07 August 2016

My Rae Lakes Loop Adventure - Two Weeks Later

In hindsight, it all went too quickly.

Sure, it took as long as it was supposed to, but still not long enough.

I've been back in civilization (or whatever you call Los Angeles) for two weeks now, and I miss being up in the mountains.  I miss the clean air and clean water.  I miss seeing the Milky Way in the dark night skies.  I miss the solitude, and I miss the people.

It's different being alone up there.  When you're alone here in the city, it's easier to feel lonely.  But when you're alone out there, you feel free.

With no cell phone reception, I didn't feel compelled to check my texts or social media every five minutes.  I had everything I needed to be happy up there.  I had my food and water.  My eyes had all the beauty they could handle.  My ears had none of the mind-numbing urban aural clutter, just the sounds of nature.

I could be alone with my thoughts.

Or I could just be.

I'm the type whose brain is usually whirring along at a cruising speed of a million thoughts an hour, and at times, it can be overwhelming.

But up there, I could shut it all off.

No pressing matters needed my attention.  There wasn't anything else I needed to be doing.  There was Point A and Point B, and my challenge was to find my way between the two... nothing else.  I could drink in my surroundings and get as intoxicated as I wanted.  I didn't need my iPod to engage my brain or drown out the urban intrusions.  In fact, I made a conscious decision to leave it at home.  If a song was going to find its way into my head, I wanted it to be inspired by the sights and sounds of my journey, not because the next song on shuffle was an old hit by Journey.

I was free of any electronic stimulus.  I could sleep when it got dark without trying to prolong my day through games, TV, or the computer.  And I could rise with the sun and get on with my day without even a thought of checking my e-mail.

And the people I met along the way were amazing.  It's a different culture up there.  By virtue of what it is, I think backcountry hiking attracts people with the very best qualities.  Everybody is respectful of nature, wildlife, and their fellow hikers.  You feel safe around them.  You feel a kinship with them.  "We're all in this together."

I miss all of that.

But I've also been able to let my foot heal.  I've been able to take showers.  I've been able to eat fresh food.  There's always a trade-off, right?

I shot hours and hours of video along the trip -- more than I even realized.  And after completing my Avid setup when I got home, my first order of business was my daughter's wedding video.  But I've been ingesting all of the footage, and I'm hoping to have a few videos ready this week, before I embark on a different kind of adventure.  One that involves New Orleans and a red dress... 

29 July 2016

My Rae Lakes Loop Adventure - Day 5

By the time I made it to camp at the end of Day 4, I was thoroughly exhausted.  Fourteen miles of hiking and the Glen Pass experience had taken their toll, and when I woke up on Day 5, I was a man on a mission:  I was going to finish this hike -- and I was going to finish quickly.
Up again at first light, I set my sights on a 7am departure time, figuring that with gravity on my side for the descent back to Road's End, I could do the 10.5 miles in an ambitious 5 hours.  It wouldn't be easy, though, because my tender ankle felt more sore and stiff than it did the previous morning.  Popping a few Advils for the pain, I started to break camp... after taking a few moments to appreciate my beautiful surroundings one last time.
That morning, I realized how wonderful it had been to fall asleep to the sound of a rushing stream... a constant, natural kind of white noise that had made it very easy to drift off, yet not obtrusive enough to wake me in the middle of the night.  Quite a contrast to my home in L.A., where I'm close enough to a freeway that I can be easily awakened by inconsiderate motorcyclists gunning their obnoxious engines at night.  
I also saw three deer that morning as I was packing my gear, one running at full speed down the trail.  I envied its speed and agility, and wished I could make it back to Road's End as quickly as it could.

I hit the trail at 7:18, and for a long time, I was all alone.  Since the John Muir Trail had split off from the Rae Lakes Loop the previous afternoon, there weren't nearly as many campers on our trail anymore, and it seemed that most of them had stopped for the night at campsites they'd encountered before reaching mine.

But while I missed talking to people along the way, I was making pretty good time without the distractions.

