Sunday, December 4, 2011

Red Rock Canyon

The trail to Red Rock Mountain begins by winding through the bleached grasses that line the nearly dry creekbed. Ochre colored sycamore glow like beacons in the cool, dim light. There are 14 of us, walking in fairly tight formation - and when the woman in front of me suddenly bends over to remove something from the trail, I am nearly impaled by her trekking poles. I drop back, only to have the person behind me climbing up my heels. But these are minor annoyances....

After reaching Pianobox, the trail crosses the stream and begins climbing steeply toward the saddle below Red Rock Mountain. From the saddle we leave the trail and scramble up the extremely steep, rocky mountainside, slipping and sliding. I am grateful for the rough chaparral we are pushing through - it gives some feeling of security as the ground (mostly loose rocks) continually gives way beneath the feet.

The rocks are incredibly beautiful though - perfectly egg shaped, streaked with iron, glazed from ancient infernos. I cannot resist - and more than a few find their way into my pack.

As we descend towards the canyon again, the fading afternoon sunlight just touches the furthest hillsides, beckoning us homeward.

Lagging behind the others to take some photos, I cross the final potrero in the gathering dusk. A chill passes through me that has nothing to do with the cold wind rattling through the nearby trees. The very air seems alive with the restless spirits of long departed Chumash who made these canyons a sacred burial ground.

Back at the car, we finish the day with a feast of turkey enchiladas, pecan pie and a warm blanket so generously shared.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Chilnualna Falls and the Car Chronicles

My car breaks down just outside Wawona. The tow truck driver is actually a rock climber from Yosemite, moonlighting at the local garage for extra cash. We spend an hour or so chatting about the Sierras while he thumbs through the owner's manual, looks some stuff up on-line, and then sends me to a near-by grocery store for some distilled water. After he's done what he can to fix the immediate problem, he charges me $26 dollars and refuses my offer of a tip.

Next morning as dawn is breaking I tiptoe out of the cabin and walk quickly along the dusty road to the Chilnualna Falls trailhead. In the soft grey light the river is thundering down the gorge, the scent of wet granite achingly familiar from summers long past.

The trail climbs steeply away from the gorge, then opens up into a mysterious forest of manzanita, the ferny undergrowth of chamaebatia giving up it's musky, resinous scent as I brush by.

Wildflowers are thick along the trail; dusty pink penstemon, mariposa lily - but even these fade away to bare granite steps as I approach the falls. The volume of water is astonishing - I can feel the vibration of the falls long before I actually see them leaping away from the water darkened granite cliffs.

Above the falls the trail splits - then descends steeply to a tributary of the Chilnualna River. A well worn log lies across the stream - I test it carefully and it seems steady enough - but midway across it suddenly rolls, pitching me into the icy water. Gasping, I stagger to my feet and wade awkwardly across to the opposite bank. Incredibly, my first thought is a shamefaced "Hopefully nobody saw that...." the second thought is for cell phone and camera - both unscathed.

On the far side of the stream, the trail climbs steeply again, through moss covered pines, ferns and wild azaleas thick along the forest floor. Footfalls make no sound at all on the soft, spongy trail.

I turn back when I reach the dry, scree covered slopes at the crest of the ravine - the pull of the trail is still strong - but an equally strong pull at my heart has me bounding back down the trail to home.

The car breaks down again just outside Fish Camp. An hour's wait for a tow truck, then six more hours in a hellishly hot garage near Oakhurst, leafing through ancient copies of "Car & Driver" and equally ancient religious tracts emblazoned "Repent, the End is Nigh".

The diagnosis is not good. The car must be abandoned - at least temporarily - but there are no rental cars in the entire area. No buses, no trains, no taxis. The owner of the garage, seeing my desperation, offers to rent me a souped up Toyota that belongs to his son - and as fast as I possibly can I'm throwing everything into the trunk of that car and heading blessedly south on highway 41.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Romero Saddle /Forbush Flat Loop

After some discussion, we decide to begin the loop at Romero Saddle. Last time I did the reverse hike (Forbush to Romero) under a chilly full moon but the steep pull up to Romero Saddle was still a challenge.

As we begin the steep descent along Romero Trail towards the serpentine walls of Blue Canyon, a warm breeze carries the sweet, herbal scent of drying grasses. The wild flowers are thick along the trail - and the weird, reddish stalks of young Spanish Sword dominate the landscape.

