Sunday, July 26, 2009

16th Annual Mt. Waterman Rendezvous

We begin our hike to the 16th annual Mt. Waterman picnic with a scramble up the rocky ridge behind Camp Valcrest, intending to tag the top of 7 or 8 rock formations along Valcrest Ridge before crossing back over Highway 2 for the hike up Mt. Waterman.

It is extraordinarily hot, even this early in the morning and there is a slight sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach as I hustle up the steep, sandy wash behind the others. There are 16 of us and the hike leaders encourage us to stay in tight formation, pausing frequently to count heads. This is a new experience for me and I fight a growing sense of irritation at being so closely watched.

However, the view across to the western edge of the Mojave is spectacular, and the scent of sun warmed granite and dry pine needles is a soothing and familiar one.

But as we foregather at the bottom of the steep, sun baked trail up the side of Mt. Waterman, the sinking feeling increases to full blown nausea. I realize that I don't want to hike that trail - I want to go home. But before I can act on that thought the other hikers begin to sprint effortlessly up the trail, chatting all the while. To my shame the group is eventually split into two: "Fast" and "Slow." The very nice woman sweeping the "Slow" group encourages me to "take your time, hike at your own pace" which is a good thing because there is absolutely no way to force myself to go any faster than I am going.

Eventually the Hike from Hell does reach the top of the mountain. There are maybe 75 or 80 other hikers there - enjoying the lovely picnic lunch spread out under the pines. The heat is unbelievable, so we retreat to a thin band of shade along the base of some boulders. Sweet Shasta, panting heavily, presses close against me - adding the heat of her body to mine - and cold water is poured for her to drink.

After a delicious homemade hummus and some cool (and heady!) orange wine we are ready for a group shot:

and then the long, steep descent back to the cars. The hike back is punctuated with much laughter and a wonderful feeling of camaraderie.

Would I do another hike with the HPS? The jury is still out on that.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Cirque Peak

Alone in my car on the way to Horseshoe Meadows the next morning, I play an Egyptian techno/disco cd at top volume. It seems oddly fitting for our early morning caravan across the rain-washed desert. With cries of "Inshalla" ringing in our ears, we ascend to the trail head at 10,000 ft.

The trail to Cirque Peak meanders for five or six miles along lush, green meadows where deer gaze at us calmly, unafraid.

A first glimpse of barren, rocky Cirque Peak - rising with startling abruptness from the surrounding alpine meadows.

My heart thumping with anxiety, I follow D up the first steep, talus strewn slope. There is no trail; we go straight up the side of the mountain to the first ridge.

The summit is finally in view when, with remarkable speed, thunderclouds gather overhead. The clouds seem to be darkest over Mt. Langley, to the Northeast of us, so we push onward. At 12,500 the altitude saps our energy, every step an effort.

The final approach to the summit (13,000 ft) is a class 2/3 scramble over enormous boulders. As we are pulling ourselves up, fingers and toes, it begins to rain. Thunder is rumbling loudly over Mt. Langley, lightning flickers along surrounding peaks.

But we are so close - I plead to continue to the summit, despite the danger. It is hailing now, D is ahead of me. I hear the tension in his voice as he calls out that he's reached the peak and found the register. He brings it down, I sign hastily for both of us with cold, trembling fingers as he tells me we must go down NOW, but I have the insane thought that this peak will not 'count' unless I actually reach the top. Still clutching the metal canister I am just twenty feet below the summit when there is a blinding flash of lighting so close, so intense that I am momentarily stunned, the image burned into my retinas.

With a shriek I fling the register toward the summit - a clap of thunder so unbelievably loud that I drop to my knees, arms protectively over my head, and then I am scrambling, sliding, down, down as fast as I can over the rain slick rocks. Pea sized hail hammers down, stinging face and hands. I see D and Shasta - he calls out to me, gesturing, but there is no way to understand what he is saying.

I finally catch up to them on the ridge line 1,000 feet below. The weather subsides, adrenaline drains away and exultant, relieved laughter wells up.

Meysan Lake and Lone Pine Campground

After an early morning meet up in Lone Pine with D and Ms Shasta, we head over to the Espresso Parlor. I have not seen D in over a year; there is much to catch up on.

As a warm up for Cirque Peak the following day, D suggests Meysan Lakes. (4.7 miles, 3,000 + elevation gain.)

In the gathering mid day heat we head up the steep, switch-backing trail. The view down to the Owens Valley is spectacular - to the East thunderheads are piling up over the Inyo Mountains.

I can feel my face redden with heat and exertion; below the first lake I request a break. Shasta presses close as thunder rumbles menacingly in the distance - a few warm, fat drops spatter on the trail.

The lakes (11,000 ft) are incredibly beautiful, cupped in sheer granite cirques. Mt. Mallory, Mt. LeConte and Mt. Irvine tower in the distance.

As we head back down the trail, the rain (mixed with hail) begins in earnest. We have no ponchos or other waterproof clothing and are soon completely soaked. But oddly, not cold!

As the sun sets over Mt. Whitney, pink clouds bloom against a turquoise sky. The air is warm, sweet with the scent of rain washed sage. Much later, we see mysterious lights descending from high up on the Mountaineers Route - it seems unbelievable that anyone would attempt that formidable descent in the dark.