The sun was up and I poked my face out of my tent, still wrapped up in my warm sleeping bag like a burrito. My water bottle was frozen. Hm, that was a first for this trip.
Our original plan was to have an easy day down to Honeymoon or Upper Pine Lake where we would have a relaxing last night on the trail before exiting and driving home on Sunday. Instead, we decided to cover the final 10 miles (2 cross-country, 8 on trail) and almost 5000 feet of descent in one day. After a successful trip with every summit on the list bagged, I certainly didn’t feel like we were cheating or bailing on our plans by exiting a day earlier than planned. Anyways, I only had one packet of Starbucks Via coffee left and we’d polished off the end of my bourbon the night before. The real world has coffee and beer. I was ready for the real world.
After packing up we took off cross-country towards French Lake. It was a really pretty little area with nice meadows and some campsites tucked away along a lightly flowing creek. At French Lake we dropped our packs for a quick snack and some photos. There are some relaxing looking beaches along the shore of this lake, but they didn’t look too tempting on this cold and windy morning. It wasn’t warming up like the previous days. There was an autumn-like chill in the air.
It was really cold when we woke up at Steelhead Lake on the morning of day 7. We had this high and exposed lake to ourselves though, and that was worth the cold morning. Although we had passed several people around the lakes along the trail, a short distance of cross-country travel seemed to discourage anyone from reaching Steelhead Lake other than us.
While sucking down my next-to-last packet of Starbucks Via I wandered to the top of the hill behind our camp and found some other nice campsites, and although the views were better than from our measly little spot, the exposure to the wind kept me from wanting to move my stuff. The view across French Canyon to Feather, Royce, and Merriam Peaks was clear and impressive. It may have been a bit colder this morning, but the crisp clear sky was encouraging. Time to bag another peak!
We had vague descriptions about two class 2 routes up Four Gables from Steelhead Lake, and both started with us needing to get ourselves to the far end of the lake, so along the shore we went. There was a bit of rock hopping and lots of stopping for photos. It’s a beautiful deep blue lake. It would be even more amazing on a still day, but today the wind was kicking up some waves.
The previous day’s early cloud build up had us a bit paranoid about today’s weather so we were up and ready to climb Royce Peak first thing in the morning. It wasn’t a big climb – 2 miles, 2000 feet of gain, and routine class 2. We expected it to take a few hours at a regular pace,and to be back at camp mid-day, long before the typical danger time-frame of afternoon storms. This was us being so smart. I’m sure you can tell where this is going.
Leaving camp around 8:30, the clouds were already starting to build over the surrounding peaks, but they were light and didn’t concern us. If they built at the expected rate we’d have plenty of time to get up and down the peak. Royce Peak was still under clear skies.
We wandered up the southwest facing slope, one big ramp all the way to the summit. Evidence of wildlife was around – we saw some baby grouse hopping around, and also saw a ‘pika pile’. It is a well-known fact that pikas are the cutest animal in the mountains, looking like some adorable mouse/rabbit hybrid. They spend all summer stockpiling green plants to insulate their den and provide food for the long months they spend under the snow in the winter. We came across a pile of greenery in a dry and non-green pile of talus. It could only have been a pika!
This year’s big trip was not the John Muir Trail (again) or the High Sierra Trail (again), or any other big-mileage trip. Instead, I decided to join my friend Sooz on a cross-country adventure out of Pine Creek on the east side of the Sierra. While the mileage was low, the majority of the travel was off-trail and physically demanding. Our days were long but satisfying and I was exhausted every night.
Over the course of eight days in late August we traveled a little over sixty miles, bagged four SPS peaks, followed a stretch of the Sierra High Route, and went over six(ish) passes. We camped every night at over 11,000 feet in elevation. I caught more golden trout than I could count. When off-trail, we only saw a handful of people, all who were delightful backcountry enthusiasts eager for a friendly chat. I saw some of the most beautiful country I’ve ever encountered in the Sierra, and I swear I’m not exaggerating.
Mostly, this trip really fed my growing desire to depart from the freeways of signed trails and experience the Sierra in a more intimate way. During the past few years I’ve found myself drawn to the challenges of off-trail travel and more complicated peaks, and this trip pushed all of those buttons at just the right time. I no longer look at maps of the mountains and see only areas limited by trail access – I see everything open and accessible as long as I’m willing to put in the hard work to get myself there.
During the next week or so I’ll be posting the daily reports from this trip. Each day was remarkably different and unique from the others; this is one of the many ways that this trip seemed different than the longer through-hikes I’ve done in the past. Because of this I want to focus on the successes and challenges of each day in separate reports.
Our general route and itinerary was a ‘lollipop’ loop style hike out of Pine Creek. We headed into Granite Park and over Italy Pass, bagging Mt Julius Caesar along the way. From Italy Pass we contoured over to Bear Lakes basin via Dancing Bear Pass. We spent a few days in the basin, exploring the endless lakes and easy cross-country travel, as well as bagging Seven Gables. Eventually we picked up the Sierra High Route over Feather Pass and enjoyed some time in the lakes between LaSalle and Merriam, with an exciting climb of Royce Peak.
Back in French Canyon we joined trail for a few miles before abandoning it once again to head over to Steelhead Lake. We spent two freezing cold nights at Steelhead, using it as our basecamp for a more-exciting-than-expected climb of Four Gables. On our last day, being chased by cold and dark clouds, we hoofed it over to French Lake from Steelhead, then over to Pine Creek Pass where we met the trail yet again, marking the end of our cross-country adventure. Only a few miles before we met up with the trail that we had come in on a week prior, and before we knew it we were back at the trailhead. This was accompanied by the normal emotions: the happiness and satisfaction of a successful trip, but the sadness and disappointment that it was over too soon.
I have really been looking forward to writing these reports and reliving the trip. My little piece of notepaper is filled with notes and scribbles from my nightly journaling, and I haven’t read it since I returned. Stay tuned for the details…