For the first time in days, though, I did start thinking about the outside world.  How had the Cubs done while I was gone?  What would I want my homecoming meal to be that night?  How long would it take me to get to that fresh fruit stand I'd passed on Hwy. 180 on my way to Kings Canyon?
The trail itself wasn't too difficult.  Obviously, since I had about 3,000 feet of elevation to lose before reaching base, there was a lot more downhill than uphill.  There was one confusing moment a couple miles in, where the trail crossed a stream and seemed to disappear on the other side.  But after a minute's worth of exploring the area, I was able to find it again.
Because the trail was following Bubbs Creek, and never ventured more than a few hundred feet away from it, the scenery remained remarkably similar for the first 6 or 7 miles of the hike -- plenty of forest!  I was grateful that a fellow hiker I'd met on Day 3, Steve, had given me a spare bug net to wear, because that made a huge difference!  I knew bugs would be a problem on Day 5, and I'd been loathing the thought of sweat carrying insect repellent to my lips, as it had on Days 1 and 2.  Ugh... what a horrible taste!
I was following the moon into the western sky as the trail continued, and I was making great time!  It was about 9:30, and I was already halfway to my destination.  I figured I would soon start encountering hikers who were on their way in from Road's End.

But first, I encountered another kind of trail inhabitant.  A much scarier kind.  I'd gotten used to the only sounds being the creek, my footsteps, and my breathing, so when I heard a strange, sudden rattling sound, I momentarily froze.  Where did that come from?  In a split second, I whipped my head around to my right... and just behind me, about 3 feet away, there was the rattlesnake.  Thank goodness it was behind, and not ahead.  Wanting to put as much distance between me and the rattler as quickly as I could, I scurried down the trail as fast as my legs would safely take me.

Sorry, I didn't stop to get a picture.  I know it would have been cool, but hey, not at the expense of a snake bite.

I did, however, find a photogenic blue-bellied reptile who was ready for his close-up, so this will have to do.
Within a quarter-mile of my snake sighting, I saw the first inbound hikers coming my way.  Of course, I warned them about the impending danger, because that's what people do out on the trails.  They look after each other.  Which is a very cool thing.

Shortly thereafter, I reached Sphinx Junction (you saw the sign at the top of the post), and I knew I was into the home stretch.

Why do they call it Sphinx Junction?  This picture might explain it...
So, onward I went, further along the creek bed...

And then, the final descent began.  Within a mile, I had noticed the creek had fallen off to the left, and there I was, standing well above the valley's treeline.
From there, a series of steep and narrow switchbacks took me down the side of the mountain.  With each one, I could feel the end of the journey drawing closer.  I knew that soon, I would get to the bridges that would take me over the Kings River and to the Paradise Valley Junction, where I would rejoin the section of trail that had taken me outbound some 45 miles and 98 hours earlier.

Had my trip really been that long?  Had my trip really been that short?  Yes, by now, I was feeling very existential.
Crossing the river, I was back at 5000 feet, and the end was in sight.  By now, all of the day's backcountry campers were well into their journeys, so on the path back to Road's End, all I saw were fresh-faced day hikers in colorful T-shirts, unencumbered by big backpacks or gear.  And there I was... grizzled, sweaty, beaten down by mile after mile of terrain.

My existential self felt envious of them... and sorry for them.  No, they wouldn't have to go a day without a shower.  No, they wouldn't have to endure the torture of Glen Pass.  But they also wouldn't see the incredible beauty of the Rae Lakes.  They wouldn't feel the sense of accomplishment that would come with finishing such an amazing journey.

I was about to, though...
There was the Wilderness Permit Station.  And there was Ranger Chris.

"You survived!"

Yes, I had.  It was 11:26am on Sunday, July 24, and this outdoors newbie had completed his first adventure.

Once I got to the car, I drove right to the store in Cedar Grove Village.  I wanted -- no, I needed -- some kind of junk food and a sugary drink.  Walking from the parking lot to the store felt weird.  My body had gotten so used to trekking with the weight of the backpack that I felt strangely off-balance and naked as I made my way into the building.

Those tortilla chips, yogurt-covered fruit bites, and iced tea sure tasted good.  And as I drove westbound on Hwy. 180 to leave the park, I set about answering some of those questions I had earlier.  It took an hour and 45 minutes to reach that fresh fruit stand -- and boy, was that fruit tasty.  The Cubs had won three out of four while I was gone.  And dinner would be a feast from Chilli Thai, one of my favorite neighborhood restaurants.

Funny... just as I felt I'd earned those views on the Rae Lakes Loop, I felt I'd truly earned that meal.  And it tasted even better because of that.

Final stats (Day 5):  10.64 miles in a blazing 4:08:19, with a net elevation loss of 2,982 feet.

Final stats (total):  47.76 miles in 29 hours and 59 minutes of hiking time.

28 July 2016

My Rae Lakes Loop Adventure - Day 4

They say that ignorance is bliss.  I'm here to say they're wrong.

On paper, Day 4 didn't seem like it would be too bad.  Just three more miles of climbing, and then the downhill begins.  Three miles should be easy, right?  Especially first thing in the morning, when I'm at my strongest.  Right?  Right???


