A rock for a pillow and stars overhead

It all started with a Facebook status update by Linda: “Anybody up for a Sierra traverse?”. It sounded like a good idea at the time. A few Wall-to-Wall posts later, the plan was final. Linda and her husband Larry would drop their car at Mosquito Flat CG on the East Side to run across the Sierra over Mono Pass. I would drop my car at Vermillion Valley Resort (VVR) on the West side to hike across the other direction. Car keys were exchanged through USPS. An after-trip meeting point (Lembert Dome parking lot off Tioga Road) was arranged.

It usually takes me 30 minutes to get my gear together, plus another 15 minutes for the food. But the pre-trip week had been intense at work, which forced my preparations to happen piece-meal in the late evenings. After a study of Secor, the map and trip reports from Climber.org, I decided Mt Stanford (N) would be fun to climb. Friday 2 pm saw me leaving work for the drive, listening to Bryce Courtenays “Fishing for Stars”. The scene where Nick listens to Anna laying down the rules of the V relationship between her, him, and Marge  – priceless.

Driving Kaiser Pass Road to the VVR is an equally priceless experience, proof of my hypothesis that guardrails are considered a cardinal sin in the American West. A one-lane, mostly paved, potholed, steep mountain road with good views down the mountain and oncoming RV/truck traffic focuses ones attention very quickly. My climbing buddy and I pulled off shortly after the NFS ranger station, threw down pads and sleeping packs, and went to sleep. As usual, my argument against having a tent roof over my head won out. I love the night sky. I love how the stars pop out one by one as the night falls. I love seeing the Milky Way, remembering every time how my grandfather showed it to me for the very first time when I was little. And this time of the year, I love seeing the Perseid meteor shower. One shooting star went across the whole sky, including an afterglow in its track.

I won’t say much about our first hiking day except that we met Larry and Linda very soon and we encountered packers which we would meet again a week later in McGee Canyon, Kings Canyon NP. There was also a dinnertime surprise. Remember the piece-meal packing I had to do? I discovered I had left the pot at home. Yes, I could improvise with a cup, but the fuel was also missing! I remembered to bring the stove, though. In a desperate attempt to stretch the food, I tried soaking Mountain House Beef Stroganoff in cold water overnight. The noodles and beef don’t taste so bad, but the creamy sauce remains a dusty, sour mess. Lasagna with lukewarm water works much better (Anuj: Remember our backpack in Lassen NP?).

Sunday morning found us hiking up the Pioneer Basin. As Mt Stanford came closer, I got increasingly nervous. Despite the dinner disaster, I would rate myself an experienced backpacker, but definitely a beginner peak bagger. Stanford would be my SPS #9, and my buddy’s 2nd peak. The easy way out would be to turn around to hike out over Mono Pass, with nothing more lost than some pride and a two-hour romp through a scenic mountain basin. Just below the start up the West Ridge I had to commit either way. What the heck, one needs to start somewhere and Mount Stanford it was.

One look at the ridge let me decide to climb on it at the lowest point. Voila, I found a duck and use trail up, discovering the class 3 Stanford Col pass. The south side is easy. By this time, we were comitted to go over the peak to get down before the afternoon storms arrived. Going back would mean to ascend Mono Pass into the storms. Once on the ridge, I followed Dee Booth’s trip report. I had identified the pillar and notch on our way up, and mentally made a note to start traversing south below it at around 12,400 feet. It turned out it was not low enough (< 12,300 feet may be just about right). I found a class 2 traverse across the “Staircase ridge” into the first notch. This one is easily identified as being too far north of the summit, because it has impressive cliffs on the top. A small scrub marks the short class 3 traverse into the next notch. This notch almost leads to the summit, but meets the summit cliffs about 300 feet below the summit. Just before those cliffs, there is a rock fin at the south side of the notch with a duck at its base. This duck marks the highest possible traverse (also short class 3) into the summit notch. This one is obvious. Altitude, loose rock and a few hours of scrambling made us huff and puff, but the exertion was, lightened up by Polemoniums (Sky Pilots) in full bloom marking the way.

