Problem Solving in the High Country

Exploring John Muir Wilderness

Somehow two years passed since I last backpacked and slept outside for more than a night. Time passes so quickly; monuments that mark notable events in our lives act as reminders of that. It’s so easy to put things off, to feel like we are on the cusp of doing that thing that we’d get around to someday, then before we realize years have passed and there we are. It’s ideas like this that motivate me to live in the Now and to follow opportunities that arise. For example, when someone who you don’t really know contacts you because you have some mutual acquaintances and you both seem to have similar interests, and they ask you if you want to spend a week outside very high in the mountains doing activities that present some challenges, carry some risks, and have real consequences… you say “yes” because you have an inherent sense of yourself and you know that if you say “no” this will just be another moment lost to time instead of an opportunity full of possibility.

Pilot Knob
Pilot Knob

The Particulars

Destination: Hutchinson’s Meadow (base camp)
Trail Head: Pine Creek
Distance: ~55 miles round trip, ~15,000 cumulative elev gain
Remoteness: Moderate near the trails, very remote in the backcountry
Motivation: Cross country exploration and peak bagging abound
Notes: Permits can be obtained in advance online. Bear Canisters are recommended but not required in Inyo NF. Dogs are ok in the John Muir Wilderness. The off-trail sections of the trip are very strenuous and require routefinding.

The Report From our Trip :: July 18 thru July 23, 2019

Day 1 – Pine Creek to Hutchinson’s Meadow

Adam and I had still not exactly been able to reconcile the events that led to us getting in contact. All we could remember is that we initially touched bases about a year ago and that we had some mutual friends in the world of climbing, mountaineering, and ultradistance running. As Adam very aptly put it in his trip report, we just had a sense that the other was “not very murdery”. Aside from that, we chatted and shared our experience in the mountains because you want to have a read on that sort of thing before you venture out with someone. It’s a rookie mistake to not realize that there’s much smaller margin for error or knucklehead ideas when you are in remote areas, especially off-trail. The fact that both of us were interested in the other’s experience and where their head was at was a good start and Adam’s experience was solid, so all indications were good.

Adam
Adam – Not a murdery kind of guy

I’ll skip the boring part about me driving from the North Bay to Livermore, to Mammoth and all that. We had good conversation in Adam’s Jeep with no AC. A much better time than riding through the desert on a horse with no name. After a bit I had a sense that I may have found someone who is a) more analytical than myself and b) more idealistic than myself. It was just an early first impression. We were planning to meet Matthew, someone, again that neither of us had been in the mountains with or ever met. Our plan was to use Sat Comms to message one another and meet up out there. Matthew had started a day ahead and had been sending some messages, which sounded mixed. “It’s amazing out here!”… then “My stomach is really bad!”

Hmmm…

By the time we got to Pine Creek trailhead, it was mid-afternoon. The climb over Pine Creek Pass kicked my ass. It was hot. It was mostly exposed. I had not carried a 35lb pack in two years. I had not been up over 10,000 ft elevation at all this year. Yeah, it was sucking… but the scenery was nice. Not much was going to happen this day so it was just a grind. Things that did happen… Adam rolled his ankle before we even set foot on the trail (luckily not enough to scrap the trip, but it was a big concern), my water filter exploded, we crossed freezing cold swollen creeks close to 9:00 PM by headlamp, I brought a shelter that I didn’t intend to bring and did not have a bug net or the proper hardware to set it up. I also forgot my spoon, again. Stoke level: meh.

Day 2 – Goal: Summit Pilot Knob (12,245 ft)

I put my prior evening of the grumps and eating my dinner with a tent stake behind me as Adam and I got a leisurely start which began with stream crossings. We forded the many swollen creeks leading into Piute Valley. Somehow Adam was only about mid-leg and I got wet up to my groin. I must have stepped right into a deep hole on the first creek. That will wake you up! We cruised up the trail then veered off-trail to begin the steep climb up towards Knob Lake where we stopped for a bite and to catch our breath before attacking some class 2/3 talus up to the summit of Pilot Knob.

Summit Approach
Furniture-Sized Talus on the Summit Approach
Standing at the Summit
Standing at the Summit

The stoke level was high upon reaching the top. The tedium of climbing up that kind of rock and the effort it takes, along with maintaining awareness not to make a bad move is always an exercise in fatigued muscle being fueled by adrenaline. We signed the summit register, had a snack, and took in the amazing view. I was not up for a whole lot more on the day and I still needed to sort my shelter and get it pitched properly, so we explored just a little of the area around Knob Lake, then cruised back to camp. Stoke level: very high!

