The following is an account of the “Eastern Sierra Extravaganza” that ventured to Lone Pine and Death Valley this past weekend. In planning, we endeavored to do as much as possible over three days. As the following recounts, we did.
Departing at noon, our two cars made it to the Alabama Hills a few hours before sunset. The Alabama Hills are reminiscent of an old western movie and for good reason, many have been shot there over the years including Django Unchained. Piles of boulders tower over the otherwise flat landscape only to be overshadowed by the tallest mountain in the contiguous US—Mt. Whitney. Here, we climbed the Shark’s Fin Arete as the sun fell behind the high mountains behind us. It is not very tall, maybe 50 ft, but standing on top the Fin offers a panoramic view of the landscape where one can contrast the imposing Sierra Nevada mountains with the valley below.
Cleaning the route under a full moon meant all were famished by the time the group had finished cooking our chicken pad thai dinner (base camp 2016 cook-off grand prize winner) around 9 o’clock. We headed northward visiting the Soul Consoling Tower in the Manzanar Internment Camp on the eve of the 70th anniversary of American citizens first being sent there and soaking in hot springs on an otherwise chilly night. We made camp just outside the John Muir Wilderness and prepared for our snowshoeing escapade the next day.
Though planning to rise with the sun, morning was unwelcome. Begrudgingly, we left the warmth of our sleeping bags and headed for the trailhead that led to the Big Pine Lakes. Tying snowshoes to our packs, we departed the parking lot with at an aggressive pace having started late. The luxury of a defined trail for the first hour or so allowed us to ascend quickly. Donning snowshoes at the second falls, the clear path ended and untouched powder lay before us.
Snow had blanketed the landscape two days earlier meaning that apart from one set of ski tracks, we were the first people to enter since the storm. The resistance of fresh snowfall, therefore, challenged those in the front of our group. I acted as our caboose, so for me it was easy going. We took a break at a ranger cabin below second lake. On the return we built a snowman and took a group photo at this spot. It was a gorgeous day. The brilliant blue sky complimented by a generously warm atmosphere made it perfect for hiking in only base layers. This, coupled with the fresh air that only pine trees and altitude can provide, kept spirits high as we climbed to 10,000 feet in a matter of hours. We ate overlooking Second Lake and Temple Crag and snapped a couple photos before hightailing for Death Valley with the sun at our backs.
We entered from the West and got our first impression at the Father Crowley overlook which, even under a full moon, gave a complete view of the valley below. The fire that night was a luxury. We cooked Carne Asada and other burrito fixings on it before crashing under the stars due to sheer exhaustion.
Our last day we rose before the sunrise having a packed schedule and school commitments awaiting us. After a quick breakfast, we loaded into the cars once more and arrived at Mosaic Canyon just before 10 o’clock. Mosaic Canyon attracts a lot of people who hike in less than a mile to get a general impression of the rest of the route. Coming to canyoneer and leaving the parking lot with 140m of rope and helmets attached to our packs differentiated us from the senior citizens one tends to see in a national park. Though still the morning, the heat of the day caught us quickly as we hiked first in a dried riverbed and then along an exposed ridge-line. We made our first and only descent into the narrows just after noon. Recent rains had washed the anchors away from the lower rappels meaning that we could not continue forward safely. We climbed out of the narrows and hiked out disappointed, but looking ahead to the rest of the day.
From there, we headed for Badwater basin, the lowest point in North America at 282 feet below sea level. The basin is a giant salt flat that an ancient ocean once filled. So of course, I licked it and can confirm it is quite salty. We ate a late lunch here and made numerous jokes about being “the lowest xxxxx in North America.” We left at sunset, admired the way the valley was illuminated by the late light, and stopped to admire the wildflowers popping out of the otherwise lifeless landscape. In total, I slept something less than ten hours over those three days. My body was miserable and begged my mind to let it rest, but being within such divinity one cannot help but ignore these cravings.
When Ben approached me to lead a trip to the Eastern Sierra’s I was flattered. Ben Banet is the rare sort of individual whose insatiable curiosity translates seamlessly into a practical competence outdoors. On a past trip to June Lake, Ben was able to direct me step by step through text messages down dirt roads to a pristine hot spring. The man subsists flawlessly in nature. In many moments, I deferred to Ben when someone else asked me a question, knowing his answer would offer a greater depth than mine could. To be his equal, let alone invited, was an honor. Yet, the persons I should really thank are the members who tagged along. You climbed, cooked, hiked, snowshoed, set-up camp, broke-down camp, hiked again, canyoneered, pushed my car out of the sand (yes, that happened), soaked, joked, and overall came together as a unit. With graduation almost two months away, these are the memories I will cherish.