Color and Clarity

The Range of Light filled John Muir with child-like wonder, joy and awe.  Do the mountains still inspire today?

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“For going to the mountains is like going home” – John Muir

Beige. It evokes the mundane, the boring, the opposite of color. But it is the color that represents most of my life. A beige interior cubicle, bathed in artificial light, a climate controlled 72 degrees all year. There is no window, not even the view of a window from afar. The wind, the weather, the seasons, the light – daily they are as far away as the fantastic places I daydream about while stuck in my beige.

I know Laurel Ridge can be seen from someone else’s window on clear days, and I visit there as often as I can. It is a beautiful place, but it is not far enough away from my beige. I read with longing the romantic reports emanating from way out west, about a fantastic place called the Range of Light. Surely the Range of Light is the opposite of beige.

Muir wandered the globe, a modern-day nomad and a hopeless romantic. The father of the conservation movement, founder of the Sierra Club, proponent of the creation of the National Parks, Muir’s passion and boundless energy arose not from writing but from experiencing the land – all of it, the thunderstorms and floods, the coldest storms and clearest days, the peaks and the valleys, the sublime and the spectacular.

Reading Muir’s writing, his passion for the landscape outshines his literary limitations. His argument that we need to experience the land to soothe many of our modern day ills is probably more relevant now than when he wrote it 100 years ago. I, for one believe him – I know I need to do some roving to maintain my sanity, to chase away the beige. Muir’s most impassioned writing was inspired by his wanderings in the beloved Sierra Nevada mountain range; to read it now, almost 100 years after it was written, his passion still comes through:

“Along its eastern margin rises the mighty Sierra, miles in height, reposing like a smooth, cumulus cloud in the sunny sky, and so gloriously colored, and so luminous, it seems to be not clothed with light, but wholly composed of it, like the wall of some celestial city. Along the top, and extending a good way down, you see a pale, pearl-gray belt of snow; and below it a belt of blue and dark purple, marking the extension of the forests; and along the base of the range a broad belt of rose-purple and yellow, where lie the miner’s goldfields and the foothill gardens. All of these colored belts blending smoothly make a wall of light ineffably fine, as beautiful as a rainbow, yet firm as adamant.

Then it seemed to me the Sierra should be called not the Nevada, or Snowy Range, but the Range of Light. And after ten years spent in the heart of it, rejoicing and wondering, bathing in its glorious floods of light, seeing the sunbursts of morning among the icy peaks, the noonday radiance on the trees and rocks and snow, the flush of the alpenglow, and a thousand dashing waterfalls with their marvelous abundance of irised spray, it still seems to me above all others the Range of Light, the most divinely beautiful of all the mountain chains I have ever seen.” – John Muir

It’s time to quit reading and start experiencing. I had to go there, if only for two weeks…

The Plan

I started training for the trip 4 months prior to our scheduled mid-August 2006 departure. It felt good at first to be training once again with a purpose. While it did get tedious towards the end, training itself yielded many rewards, first and foremost the impetus to get out and backpack more. I spent 10 solo nights on Laurel Ridge, where I got to know another special place right in my own backyard. I’ll fall back on my Laurel Ridge discoveries time and again in the future, I’m sure. And we did a five-day backpack trip to Moshannon, reuniting the Hurricane gang for a joyous romp through the summer forest. I felt good about my regimen of running, interval training, weight workouts and pack training. But by the beginning of August I was ready and rarin’ to go!

The plan was this: rendevous in Las Vegas with Tom, drive through Death Valley National Park on the way to the Owen’s Valley and the eastern Sierra, make camp and acclimate for 3 nights and 2 days at Whitney Portal, climb Mt. Whitney over the next two days, drive around the southern tip of the Sierras and back up the western side of Sequoia National Park, and then backpack, base camp, explore, and get to know Muir’s mountains for a week.

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The Highest Country

“One of the gladdest moments of human life, methinks, is the departure upon a distant journey into unknown lands.  Shaking off the fetters of habit, the leaden weight of routine, the cloak of many cares and the slavery of home, man feels once more happy.”  – Sir Richard Burton

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For Tom and I, the inspiration for this trip arose from the exhaustion of a 6-day trek in Zion National Park the previous year. Wouldn’t it be great to base camp and do leisurely day hikes in the Sierras, to really get to know a place as opposed to marching through it? Wouldn’t it be great to really live Muir’s words?

Somehow that idyllic stroll had morphed, partly, into an attempt to scale Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the Sierras, coincidently also the highest peak in the contiguous US, before settling into the Sierras. Okay, I pressed for the attempt; the allure of a peak of Whitney’s stature is irresistible. And now, standing in the Owen’s Valley looking westward at the imposing east face of the Sierras, summit fever tingled up my spine. Lone Pine peak beckoned in the foreground, flanked by Mount Langley, Thor Peak, Mount Russell, and slightly set back, the granite massif of Mount Whitney and its attendant Needles. Even through the haze of a few wildfires that were filling the Valley with white smoke, the eastern Sierras are impressive!

Muir would surely cringe, but mechanization can quickly get you into the high country. I wondered what treasures were missed as our rented automobile cruised through the deserts, mountains and valleys of Death Valley, the Owens Valley, the Alabama Hills and the foothills of the Eastern Sierra proper?

The 13-mile Whitney Portal road leads from Lone Pine and gains 5,000 feet in elevation as it winds through a narrow canyon on the way to Whitney Portal campground. The Hollywood famous Alabama Hills and Owens Valley plains, setting for over 300 westerns, beget the canyon itself. Lone Pine and Thor’s Peak play peek-a-boo with Mount Whitney as the road twists and turns. Anticipation rises with the elevation.

Whitney Portal campground, in the Inyo National Forest, will be home for three nights as we acclimate to the thinner air. We are lucky enough to grab one of the last first come, first served sites on a Saturday evening. Lone Pine creek cascades a low constant roar 20 feet from our tents, bestowing a degree of privacy in the family full campground. We quickly set up camp; after two days of traveling, it feels good to breathe real mountain air and have a real mountain under our boots! But two days of travel, jet lag and de-pressurization from the “real world” have taken their toll, and sleep comes quickly at sundown.

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I awake at dawn to a gloriously sunny day. Thor’s peak is aglow, so I scramble up the opposite canyon wall for pictures and to just take it all in. The sky is cloudless, the granite glistening, and the birds fluttering around the peaks. Serenity begins to fill my pores with each breath.

Our goal the next two days will be to adjust to the lower atmospheric pressure that will be our constant companion the higher up we climb. During the day we will do day hikes to higher elevations and then descend back to our base camp at the campground at 8,300 feet. From past experience I know this is serious business, but the great thing about acclimating is that you don’t have to work at it, it just happens – or doesn’t – as you spend time at altitude. We did take gingko biloba to supplement our acclimatization efforts, too.

After a fantastic breakfast at the Whitney Portal Store, we decide to make a beeline up the Meysan Lakes trail. The trail gains 3,000 feet over four miles, but the steep grade isn’t even noticeable without heavy packs and with a palpable adrenaline rush spurring us on. The scenery is fantastic, marbled granite against the brightest blue sky, red-barked foxtail and mountain pines thumb tacked into the rocky slopes in defiance of gravity and wind. The beauty of these pines is as striking as their determination to make a living where so few plants of any kind can.