Mt. Humphreys in the Distance
Mt. Humphreys in the Distance

I spent the evening figuring out how to get my shelter sorted. Adam was fixated on problem-solving the question of creek flow minima and maxima as a function of peak snowmelt and distance from the melt source. He fell into Piute creek once (ha!), setting up a water level gauge (a.k.a, a stick) and found a piece of driftwood to use as a second gauge on the bank. He was clearly serious about this work and planned to stay up into the night to capture data points. While I can relate to the burning desire to gather data, I was not so serious about it and promptly konked out – but not before mentally confirming my hunch that Adam was indeed more analytical than me. It was not hard to imagine how this guy ended up working in applied physics!

Day 3 – Goal: Summit Gemini Peak (13,950 ft)

The evening prior I was able to McGyver some shit together to hold my shelter up. The HMG Ultamid is a roomy two-person pyramid. It’s a palace for one; I was feeling a bit ridiculous in it by myself and there were not really any girls around (nobody in fact) to invite over for a party. Adam is a good looking dood but not really my type. Besides, he was busy all night taking water level readings, so it was just me and a few mosquitoes. I should probably mention by this point Matthew had been forced to head back to civilization due to a case of food poisoning. Such bad luck and timing, but would anyone ever say they had good luck and timing getting food poisoning? Just another reminder from the universe that we don’t have a whole lot of control in this thing called “life”.

Morning arrived after a decent night’s sleep. Our start on the day was a little earlier than the previous one. We roughly paralleled Pinnacles Creek up to a little lake basin. The series of lakes there and above were gorgeous and mostly frozen. This was my favorite view of Pilot Knob and some of the best scenery of the trip began here.

Pilot Knob View from above Pinnacles Creek
Pilot Knob View from above Pinnacles Creek
Adam Below Gemini
Adam Below Gemini

Snow and nearly-crotch-deep suncups were the norm. Tiring stuff. The sun was reflecting off everything… rock, snow, water – and hardly a cloud in the sky. By the time we were in position to attack Gemini, I felt like an over-baked turkey and my motivation was low-ish. The two snow chutes leading up to it were fairly high angle and one of them showed signs that it either had a cornice at the top or had slid recently. Climbing another 900 feet of rock was the other option and there was no promise the route would safely go once on top. There was a visible cap of snow up there that was less than encouraging. We decided to leave it for another year when lighter snowpack would provide a higher probability for success and lower odds of sliding away into oblivion. In our planning discussion, we both agreed to leave our iceaxes at home as to avoid the temptation to do anything too risky. Instead, we enjoyed the view of a beautiful tarn below the summit, took a lunch break on a high bench, then glissaded down, and swam in a partially-frozen lake. Best decision ever!

Beautiful Turquoise
Beautiful Turquoise

Unfortunately, I experienced a contact lens mishap in the process. It was lodged under my eyelid, probably thanks to having dried out eyes from the elevation and sun. I had to descend slab and steep wooded terrain with only one eye, including doing a little down-climbing. That was a first. We moved camp to get a little closer to Meriam Creek. Stoke level: very low.

Day 4 – Goal: Summit Royce Peak (13,255 ft)

The damn contact was still in my eye, up under the eyelid. My spirits were low and I talked to Adam about it. I was not sure what I would do because I needed sunglasses for the snow travel and I was not using prescription sunglasses (something I will do next time). I decided to go up to Meriam Lake and just see (haha) how things would go. Miraculously, while sitting at the lake I was able to get the lens out of my eye, put a new set in, and I was ready to go for the ascent of a peak or two! This exciting turn of events changed my mindset instantly and I was amped to get going.

Merriam Lake and the Moon
Merriam Lake and the Moon

The ascent towards Meriam/Royce consisted of big fields of suncupped snow, snow bridges over running water, slab, and more talus. Just things that require a short pause to size up. It was our earliest start and the sun had not fully baked us, plus the R & R from the prior day helped restore some strength. We were both moving well and feeling more acclimatized by now. Adam is a lot more thorough about map checks than I am. Looking once or twice is my usual style, but I mostly go by feel of the terrain. It was good for me practicing patience however and almost certainly saved us some extra hiking.

