Thursday, July 24, 2014

Tioga Thunder: July 2014

(You can click on a picture to enlarge it and then hit "escape" to get back to the text.  Also, the video is in HD -- feel free to click on the gear symbol and select HD and full screen.)

As we often do in early July, we tried to outfox the heat by camping and hiking at very high altitude. We also wanted to escape the bugs by camping in a dry climate; by process of elimination, we ended up in the highest part of the Eastern Sierra, north of Lee Vining near Virginia Creek.  (Yes, we have been here a few times -- with good reason!)

July 9:  The forecast called for thunderstorms all week (which turned out to be pretty accurate), so we set up our campsite and put up a very large tarp, suspended on a high rope, to give us a storage area protected from the rain. Felice asked me to demonstrate the stupendous capacity of our "grand tarp:"

As it turned out, we did need the tarp -- we had several rainshowers, and the stuff under the tarp stayed dry -- mostly our camp chairs and hors d'oeuvres tables.  (I forgot this is camping -- our "snack tables.")

After setting up camp, during the heat of the afternoon, we went for a short hike along Virginia Creek, and we found a place to wade in the refreshing snowmelt. The stream was lined with reddish-orange columbines:

In the late afternoon, it cooled off considerably, and we set up our "snacking circle" with a view of Mono Lake and Boundary Peak to the south and east:

As we do almost every afternoon, we just sat there for a long time, sipping our drinks, listening to the wind in the trees, and watching the cloud shadows drift slowly across the desert far below us.

July 10:  We headed up to the nearby Tioga Pass area and took a ferry ride across Saddlebag Lake.  (Yes, it's cheating to take the little ferry – but the hike around the lake to the trailhead is long and dull and rocky and hot.)  Some backpackers gave us a good tip – instead of immediately hiking around the Twenty Lakes Basin, we took a detour toward Cascade Lake, with open terrain and granite slabs. Mt. Conness loomed over the lake basin:

 At the south end of Steelhead Lake, we spotted an outcropping of vertically-tilted green shale, the original "country rock" that was shoved upward by the rising granite of the Sierra:

In the crevices between the rocks, the wildflowers were making the most out of the short growing season.  I am told that these tiny white and pink "bells" are white mountain heather -- each waxy little flower is about a quarter of an inch wide:

We had lunch next to a stream flowing out the base of a snowbank on North Peak, which is over 12,000 feet high:

After our detour to the Cascade Lake basin, we took a cross-country route across the granite ridges and returned to the main Twenty Lakes trail, amidst a loud and wet thunderstorm.  We kept walking through the storm; there was no place to hide.  

Accessorized with just the right attitude, Felice modeled her poncho ensemble (from the exclusive "Thunderstorm Barbie" collection), complete with an extemporaneous belt fashioned from two soggy bandannas.  The belt kept the poncho from hanging down too far and tripping her as we climbed over the rocks:

 On the far side of Lake Helen, there were several patches of "strawberries and cream" columbines:

After the storm cleared, we had some terrific views of Mt. Conness and the glaciers – notice the backlit white columbines next to my boots:

Near Lake Helen, there were patches of this very small pink flower in the rocky crevices -- the petals were arranged in a hexagonal pattern, forming a hollow sphere:

At the end of the day, we hiked back to the trailhead around the east side of Saddlebag Lake, adding more than two miles to the end of the hike. This was a very long and tough day, with almost 10 miles of hiking, much of it in the rain, with a fair amount of elevation change. In hindsight, we could have done without the eastern half of the Twenty Lakes Basin – the footing was pretty tricky (especially in the rain), and the surfaces were sharp and hard in the metamorphic portion of the hike.

July 11:  We returned to the Tioga area, in search of more cool high-altitude hiking. The Gaylor Lakes trailhead is right at the Tioga entrance to Yosemite.  The first part of the trail is very steep, rising 600 feet in the first half-mile, according to my topo map!  With the trailhead at 10,000 feet, that's a very healthy climb. But it was shaded, cool, and breezy, so it was not particularly difficult. And once we got to the top, the rest of the hike was much easier.

