The Bench Valley Adventure - Summer 1996
by Melinda Lee-Van Bossuyt
Chapter 1: The Transportation Issue
This past year our old truck seemed terribly feeble. For years, we had depended on it to carry or tow our llamas around the West.
My grandpa bought the Ford F-250 Camper Special brand-new back in 1970. Right away Grandpa mounted on the truck a new Tilton Hilton camper with a refrigerator that could run on gas or electric. Grandma and Grandpa spent many years of retirement roaming the United States in their little home away from home. There were times when Dave and I would meet them in the desert in the middle of winter. Once when we drove from California back to Michigan for school, Grandma and Grandpa followed along in their camper.
After Grandpa died in 1982, the truck and camper sat in Grandma's driveway unused. We bought it from her in 1984. It served our family well for expeditions in Oregon and throughout the West. We had a lot of fun times in the camper as our son, Douglas, was growing up. When we wanted to carry the llamas, we took the camper off and added stakesides. Three of our llamas went on the first California Van Bossuyt family llama packing trip in the back of the truck in 1985.
The first time we took the llamas out on the highway, people could look right in and see the llamas through the boards of the stakesides. In those days, llamas weren't so common. Llama llooky-lloos would gawk and swerve as they careened down the highway. We feared that we were going to cause an accident, so we put plywood on the sides to block the view. This also served as a wind block for the llamas. Loading proved to be challenging. We found that we could back up to the bank in the front of our house and the llamas would walk right in. Everywhere we went with the llamas, we were looking for a bank to back up to. Later we bought into a 16 foot stock trailer with the Vondracheks. The old truck became a towing vehicle.
As time went by, the old truck broke more and more frequently. It seemed like we had to fix something every time we drove to California with the llamas. One year it was the water pump. Another time it was a couple of belts. Later we replaced the fuel pump, carburetor, power steering, and so on. We worried that the truck would break down somewhere on a hot day with llamas on board. Then what would we do?
To make matters worse, we found it increasingly difficult to fit all of us humans in the cab of the pickup. The long drives to California each summer had become awfully uncomfortable for our family of big and tall people.
This year we took a deep breath and bought a brand new Ford F250 4X4 short bed pickup with extended cab. We did this in July just before the llama packing season started in earnest. A trial run for a weekend llama pack trip to Eight Lakes Basin in the central Cascades proved successful. The new truck was a real power house. The extended cab gave us enough room to bring along a friend of Douglas'. We used the truck to haul two llamas, two turkeys, and my flower arrangements to the Yamhill County Fair. Then it was time for the big event. We packed up for the long drive to California for llama packing in the Central Sierras.
Chapter 2: The Long Hot Drive
August 9, 1996 - It is exactly 750 miles from our home in Newberg, Oregon to my parents' house in Fresno, California. Then it is another two and one-half hour drive to the trailhead in the Sierra National Forest. For years we made the long drive by departing in the late afternoon and driving all night. We travelled through the the hot central California valley during the cooler nighttime hours. We arrived in Fresno in the cool of morning.
We decided this year that we have gotten too old for those all night drives. So, we got up at three in the morning and hit the road. We hoped that the weather would be kind to us. As luck would have it, it turned out to be one of the hottest days of the summer. The temperature hit a high of 110 degrees, and we were driving in it. This meant that we had to take action to keep our llamas cool.
For this trip, besides our family of three humans we brought two geldings, Ranger and John John, and two intact males, Ebenezer (our stud) and Graysun (his son). We stopped at every rest area along I-5 and led each llama out of the trailer for a good dousing with buckets of water. We tried to concentrate on the neck and base of the neck as well as the legs and underbelly. The llamas danced around like kids in a sprinkler. I half expected them to squeal. With each successive stop, the boys were completely dried out and would repeat the ritual.
We arrived in Fresno about 5:30 in the afternoon. I called ahead and my father met us on the north end of town. That saved us quite a bit of time in the heat. We unloaded numerous items we had for him. He gave us some already prepared fresh food for our pack trip. Then off we went to the mountains.
Within 35 minutes after leaving Fresno, we had ascended to cooler temperatures. We all felt better in the fresh mountain air. Our wilderness permit was waiting for us in a box outside the ranger station at Dinkey Creek. We signed the paperwork and took our copy along with a copy of the wilderness regulations. A duplicate was left in the box.
By the time we reached the trailhead at the 8,200 foot elevation, it was dark. We unloaded the llamas and staked them out on the hillside to the east of the parking lot. Each llama was tucked in with a bucket of water, a small salt block, and a leaf of hay. We laid our sleeping bags on a plastic tarp among the llamas and slept out under the stars. I have slept at this trailhead a number of times before. Normally the exposed site is breezy and chilly, but this night was particularly warm and pleasant.
Chapter 3: The Crowded Trail
August 10, 1996 - In the morning, the sun rose up bright in a clear blue sky. It warmed up quickly. We took our time organizing and readying the llama packs. Despite the fact that all panniers are carefully packed and balanced at home, it always takes some time to get ready to hit the trail on the first day. After all, we must carry everything we need for twelve days in the wilderness.
Graysun would be carrying only about 15% of his body weight as a three year old. We managed to keep his load down to 45 pounds. The other three llamas each were loaded with about 25% of their body weight. We eliminated a few extra things at the trailhead to keep the weight down. Dave carried his own pack of fresh food. He insists on having pocket stew the first night out on the trail. Those ingredients are perishable and heavy. He would rather carry the special food than not have it at all.
There was a fair amount of activity at the trailhead. There were people cruising through in their cars and trucks. There were hikers getting ready to backpack. Some four-wheel drives started out on the jeep trail. We tied Ebenezer to Ranger and led the other two llamas individually. We were ready to go.
After hiking two and one-half miles of gradual elevation gain, we hit Chamberlain Hill. This rugged and poorly maintained trail climbs steeply a few hundred feet in a half mile. Both llamas and humans huffed and puffed up the hill. For us sea level dwelling folks, the first couple of days in the eight to eleven thousand foot elevation takes some getting used to. To make matters worse, it was hot. Ranger was in the lead and took frequent rest stops to catch his breath. It was a good excuse for all of us to take a breather. Ranger was pushing 14 years old this summer. He seemed to be showing his age. Graysun, the three year old, was at the other extreme. His huffing and puffing was minimal. He probably could have taken the entire climb without a rest.
