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Sunday, September 15, 2013

In search of Liquid Gold

The wind became so fierce my truck was blowing around on the road.  I could see the dark thunderclouds ahead.  As I approached lightning started shooting out at regular intervals.  I watched with nervous excitement as some bolts hit the hills on either side of the Highway.  I could see the wall of rain coming but I just kept driving, hoping to make my meeting time with the boys.  The windshield wipers couldn’t keep up with the amount of rain falling and Highway 395 was flooding over.  Not an inviting start to a 10 day backpacking trip in the Southern Sierras. 

As dark creeped in over the hills the rain clouds began to clear up.  I came rolling into the small town of Lone Pine to meet up with Craig Ballenger, Keith Braunies, George and Dusty Revel and Hippy Ted, our crew for the expedition.  This was to be our jumping off point for a back packing trip into the Southern Sierra’s.  After a night in the Alabama Hills, an unusual rock formation outside of town, we spent the morning organizing our gear.  We then parked a couple cars up at Whitney Portal and all crammed into Craigs truck with our backpacks in the bed.  After buying food in Bishop we headed up to Onion Valley Trail head outside of Independence to sleep at altitude before setting off on the trail the next morning. 

Our mission was to head deep into the headwaters of the Kern River basin in search of pure stain California Golden Trout.  Unfortunately many miles and two of the biggest passes in the Southern Sierra lay between us and there.   Mt. Whitney and the tallest pass in California guards the way out.  Our route included several miles on the John Muir trail then a detour into a remote basin that had been on the radar for Ballenger for a number of years.  Craig has spent many a night in this part of the state and been exploring the region by foot for decades.  He’s a history buff and a fish head.  Craig has read more literature on the history of fish distribution in this state than most people even know exists.  As well as talking to folks out on the trails, people from the department of fish and wildlife and local horse packers and trail workers.  Rumor has it he knows a thing or two about a thing or two.  He’s forgotten more than I’ll ever know about the Southern Sierras so I was happy to have him as our guide.  

Craig was hoping to discover some pure strain Goldens and Keith planned on capturing the adventure on film for a new California Trout video project called Liquid Gold.  I was to be camera number two and help fill in where I could.  Planning for 10 days in the wilderness is hard enough.  Throw in an extra 10-15 pounds of camera gear and welcome to a videographers life. 

Step by step we climbed the 5.5 mile accent to the top of Kearsarge Pass.  As we approached the summit the thunder clouds begun to build.  The last mile leading to the top of the pass is above tree line and highly exposed.  A ranger stopped to warn us about the extreme lightning danger.  We pressed on with a sense of urgency.  Not wanting to be turned into a crispy pulp is good motivation to keep placing one foot in front of the other on a long trudge up a steep hill.  The time on the summit was short lived and we made quick work of the 3 mile decent down the backside to a small lakes basin where we could take shelter in some trees and set up camp before the rains hit.  Everyone hunkered down in their cozy tents except Hippy Ted and I.  I had only a bivy sack for my bag and Ted only a plastic pancho to shelter his bag from the elements.  I put on my Patagonia Rainshadow shell and curled up under a small cluster of wind twisted lodgepole pines to wait out the hail.  

The pattern had been the usual afternoon thunderstorms which were actually unusual for this time of year. Clouds building by noon, rain around later afternoon then clearing by nightfall.  Yet somehow out of the blue the sky that was clear when we went to bead decided to unleash a downpour of rain at 4 in the morning that lasted for a few hours.  The rain and wind pounding on my bivy made it hard to sleep.  Seldom is there a night where I’m so excited to get up in the morning.  Mostly I just couldn’t wait to get the stove going and cook up some warm oat meal. 

Mornings in the high Sierra are spectacular.  The light, the smells, the sounds of the birds singing all create a melody that is hard to explain with words.  It engages every sense and imparts a feeling of aw.  Our bliss was quickly broken by slinging a 50 lb pack on our back and heading out down the trail.  By noon we had descended another few miles down into the canyon and linked up with the John Muir Trail.  From there we headed south along Bubbs Creek.  Our goal for the day was to reach a horse packers camp wish whom we had arranged a dunnage drop of some extra food at the area we planned on making our base camp.  There in a small patch of thick trees we found them huddled around a camp stove drinking coffee.  Upon arrival we learned there had been a rock slide on the backside of Forester Pass and the horse train might not be able to make it over.  A couple of the cowboys had gone ahead to investigate the trial so we decided to pitch camp near by and wait for the news.  Out came the rods and off to the creek we all headed.  

A few Golden Trout later we spotted the cowboys coming down the trail near dark.  They broke the news that the trail was passable and we were on track to get our supplies dropped.  I used the few extra dollars I had in my pocket to buy a spot on one of the mules for my backpack over Forester Pass.  Felt like cheating a bit but was well worth saving my back a bit for the long miles ahead.  That night three girls from Georgia that were on day 17 of the JMT camped next to us.  

In the morning we headed off up the trail.  It’s a 7 mile accent up Forester Pass.  The summit is 13,200 feet.  We reached it by early afternoon.  I skipped up the trail without my pack and was able to get ahead of the group for some epic scenic shots of the group hiking.  We had a nice bite to eat at the summit and shot a group photo.  The views from the top were spectacular.  The trail heading down the backside of the mountain is a series of steep switchbacks crafted of elaborate rock work meticulously placed by hardworking trail crews.  It’s really a sight to behold and privilege to walk.  Near the bottom of the hill we ran into some trail workes repairing a section of the trail that had washed out.  They were drilling holes with a gas powered jack hammer to place dynamite.  Each day they hiked 7 miles up there, worked in the hot sun drilling rocks then hiked 7 miles back to the ranger station at Tyndall Creek.  Really helped us appreciate the amazing trail we had been hiking on for the last 25 miles through the Wilderness.   Of course Craig stopped for a smoke with them and rapped out about the happenings around the place for a good hour before we pressed on. 
That afternoon we detoured from the trail and headed out cross country.  I took a high line and ended up higher on the ridge then the rest of the group.  I ended up skiing a steep shale mountain goat line down through a saddle on a steep face.  Would have been a fun boot ski if I hadn’t had a super heavy pack on.  From there we intercepted a seldom used trail and ascended up a steep face into a remote high lake basin at around 13,000 feet.  Lake South America was our proposed base camp and where we had arranged to have our extra food dropped. 