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I’m totally smitten with the trees. I know the giant sequoias will be impressive, but these trees are on par. The red bark and green needles contrast sharply with the white granite and azure sky, and they soften the hard edges of the rocky mountain.
As the red bark peels away from the trunk and branches of the foxtail pine, intricate patterns of browns and blacks offer endless opportunities for study and photography. The twisted and gnarled branches attest to the harsh conditions these beautiful survivors endure each winter. Their numbers attest to their success, for these are some of the most impressive foxtail pine groves in the eastern Sierra.

The mountain pines (as Muir called them, known to botanist now as the western white pine) are no less impressive. They grow much bigger than the foxtails; therefore they are more numerous in protected areas, while the foxtail relishes more exposure. But the mountain pines succeed on brute strength and majesty, commanding respect and awe with their mere massive presence.
Tom stretches his arms in an embrace of one of the massive red mountain pine trunks; that sums up the pull of these magic mountain trees. How wonderful to have shared even one day in their revered company! The pines have clawed into my imagination and will forever reside alongside the world’s most fantastic trees!

The Mountain Pine is king of the alpine woods, brave, hardy and long-lived, towering grandly above its companions, and becoming stronger and more imposing just where other species begin to crouch and disappear. At an elevation of about 10,000 feet it attains its noblest development, tossing its tough arms in the frosty air, welcoming storms and feeding on them, and reaching the grand old age of 1000 years.” – John Muir

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But it gets even better. At an elevation of 11,000 feet we come to the Grass Lakes, picture perfect alpine lakes framed by a granite amplitheater and the upper treeline, and capped by 13,000 foot peaks still studded with patches of snow. The snowmelt-feed lakes are filling in with grass as the lakes slowly become high country meadows, but today we have our own private pool.

The lure of the lake is too appealing after the long hot hike. The shockingly cold water initially takes your breath away, but the sun quickly warms you back up. Drying on the rocks, sans clothes, with a slight breeze, the cloudless sky, the unbelievable scenery – does it get any better than this? This is acclimating at its best!

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We spend an hour at the lakes. We both feel good, at least until the descent. I didn’t take enough water and rapidly dehydrate, developing a good headache by the time we return to base camp. The headache is bad enough to derail a much-anticipated beer with dinner at the Store, planting a seed of worry about my acclimating. I over-compensate trying to re-hydrate, which results in five trips to the pit toilets during the night; not fun with five bears roaming through the campground, and certainly not a restful nights’ sleep!

The following day starts with a leisurely breakfast at the Whitney Portal Store. Being a Monday morning, nobody is there, and the idle generator and dark store leave us to wonder if the place is even open. But why run the generator if you don’t have to, says local legend and Store owner Doug xxxx Sr.? Doug chats with us about the mountain, the people, the things he’s seen and learned. Doug is a genuine person, and our leisurely chat is a great way to start the day.

We decide to drive to the Horseshoe Meadows at 10,000, and just hung out at altitude. I brought my sleeping pad chair and relish the few hours spent under a big pine, listening to the wind through the sifts fluttering wings, watching the Clark’s Nutcracker cache nuts, enjoying the mountain chickadees and contemplating the many things that never surface above the beige. Life is good.

We descend to Lone Pine for some last minute supplies, permits and dinner before returning to camp. We both feel good, confident that we have done everything we could to acclimate.

The night before a climb I always have a nervous stomach, and tonight is no exception.  Lists and equipment needs, food, maps – do I have everything? What’s the weather supposed to be like? What time should we start? I’m glad Tom is here and climbing with me; I remember my last climb of Mt. Rainier, preparing the night before, solo. It’s nice to bounce ideas and concerns off someone else. Although there is little risk of tragedy, part of going to the mountains is getting out of your comfort zone. Muir rationalized it poetically:

Accidents in the mountains are less common than in the lowlands, and these mountain mansions are decent, delightful, even divine places to die in, compared with the doleful chambers of civilization. Few places in this world are more dangerous than home. Fear not, therefore, to try mountain-passes. They will kill care, save you from deadly apathy, set you free, and call forth every faculty into vigorous, enthusiastic action. Even the sick should try these socalled dangerous passes, because for every unfortunate they kill, they cure a thousand.” – John Muir

Near sunset, the packs are ready, the lists are finished, and the calm of knowing you’ve done everything you should sets in.  We’ve acclimated the best we could.  We’ve trained as best we could.  We’re ready.  Attention now turns to the highest peak in the contiguous US.

Mount Whitney

Whitney is a shy mountain.  The fire peaks of the of the Cascades proudly hold up their snowcapped crowns for all to admire, while Mt. Whitney ordinarily may only be viewed from the east over closer more apparent peaks.”  Walt Wheelock and Wynne Benti, “Climbing Mt. Whitney

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Tom and I get up a little before the alarm set for 5 a.m.; the excitement is building! We pack up quickly while eating. I’m bummed I decided on oatmeal, it doesn’t fill me as much as I would have liked, especially since the store in town was out of bananas, which I planned to have two; a power bar substitutes. Soon we’re saying sayanora to our temporary home and driving to the trailhead. We stow our extra food in the bear box while jamming to the frantic punk of the Pogues, totally apropos and enhancing the adrenaline.
Of course there is the obligatory trailhead photo, the evidence of our excitement etched on our faces. But there is also a scale at the trailhead, and Tom’s pack weighs in at a wincing 75 pounds!!! I don’t even want to weigh mine after that, I know it’s in the same vicinity! Adventure beckons, pack weight de damned – we’re off!!!

The first part of the trail is a lot more wooded than I anticipated, and we consciously take our time going up the mountain – there is no rush. It winds through forest and flowery meadow and mountainside stream. Only two miles in at Lone Pine lake, my meager breakfast forces me to eat my lunch well before I had planned to eat it, but the respite is in a beautiful shaded wood next to Lone Pine creek. Soon after we enter the Whitney Zone, and climb in and out of more beautiful Mountain pines.

Outpost camp is another beautiful area, and we note that we would like to stay here “the next time.” Mirror Lake is another beautiful rest area, but my stomach is doing somersaults and I have to pop a couple Immodium tablets and hope to make it to the pit toilets at Trail Camp. The climb from Mirror Lakes is step, but soon we come to Trailside Meadows, another scenic rest area. Our last stopping point before Trail camp is at Constellation Lake, a beautiful alpine lake surrounded by Sierra granite and accentuated by the azure Sierra sky. Another picture perfect stop!

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We make it to Trail Camp in five hours. Trail camp is a mini city, dotted with tents and climbers/hikers of all sorts, some coming, some going, some just hangin’ out. We knew not to expect much seclusion at Trail Camp, but we also had the good fortune to run into a couple from England finishing up the John Muir trail who told us about a secluded little spot just over a rise at the southern edge of Trail Camp city. Sure enough, two campsites are cleared out exactly where we were told they would be, and we set up camp under the bright sun while Mt. Whitney and Thor’s Gardem??? glare down. We quickly set up camp while watching the endless stream of hikers going up and down the fabled 99 switchbacks. What a view!!!

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My intestinal fortitude is coming in to question now, the somersaults being replaced with ravenous quakings. I goad Tom into an early dinner, telling him I am going to eat the entire meal myself if he doesn’t eat soon. But of course once I start eating, the somersaults return, necessitating a run to the pit toilets. I don’t have a good feeling about what the thin air was doing to my insides at 11,000 feet…

Kicking back after dinner, enjoying our mud pie desert while watching the climbers descend, the idea that had been roughly thrown about in vague emails begins to crystallize – why not do a moonlit hike to the summit? We’re rested, packed and ready, why not? As the sun sets and the shadows force us to replace t-shirts with down, we decide to turn in early and attempt the remainder of the climb under the gaze of the moon.