We took a lunch break and a much needed rest at Long Meadow, the four mile point. Our llamas know Long Meadow very well. They have camped there many times over the years. They steered us right across the meadow into the camp like homing pigeons.
While resting at Long Meadow, we watched the trail across the meadow. Many backpackers and people with horses and strings of pack stock went by. We had heard from some hikers we met earlier in the day that there were some people at the North Fork of the Kings River with llamas. We looked forward to meeting them. Never before had we met other llamas on the trail in California.
Finally, the llamas and their people appeared on the trail across the meadow. Our llamas saw them before we did. Ears were up and eyes stared intently at the three llamas and two humans walking by. We hollered and waved. Neither the humans nor their llamas noticed us or our llamas.
We decided to push on about two more miles to camp for the night. The llamas were sort of unhappy when we loaded them up after the rest and continued on the trail to Post Corral. They had been sure we were going to camp at Long Meadow. We reached Post Corral in the late afternoon. The place was deserted. We took the camp at the end of the meadow. The llamas were happy to unload and relax in the lush meadow grass. A dense forest of lodgepole pine hugged the meadow. Post Corral Creek flowed by quietly. It was August 10th and the creek was already quite low.
Dave hiked about a half mile up the hill with our water bags to fetch fresh spring water from the spring by a place we call Blasted Rock. Douglas and I set up the tent and gathered some firewood. We were dismayed to find that campers had left lots of garbage in this spot. We rounded up tin cans, bread wrappers, melted plastic packaging, and a propane canister along with other miscellaneous garbage. Since we were packing in, we stashed the trash to pick up on our way out.
Dave came back with the water. I had looked forward to drinking the water from the Blasted Rock spring. I drank several cups full and was not disappointed. It was delicious as usual. Dave put our wine into the creek for chilling.
Dave and I prepared the pocket stews for dinner. We like to call this delicious camping meal hobo packs. First we built up a fire to make coals. While the fire was burning to coals, we laid out three large sheets of heavy duty foil and placed a meat patty on each. On top of the meat patty we piled carrots, potatoes, and onions. Over all that we sprinkled onion soup mix. We folded the foil around the food in a drug store wrap. A second piece of foil was wrapped around the outside of the first. The coals were scraped back in the fire ring and the three neatly packaged meals were laid carefully into the resulting shallow pit. We heaped the hot coals back over top of the hobo packs. While waiting for dinner to cook, we enjoyed a glass of wine.
A few backpackers camped at Post Corral before dark. They were way across the meadow from us. We enjoyed a warm and pleasant night. Despite the high elevation and being on the hard ground, I slept fairly well.
Chapter 4: Lots of People, Little Contact
August 11, 1996 - It rained a little as we left Post Corral the next morning. Rain is very unusual in the Sierras during the summer. It is even more unlikely that it will rain in the morning. Most rain storms occur in the afternoon as brief thunder showers. This morning rain did not cause us to dig for our rain gear. It was very light and the day was quite warm.
We hiked about three and one-half miles to the North Fork of the Kings River. The descent into the North Fork of the Kings River was rugged and somewhat difficult. This high traffic trail has been poorly maintained. It is used heavily by hooved stock. There has been a great deal of erosion leaving exposed boulders and lots of dust. We picked our way carefully over slippery rock faces covered with small bits of gravel and loose dirt. When we could, we detoured off the trail onto clean bedrock granite. This is treacherous for horses but great for vibram soles and llama pads. Once we completed the descent, we rested briefly next to Fleming Creek. Backpackers who had been tailing us all morning passed us as we nibbled on gorp. The weather was pretty hot.
Some distance past Meadow Brook Creek, we came upon a Forest Service crew of two hand cutting logs out of the trail. One of them was a woman we had seen working in the wilderness the previous summer. We chatted about the deplorable trail conditions and the hopelessness of the hand work required in clearing trail in the wilderness. Chain saws are not permitted because they are motorized. However, under special conditions, that rule can be suspended. The wilderness ranger and we agreed that the windfall from the winter of 1994-95 really did constitute special conditions. The crew still was cutting out trees from two winters ago. Apparently the manager of this area did not believe it was appropriate to suspend the rules so chain saws could be used. We thought that was unfortunate since people and stock were creating their own routes around the trail blockage which was causing additional erosion and resource damage.
We pushed on up the river over more poorly maintained trail and stopped for lunch just shy of Fall Creek. For the lunch stop, we unloaded the llamas and tied them to trees. It sprinkled rain on us. Thinking it might really rain, I found the pannier tarps and covered everything.
We knew we were getting close to the place where we would search for an unmarked route we intended to follow. After lunch we hiked only about one-half mile more to camp next to Fall Creek. We were perched at the top of a granite batholith that dropped away to the North Fork of the Kings River. We hiked down to the river to swim.
The river water is cold enough that we truly can't say we swim. Wading and splashing is a better description of what we do. When we are finished, the trail dust is washed off and we feel much better.
Back at camp, we enjoyed watching people pass by on the trail to the east of us. We could see them, but most of them did not see us or our llamas. There was an outstanding sunset. I climbed the rock to take photos. Our campfire was bright and cheerful. It lit up the big granite bedrock that hugged our camp on the west side. We slept through another warm night.
Chapter 5: The Ascent of Fall Creek
August 12, 1996 - We got going early to get a head start on the climb into Bench Valley. Our first challenge was to cross Fall Creek. The normal creek crossing at the trail was a tangle of fallen trees and debris left over from the winter of 1994-95. The horse packer had been crossing about 100 feet up stream. We checked out this crossing and felt that it was not a safe crossing for llamas. There were a great many large slippery boulders which would be a risk for broken legs. Instead we chose a crossing just downstream from the trail. It was deeper and had steeper sides, but the bottom was sandy and the water was calm. Dave removed his jeans and boots and took the llamas across one by one. Douglas and I posted ourselves on opposite sides of the creek to handle the llamas. The crossing was made without incident except that Dave got his underwear wet when Ranger splashed him. Douglas and I laughed at him which wasn't nice, but it added some fun to our morning.