I was awakened at 5:30am by a symphony of squawking birds.  It was actually kind of comical to hear, because it sounded like an argument, and as I closed my eyes, I pictured Angry Birds up in the trees.  

As I took my time getting ready to head out, I felt optimistic.  My right ankle was still tender, but no worse than it had been the previous morning, so at least I hadn't done any more damage.  So, as I watched the moon set behind the mountains and took a few final looks at gorgeous Middle Rae Lake, I left camp right at 8am.

It all started innocently enough.  The first mile or so took me to the south end of Middle Rae Lake, then skirted the isthmus between Middle and Upper Rae Lakes.  Beautiful, flat, and relaxing... especially when I saw all the fish swimming around just off shore.  (The anglers weren't out yet, or they might not have been so carefree, haha!)
But once I put Upper Rae Lake in the proverbial rear-view mirror, things started changing very quickly.  A few switchbacks here, a few switchbacks there... I was climbing out of the lakes' valley, though the vegetation was still very lush and green.  It only seemed to take about 10 or 15 minutes before I was looking far down at the lakes whose shores I'd just walked.

The further up I went, the more the vegetation thinned out, until it consisted mainly of grassy meadow along a few small streams carrying water down from the thinning snow pack.  This high up, and this close to the water source, the streams were crystal clear.  Even though I still had a pretty good amount of water left, I couldn't resist stopping to pump some of the stream water.  I figured it would be some of the purest water I'd ever tasted (and I was right!).
Though the climb had been pretty steep to this point, I was still feeling good by the time I reached the stream.  I could see what was ahead of me, though. 
As I looked beyond the last remaining "green stream," I saw nothing but rocks and snow.  And a very steep incline.

Reaching the snowline, the elevation must have been 11,000 feet or higher, and I was starting to feel the effects of the elevation.  A sharp little headache behind my left eye.  A little bit of light-headedness.  A lot more huffing and puffing as I made my way up the trail.

I slowed things down significantly, stopping for frequent breaks to catch my breath.  The thought that kept running through my mind came from the flying lessons I took as a teenager:  FAA regulations state that you can't take an airplane over 12,000 feet unless it's pressurized, because the air is so thin at that altitude.  And I was nearly there. 

The view now looked like a lunar landscape (except for the water, of course).  Felt like it, too.  There wasn't much soil any more.  Instead, gravel crackled beneath my feet as I trekked toward a still-unseen summit.  How far did I have to go?  How much more could I take?  This last mile has to have been the most grueling I've ever walked in my life... and I still wasn't done yet!
Then, I was hit with a series of switchbacks.  (No!  Not more of those!)  They were steep, they were rocky, they were narrow.  And for somebody weighted down by a backpack, hobbling on a tender ankle (by then, it was throbbing a bit), and feeling the intoxicating effects of altitude, they were a bit scary.  All it would take is one bad step...

I ascended slowly and carefully, taking regular breaks along the way.  A few other hikers passed me on the way up, but that was fine.  I was perfectly content to be the tortoise, not the hare, with my life on the line.  This was not the place to take any risks.

Finally, I saw them.  People standing atop Glen Pass!  I was still looking up at them, and they still seemed far away... but not too far!  The summit was within reach!

I reached the summit of Glen Pass shortly before 11:15am.  I made it! 

Like everybody else up there, I took off my backpack and took in the view.  The pass is very narrow, and from it, you can not only look down at where you've been, but also where you're going.  And, I have to say, I felt a huge wave of relief seeing that my journey was, literally, all downhill from here.  From a starting point just above 5,000 feet, I was now a stone's throw away from 12,000 feet.  In three and a half days, I'd climbed nearly 7,000 feet!  And that's how far I'd be descending in the next day and a half.  It was a comforting thought.

Honestly, had I known exactly how challenging Glen Pass would be, I might have chosen a different first adventure.  The mountain threw its best at me.  It was tough.  It was torturous.  It had me questioning my sanity for a while. 

But I did it.  I had risen to the challenge.  And it felt exhilarating.

I spent about 25 minutes up at the pass, drinking in the hard-earned scenery, then confidently embarked on the downhill portion of the journey. 
When you leave Glen Pass heading to the west, you go down a series of very steep switchbacks.  I was smiling the whole way down, but I certainly recognized the look on the faces of the hikers on their way up.  I tried to be as encouraging as I could, knowing they would soon possess the same smile.  :-D

After passing the beautiful blue lake you see above, the descent became more gradual and enjoyable.  The vegetation returned, just as it had disappeared on the way up.  Streams with grassy meadows, then more trees, and finally back into dense forest.