Under a Moonlit Sky

Sleep is never easy for me at altitude, but I do get some winks in before Tom’s stomach forces a late evening run to the pits, and then his commentary on the Perseid’s meteors leads right up to our midnight rendezvous time. I try to resist his ooohhs and ahhhhs and get more sleep. Oh, who am I kidding, I’ll gladly exchange a night of sleep for an adventure like this! The spine tingles have us up and packing before midnight.

While watching the steaks of cosmic light through the tent, I comment on how nice a cup of coffee would be, which hatches the plan to bring the Jetboil and coffee grinder to the summit for some sunrise java from America’s roof. With that, the pack is stuffed with winter gear, coffee apparatus, and water, a nice light pack of maybe 25 pounds, and we set off across the boulder field.

At first we use headlamps to navigate the boulder-hopping necessary to get to the main trail, but once on the trail we’re able to ouse the lights and navigate completely by moonlight. The slightly more than ½ full moon reflects off the granite of the mountain, providing us with all the light we need on the well marked trail.

The view is awesome, totally spectacular! The granite seems to sparkle in the moonlight; the clear sky is dotted with innumerable stars, so many more than are usually seen around city lights and at lower elevations. The Milky Way is clearly visible, its immenseness adding to my already humble feeling of smallness. On top of it all, every few minutes, a bright shooting star from the Perseids streaks behind the granite massif of Whitney. Awesome, awesome, awesome!

We stop frequently just to take it all in. What a view, what a place – I’m so glad we decided to take off in the middle of the night, what an experience! The absolute stillness and silence adds to the surreal setting, and as an added bonus, we have complete solitude on the most climbed route on the mountain.

The fabled 99 switchbacks are not hard at all; we climb higher at a good, steady pace, enjoying our march. After a few hours we reach Trail Crest, both Tom and I feeling fine with no signs of ill effects from the altitude at 13,000 feet. Our goal is to make the summit before dawn and watch the sunrise, and we are right on pace to achieve that goal.

At Trail Crest we finally enter areas with real exposure on the eastern side, and occasionally, behind the Needles, we have to use our headlamps while in the moon shadows. The trail sign at the junction with the John Muir Trail a little beyond Trail Crest conjures a tinge of longing that we decided not to do a thru-hike over the Sierra to Mineral King; this is where we would have stowed our full packs. But the reality that we’re hiking up Whitney in the middle of the night makes up for it. As the trail weaves in and out of the Needles, we play hide and seek with the moon; we can now see completely down into the Owen’s Valley to the right, the lights of Lone Pine far below, the complete darkness of the Sierras to our left.

There are only a few tricky spots in the dark, the occasional spots where the rocky terrain and tricky footing demand attention and headlamps. But the trail to the top begins to get tedious – shouldn’t we be turning east soon, up the final push to the summit? The traverse along the needles seems to be endless, the longed for right turn always one more switchback ahead. On top of that, the pressure-breathing regimen seems to be losing its magical effects – I’m aware of a slight headache, and I try to block it out. We’re also starting to press a little trying to beat the sun to the top.

Finally we turn east, heading up the last rocky stretch to the top. The climbing is deliberate and methodical now, and my head is beginning to pound. Finally I can see that the steepness is leveling out and the summit will soon be ours. We have plenty of time before dawn too, so I slow down and wait for Tom. I’ve been leading most of the ascent, but I thought it would be nice to reach the summit together. As soon as I stop, though, not only does the headache leap to the forefront, but my stomach begins to rumble and nausea sets in. Sitting on a rock with my head in my hands when Tom arrives, I’m unable to get up and match Tom’s pace, and
he trudges on past me towards to summit. I force myself to follow, but the general feeling of malaise is undeniable now. One foot in front of the other, just make it to the top.

Tom arrives at the top first; we stumble past the stone hut, towards the summit cliff. I’m feeling downright sick now, disappointed that I felt so good up to this point but now feel so bad. It’s very cold at the top. We put on our down layers and batten down hoods and gloves against the cold. I stumble towards the edge and take a seat with my legs dangling literally thousands of feet above the rocky floor below. Tom keeps a wary eye on me, and eventually I decide to move a bit back from the edge. We settle in to a partially wind-secluded nook and sit back and wait for the sun.

It is very cold now that we’ve stopped moving for the first time in 5 hours. But the gray is being replaced with burgeoning light; the horizon is beginning to glow. Soon a dot of golden sunshine breaks over the horizon, dawn on the highest peak in the contiguous US.

I snap numerous pictures of the highest dawn, not really wanting to take them because of my condition but knowing I will appreciate them later when looking back. Right now it feels good to sit and do nothing. The dawn is awesome, a sight I will remember forever. A true unique life experience, and I’m glad to be sharing it with Tom.

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From the summit of Mt. Whitney only granite is seen. Innumerable peaks and spires but little lower than its own storm-beaten crags rise in groups like forest-trees, in full view, segregated by canyons of tremendous depth and ruggedness.” – John Muir

I’m feeling better after watching the sunrise, and we brew up a pot of coffee – the best coffee either of us have ever had. The preparation, the planning, the training, the whole experience culminates here. Even in my weakened state I know it was worth it.
Unbelievably, we have the summit to ourselves. What a gift! Unbelievably, we’ve had the whole mountain to ourselves since arriving at Trail Camp. Wow, what an awesome experience – so glad we climbed at night! 14,496 feet, the highest I have ever
climbed!

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We do the obligatory summit registry, and by this time two other climbers have joined us on the summit, so we also do the obligatory summit picture camera exchange. I now have only one desire – to get down. I’m tired, nauseous and my head is pounding, and I know only going down will help that.

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We pack up under the bright sky, and are soon on our way down. Look out, don’t get in my way, I’m flying down the mountain. It is
so much easier going downhill, and the miles speed by. Muscularly, I’m fine; I just want this feeling of malaise to subside. I stop occasionally to enjoy the views, especially to the west. The Sierras are truly majestic; the lakes and streams dot the valleys, the peaks line up like glistening jewels, the forests spread the color green on an otherwise rocky landscape. From this vantage point I can see why Guitar Lake is named as such. There is also a noticeable trail of folks making their way up the John Muir trail from the western side, but now I am truly happy we are not going down that side of the mountain. If we continued on our once-planned trans-Sierra trek, we would only be descending to 10,000 feet tonight, and would have fully-loaded packs. Now I’m happy for the
small pack and to be going all the way down to the thick, oxygen-laden air on the eastern side!

After hitting Trail Crest I fly down the eastern side under the blazing sun. The day is heating up, and I love passing all the folks just coming up now and regaling them with our stories of summiting under the stars. I’m feeling a little better as we descend, which speeds me on. I’m back at our camp at Trail Camp, on my Therma-rest, boots off, rehydrating, resting, only 2-1/2 hours after being on top of the world.

Tom descends 45 minutes later. I’m still feeling crappy, and Tom’s in need of a rest too, so we chill for another hour before breaking camp and heading down the trail. Trail Camp is a mass of humanity now, and an endless stream of people is coming up the mountain as we go down. It makes it seem even more amazing that we climbed the entire route to the summit, and then spent over an hour at the summit, completely alone.

