02 April 2012
Inyo by Piute Pass
It has been too long since I've gone on a proper backpacking trip, meaning something lasting on the order of a week. The last time was in September 2003 when I went on the Y-hike with my fellow Techers. This hike is open to everyone from the pre-frosh just about to start to the graduates about to finish who are collected into four groups of different levels and limited to 6-8 people per group. There's a 12 miles a day, 8 miles a day, 6 miles every other day, and few miles hiking around so I signed up for 8 miles since that's what I've generally considered a good day. We had a plan to go out from North Lake over Piute Pass and then turn north over Pine Creek Pass and take a loop, as shown on the maps above. These are from the USGS 15' series, from the bottom right counterclockwise: Mount Goddard 1957, Mount Tom 1954, Mount Abbot 1953, and Blackcap Mountain 1962. Red dots mark the path and numbered purple dots mark the campsites used.
We've done all our checks the day before and everything is packed and ready to go. We all pile into a bus for the long trip north. It is a long ride made longer by the fact that the bus breaks down somewhere in the middle of Owen's Valley. The driver kindly parked it by a couple of rare trees and went to the back to fiddle with the cooling system, managing to make it worse. A few hours later, a mechanic has managed to put things right and get us on our way, but there's very little daylight left by the time we get to the trail and we end up camping by one of the lakes all too close to the start.
We take off up the pass on our still too fresh legs. We stop in the afternoon at the trail junction for our loop. From there, the trail climbs to a pass and drops again and maybe we were being a little too concerned with where there are campsites and water, but we make camp there and spend a very pleasant late afternoon poking around the area. I managed to get a pretty good scrape when I was boulder hopping around somewhere streamward and missed a step because a rather pointy rock had some bobcat scat at the top and I foolishly decided not to step on it at the last minute. There are worse things than stepping on dried scat, but it was an easily ignored injury.
We start climbing up the pass. As we go, we are a fair distance from the water. We passed a guy with two pack llamas taking them on a route about halfway between trail and water unsure why he wasn't using the trail. For lunch, we broke out the dried hummus and found it to be a most heavenly food when rehydrated. By mid afternoon, we were starting to feel a bit of pain from walking around with our houses on our backs. Mummers of sore feet were echoing about the group. We camped at the bottom of Honeymoon Lake and discussed our pace. The big pass would come tomorrow and our fearless leader Pat felt we should get over it by noon or turn back, not completing the loop. There wasn't a lot of support for turning back, but we agreed to this.
I bumped into a patch of onions near our campsite and tried to convince folks this would be a lovely addition to our meal, but others were worried they might be something else as yet unknown to us that could be poisonous. I guess one experiment a night is enough and for desert we were experimenting with brownies. Someone had been told that you could make them on the stove with a bit of constant stirring, so we were giving it a try. They did turn out and we were happy for the night.
As the light started to fail, a wind started up coming over the lake to us. I had my normal assortment of a fleece, wool sweater, and light jacket. That all got pulled on with some gloves and hat, but I was still a little cold. They had always served me well before in the high Sierras, but it occurred to me that those other times were in August and September is a little colder. In the morning, I went to wash my face and noticed that bandannas are not all colorfast and mine apparently hadn't been washed yet as my hands turned pink. I also learned that the mouthpiece on the Platypus system is removable as I managed to knock mine off and had to stop the flow with a gloved hand.
We start up Italy Pass. At first the trail is fine. We pass along a stream and a couple lakes and the trail starts to vanish. We would find a little more and go after it, but then it would vanish too. We kept trying to find more and follow it but sometimes there were multiple trails. We had to admit that they were really use trails and just sat back from time to time to see what a reasonable route up looked like. We got to the pass around 2 PM, after our deadline. We got out lunch and looked around from our vantage point over 12,000 feet. A few decided that it was the highest they'd ever been. We discussed the trail ahead and behind and that we would really have to shift gears if we were going to go on. We knew we weren't coming back over this pass, so we either would complete the loop or go back now. We went on.
