Thu, Jul 3, 1997
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My friend Terry and I were just finishing a four day trip to Thousand Island Lake, and planned to stay with a large group of friends in the town of Mammoth Lakes for the 4th of July weekend. Since I didn't expect any of our friends would be interested in this particular hike, I planned it for the day immediately following our hike out from Thousand Island, before the others showed up from the SF Bay area (Terry was taking a rest day). On my own I would be able to travel much faster and have a better chance of making the 16 mile roundtrip in a day.
I got up early that morning and was at the McGee Creek trailhead by 7:30a, about 20 minutes east of where we were staying in Mammoth Lakes. I had a couple bowls of cereal for breakfast earlier, and had a couple granola bars and two water bottles (a little more than a quart) along with my other dayhike items such as a camera, gloves, sunscreen, and a jacket. This is a popular trailhead for backpacking and horses alike, but at this hour there was only a handful of others about getting ready for backpacking trips. I hadn't parked the car longer than three minutes before I was off on the trail (one of the advantages of hiking solo).
At first the trail follows along the north and west sides of McGee Creek, on the dry, scrubby hillside. It was still cool in the early morning hour, a blessing considering this would warm up considerably as the day went on. Before the two mile mark, I had lost the trail. Very lame. I backtracked a bit, and found that the trail crossed over to the east side of the creek, but there was no bridge here, and no way to cross the creek without getting wet. As I took my boots and socks off to cross barefoot, I noticed the aspen-shaded area was swarming with mosquitoes. I was no longer taking my time, and hurried across the cold stream, dried my feet, put on my foot gear, and got out of there in a hurry.
A mile later, the trail crossed back over to the west side. Although there was no bridge here either, there was a nice log to make the crossing much easier. The elevation was just over 9,000 ft now, and the vegetation was getting greener. The aspens were giving way to evergreens and the scrub gave way to forest underbrush. The forest environment continued for the next two miles up to a 10,200 ft. It then opened up to a swampy alpine meadow which had only recently come out from the receding snow cover. I could only avoid the snow periodically, and the trail was soon completely under the snow. The snow was pretty firm in the mid morning, not yet soft enough to slow progress significantly.
I got a wonderful view of the sierra crest to the south: Mt Stanford, Mt. Crocker, and Red and White Mountain. These are not easy mountains to approach from this side, consisting of steep rock, ice, and snow. It was highly unlikely that I would be climbing these peaks from this side anytime in the future. Red Slate Mountain and McGee Pass were still out of view to the west. I had only 2 1/2 miles to go to the top, but nearly 3,000 ft of vertical remained. It was about 10a as I headed up the canyon. The creek, lakes, and what little vegetation there might be were all under snow. Far ahead I spotted two hikers heading up the same way. It gave me some incentive to pace myself by and see if I could catch them before we reached the pass.
There was much climbing now, and the snow was getting progressively steeper and more tiring. I was gaining on the two ahead of me, but slowly, and they were still far ahead of me. The final approach to McGee Pass had the steepest part encountered yet, consisting of a wide bowl. The others were a hundred yards ahead of me still, but the gap was closing. The climb up the bowl was particularly tiring, requiring rests every 20 steps or so. It was a slow motion race (they stopped resting so much when they noticed me bringing up the rear) in which I was steadily gaining ground, but they still beat me to the pass. They didn't rest at the pass and started on the last 2/3 mile up to the top of Red Slate Mountain. As I reached the pass myself, I began following a faint use trail that heads up the southeast ridge, which appeared to be the most direct route to the summit. I noticed that the other two were quite a ways to my left, going up the SSE face. That seemed a slower route to me, as it appeared to have considerably more scree than the ridge I had chosen.
My route took me up out of their line of site (they had moved more onto the south ridge of the mountain after fighting the scree for a bit), and I arrived on top about 15 minutes ahead of them. I signed into the register (located in an old army ammo box) and checked out the views all around me. The weather was spectacular, no wind, and clear views in all directions. Mt Abbot and the Four Recesses to the southeast, the Silver Divide to the southwest, Mt. Ritter far away to the northwest, and Bloody Mtn and Mt. Baldwin closer in to the north.