         Gaylor Lake looked like an "infinity pool:" there was a sharp drop-off on the southwest side of the lake, and the Cathedral Range poked up over the edge:

We followed the stream to the upper lake and then up to the abandoned mining camp on the northeast side of the lake basin.  It was hard to imagine the miserable conditions that the miners endured, living in shacks in this harsh high-altitude environment and then descending into the pits each day to hack at the rock and haul out the buckets of raw ore.  The mining pits, about 30 feet deep, left dangerous holes in the hillsides.:

 As we looked back toward the west, we realized that we didn't have to stick to the proverbial beaten path:  since we were above timberline, the countryside was wide open, and we used the GPS to contour across the valley and over the ridges to get to the Granite Lake basin.  The only trick was trying to avoid crushing the flowers carpeting the ground; we had to tread carefully, stepping from rock to rock.  The sweeping view from the highest ridge over the lake basin was stunning, and the strong wind was very refreshing.  In this shot, Granite Lake is on the right, and Gaylor Lake is on the left:

This is a brief video panorama of the entire area:

Late that evening, I tried to capture the wonderful isolation of boondocking deep in the middle of a dark and silent forest on the edge of the wilderness, far from anyone else -- no campground, nothing but our little trailer: 

Since there was a full moon, we couldn't really see the stars as well as we usually can, but the moon and the monsoonal clouds provided us with a different type of show:

July 12:  We hiked from our campsite up toward Dunderberg Lake and then beyond it to Kavanaugh Ridge. We had taken the first part of this route in the snow during our trip in late May, but it had been slow going.  Even on a dry trail, it was quite steep.  From the ridge at 11,000 feet, we could see Green Lake (on the right side of the picture), West Lake (perched on a shelf above Green Lake), and East Lake (under Felice's left arm):   

Even though we’ve had several dry years in a row, the glacier/snowfield on the north side of Dunderberg Peak was still quite thick, and it appeared to be "calving" into the meltwater pool:

Looking closer at the edge of the snowfield, we could see that the various annual layers contained traces of ash, presumably from forest fires on the west side of the Sierra:

On our way back down, we cut across the moraine at the bottom of the glacier, rather than returning to the trail.  It was adventurous and interesting, but I would not do it again -- the talus was loose and sharp, and the footing was very difficult.

July 13:  We returned to the high country of Tioga Pass, taking the Mine Creek trail out of Junction Campground.  This trail was a very pleasant surprise – inexplicably, it is not listed in most of the guidebooks.  The route follows the rushing stream for the entire way, with terrific views of the high country and easy access to several alpine lakes.  The trail passes through Bennettville, an abandoned mining town:

From almost every point on the trail, we could see Mt. Dana to the south:

This is Felice’s obligatory "boot shot:"

We sat for a few minutes near the cascade at the head of Shell Lake:

(These peaceful-looking "two-shots" do not reveal my usual hilarious scramble from the camera, mounted on the tripod, into position for the shot, while we count down the 12 second self-timer on the camera.)

There was a wild assortment of flowers all along the stream – these are lupine:

Felice captured me in my typical pose, crouching to get the best possible shot:

(I should add, by the way, that this shot is a little misleading.  A lot of the photos on our blog were taken by Felice; and she acts as the "art director" for virtually all of them, spotting the shot and then relying on my DSLR to capture what she has seen.  A very good partnership!)

There were "flower gardens" tucked into the rocks, around every corner:

The trail ends at Spuller Lake, but we were able to climb much further, up and over the crest of the ridge separating the Mine Creek basin from Green Treble Lake:

After lunch, an “ice rainbow” formed in the high clouds over White Mountain:

Even though we were at high altitude, the afternoon got very warm and humid. Luckily, we found a really good place to swim in a secluded pool along the creek just downstream from Fantail Lake – this is a “foot shot,” in lieu of a "boot shot.”  In case anyone is wondering, no, I do not have two right feet -- the smaller foot belongs to Felice:

Because the water had been warmed by the sun as it flowed through the lake, the water was around 60 degrees, an amazing temperature for a meltwater stream at over 10,000 feet.  It was inexpressibly delightful to float around in this quiet pool, surrounded on all sides by craggy granite peaks capped with patches of snow, with flowery meadows on the banks of the stream, listening to the gurgling stream. (Even better, the bugs left us alone, for some unknown reason.)  