As is usual on big hikes and climbs, the descent seems twice as long as going up. Packs are full weight again, less whatever food has been consumed, but the anticipation is gone, replaced with fatigue, tiredness, and in my case, malaise. I have to give Tom kudos; he didn’t experience any ill effects from altitude, and climbed great.

The trail down to Whitney Portal seems to go on forever. It’s hot and dusty, my toes are scrunching into the ends of my boots, and the pack feels heavy and uncomfortable. The rumbling in my stomach that’s prevented me from eating anything since we left Trail Camp last night slowly starts to subside as we get further down. At this point in the climb, it’s no longer about enjoying the experience; it’s only about getting down.

Of course, down does come, with a big relief. The packs are shed at Whitney Portal Store, and I’m actually able to eat and keep down a giant veggie burger with a side of the best fries ever. Not good enough to enjoy a beer yet, but a thousand times better than I was at 14,000 feet. The sense of accomplishment begins to set in as we enjoy the surroundings and atmosphere of the Store. We climbed great, and the moonlit hike was an incredible experience neither of us will ever forget. 22 miles round trip, over 6,000 feet of elevation gain, 14,496 feet above sea level – a good day at the office.

I was disappointed with the way I ate, though, starting with the yucky oatmeal the morning of the climb. You need fatty, high energy foods on a climb, not oatmeal and veggies. I summited, but it was not my best climb. Next time, its pizza, fried chicken and snickers bars all the way to the top, the healthy food when I’m back down. We descend all the way down to Lone Pine via comfy car, and after a false start at the Dow Villa Motel, we enjoy a well deserved hot shower, clean cotton clothes, and a comfy bed
at the Best Western. I don’t rest until I’ve washed all of our clothes and downed a few beers that I am finally able to enjoy, but Tom hits the sack right away and sleeps for 15 hours!!! I didn’t sleep that long, but it was a great night’s sleep nonetheless.

The next morning I am up bright and early and feel completely fine. No soreness whatsoever, no residual effects from altitude.
I hit the complimentary breakfast buffet three times before Tom makes it there his first time. It just feels good to have been allowed to the hallowed summit, especially in such class as we arrived. Pictures of Whitney are snapped from the Owen’s Valley, this time with the knowledge and appreciation of exactly what the summit is like and what it takes to get there.

Part II

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After an uneventful drive around the southern cape of the Sierras, jamming to tunes from Greg Brown, Jenny Ward, the Clash, and more Pogues, while quaffing a couple of pints of Guinness for breakfast, we arrive at the entrance to Sequoia National park, second oldest national park in the US. Dusk is setting in. California quail and a bobcat family – momma and her three kids – dart across the highway in front of us, vivid reminders we are back in wild country after a mind-numbing drive through civilization to get here. We drive thru 800 of the 900 switchbacks along CA198 to arrive at Atwell Mills campsite after dark.

Atwell Mills, as its name suggests, was the site of a sequoia mill in the late 1800s, and numerous stumps dot the campsite like gargantuan tombstones. Luckily it is now protected from the lumberman’s axe, and hundreds of young sequoias are sprouting. We toast the hard conservation work of the visionaries before us who had the foresight to protect this area. Ahhh, a bit of whiskey, a roaring fire, fresh pine-tinged air, dirt under our boots again – we’re back in the mountains!

In the morning I’m up at first light, drawn by the crisp air and the unfamiliar birdsong to a steep hillside outside our campsite. It feels good to be about early, to just take it in – the smells and scents, the sounds, the experience, the colors. So far from beige…

We do have some chores to do, and after a wonderful breakfast at the Silver City Resort, we are at the Park Service permit desk, reserving a spot in paradise for seven days. Wow, seven days in the wilderness!

We’re packed up by 1 p.m., an arduous undertaking for 7 days in the wild, and soon on the Atwell-Hockett trail, descending into the heart of the Sierra wilderness. The scenery is awesome, a mostly coniferous forest, in stark contrast to the rocky landscape of the eastern Sierra and Mt. Whitney.

But a mile into the descent, I realize that I forgot Jake’s bear mask, a crayola creation that means a lot to me. On his own, Jake made me the bear and cougar mask to protect me from the large carnivores. It worked in the Whitney Portal campground the night the five bears were wandering the site. Tom is more than willing to wait if I want to run back and get it. Only Tom would understand not only the significance of it to me, but be willing to forgo our tough schedule and wait while I go back. In the end I decide not to go back – again, head over heart, as is my nature. I secretly wonder if beige slowly drains your heart – and if I can ever again reconnect? But I push on with a deeper appreciation for my traveling companion. Few would understand, let alone allow for the deviation from schedule. I’m humbled again.

At the bottom of our descent we cross the roaring Kaweah River on a wooden bridge. The Big Trees take center stage and take my mind off the bear mask. Wow, again more humility in the presence of the largest and oldest living things on Earth! As I remembered from my last trip here nine years ago, they are incredibly impressive.

Between the heavy pine and Silver fir belts we find the Big Tree, the king of all conifers in the world, “the noblest of a noble race. So exquisitely harmonious and finely balanced are even the very mightiest of these monarchs of the woods in all their proportions and circumstances there never is anything overgrown or monstrouslooking about them.” – John Muir

But it’s not just the Big Trees, the whole Sierra Nevada forest is impressive.

Walk the Sequoia woods at any time of year and you will say they are the most beautiful and majestic on earth. Beautiful and impressive contrasts meet you everywhere: the colors of tree and flower, rock and sky, light and shade, strength and frailty, endurance and evanescence, tangles of supple hazel-bushes, tree-pillars about as rigid as granite domes, roses and violets, the smallest of their kind, blooming around the feet of giants, and rugs of the lowly chamaebatia where the sunbeams fall.” – John Muir

It’s a good thing the forest and excitement of the next adventure takes our minds off the packs again. Laden with 7 days of food, two liters of whiskey each, and the bulky and uncomfortable bear canister, we’re back to 70+ pound packs. Making it worse, after the first mile it’s all uphill for the next seven – over 2,000 feet of uphill. The late summer flowers and the spectacular scenery help us focus, and we march military style, one foot in front of the other, uphill all the way. But the walk is good, therapeutic, the mountain air exhilarating, and the sunshine intoxicating.

Along the way we overtake the Silent Folks. They are over a dozen strong, and determined to not talk for four days. We know this from a brief conversation with the slightly speaking leader. Although our aims are similar – solitude and separation from daily life, perhaps some introspection – our paths are slightly divergent, and the sense of a race to the first designated campsite at Clover creek is distasteful. I let the silent group through as we reach what looks like a spectacular site. My reflective gaze at the view is usurped by the frantic rush of the silent group to take over the site. Let them have it, it’s a big wilderness.

I press on, slower though, waiting for Tom. Soon he catches up; we discuss the Silent Folks and look for our own campsite at the next mountain stream. It has no flat spaces like the last site, and we tramp up and down the hillside in a vain search for level respite. Beat from our long hike with heavy packs, we’re resigned to a night on a steep slope, when lo and behold, the Silent Folks come marching past. Not enough room for their big group at the campsite. I convince Tom that’s the place to be, and we backtrack 1/3 mile to a perfect campsite along the Clover creek bluff.

Taking the pack off is a reward; we’re still fresh, though, it’s only the first day on the trail. Our campsite rewards are immediate, too – a spectacular Sierra sunset between forested mountain peaks. The color is spectacular – pinks of the clouds and alpenglow granite, the orange of the sky, the dark greens of the forest and valleys. Our camps chores are completed quickly, the main course dinner sunset fading into a spectacular starry night dessert, accompanied by a small campfire and sips of whiskey. Life is good,
and we retire early again.

