Hikes: Rae Lakes
The Minaret Mountains before us, Mike Magill, Forrest Berkley, and Larry Gross joined me traversing a six mile stretch. We had just arrived at this exquisite spot …. We drove to the Sierras and it was just the tonic. It had been a long summer. Now was the time to climb some passes, shed a few pounds, see some sights, tell some tall tales, and relax. This trip was short on the relaxation quadrant. (The Rae Lakes Hike, designed by Forrest Berkley, wonder hiker, was our late summer outing in 1978. I had just returned from the Cottonwood Gulch in New Mexico to San Francisco for some excellent hiking, before heading to teach school at McDonogh in Maryland. Mike, Forrest, and Larry were going to grad school and getting geared up for the next semester. We were psyched for a good time.)
The trip from San Francisco worked out so well. Mike Magill, who lived in my old apartment, was home for a few laughs so I got to have fun with him. He gave me the number to call my old roommate, Craig Penner, who was staying with Luanne Cole on California Street. Neither my other roommate, Bill Overend, nor my Yale friend, Ernesto Molina, were at home when I called them, but Alex Armstrong, my Baltimore buddy was. A few of us gathered for an afternoon on the town.
Craig Penner, Alex Armstrong, his girlfriend, Sally Dau, and I went to a production by the San Francisco Mime Troupe along the Panhandle in Golden Gate Park. The plot was pretty ridiculous, but cleverly funny: Three Gods descend on earth to evaluate earthlings. The Gods decide that the people here are pretty good but will wait to see what happens to the neighbors on one section of town: a farmer, a Chicano, and a Black. The farmer has an incredible green thumb. The Chicano finds a mysterious gift of gasoline in his back yard, just as all of the gas in the world runs out. Cars are stranded on the freeways in LA and all over California for starters. And the Black man, who has the intellectual smarts, gets into the plot as well. What happens to the farmer (food source), Chicano (gas source) and Black (brain power) create the rest of the story. It provided for a good afternoon of entertainment. We bought the t-shirt.
The next night I was staying with my sister, Eleanor, and her husband, Dave White. Eleanor encouraged me to have a supper party at their house, so I invited Andy Barnett, Forrest Berkley, Alex Armstrong and Sally Dau over for dinner at the White’s house. El made us a super meal and it felt good to be with family and friends from Baltimore, Yale, and San Francisco, all in one place.
That week Forrest and I saw Alex perform as a solo artist at the Airport Holiday Inn just before Alex flew back to Baltimore for his dad’s 65th birthday party. Alex is getting so polished! If he and Topher Sisson and company continue to practice their singing and guitars together, they can really go somewhere: such raw musical talent!
Mike, Forrest, and I picked up Larry Gross just as his flight arrived from New York – Kennedy Airport, and we headed east to the mountains. We wanted to rush off to start hiking, but we all had to acknowledge that it had been a long and hectic summer. This trip was supposed to be a time to change the tempo and the pace of our lives, at least for awhile.
As the yellow warning sign said at the Southwest Research Station in Portal, AZ:
On the drive to the Sierra’s the summer caught up with me … time at the Cottonwood Gulch Expeditions was stimulating and exhausting. I fell asleep for the entire road trip from San Francisco to Mammoth Lakes. We nearly missed the turn-off to Lone Pine and Devil’s Post Pile. I woke up as we entered the beautiful valley.
Aroused from my slumber, I spotted a Seagull. What is he doing all the way up here? He is flying up 10,000 feet and hundreds of miles from the ocean. He must be, as Jonathan Livingston Seagull says, “listening to a different wing beat.” We have seen seagulls at Hetch Hetchy, but in the lower valleys? Maybe it is not that unusual. Speaking of wildlife, the birds are not terribly plentiful this time of day, or this season (mid-August), but who cares when you have scenery like this.
We park our car, hoist up our heavy packs, cinch down the straps, and start hiking up into the wilds ahead. We climb quickly toward the alpine ridges. The volcanic mountains around us have remarkable cirque areas with hallowed out lakes at their feet, beautiful trees, plentiful wildflowers, and some overwhelming waterfalls. The lake reflections are truly phenomenal. We hike fast and quietly, as our breathing has to get used to the altitude and the stress. We drink freely as it feels hot, even in the late afternoon sun. Our hearts are pounding, our legs ache and the sweat is pour in streams down our backs.