The day's voyage was far from over, but honestly, the rest of it felt a bit anticlimactic.  Yes, it was beautiful -- especially once the trail met up with Bubbs Creek near Vidette Meadow -- but after working myself to near exhaustion on the uphill, all I wanted to do was make it to camp and get some rest!

Of course, it wasn't that easy.  A couple friends I'd made back at camp, Turtle and Trailheart, had told me about a campsite that was supposed to be the best of the possible destinations that day, so I kept looking for what they'd described.  When I reached a campground at the very far end of Junction Meadow, I knew I had definitely passed it, so I backtracked, trying to find it.  I never did.  But, in doing that, and then heading back to the Junction Meadow campground, I added an extra 4 miles or so to my journey that day.  Just what I needed, right? 

But, you know what?  I was OK.  I'd made it through the worst.
The mountains burned bright red at sunset, as I prepared to rest up for the final day of my adventure... the voyage home.
Final stats: 14.09 miles in 9:21:45, with a net elevation loss of 2,382 feet (2,654 up, 5,036 down!)

27 July 2016

My Rae Lakes Loop Adventure - Day 3

While this was the most beautiful day of my journey, it was also the one where I started to pay for my newbie sins.

In my zeal to get through Days 1 and 2, I wasn't as careful as I probably should have been with my steps, so I made a few bad ones along the way.  And to prove it, I woke up on Day 3 with a very tender ankle.

I also woke up at first light, around 5:30am, since I had opted against putting the rainfly on the tent.  Got a beautiful view of the stars that way, and the cool night air was really refreshing.

So I got busy preparing to start my day... and had my first cathole experience.  For the uninitiated, if you're going to go to the bathroom in the wild, you have to dig a 6-inch hole, do your business, and then cover it up again with dirt.  Yes, it's as gross as it sounds.  But hey, backpacking isn't about luxury accommodations, it's about connecting with nature and yourself in a completely different way than when you're surrounded by modern conveniences.

The Woods Creek campsite was a much busier, friendlier place than Middle Paradise Valley, and I'd gotten to meet quite a few people there, which was great.  On my way out, I dropped by one of the tents to say goodbye to a couple friends I'd made, only to be surprised with the ultimate newbie honor -- after hearing my story the night before, they had decided to give me a trail name.  What is it?  You'll just have to wait for the video to find out.  (I know, I'm such a tease!)
I was out at 7, a full hour earlier than the day before, so I got to start the day's hike in cool shadow.  That was a good thing, because it was another hot day ahead.  Given the height of the mountains to the east, I figured I'd maybe get a couple of hours in shadow, but I was wrong.  Soon, the sun was poking through the sequoia trees that dotted the ridgeline...
In terms of scenery and ecological diversity, this was the best day yet.  Just absolutely gorgeous.  In addition to the forests, meadows, streams, and rock formations I'd gotten used to over the past couple days, I started seeing some wetlands, marshy areas that seemed more at home in the Everglades than nearly two miles up in the mountains.
A few miles in, I encountered the trail's first large body of water, Dollar Lake, which was a beautiful place to rest and refill my water supply.

Fortunately, my ankle was holding up as well as could be expected.  Part of that, I think, was because I switched things up and made my left foot my lead foot.  It's a subtle change, but it made a big difference.  Not as big a change as, say, going from right-hand dominant to left-hand dominant, but it still took some getting used to.  Just another one of my newbie trials and tribulations.

After leaving Dollar Lake, I was treated to one beautiful water vista after another.  First, Arrowhead Lake, and then the Rae Lakes themselves came into view.  And surrounding them, some of the hike's most magnificent rock formations, like Fin Dome.
Even with multiple stops along the way, I still made it to the Middle Rae Lake campsite at 1pm.  After I'd staked out my spot for the night, it was time to pamper my poor feet a little bit in the clean, crisp, chilly water of the lake.
And, of course, take in the magnificent lakeside view!
I must have been adapting well -- or, at least, getting better sleep -- because Day 3 was the first where I didn't feel inclined to take an afternoon siesta.  Instead, I hung out by the water, made some new friends, welcomed my old friends from Woods Lake when they arrived, and did a little bit of exploring around the campsite.
When evening arrived, I discovered that my tent lantern had decided to stop working, so that made the decision to turn in early an easy one... but not before getting a wonderful sunset view of Painted Lady.
With the campground two miles high and no sources of light pollution anywhere to be found, I drifted off to sleep under a spectacular dome of starlight and the Milky Way.

Little did I know what would await me the next morning...

Final stats:  7.24 miles in 6:13:33, with a net elevation gain of 1,873 feet.