SIERRA TREK 2014 – THE EVOLUTION VALLEY LOOP
LOCALE & TRAIL
The Sierra Nevada (Spanish: snowy range) is an approximately 400-mile (North-South) by 70-mile (East-West) mountain range running through California, with the agriculturally significant Central Valley along its Western slopes and the “Basin and Range Province” of California-Nevada to its east. The Sierra boasts a string of superlatives: home to the largest granite monolith in the world (El Capitan in Yosemite National Park), the largest alpine lake in North America (Lake Tahoe), the highest peak in the lower 48 states (Mount Whitney), the largest living tree on earth (the giant sequoia, General Sherman), and the oldest living non-clonal organism on earth (an ancient bristlecone pine, at 5,064 years). No modesty here!
Hollywood has featured the Eastern Sierra foothills in classic films like Gunga Din (starring Cary Grant) and High Sierra (starring Humphrey Bogart) and more recently in films such as Iron Man (as a stand-in for Afghanistan) and Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. As a schoolchild growing up in Los Angeles, we learned (via a fully-fledged water conservation curriculum) that much of our scarce water came from Sierra snowmelt. The aggressive and hotly contested means of bringing water to California’s parched cities is chronicled in Cadillac Desert: The American West and its Disappearing Water.
Key parts of the Sierra Nevada are protected under the Wilderness Act of 1964, which created the National Wilderness Preservation System. The Act defines wilderness as “an area where the earth and community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain” and “an area of undeveloped Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions.” National parks may be “America’s best idea,” but wilderness areas are doing the heavy lifting.
Last year, Pete and I camped in the Ansel Adams Wilderness Area for two nights. This time, we visited the John Muir Wilderness Area, choosing to tackle a challenging 57-mile “loop” hike from South Lake (Bishop Pass) to North Lake (Piute Pass) in five days. This itinerary, ranging in elevation from 8,050 to 11,955 feet, is regarded as “The Classic Sierra Hike” since it passes through one of the most scenic sections of the John Muir Trail — Evolution Valley — and features dramatic transformations from chaparral to evergreen forest, meadow to alpine tundra.
Our core equipment included internal frame backpacks, a lightweight backpacking tent, goosedown sleeping bags rated 0-25 degrees, and our trusty boots. Let it be known that Pete devoted considerable (obsessive?) energy toward ensuring that his boots were properly fitted, broken-in, and optimized with respect to specialty insoles and socks.
Here are other items we each packed: trekking poles; sleeping pad; waterproof jacket; insulating mid-layers; extra socks; snow gaiters; a backpacking stove with isopropane fuel canisters; titanium pots, bowls, and utensils; an ultralight 0.2 micron ceramic filter designed to remove bacteria and protozoa, especially Giardia lamblia and Cryptosporidium which are 1-15 microns in size; a first aid kit with items like bandages and gauze, medical and duct tape, moleskin for blister treatment, antiseptic pads and antibacterial cream, and pain relievers; headlamp with extra batteries; 25 feet of strong nylon cord; a pocketknife and multi-tool; safety whistle; quick-dry towel; sunscreen and 30% deet bug repellent; a small plastic trowel and toilet paper; personal toiletries; several quart-size water bottles; camera; map and overnight wilderness permit; and a book to read. Pete chose Adam Phillips’ biography Becoming Freud: The Making of a Psychoanalyst (2014), while I chose Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin’s meditation on “transcendental gastronomy,” The Physiology of Taste (1825).
Meal planning for a Sierra trek involves multiple considerations: nutritiousness, weight and durability, bear safety, and (let’s not forget) taste. For breakfasts, we’d normally boil a few cups of water for instant coffee and oatmeal. For a “trail lunch,” we packed rations of nuts, dried fruit, energy bars, jerky, hard cheese and dry salami, wheat crackers, dark chocolate, and fruit drink mix. Our dinners were somewhat atypical. Many backpackers choose specialty freeze-dried (add water only) meals, but we opted for packaged meals from a standard grocery store:
Dinner One: Indian Jaipur Vegetables and Madras Lentils (pre-cooked and packaged in aluminum pouches) with Garlic Naan.
Dinner Two: Chinese Sticky Fried Rice with Mushrooms and Pork (also pre-cooked and packaged in aluminum pouches) with Instant Red Miso Soup.
Dinner Three: Jaipur Vegetables and Palak Paneer with Garlic Naan…a reprise by popular demand.