Late that afternoon, back at the trailer, we reconvened the mandatory snacking circle – this is a shot across the sagebrush meadow, south toward Mt. Olson at 11,000 feet:

That night, when I stepped out of the trailer to stretch, I took this shot of the Mono Basin and the meadow, illuminated by a mix of moonlight and starlight.  Boundary Peak, at 13,000, is in the far distance:

The trailer was hidden in the dark forest, and Cassiopeia was visible through a gap in the trees -- it is the constellation shaped like a wide "W" that has been rotated 90 degrees to the left, at the top center of the picture:

July 14:  We took the Mono Pass trail, which starts between Tioga Pass and Tuolumne Meadows.  The day started out cloudy and got cloudier.  Oddly, the diffuse light somehow enhanced the color of the flowers, which were eye-catching along the whole route:

Because of the cool breezy weather, the hike was not that hard, even though it covered more than nine miles and gained about a thousand feet at high elevation.  It was startling to walk from the lush high country of Tioga Pass, over the summit, to see the whole Basin and Range desert territory stretching out to the east.  We pushed beyond the summit and down into the Walker Creek area along Bloody Canyon; the name comes from the sharp rocks that cut the legs of the pack animals struggling up the canyon, not a pleasant image.  We made it onto a ridge overlooking Sardine Lake and, beyond it, the Mono Basin:

At just about that time, the thunder started to rumble in the mountains above us.  We headed back; but before we left the pass, Felice stood in the middle of the meadow at the summit, as if she were commanding the thunderclouds swirling over the Kuna Crest to leave us alone:

The whole way back to the trailhead, for more than two hours, the thunder rolled all around us, continuously; and yet we got almost no rain and saw very little lightning.

July 15:  On yet another stormy day, we took the Sawmill Creek trail, which heads west from the Saddlebag Lake road through Sawmill walk-in campground (tents only).  We are not tent campers; but if we were, this campground would be very high on our list, with widely spaced sites and panoramic views of the craggy mountains on all sides.  Our goal was to get to the Green Treble lake area, but the trail to the lakes was not marked, and we could not find the stream crossing mentioned in the guidebook. Instead, we hiked up the trail that would have ascended the back of Mt. Conness, if we had continued.  The Indian Paintbrush, which is so common that it rarely gets any attention, was really enjoying the summer weather.  This flower is only about an inch in diameter; this is an extreme close-up:

Pretty soon, the gathering thunderstorms persuaded us that being high on a rocky mountainside was not a great idea, so we turned around and headed back into the valley -- here, Felice is testing out her lightning rods:    

Just after that shot was taken, it started to pour (surprise!), and the lightning stabbed the peaks on all sides.  We stood in the meadow and just watched the spectacle -- there was no shelter, and there were many high objects around us (ridges and trees) to attract the lightning.  The thunder echoed in circles through the valley:  a lightning bolt would hit a peak to our south.  We would hear the crack and the boom.  The same boom would hit us from the west, then the north, then the east.  It felt like we were in an Imax theater listening to a very loud “surround sound” system, except that we were soaking wet.

It looked as though it would rain most of the afternoon, so we hiked back to the trailhead and drove down to Mono Lake to see the tufa towers.  Usually, the lakeshore would be too hot for a midsummer visit, but the thick clouds kept the temperature in the 80s.  Tufa is essentially calcium carbonate that precipitates when freshwater springs bubble up under the salt water of the lake, forming tubes and towers of rock.  As the lakeshore has retreated, the towers have been exposed -- these towers apparently fused underwater, and Mono Lake is framed by the "window:"

As we strolled around the towers, the wind came up and the sky got even darker:

The lakeshore was interesting but not lovely; the hot wind blew over the salty water, bringing in a dank and musty "low tide" smell.  The sand was covered with swarms of alkali flies, which did not bite -- as we walked, they moved away in a black carpet and then settled back down as soon as we had passed.  The Indians would collect their larva and fry them as snacks -- supposedly, they are delicious. 

Late that afternoon, we were having cocktail hour inside the trailer, and a huge jackrabbit hopped slowly through our campsite.  This guy was well over two feet long and looked as though he weighed twenty pounds -- he appeared to be as big as a cocker spaniel or a beagle:

July 16:  We packed up and drove home, first stopping for a short steep hike to Parker Lake:

As we sat and ate lunch on the lakeshore, a brave duck decided that she wanted to try our peanut butter and jelly, but we told her to go eat some worms instead: