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Sunday, October 28, 2012

October Snow

Our original destination of Relief Reservoir and Emigrant Lake was strongly discouraged by the park ranger. "Your trails will be impossible to find, they're under two feet of snow," he said, "and unless you're extremely good with a map, compass, and snow shoes, I don't recommend it."  

His further recommendation was to head south and enter the Emigrant Wilderness at Cherry Lake.  The elevations there are approx. 2000 feet lower and the assumption was that the snow would be less of a factor.  After some last minute research, I called in our wilderness permit for a 2 day 1 night trip to Styx Pass - out and back from Cherry lake.

Tim and I had both missed our annual group backpacking trip earlier in the summer, so we were cramming this one in between an autumn storm and our busy fall schedules.  

 We have agreed that this ranks among our best backpacking trips ever.  In spite of its brevity, this mini adventure was a perfect respite from the chaos of California Bay Area  life.  The temporary re-calibration of priorities from "profit and loss" to "eat or get eaten" is good for the body and therapy for the mind.

 We had hoped to see snow but held no expectations other than that it would be cold and possibly wet.  Cherry Lake at 4600' had no snow, but in less than an hour of climbing we were already spotting small patches of snow in the shadows.

 Climbing through 6000' the snow gradually increased to where all that was not covered were protruding rocks and the well trodden trail.  After 6500' even the trail was covered with snow and I was beginning to wonder how those whose footprints we were following had located the trail.


 Within two miles of the pass, we were on our own.  Alongside a small half frozen lake the foot prints we had been following made an obvious circle in the snow and headed back down the hill.  This provided us with a unique understanding.  We were absolutely and verifiably alone.  No other trails came up that slope, and there was no sign of any human activity from here to the pass.  We would soon find that no tracks headed up from the far side of the pass, and thus we concluded that since the last snow fall - two days prior - we were the sole humans to occupy this crystalline expanse.  Ordinarily one cannot know if others may be nearby until you happen upon them.  Here on this trail we could be certain - we were alone.

 Arriving at Styx Pass (7500'), which is also the boundary between the Emigrant Wilderness and Yosemite National Park, we were faced with a decision.  Our original plan sent us two miles down the other side of the pass to Cherry Creek where we would camp for the night.  Ordinarily a water source is requisite for a suitable campsite, and Cherry Creek would serve as that source.  Atop the pass, surrounded by acres of pure water, Cherry Creek diminished in importance.  Abetting our pending decision was the fact that the trail completely disappeared on the frosted open rock face of the pass.  I suspect that some serious recognizance would have eventually revealed our route - but taken by the striking beauty of the spot - we opted to search out a suitable campsite there.
 It was Tim who suggested the igloo.  Neither of us are architects or Eskimos, but the concept seemed pretty basic and a great means of occupying ourselves in lieu of a hike down the north side of the pass.

Let's just say that by the time we were done, we had figured out how we should have begun.  However, the finished product was not only self supporting, it was also functional.

As darkness approached, we stopped construction long enough to collect firewood and establish a fire ring.  (Don't tell anyone that we created a new fire ring in the wilderness.)  As Tim prepared a fire, I put the finishing touches on our shelter.

 In a final moment of brilliance Tim offered his rain-fly as a door, and it was staked to the face of the fortress to ward off the icy blast that had risen with the moon.  His collapsed tent and my ground cloth were spread on the packed snow as some meager insulation against the chill.

Dinner was typical backpacking fare and delicious as all well-earned meals are.  The wind swirled over the pass.  We burned the fire high as we pulled on layer after layer.  When we ran out of layers we ducked into our shelter and crawled into snug sleeping bags to wait out the night.  We both slept soundly.  I woke only briefly every few hours, and heard the constant pattering of the rain-fly against the hard packed snow.  I woke very early and noted with some confusion that I could see starlight.  I'm no Eskimo, but I'm fairly certain that igloos do not have stars.  The small hole we had left in the center of the roof had enlarged, and the windward side of our shelter was pocked by holes growing larger by the hour.  The wind was wearing away at our protection.  I emerged from my dreams long enough to recognize the potential for alarm, but in a half coherent conversation with Tim, we decided that the gains (staying snugly inside our sleeping bags for another hour or two) far outweighed the risks involved in a total collapse of our structure.

At 5:55 am I awoke to a new sound.  Silence.  The wind was gone and the forest was completely still.  Extracting myself from my North Face cocoon, I crawled under our now motionless door onto an icy moonscape. In a moment as black and cold and still as any in the day, I stood outside our beleaguered cave and felt more than saw the immensity of our mountain.

I restarted our fire from coals and quietly watched a competing flame spread across the ridges far to the east.

Birds we had not noticed the previous day now heralded this great awakening.  I put on water for tea.

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