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I’m up before dawn, rested, the anticipation of a new day spurring me out of my warm bag. The view as I unzip my tent takes my breath away, as spectacular as the outdoor equipment advertisements. Wow! I silently sneak out of my tent, enjoying the sunrise and the wildflowers while spending the first two hours birding the mountainside. Oregon juncos, fox sparrows and California quail dart amongst the low scrub, while mountain bluebirds, Townsend’s, Orange-crowned, Wilson’s and MacGillivary’s warblers flit from the trees, and Stellar’s jays poke around camp for crumbs.

Tom finally wakes up, we eat breakfast, and are packed and back on the trail by 10 a.m. It’s uphill at first, continuing along the Atwell-Hockett trail, but we know the terrain will soon level out. We top out at 8,600 feet and pass the Silent Folks camped at Horse Creek.

We also meet some new, extraordinary friends as we enter the Fir zone above 8,000 feet. Red firs join the elite company of other impressive Sierra trees we have meet. The velvety green moss that grows on the north sides of the massive trees lends them a distinguished air, the elder statesmen of the upper Sierra forest. Neither Tom nor I knew their proper names at the time, but both of us stopped for pictures upon first encounter.

The fir woods are delightful sauntering-grounds at any time of the year, but most so in autumn. Then the noble trees are hushed in the hazy light, and drip with balsam; their cones are ripe, and the seeds, with their purple wings, mottle the air like flocks of butterflies; while deer feeding in the flowery openings between the groves, and birds and squirrels in the branches, make a pleasant stir which enriches the deep, brooding calm of the wilderness, and gives a peculiar impressiveness to every tree. No wonder the enthusiastic Douglas went wild with joy when he first discovered this species. Even in the Sierra, where so many noble evergreens challenge admiration, we linger among these colossal firs with fresh love, and extol their beauty again and again, as if no other in the world could henceforth claim our regard.” – John Muir

As we press on, the lightening edges of the dark fir forest foretell the upcoming meadow. The Hockett Meadows Ranger Station borders Hockett Meadows, a beautiful mountain top patch of treeless green, framed by granite peaks. It is another spectacular Sierra picture perfect postcard scene.

“After the lakes on the High Sierra come the glacial meadows. They are smooth, level, silky lawns, lying embedded in the upper forests, on the floors of the valleys, and along the broad backs of main dividing ridges, at a height of about 8,000 to 9,500 feet above the sea. But, write as I may, I cannot give anything like an adequate idea of the exquisite beauty of these mountain carpets as they lie smoothly outspread in the savage wilderness. What words are fine enough to picture them? to what shall we liken them? The flowery levels of the prairies of the old West, the luxuriant savannahs of the south, and the finest of cultivated meadows are coarse in comparison. One may at first sight compare them with the carefully tended lawns of pleasure-grounds; for they are as free from weeds as they, and as smooth, but here the likeness ends; for these wild lawns, with all their exquisite fineness, have no trace of that painful, licked, snipped, repressed appearance that pleasure-ground lawns are apt to have even when viewed at a distance. And, not to mention the flowers with which they are brightened, their grasses are very much finer both in color and texture, and instead of lying flat and motionless, matted together like a dead green cloth, they respond to the touches of every breeze, rejoicing in pure wildness, blooming and fruiting in the vital light.” – John Muir

Binoculars and empty boots are strewn below the Station entrance on the meadow edge; I imagine the rangers watching over the meadow at first light, peering into the private lives of the far off creatures that binoculars afford. Wow, now that’s a job that’s about as far away from beige as you can get! I interrupt the Ranger’s breakfast of fresh caught brook trout, so our conversation is brief and perfunctory. I briefly explain our plan, a little relived to share our itinerary with someone else in the backcountry, especially since there is a small wildfire burning in the not too distant Golden Trout Wilderness a few ridges over.

We press on about ¾ of a mile beyond the Ranger Station, through a dying forest of silver pine. The Ranger told us the pollution from the valley below is killing the forest, and that it might be gone in 30 years. A depressing thought, to be sure, but the smog from the valley is visible. I try to push the human world, with its attendant destruction and pollution, out of mind, but the grey sentinels we are now hiking through are a reality check. Even the last great remaining expanses of wilderness have been touched by our thoughtlessness. How would Muir react to the scene? I imagine a silent tear before re-doubling his conservation efforts…

We now leave the trail and begin bushwhacking towards three small unnamed lake dots on the map. The hope is that they are far enough off-trail to be completely secluded and offlimits to other hikers, affording us our hallowed solitude. Taking a compass bearing every 20 feet we march due west for ½ mile, and hit our intended lake target dead-on. Unfortunately, the lake is now mostly grass filled, reverting to meadow, and the mosquitoes are thick. So we navigate by compass to two other nearby lake dots, only to discover the same conditions. Nature’s endless progression doesn’t wait for the map-makers to catch up; it’s obvious we don’t want to camp here. We’re disappointed we didn’t find our secluded lake country Eden, but we’re also fairly impressed with our ability to navigate the big wilderness without trails.

We bushwhack north, until we hit Whitman Creek, following the creek downstream for about a mile below the Calhoun Rock trail. There we do find our high country Eden campsite – a spectacular streamside site, filled with trout, wildflowers, and wooded campsites, serenaded by the cascade chorus. Wow, we rejoice in our efforts and believe we’ve found a slice of paradise!

And of course no Sierra mountainside stream would be complete without a resident American dipper. “Ours” nosily flies downstream upon our arrival, begrudgingly sharing his domain with us. Speaking of the dipper, or water-ouzel as he called them, Muir wrote:

He is a singularly joyous and loveable little fellow, about the size of a robin, clad in a plain waterproof suit of bluish gray, with a tinge of chocolate on the head and shoulders. In form he is about as smoothly plump and compact as a pebble that has been whirled in a pothole, the flowing contour of his body being interrupted only by his strong feet and bill, the crisp wing-tips, and the up-slanted wren-like tail. Among all the countless waterfalls I have met in the course of ten years’ exploration in the Sierra, whether among the icy peaks, or warm foot-hills, or in the profound yosemitic canyons of the middle region, not one was found without its Ouzel. No canyon is too cold for this little bird, none too lonely, provided it be rich in falling water. Find a fall, or cascade, or rushing rapid, anywhere upon a clear stream, and there you will surely find its complementary Ouzel, flitting about in the spray, diving in foaming eddies, whirling like a leaf among beaten foam-bells; ever vigorous and enthusiastic, yet self-contained, and neither seeking nor shunning your company.” – John Muir

After making camp, we follow the dipper’s example into the icy cold stream – it is completely refreshing and rejuvenating after another full day with heavy packs. After leisurely drying in the sun, dinner is served, a small no impact fire made, and we recline on therma-rests and comfy rocks sipping whiskey under another cloudless, starry night. Life is good…

Base Camp

Today is a well-deserved lazy day – no need to break camp, nowhere to go, just take it all in. I’m up at dawn, exploring the rocks of the nearby canyon and watching a Hammond’s flycatcher hawk insects. A nap follows a leisurely breakfast, and after being refreshed I spend a hour enjoying the spectacular alpine flowers of our camp – flame red paintbrush, orange and yellow columbine, white daisies and baby’s breathe, the aptly named baby blue eyes, the yellow buttercups, the delicate pink wood rose, and the most spectacular Sierra wildflower of all, the shooting star, its deep purple petals the flames to the rocket-like yellow and black stamen.

