Thursday, May 2, 2013

Part 63 - Owens Valley From On High

The trail was one continuous climb upward; at times it leveled off as it contoured around the side of a mountain, and sometimes it even descended, but every descent was followed by a climb twice as long as the descent, or at least so it seemed.  

The trail passed in and around meadows, through heavy stands of forested lands, alongside flowing streams and creeks and over rivers.  In Gomez Meadow, the trail passed over soggy bottomland, across which the Forest Service had constructed a wooden causeway to protect the fragile ecosystem and keep hikers from getting mired in the swampy muck.  Within two miles of crossing this last meadow, the trail began a two-thousand-foot climb out of Death Canyon, via no less than twenty-two switchbacks.  It was a tough climb in such a short distance, and I had to rest often.  

And as usual, when making a hard climb, I resorted to counting units of eight steps.  Eight had a natural cadence to it, unlike the numbers seven or nine, and each set of eight became a goal, and once I’d reached that goal, I set another goal of eight steps.  If I were feeling strong and wanted to push myself, I would set a goal of sixteen or thirty-two steps.  It was the achieving of these seemingly, insignificant small goals that ensured that I made it to the top of the summit or ridge or pass. When I came to a switchback, I found that I talked to myself, and the conversation was always the same,  

“Yes, another switchback, we like switchbacks, ‘cause that means we’re gaining in elevation and that means we’re getting closer to the goal.” 

I discovered that I preferred climbing, even though it was harder for me, than doing a descent, as I learned quickly that every descent was followed by another tough climb.  My reasoning was,  

“Let’s just climb and get it over with, rather than continually going up and down.” 

I didn’t like climbing the same elevation over and over again.  

The scenery was ever-changing, and that was what made this journey of a gazillion steps so fascinating.  The trail builders, as much as possible, aligned the trail to traverse along the crest of the mountains, thus providing spectacular views of the heights above and the valleys below.  On this day, off to my right when the vistas opened up, I could see the Owens Lake bed far down the precipitous side of the mountain.  The lake was dry, as the water from the Owens River that would naturally have flowed into the lake, had been diverted into the Los Angeles Aqueduct. 

For the farmers, ranchers and city dwellers of Owens Valley, wind was a constant companion in their lives.  According to locals, the lake bed, now dry for eons, had been a repository for heavy metals flushed down from the mountains, and when the wind blew, it picked up these fine particulates, circulating them throughout the town causing increased air pollution as well as damage to the paint on cars.  

 The trail was starting a long climb to the Siberian Outpost Pass at eleven thousand feet, which marked the southern boundary of the High Sierras.  I passed Ash Meadow, Dutch Meadow, and Mulkey Meadows in quick succession and soon came to the Mulkey Pass (Trail) and Trail Pass Trail.  Both of these trails, along with Cottonwood Pass Trail a few miles distance, lead down off the mountain to Horseshoe Meadow Road and the town of Lone Pine which straddled Highway 395.

Hikers who had resupply packages awaiting them in Lone Pine could access any one of these three trails, pick up their resupply box, and return to the trail the same way.  

Once I gained the pass at Siberian Outpost, a number of high peaks off to the northeast came into view, one of which was Mount Whitney, but never having seen the mountain, I was unable to pick out which one it was.  At eleven thousand feet Siberian Outpost was aptly named; it was a harsh, barren plain lying above the tree line, but the views from the summit were stunning.  

Snow-covered Granite Peak off to the north; Guyot Peak off to my left; and to my right, way, way down the mountain, in a narrow gorge was Rock Creek that was rushing tumultuously in an effort to join with the Kern River on the southwest side of Guyot Peak. 

It was beauty unparalleled; wild, untamed nature in all its glory, and I was here to see it.  It didn’t matter that I was not the first to see the stunning beauty that was unfolding before me; what mattered was that it was new to me, and I could bear witness and testify that such wild, untamed beauty did indeed exist – in California, just a stone’s throw from dense population centers whose masses will never venture into the rugged mountains to see what I was beholding, and maybe it was just as well.

After fording Rock Creek, I hiked around the east flank of Guyot Peak, crossed Guyot Flats and proceeded onto Crabtree Meadows.  Somewhere in the last five miles, I encountered the seasonal forest ranger who would spend the summer at his cabin in Crabtree Meadows.  I remembered him saying that this would be his twenty-sixth season patrolling and offering services in the Mount Whitney area.  I thought he might ask to see my permit or at least check for my bear vault, both of which deficiencies could result in a ticket and fine, but being his first day on the job, I guess he was more interested in setting up housekeeping at the ranger station.  

After crossing over the South Fork of the Kern River, the trail continues onto the wide expanses of meadow land, that in times past had been used extensively for cattle grazing.

The South Fork of the Kern River.

I'm wearing my new, 3 liter Camelbak resevouir  which can extend my carrying capacity to 7 liters of water if need be. The orange unit on my shoulder is my Spot tracking device. This is how my wife keeps track of me on the trail. She can see me on her computer almost walking in real time.

Coming out of the desert and into the mountains is a whole new experience. Surprisingly, the weather is not significantly cooler.

The trail builders had to do a lot of blasting and engineering  to build the trail through the granite mountains of the Sierras.

Lakes are everywhere, but as yet no mosquitoes; they'll come later.

This is the kind of rock work the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corp) boys did back in the 1930's.

It would really be hard to get lost on the PCT. However, sometimes, there will be trail junctions with two trails like this and no signage. That's when you need your maps.

Now that I'm in the mountains, there's water everywhere.

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