Dawn broke and again I was up with first light.  Mostly because I was too cold to sleep.  I grabbed my rod and set off around the lake.  Dead calm and not a single rise.  I walked the entire circumference of the lake peering into the crystal clear waters. Not a trout to be seen.  

Around noon as planned the packer showed up and dropped our extra food.  We spent most of that day taking it easy around camp.  Comparing blisters and going over equipment. It’s hard enough to plan and execute a trip like this into the high sierra.  Filming adds a whole different element to the expedition.  First it adds an additional 10-12 pounds of gear to my pack.  I though I had brought enough battery for 7-10 days but by day 4 my batteries were almost entirely exhausted.  A heavy battery grip I brought that works off double A’s worked for about 15 minutes instead of the two hours I was hoping for.  My other two batteries for my 7D were on red.  The go pro I was hoping to use for underwater accidentally got bumped and turned on in my pack exhausting the battery.  We brought a solar panel to charge in the field and it didn’t end up working.  So half way into the trip and already I was near dead in the water on filming.  Luckily Keith had some battery power left to tell the rest of the story. 

At that point we decided to divide and conquer.  I had some obligations that needed me to be home a couple days earlier than the rest of the gang.  I decided my time would be best spent exploring another drainage on my way out.  Dusty had already left that morning as he too had obligations.  His plan was to hike out light and fast.  My plan was to wander the hills alone and do some soul searching. 

The next three days I hiked alone.  Stopping at creeks and exploring off trail. I desperately needed some alone time in the Wilderness.  It’s a different experience hiking by yourself than it is hiking in a group.  The sounds of the forest become more vivid.  Your own thoughts wander then are reeled back in by amazing vistas or small nuances like the bark of a tree or a patch of light on some bushes as you pass by.  Some people I know are nervous spending the night alone that far from civilization.  I on the other hand love it.  Falling asleep under the stars and waking to the sound of a brook.  One morning I woke to the sound of an animal approaching.  In this part of the Sierra Bears are always a concern around your food supply.  The footsteps sounded heavy but different from a deer.  I listened to it’s steps in the duff as it approached, anxious to see what it was.  There entered into the clearing the biggest rabbit I have ever seen.  It was a huge snow shoe jack rabbit bouncing along through the forest alone.  

That morning I hiked over 10 miles and reached Guitar Lake, at the back side of the final approach to Mt.Whitney around 3 pm.  I was planning on spending the night there and going for the summit in the morning like the rest of the hikers showing up at that hour.  Some blisters had formed from my boots and every step felt like walking on hot coals.  I decided to rest and was planning on making camp there.  An uneasy feeling fell over me and I couldn’t relax.  I picked up my bag and decided to make a push for the summit in the last hours of light.  My feet were to sore to put the boots back on so I decided to make the push in my flip flops I had brought for around camp. 

I hiked the 3 or 4 miles up the hill almost without stopping at all.  Racing the dark is also good motivation for hiking.  I figured I might spend the night up there and head for the summit in the morning.  When I arrived at trail crest the sun was low on the horizon.  I’d been cold the few previous nights and the only camping spots were very exposed.  I made the decision to push for the summit.  I switched back into my boots and basically started jogging up the trail.  I was nervous about hiking in the dark so it was a race to the top.  I stopped to talk with a father and sun near a knife blade section of trail just below the final push to the top.  They looked like they were ready for an Everest expedition.  They were bundled from head to toe in North Face gear and wearing gloves and warm beanies.  I pulled out my camera and had the guy snap a shot of me.  Unfortunately it was the last shot that battery would allow.  I thought for sure there would have been enough for a few more. 

My time at the summit was short lived.  There were a few people milling about who I assumed where staying in the cabin up there.  I approached the big cliff wall on the east side.  The wind was blowing hard up the face so I didn’t get too close.  Again it was hard to be comfortable because I knew dark was approaching fast.  I hurried down back to trail crest where again there was no time for rest.  I grabbed my pack and started down the 97 switchbacks to trail camp.  By then it was pretty much dark and I was hiking by head lamp.  At the base of the hill I found a little spot to duff out between some boulders for the night. 

The next morning I woke with rising of the sun.  The morning light  danced and glowed on the face of Whitney. I dug out my other camera battery, which I had left in my main pack and snapped it’s last couple photos.  A selfie with Whitney in the back ground and a shot of my camp spot in the rocks above trail camp. 

From there I pushed fast down the 8  mile assent back to Whitney Portal.  Everyone I passed gave a second look or stopped to make a comment about my flip flops.  I stopped at a creek to collect some water.  There in some bushes along he side of the trail was a grouse.  She didn’t move as I approached closer for a look.  We had one of the longest starring contests I’d been engaged in in a long time.  She won as I finally got board and had to press on.  All I could think about at that point was a hot meal, hot shower and good nights rest.  I’d never been so happy in my life to see my van there in the parking lot.  I flopped down on the bed and didn’t move for over an hour.   That was one hell of a hike.  

Not as much fishing as exploring but all and all an amazing experience!  

For the rest of the story, keep an eye out for Liquid Gold, a new movie by California Trout and Keith Braunies about California Golden Trout.