Another swim in the creek is followed by the exhilarating feeling of drying privately on the slick rocks under the bright sun, completely naked. Later I sit silently for two hours on a rock in the forest, listening to myself breathe, to the forest breathe, to the pulse of the universe. The silence is unbelievably calming, and I have a faint hint of what the Silent Folks are after.

After dinner it is contemplative time. I’ve finally stopped moving long enough to listen to the rhythms of life, and I long for my family. I really miss my little guys and my wife; I think about them constantly. I really hope we are all doing this together someday when the boys are older. I hope they remember my instructions to think about me under the starry sky, as I am doing now…
Again I’m up early the next day, birding and exploring around base camp before breakfast and a brief nap. Tom and I then decide to day hike and explore off-trail up to Evelyn Lake. We meander slowly around the northeast facing nose, enjoying the firs and the views, the everpresent cloudless sky, and the boulder-hopping. We gain almost 1,000 feet of elevation, but it’s easy without our heavy packs – base-camping has many joys!

We reach our destination in the early afternoon, and what a destination it is! Evelyn Lake sits at 8,720 feet in a north-facing granite amphitheater, partially forested on its western and north flanks. And it is spectacular! The glassy water is deep blue, reflecting the azure sky. It’s surrounded by boulders and wildflowers, filled with rainbow trout that leap out of the water
in search of flying insects.

Among the many unlooked-for treasures that are bound up and hidden away in the depths of Sierra solitudes, none more surely charm and surprise all kinds of travelers than the glacial lakes.” – John Muir

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Evelyn Lake is idyllic, picture postcard, exactly what we thought a high country Sierra lake would be like. The pull of the water is irresistible, and we’re soon skinny-dipping in the icy water. It takes some getting used to, but the air is warm, probably upper 70s, and the sun feels warm even in the cold water. The silence and stillness, the scenery and sky, the icy water and warm sun; it’s all absolutely perfect, totally therapeutic. We linger for a few hours, drying in the warm sun, totally relaxed. It’s decided without any discussion that we have to move camp up here as soon as possible.

On the way back to our current camp, however, drunk with picture-perfect ecstasy, we get a little sloppy navigating off-trail and end up taking almost as much time getting down as we did getting up. That pretty much rules out a quick camp move to Evelyn Lake tonight.  We’ll do it first thing in the morning, though

Maybe it’s a little of the disappointment of not being at Evelyn Lake tonight (despite our already fantastic site, so perfect just the night before!), perhaps it’s a bit of homesickness, or maybe just the mid-trip blues, but there is a bit of melancholy in camp tonight. Dinner is good, the stars are awesome as usual, but we are both terribly missing our families and loved ones. I totally appreciate sharing this experience with Tom, but I really want to be able to share it with my wife. Tom is thinking the same thing about Jenny. As Muir so correctly noted, this place has to be experienced, and my words and pictures will never by able to convey this place to anyone who hasn’t experienced it firsthand. I wish some of these memories could be tucked into the family album instead of my solo book.

But as always, Sierra magic happens when you least expect it. Getting up for a midnight bathroom break, the cold, still, starry-night silence is broken by a series of deep, low, three-note hoots. Could it possibly be…a great grey owl??? These boreal, circumpolar owls breed sparingly in the Cascades and northern Rockies, as well as the central Sierras. A small population of maybe 50 owls inhabits the Yosemite area. I didn’t see or hear the owls, despite a concerted effort, while visiting Yosemite in 1997, but is it possible that the Great Grey Ghost maneuvered south to coincide with our trip? It is not out of the realm of possibility – the Hockett meadow and the other smaller meadows in the area would be perfect habitat for North
America’s largest nocturnal avian predator. Pure Sierra magic…

Of course we are up early, again another cloudless, perfect morning. We’re packed and heading up the mountainside by 9 a.m., the excitement palpable. Even the big heavy packs feel light, knowing our destination. We reach Evelyn Lake in a little over an hour and a half, and cautiously pick our way over the boulders, much harder with heavy packs than it was yesterday. We practically run to reach our truly perfect, secluded wooded campsite on the western edge of the lake.

We quickly set up camp with the anticipation and excitement of moving into a dream home. I also take the opportunity to wash my dirty clothes and myself, sponging off with biodegradable soap for the first time in days. God it feels good to be clean! A well-deserved nap is in order after completing all the chores.

Two rows of the plushy branches overlapping along the middle, and a crescent of smaller plumes mixed with ferns and flowers for a pillow, form the very best bed imaginable.” – John Muir
So Muir wrote of the red fir. I settle for a layer of fir needles under my sleeping pad. Sleep comes easy and when I awake in my tent I’m completely refreshed. On one side of my tent I have a view of a perfect high country lake, on the other a magnificent red fir forest, out the top of my tent, a view straight up the impressive 150-foot pines and a cloudless blue sky. Wow!

Four gigantic red firs stand watch over our camp, with us nestled on their soft needles. The Four Horsemen, sentinels of our campsite, perfect specimens all, impressive and commanding of our respect; silent permission is granted by the matriarch to camp here. With permission, we are granted a degree of protection, and a glimpse of the forest’s magic and unique gifts. The fir forest we are camped in is truly impressive, even by Sierra standards. The sunlight softly filters through the branches, illuminating the green moss on the trunk’s north side, which contrasts with the dark purplish furrowed bark. The slight breeze sings softly, accented occasionally by the high-pitched whistles of the yellow-rumped warblers that are hawking insects from the branches and lakeside.

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Gazing upwards at the magical trees, I have an overwhelming desire to see the tops of the trees. Muir would have climbed the trees, getting to know them intimately. I don’t have that kind of skill, or courage, so I climb the rocky slopes surrounding our forested alpine bowl. The top of the bowl, 150 feet above camp, provides a bird’s eye view of the area, and it is stunning. The tops of the red fir forest provide an explanation for Muir’s name for the trees, the magnificent silver fir; they look like a green paint brush frosted with silver paint.

Many of the tops have been snapped by either lightning or wind, but the mighty fir, as if in defiance of these elements, sends up two or more shoots to replace the damaged one. Rare from this vantage point is a mature fir with its original crown intact, but the few that are unscathed exhibit a beautiful symmetry that adds to its nobility.

A Douglas squirrel gracefully acrobats through the upper branches, deftly cutting fir cones which drop to the ground with a thump. When enough are cut, he races down the trunk to enjoy the fruits of his labor.

