About 20 years ago I backpacked in to the sierras for the first time. I went with two friends. We made a base camp and climbed a few mountains in the area of the Ansel Adams wilderness between Lake Thomas Edison and Mammoth Mountain. From the top of Silver Peak (8,878’) I saw the distant Ritter Range in the Northeast.
me and a buddy on top of Silver peak, about 20 years ago
There, Mount Ritter is accompanied by The Minarets–spires of metamorphic rock; sediments that were baked by the granitic intrusion that the Sierras are famous for. These pinnacles remained in my memory, and I finally had a chance to get close to them 13 years ago, but I had just begun the course of events that would intensify to cause a ruptured disc in my spine, and at the time I was backpacking to the feet of The Minarets with my girlfriend, I had to rely on her to tie my boots because I couldn’t bend that far. Suffice it to say that trip was not a long one. We only got a taste of The Minarets, and I’ve always wanted to go back. I decided to do so a few weeks before the Labor Day Holiday, but by then almost all back-country permits were gone. I did find one opening that would allow me to hike south from Lake Mary to Duck Lake, and then do whatever I wanted. So a created a round-about tour: heading south from Mammoth Lakes, over a 10,787’ pass to high Duck lake, and westward to the Pacific crest trail which would take me north to the country I wanted to explore. There would be two difficult days of hiking just to get to the beginning of the string of lakes at the feet of The Minarets that I wanted to visit.
My Hiking partner of the past 6 years, Lauren, was learning of my plans by text message, and on the night before I left, she couldn’t stand to miss this hike, so she found a cheap flight and flew to Reno the next day from her Vermont farm. She didn’t know what she was getting into.
Crossing a 10,787’ pass on your first day in the mountains is not a wise move, and it was made worse by the need to make miles so that day two would be less grueling. For a guy from sea level, Darth Vader breathing sets in at about 8,700’, and we needed to stop frequently to oxygenate, But we crossed the pass to spectacular Duck Lake (not a great name for a high mountain lake surrounded by tall granite walls) and dropped out of its west end spillway through old growth pine forest to the Pacific Crest trail.
Once on the PCT we headed back North until Lauren had to stop because of elevation sickness making her nauseous. We bivouced at just over 10,000’ on a little flat terrace looking directly across the upper reaches of the deep valley of Fish Creek towards Silver peak. Despite beginning our hike at 1 pm, we manage to put twelve miles behind us in the day, leaving us with only sixteen miles for the next day, but it would not be an easy sixteen miles.
In the morning we broke a frosted camp, and hiked four miles to the first stream (September is the driest month in the sierras) where we had a good breakfast, and moved on, continuing northward, dropping 3000’ to cross the headwaters of the San Joaquin River, passing through Devils Postpile National Monument, crossing over a 500’ ridge and back down to the point where we began the 1,200’ climb in the last four miles of the day to Fern Lake. Long day. And Fern Lake is only at 8,720’. It is the beginning of the string of lakes I wanted to see, but it is the least of them. The next day we had it easy, with a three-mile hike up to the next valley’s lakes, choosing a granite platform above Holcomb Lake at 9,478’ for camp. We had the whole afternoon off to enjoy the clear green water and the sun. We rested, ate and drank a lot to recover from our trek. The next day would be another long day.
After breakfast we made our way out of the valley, eastward, which involved a climb to a high bench before plunging almost a thousand feet back down to the to the San Joaquin so we could hike a mile north to the next valley, and back up to more high lakes. These would be the gems of the trip and I was excited. Lauren, on the other hand, was not aware of the magnificence ahead, and was suffering from several blisters on her feet. I took some of her weight and she shed her boots for crocks, and she did fine with the 2,000’ climb in the second six miles of the day. She’s a remarkably good hiker.
We arrived at Minaret Lake–quite possibly the most beautiful lake in the Sierras. Odd that I would say that because the minarets are not made of the famous Sierra Nevada granite that makes these mountains so special. The metamorphic process left these dark Jurassic sediments more durable and resistant to erosion than the granite, so the Minarets stand tall and jagged over the lake.
The sierras are known as “The Range of Light” (a name created by John Muir and made famous by Ansel Adams and other landscape photographers) because of the dramatic lighting that comes from the passing of many mountain-made clouds. But on this trip we would be in the wilderness for six days without seeing a single cloud. And due to the east-facing orientation (just as the Granite Avatars of Patagonia), the only dramatic light would be at dawn.
In the Sierras I am always captivated by the reflections of mountains in the lakes, and on this trip I was especially so, given the lack of clouds to soften the stark rock and blue sky scenery.
Dinner was enjoyed in a nook of a solid rock dome, high above the lake, followed by the traditional cigar and nip of whiskey, having made the destination. All of these nights we were getting a minimum of 10 hours of sleep (often with strange dreams), punctuated by a midnight pee that we looked forward to so that we could behold the depth of the galaxy in the high, dry, clear air. Lauren’s farm was recently visited by alien craft, so I wondered which star the astronauts come from.
The craft hovering over Lauren’s farm
This fifth day was our stroll in god’s country–the highlight of the trip–three miles on a difficult cross-country route from Minaret Lake up over a pass to 10,239’ Cecile Lake for a long lunch, down to Iceberg Lake, lolly-gaging there, and eventually dropping down to Ediza–the lake I visited 13 years ago. There’s nothing like being in the high lakes of the Easter Sierras and these lakes are among the best, because of the Minarets.
At Ediza we found a bench up on a ridge above the lake to make camp away from the other backpackers. Ediza is a popular destination because of relatively easy access from the road and the spectacular view of the Ritter Range. Ritter stands above the lake at 13,143’.
Our hike out of this wonderland was an easy seven miles, five of them downhill, to a road where the ranger had told us we can get a shuttle bus, but she was not paying attention to the dates, and the bus service ended for the season the day before we exited, so we got lucky hitchhiking back to my truck, then celebrated with an ale and a steak at the Mammoth Brewery. Visits to a couple of primitive hot springs eased the stiffness the next day.
A quick 53 mile sojourn in the Eastern Sierras is food for the soul. It took a few days of good food to recover from, but a week after we came out of the wilds I achieved a goal that had intimidated me for several months: to row eight 30-second sprints and cover 160 meters in each, with 90 seconds of rest between. I am currently 3rd of all 59-year-old heavyweight men in the world who compete on the Concept 2 rowing machine 2000 meter event (and I am the lightest of them, so on the water I would be #1) and I take great joy in this as I approach the milestone of my sixtieth birthday.
Life’s pleasures, for me, are often connected to my physical abilities, so aging is not welcome. I am studying the maps to plan next summer’s eastern sierra trip. Gotta get out there while I can.
Prints from this trip are half-price for blog readers until my birthday–11/01.