A short distance past Fall Creek, we found the unmarked route we were searching for. This route which parallels Fall Creek goes pretty much straight up the canyon wall from the North Fork of the Kings River. This was our third day out so we were starting to adjust better to the elevation. We made it up the route with little trouble except for Ranger. He was having some difficulty making the climb. He jumped and lurched and cut his leg up pretty badly. The worst cut was on the upper inner part of his rear leg. He was carrying our aircraft aluminum pack boxes and raked one of them off on a boulder in a tight passage.
Despite Ranger's difficulties, Fall Creek was beautiful. It is aptly named. The water jumps, splashes, and bounces over solid granite as it falls down toward the North Fork of the Kings River. There were lots of pretty flowers to enjoy. We took photos and video as we ascended.
Finally, we picked our way beyond the bench or lip of the canyon and on up the Fall Creek drainage. We had covered all of this ground before, but instead of turning right and taking the route up to McGuire Lake in Bench Valley, we turned left, crossed the creek, and followed the creek up the drainage. This was new territory for us. There were no trail markers or signs to follow. We found our way through an environment rich for wildlife. There were signs of deer and bear.
We knew that in the past stockmen had come up this way. This was information we had from years of working for the Forest Service back in the 1970s and early 1980s. Our goal was to reach a lake at the head of this deeply glaciated hanging valley. The lake, known as Crabtree, was named after a packer. Knowing this and having viewed the valley from above during previous trips to the area made us fairly confident of finding a route. Unfortunately, we had forgotten to bring our topographic map along. It was a good thing that we knew the country well and had that map etched into our minds.
After some time and quite a bit of elevation gain, we came upon a vast granite dome. At this point we decided to cross the creek which flowed like a thin film across the granite. This type of water crossing was new for Graysun. He slipped and flopped around. He splashed Douglas who was leading him. Both Douglas and Graysun managed the crossing without injury.
We trekked nearly one-half mile across the lower third of the granite dome to the other side. Here the creek descended steeply from above over a jumble of rock and trees. We followed the creek up climbing another 200 feet in elevation. We parked Douglas with the llamas. Dave went up the creek and I went back across the upper part of the the dome looking for the best route for the llamas. I found a route that looked as though someone planned it just for us. Twenty minutes later I was back to Dave and Douglas with the news. After munching some gorp, we started across the middle of the granite dome, back to the other side to the route I had found.
We carefully watched the sky as we climbed higher and higher. There were clouds building. Being caught in an exposed location if a thunder storm should blow up was not an experience we wanted. We crested the top of the dome and looked back. We had climbed about 500 feet in elevation from the bottom of the dome to the top at the nearly 10,000 foot level. In all we had climbed 1600 feet since leaving camp down by the river in the morning.
It was long past noon and we were hungry. The llamas were tired and complaining. We stopped for lunch where two forks of the creek came together. There was a little meadow where the llamas could have lunch too. It tried to rain on us while we ate. Dave went on ahead to scout out the route. Surely, we thought, the lake was just over the next rise. Dave came back with the news that the route continued on and on. He had gone just one quarter mile to the next crest.
Real rain seemed likely. We packed up and covered the llamas' loads with the tarps. After climbing about one mile, we came to a very nice meadow. We were tired. The sky was threatening. It was getting late. We discussed camping at the meadow. The exposed lip of this little meadow basin was where we were standing thinking about camping when it started to storm hard. We quickly headed for a sheltered spot between some rocks and trees to wait out the storm. Lightning began to strike all around us. We tied the llamas apart from one another and then spread out. Douglas and I crawled under the very low branches of a couple of trees together. Dave was 75 feet away from us under another tree. The heavens opened up. It hailed. It rained. It hailed some more. Would we be safe from the lightning?
Chapter 6: The Storm
Lightning struck the ridge above us. It struck the ridge next to us. It struck the ridge below us. We watched from our ravine beneath a granite batholith. Douglas and I were pressed to the ground beneath the very low branches of a couple of squat lodgepole pine trees. Dave was 75 feet away sitting with his knees drawn up to his chest beneath a larger lodgepole. At first, the trees protected us from the heavy rain. Then, the longer and harder it rained, the more water made it through the branches to us. There had been no time to pull our rain gear out of the panniers. We were dressed in jeans and tee shirts. Needless to say, we were getting wet. Fortunately, we had covered the panniers when we loaded up at our lunch stop. At least all of our stuff would be dry, including the rain gear! The llamas were kushed low to the ground. The hail was pounding their heads. The water ran off the granite batholith to the west of our position in torrents. It developed channels and ran past the llamas.
Over the sound of the pounding rain and hail and the booming of thunder, we could hear an airplane. "Look at that! What is that plane doing up there?" I hollered at Dave. We watched the plane fly in and around the thunderclouds above us.
"They must be crazy!" Dave shouted back.
"You don't suppose they are seeding the clouds, do you?" I asked.
"Look!" cried Dave. "The plane has flares on the wings. They must be seeding silver nitrate."
"I thought they quit seeding clouds years ago because it was ineffective," I said. It began hailing even harder.
California is a water hungry place. The farmers of the San Joaquin Valley require a great deal of water for vine and orchard crops. Farmers belong to irrigation districts. The districts control every drop of water that runs out of the mountains with systems of dams, pipelines and canals. For years they tried increasing the summer runoff by seeding the clouds. That practice had been abandoned years ago.
I noticed that some of the hail that stuck to my jeans was not melting. I touched it. It still did not melt. The core of the hail was whitish soft. I could smash it but not melt it. Perhaps this was the silver nitrate. The theory is that the moisture will be attracted to the silver nitrate crystals. The droplets then become heavy enough to fall out of the sky. I had to admit that it seemed to be working right on top of us.
The wind picked up. Douglas and I shivered. "We're cold, wet, and hungry!" we yelled at Dave.