Go where you will throughout the noble woods of the Sierra Nevada, among the giant pines and spruces of the lower zones, up through the towering Silver Firs to the storm-bent thickets of the summit peaks, you everywhere find this little squirrel the  master-existence. Though only a few inches long, so intense is his fiery vigor and restlessness, he stirs every grove with wild life, and makes himself more important than even the huge bears that shuffle through the tangled underbrush beneath him. Every wind is fretted by his voice, almost every bole and branch feels the sting of his sharp feet. How much growth of the trees is stimulated by this means it is not easy to learn, but his action in manipulating their seeds is more appreciable. Nature has made him master forester and committed most of her coniferous crops to his paws. Probably over fifty percent of all the cones ripened on the Sierra are cut off and handled by the Douglas alone, and those of the Big Trees perhaps ninety percent pass through his hands: the greater portion is of course stored away for food to last during the winter and spring, but some of them are tucked separately into loosely covered holes, where some of the seeds germinate and become trees.” – John Muir

The warm sun prompts me to remove my shirt, and I sit on a large boulder atop the mountain bowl. It feels so good. I take it all in with each breath, the rejuvenation, the healing, the commune with the natural world, totally relaxing and peaceful. In a rare moment of true clarity, the whole universe, of which I am only a tiny part, makes sense. It’s only natural to remove the rest of my clothes, the only obstacle to my oneness with nature, and sit on the rock in the warm sun – just breathe, breathe, breathe. It doesn’t get any better than this…

After my report, Tom can’t resist the temptation and heads up to the rocks himself while I lounge around camp. This really is a magical place, and being naked in the wilderness is a true luxury. Indeed, it was one of Mark Twain’s favorite indulgences. Sitting around the campfire at night, naked to the outdoors, was for Twain, “the very summit and culmination of earthly luxury.”

A leisurely dinner follows the transcendence on the rocks. After clean up, the sky begins  its nightly kaleidoscope of color. We race to the lip of the bowl to take it in. We’ve had a beautiful sunset every night, but tonight there are streaks of
clouds far off to the northwest, and the display of color is absolutely the best I’ve ever seen! Through silhouetted pines and
against the massive rock formation of Homer’s Nose the next ridge over, we ohhh and ahhh at the colors like we’re watching a
fireworks display. Blues fade to pinks, to oranges, to reds, to purples. Wow! We watch in awe for over an hour, until the
darkness starts to take over and we have to use our headlamps to pick our way carefully down the steep slope back to camp.

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A perfect day like this deserves commemoration, and once our small fire is going we raise our whiskey in toast to it. Maybe we’re too relaxed – the whiskey is really going down smooth, the conversation is flowing freely. A skit involving a chocolate pudding coated finger and toilet paper fills our mountain cirque with belly laughs, continuing through the “crater on Uranus” conversation. That leads to drinking songs and a roaring fire and “fireworks”, sure to keep all but the crankiest bears and lions away. A truly memorably day and night, but holy cow, we finish all the whiskey, probably the only thing that forces us to finally retire!

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Ouch, a slight hangover the next morning, not smart! Luckily I’ve saved a Crystal Light Iced Tea packet for just such occasion, and a few aspirin and a liter of iced tea later my headache has subsided.

Another ouch, this one more serious. I notice a smoldering hole in the peat about a foot from our fire ring, and it’s getting bigger. I run down to the lake and fill the 5-gallon shower bag, race back and put out the fire. Damn, we dumped water on the fire last night, but obviously not enough. Obviously our judgment wasn’t so sound last night, either, not smart at all. I shudder when I think about what could have happened.

Tom is sleeping in very late, probably nursing the same swollen head, so I have the mountain camp to myself as the sun rises in another cloudless sky. I try to take it all in.

In the morning everything is joyous and bright, the delicious purple of the dawn changes softly to daffodil yellow and white; while sunbeams pouring through the passes between the peaks give a margin of gold to each of them. Then the spires of the firs in the hollows of the middle region catch the glow, and your camp grove is filled with light. The birds begin to stir, seeking sunny branches on the edge of the meadow for sun-baths after the cold night, and looking for their breakfasts, every one of them as fresh as a lily and charmingly arrayed. Innumerable insects begin to dance, the deer withdraw from the open glades and ridge-tops to their leafy hiding-places in the chaparral, the flowers open and straighten their petals as the dew vanishes, every pulse beats high, every life-cell rejoices, the very rocks seem to tingle with life, and God is felt brooding over everything great and small.” – John Muir

Tom eventually rouses, looking like hell and feeling the same; we eat breakfast and I’m rarin’ to go, since the morning is late now. Tom wants to nap, so we agree we’ll meet up later at Homer’s Nose. It’s maybe 3 miles to Homer’s Nose as the crow flies, but probably double that given the route we’ll have to traverse to get there. The contour lines are close together, we know it will be steep, but we don’t know if it will be open forest or what other obstacles will lie in our way; it’s another off-trail trek.

I take off early while Tom retires back to his tent. I’m a little nervous about going into the real wilderness solo, but the apprehensiveness forces an awareness of your surroundings that’s too often missed while on the safety of a trail. The terrain is rough, too, as we traverse parallel to a south facing ridge along a steep grade. There are numerous detours for unscaleable
rock gardens and impenetrable thorny tangles. But after a couple of miles I reach the rocky rim of the ledge we will follow to Homer’s Nose.

Even without the tangles, the terrain is rough and progress slow, and as always with mountain travel, that short distance on the map entails many unexpected hardships. I come to a prominent rock jutting sharply into the cloudless Sierra sky and decide to scale it. It takes me ten minutes to figure a route up, having to use two handholds and with some decent exposure,
but it is worth it when I get to the top.

The view of the Mineral King area is spectacular. Homer’s Nose is about a mile away due west, but the valley in front is phenomenal. I am looking down on the great Sierra forest, and can make out through my binos the spectacular Homer’s Nose redwood grove almost 2,000 feet below me.

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There is no shade from the sun, and I’m hot from the long walk. With no one around, it seems perfectly normal to strip down to
nothing and enjoy the view au natural. I agree with Twain’s assessment.

An hour later I see Tom bounding along the ridge and dress. When he gets to the rock I guide him up and we both enjoy the view. And as an added bonus, we have cell-phone reception from the rock! Normally I wince at cell phones in the wilderness, because that’s what I’ m trying to escape. But we are both terribly longing for the comfort of our loved ones, and Tom has a good conversation with Jenny while I get to talk with Deb and the kids. God I miss them, and wish they were here, but it’s comforting to know everyone is okay; I haven’t talked to them since we got down from Whitney seven days ago. Of course, we can’t resist a call to Mark-ass, too! I think we catch him in the middle of a sales call, but that’s okay, he should be here with us, dammit!

It’s decided that Homer’s Nose is not worth the energy, especially with a hefty trek back to camp already in front of us. This rock will do, and since it’s unnamed on the map, we dub it Homer’s Booger and leave a white quartz rock at the highest point. Jake and T would be proud!

The trek back is long and hard, as expected, complete with lots of cuts from the jaggers and scrapes and bruises from some tricky bouldering, but it is truly fun. I feel like a kid again, exploring and wandering. It is good to see camp again, but I’m not feeling well at all by the time we get back. A quick swim doesn’t help, so I take an Advil and Imodium and retire to my tent for a nap. Luckily
I feel better when I wake.

The camp chores are complicated by my water filter crapping out (after nine years!); it takes over an hour to pump all the water we need. But we enjoy a big meal, getting rid of as much food as possible. I admit I’m getting sick of the dehydrated fare, and Tom agrees. I can’t wait for a pizza! I realize my cravings are a sign I’m ready to head back to civilization after my longest stint yet in the wilderness. We reflect contentedly on the trip around our small, quiet campfire.

A bear is rattling around above us on the ridge, appropriately in my opinion. This is his domain, and I’m thankful to the bears and the trees and the lakes and the mountains for sharing their paradise with us. We have a big hike in front of us tomorrow, though, and I’m exhausted from today’s activities, so we retire early…

We’re both up early today. We eat and pack up camp quickly, bid a fond farewell to our perfect camp, to the Four Horsemen, the lake, and then we are gone, on the trail by 8:30. Of course it’s another sunny cloudless Sierra morning, and after struggling up a 200 foot steep incline out of the Evelyn Lake bowl, we crest the lip. That’s the hardest part of the trek today – well, that, and the additional 14.5 miles that are still ahead of us! True, it’s all downhill until the last mile and a half, but the packs are fully loaded, although thankfully they are about 20 pounds lighter without all the whiskey and food that we walked in with a week ago.

