Camping In The High Sierras © 1997 -
Camping In The High Sierras © 1997 -
This year the Mountain Sabbatical went up over the Glacial Divide by means of Lamarck Col. It probably will be the last time this old mountaineer goes over the Col we have traversed some 11-12 times. It definitely will be the last "off trail" expedition. The trip was planned to last some ten+ days in the wilderness but barely made it past 4.5, ending in near disaster. Read on . . . .
THE BACKCOUNTRY THIS YEAR
Conditions were very dry, with conspicious abscence of low-lying snowpack and totally dry incidental streams. The previous years of drought had resulted in serious conditions of bare rock all up and down the Sierra crest
READING THIS MIGHT SAVE YOUR LIFE
This year casualness and lack of attentiveness caused by mental depression nearly cost someone their life. The mountain wilderness region of California is essentially wilderness lite in comparison to places like Denali in Alaska or British Columbia, however we were forcibly reminded that although beautiful and wild, the Nature does not really care a fig if you live or die and wilderness is most definitely not Disneyland.
Four months prior to the camp I fell in a parking lot after a long and tedious conference in Walnut Creek. The injuries sustained were listed as "wrist fracture and knee contusion". As it turned out, the wrist fracture was so minor that Kaiser missed the diagnosis at first, calling me up in a panic late at night after a surgeon reviewed the xrays. The knee "contusion" remains a mystery as it became clear that Kaiser once again missed something serious there even as pain persisted for weeks and weeks after supposedly being "cleared for duty." Kaiser Oakland is notoriously bad with misdiagnosis, sometimes costing lives -- this from a former (name withheld) Kaiser chief executive.
"Kaiser Oakland is, of all the sites in the Kaiser system, the absolute worst," he said. "Try to get your care someplace else."
Normally we compile a careful point by point itinerary and leave that with at least three people, including planned campsites and routes as well as alternate routes. As it turned out on this trip, one person mislaid their copy, not understanding what it was. The other two never got their emailed copies because of glitches caused by moving households. On arrival at the White Mountain Ranger Station, the rangers there declined the planned entry point, resulting in a totally concocted route plan that was made up on the spot.
Neither the ranger station nor any of the usually competant people knew where the solo hiker was going to go.
In addition, due to the chaos of the household move, the pack was poorly packed and overstuffed with inessentials, as well as cold weather gear that no longer fit, while omitting some of the most critical backcountry maps in the pack kit. This was not discovered until one day into the wilderness above 11,000 feet elevation.
Due to a departing thunderstorm system, we were not only hiking up into hazardous conditions, the entry area had been vacated by sensible hikers. We were well and truely alone going over the col.
We had no electronic beacon, no cell phone, an itinerary about which no one in the world knew, and we managed to leave all personal ID, health cards, and cash behind. In addition, some medical condition, still unknown at this late date, remained hovering in the background.
The were primed for disaster to explode. Explode they did, four days later.
NORTH LAKE BASE CAMP
North Lake campsite, intended for fishermen overnighting, has not changed much in well over thirty-five years. It remains a very rustic spot with few amenities. In recent years the private service has added bear lockers to store food, and, well that is about it. You still have to cart your waste down to the Sabrina disposal. If there is not too much, there are small disposal dumpsters near the overflow parkinglot for long-term hikers.
The hike up from 9800 feet to Upper Lamarck Lake gets interesting above 10,000 feet, and much more interesting the closer to the outflow of the lakes one gets. There is no water along the way, so water up below. You know you are getting close when a sign shows you where to cross the upper lake outflow.
At the crossing point, someone has placed an ambiguous sign that says simply "Trail" with an arrow. This tends to confuse dayhikers who have no idea what is in store for them if they only want to reach the lake itself.
After crossing over, there is a cluster of campsites so close to one another everyone there had better learn to be friends. As it turned out, a pattering of rain and some ugly clouds passed through quickly to cause some entertaining pyrotechnics over the valley below into the early evening.
We cached some of our oversupply in a tree fork near this camp with plans to retrieve the material on the way back. We never were able to return.
