With our longer Sierra trip coming up soon, we wanted to head out last weekend and get in some hiking and sleeping at altitude. I always feel better when I get some time above 10k before hauling a heavy pack up there. Our intended trip was to head out to Laurel Lakes (just south of Mammoth), climb Laurel and Bloody Mountains, followed by camping and fishing at Laurel Lakes. Sunday would be another ~10k peak with a short hike. It sounded perfect, at least until we looked at the weather forecast.
The thing about the Eastern Sierra is that even if your original plans fall through there is always something else equally fun to do. So we headed out despite the forecast, figuring that we’d find something to do no matter what.
As we drove out on Friday night we watched the enormous storm clouds hovering over the mountains. They were beautiful as the sun set and they glowed bright pink. By the time we made it through the mountains the clouds had cleared and we pulled into a dispersed campsite outside of June Lake where we slept under the stars in the back of the truck.
Saturday morning dawned sunny and clear, but we know that you can never trust that in the Sierra. We quickly headed into Mammoth for coffee and gas and then headed out the Laurel Lakes Road, a 4×4 adventure that I’ve done a few times before in other people’s vehicles. We thought it would be a lot of fun in the Tundra, we’d have access to a couple good peak hikes, fishing at a high lake, and camping.
We drove up to the trailhead and shortly after pulling in SnowNymph showed up with Karen and Raphael. Our plan was to hike Laurel and Bloody and we started up the trail with some small poofy clouds forming. The trail is nice and well graded (none of those Sierra Steps) so we made decent time up to the saddle between the two peaks. Considering I haven’t spent much time at 10k this summer I felt pretty good – encouraging for next week!
From the saddle it is a slog up scree and talus to the summit of Laurel. Clouds were still growing slowly but we weren’t yet concerned – Laurel is a pretty short climb so we would be able to bail easily. From the summit we heard a helicopter depart the Mammoth area and eventually saw it flying south over Crowley Lake. I learned later that there was a SAR operation going on around the Mt Whitney area due to the heavy storm the prior day.
After making the summit and spending almost 45 minutes talking and enjoying the views the clouds grew to the point where we knew we had to get down. As we scree-skied down the sides of Laurel Mountain the rain started and thunder began rumbling. By the time we were at the saddle we were seeing lightning bolts. Our plan to get up Bloody was scratched without discussion. We flew down the trail and back to the trucks where we could escape from the rain and get dry.
SnowNymph and crew went back to Mammoth and we continued up the last ~mile of 4×4 road to Laurel Lakes. There were some Jeeps and ATVs in there but they bailed quickly as the rain fell harder. We had lunch inside the truck and during a short break in the rain David tried fishing a bit. The fishies weren’t interested.
As we sat in the truck we had to decide if staying up there was something we wanted to do. It was about 2:30, and we didn’t think it was likely that the storm would break anytime soon. The rain was torrential and I was worried about the already gnarly road deteriorating further. So we headed out. Of course by the time we made it half way out the clouds had cleared and the sun was out over the Lakes. We met a backpacker walking up the road. I hope he was prepared for the storms though, because the sun was short-lived, as more cells came through during the rest of the day and night.
We did what anyone should do with time on their hands near Mammoth – head to a hot spring and have a soak. After the soak we decided to head into the open public lands east of 395 and explore a bit for future trips (good dispersed camping, climbing, etc). We ended up driving to the top of Lookout Mountain where we ran into a USFS Fireman who was watching the storms over the mountains. He was watching for lightning activity and potential for fires. It was an incredible view of some intense storm activity, accentuated with rapidly appearing and disappearing rainbows and sunbeams.
It was getting late so we got off the mountain and pulled into a campsite where we could get a campfire going and cook dinner. I set up our new tent since it was still looking threatening and I didn’t think it would be too smart to sleep out in the back of the truck.
Sunday morning dawned sunny again so we headed into the June Lake loop to get breakfast and do some fishing. As we chatted with folks and checked the state of the world on our phones we heard about the rock and mud slides, trail closures, and other insanity that the storms brought. So after a short time fishing around Silver Lake we decided to get up Tioga Pass before the storms started again. Also, I wanted to escape those little bugs of evil, the mosquitoes.
Once up the pass the clouds were forming but it looked like we’d have enough time for a short hike. We decided on Gardisky Lake, a short but steep hike from Saddlebag Lake Road. It’s less than a mile to the lake with about 800 feet of gain. The lake sits below Tioga Peak in a meadowy basin. There was still some snow but nothing too bad. David caught the only fish of the weekend as the thunder started to rumble over the taller local peaks like Conness and Dana, so we got out of there after lingering for only a few minutes. However, even if there weren’t storms I’m not sure how long I would have lasted – the mosquitoes were worse there than at June Lake.
The backup at the Tioga Pass station was insane – we sat there for almost 30 minutes watching it storm over Mt Dana as we slowly crept towards the entrance gate. I would have expected that everyone would have cleared out after the previous days’ storms but I guess everyone was on our schedule.
This was one of those weekends that didn’t go exactly as planned but was still enjoyable despite the crazy conditions. As I sit here and look at the extended forecast for our upcoming trip I’m encouraged!