It’s nice being on trail, too, after all of our off-trail wanderings of the past few days. We come across the first people we’ve seen since the ranger on day two, a group of young men and women camped at Horse Camp creek, out for 3 days. We highly recommend a trip to Evelyn Lake.

Once we hit the Atwell-Hockett trail, the downhill really begins, and we really make time. It’s very dusty, though, and we look like Pig-pen from Peanuts, with a cloud of dust around our feet. But the thick dust has some benefits – it leaves perfect tracks. Around 7,000 feet we find perfect bear tracks in the dust, and about 500 feet lower, perfect mountain lion tracks. The lion tracks follow the same direction we are heading for miles, and we get good pictures of them. They also lead to the remains of a careless Stellar’s Jay and black squirrel, the lions breakfast, and a little further down the path, lion scat. I’m surprised the lion travels on the trail, until I remember how difficult our off-trail travel was yesterday.

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Nearing the end of our descent we re-enter the East Fork sequoia grove. It’s a great place to stop and have lunch and take the packs off. I wish we could have camped under the Big Trees, they are truly magical. I am thankful for the efforts of people like John Muir, who had the foresight to protect these one of a kind forests from the destruction that befell the grove
at Atwell Mill. We are able to enjoy this grove because of them and their tireless work, but now I know firsthand what inspires these folks to fight so hard.

200 feet below us lies a recently felled giant sequoia. A few days earlier, while at our mountain stream home, we heard a thunderous crash from this valley. Could it have been this tree? We saunter down to investigate.

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Exploring the fresh fallen giant is another exercise that boggles the mind. The sheer size of the trunk, and the length, are in completely different proportions than a standing tree. It gives us a look into the upper branches, too. I’ve read about entirely new ecosystems discovered in the coast redwood canopies, I wonder if the same applies to these giants? It is neat seeing the unopened green cones of the crown; the ground under the standing trees is littered with the brown opened cones, and I’ve collected some for Jake and T (along with small unique rocks and feathers), but these are the only unopened cones I’ve seen. Hard to believe something so big starts so small.

“The fertile cones are bright grass-green, measuring about two inches in length by one and a half in thickness, and are made up of about forty firm rhomboidal scales densely packed, with from five to eight seeds at the base of each. A single cone, therefore, contains from two to three hundred seeds, which are about a fourth of an inch long by three sixteenths wide, including a thin, flat margin that makes them go glancing and wavering in their fall like a boy’s kite. The fruitfulness of Sequoia may be illustrated by two specimen branches one and a half and two inches in diameter on which I counted 480 cones. No other Sierra conifer produces nearly so many seeds. Millions are ripened annually by a single tree, and in a fruitful year the product of one of the northern groves would be enough to plant all the mountain-ranges of the world. Nature takes care, however, that not one seed in a million shall germinate at all, and of those that do perhaps not one in ten thousand is suffered to live through the many vicissitudes of storm, drought, fire, and snow-crushing that beset their youth.” – John Muir.

That life prospers on such a knife edge and against such overwhelming odds is amazing. That this knife-edge has afforded such diversity and beauty would not be believed if I wasn’t standing here taking it all in. That this whole symphony of life swirls together, intertwined in so many ways – from the lightning storms that bring fire and rain, to the creatures and plants that all perform their anointed duties flawlessly; from the individual snowflakes that over time form glaciers that move mountains, to the tiniest microscopic plants and animals that create nutrients – it is humbling, amazing, and no where more gloriously illustrated than the Sierra forest.

It’s also amazing to see up close the sheer volume of wood from the fallen sequoia. Luckily for the species, the wood is very brittle. As illustrated by this felled giant, it has a tendency to shatter when it hits the ground, which accounts for why so many of these giants were spared the woodsman’s ax. The wood has a distinct aroma to it, a more sweet smell than a lumber yard, and the inside
is bright orange. Supposedly these giants do not have an aging mechanism; it is only fire, or most likely, as illustrated by this tree, toppling, that kills the Big Tree.

“I never saw a Big Tree that had died a natural death; barring accidents they seem to be immortal, being exempt from all the diseases that afflict and kill other trees. Unless destroyed by man, they live on indefinitely until burned, smashed by lightning, or  cast down by storms, or by the giving way of the ground on which they stand.” – John Muir

The ageless trees boggle the mind. Muir counted over 4,000 rings on a fallen sequoia, “which showed that this tree was in its prime, swaying in the Sierra winds, when Christ walked the earth. No other tree in the world, as far as I know, has looked
down on so many centuries as the Sequoia, or opens such impressive and suggestive views into history.

We reluctantly leave the sequoia grove and for the last time shoulder the heavy packs. They feel like the full burden that they are now, and to make it worse I’m out of water. What a tease it is crossing the Kaweah River again, with it’s roaring spray and offer of refreshment! However, with the filter shot, I decide I can make it one more mile uphill to the trailhead rather than suffer the foul taste of iodine treatment.

To keep my mind off the thirst and the uphill trudge, I start looking for the ultimate souvenir for the boys, a perfect sugar pine cone. The sugar pine cone is the ultimate pine cone, and I know the boys would have a whole collection of them were they here.

“No one knows what nature can do in the way of pine burs until he has seen those of the Sugar Pine. They are commonly from fifteen to eighteen inches long, and three in diameter; green, shaded with dark purple on their sunward sides. They are ripe in September and October.  Then the flat scales open and the seeds take wing, but their empty cones become still more beautiful and effective, for their diameter is nearly doubled by the spreading of the scales, and their color changes to a warm yellowish-brown; while they remain swinging on the tree all the following winter and summer, and continue effectively beautiful even on the ground many years after they fall.” – John Muir

I find the perfect cone and strap it to my pack. It seems a perfect souvenir for me, too.

Home

Inevitably we make it to the top, to the trailhead with its water pump, to the car, to the so craved-for pizza and beer, to a shower and soft bed. Eventually there is a joyous reunion at home, after a long, tedious, sometimes painful journey to get there. That joyous reunion is all the more appreciated, all the more important, all the more heartfelt, because of the gifts I take
with me from the mountains.

I think back on the colors: the blue of the sky and the lakes, the white of the granite and snow and shooting stars, the red of the bark and the green of the pine needles, the orange of the sunsets, the whole spectrum of color in the meadows of wildflowers.
I think of the sensations: the cold mountain streams and lakes, the crisp nights, the longing for my family, the breeze against my naked flesh, the warm sun, the pounding of an altitude headache, the spine tingles from the excitement of adventure and the hooting of an owl.

I think about feeling totally alive: the feeling of nothing under my dangling feet 14,000 feet up, feeling the pulse of the universe, feeling the humbleness and respect that comes from not being at the top of the food chain, feeling the warm glow of achieving a goal, and the appreciation of a true friend.

All of this has put things in focus, and has provided me with clarity, a clarity that is the opposite of beige. The colors, the clarity – they cut this diamond of a trip. I know in unexpected moments, a smell, a picture, a memory, will jolt me back to this clarity, to the colors, to the aliveness, to the Light that is the Sierra Nevada.