Sun, Sep 22, 2013
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The heavy clouds from the previous day had been replaced with blue skies and fair weather. But just over an inch of snow had fallen during the night leaving us in a mini winter wonderland. This might have been fine and dandy if we hadn't been planning on climbing the class 4 Squaretop today. It was terribly cold in the morning when we began to drag ourselves out of our sleeping bags where we were camped in the Big Arroyo. The layer of snow was hard and crunchy - it must have warmed some during the night before freezing hard. It covered everything. My wet clothes I had left out to dry were now like thick pieces of cardboard. My shower bag was partly frozen. My hands were only five minutes out of the sleeping bag before they were getting cold, even with gloves. There was little to change my mind that backpacking kinda sucks.
We ate breakfast and stood around in the snow when the sun arrived, trying to warm ourselves in the welcome rays. There was an unethusiastic discussion on what we should do today. It seemed too cold to expect the snow to melt quickly and our best guess was that it might be a day or two before the route on Squaretop was safe to climb. Tom, Michael and Matthew had to hike out the next day and did not have the extra time to spare. Sean had already climbed Squaretop on his impressive traverse of the Kaweah Ridge the previous year. I did not want to wait around another day only to find I still couldn't climb it solo. I had come prepared with six days' worth of food and still had another three or four days I could spend in the backcountry, giving me more options than the others. We decided to leave Squaretop for another time, probably next summer, which seemed to relieve Matthew more than anyone. He decided to call it quits and hike out a day early to spend time with his wife. Sean chose to pack up and head east down the Big Arroyo to the hot springs and then back over the east side of the range. Michael headed off to climb Big Kaweah which would not have the technical challenges of Squaretop. That left Tom and I in camp by ourselves after 9a. I had planned to move camp up to Nine Lakes Basin after climbing Squaretop to put me in position to climb a few other unnamed 13ers on the east side of Pants Pass. I decided to move camp early and give me a chance to climb them on the following day. Needing something to do, Tom chose to join me for the three mile hike to Nine Lakes Basin and some time before 10a we set out.
It was a scenic hike to be sure, but the going was somewhat wet as the sun soften the snow under our boots. The crossing of the Big Arroyo was not difficult at this time of year. I had sunscreen on, but had not brought sunglasses, the bright glare of the snow all around searing my eyeballs and worrying me that I would be snowblind by the afternoon. By 11a we had reached the basin with views to the surrounding peaks and passes. There was more snow at the higher elevations of Kaweah Ridge than I had imagined, including Pants Pass. Up to this point I hadn't really given much thought to Pants Pass, but was forced to do so now. The class 3 pass wasn't trivial, and much less so with snow on it. Was I going to be able to take a backpack over that? Could I do it as a dayhike? Because it was west-facing, the snow was not likely to melt off today, maybe not the following day either. I considered my partially wet boots and tried to imagine what the next few days would be like in the basin. No matter how I painted it, the picture did not look appealing. I began to regret not having joined Matthew for the hike out to Mineral King earlier. Now it was too late to consider. Going back for another night at the Big Arroyo didn't seem so fun, either. What to do?
Getting out of the snow seemed like a good thing to do. I hit upon the idea of going over Kaweah Gap and down to Bearpaw Meadow to spend the night, then hike out to Mineral King the next day. Bearpaw would be low enough to be out of the snow and probably warmer than anywhere I might stay on the east side of the Great Western Divide, Additionally, it would give me a chance to explore some new territory on the route from Bearpaw back Mineral King going over Timber Gap. So Tom and I bade each other goodbye and headed off in opposite directions.
It took only about 15 minutes to climb from where we departed to Kaweah Gap which I reached at noon. I made a small detour to visit a plaque just north of the trail going over the gap. The plaque and the peak rising above it were dedicated to Col. George Stewart, the founder of Sequoia National Park who had died in 1931. To the south across the gap rises another SPS peaks, Eagle Scout peak, looking all the more impressive with the fresh snow on its flanks. I followed a set of fresh bootprints over the west side of the gap and down the trail into Valhalla. The trail was pooling melting snow, forcing me to one side or the other for many sections. I went down past several smaller lakes until coming to the beautiful Precipice Lake. I took pictures from several vantage points, trying my best to capture the unique combination of pristine waters, forboding cliffs and fresh snow.