Hetch Hetchy Lake
As the sun goes behind Ritter Peak and Banner Peak, it is time to pull out the wool clothing — sweater, hat, socks and mittens. When the sun disappears, “It’s as cold as a witches titanium belt buckle,” as Henry Berman would say. Clouds drifting by, and that seagull or one of his buddies is still lazily tooling around above us. It is hard to stay focused. We are by Ediza Lake, which was a circle if beauty for 9,200 feet “Decent” and “Excellent” and “Dy-no-mite” would have been some of the exclamations the boys from the Prairie Trek Expeditions would shout. Can’t go wrong with a view like this. Mike is off cooking spaghetti, “so all is copacetic,” as Monty Billings would report.
Suddenly my summer reverie was interrupted by the sound of helicopters. They appeared to be Navy rescue helicopters as we put the binoculars on them. The airborne pilots flew around and around, following no set pattern. Daredevils in the sky? Does it take twenty or thirty revolutions around an area to determine where to land? Eventually they flew off. Speculation continues.
The campfire was a beauty. The wood was semi-rotten but dry, leaving little smoke or ash to contend with in the morning. The things that made the evening, however, were the stars. No moon, only Scorpio, Ursa Major, Ursa Minor, Cassiopeia, and the other dazzling constellations!
There have been some touchy points on the trip, but I am sure that we can work it out. Today Forrest and I did some serious hiking in an effort to ascent the trails in and around Ediza Lake. We circumnavigated Iceberg Lake, Cecile Lake, and Minarets Lake. The scenery was enough to blow us away! It was truly amazing. I will have to get Forrest, Larry and Mike to send me their photos, as I did not have my camera (uncharacteristically).
Gallivanting off on my own for about forty-five minutes to “glassade” down the snow patches, there were some really cool glacial formations around the frigid parts of the lakes. A BLAST of a good time. The others said they were too tired to join me.
About mid-day we walked at an increasingly faster pace: Forrest was on a roll. He has set his mind on getting to Thousand Island Lake for dinner and campsite, and he had it mapped out in his head. The sad report is that we did NOT make it. Fatigue and altitude got the better of us, even Forrest. It turned out to have been a foolish waste of energy on the snowfields for me, as that energy was left on the melting snow. So much for my personal scurrying around that morning! We also came upon a mountain pass that was poorly marked on the maps. We renamed it “Gross Error Pass,” as we were zapped of enthusiasm and initiative to get up the sides and down to Thousand Island Lake.
We stayed on the banks of Garnet Lake, camping on a small peninsula protruding into the shallow glaciated lake. The spot was “illegal” for being so close to the water, but we were too tired to do anything that would have disturbed the plants and lake water. The nearest legal spot that was also flat enough for us to camp was almost a mile away, so we took our chances. After dinner (Forrest is a great cook, even with a small gas stove) Mike treated us to some extraordinary farts and good stories. We went to bed just after sunset; too pooped for the day to stay up late by the fire.
Forrest and I got up early and headed for an ascent of Banner Peak, but not until we had relocated our camp near the opposite end of Garnet Lake, in the legal camping zone, and just off the crowded John Muir Freeway. Mike Magill and Larry Gross stayed in camp to repack their gear and do some day hikes, as Forrest and I scrambled across the rocks, over the ridge, and down to Thousand Island Lake. We then traversed up the back side of Ritter Peak and headed toward the saddle near Banner Peak. The initial ascent was easy, but we had to be very careful with our footing, which slowed us down considerably. We wanted to reach the saddle by lunch, which put us near the sparkling water of Lake Katherine, which had been totally frozen just two months before. The snow was gently sloped and the humongous boulders were tilted in our direction, so, after careful foot placement, and deft jumping, and lots of burned calories, we arrived at our lunch spot. The snow had a bright pinkish tinge to it, which is caused by a red algae that grows on the surface of the snow. The algae becomes the most pink around our footprints, rock slides and crevasses.
Salami, Kool-Aid, deviled ham, cheese, crackers and GORP — a relative feast for lunch. The wind picked up. As we headed around the next pass, just above Lake Katherine, the wind was so intense we had to change from our hiking shorts to our warmest pants and shirts. The extra clothing, food and crampons, as well as an ice ax were in our one day pack, and we were glad to have them all. We alternated carrying the heavy day pack, which was more flimsy than we should have had. The mountains rising on all sides, the stark snow drifts and glaciers, the marmots and picas, the wind and sweat, the rock slides and the arrival of other climbers, made for a genuinely unique experience. Forrest and I had to use our hands and feet to shimmy up some of the rock chimneys; and we had to use our crampons and ice ax to stop our slides down the glaciers.
