Last minute trip to the Sierras

It was with dawning dread I realized I hadn’t camped overnight in the high Sierras since late 2015. I did attempt a family trip as recently as 2019 but we realized just before sleep time that we were downwind of a major wildfire and hastily retreated.

Photos here.

I also realized that I had left it too late in the season, with too much to do and too many responsibilities at home, to tackle my long term goal of finding a Class 2 route up Table Mountain. That would be fun but it would probably take a week to do properly.

Mt Langley in the distance mocks us with our weak knees and undersized lungs and inadequate leave.

So I teamed up with a friend who was keen to check out the Cottonwood lakes area and headed out for a very intense overnight trip. The first night of camping always sucks the most, and so in order to be maximally hardcore, we were going to drive up from LA for 4 hours, hike uphill until we were toppled by hypoxia, roll out our sleeping bags and shiver through the sub-freezing night, then do it all in reverse the next day before we had a chance to enjoy ourselves.

I was hoping to enjoy some clarity of mind and spirit with enforced separation from the internet and the incessant demands of daily life but instead found myself confused as to why my toes were cold, as the snow and ice were not thick enough to overtop my sandals. I also amused myself by being bad at mental arithmetic at altitude.

I later saw that a more developed camp site was about 100 feet further to the left. Too hard!

In truth, once I put on all my clothes and warmed up my sleeping bag I was toasty warm, breathing well enough, and had a good 13 hours of night to doze, watch the stars go overhead and, according to my traveling companion, sleep serenely through a giant hairy coyote giving my face a good sniff. I also got a treasured opportunity to play the old game of “How long can we delay taking an urgently necessary but freezing cold piss?”

The moon was pretty bright. This was the view at about 3am.

Next morning I woke up just before dawn, and immediately began the head spinning calisthenics of stuffing all my warm gear back in a sack and waiting for the temperature to climb above freezing. It’s important to move vigorously enough to avoid getting cold, but not so vigorously that you run out of breath.

I tried to refill my water bottle in the nearby lake but, “clunk clunk”, hit the frozen surface. Oddly enough the same thing happened last time I slept above 10k feet, though that was in August just south of Tuolumne meadows. I found a patch of open water but did not feel a strong temptation to take a dip.

This was a nice view but the valley remained shaded, windy and cold well into the morning.

Having loaded up we zoomed back down the trail to the parking lot, retrieved the stash of post-hike snacks, and began the long drive back to LA. I confirmed my suspicion that if I can get the electric car to the crest of the San Gabriel mountains on the 2, I can coast the rest of the way home using regen.

Lessons (re)learned:

  1. Bring less stuff. The tent, closed toe shoes, extra food, extra water, very comprehensive first aid kit, extra warm hat, redundant pocket knife, etc were not used. I packed in “hike leader” mode, not knowing quite what to expect, but in future events would try to keep pack weight under 30 lbs, instead of around 50 lbs.
  2. It was really cold and the night was very long. I think a major blizzard is due later this week so we just squeaked in. I’ve only slept outside (without a tent) in sub-zero conditions a handful of times and was the warmest this time, largely thanks to having decent ground insulation and putting my down jacket over my legs in the sleeping bag. I have a pretty nice bag but it isn’t new anymore and probably has cold spots. If it was any colder I might have ditched the sandals and worn actual shoes. Shocking I know.
  3. Take more time. Even though it is possible to overnight a trip to the high sierra, the initial pain impulse doesn’t fade instantly. To really enjoy a trip, take the time to acclimate and go further.

Probably done with mountain trips (except my local one) for the rest of the year. Maaaybe some snow shoeing. But it is desert season!

Rocking the “wear all the clothes” look. Later the blanket becomes part of my sleeping mat.

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