The peak of Mt Stanford is schizophrenic. Older maps show a lower peak to the south as the summit, marking the watershed. Tom Harrison’s map as well as my buddy’s Delorme GPS showed the highest point(s), where we stood, as the summit. A quick scramble around the summit blocks while waiting for my buddy revealed no register. I probably overlooked it. We only stayed on the peak for a quick photo-op, because storm clouds were building to the west and south over the Recess Peaks. I was more than eager to descend. While I enjoy watching summer storms from a safe place, I am very scared of them in the mountains. It has gotten better after getting caught in a storm at 12,000 feet on Pike’s Peak (another adventure with Anuj involved!), but still… The story of my neighbor in Germany dying from a lightning strike while climbing with his wife in Austria when I was in elementary school has created my deep-seated fear of natural electricity. Anyway, we headed down the East face quickly, aiming south of Stanford Lake for the use trail leading southeast to Lake 10,353.

As my luck would have it, two storms combined to a massive, dark swirling mass just atop Lake 10,353. What to do? Again, two options. We could hunker down and wait out the storm. The day before, the storms had stalled over that spot until 6 pm, which would leave only 2.5 hours of daylight to descend. Or we could try circumventing the storm on its north side, hiking down the Stanford drainage. It looked good on the map.

The last sentence should tell you what was coming our way: the epic descend. First, the drainage down Stanford Lake turned out to be a 600 foot drop down loose class 3 rock on the west side of the drainage. I could not see from atop the drainage if the other gullies, which were at the south end of the drainage and would save us 1/2 mile of talus hopping, would not cliff out. My buddy, not used to descending steep loose terrain, took about an hour to get down. I finally ripped the butt of my good ol’ hiking pants, flashing my underwear for everybody behind me for the rest of the day. By that time the thunderstorm had disappeared into cheery blue sky. But once again, we were comitted to continue, as backtracking would have cost us even more time.

A mile of hopping large talus to the stream at the other side of the valley followed. We arrived at Davis Lake, refilled our water and proceeded bushwhacking down to the Hilton Lakes. At first, I crossed to the south side of the creek, until that cliffed out. Traversing to the north side found me a way down. I took one fall down the willows, slipping on a boulder sitting on some loose vegetation. That same 40-pound boulder rolled over my foot while I crashed just next to a arm-width thick vertical stick.  Neither of which did any significant damage other than scratches and bruises. Lucky me.

It was 5:30 pm by the time we reached the Hilton Lakes, we still had to hike out 5-6 miles. Did I mention our friends expected us at Lembert Dome 1.5  hours drive away at 6:30 pm? And we had run out of food because of me leaving the fuel at home? I now do know exactly how a marathon runner feels when hitting “The Wall” at 20 miles.

Just at nightfall, we stumbled down onto the road, 5 miles down from where Linda’s car was waiting. I made a beeline to the campground across the street, walked into the next campsite and asked the astonished couple enjoying their beers if they would mind driving us up to Mosquito Flat for 20 bucks. My buddy watched the whole scene from a distance with a “What now?” look on his face.  Hey, I managed to walk into the campsite of a former marine who had run part of the Pacific Crest Trail, loved backpacking and had his share of these moments! He even refused to take the gas money. I will remember his good deed for a long time.

At 10 pm, we finally made it to Lembert Dome, where Linda and Larry were waiting, worried. We just got there before they decided to take off. A quick chat, gear exchange, and on we went in our own cars to our own homes, respectively. We arrived at 3 am. The next (same?) workday went well, given I was operating on 4 hours of sleep. Years of working accelerator physics nightshifts were good training. Later that day I heard from Linda we left a hiking pole and some beef jerky in their car. I picked it up at their home in Bishop 10+1 days later. I’ll explain the +1 day in another story. Yes, Linda, I had yet another epic, this time the epic hike-out. I sure hope three is not a charm and the Pettit-Piute-Volunteer peak-bagging trip on Labor Day goes as smooth as these peak-bagging trips go.

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