Things started off weird.
After a warm night of car camping at nearby Horton Creek, Sooz and I headed up to Pine Creek to start our planned nine day adventure. Although early, there were some light poofballs of clouds. So that forecast of ‘hot, clear, and stable for the next week’ already seemed shot. Nuts.
Pine Creek is one of the few trailheads I hadn’t yet used to access the high country so I was looking forward to the new scenery. I knew it was going to be a big climb – our goal for the day was to get into Granite Park (7 miles and about 4000 feet of climbing) – but since I wasn’t familiar with the trail I didn’t know how easy or hard the climb would be. I can hike uphill all day on a well graded trail, or even when I’m working my way through a pile of talus, but those ‘sierra steps’ built for stock break my pace and really wear me down.
Fortunately, the first couple of miles follow an old mine access road and are wonderfully graded. We chugged up the hill, watching the Pine Creek Tungsten mine drop away below us, and eventually reached some old mining tunnels/prospects dug in the wall towering above the trail. We kept hearing voices but no one was on the trail in front of us. Eventually we saw the climbers on the rock and it all made sense.
This is where things started to get weird. By things, I mean weather. We’d been watching clouds poof up over some of the peaks but they were blowing through incredibly fast. I’ve never seen clouds move so quickly. The buildup was completely unlike anything I had seen in the Sierra; there was no time for the clouds to build up into anything threatening because the wind would blow them out first. They didn’t even look like typical Sierra afternoon clouds. Plus, well, it was still relatively early in the morning.
Four miles in (and about 2500 feet up) we ended the steep climb up the grade and popped out on the shores of Pine Lake. Here was our first peek into the high country and the sky did not look welcoming. A blanket of grey clouds hung over the peaks to the west and the wind was gusting. We stopped for a quick snack at this scenic lake and had to pull out jackets to stay warm. This on a day that was supposed to have record heat in the central valley and, I repeat, a Sierra forecast of ‘hot, clear, and stable’. Our plan to spend nine days well above treeline and climb several peaks suddenly seemed in jeopardy.
But, we were feeling good and I believe this is where our trip’s adage was coined: “It’s all part of the adventure”. Whenever things would get a bit rough one of us would bust out this phrase and we’d start giggling. After our short break we continued to work our way up the trail, passing Upper Pine Lake and eventually Honeymoon Lake.
Above Honeymoon the trail fades away and is no longer officially maintained. There are some ducks that people have placed to help find the way, but if there is one thing I’ve learned about cross-country travel it is “don’t trust the ducks”. Just like with following snowshoe or ski tracks, there is no guarantee that the fool out there before you had any idea where he was going either. Luckily Sooz had been this way before so I just followed along as we worked our way into Granite Park. Sometimes there was trail, sometimes there wasn’t. And we were getting above treeline and into those beautiful alpine meadows found around 11,000 ft. Stunning, even with blasting wind and clouds.
Around 4 pm we arrived at a small horseshoe-shaped lake in Granite Park where we decided it was time to camp. Although we hadn’t hiked far (about 7.5 miles) we had climbed over 4000 feet and we were well above 11k in elevation. This is enough for the first day out, especially with a heavy pack (9 days of food and fuel). But I was feeling good thanks to having been out in Mineral King the weekend before, as well as the acclimation hike I had done up Tioga Peak the previous day.
Unfortunately the wind was still blasting and the clouds were still looking threatening. I hate wind – I can take snow and rain, but I hate wind. I kept trying to think of the positives; at least it was blowing the clouds through before they had time to build into storms, and it was also keeping mosquitoes away. We found a somewhat sheltered site above the lake, but it was still difficult to get the tent set up and dinner cooked. It was freezing cold and I had all of my layers on before the sun went down. Things were not boding well for the rest of the trip if this kept up.
It was probably 6:30 when I crawled into my tent and sleeping bag. I curled up with my book (Hemingway, natch) and read as the light faded away. I got up right before dark to brush my teeth and make sure things were secured for what was bound to be a very windy night, and I caught the most amazing sunset light on the clouds above Feather Peak. I was able to snap about three photos and this short video before the light faded away. Although it was freezing cold and windy, this amazing show lifted my spirits and had me grateful to be there experiencing such a sight.