We noticed that Dave had started a fire between his feet. It got bigger and bigger. Pretty soon he had to stand up to keep from burning his legs. Like moths to a light, Douglas and I rolled out from under our trees and ran over to the fire. All three of us were soaking wet and shivering. It continued to rain. We stood over the fire and allowed the flames to lap at our jeans. It felt very good. Pretty soon we had to go foraging for more wood. There was plenty to be had all around.
About one hour after it had begun, the storm let up. It stopped raining. Cold downdrafts blew through our wet clothes. We sought out our Gortex from the panniers. The llamas had very wet heads and necks. There was hail (or was it silver nitrate?) stuck in their wool.
Dave decided to hike up some distance above our position to see if we were close to Crabtree Lake. Without a map, we couldn't be sure of our current location. We reasoned that we had to be getting pretty close to our destination. He came back with good news. The lake was about one half mile above us on the next bench.
Llamas and humans together left our retreat in the ravine. We successfully had avoided being struck by lightning. We wearily trudged up the mountain to Crabtree Lake. It was 5:15 when we made camp. We had climbed more than 2,000 feet on this day.
Just before dark, a man who was camped at Schoolmarm Lake to the east of us came to see our llamas. We chatted and looked at his map. Crabtree Lake elevation was shown to be 10,520 feet. Our camp of the previous night was 8,400 feet. We had traveled only about four miles, but none of it was on trails. No wonder we were all so tired.
Chapter 7: Relaxation
August 13, 1996 - This morning was meant for taking it easy. We made sure the llamas were staked out with plenty of meadow grass to munch on. We fed them a portion of their llama pellets with extra salt tossed on top and brought them fresh water in our collapsible buckets.
After packing some lunch, we headed out with the intent of checking out the route from Crabtree Lake to Horsehead Lake. We wanted to make sure that the llamas could make it over this route okay before we tried it with them. We hiked around Crabtree and up a bluff to a small, flat grassy pass. Just beyond the pass, sat West Twin Buck Lake. There is very little grass around this lake making it somewhat unsuitable for overnights with llamas. Dave and I used to camp at this lake when we were wilderness rangers. In those days we carried everything on our backs. We once camped on a little peninsula in this lake. It was a most beautiful location. The sunset was one of the most memorable I ever experienced. I sat there drinking my hot chocolate that I had carried in my pack and counted my blessings. I was sure I was in the most beautiful place on earth.
We explored around the east side of West Twin Buck to find a possible camping place with suitable accommodations for llamas. We found some spots where backpackers with a small tent could camp, but nothing really meant for a llama packing party like us. We wandered on across expanses of exposed granite interspersed with tiny meadows filled with little tiny but brilliant wildflowers. The terrain dropped off sharply at this point. We searched for the best route down this slope to the next lake below, Roman Four. Dave and Douglas scouted out a route they thought would work. We ate our lunch and rested on a big rock. It was such a pretty spot!
Later when we descended the bluff back down to Crabtree Lake, we could see our llamas grazing the meadow near our camp at the other end of the lake. The only part of the route we had not figured out was how we would get the llamas around the lake. There were steep and slippery rock bluffs and boulders all the way around the lake. We humans had to scramble to make it around. Taking the llamas over any of the rock traverses was not something we wanted to do. I suggested that perhaps the horse packer took his animals across the lake near the outlet. From high above the lake we could look down and see that this part of the lake appeared more shallow than the rest. Dave concurred and decided to check it out.
He took off his clothes and waded out into the lake. The narrowest part of this section of lake was about 100 feet across. The bottom was soft and sandy. The water came up to his hips. We decided it was do-able with the llamas. This would be our route in a few days when we left Crabtree. For now we were content to spend the afternoon resting, relaxing, reading Mad Magazines, and exploring. We turned in early.
Chapter 8: Exploration and Mountain Climbing
August 14, 1996 - The next morning we were up and out of camp by 7:15 a.m. The llamas stayed at Crabtree while we took off for an assault on a mountain peak known to us as 11,998 and to the most recent topographic maps as Mt. Hutton. The actual elevation of this peak is just over 12,000 feet. Twenty years ago when the U.S. Geological Survey was updating the topographic map for this area, Dave was involved in helping to update incomplete or inaccurate information. A doctor who had hiked in this area contacted the USGS and requested that the mountain marked with the elevation of 11, 998 be named Mt. Hutton. At the time, Dave, I, and others thought that this was a sacrilege. But the USGS honored his request, and the new maps are labeled with a mountain name instead of simply the elevation.
Our route contoured around to an interesting low ridge west of Crabtree Lake. It was a beautiful spot with a few scrawny trees and great views of the mountain to the north and the deep valley we followed to get to Crabtree Lake to the south. We stood on the lip of a hanging valley, scoured clean by glaciers. There were no trees. Glaciated granite bedrock, an expansive meadow, and some extraordinary glacial erratics filled the scene. We trekked across this expanse aiming for an obvious pass in the ridge that extended to the west from the mountain. The whole scene was crisp and clear in the early morning air. We saw a deer.
On the ridge side of the hanging valley we started up the slope and followed a small creek. There were some trees here in this more protected location. Soon, however, the trees gave way to willow shrubs, low growing whitebark pine, and tiny meadows filled with flashy alpine wildflowers. We drank the water directly from the little creek. It was ice cold, pure, and delicious.
We crested the mountain ridge and enjoyed a whole new scene. Below us to the west was a series of lakes that stair-stepped down a heavily glaciated cirque. We could see Little Shot, Big Shot, and Devil's Punchbowl. Just out of our view below Devil's Punchbowl were Tall and Short Jigger. We had been to those lakes many times before. The most recent trip was last summer when we camped at Devil's Punchbowl a few days. From our high point, the rocky crags hanging over the series of lakes were spectacular. We took a bunch of photos and some video. After a short rest and a snack, we were ready to continue our ascent.
The top of the ridge was a broad plain with the appearance of a moonscape. It sloped up steadily to the mountain peak three-quarters of a mile directly east of our position. We trudged upward, step by step, over the soft sandy ground. The scene was punctuated by occasional rocks. By this time, the sun was up just above the mountain peak and shining straight into our faces. Our bodies felt the elevation. We breathed heavily and gulped for the oxygen that had thinned dramatically at this altitude.