In the morning we watched the formidible mountain storm sort of march down the cut to the valley to cause more pyrotechnics below, while above cleared out to more promising skies. Climbing out from this camp is a matter of getting over and down a fat granite flow about 200 yards across and cut with ravines. After climbing the "100 switchbacks", the views start to become more impressive and the whole reason for coming here. This is looking back over that granite flow towards Lamarck Lake.
The climb after the 100 Switchbacks is an undulating sort of thing that gains entry into the mile-long sandy valley that is the drainage for Lamarck. Reaching 11,800 feet or so and looking back you can get a last glimpse of North Lake, the valley and the eastwardly marching storm front about to hit the Panamint mountains and Nevada.
After passing through the tree barrens, you ascent a slope into the valley itself and skirt the snowfields that are all that remains of the once mighty glacier that extended all the way. We found scant trace of water from the snowfields, which had much receded. Reaching the col itself, we found our old friend, the Lamarck glacier a sad trace of its former self.
The tarn had receded as well, of course.
The crossing point remains the same, marked with a sign welcoming visitors to Inyo County and the Park. This time we had barely three feet of ice to cross and a bit of steep, loose talus to scramble to get there. I would estimate this to be about forty-fifty feet or so of steep pitch. Normally crampons are advised.
The col marks the divide between the watershed that supplies California and the flow that supplies Nevada. Elevation is about 12,880 feet. Looking toward Nevada, we see some heavy weather circling back over the vastly reduced tarn.
Looking south we see Darwin across the way, an apparently non-technical climb from this side, the base of which can be reached in less than three hours from this vantage, but unfortunately that is one we will never do.
Darwin's companion to the right is Mendel. Not long after this, the skies clouded over and it began to snow.
After making use of full foul weather gear we attained the canyon "floor" here and quite a scramble at the still heady elevation of 11,800 feet over big talus for the next hour and a half. Fortunately the snow let up, however the rock was left wet and slick.
After the talus section, the walk out to the Darwin Bench offers little challenges, but spectactular vistas. It is possible to spend several days just in this area poking around and fishing the lakes for golden trout.
In this photo from one of the few camps that is away from the main use-path you can barely see my neighbor's camp to the right.
Here is my camp where I have been accustomed to pitch out if caught in the Canyon. Rock faces like this are not ideal for escaping waterflow should it rain, as some of you may know, but when it is dry, the place has the illusion of privacy and it is possible to dispose of refuse well away from the lakes in a decent nine inch deep hole upslope from here.
The view from the porch is also worth something.
You still have to go high to clear some cliffs on the edge of the penultimate lake. The view takes in the mountains on the far side of Evolution Valley beyond Darwin Bench. Elevation here is still above 11,600 feet
Abruptly descending 150 feet along a steep goat track the expanse of the Darwin's Bench and the last "lake", actually in recent years not much more than a widening of the canyon outflow less than two feet deep. The descent to the lake is a gentle stroll down flat granite lava flows past several plashing streams.
The last lake is 11,400 feet in elevation. From here you can see the impressive bulk of The Hermit, which rises abruptly from the floor of Evolution Valley at 9600 feet. The drop is so sharp that you cannot even see the valley edge even though it starts right at what looks like a narrow band of rock at the end of the lake
On this trip I did not descend to the valley below but kept to Roper's Sierra High Route above treeline, traversing a bench of granite well above the trail. If you know what you are doing, there are no technical challenges. There are, however, visual pleasures ranging from awesome to this last bloom of summer perched on the rocky hillside.
This is what you see shortly before the descent to the trail. The water glimpsed here are tarns that sit as outliers north of Evolution Lake, which is tucked to the right of that slope cutting down to the middle of the photo. The sharp peak is Mt. Spencer and that flat fellow with its arm of rock resembling Mordor Gate is the backside of Mt. Darwin.
Here is the Hermit again, seen closer up from the vantage of the head of Evo Lake falls. We are at elevation of about 10,800+ feet and that little patch of golden grass there in the tight right corner is at 9600 feet, so there is quite an abrupt drop about four feet away. Taking that many steps forward from here would be ill-advised...
Standing a bit further back and changing the angle a bit we can see a piece of the river down below at the base of where McGee Canyon begins.
