Matterhorn Peak ~ Sierra Nevada (July 1983)

On our recent mule packing trip in the northern regions of Yosemite National Park, we crossed Burro Pass. This pass sits on the ridge between Fingers Peak to the west and Matterhorn Peak (12,279 feet / 3,743 m) to the east. Heavy smoke denied us a view of Matterhorn but being near it brought back memories of when Tom Pass, Sam Pierce, and I climbed it via its East Couloir route in the summer of 1983. The three of us had met in the mountaineering program run by the Sierra Club’s Angeles Chapter. Looking back, we were young and strong and fearless (but not stupidly so) and anxious to climb some of the storied peaks in California’s High Sierra.

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Mules & Smoke: Last Day (High Sierra) 11-Sep-2020

Overnight, the wind shifted yet again and the morning dawned not nearly as smoky as it had been the day before. Not completely clear but clear enough for some views of scenery on the way out. After breakfast, we headed directly down 7.1 miles to the pick-up point at the Robinson Creek Trailhead at Twin Lakes. All the other hikers, apparently being more spry, did a detour (uphill!) to Peeler Lake. While they were tromping around in the woods, we got to sit in chairs, drink cold beer, and play catch with Jethro the Wonder Dog. Seemed like a fair trade at the end of an especially adventurous and dramatic trip. ๐Ÿ™‚

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Mules & Smoke: Day 5 (High Sierra) 10-Sep-2020

If yesterday had been a study in crisp, bright clarity with the scenery resplendent around us, today was its exact opposite. We awoke into a smoke bank as thick as anything we’d yet experienced. The winds had shifted yet again and the smoke from wildfires to the west, north, and south was being driven right up Matterhorn and Slide Canyons. So not only did we have to two passes to cross, we were going to do so without much scenery to enliven the journey. ๐Ÿ˜ฆ But you play the cards you’re dealt so, after a good breakfast, we started our hike to Crown Lake in the Hoover Wilderness.

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Mules & Smoke: Day 4 (High Sierra) 09-Sep-2020

On our layover day, a stiff wind from the north had pushed almost all of the smoke away from Miller Lake. The wind had abated by evening, giving us a quiet night in camp – something we all needed after the drama of the previous 24 hours. Because of the unexpected layover, the trip’s itinerary had to be changed. So today we’d proceed as planned to a camp in Matterhorn Canyon then, the next day, cross both Burro and Mule Passes in one day to a camp at Crown Lake. So, with a plan in hand, we headed north on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) on a bright and clear morning toward Matterhorn Canyon. From Miller Lake, the PCT rises a bit before plunging some 1,400 feet down to a junction with the trail up Matterhorn Canyon.

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Mules & Smoke: Day 3 (High Sierra) 08-Sep-2020

At 0300 on Tuesday morning, two Yosemite Search & Rescue (YOSAR) personnel (Jake and Erika) reached our camp, after having hiked 14 miles from Virginia Lakes in the dark with headlamps. The PLB had worked exactly as advertised – notifying the U.S. Air Force Rescue Coordination Center of our plight; they then notified the closest relevant authority, Yosemite National Park. The YOSAR personnel assessed Aniela (concluding that she didn’t have a head injury), communicated (they had a sat phone) her condition to dispatch, and then waited until morning to decide what to do next. At first light, the decision was made to stabilize Aliana’s arm (we’d later learn that she’d broken her radius and ulna and dislocated her elbow) and walk her out to Tuolumne Meadows. She made it out that day and was waiting to say good-bye to the group when we reached Twin Lakes a few days later.

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Mules & Smoke: Day 2 (High Sierra) 07-Sep-2020

We went to bed at Avalanche Camp in Virginia Canyon bathed in a smoky miasma. We awoke to find that the wind had shifted in the night, clearing the air somewhat. Today was planned as a short hiking day (4.3 miles; 1,050 feet of gain) to a camp at Miller Lake – an even shorter hike than planned because we’d hiked an extra two miles the day before. After breakfast, we hiked a short way down Virginia Canyon to a junction with the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). We followed the PCT westward across Spiller Creek and up numerous switchbacks to Miller Lake. Once again the LovedOne and I were ahead of the pack train but the large campsite on the southwest side of the lake seemed like an obvious packer campsite, so we waited there. The pack train arrived an hour or so later and we settled in to hang out and explore around the lake for the rest of the day.