After a few miles we drop down into the meadow by Cottam Camp. Backlit by the late afternoon sun, it is pastoral, utterly delightful. As the sun begins it's slow slide to the west we start the climb up to Forbush Flat, past rocky outcroppings embedded with fossils, a few Spanish Sword in full bloom glowing like candles in the fading light.

From Forbush Flat the trail winds uphill, relentlessly. As we finally come out on Camino Cielo, a chill wind is sweeping across the road - tendrils of fog streaming in from the Pacific.

Exultation, gratitude, peace.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Kearsarge Windstorm

The parking lot at Onion Valley is virtually empty - save for a small group of people laying out gear. The wind is picking up, they are laughing about having to weight down the lighter stuff with rocks.

The snow level is surprisingly low, crampons go on after the first set of switchbacks. The snow has melted and refrozen, but the crampons bite securely into the crust and I'm able to move at a good pace. The trail soon peters out - and eager to get in some practice climbing steep terrain I set off cross country.

Despite the cobalt sky, it is very cold. The wind swirls and buffets, on the steepest sections I slow my pace, concentrating on my breath. Just below Gilbert Lake I come upon 3 people who have camped there the night before. One of the party expresses concern about me being alone, and invites me to continue hiking up with them. I thank them but decline, preferring to set my own pace (they are bronzed, uber-athletic, with ice axes, ropes/harness...)

About 2/3 of the way up the very steep ridge before the final ascent to the pass I pause to catch my breath. The wind has stilled for a moment - gloves tucked securely under my arm I reach for the camera. Suddenly, a gust of wind so strong that I stagger and fall to my knees, automatically digging in with the toe points of the crampons. The gloves are swirled away over the side of the mountain.

Heart thudding, I carefully regain my footing and decide that 'down' sounds a lot better than 'up' at this point. Bare hands aching with cold, I carefully climb down, making sure each step is secure. Crossing the bowl high above Flower Lake I suddenly crash though the snow up to my hips. Wallowing awkwardly, I manage to free my right leg, but the left leg is completely stuck, the crampon jammed between two rocks.

Adrenaline surges through my body - with cold, shaky hands I tug on the leg, twisting, yanking. Nothing. The wind is horrible - roaring through the trees, clouds streaming across the sun.  I think of the Jack London story "To Build a Fire" and redouble my efforts.

Then like a cork from a bottle my foot pops out of the still imprisoned boot. With bare hands I dig down, down into the snow and using my trekking pole like a lever twist and pry the boot loose. With stiff, clumsy fingers I manage to undo the gaiter, undo the bindings on the crampon, unlace the boot. Dig out the packed snow. Jam my aching foot back in the boot. Somehow lace up the boot. Re-attach the crampon. The gaiter is stuffed down the front of my jacket, plum colored hands held against my torso for warmth.

Thoroughly rattled, I have a hard time following my own trail for the return but finally, after some steep, rocky down climbing find myself on the muddy switchbacks above the parking lot. I sit down to take off my crampons. My hands are hideous - swollen, reddish purple, dirt and grit jammed under the nails. I sit for some time in the sunlight - thinking about the joy of being alone on a mountain, but also about about hubris, ego. Complacency.

Back in Lone Pine, even before getting coffee, I stop in at Elevation and buy two new pairs of Mountain Hardware gloves.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Mt. Pinos

A chilly, mid-season rainstorm merely dusts our local foothills with snow (that rapidly melts off in the morning sun) but leaves almost a foot of fresh powder on Mt. Pinos. We must go.

Our original plan is to snow shoe down the backside of Sawmill to the Pine Mountain Club - but road closures force us to an alternate route. Parking at the Y, we set out up the first extremely steep drainage, Sierra ecstatically wallowing about in the deep drifts, eyes shining, tongue lolling.

D breaks trail for us at an astonishingly rapid pace. Cold, sleepy muscles protesting, lungs burning, we finally intersect the trail that leads to Mt. Pinos Camp. The way is still relentlessly uphill, but breath comes more easily. The view out across the Frazier Park corridor is lovely - to the East lies the tail end of the Tehachapis, just faintly visible along the horizon.

At lunch, the conversation is warm, relaxed. There is a stong sense of connection to friends old and new; one feels connected too, to both earth and sky, heart wide open.

As we descend, tendrils of warm mist rise up from the valley, gradually enveloping the surrounding hills, light and shadow chasing across the plain below.

Then the long drive home in soggy boots, head aching slightly from altitude and exertion.