The week before last a whole bunch of new humans arrived to start their degree at Caltech. As a warm up, a welcome to California, and perhaps some early tuition in suffering, the Caltech Y runs a hike in the days before school starts.
On Tuesday, we met the team after early morning rain. A certain degree of sizing up occurred. Last year I co-lead “Team Chill”, the easiest of three groups. This year I was to co-lead “Team Pain”, the most ambitious of the three. We had a good chat and attempted to impart our priceless wisdom. But nothing teaches like experience! The agenda was allocation of group gear, food, and (de)selection of personal items. I opted to lighten my pack, removing such useless things as a rain jacket, spare clothes, and closed-toe shoes.
The following day my fellow leaders J, M, and I loaded all the victims/incoming frosh into a giant GMC extended chassis SUV and drove to Mammoth, up the ever-glorious 395. At Mammoth we ate lunch, transferred to a shuttle van and, after dispatching permits, hit the trail head in Tuolumne meadows at around 3pm. The first day's walk was a mostly flat 7 miles climbing from 9500 to 11000 feet at Parker Pass, where we made dinner and pitched camp as the sun set and icicles began to stretch out from our faces. I wish I were joking. Socks and sandals, fortunately rendered invisible by the dark, were a necessity!
The stars blazed in the night sky, the wind crushed the tent in my face, and I got an excellent massage from the uneven, frozen ground beneath my back. The following morning we were up at first light. Once again I cranked much hot water from my jetboil for sustenance, lit with flint and steel. We shook ice from our belongings, steripenned water (with some swimming creatures in them) from a hole in the now frozen lake, struck camp and set off along a traverse towards Kuip pass. The trail wound in about 20 switchbacks up a steep scree slope before traversing beneath Parker peak to the pass, at 12,200 feet. Of the five students, A and F elected to hold the fort at the pass while M, A, and M2 with the leaders ran up to the summit of Parker Peak. 12,800 feet isn't bad for 24 hours after starting!
The view was incredible. We could see the road we started at, Mammoth mountain, Mono Lake and craters, numerous other lakes, Long Valley, the Owen's Valley. The Sierras are truly the top of the world. We flew down the back side of the pass, had lunch by a lower lake, and ground on towards Gem Pass, crossing it just as the sun set behind the spur, buying us another hour of daylight. The trail descended steeply and soon we were back at 9500 feet at Gem Lake, a jewel of a camp site protected by trees, small rodents, and a friendly troupe of visiting Lamas.
Not long after arriving, F started to feel not well and retired for the evening. J, M, and I discussed options as we were already behind schedule. After dinner, a quick stretch leg and I crawled into my blessedly comfortable hammock and passed out.
The following morning I was woken by F at 4 and helped him feel more comfortable, took some nice photos of stars (including Venus and Mercury), watched the sun rise, and didn't feel nervous about prowling night animals at all. I have by far the pointiest teeth. The rest of the camp rose, ate breakfast, started packing, etc, and it was apparent that F was too weak to walk to the nearest road 4 miles away. J, M, and I deliberated and decided to call in the cavalry with our specially designed emergency beacon. The other students assembled piles of rocks and I donated my car windshield reflector/sleeping mat as a high visibility marker.
In the meantime, I amused myself photographing the other students napping – didn't they know that's what the night is for? We had a stone skimming contest. Three and a half hours later there was no sign of EMS response, and we were preparing to send J and M2 to hike down to Silverwood Lake Resort to obtain horses, or at least make a phone call.
A helicopter thundered from overhead, circled the lake twice, and set down on the beach, about a third of a mile from the campsite – the lake level was down. They were the California Highway Patrol, and thrilled, given the elapsed time, that F wasn't a hemorrhaging compound fracture of the femur. We trundled him over, passed of his medical history, and after a discussion with the EMT about the extent to which F was dehydrated (strongly revised upwards after each successive failure to fit an IV =P), watched him take off.
And then there were seven. Never helicoptered someone out before! We redistributed remaining gear, hiked up to Agnew pass, and ate as much food as possible. Given that we were now 24 hours behind schedule, we downselected our hike and headed for the most direct “river” route to the meetup point at Devil's Postpile. Not long after, we ran into Team Chill, who kindly offered to take some of the extra weight. We pushed on and by 5pm had arrived at Elaine Lake, pitched camp between the trees, ran a campfire, broke the last remaining water filter, made and consumed dinner, ran a back massage workshop, and eventually passed out.
The following morning, J, M2, A, and I climbed a post-glacial fin of rock next to the campsite, watched the dawn, before breakfasting and heading out. A quick stop by a waterfall for more water (steripens only, now), and by noon we reached the campsite at Red's Meadow. I collected the car, we re-joined F who spent the night in hospital, and checked out Rainbow Falls. That evening, M, I, M's friend, and I found the Reds Meadow hot spring and had a quiet soak as the moon set beneath a blanket of stars. I slept in the back of the car, which was flat, quiet, and peaceful.
Sunday morning we loaded the cars and got out of dodge ASAP. By 2pm we were back in Pasadena, listening to Cosi fan Tutte (Callas, naturally) on the way and avoiding any stops at In'n'Out. At the Y, we MapReduced all the gear and I disappeared – I still had to move house that afternoon and start my new job the following morning. A fitting close to my time at Caltech!