But first, I had to nurse my first blister. I was wearing fairly new hiking boots, my second attempt to replace some favorite boots that had too many miles on them. Those were the only boots I'd had that were big enough for feet stuffed in big socks, headed downhill, and that seem to grow a bit while hiking. They were a size 9, which seemed reasonable as a little more than my usual size, but I hadn't realized yet that they were a men's size 9. The shoes I had were alright, but not the best and were a little too new. I decided to try duct tape on the blister as one person was gushing about it for that purpose. I don't gush about my preferred solution of fabric athletic tape, so I was willing to give it a go.
We headed down the back side of the pass. There was even less trail there than on the other side. The boulders around us seemed to be in groups. I could pick out the edges of various slides that had occurred through the years. Some seemed older, some newer. They removed our trail and left us boulder hopping for over two miles to get back down off the pass. What was fun for a few minutes around camp became extremely hard work with backpacks for a few miles. Meanwhile, that duct tape on my foot kept moving just a little bit and sticking back down. It was excruciating pain with every left footed boulder hop.
Down off the boulders and the light thinking of draining away, we met a fellow who was following the John Muir trail but one ridge to the east, presumably for an experience more like John Muir's if he had had all the trappings of the modern backpacker willing to pay for the current ultralight. He took off along the west side of the lake making good with his trekking poles. Staying there at the end of Lake Italy was suggested. We would have light to cook by. I was in excruciating pain, except I hadn't actually had a complaint since getting to the trail. It was so soft and wonderful after the boulder hopping and my feet were not being aggravated. In actual fact, my foot was feeling really good with the sudden drop in pain level. Meanwhile, the wind was kicking up again and was colder than the night before. Rock walls had been built up everywhere as wind breaks. It didn't really look that pleasant. We headed downhill along a creek and soon had vegetation around. We found a camp in the last of the light and cooked. I ate the last of my loaf of sweet bread (King's Hawaiian all scrunched up). We slept practically on the creek on one of many small islands.
We found that we had many neighbors around the place, although well spaced out. It was actually a very popular area for camping. We got started down and met up with the Pacific Crest Trail and John Muir Trail then started a slow and easy climb over a low pass. This section of PCT may be the most beautiful I have been on. The lakes and their islands and the light was all quite perfect. Over the pass and dropping down again, we eventually stopped to have our dinner, which happens to be the one I'm carrying. Yeah, lighter pack. The trail ahead just drops among trees. Stopping now leaves too much for the next day.
My other foot was developing a matching blister to the first, so I gave it some nursing. These were difficult blisters because they were in the middle so close to the toes. I gave them a knuckle band-aid and wrapped it all with my fabric tape not too tight so my foot wasn't constricted and it all seemed to work. Pull on the sock and shoe and forget about them since, sure they hurt, but we've got miles to go.
We continued into the night. Far down in the valley, we could see lights from camps and hear voices enjoying the night. We didn't happen to see many people on the section of trail some like to refer to as a highway, but there were plenty around at the edges of our day. We eventually spotted a clearing to set up camp and all dropped into our bags asleep.
At some point I found out that the Platypus system had become very popular with the water pumping crews. They were filling up my water bags which can be attached, then filling the rest of the bottles from them, giving my personal pump quite the workout as they went.
Up early and trying to be quick about it, but we didn't really succeed. We dropped down the last little bit of trail to rejoin the Piute Canyon trail. The other side of a bridge gave opportunity to see Kings Canyon, but we were headed up. It's a nice, steady, long uphill. The faster of us were allowed to take off, and managed to even make the appointed time of arrival at the end of the trail, so there was little worry we'd get there eventually. Our fearless leader made sure no one was left behind. She was once a Marine, after all, graduate school was her second choice. We finished off all that was left of our food on the way up, so maybe were a little underpacked.
Getting to the end, we headed off to a campground where all the groups were gathering again. We learned that the 12 miles a day group who had planned on going down Piute Canyon until halfway then coming back up, hadn't gone as far as planned and we'd probably traveled further. That gave us a little pride. Sure we were late and our feet hurt but the hike was brilliant. The views, the rocks, the lakes, the year round snow hiding on north slopes... all spectacular.
We eventually dropped into bed no longer hungry. The next morning had a little more time for stories and chiding about being late and handing out shirts before climbing back into the bus and heading home. It kindly didn't break down on the way back.