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later climbed Tue, Aug 10, 2010|
It was the last full day I had to stay here in the Mammoth area this 4th of July holiday. The others at the condo had had enough hiking. Actually, they had only the one easy hike up McGee Mtn two days ago. The fact was that they had stayed up way too late drinking and playing cards the night before to get up at a reasonable hour today. That's the nice thing about vacations without obligations - you can do whatever you please. As a result, I was on my own again today.
I decided to tackle Mt. Baldwin, as I had already climbed just about every peak that surrounds it: McGee, Red Slate, Bloody, Laurel, and Morrison. Mt. Baldwin is higher than all of these except Red Slate, and would be quite challenging with 5000 ft of climbing and nearly 13mi of hiking (5 of which are cross- country). The starting point is Convict Lake, which is about 10mi SE of Mammoth Lakes and sits at 7,600 ft. It is an easy drive along CA203, US395, and the paved road leading into Convict Lake. As I pulled into the parking lot at the eastern end of the lake around 7:30a, the place was alive with fisherfolks scrambling to get the available rental boats at the dock. As one of the busiest weekends of the year, it was a bustling morning at the lake. After I had my day gear secured and my water bottles filled, I started off shortly before 8a. The first mile is relatively flat as it follows the north shore of Convict Lake. There were numerous additional folks fishing along the shore. At one point when I was about 12 feet above the lake level, I could look down in the water and was surprised to see a 12" trout swimming along the shore. I had been to this lake several times before, and although it always seemed popular with the fishermen, I never saw anybody with a fish. At least I now knew there were decent fish in the lake. I'm not sure I liked the odds of catching them here, but then I'm not a fisherman - otherwise such considerations might be considered heresy.
At the west end of the lake a beautifully crafted sign signals the entry into the John Muir Wilderness. It also begins the uphill climb that continues in a most unrelenting manner to the very summit with only a few breaks. Up the trail goes, for 1000 ft+ over the next two miles. There is little shade here, as the ground is too dry to support much in the way of trees. It is not a good idea to be hiking here in the middle of the day, as the heat can discourage the heartiest of souls. After the next two miles, I came to the bridge. It crosses Convict Creek to the eastern side, or at least that is what it used to do at one time. I had been on this very trail two years ago with a party of eight when I first discovered the missing bridge. I hadn't bothered to check to see if the bridge had been rebuilt, I guess I was just sort of hoping it would be. Two years ago we were stopped cold, as it was not possible to get all of us across (without me getting in trouble for leading us down (or rather, across) such a dangerous path. At that time, plans changed quickly, and a few of us decided to climb Laurel Mtn instead, which became one of our epic Mammoth adventures. This time, I was by myself, and the only unclimbed peaks to be had were on the other side of Convict Creek. I sat down on concrete footings of the missing bridge, had a snack, and pondered my predicament.
The creek seemed too rough to cross safely. There were no obvious locations up or down from the present position that seemed any better for crossing. Surely it would be easy enough to cross later in the season when the flow eases, but there was still a lot of water in early July. There must be others that had traveled up this way that managed to ford the creek. Unlike McGee Creek, whose trail crosses the Sierra Crest to join up with the JMT and PCT, this was a relatively minor trailhead that only continued another 3 miles or so before petering out at Lake Dorothy. This probably explains the low priority for having the bridge rebuilt. While I sat there pondering these thoughts, I looked up to spy a group of five backpackers. They were coming down the trail on the other side, and seemed surprised to find the bridge missing too. I guessed they were doing a loop hike, possibly starting at the trailhead between Bloody and Laurel Mtns. They walked on down to the concrete footing on the eastern side, we waved and shrugged at each other, and they considered their situation further. Certainly they had more incentive to cross the creek than I, so I waited them out to see what they would do. It was too noisy to hear each other across the creek, so we couldn't converse at all.