We made the saddle eventually and had to decide between the two peaks. We probably could have done both but that would have been ambitious for a first trip of the season, especially given Adam’s tender ankle and my medium-at-best energy levels. I look up at both peaks. I like Royce better. It’s the higher of the two but Merriam is full of really big, blocky talus that looks like it will require as much mental energy to deal with as it will physical. Adam is agreeable. Up we go!

Merriam Royce Saddle
Merriam Royce Saddle

The ascent up Royce as a bit tedious. In the photo, it looks so easy but it’s hard to appreciate just how far away it is, and how big those rocks are. A person standing at the saddle would appear as an ant from this perspective. The going is sandy at first; two steps forward, one step back. Eventually, the terrain changes to large talus and it just becomes a matter of climbing up and picking through it. From the saddle, it took about an hour to ascend to the summit. More amazing views. Stoke level high again! A marmot had made his home at the summit and came out for a photo.

Merriam Peak
Merriam Peak
Sky High Marmot
Sky High Marmot

After lunch, we descended quickly, having found a sandy slope not far from the top. I imagined myself Killian Jornet, running down the scree! It was such fun. I was not quite Killian at a full-speed scree-sprint. There were still some large rocks to dodge; avoiding a faceplant or cartwheeling to my death was in sharp focus! It was still a blast. What took an hour to climb we were down in 15 minutes.

Day 5 – Goal: Explore Royce Lakes on the way Out

Adam was yelling something at me early in the morning before I got out of bed. I assumed that meant “I am up dood, get out of bed!” We scrapped the plan of doing more cross country miles as Adam was feeling a bit under the weather and one of my feet was feeling slightly strained. It was one of those “listen to your body” moments. We broke down camp and hit the trail. The hike out was mostly us just hoofing it for food and beer. We made good time on the way out and noticed quite a few people headed in. A older cowboy leading a group on horseback thanked us for stepping aside and, in a drawl straight from a Western movie, said to us “I’ve been guiding on this trail for fifty years and there are parts of it I’ve never liked and still don’t like…” motioning to the steep drop off that would result in an inglorious death at the tungsten mine far below.

His words made me reflect on the fact that he had been in the same profession for so long, on the same trail, and presumably content with his life. Nothing to chase. Nothing to prove. Just living. This was a thought that occupied my mind for a while as we made the drive back towards town and eventually food at Whoa Nellie Deli. Then it was back to civilization and these kinds of ideas begin to fade away again, back to the norms. I find that writing a report like this is good for reflection and remembering moments like that one. It’s one of the reasons why I document the highlights of my experience. It’s also one of the reasons I focus on quality with meaning over quantity – meaning can so easily be lost in the noise of life, and there is too much noise, always so much noise.

So!… The trip with Adam was a success! Nobody was murdered. Nobody fell off the talus. Some things went wrong. We faced a few problems and worked out solutions. Many times either of our lives could have hung on the fate of one loose rock but we kept grabbing onto those rocks, pulling ourselves higher towards discovery. The best stuff in life tends to not come with promises of safety or success, and how uninteresting that would be. We can’t control what is, we can only embrace it. That’s the context in which we exist, it’s the essence of being alive. -JD

“There is surely nothing other than the single purpose of the present moment. A man’s whole life is a succession of moment after moment. There will be nothing else to do, and nothing else to pursue. Live being true to the single purpose of the moment.” – Hagakure, Book of Samurai

Rose and Thorn

I think the rose and thorn were one and the same on this one. Just lots of little problems, everything from not having enough time to get packed and organized due to my schedule at home, to being out of practice, to having gear fail, and other issues to overcome – but each of those things presented an opportunity to put things into perspective, to persevere, and to overcome.

Gear Thoughts

Double checking gear to ensure it works is a must, and being short on time is no excuse. Prescription sunglasses are a must when sunglasses are a critical piece of gear for the trip. I have already started working on acquiring a pair of Rx glacier glasses. A smaller bear can is a must-have for me; my only option is currently a BV500. Carrying it means carrying a bigger pack and more weight. I keep having issues with my little toe in my La Sportiva Akasha’s, so those need to go sadly (otherwise I love these shoes). Next time bring the long sleeve hiking shirt even if temps will be warm… keeping the sun off the skin is huge. Microspikes were key, leaving them at camp one day made things dicey. My daypack needs a way to stowe polls, or I need a different day pack. Lots of little adjustments needed.

Jacob D Written by:

Dad, Runner, Student, Berserker, Questionable Partner... on my path to living an exceptional and real life.