At 10 o'clock we climbed a nearly vertical bit of rock rubble and made the top. I stood on a flat boulder and spread my arms in victory. What a great view it was and what a great feeling to be on top of the world. Douglas looked over the edge and saw that the mountain face was gone on its east side. It had been ripped away by glaciers during a period of colder climate. The peak plunged away about 1,000 vertical feet. This worried him greatly and he pleaded with me to sit down and stay away from the edge. Who, I ask, is the parent in this family?
What a perfect day it was to be on top of a High Sierra peak. The sky was perfectly clear and blue. No storm threatened to chase us off the mountain. The temperature was perfectly warm in the bright morning sun. No jackets were necessary. The scenery was perfectly marvelous 360 degrees around. One needed only to rotate the body every few minutes for a new view.
We could see north to Mt. Banner and Mt. Ritter in Yosemite National Park. We could see south to Mt. Whitney. Mt. Goddard, a 13,600 foot mountain of dark metamorphic rock, loomed to the southeast. We climbed Goddard back in 1980. To the east were the mountains of the Evolution range in Kings Canyon National Park.
The most distinct of these mountains is Mt. Darwin with an elevation over 14,000 feet. It always attracts my attention. The top of Darwin appears quite flat. According to geology books I have read, the top of Darwin is a peneplain that represents a very old depositional surface. This peneplain was lifted up with the Sierras and never eroded away. I always have wanted to climb Mt. Darwin.
More than 1,000 feet below us sat Arctic Lake. The moraine across its outlet was clearly defined from our high vantage. One could imagine a giant taking his thumb and pressing out Arctic Lake like a thumbprint cookie. A chimney of rock stood out from the cliff a few hundred feet to the west. A few clouds puffed up and began playing with shadows over the chimney and the landscape beyond. I took some great photos. Rolling out to the west were the treed mountains of the western Sierras. Beyond that lay the Great Valley and then the faint image of the California Coast Range.
We worked our way along the ridge to get a closer view of the chimney and to see other lakes that perched at the foot of this mountain ridge. One of these lakes, Horseshoe Lake, was nearly turquoise in color. A thick field of snow clung to the sharp edge of the cliff. Dave and Douglas stopped for snowcones. The next cirque contained Blackrock Lake. This was an amazing 1,200 foot vertical plunge. Even I backed away from the edge.
We crossed back over the moonscape of our much more gentle side of the mountain and descended off the southern flank. In the distance, we could see our next destination on the edge of the hanging valley. It looked like a giant snow field. It appeared bright white in the mid-day sun. Soon we were back down to the hanging valley where we began our ascent. We followed our little creek until we came to the whiteness. This was a place we had been before. We knew this wasn't snow but rather an enormous outcropping, perhaps four acres, of white and clear quartz.
The creek ran through the middle of this outcropping. A lovely meadow filled with flowers bordered the creek. The creek had worn its way down to the quartz bedrock which made the bed of the creek pure white. We claimed a spot in the little meadow for our lunch. Sunglasses, hats, and long-sleeves were absolutely essential while surrounded by white quartz in the bright sun.
After we finished eating and resting, we spread out and began to explore the quartz. Great care had to be taken while scrambling over the crumbling quartz bedrock. It was much like walking on glass. A slip or fall could easily have been a disaster. We each found special rocks that we brought back to our lunch spot to share with the others. Before we knew it, the afternoon had slipped away. We headed back to camp with a few rocks in our pockets and thoughts of the spectacular sights we had seen on this day.
Chapter 9: Exploration of Bench Valley
August 15, 1996 - With the llamas tethered in a fresh meadow near Crabtree Lake, we headed off for a tour of the many lakes in the upper part the basin. Bench Valley was aptly named for the stair-stepped series of glaciated basins and pushed up moraines that make up the landscape. We climbed the cliff above Crabtree Lake to Schoolmarm Lake on the next bench. Along the way we enjoyed very pretty little waterfalls. Just below the lip of the Schoolmarm bench was a fantastic waterfall where the water spilled over squared bedrock and down a fissure in the granite.
Schoolmarm Lake was without trees except for a very few scraggly low-growing pines. Otherwise the landscape was all rock, water, and meadow. Our route took us around the north side of the lake. Douglas fished all along the shore. At the lake's inlet, we ascended to the next bench that held Six Shooter Lake. A cliff on the one side of the lake plunged into deep water. Douglas fished. Dave found a fantastic, gnarled and ancient whitebark pine. I took pictures of him standing by it.
The next lake in line above Six Shooter was Wah Hoo Lake. After that came Holster Lake. Douglas caught a fish at each lake. He pulled in Brook Trout and some Rainbows. He released them all. The final named lake was Bullet. Above Bullet Lake were two more lakes. One of these was bifurcated. The uppermost lake was hemmed in by a very prominent moraine. It had fish too. The elevation was just over 11,000 feet. We ate lunch under an ancient whitebark pine tree. It was in a cluster of whitebark pines that was like an oasis in the barren and rocky basin. From our picnic spot we saw clearly the col at the top of the basin that led over the LeConte Divide to Confusion Lake and Goddard Canyon. We tried some echoes on the vertical cliffs that surrounded this cirque and watched clouds begin to form over the peaks to the east.
We stayed as long as we dared. Then we descended back to Bullet Lake and climbed the ridge to the west. This ridge was a solid granite batholith. We looked down on East Twin Buck Lake, West Twin Buck Lake, Horsehead Lake, and our own Crabtree Lake. It was much too far away to see the llamas. Low-growing, shrub-like whitebark pines grew out of the cracks in the rock. A branch just five inches long was as much as fifty years old. Dave and Douglas counted the age of the twigs by counting the bumpy rings on the bark. We walked the ridge right down to Six Shooter Lake. From there, we continued on around Schoolmarm Lake and back down to Crabtree Lake. The weather felt as if something would happen.