Walking carefully to the right shows another view. Far down there where you see a tiny patch of a clearing is the ranger station at McClure Meadow, about three to four miles away.
Turning a precise 180 degrees to look back towards the lake reveals a good place to wash one's feet, go fishing, or take a rather cold dip. The ambient temperature is about 70 degrees in sheltered sun.
The shore of Evo Lake always collects a herd of overnighters on the lavaflow extension so my habit has been to walk around the moutoniere rochee to the head of the falls where there are exposed camps, like this one, and more discrete camps on the opposite side of the stream.
There is a hot spring near the end of Evolution Lake,which explains why we have trees like this growing at elevation 10,600 feet.
Leaving camp the following morning, we come around the bend of Evolution Lake to see Mts. Spencer and Huxley.
Here we see the lovely Sapphire Lake after climbing a bit.
Evolution Basin looked very dry this year with no trace of the usual snow patches.
As we steadily climb, we reach the flat area in view of Mt. Huxley before the next push up to Lake Wanda. The going here is very easy and many people who put in a 25 mile day include this stretch.
Looking back at Ansel Adams' Range of Light.
Here the top of Mt. Goddard comes into view as we climb toward Lake Martha.
Lake Wanda is a stunning glacial lake of unusual size at this altitude of 11,400 feet. I have seen this view many times and watched the effects of climate change over the past twenty-five years. When I first saw this lake years ago, the surface was choked with icebergs in August.
This view features the black bulk of Mt. Goddard foregrounded by Wanda "pass" on the left and the russet-speckled slope that leads to the drop which would have taken me to Davis Lakes down a steep, short talus chute. Wanda Pass leads to the austere Ionian Basin. When I took this picture, I was about to stop for lunch, not knowing that I would nearly die on that slope in one hour.
I went over Wanda Pass many years ago when the main problem was getting up over snow and ice, as the entire pass was still glacial sheet. The temperature was about 65 degrees, so here I am taking shelter in the lee of a boulder, already thirty yards off-trail.
After taking a long lunch break around noon, I collected my stuff shortly before one P.M. and crossed the fifty-yard broken outflow of the lake away from the trail. I skirted the far shore of the lake and angled up the slope, climbing toward where I knew there was a relatively flat mesa some thirty yards across, and consisting of embedded talus that would provide only minor challenges getting through to the main problem of the dangerous talus chute on the far side, which drops 400 feet with only twenty feet forward progression. I had marked the safest route some fifteen years before and on a return journey, found the cairns still in place and being used. The talus there is big, consisting of boulders the size of small cars, however the route is not that dangerous to someone who has done any kind of bouldering before.
Halfway up the slope I ran into a smallish slew of talus and elected to walk downward to get around it. I could just as well have chosen to climb parallel to the deposit and skirt above it, in which case I would have been far higher on the slope, or indeed been over it when the accident occured.
As I stepped downward, facing toward the lake and holding my hiking staff in my left hand, a bright red flash filled my vision and an incredible pain overwhelmed my entire being. My body pitched over to the right and I fell into the talus. For a moment I lay stunned, not knowing what had happened, but definitely knowing that what had happened was really bad. My right leg was crumpled underneath me and was in a lot of pain. I waited a moment or two and, using my stick, tried to lever myself upright, still wearing the pack, however the blinding pain overwhelmed me.
I figured I was injured in some way, but did not know the seriousness of it. As a long-term athlete and sometime martial artist, I figured pain was something with which I could deal. So I resolved to make the first objective to get to a place I could rest and evaluate what was happening. I tried to stand, heavily relying on my stick, tried to ignore the pain -- and nevertheless STILL fell over.
Okay, maybe the pack is the problem. Perhaps there is a muscle strain. I shook loose the pack straps, tried to stand and again fell over to the side. There appeared to be no structrural support in the leg at all. I tried resting for a while to see if the leg would "come back." Fell over again -- by this time the numerous falls were causing abrasions and bruises and I worried that I might make the situation worse.
Okay, next plan: lets try using the staff as the missing leg and just drag it. That sort of worked as long as I was going downhill. So I crawled back to the back and tried dragging the thing downhill, which worked for about ten feet before the pain just got too large and the pack would not budge. Dragging the pack had opened the water bottles, so now I had no filtered water.