After a few minutes, one of them started to wade across the creek, starting with the shallow, calm part. The second half of the crossing is over some swift moving cascades, so I stood up to offer a hand should he need it at the end. He made it look all to easy as he clambered across, getting no deeper than his knees at any point, and not requiring my assistance at all. The others followed soon behind, all crossing without mishap. After seeing that display, my fear of crossing this creek vanished completely, and the experience will probably allow me to venture across other streams a bit more readily in the future. They were a friendly group with thick, Australian accents. They were all vacationing here during their winter Down Under, and we had a friendly exchange while they stopped to ring out their socks. I decided to remove my socks and cross barefooted in my boots to avoid the same. Normally I like to cross without socks OR boots, but it didn't seem wise for this one. I said goodbye and headed across. Indeed, it was much easier than I had first thought, and in no time was on the other side. I continued hiking in just my boots, hoping they might dry out some before I got blisters. The trail was dusty, and my wet feet and boots acted like a magnet to attract as much of the stuff as would stick. Yep, I might have blistered, dirt-encrusted feet soon, but my socks would remain clean and dry. Sometimes I wonder about myself...
In less than 1/2 mile I came to the point where the creek flowing down out of Bright Dot Lake crosses the trail. It looked quite steep going up that way, but I figured I didn't have much choice. "Class 2 from Bright Dot Lake", said Secor, so I figured I had to get to Bright Dot Lake. I should say right here that unless you want to go the hard way, don't follow this route to get to Bright Dot Lake (my return journey was much easier). The slope is quite steep as soon as one leaves the trail. Worse, the ground is very loose sand and gravel, and it is very difficult to make forward progress. I struggled to keep from sliding back down as I looked for any rock that seemed to either be secured to the slope or large enough to hold my weight without sliding. I grabbed for tree trunks and branches, and climbed upon the roots where possible to further my cause. After about 5 minutes and very little progress I noticed I came upon the trail again. Unbeknownst to me, the trail switchbacked up to where I now stood, and I felt very foolish for having struggled so in the sand.
I continued upward (scanning ahead to see if there was another switchback I could avail myself of - there wasn't) still fighting the loose sand and rock until I came to the base of some mammoth cliffs that stopped any further progress. I had been following a small stream (not the main one out of Bright Dot Lake), and thought I would find a small ravine I could climb. What I found was that this stream (maybe 10 gal/minute) came right out of the rock at the base of the cliff. Fascinated, I played with seeing if I could plug the stream with rocks. This turned out to be impossible as the back pressure would force the water out faster or start new leaks higher in the rock. It was now about 10a. After I was done playing, I looked around to see that I had climbed myself up a wall without an easy way to continue without going back down. I climbed up a few class 3 yards before convincing myself I was going no further in this direction. I put on my socks as I scanned about for my best option. Looking back down, I spotted a place where I could get through to the correct route (which lay to my left, or east) that would only require me to backtrack a few 10's of yards. Having completed this, I continued up the easier rock until I came to the wider opening (and less angle) of the creek emanating from Bright Dot Lake. The vegetation thinned out as the sand and gravel gave way to larger rocks. This soon became a tedious boulder climb, which took me to lake's outlet.
Bright Dot Lake is a nice alpine lake at the 10,500 ft level, although on the skimpy side for vegetation. There are a few trees around it, and some grass, heather, and other shrubs, but they cling tightly to the lake's borders. A few yards from the lake and there's nothing left but rock and boulders. There are some decent campsites, but I wouldn't expect to find any appreciable fish (due to lack of vegetation), and the stark surroundings probably drive away most campers after the first day's stay. On the other hand, traversing the lake provided the only relief from the constant uphill climb. It was a welcome break particularly after the last rather steep 800 feet. A bit less than a half mile from the lake, the steep uphill climbing continues. I was happily surprised to find a decent use trail at this point. It helped significantly as the rock and scree under the trail were packed down a bit, which afforded better footing and less slippage as I climbed upward. The trail took me easily through some steeper sections that had looked difficult from below, and I made every effort not to lose the trail. This wasn't easy, as it tended to split up, disappear, and then reappear in various spots. It also gave me something to do while I climbed ever upward under a warm sun.