We halted for a break at the crest between Ritter and Banner, grabbing a slug of water to quench our parched throats. To the east we had a terrific view of Lake Crowley, Nevada, and all of the other lakes and peaks we had climbed the past few days. As we took in the view, some other hikers overtook us and then paused to ask some questions. We met Karen Rose, a wilderness ranger (sure glad we moved our campsite), and her three friends, plus a father with his teenager daughter, Suzie.
The eight of us started at various times and reached the summit in approximately an hour. The final hundred feet or so was more than the ordinary; it was down right scary. (No one with acrophobia should try this one.) Karen recommended that we not look down, not to be concerned by how high we were. The concentration was on our “foot placement from one step to the next. Complete focus. Keep your wits about you. Remember to breathe and stay relaxed.” All good instructions. The relaxation part was tough, but also part of the story. As the elevation increased, my heart rate zoomed up to its max (estimated at 185 bpm) and my knees were beginning to wobble. The intensity of the wind cranked up my anxiety a notch, and those rocks hidden from the sun were ice cold. Because of the wind and the sweat I had a hard time keeping my sunglasses from slipping off my face. From time to time we each found a stable rock on which to pause, look up, gaze out, and take in the magnificent view. A few more feet and we were at the top, right? Oops, a false peak. All the while fighting the voices in your head that murmur it is so steep you should turn around and go back. I could always say, “I almost made it to the top.” WRONG, so we each dug deeper, tried to turn off the voices and kept climbing. Why are we not at the top yet? We keep climbing. We made it!
Reactions? Laughter, tell jokes, smile from ear to ear, take pictures, marvel at the 360 degree vistas. All eight of us made it within a few minutes of each other. We stayed on the summit for a collective exhale after our very individual climbs. What a nice feeling.
I did not get her name, but one of Ranger Karen’s friends grew up off Joppa Road in Baltimore, Maryland. What are the odds of that happening? I only recall she said she now lives in Truckee, California. She stole my heart, at least until the next peak experience.
Forrest and I goofed around with his camera, taking some great photos of Mono Lake, which used to be a huge lake, but it has shrunk dramatically by the siphoning of water to Los Angeles. Forrest wrote a sign on a piece of paper that read, “Where’s Dave?” I took a picture of him holding the sign. Apparently DAVE is David Aldrich, who is a hiking buddy of Forrest’s. They had an unsuccessful attempt to scale Banner Peak, and Forrest wanted to rub it in at the appropriate moment.
The descent was so much easier, it felt like we were skipping down the mountain! In an effort to change the scenery on the return, we headed down a ravine on the east side of Banner. Down, down the steepest chimney I’ve ever climbed, it took serious concentration. We hit a snow patch that was at a 65 degree angle and it had a rushing stream flowing under and through it. I nearly lost my footing, several times, but managed to calm down and to glassade with relative ease down the next snow chute, before hitting some rocks and other snow patches. Finally we hit the larger glacier. Despite Forrest’s detour, we made it back to Lake Katherine in good time; however, I was emotionally and physically spent. The final steps to Thousand Island Lake and over the small pass to Garnet Lake was more than I could handle, so the pace got slower and slower. As my energy drained so did my relative enthusiasm.
Dinner was a nice carb rush, but not enough to totally energize me. We played some Frisbee, ate more GORP, drank some brandy, built a fire, and got ready for bed. Oh, yeah, we also told some Kliban jokes, which ended our conversations that evening with a few laughs. The brandy put me over the top and I stumbled to my tent. The stars were so bright and the water of the lake so dark it was spooky. The reflection of the stars in the Lake was interrupted by the intermittent breezes, which also multiplied the twinkles. Soon I fell into my sleeping bag. I caught some “mean Z’s” that night.
Sayings on the trails
Quotations from people on our Rae Lakes Hike, which may gain strength in meaning over time:
“Be careful, you could rooze your rife!” Howard Tam, San Francisco landlord.
“Why that’s as funny as a ton of bat guano falling on your head!” Mike “Batshit” Magill
“I have a map and compass and I know how to use them!” One of the NERD hikers at Kearsarge Pass.
“If my nose were two feet longer, I might have another arm.” Larry “Beak” Gross.
“You can peek a cheek and sneak, or let ‘er rip like I do!” Mike “Loud & Gaseous” Magill.
“I would have told her to bend over.” Forrest in a fit of pique.
“Hey, Forrest. Take a break!” Larry Gross, also in a fit of pique.
“Mister Bill goes Camping?!” Mike “G-Force” Magill.
“If chickens had lips they wouldn’t be chickens.” Hippy Mike.
“I started this hike a sniveling puny person and I will end it a tanned sniveling puny person.” Larry Gross.
Today the plan is to hike out of the Ritter Range and down the river trail to Agnew Meadows and the highway. The only noteworthy thing from this part of the trip was in the head count: There were more people on this section of the trail, all headed toward the John Muir Freeway, than we have seen over the past few weeks! All of these people hiking? It was hard to envision. Our next series of hikes would be from the Owens Valley, with access to the high Sierra’s from Kearsarge Pass, which is near Whitney Portal.
For the first five miles or so back down from Ritter, we hiked at a leisurely pace, and told Spiro Agnew stories. There were some people we passed, who in turn passed us. One family had a daughter who was beautiful and “full figured.” Every time we walked past her, I nearly tripped and fell. Must the power of buxom beauty. The birds were few and far between, so it was great to have lots of human talent to watch. The lonely birds we did see must have thought that these hikers were crazy. What kept me going was the thought of a shower, laundry and fresh avocado in Mammoth Lakes.
We finally did accomplish our tasks, including showers! And laundry and avocado (bonus of garlic and olive oil). Having lunch at the Inyo National Forest Ranger Station Visitors’ Center, we left a note for Karen Rose, who had hiked with us to the top of Banner Peak, and “all was copacetic.”
The strangest part of the day was riding in the cramped Chevette with Mike Magill in my lap. The car is designed for four max, and we had four plus 4 backpacks, which put us over the fanny space. The only thing that made it tolerable was that Mike had a bottle of apricot brandy handy. We clandestinely sipped from the bottle, as we drove along. Forrest was horrified when he smelled the liquor, afraid of the open container laws and the rest. As a lawyer-in-the-making, he wanted to stay out of legal hot water. A traffic citation was not in his best interests.
The mountains on the west of highway 395 were really beautiful. The Owens Valley is about 3,000 – 4,000 feet at their base and the Sierras rise to 13,000 feet and above on the California side. With some substantial mountains also on the Nevada side of the valley, it is gorgeous. The terrain was similar to the route our Cottonwood Gulch group had taken earlier in the summer from the Gila Wilderness in New Mexico to the Chiricahua Mountains in Southern Arizona.
We drove through Mammoth Lakes, Bishop, Big Pine, Independence, and Lone Pine in our effort to get a hiking permit, food, gas and a camping spot. The camping spot we secured was difficult to find exactly. We settled for a rocky spot in Onion Valley, below our trail head. It was 15 miles on a windy road UP from Independence. Dinner was scarfed down at The Sierra, a greasy spoon in Lone Pine. It was a treat for us to have someone else cook. We looked like a wild group of crazy hikers and relished the taste of pedestrian junk food again.
When we got back to our campsite, we discovered that while we had been out about 1,000 other hiking crazed people had arrived at the same spot. Our smell from Onion Valley did not chase them away. We figured we would have to get up early to beat many of them to the trail head.
Mike Magill treated us to his Saturday Night Live versions of Mr. Bill: Mr. Bill goes camping; Mr. Bill watching the Winnebago and gets run over; Mr. Bill getting hit with huge “g-forces” as he falls from the cliff; Mr. Bill goes fishing and a leviathan carries rod and Mr. Bill underwater for a swim. OOOHHHHH, NNNOOOOO. Mike promised a repeat: “Join us next time for additional episodes of Mr. Bill on the camping trail.” Can’t wait.
I slept well.
We did not get off to the early start we had hoped, dropping off post cards at the post office in Onion Valley. I watched the Wilson’s Warblers playing in the willow thicket near the trail head. Forrest, Larry, and Mike helped set the pace as we headed up Kearsarge Pass. The operative word was UP, as it rose a mere 2,500 feet in four miles. The Pass is at 11,800 feet and it is the gateway to Mount Whitney and the rest of the Sierras. After our time in the Ritter Peaks area, we had our hiking legs back in great shape, and we were glad to have had that shake down hike. We headed off at a great hiking pace and did not let up. The hike to the Pass took us about 2 and one half hours. Most assuredly the longest steady uphill we had had in a long time. Exhausted but happy during the ascent, we rested at the Pass and gazed out at the views of Kearsarge Lake, Bullfrog Lake, and the arid area of the Western Basin.