Dinner Four: Spicy Korean Instant Ramen (with freeze-dried vegetables) and Canned Eel.
As required by the Forest Service and Park Service for our particular hiking itinerary, we packed all of this food (plus anything with a scent, like toothpaste or lip balm) in a bear-proof canister, pictured below. Black bears are common in the Sierra Nevada. They pose very little danger to humans but are highly interested in our food. These bear canisters are designed to be impossible for bears to grasp or open. Although bulky, they are a vast improvement over the previous method of hanging food in a sack from a tree — not unlike a tempting piñata begging to be shredded apart.
DAY ONE: South Lake over Bishop Pass to LeConte Canyon – 12.8 miles
(Day Zero) Yesterday we drove 4.5 hours from Arcadia to Bishop, picked up an overnight wilderness permit and some dinner, then drove into the mountains to our trailhead at South Lake. With plenty of daylight, we hiked 2 miles up the trail and set up camp there. It’s important to spend at least a night around 8,000 feet in order to acclimate to the elevation. The night was rough. In addition to being abnormally cold (~30 F), we experienced howling gale force winds.
The next morning we awoke to fast-moving storm clouds. After a quick breakfast and packing up our gear, it started to rain. We decided to stay put with our books and a tarp overhead until the rain subsided. The hike to the pass covered steep terrain with large talus (rock debris) fields. By noon, we reached Bishop Pass at 11,980 feet, pictured below.
Since it was still cold and windy, we quickly left the Pass and continued on through Dusy Basin, a notorious lair for famished bears and mosquitos alike. Here’s a view of the glaciated mountains just before beginning a grueling descent into LeConte Canyon.
We were both completely exhausted by the end of Day One. Pete was nauseous during dinner and ate little. That night we discussed contingency plans in the event of further ailments. We basically had three options: (1) continue as planned with the sole possibility of an emergency exit at mile 35; (2) continue but take longer than planned to finish the loop; (3) turn back now. As with many important decisions, we decided to “sleep on it.”
DAY TWO: LeConte Canyon over Muir Pass to Wanda Lake – 9.9 miles
A good night of rest does wonders. Feeling refreshed, we began a 7.9-mile ascent up the canyon to Muir Pass. Our approach was rife with “false summits” and frustration, exacerbated by David’s wishful thinking (eg. “I think we’re close!”). Fatigued, we grew aware of our isolation on this desolate section of the trail. Should an accident occur, we had only ourselves to rely on. A brief exchange with a pair of jovial French backpackers hiking in the opposite direction simultaneously buoyed our spirits — we weren’t entirely alone after all — and revealed the limits of Pete’s français!
When we reached the stone hut marking Muir Pass at 11,955 feet, we felt a exhilarating surge of relief and confidence — a “climber’s high” as it’s called. Normally bustling during high season (late July and August), today we were the only ones on Muir Pass. A plaque inside the hut stated that it was built by the Sierra Club in 1930 to provide temporary shelter for backpackers along an exposed section of the trail, evidence of the Club’s local brick-and-mortar activities before the rise of preservationism as a political movement on a national scale.
With dusk approaching, we found an ideal campsite beside Wanda Lake and ate our dinner with a healthy appetite. With a cirque of rock as a backdrop and few obstructions, the next hour would be primetime for alpenglow, the optical phenomenon that occurs when sunlight from just below the horizon reflects off snow, water, or ice particles, casting an intense rosy glow on the mountains.
Photographing alpenglow is a bit like cooking with the finest seasonal ingredients. Every spring, there’s a brief window for wild ramps and Morel mushrooms — or local strawberries, beefsteak tomatoes, and white corn in summer. We anticipate the pleasure of cooking with items like these at their peak flavor. So it is with alpenglow. When conditions are favorable, alpenglow lasts no more than about 30 minutes after sunset, but the sublime quality of light it brings moves many photographers to abstain from using a camera at any other time of day.
We were not disappointed. Although the sun was already below the horizon, its light suffused Mount Godard and the Mount Solomons with a garish glow. This view alone made yesterday and today’s hardships worthwhile.
DAY THREE: Wanda Lake through Evolution Valley to Godard Canyon – 13.3 miles
We woke up to a stunning view. With no heat or wind, Wanda Lake had become a perfect mirror to the surrounding mountains, allowing us to snap this photo before hitting the trail.