Dave and I reasoned we might get a thunderstorm. I waited to prepare dinner since it seemed better to wait for the storm to blow by. And the weather did get worse. There were strong and gusty east winds. I changed menu plans and prepared a quick meal of instant backpacker food. I simply added hot water, stirred, and served. We scurried about picking up our things that were spread around camp. We secured the tent with more ropes. We moved the llamas back to the meadow next to camp. We generally battened down the hatches. Heavy clouds filled the sky with a bright and eerie, glowing orange hew.
There is something about east winds that a person can feel in their bones. Maybe it is too many positive ions. In the Rockies the east winds are called Chinooks. In southern California, the east winds are called Santa Anas. East winds on this part of the western slope of the Sierra Nevada are called Mono Winds, and we most definitely were experiencing Mono Winds. We crawled into the tent before dark. The wind whipped at our tent in forceful gusts. It tried to rain a bit. Hunkered down in our sleeping bags, we listened to the storm all around us. Finally the wind subsided. I fell asleep.
Chapter 10: Llamas in the Lake
August 16, 1996 - In the morning, we woke to a clear, deep blue sky. It was impossible to tell that there had been such a wild storm the night before. We ate a quick breakfast and packed up the whole camp. The llamas ate their morning pellet ration and watched us. They knew it soon would be time for them to go to work again.
Dave used a Jiffy Pop pan and our plastic trowel to relocate llama pellets from their concentrated locations in the meadow to more discreet and dispersed locations in bushes well away from campsites and water. Finally, Douglas brought the llamas into camp and brushed each one with special attention to the area along the backbone. Saddles went on Ranger and Ebenezer first, then John and, last of all, Graysun. With panniers loaded and tied down, we set off around the lake.
Our first challenge was to be the crossing of the lake near the inlet. This was the only route possible for us owing to the steep granite cliffs surrounding the lake on the east side. We reached the shore where the crossing was to be made. The four llamas were tied together in a certain order. First, there was old Ranger, a seasoned packer and our best lead llama. Next came our stud, Ebenezer, highly experienced and our most reliable packer. Third in line was John, only his second year of packing, yet steady and unflappable. Last there was Ebenezer's son, Graysun, just three years old and on his first serious pack trip.
Dave pulled off his boots and pants, took the lead line, and plunged into the icy lake water. The four llamas followed in line, each with a splash. The crossing was about 100 feet in length. The water was at least three feet deep. Douglas and I scrambled over the rocks along the shore. I stood on a prominent boulder with video camera in hand to record the feat. It was quite a sight. Water came up to cover the llamas' bellies and wet the pannier bottoms. Stud, geldings, and intact male put any differences aside and cooperated to cross the lake safely. In a few moments it was over. Dave and the llamas emerged from the lake without incident. Dave dried off and put on his pants and boots. With our family reunited, we were ready to resume our journey.
We didn't have far to go, only a mile and a half. We followed the route we had scouted a few days before. First, we carefully picked our way up the rocky bluff south of Crabtree Lake. Attention was given to preventing rocks from rolling down on the next llama or person in line. We paused for photos at the flat in the pass and proceeded around West Twin Buck Lake. Dave led the way down the bench to Roman Four Lake. The llamas had no problems. From Roman Four Lake, the bench was a gentle drop to Horsehead Lake.
We set up camp between two enormous boulders on the north shore of Horsehead Lake. The lake is shaped like a horse's head, and our camp was located at the top of the head. It appeared that someone had just broken camp and left a big mess. There was an enormous stack of firewood and a huge pile of wood chips where the firewood had been chopped. A fire ring about two feet wide and five feet long was burned into the meadow grass. The grass was browned out where tents had been pitched. We reasoned that whoever had camped here stayed a very long time.
Our tent was pitched between the boulders on thick duff beneath a cluster of white bark pine trees. This was environmentally a much harder site for tents. Dave and Douglas dismantled the excessive fire ring and cleaned up the ashes. Another old fire place on mineral soil was cleaned up and rebuilt. Wood chips were raked up. We burnt those in our very small evening campfires.
While we set up our camp, two backpackers, a fireman and a bricklayer, came by. They told us that the commercial packer had come with a lot of stock and packed out the people who had been camping by the boulders. The brick layer had horrible blisters. He was hiking in his Teva sandals. I gave him my bottle of New Skin.
The afternoon was a good time to wash some clothes. We used our collapsible buckets to haul water away from the lake for washing. A stiff breeze dried most of our things by evening. Just before dark, we walked around the lake. There were lots and lots of stars.
Chapter 11: More Exploration
August 17 and 18, 1996 - There was plenty of grass around Horsehead Lake. The llamas enjoyed the warm sunny days and frosty nights surrounded by a full pantry. At least twice a day Dave and Douglas shifted the picket pins to give the llamas fresh munchings.
On the first morning, after moving the llamas and refilling their water buckets, we gathered our day packs and hiked up the drainage past Colt Lake to Little Joe Lake. It had been many years since we had been to Little Joe. It is out of the way and difficult to get to, but the hike up is interesting and the approach is truly beautiful.
Little Joe sits in a cirque at about the 11,000 foot elevation. On the south side of the lake are the sheer cliffs of a rugged peak and ridge line that plunge down to the water's edge. Rocky rubble from countless avalanches defines the shore. Delicate meadows hug the lake's north shore.
Dave retrieved some snow from a snow field under the cliffs. We sat in the sun on the lee side of a large boulder near the inlet on the northeast side of the lake and enjoyed snow cones. Later, we walked back to the outlet on the west end of the lake to have lunch. We had trouble finding a boulder protected from the wind where we could sit to eat. Everywhere we looked there were piles of marmot droppings. Douglas found that while the fish were hungry and plentiful, they were very skinny and in poor condition.
To return to camp, we headed due west over the solid granite ridge that defined the landscape to the west of Little Joe. We followed cracks in the rock which led us eventually northward and down to Filly Lake. A granite boulder the size of a one ton truck sits on the east shore of Filly Lake. We took Douglas to see it. Beneath the boulder there is room to move around and sit. There is evidence of a campfire long ago along with some shreds of old cloth and burnt pieces of wood that appear to be from a crate.
Filly Lake is only a quarter mile from Horsehead Lake. Between the two lakes we examined the remains of a very large campsite tucked in the trees that was probably used as a base camp by hunters during the autumn hunting season. It had not been used in a very long time.