A collection of native Californians were with us, when we reached the Pass and a strange vibration rippled through the crowd. One group of guys from Huntington Beach was munching on cheese and granola and feeding it to a huge golden mantled ground squirrel. One squirrel walked up a hiker’s leg, struggled up his torso and ate a large mound of granola he had on his shoulders. The squirrel filled his Richard Nixon jowl’s to the brim, then scampered off nimbly on the rocks and made a cache of his gathering from this naïve group of hikers. I imagine the squirrel repeats this scene several times a day for tips all hiking season long: the High Sierra’s version of a Mime Troupe.
Mike arrived at the Pass about 20 minutes later than Forrest and I had. Larry was close behind. We heard the group from California, nicknamed the NERDS, claiming that they thought the Pass was easy, “compared with Glen Pass or Taboose Pass.” Then they said, “I have a map and a compass, and I know how to use them.” Did he really say that? What an idiot.
Descending quickly to Kearsarge Lake, Mike and I found a marshy/grassy area with a splendid water source. We took off our shoes, wallowed around, shrieked and drank the H2O, which proved to be excellent. Larry and Forrest found us soon thereafter and we quickly devoured our lunches.
Next came Frisbee time on the marsh. It was smooth tossing for everyone for awhile, then Henry threw the first errant one, which landed in the middle of the grossest, slimiest quagmire in the area. I had to climb through it to retrieve the toss. The slime was thigh deep. It left a brown muck stain on my legs. Oh well, time to wash off.
We made some abusive comments to and about the NERDS who were camping across the Lake. We ate, played more Frisbee and planned for the day ahead. Our destination was Charlotte Lake, which was about 3.5 miles away. Off we hiked.
Henry Hooper, Mike Magill, Larry Gross, Forrest Berkley (L to R)
Ascending a ridge to the trail, we walked comfortable for three miles talking, joking, gagging, and generally enjoying the spectacular view. We arrived at Charlotte Lake in no time and found that we were in need of a site at least 100 feet from the Lake. The ranger had a cabin by this Lake, so the rules were strictly enforced. Forrest found a spot, while I wrote in my journal and updated my bird list: Audubon Warbler and Sharp-Shinned Hawk. I sat by the banks of the lake and the water was perfectly azure. While I was writing a ranger arrived and started asking Forrest, Mike, and Larry some questions for her questionnaire. I missed their fun, as she was apparently smart and good looking.
Our immediate campsite neighbors seemed caught in a time warp. A couple from Brisbane, California, Hippy Mike and Mary were a throw back to 1965. The hair style, the life style, the vocabulary, the priorities, were communal and honest. Their most redeeming quality was their friendliness, which works in every generation.
Hippy Mike seemed really interested in my bird list, so we chatted briefly about how I got into birding, before he went off with his fishing rod to test his luck. He shared some things with us, so we shared a cigar and brandy with him later. Hippy Mike’s craziest feat surrounded a log breaking incident. Having gathered about 50 pounds of wood, he had one, dry, long unbroken log. For twenty minutes he stood at his site and tried to bash it against a standing tree, throw rocks on it, and jump on it; all to no avail. Finally, he came over to our campsite, picked up about a 100 pound boulder, lifted it up above his head and smashed it against the ill fated log. The wood shattered in all directions and Hippy Mike put most of it on our fire, taking the rest for his own.
We shared some tea and other beverages with Hippy Mike and Mary that night, told stories, then retired to an under-the-stars night. It had been an eventful and memorable day, mostly because of the characters on the trail.
Waking at the sound of Forrest priming the pump on his stoves, I waddled out of bed and began the slow and painful “getting ready for another day of hiking” routine. Forrest was preparing the Aunt Jemina pancake mix, which always takes too long and tastes too poorly to be worth the effort. There is such a thing as too much syrup. I figured we were in for the duration, so best to make the most of it: I drank coffee, chatted and birdwatched till dining.
Finally packed and ready to hike, we said farewell to Hippy Mike and Mary. Hippy Mike was headed out himself to dig a latrine with his ice ax. He was toking a joint, which made for an interesting scene as he went off to take a shit, an enormous smoke cloud rising over his long hair and bandanna. Our “short cut” ascent to the John Muir Freeway was long and tiring. On the main John Muir Trail we were passed by a bronzed goddess dressed in a bathing suit and carrying a light backpack. Her thighs were as big as my chest, so we named her the $6 million woman. She hiked very, very fast, alone. (Calm down, Forrest, be still thy heart.)