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Mules & Smoke: First Day (High Sierra) 06-Sep-2020

The day had finally arrived to start the one “big” trip that we’d managed to salvage from the (seemingly on-going) wreckage of 2020. Having been on several rafting trips, we wanted to try something new to us: hiking supported by pack stock. A friend of ours had alerted us to the Rock Creek Pack Station which runs a variety of mule-supported hiking trips along the Eastern Sierra. After some back and forth, we settled on a six-day introductory trip from Virginia Lake to Twin Lakes through the Hoover Wilderness, the northern part of Yosemite National Park, and the Yosemite Wilderness. For a variety of reasons, this trip would bring out the best and the worst of what it means to go deep into a wilderness area. It would not be, by any means, a simple walk in the park.

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Green Lake (Hoover Wilderness) 05-Sep-2020

Despite the ravages of the Big V, we managed to save one trip from cancellation โ€“ a six day mule packing trip (you hike; mules carry your stuff) on the northern edge of Yosemite National Park and in the Hoover Wilderness. This trip started from near Bridgeport, California, so we went down there a day early to do an acclimatization hike. The obvious choice for that was Green Lake – short, not too steep, close to Bridgeport, and with a colorful lake at the end. The old (2008) guidebook I had indicated that the trail might be hard to find in spots but it wasn’t. Not at all. It was more like an obvious freeway straight to Green Lake, as it has now become part of a popular hike/backpack between Green and Virginia Lakes.

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General Creek (Lake Tahoe, California) 19-Aug-2020

Our last hike in the Lake Tahoe area illustrated why guidebooks (online or hard copy), even fairly recent ones, don’t always capture important details. The hike along General Creek from Sugar Pine Point State Park starts along an old road and later becomes a single-track seemingly favored by mountain bikers. We chose it because it started close to our rental cabin and went to two small lakes (Lost & Duck) that offered swimming possibilities. What the guidebook failed to mention is that there is no day-use parking near the trailhead. Walking to it added an unexpected 1.2 miles to the hike. And then there was the smoke. It was so thick during our short drive along Lake Tahoe to the park that we couldn’t see the shore across the lake. Visibility was down to probably a couple of miles. But how much worse could it get? Buoyed on a cloud of false optimism, we pressed on… ๐Ÿ™„

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Ellis Peak & Lake (Lake Tahoe, California) 18-Aug-2020

We were a bit rattled by all the people we encountered on the trail during our first hike at Lake Tahoe. So we we cast around for something a little (actually at lot) less popular and came up with Ellis Lake and Ellis Peak. The trailhead for these is only five miles by paved road from our cabin, so an early start wouldn’t require too much effort.

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Rubicon Point (Lake Tahoe, California) 17-Aug-2020

Wayne and Diane have been our best friends for decades (yes, we’re that old). Recently, we’ve tried to do an annual trip with them – like last year’s epic raft trip on the Green and Colorado Rivers. We had similar plans for this year which, for reasons now obvious to most people, couldn’t be realized. So, as they say, when life hands you lemons, mix another martini (or something like that). So, after some back and forth, we decided to rent a cabin at Lake Tahoe, California for a few days. This spot was chosen because we could each drive there directly, interacting only with gas pumps along the way. We’d remain self-contained in the cabin, venturing out only for some hikes. This way we’d accept the low risk of maybe giving each other the Big V but, if so, wouldn’t contribute to spreading it. And so it was. Considering the number of maskless and socially interacting people we saw crowding around the lake, our isolation seemed more about protecting ourselves from them rather than them from us. ๐Ÿ™„ Nonetheless, until the arrival of massive clouds of smoke from wildfires elsewhere in California, we did get to do three decent hikes.

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