Okay, revised plan -- no way I could get the pack through the broken stone of the lake drainage like this. Something bad had happened -- I knew that. That is when I lay there looking at the sky, the mountains calmly being mountains, and wondered, well, is this it? Is this the end of the story. I looked across the water and saw dots moving along the invisible trail that went up to the Muir Pass. I shouted, perhaps half-heartedly, but the dots kept moving. No one had heard me. It was very difficult to see anything the size of a person in that vastness and even keeping my eye on one moving object was very difficult.
Okay, new plan. So I need to get back to the trail. Abandon the pack and get to the trail and hope someone comes along late in the day -- it was now two P.M. -- before night fell. I figured if I could get to the trail that meant that if no one came along I could crawl back to the pack, which I would have to do, as I knew the temperature would be sub-freezing after sundown. I had enough food to last another seven days, or even longer if I parsed it out. At which point the people I supposedly had contacted with my itinerary would kick in the search parties. I had fishing gear and I knew there were fish in the lake -- or at least there had been at one time.
I had no way of knowing that no one had gotten my itinerary.
So I got my staff, collected myself and tried to hobble down to the lake shore, figuring if I could get that far, then I would come back, fetch a water bottle and the emergency space blanket and set out again, but falling was about all I could do. I could not use my right leg at all and dragging it resulted in waves of pain and nausea. This rock is as far as I got. I could not reach the trail -- it had taken me twenty minutes to go downhill about twenty feet and the trail was across fields of broken rock a good quarter mile away.
I could go no further -- for the moment. The pain was unbelieveable, especially in relation to the fact that I had been doing nothing special when suddenly the world had given way. In the past I had been accustomed to leaping across crevasses from boulder to boulder while fully loaded with pack, but nothing like this had ever happened. I had no idea what was structurally wrong with my leg, only that it just would not work and I had no idea of what kind of capacity it could still provide, even if bound with a splint.
I did not even know if I could empty the pack, set up the tent in some fashion, get into the sleeping bag.
I had just tried calling for help and no one had heard me. I thought well, this is a fine place, as good as any other to end up.
So there I was propped against this rock with my staff, which is a janitor's broomstick that used to be about 6.5 feet long when new. I had tipped the ends with furniture glides of the type meant to shoe the lower parts of wooden chair legs. I had wrapped 18" of length with duct tape over time, as the wood tended to take a beating during the boulder hopping over things like Echo Col and Puppet Pass. The most recent iteration had featured bright red warning tape and it was this assembly I waved in the air when I saw distant dots moving across the landscape across the lake. One last try and I yelled monosyllables as best as I could. If it did not work, if no one heard me in the thin air above 11,400 feet, then I would just have to sit and wait.
One of the dots stopped moving and I heard very faintly the call, "Are you all right?"
"NO!" And that was it. I had no more breath.
In a few minutes these young men showed up, followed by two others. I never saw the fourth man, and never got the name of the third fellow, a chemistry student, who helpfully filled one of my waterbottles with water -- as well as some rocks, dust and twigs. He did however offer some pharmaceuticals, which probably had the greater potential for help getting out of there. Guys 3 and 4 left fairly quickly with the stated plan of hustling to the ranger station in Le Conte Canyon, some 10 miles away and sitting at 7800 feet elevation.
The names of the two guys who stayed that night with me were Andy and his lifetime friend David, both Outward Bound instructors with emergency first aid training and experience with urgent evacuations. Later, the more handsome of these fellers (ladies, take your pick) described how he had carried a student with an injured foot out of the Alaskan wilderness on his back.
Andy and David traded placed running out to the trail to flag down passersby to see if they could snag someone going the other way, to McClure Station to alert the ranger there. After a while Andy returned with Pierre Provost, MD and Paul D. Dally, MD, FACS, both out of Vancouver.