Today’s hike would take us through picturesque Evolution Valley. Part way through, Pete complained of pain in his lower leg. We wrapped a knee bandage around the problem area and hoped for the best. Although still painful, Pete was able to press on for over 13 miles of downhill hiking! Later that afternoon, we encountered a wide creek crossing with no rocks or logs to get us across, so we took off our socks and crossed with our boots on.
That night we set up camp in a wooded area next to a bubbling creek overgrown with willow shrubs. The place seemed to say, “Welcome to bear country.” Werner Herzog’s voiceover echoed in my mind. Fortunately, not a single Grizzly (brown bear) has been spotted in California’s wilderness since 1924. Still, as I was breaking down the stove, I smiled as I heard Pete singing operatically (to ward off black bears) while doing dishes in the stream. Music makes everything better.
DAY FOUR: Godard Canyon along the San Joaquin River to Hutchinson Meadow – 10.8 miles
We had an early rise and began our hike along the South Fork of the San Joaquin River, fully shadowed by Godard Canyon. Sunlight crept imperceptibly down one side of the canyon, eventually gilding the river’s surface. We paused to capture the moment on film, but this one eluded our photographic ability.
Turning away from the San Joaquin into Piute Canyon, we began to climb a hysterically steep section of trail. I heaped disdainful thoughts upon this trail’s sadistic maker, who must’ve thought similarly about the peevish humans who’d one day traverse his trail. At 8,050 feet, the lowest elevation in our itinerary, it was also uncomfortably hot. To make things worse (misery loves company), the stream that we’d planned to filter water from was dry.
Water. What a horrifying feeling to face a dwindling supply. Although we hadn’t faced any problems until today, the Sierra Nevada snowpack in 2014 had hit record lows. By May this year, 100% of California faced severe drought.
Not a moment too soon, the trail intersected a stream. We paused to filter and drank our fill.
Slightly ahead of schedule, we stopped for lunch and rest. Instead of the usual fruit and nuts, we laid out Soppressata dry salami and Gruyere cheese rations. Alongside a sliver of quince paste (membrillo), here was a trail snack Mr. Alpenglow could be proud of.
After pressing on for a few more miles, it was time to find a campsite. We found a great one: a perfectly flat spot for the tent, a few paces away from a stream, and a large slab of granite for a kitchen. There was a point during dinner — probably as we struggled to bring hot food to our mouths without a swarm of mosquitoes attacking our faces — when we realized how wrong we were. Even with most of our skin covered and mosquito nets on our heads, we felt completely overwhelmed by the mosquitoes. We rushed to get everything cleaned up in order to seek refuge in the tent. Slipping into the tent (a fine one made by Mountain Safety Research) wasn’t the end. In the few seconds the door was zippered open, a staggering number of mosquitoes managed to slip in with us. The scene — both of us clapping the air in genocidal rage — was frenzied, desperate and, in retrospect, comical. Each time we thought our duties were done, another fully alive mosquito would appear. Was there a hole in the netting? There were a few tiny ones, which Pete closed with duct tape. Were the mosquitoes actually squeezing through the “mosquito netting?” Pete proposed that we pause for a moment of “study” to properly scrutinize this hypothesis. Ultimately we concluded that in our rampage we had simply overlooked hidden infiltrators.
Camping in mosquito-infested territory is a galvanizing experience. We resolved to make an escape from wilderness to civilization at the break of dawn the next day. After reading aloud a chapter from Becoming Freud, the slippery world of facts gave way to a torrent of dreams. We slept.
DAY FIVE: Hutchinson Meadow over Piute Pass to North Lake – 10.1 miles
Our last full day of hiking was a trance. We dressed our blistered feet, packed hastily, and skipped coffee altogether, hitting the trail as soon as we could. Despite our assorted ailments, we moved like fresh infantrymen further up Piute Canyon into Humphrey’s Basin to Piute Pass (11,423) by 10:00am, then downhill another 5 miles to the end of the trail by 1:00pm. At that point, we faced one final challenge: hitchhiking back to our car (a safe and common practice in the Sierra). Pete must’ve charmed the two young ladies in the very first truck we saw, because without skipping a beat they told us to hop in the back and we were on our way.
Our trek — 57 miles in five days — was over. It came with a fair share of trials, but these will assuredly recede first into the recesses of our memory, leaving visions of solitude, simple camaraderie, and mountain light to lure us back.