The ascent up Glen Pass, as the NERDS had said, was an arduous one. Luckily it was only two miles long, instead of Kearsarge Pass’s four, or I might have “passed out.” We skirted several pristine lakes where you could see clear to the bottom, and made our way up to the Rae / 60 Lakes area. The view from the Pass was exquisite. Though not as long, this rise took much more out of me than I had anticipated.
We were greeted at the pass by a party of hikers enjoying grape juice in snow, a sort of grape slushy, that they were serving each other. We shared some GORP, slushies, with a tequila chaser, and water, before heading off again. The NERDS were nowhere in sight, sigh of relief, so we were sure this would be a good day.
Mud Puddle Hoop
The descent into the Rae Lakes Basis was steeper and more of a rocky pitch than we had anticipated, so when we reached the first lake, passing several groups of weirdo’s (including a family of three women all dressed and hiking in matching pajamas) we took a lunch break. It was a good time to rest, so Forrest brought out and reheated the Lentil soup. We also dined on cheese and tuna casserole, iced tea (with snow instead of ice) and GORP. Not bad fare for food on the trail!
Forrest scouted ahead of us after lunch to more closely examine the map from elevation and to figure out the best route over the next few days. Mike, Larry and I sun bathed on the rocks, read some books and wrote in our journals. Periodically we chased squirrels from our food and watched the fish jump in the Lake. Then, we jumped into the Rae Lake ourselves. We literally flung our hot bodies into the thermally frigid waters. What a shock to the system! We even took pictures of the event to document our insanity. Let it be known that if you ever doubt whether you are alive or dead, hurl your bones into a cold Sierra alpine lake. You will soon find out.
The Rae / 60 Lakes Basin is by far the most spectacular array of lakes we had seen. Add to the scenery the mountain peaks, the talus slopes, the water falls, the glaciers, the wildlife, and the vast array of characters hiking in and around us, and it all sums to a wonderful visual display. Our dip into the Lake, by the way, was recommended to us by some hikers from San Francisco and Berkeley, whom we met at Glen Pass. We can always blame our insanity as temporary and their fault.
From Rae we did some heavy breathing up a grassy, rutted slope that led to an unusual lake near Fin Dome and the Sixty Lakes Basin. Forrest set out immediately to scale Fin Dome, while Mike and I set up camp and began journaling. Forrest Berkley is an intrepid climber and promised to yell down to us from the peak. I got within easy earshot and continued writing. Finding a stray horseshoe on the trail, I set it aside for future use. Twenty minutes later, I hear this call from above us. It was Forrest yelling to us from atop Fin Dome! He looked so small and insignificant up there at 11,693 feet. He had gotten up there so fast and so effortlessly that I left my journal and decided to climb up after him. Forrest climbed down about 200 feet and guided me up the easiest route to the top of this prehistoric shark’s fin. We scrambled to the top and made it without incident. The majority of the climb was pretty hair-raising, as it approached class 4 climbing in sections. I approached them with great trepidation. Forrest, though, ran, jumped, climbed with zero sense of danger. Up some slender chimneys and across some slippery pebbled sections, along the granular face of the granite peak. In thirty minutes we had ascended a near 90 degree rock face. By hook or crook we were at the crest, sipping water, taking photos, signing the register, and scanning the terrain. Our campsite was obscured by a bluff, but we knew it was there. The Lake was in clear view.
The descent was no easy task, because I hate to turn around and go down chimneys. This time I had to turn around, hold on, dangle my feet and begin a pedal search for a secure foot hold. Not a pleasant experience. Finally at the bottom, Forrest and I headed to our camp site. On the way I found a damaged Frisbee. Forrest wanted me to take it along as ammunition to launch off the next peak. We arrived by our fire and camp just in time to watch seven Bighorn Sheep graze on a nearby slope before sunset. Larry and Mike had watched the sheep for several hours in utter amazement. We were lucky to share in their good fortune.
Our fortunes stayed bright as Forrest cooked dinner: macaroni and cheese with tuna. He made a casserole which was fit for a whole mob of gypsies. We sat by the fire and stuffed our faces, told more Mr. Bill episodes, ate some cheesecake, drank some coffee and wandered off to bed. Again, we slept soundly and restoratively after the long day.