From the docs we learned DO NOT TRY TO RESET A BONE OR JOINT IN THE WILDERNESS. YOU WILL FUCK UP. I say this because we speculated during a problem-solving session with "resetting the patella" along with various splint ideas in a place which has no trees for miles and I have heard stories of people trying to do this. Although getting 10 miles to a ranger station in a splint in my condition would have been "interesting" during a descent of some 2200 feet, none of us had any material that could have held up under the stress of supporting a 200 pound man. I was unwilling to yield up my staff which, come to the extreme, could be used as a sort of crutch.
In any case, to make this tedious story short, the doctors had a PLB capable of broadcasting a distress signal and sending a 40 character text message every 12 hours. We did not know what the result would be, as some of these evacs involve a mule team driving out from Muir Station, some 15-20 miles away. Getting out by any reasonable route meant a good 30+ miles of jouncing on the back of some kind of quadriped. And, of course, people do not sit around the firehouse waiting for emergency calls to the wilderness. Sometimes it takes time to collect a team of men and animals together.
The time had reached about five or so and the furthest the docs (physically in their 40's but roughly in their 60's by age) could attain safely would have been Evolution Lake. There was the knock-knee descent to the Valley and the path to McClure was filled with rough "wet" crossings.
Dave and Andy figured out how to assemble my heavily modified Eureka, which I had customized to withstand storms and temperatures below 5 degrees -- as sold by REI, people should know this single-man tent would have trouble sheltering someone in temperatures much below 45 and REI should be ashamed of presenting this thing as a 3-season shelter with its acres of useless mesh. As it was, with modification, the tent kept me quite comfortable that night when the temp dropped below 28.
It also helped that my medical kit, the one thing on which I never stint, featured several tabs of Tylenol-3. So for you happy campers out there, I suggest you toss aside that ready-made pack of scissors, tape and bandaids and pack yourselves Polymycin, gauze, paper tape, burn gels, real pain killers, ibuprofen, thread for sutures, sterilized needles, and . . . okay this lecture is about other things. . .
As Andy commented, "You picked a really beautiful spot for this to happen!"
The two rummaged through my bearcan to find a meal with comprehensible instructions and simple SOP. I never buy the MH and CM stuff in the bright aluminate packaging, but always fabricate my own meals out of found stuff from the grocery. Around here, you can always find couscous, falafel, veggie burger, and enough Knorr sides to make decent meals costing pennies. I only wish that the guys had taken some of the meals with them if only to learn if anyone else found them palatable.
Flavorful? Well, except for Chili Mac I never liked that stuff anyway.
One of the joys in the high country is watching the colors at sunset. That orange cone is David and Andy using just the shell of their Alaskan expedition tent for cover.
Why would you go year after year to a place that can kill you? Wellll ....
As it turned out, the text message got garbled in transmission and 30 people spread the word to 30 more that one of the doctors was in trouble in the wilderness. As a consequence, the helicopter arrived close to 10 am the following morning. The pilot was named Jeremy, and the EMT was named Tom. Tom is a special kind of person, as one would imagine anyone doing this would be. He had already survived one severe copter crash, a Chinook in the early 70's -- and some of you might know exactly what that means -- and his mother in law had survived a catestrophic plane crash of Singapore Airlines.
You might say, every flight for him was a thoughtful experience.
Tom told us the team had been pulling out three people a day during the early part of the season, including four bodies.
That oughta sober you some.
While the copter was circling around to come back for a landing on what was a postage-stamp size of grass, a lone hiker cruised on by, headed directly for Wanda Pass and the Ionian Basin, just about as far a remove you can get from anything like civilization in the lower 48. Didn't have a chance to ask him if he carried a beacon.
Because the garbled message had indicated a man in his sixties weighing about 175 pounds, there was a discussion before takeoff and an evaluation regarding what was possible. No, you do not get a choice beyond two in where to go. We elected Fresno over Independence, and within 70 miles of Fresno I was lifted and set down, to spend the next three days trying to get home with a shattered patella and a torn quadriceps tendon.
The Fresno Medical facility discharged me knowing I had a broken leg, without pain meds, released to work immediately, with no special treatment and with no knowledge of anyone coming to pick me up from 200 miles away.
It's been over three months, and I am still learning how to walk again. One day, before I really die, I would like to visit the Ionian Basin. Just to poke around.