Once back in camp, we spent a leisurely afternoon of reading, whittling, napping, and relaxing. The weather had turned cooler. After dinner, we enjoyed a small campfire and a sky filled with stars.
The next morning we started out relatively early on a day hike in search of a suitable route for the llamas to Blackcap Basin. Our previous experience hiking around the area and our knowledge of the topographic maps led us to believe that it was possible to contour around the back side of Blackcap Mountain and drop into Blackcap Basin.
We followed the trail down to McGuire Lake and cut off due south just past the outlet. This was the toe of the ridge we hoped to follow. Sure enough, after walking only 100 yards, we saw a stack of rocks. We looked ahead and saw another stack of rocks. These rock ducks were not new. It was apparent from the dirt and lichen that these rocks had been piled for some time. The route that we followed seemed like a natural trail. It led us along a narrow rock bench on the side of the solid granite ridge. There were more stacked rocks every 100 feet or so. Occasionally, there were trees growing in the route. We surmised that these trees had grown in after the trail had fallen into disuse.
Eventually, the trail of rock ducks dropped us off in a large flat area with a lush meadow know as Mountain Meadow on the far side. There was clear and ice cold water flowing intermittently in a little creek in the woods. We were grateful for the opportunity to refill our water bottles. Nearby, were the remains of an old, large hunter's camp. A very long log table was disintegrating into the earth. A huge fireplace dominated the site.
We explored beyond the meadow farther to the east. There were no more rock ducks or any other kind of trail markers. However, we felt certain that it would continue to be a relatively gentle and easy route to follow all the way around to Lightning Meadow in Blackcap Basin. We also figured you could go the other way and have a gentle route down to Fall Creek. This would likely be an easier route than the difficult chute that drops out of McGuire Lake. Satisfied with our discovery, we backtracked to the narrow bench trail across the granite. We chose a spot with a spectacular view for eating our lunch.
Finally, we returned the way we came, past McGuire Lake, Guest Lake, and back up to Horsehead Lake. In all, we had traveled perhaps six or seven miles. A solar shower felt great even in the steady and chilling afternoon winds. After dinner, we discussed our options and decided to move camp tomorrow to McGuire Lake. This would position us 400 feet lower at the 10,000 foot level next to the chute that drops out of McGuire and down to Fall Creek.
Chapter 12: We Move Camp
August 19, 1996 - Our morning was leisurely and pleasant. We made bread-on-a-stick and a peasant omelet for breakfast. Dave took photos of Douglas and me reading Mad Magazines with the llamas. The pictures had beautiful mountain and lake scenery in the background. Douglas and I made plans to send the photos to Mad Magazine.
After packing up camp and scooping up and relocating llama pellets, we hiked down to McGuire Lake in time for lunch. The campsite we chose was on a big flat on the north side of the lake. It was a good hard site with plentiful firewood. We staked the llamas some distance away in lush meadow grass. I read a book and rested. Dave and Douglas checked out the lake and caught some fish.
Sunset on Blackcap Mountain and the warm orange glow on the boulders piled up at the base of the solid granite ridge next to our camp captivated us through our evening meal. The campfire was perfect. We lingered knowing that our wilderness time was soon to end. One more night after this and we would be back to civilization.
Chapter 13: The Difficult Trail to the North Fork
August 20, 1996 - Understanding what lay ahead of us on this day, we got up, packed up, and headed out very early. Just two minutes of walking and we were at the lip of the chute that drops down from McGuire Lake to Fall Creek below. The last time we traveled over this route, we were forced to take loads off the llamas and lead them down one at a time. We lowered their panniers down separately. This time the route was rough, but erosion had taken its toll and changed things a bit. The worst spots were smoothed out enough that we were able to bring all the llamas down without having to unload them. The chute only is about one-quarter mile long, so it was over pretty quickly. Little did we know that the worst was yet to come.
Instead of following the route down Fall Creek the way we had come up, we chose to turn left and follow a trail that was built in the late 1960s when Wilderness Act money was allocated. The trail was an elaborately designed route that contoured to the southeast around a mountain ridge and then turned abruptly and descended in tight switchbacks to the North Fork of the Kings River. I first hiked this trail in 1972. It was like a super highway then. There had been plenty of blasting and rock work to construct a wide trail tread suitable for livestock. The chute going into McGuire Lake was part of this construction. The chute was never a very good route and began deteriorating almost as soon as it was built. The rest of the trail was solid and popular with stock users.
Our last trip over this trail was in 1989. The trail was marked, "Not Maintained for Stock Use." The Forest Service had stopped maintaining it in the 1980s, and the trail deteriorated accordingly. Now, seven years later, what would we find? We knew that the commercial packer used this route to bring clients into Bench Valley. We assumed it would at least be passable.
The first part of the trail was gentle and descended slightly. This was easy going. But when the trail began to drop in elevation sharply, things went downhill. It was a horrible mess. The packer's horses and erosion had beaten the route to a pulp. It was very hard on us and the llamas.
The final descent of the trail where the tight switchbacks were supposed to be was the worst. Repeatedly, we had to climb down huge boulders that were so tall I had to sit down and lower myself. We tried to pick our way around these spots but fallen trees, sheer rock, and difficult terrain forced us over some tremendous drop offs. The llamas didn't like it any more than we did, yet they pushed on without complaint. I was amazed at how well John John and Ebenezer worked together. John John carefully negotiated his way down boulder after boulder. He never jumped nor lurched. At the base of the rock he would move slowly giving time for Ebenezer to pick his way down and not be jerked. It was incredible team work.
The toughest passage involved a narrow squeeze between two shoulder-high rocks followed immediately by a steep drop off of a boulder about chest high. We contemplated taking off panniers but were in no position to do so. We were lined up in a tight spot with no room to maneuver. I went first with John John and Ebenezer. I squeezed through the two rocks. John John's panniers scraped through. Ebenezer was halfway into the tight rock squeeze. I told John John to wait and sat down on the boulder and slid off. I turned and urged John John to follow. John John pondered the situation a moment, stuck his front legs out and slid down on his haunches. He pushed off and stood next to me. Ebenezer's panniers scraped through the rocks. I led John John a bit further along and Ebenezer, still tied to John John, carefully slid and hopped down off the rock right behind us.