Today was “go through the motions day” as Mike was going to leave us early. His plan was to hike north to a junction on the John Muir Freeway, then head west via Paradise Valley to Zumwalt Meadows and Cedar Grove. He planned to either hitch hike or call home for someone to come fetch him from there. Larry and Forrest with stay with him at 214 Second Avenue until they fly to Kennedy Airport. They will both head back to Harvard for school. Mike starts his grad school in one week and wants to visit his folks in Fresno before the next semester begins.
Mike shared his journal with me and I was surprised and pleased to find some humorous and complementary comments and references to me. We were all sad to see him go!
All of us headed into the Sixty Lakes Basin for a nice circular to the Rae Lakes and John Muir Freeway. I picked up the horse shoe and gave it to Mike for good luck. No stove, little food — he was really on his own. Larry, Forrest and I went on a packless jaunt around the 60 Lakes, hoping to approach Mount Clarence King, the dominant peak in the area. We were foiled though, but a combination of anxiety (the talus slopes were nearly impossible to climb — two steps forward, three steps sliding back) and lack of interest (how many peaks do you have to scale, exactly, to have done the Rae Lakes Basin?). The final hike was beautiful and I was glad we took it at a more leisurely pace. None of us wanted to see Mike go, so we spent a log of time taking parting pictures. As Forrest said, “Mike Magill bridges the intellectual with the goofy.” We needed him on the trip, we all agreed.
A Marsh Hawk glided low over one of the 60 lakes and as I scrambled to find my binoculars, I realized I had left them on a tree near our last campsite. So it goes. Too late to return for them, we walked on and spotted an Inyo Mule Deer, marmots, and lots of other wildlife. The walk was very pleasant.
Munching on lunch at the top of the unnamed lake, henceforth called Bighorn Lake, we were quiet, partly from the heat and partly because we had lost the fourth wheel on our hiking machine. Since we had aborted our Clarence King Expedition, we decided to head to Dragon Lake, or to some even higher unnamed lake toward Dragon Pass and Dragon Peak. The mile down to Rae was boring; we had made the trek twice before, but the seven tenths of a mile back up the other side to Dragon Lake was bad: a tertiary trail straight up the rock face. Larry Gross had a teradactil watch set so that we wouldn’t get eaten by this dangerous dragon. The ascent above the lakes nearly ate us alive: the talus slopes were fierce everywhere, nothing short of unmitigated hiking hell. The snow, sun, rocks … the red and white streaks in the gray and black cliff face … the whole scene seemed out of a JRR Tolkien novel.
Up, up we went to the lake, close to 12,000 feet. Water in the lakes is frozen, no signs of life in it, the fish must be on the bottom, waiting. Most years it is frozen, but we thought that with an unseasonably hot and dry summer there might be some melting. Apparently not. Larry did not enjoy this climb at all. It was above his hiking and climbing skill level. He had improved a lot, having survived Gross Error Pass, but still it is no fun when your energy level gets zapped by your, I-might-die-here PANIC button. Once he calmed down, I changed the subject: the pros and cons of going to graduate business school. He felt that one should go to the best schools (Wharton, Harvard, Stanford, Northwestern, Chicago) or to none at all. Larry had worked at several transportation companies in New York and Connecticut (Greenwich). I don’t know where I stand on the subject, but his comments were good food for thought.
Forrest, by the end of my discussion with Larry, had already skipped ahead and scaled Dragon Pass. We viewed his progress from below as the sun was setting at the edge of our newly dubbed God-Forsaken Lake. No trees, little grass, no fish … only rocks and snow and ice. I cooked dinner tonight while Larry and Forrest skipped rocks on the water pools at the surface of God-Forsaken Lake and they prepared our campsite for a night out in the open. We enjoyed the entire sunset tonight, as the western sky became an unusual pink then turned purple then violet above the peaks. Tonight we had reheated vegetable soup, chicken casserole, ham and rice and tea. Then to bed, to bed. The next day would be across the basin and to an unnamed pass and an uncertain ascent to Golden Trout Lake.
Up before 6 it was cold. Our sleeping bags, boots and poncho were completely covered with frost. It was worth it to see all of the stars and commits and meteors the night before, but having a wet bag now seemed a waste of time. I guess it would have been a better idea to set up a tent. Oh, well. Seems like we would be trading of a wet sleeping bag for a wet tent.
