I was honor bound to serve it a whoopin.



We eventually came to a pass, that if not compared to it's fellows nearby would be pretty intense. But we made our way up the loose decomposed granite and were showered by breathtaking views as we went up.



Our newfound perch, although not providing us with a glimpse of a California Bighorn, did give us a look at the very impressive Mt.Whitney in the distance. The highest of the continental U.S. peaks, it was an amazing sight to behold.





Having finally crested the last of our ascents for the immediate future, I was insanely anxious to lay eyes on the other marquee destination for the trip. After a little off trail scrambling, I finally did. Beauty. Pure Beauty.



We dropped down the last few hundred feet like children let out on the last day of school. This place immediately spoke to me. Never has a lake grabbed hold of me like this one. I don't know what it was. Like those women that come along once in awhile, it just somehow instantly ensnared me with it's charms.



As is tradition, setting up camp was to wait. We had business to be about. Fishy business. There were fish to be seen splashing about the surface right off the bat. I couldnt get that rig assembled fast enough.

My first cast brought me a beautiful twelve inch Golden following close behind my still atrocious wooly bugger. I was as giddy as a school girl. At least this lake didnt look to disappoint! After a few more minutes I felt that sharp tug that just makes me all happy inside every time it happens.



Gorgeous. I cannot imagine a fish that more perfectly matches is beauty to that of it's environment.



I spent the entire afternoon hopping over rocks and watching 10-14 inch Golden Trout rocket out of the depths to recklessly smack a hopper or delicately sip an Elk Hair Caddis. I was in heaven. One of the best days of my life. Probably caught 30 of them over 6 hours. Not so easy that it was boring, not so tough that it was frustrating. The perfect balance of action. There were some tanks cruising around too. I hooked a couple. One of them pulled off, the other broke me off! Those fish were strong! They both would have been easy personal bests for me, but I wasnt too bummed, I was having too much fun. There were a couple absolute bruisers (20"+) that buzzed my perimeter, but they were having none of my menial offerings.





We cheated the failing light as long as possible, with rises all around, before we finally hit the sack.




Tuesday 6:40 AM
One Last Taste, The Journey Home

I couldnt get outta my bag fast enough. It was cold, I needed some hot tea, and more importantly, I wanted to catch the morning rise.



The lake in its morning light was beautiful. Such clear water.





The fishing was decent in the morning and a few more made the way to my hand. I laid down around noon and read a book, and realized I had the best front door view ever.



But my time at my new favorite place was finite, and we had to get moving down the trail. I figure we were about 16 miles from the car, so we headed back, taking our time and enjoying the scenery. I simply cannot express adequately just how stunning this area is.





This little island in the middle of the stream had a TON of Mountain Yellow Legged Frogs on it. It was entertaining to watch them jump in the creek and go swimming downstream.







We continued on in high spirits, all the way down the pass and past the mosquito hell that was our first nights camp. We made it another couple miles down the trail and quickly setup camp and crashed out.


Wednesday 6:40 AM 7:20 AM
Culmination, Civilization

After mashing the snooze a few times, we quickly broke camp and headed down the switchback nightmare. The sailing was extra smooth on the way out. Little rough on the knees, but its hard to feel too bad when all the food is gone, gravity is an ally, and oxygen is returning to the blood. We made it out quickly, and I went down to the icy stream to recover a couple of hoppy comrades I had deposited there before we left. We had been talking about these bad boys for 4 days, and they were more tasty and satisfying than you could imagine.



What a trip. Roughly 40 miles. An estimated 20,000ft of elevation change. No shortage of misery and self deprecating questioning of our sanity. Not getting that target species was a major bummer. I have always considered myself a fisherman, and only a backpacker as a means to do so. But I have discovered something on this trip. I am not the pure fisherman I thought myself to be. To the greatest degree in all my life, I felt my soul being replenished by the outdoors. Never have I stood and looked at a scene, and found my soul quiet and at peace. I am not a religious man, but I imagine that what I found out there is what many people struggle to find through faith. I know now, more than ever, just how much the solitude of the outdoors means to me, and I'm greatful for it.

"Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul."
— John Muir

Monday, August 22, 2011

At Long Last

I'm sure that some of my backcountry confederates can relate to this one. Anybody have a lake that they have looked at longingly for years, but never managed to reach? I caught whispers of this lake and it's inhabitants almost 4 years ago. Someday, I told myself at first. Then next year. Then this year. Then as some of you may recall, I attempted to get there last year. But after some.... navigational errors on the part of your narrator, I didnt quite make it.

But not this year, dammit. This year I was gonna get there, come hell (and after this winter) definitely high water.

With my big butt kicking trip of the year coming up in a week, my buddy Brandon and I decided that this was a perfect opportunity to go to the unicorn lake, as a final effort of shaping up for our big one. But this trip in and of itself is no slouch. 17 miles roundtrip. With the last 1.8 miles of the trail on the way in showing a 2,000+ft elevation gain!

We didnt have a ton of time to do this one, so as soon as Brandon got off work, we blasted down the road. The staters were out in full force, must've been Double XP weekend or something. But we managed to get past them without a ticket and by 6 we were driving alongside the river, and I found myself unable to resist the urge to stop and go head hunting for awhile.

After about 20 minutes of watching my big old hopper float downriver with a little glossosoma caddis in tow, I was beginning to think we should just continue to the trail when this bad boy mauled my hopper and took me scrambling downriver after him.





After that we hopped back in the car and headed for the trailhead. By the time we had gotten our packs on and the car locked up, it was fully dark and we headed down the trail on our first ever backcountry night hike. We had 7 miles slated for this night. The hiking went smoothly, owing to the awesome power of Backcountry Navigator for Android. Get it. Hell of a tool. Somewhere around mile six, we stopped and took this awesome night shot, with a 15 second shutter time. The stars were amazing.



We opted to sleep under the stars that first night, at the base of the big slope we had to ascend the final two miles before the lake. It was a miserable night for me. I was freezing. The wind was cutting through my bag like butter. But, the next morning, a little worse for wear, we started up the hill.

















After the grueling slog up that infernal hill, we finally reached the aquamarine jewel of my many dreams.



And got straight to the business at hand.



Fishing started off slow, with a few cruisers and risers to be seen, but no takes. I opted to take a short, 3 hour nap. It was a great nap, other than the fact that I had taken off my shoes and neglected to put sunscreen on my feet. Ouch.



Fortunately, during my UV rich siesta, Brandon took it upon himself to move around the lake and find some cooperative fish. When I found him, we spent the next couple hours catching a bunch of nice Goldens and I must have missed 30 takes stripping a foam caddis erratically across the surface of this little corner of heaven.





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That was it for the fishing. I took up a spot at the base of a perfect leaning rock, and had the perfect backcountry treat.



The next morning, we decided to forgo fishing and headed straight down the hill. The easiest 8.3 miles I have ever done.









All in all, a wonderful trip. Dont know that I will ever make it back to that lake, but what a lake! Stay tuned for an undoubtedly long winded and esoteric account of my upcoming trip in a week or two!