Next it was Ranger's turn. Douglas led him through the narrow rocks. His aluminum pack boxes caught on the rocks. One came off and the other was hanging by one horn on the pack saddle. Ranger lurched to free himself from the hang up and plunged over the rock. Douglas got out of the way just in time. Seeing all this happen worried Graysun. He pushed his way through the rocks and jumped down in one great leap.
The descent took a very long time and we and the llamas took a beating. Finally we made it to the main trail along the North Fork of the Kings River. We found this trail to be a mess in many places. At Big Maxson Meadow, we stopped for a rest and a snack. The meadow was beautiful and untouched by grazing livestock. This was a contrast to the old days when stockmen kept cattle here.
We continued on down the North Fork, past the place where we left the trail to ascend Fall Creek so many days before, and on down to Fleming Creek. Along the way we ran into two men with bows and arrows and a bunch of fine mules. They saw us first and got off the trail for us! We exchanged greetings.
At Fleming Creek, we took a long rest of more than an hour for lunch. Llamas and humans had earned it. When we loaded up and hit the trail again, it was about 3:30 in the afternoon. We detoured around the very difficult, eroded parts of the trail climbing out of the North Fork by going out across the bald granite on the downhill side. This was much much easier for llamas and humans alike. I found that my left ankle was sore. It would end up bothering me for several weeks to come.
We hoped to make it to our favorite campsite at Long Meadow, but when we reached Post Corral at 5 o'clock, we were too tired to continue the additional two miles. We had started out at 8:15 in the morning. We had hiked nine or ten rugged miles, mostly downhill. What a long and arduous day it had been!
We took the camp at the end of Post Corral meadow. It had been trashed again since we camped there 11 days before. We cleaned up and gathered the stashed trash we had left there to pack out. No one else camped at Post Corral on this night. We had the wilderness to ourselves.
Chapter 14: We Leave the Mountains
August 21, 1996 - This was our last day in the wilderness. The llamas knew we were headed out. Packing up posed new challenges for balancing panniers. We had eaten most all of our food. We had accumulated a few rocks and a lot of garbage to pack out. Each llama enjoyed a total load of under 55 pounds. Things had lightened up considerably.
We said good-bye to Post Corral and followed the trail past Long Meadow and over Chamberlain's Hill. The topic of discussion as we hiked along was the poor condition of the back country trails. We lamented the large amounts of money being spent on major trail reconstruction near the trailhead. Long expanses of puncheon and raised trail were in the process of being constructed. Elaborate rock work on Chamberlain's Hill took weeks of hard labor and created torturous steps that were higher than my knees are tall. We had seen these crews working for the past two or three summers. Their work was either overkill or it simply made things worse. And it was concentrated in the first couple of miles of a trail system covering 200 square miles. All through the wilderness there were water bars that had not been cleaned out and trees that had not been cut out. Plugged water bars can erode out a trail in one good storm. The public has a huge investment in the trail system in this section of wilderness and the simplest, most effective maintenance is not being done. Priorities for money being spent don't reflect the reality.
As luck would have it, we met two Forest Service employees on the trail between Chamberlain's Meadow and the trailhead. It turned out that one of these people was the manager responsible for this area. We stopped to exchange hellos. Dave brought up the condition of the trails. He asked what the plans were for repairing and maintaining the bulk of trails in the wilderness. He commented on all the elaborate and expensive trail construction close to the trailhead.
The Forest Service manager was defensive and rude. The conversation was unpleasant and caused Dave, a normally nice and easy going guy, to become very upset and angry. Dave knows a thing or two about trail maintenance. He spent three summers in this area, the John Muir Wilderness, as a wilderness ranger and did plenty of trail maintenance. Up in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness in Washington he was a recreation manager responsible for the whole Alpine Lakes Wilderness. He supervised several wilderness rangers and was responsible for contracted trail maintenance crews.
We reached the trailhead feeling rather depressed about the state of affairs. Our off trail, cross-country travel had been far less taxing on us and the llamas than the hiking we did on the trails. That's how bad it was. We unloaded the llamas for the last time. The llamas happily munched hay. We wiped the dust off ourselves with wet bandannas and travel wipes. We took off our filthy clothes and boots and put on clean shorts, shirts, and sandals. The llamas filed into the trailer and we piled into the truck. Soon we were on our way. We stopped at the store at Dinkey Creek for ice cream bars and a peek at the headlines on the newspaper in the vending box. We stopped at Ken's General Store in Shaver Lake to visit an old friend who inherited the store from her parents.
Just about sunset, we arrived at Paul and Marge Garin's Hearthside Llama Ranch east of Clovis. Ebenezer and Ranger know this place well. For several years we have boarded our llamas at the Garins for a couple of days while visiting my parents in Fresno. The Garins own many different kinds of animals besides llamas. They have several dogs in a variety of shapes and sizes.
We led our boys through the gate on the driveway. The dogs came to greet us. Graysun had never been to the Garins before and freaked out at the multi-dog greeting. He dragged Dave through the rose bushes. When it was all over we had a good laugh. Our guys moved into a pen next door to Chewy, the two-hump camel. John John was here with us last year and seemed to recognize where he was. Ebenezer and Ranger have shared a fence with Chewy for many summers now. They greeted one another like old friends. But on the other side of the pen was a new guy, Sahib the one-hump camel. Sahib was twice as tall as Chewy. All four llamas eyed him warily. Sahib was so big he had pushed over the Garin's heavy duty, galvanized, six foot tall fencing. The fact of the matter was, his legs alone were about six feet tall. Our llamas stayed over next to Chewy.
A couple of days later after a nice visit with my parents and grandmother, we came back for the llamas. They had warmed up considerably to Sahib. The next morning we left very early for our drive back to Oregon. The trip was routine. We arrived home in Newberg about eight o'clock in the evening. We were glad to be home but wished we could leave right away on another trip into the wilderness with our llamas.
Packing, Articles, and Photos
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