We got up, ate breakfast and started our ascent with impressive speed. On the slopes by 8, we began huffing and puffing to our unknown destiny, Forrest leading the charge. The talus was large, bouldery and interspersed with snow patches which were frozen solid. In less than an hour we reached the top of the ridge, some 800 feet above our previous night’s campsite. Clarence King standing out on the western horizon, Fin Dome was almost lost in the morning glare.
Trotting to the eastern edge of the crest, Forrest flung the cracked Frisbee as hard as he could. It floated out straight and true for a long time, then it landed somewhere down there beyond our eyesight. Cool passing shot, so to speak.
Since the lakes below us did not include Golden Trout Lake and since the ridge we crossed was not Dragon Pass, by process of elimination, which was challenging because the crease in Forrest’s map obliterated the names, topographical lines, and elevations, we figured we had one more ridge to cross before we reached the spot we wanted. Forrest kindly jogged ahead and scouted out a route. A pika came out of his hole, stared at us, started chipping and calling, wondering what we were doing in his neighborhood.
Besides the 200 foot drop that Forrest went down, sliding in a near-death rock avalanche, and the 400 foot ice/snow chute that Larry nearly slid down, it was an uneventful descent. The area was Almost Dragon Pass and our descent was fast., almost like rock glassading down 1,000 feet of pebbles and rocks. At the bottom, some fisherman were hopelessly casting into the lake, we believe it was Golden Trout Lake, for the trout had long ago been fished clean. Time to restock the lake with those helicopters. Forrest and I dried out our ponchos and sleeping bags, waiting for Larry to finish his final slide to the sun.
Together again, we completed our morning of hiking by dropping down into Onion Valley once again. After only waiting about ten minutes in the Onion Valley parking lot, Hippy Mike and Mary from Charlotte Lake arrived. They were looking for a ride to Independence. “Hey, man. Far out! Seeing you here? Cool.” Counting his girlfriend, Mary, that made it five of us stuffed into the Chevette with five packs and a lot of stink. We went for it and rolled and burned brakes all the way downhill to Independence, that booming metropolis of 900 people.
We downed a six pack with Hippy Mike and Mary and said “Cheerio.” Hungry, we mozzied over to The Pines, a greasy spoon in town, and slurped some bad vittles and iced tea, while listening to the Mike Douglas Show on TV. It was quite a scene: seated at The Pines at the end of our week on the Pacific Crest Trail, we were surrounded by backfiring cars, telephone wires, geriatric patrons at the bar (for lunch), and to top it off, our waitress had one arm. She served it all up with speed and ease, but with Mike Douglas’s voice in the background, that really was culture shock. After time for good, good-byes, Forrest and Larry dropped me off at the bus station and headed to San Francisco. Their flight to Boston was to leave the next day from SFO airport.
Catching a bus, which was 45 minutes late arriving in Independence, I rode the whole way to Los Angeles seated next to a talkative kid named Milton, or Milty for short. He was a seven year old from Long Beach, CA and he kept me amused as the towns passed by: Little Lakes, Ridgecrest, Mojave, Rosamond, Lancaster, Palmdale, San Fernando, Hollywood, and finally LA. The commentary was great. What more could a trail weary hiker ask for than a seven-hour trip sitting on my butt, watching Mount Whitney float by, while listening to a seven year old Jewish comedian talk about the movies he has seen and wondering aloud how people die and volcanoes live? What more could I want, really?
I caught a late plane out of LAX, was delayed due to storms in Houston, and arrived back in Baltimore at 2:30am. What a long strange trip it had been. The end of an even stranger summer.
Ritter Range / Rae Lakes Bird List
- Mountain Chickadee (top image)
- Oregon Junco
- Western Kingbird
- Red-Breasted Nuthatch
- White-Crowned Sparrow
- Clark’s Nutcracker (bottom image)
- Song Sparrow
- Gray Jay
- Wilson’s Warbler
- Stellar’s Jay
- Dipper (second image)
- Olivaceous Flycatcher
- Brewer’s Blackbird
- Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker
- Green-Tailed Towhee
- Lesser Nighthawk
- Mourning Dove
- Magpie (yellow-billed race)
- Western Meadowlark
- Herring Gull
- Violet-Green Swallow
- Goshawk (third image)
- Brown-Headed Cowbird
- Sharp-Shinned Hawk
- Audubon Warbler
- House Sparrow
- Marsh Hawk
- Mountain Bluebird
- Rock Dove
- Red-Winged Blackbird
- Golden-Crowned Sparrow