The two gentlemen joined me shortly and we warmly greeted each other. This peak is remote enough that it does not get climbed more than a few times a week during the summer, and rarely by dayhikers. So we were surprised not only to see each other summit so close together, but that we had both started from the same trailhead (they had started about an hour earlier). The other two were close friends and avid peak baggers. They brought with them huge maps of the Ansel Adams Wilderness and delighted in identifying all the surrounding peaks and lakes (this was my first encounter with kindred mapaholics). They lived in the town of Bishop just down US395 from Mammoth, and had been bagging peaks in the eastern Sierra as a hobby for some time now. They told me about some of their favorites, including Mt Hilgard and Mt Tom (both over 13,600 ft) which they enjoyed because of their relative difficulty (only class 2, but long hauls with lots of elevation gain) and the views they command. Among other things, we discussed the route down through Convict Creek, which seemed quite reasonable from where we were. They had dropped a car off at the Convict Lake trailhead to allow them to take this alternative route down. They invited me to join them and I thought about it for some time. They planned to go down at a slower pace, so I was looking at perhaps two hours longer in getting back. In the end I thanked them and decided to head back the way I came.
It was around 12:30p when I started down, and I made excellent progress sliding down scree to the pass, and then skating and glissading down the snow into McGee Canyon. The large sun cups made glissading difficult, and the technique I used was to jump and skate from one cup down to another in a fashion that showed little grace or control (but then no one was watching :). The sun was intense now with the sun high overhead, and the snow in the canyon reflecting the rays like a parabolic mirror onto my face. I was squinting with sunglasses on, and applied more sunscreen as I worried that some forgotten spot on my skin might be getting cooked more than I'd prefer.
My water supply had been dwindling considerably, and I forgot to supplement it with snow until I was down below the snow line. I had been less thirsty in the cooler temperatures higher up, but I was now getting noticeably thirsty as I hiked down through the forested section. I considered the options one has when rationing water. "Do I wait until I'm REALLY thirsty before I take a drink, or would it be best to quench in small doses as I go along?" There was no chance that I'd be overtaken by thirst, rather it was a tradeoff between chancing giardia in the creek or holding out until I got back to the trailhead and suffering the discomfort (I chose the later).
Once I had gotten below the snow line, I started to jog intermittently where the trail was easily navigable. After about 20 minutes of this I realized it was making me thirstier than if I just walked, and so I resigned myself to a less stressing pace. By the time I got back to the river crossing I felt like jumping in for a swim, but the touch of 40F water quickly squashed that thought. I was thinking about my thirst constantly now. I didn't bother to take my shoes off to cross, but instead made a couple of running plunge steps to get across (like doing the triple jump). Because the water was less than six inches deep and my shoes were in the water for such a short time, they hardly seemed to get wet. There were even some dry spots on the outside of boots still (I felt like Moses parting the water). I'd made a note to remember this technique in the future.
I still had a mile and a half to go when I finished the last of my water. The last swig was so puny and warm that it did little to lessen my thirst. I was no longer sweating, and my face was completely dry and grainy (from the salt which remained after the sweat had evaporated). I imagined all the delicious drinks one could consume to slake a thirst as I hiked along the last of the trail. I was no longer moved by visions of high mountains, wildflowers, or other wilderness experiences. Thoughts of Gatorade, Coke, and ice-cold beer danced about my head. My face was notably warmer, almost hot, without the normal amounts of sweat to cool it off. It occurred to me that I could not remember being thirstier at anytime prior in my life. I passed a few hikers going the opposite way on an afternoon hike, and I wanted to grab the water bottles out of their hands instead of merely exchanging friendly greetings. Pride and politeness ruled the moment.
Back at the trailhead I was able to quench myself at the water fountain and refill my water bottles. I was amazed at how quickly the water went from being life-saving nectar from heaven to warm and bland tasting. It was 3p when I finished, and despite my little adventure with thirst (which quickly subsided) I felt pretty good. My muscles didn't seem sore as they normally would, thanks to the previous fours days of backpacking and hiking. On the drive back to town, my thoughts turned to what I wanted for dinner that night ("quantity" was high on the list) and how good a shower and hot tub were going to feel...
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Red Slate Mountain
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