the road less travelled

What follows are my notes, comments, and stories from my recent backpacking trip in the Sierra.  At first I was planning on doing a detailed day by day account of the trek, but there are already enough of those floating around the web, so I’m just going to throw out my own spin on the trip and some other randomness: funnies, written images, etc…  Hopefully I’ll give you a taste of what it was like without boring you with all the mundane details.

I’d like to start with a general plea, a request, a concern: they are called turnouts for a reason people, you use them to turn out, you don’t have to come to a complete stop, you just veer off the road, let the people pass you, and come right back on.  No problems.  Of course, when you don’t use them then not only are you not being a courteous driver, but you are also being a danger to yourself and everyone in the 10 cars stacked up behind you.

I have no problem with you driving the speed you feel comfortable driving.  Excellent.  That’s what you should be doing.  But, you should let others’ drive at the speeds they feel comfortable too.  Share the road.

Okay, now that I’ve gotten that bit of work taken care of, on to the meat of the post: The Deadman Canyon Loop.  We started at the trailhead in Lodgepole, Sequoia, traveled over Silliman Pass down to Ranger Lake, up to what I’m calling Sugarloaf Crossing, across to Roaring River, down the length of Deadman Canyon, climbing the headwall and traversing at Elizabeth Pass, and then out of the backcountry at Crescent Meadow.  The whole trip is just over 50 miles, though depending upon your source (various publications or the signs in the backcountry) the actual amount varies.

Lodgepole:  I have no need to ever camp there again.  The spaces are small and squashed one on top of each other.  Plus, the idea of needing a reservation for a campsite is completely foreign to me.  I’ve been traveling into Kings Canyon for so long, where it’s first come, first served, and you can pick your own site, that having a site assigned for the night sight unseen completely threw me off.  But, as a launching pad for our adventure, it served it’s purpose.  The pizza we got from the deli/grill counter was delicious and the store had a good selection of beer (yum, Mammoth Breweries, Shiner Bock, Beck’s Dark, etc…).  (It’s good to stock up on those calories before the hike, you’re going to need them.)  Also, while walking through the campground that night we came across a buck with a nice rack.  Was an amazing sight.  (And perhaps a little disturbing that the animal was so completely at home amongst such an abundance of humans…)

Day 1:  Silliman Pass isn’t much of a pass.  At just over 10,000 feet it satisfies the “quiet” requirement (see my post on the sound of silence), but it didn’t have that much in the way of views from the top.  It was okay but not great.  Ranger Lake was dead.  Warm.  No fish.  We had to clean our water filters in the middle of pumping due to the sheer volume of nastiness in the water.  I wouldn’t recommend camping there.  The nearby Bellevue Lake might be a better option, or camping at Twin Lakes before ascending the pass might also be a good idea.  There are supposedly two bear boxes at the lake, though we only found one – the one listed on the map – and it was a pain to get to.  A ranger stopped by our camp that evening; he was having trouble with his water filter too and asked if he could use one of ours, after reviewing our permit, of course.  That was slightly amusing.

Oh.  And besides the ranger, we may have had other travelers at the lake with us:

Day 2:  The original plan had been to camp at either Comanche Meadow or Sugarloaf Meadow.  We made it to Comanche Meadow so early in the morning that we carried on to Sugarloaf; only when we got to the second meadow there was no water so we had to carry on, turning what was supposed to be our short day into another fairly long day.  Luckily we found a nice little camp where the trail crossed Sugarloaf creek which turned out to be better than the one we would have stayed in back at the meadow.  On the way between the two meadows, Mike (my brother) saw “the biggest bear I’ve seen in many years.”  We all heard it crashing through the brush but he was the only one fast enough to whip his head around and get a glimpse of it.  (Thankfully it was not as happy to be around people as the buck the night before or that could have been interesting.)  That afternoon, in camp, we had our first of many experiences with the squirrels going into hording overdrive: the pinecones were falling with regularity and they were scurrying down after their prizes to store up what they could.  Was a bit creepy hearing the “thump…  thump…  thump…” until we figured out what it was.  Afterall, Mike had seen a BIG BEAR (“big bear, big bear, big bear chase me…”) earlier that day.  For dinner we had vanilla, parmesan and red pepper flakes beef stew…  the adventure that is freeze-dried food and eyeballing the correct amount of water to add.  Too little water and you get the joy of flavor nuggets.  Too much water and well, you end up with soup and have to figure out what you can add to soak up the extra moisture.  Delicious?  Well…  Hilarious?  Yes.