My eyes we smarting and watering from the glare and I was happy when I started dropping lower to Hamilton Lakes where the snow finally relented. There was ice hanging over portions of the trail and revived streams gushing across the trail, but as I dropped lower through the tunnel and past Angel Wings the trail began to dry and my boots along with it. Behind me, Mt. Stewart and Eagle Scout Peak pierced into the blue sky, but to the west I could see wisps of clouds rolling up from the Central Valley. Were we going to have a repeat of the precipitation from the previous day? Not likely, as it appeared to be more like fog than threatening clouds, and it made for some interesting effects as it wrapped itself around Angel Wings as I went by that impressive granite formation.
At the larger Hamilton Lake I came across the other solo backpacker whose footprints I had been following over Kaweah Gap. He had camped the night before in Nine Lakes Basin and like me, didn't like what he saw and beat a retreat back the way he'd come. I took a lunch break at the edge of the lake and in fifteen minutes watched the blue sky disappear as the clouds rolled over the lake and blocked out the sun. The temperature dropped some and I grew chilly. Still, I was happy that my eyes were spared the abuse they had taken in the bright sunshine and was happy to put on a fleece in exchange. As I continued down the trail, dropping more elevation to Lone Pine Creek, it occurred to me that I might still be able to climb something today, if only a modest summit. I had made four trips up the High Sierra Trail from Crescent Meadow and each time had noted the granite dome on the way to Bearpaw called Little Blue Dome. I had been too tired to make the side trip to pay it a visit then, but perhaps I could do so today, provided it wasn't too far from Bearpaw Meadow.
It was 3p by the time I reached the day's low point at the bridge over Lone Pine Creek. Despite the melting snow, the creek level was fairly low. The old bridge could be seen amongst the rocks just downstream from the new crossing. The new bridge had been placed 100ft lower than the old one, necessitating a change in the trail to drop this extra distance on one side before immediately regaining it on the other - a small bit of frustration when one is already tired. I pulled into Bearpaw camp half an hour later. The camp staff, looking like the long-haired 20-somethings that probably serviced the camp back in the 1970s, were busy playing darts outside the main dining cabin. They gave me directions to the backpackers' camp a short distance away and I was soon able to unburden myself of my too-heavy pack.
It seemed a bit overdeveloped for a backpacking camp. The scattered bearboxes were fine and good, but the water faucets surprised me. Perhaps it sees more traffic than I'd have guessed. I was the only one there when I arrived, only to be joined later by the fellow I had seen up at Hamilton Lakes. I left my food bag in the bearbox and covered my pack before leaving with a small daypack, continuing west on the HST. The GPS indicated Little Blue Dome was about two miles distance, but on the trail it proved just over three. I had to climb over the ridgeline that descends to another named feature, Sugarloaf Dome. Though closer, this dome was more than a mile and a half of cross-country and I didn't think I'd get back to the trail before dark. The trail then descends 500ft to Buck Creek before climbing back up 300ft to where the trail passes by Blue Dome.
Though only a quarter mile from the trail, it was impossible to see Blue Dome thanks to a thick fog that I found myself in. Even in clear conditions it is difficult to see Blue Dome when abreast it, due to the thick forest cover that obscures the views. One has to descend steeply more than 200ft through this forest before finding the saddle with Blue Dome. It would have been very easy to miss the saddle to one side or the other and descend much further before realizing the mistake. Fortunately I had the map on the GPS and was able to dial in the exact location of the saddle without guesswork. Blue Dome turned out to be a very interesting adventure, one of the better quarter miles of scrambling I can recall. It juts out from the forest in massive, lichen-garnished granite blocks that provide a little bit of everything - steep slabs, a narrow gap, a tunnel crawl-through and tricky route-finding. The highpoint is not visible initially, and only after going through the small maze does it present itself. It goes at class 3, but only by a single route approached from the backside to the south. Because of the clouds, the views were completely lacking. Too bad, because they are probably pehnomenal, with a bird's eye view of the Middle Fork of the Kaweah River that it overlooks, along with probable fine views to Moro Rock, Castle Rocks and Sugarloaf Dome. What I thought was going to be a disappointment turned out to be the highlight of the day despite the poor visibility and the lateness of the hour.
It was almost 5:45p by the time I returned to the trail and another hour before getting back to camp at Bearpaw, by which time it was growing dark quickly. In a flurry of impressive multi-tasking, I managed to set up camp, eat, shower and clean up in less than an hour. I would sleep great tonight, warmer and cozier than the previous few nights. After a disappointing start, the day had turned out quite fine. And I was even looking forward to the next day of carrying the backpack some fifteen more miles out to Mineral King over new ground. Maybe, just maybe, this backpacking thing wasn't as bad as I'd made it out to be...
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