At another point, somewhere around the 11,500 ft level, I came across some excellent quartz crystal specimens among the rock and gravel. I would pick one up, put it in my pocket, and then find a better one 10 yards further up (discarding the first specimen). This continued at an accelerating pace until there were bits and pieces of crystal everywhere I looked. Soon I came across the mother load of quartz crystals that could be had by the buckets. What struck me most was the clarity of many pieces, which were nearly as clear as glass. There were large baseball size pieces (although these weren't as clear), as well as thin sheets and interesting geometric configurations. It was enough to make a crystal-healing New Ager believe they had found the equivalent of the Fountain of Youth. It was obvious that I wasn't the first visitor here, as there was ample evidence of people quarrying the stuff and breaking large pieces apart (probably just for the fun of it). Anyway, if you're looking for crystals, this appears to be the place to go.
Continuing on, the use trail moves onto the east side of the peak. The top is clearly visible from about 500 feet below, but the last part gets no easier. As the trail peters out, it becomes another difficult climb up shifting sand and gravel, and once again I'm looking for any rock formation that appears stable to avoid those disheartening backward slides. It was 12:30p when I reached the summit, and the weather and views were both grand. Since I had climbed so many of the surrounding peaks, it was easy to identify them: Mt. Morrison to the north, McGee Mtn. to the northeast, Red Slate Mtn. to the south, Bloody and Laurel Mtns. to the northwest. To the southwest was a grand view of the Silver Divide which I have yet to visit. Likewise to the east rises Mt. Morgan (North) which rises to close to 13,000 ft, higher than Mt. Baldwin. I decided that I would tackle that one next year while I'm in Mammoth. I found the register under a small pile of rocks, adorned with a shovel that appeared to be of ancient stock (perhaps the 1960's). I found an entry from RJ Secor who had been atop nearly two years previously. I signed my own entry, had a snack, and took the requisite self-portrait.
I started heading back around 1p after half an hour on top. Going down the top section was now a breeze, as I ran and slid down the sandy sections, this time avoiding the rocks and looking for all the loose sand I could find. I paused briefly at the crystal quarry again, to poke around again and pick up a few samples (a wilderness no-no). As I got to the place where I had first picked up the use trail, I noticed that it curved to the left (south) and headed down the east and southeast sides of the peak. This appeared to be a more modest incline, and so I followed it down as best I could, losing the trail in only a few places. Eventually the trail led me down to Convict Creek again, south of Mildred Lake. This is a very pretty area and much wetter than most other places in this area. Near Mildred Lake it was actually marshy, and I had to do a bit of maneuvering in and out to keep my boots dry. North of Mildred Lake, one picks up the main trail again (to the left climbs to Dorothy Lake, to the right returns to Convict Lake), and I headed down at a pretty steady pace.
Coming upon the missing bridge again, I didn't hesitate to jump in the water and slog my way across. I didn't bother to take my socks off this time, as I was only a few miles from the car (in retrospect this was probably a mistake, as the wet socks managed to give me a blister on one of my toes, even with such a short distance to go). I marched onward, continuing my rapid descent as I was by now pretty eager to get back. I was no longer admiring the fantastic rock colors and formations or finding the views as interesting as I had on the way up. I arrived at my car at 3p, a rather quick 2 1/2 hours after leaving the summit, about half the time it took me to going up. It's likely that I could have shaved an hour off the morning climb had I ascended the same route I came down.
I drove back to Mammoth Lakes, another year's hiking in the area having drawn to a close. I had to leave the following day, but I had no regrets. I had climbed everything I had planned before the trip began, which is rather unusual for me. Next year would tell if I was actually getting better at planning such trips, or whether I was merely lucky this time around.
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Mt. Baldwin
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