Day 3:  Hooray for our “new” short day.  Because of the extra miles we went the day before we only had to go the short distance from Sugarloaf Crossing to Roaring River.  We didn’t even set an alarm.  Woke up with the sun, leisurely broke camp, and made our way out of the Sugarloaf valley and into the Roaring River basin.  The Ranger Station there was very cool (it had rocking chairs out front) and there were a few other landmarks in the area worth checking out (the “powder room” sign pointing in the direction of the “facilities,” and old log cabin, the bridge across the river, etc…)  It was a wonderful place to camp and we could have easily spent several days there as a base and gone off exploring the surrounding area if we had the time.  To continue with the creepiness that seemed to permeate the underlayer of our trip, that night the stillness of the evening was rent by a thunderous crash, but there wasn’t a cloud in the sky.  Avalanche?  A giant pulling loose from the earth and falling?  We didn’t see evidence of either the next morning so the source is unknown, but either way it is not the ideal way to be woken at 3AM in the backcountry.  (Not that there is an ideal way to be woke at that hour anywhere.)

Day 4: The long uphill slog from Roaring River to Upper Ranger Meadow.  The arduous climb was softened by the gorgeous scenery, the glacier carved canyon walls, the greens, the grave of the “dead man” (funny how those go together, but yes, he is the reason for the canyon being called Deadman) and water coursing out of countless crevices, cascading down the smooth granite walls.  Spectacular.  Mesmerizing.  This was one of the most scenic stretches of trail I’ve been on in the Sierra.  And it was all capped off by our camp at Upper Ranger Meadow – the head wall at one end, high granite cliffs on either side, and the drop off back towards Roaring River behind us.  We were surrounded by beauty.

Upper Ranger Meadow looking towards the Western Divide and the climb we found face the next day.

That night, still continuing the trend, I woke to the sound of a coyote singing to the moon.  His voice carried in the stillness and echoed again and again.  Call and response.  Call and response.

Day 5:  We lost the trail almost immediately.  It went straight into a big rock and that was that.  We found it on the other side of the rock, but we had to scramble cross-country to get there as the rock was too large, and too steep, to just walk up.  Ah, a foreshadowing of what was to come, if only we had known.  Elizabeth Pass is a true Sierra pass.  At 11,375 feet, per the sign at the top, it completely embodies that perfect silence I crave, and it has impressive views down either side of the pass.  Getting up to it, however, wasn’t the problem.  Coming down the front country side the trail starts off as slippery loose rocks at a very steep angle (the first time I’ve ever had to walk sideways down a trail so I wouldn’t fall – and that didn’t always work) and eventually descends into… well, nothing, because the trail became so broken, either too small to walk on safely, or too punctuated by large drops and rocks and overgrowth, that it became the prudent thing to abandon the trail and go down the pass cross-country.  This is a common enough problem for travelers on this route that they’ve placed cairns (rocks stacked on top of each other to mark the trail) at regular intervals to follow.  It became a game, “Where’s the next cairn?”  And, watching every step to try not and fall because in some places on that steep slope it would have been very bad to fall indeed.

My feet hurt just looking at it…

After hours, literally, we finally came to a sign at that bottom to point us on our way for the rest of the day and it said we had only gone 3.2 miles from the top of the pass.  Demoralizing.  Deflating.  It felt like so much more, and our day wasn’t even done yet.  The view was perfect, but we paid for it with each step of what we all agreed was the toughest day any of us had ever had in the backcountry.  And that’s saying a lot.  We later learned from a Ranger that they’ve nicknamed that particular beast “Eliza-bitch.”  Fitting.

Day 6:  The last day.  The final trek.  The way home.  It started lively enough with two bears foraging near the trail at Bearpaw High Sierra Camp but then quickly descended into a hot, dusty, march of rollercoasting Sierra trail as we made our way back to front country.  Once again the scenery was awe-inspiring.  The trail follows the folds in the canyons, heading up to each outcropping to get a view down the length towards civilization beyond, and then dropping down to cross the creeks at each intersection.  After awhile though even the scenery began to blur together as my feet fell into the regular cadence of forcing one in front of the other to push on towards the end, towards the truck, towards the shower, and real food, and a real bed, and all those creature comforts of home.  And then I was there.

All in all, I’m glad I did this trip.  I’m still high on the sense of accomplishment that always accompanies successfully navigating these endeavors.  My feet are still blistered and bruised from the long, hard miles.  I will treasure the photographs I took climbing up Deadman Canyon always, even though they don’t do the grandeur and beauty of the canyon justice.  But now I’ve been there and seen it firsthand, and I never have to do that again.

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