Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Great Great Basin - July 2011

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“Do you know how to get to Spencers Hot Springs?”
“Yes I do.” I answered.
“Tell her.”
The fellow questioning me was behind the counter at the gas station in Austin, Nevada. It was around six thirty in the evening. His manners were rough as I came in to pay for our fill up and his priority was obviously getting my money and not helping this young woman with directions. I figured he was the owner.

She looked up from a rudimentary map on the counter as I stepped closer. I gave her directions which she followed with ease. The attendant handed my card back as I finished, “We’re headed out that way now also.” I added.
“Ah, you can just follow him!” The attendant finished the conversation.

We had left home about mid afternoon getting a quick getaway for our adventures over the Fourth of July. We had first seen the two young women in the older white Toyota pickup pulled over in the middle of the Reese River Valley. They were fussing with something at the back of the truck and had caught our eye because it was the first vehicle on Highway 50 in over an hour. The Lady was driving. We were following the storm and had caught its edge in this valley. The windows were down and a few big splats had hit the windshield.
“I love the smell of summer rain from a thunderstorm and big drops on the windshield.” Simple things in life make the Lady smile.
“I figure they’re battening down the hatches in the event we get some real rain,” I said was we drove past.

They pulled in behind us in Austin as we filled up with gas. They both hopped out, one with a roll of duct tape, and went to work on the camper shell’s hatch. Afterward the smaller of the two went inside. That’s where the conversation took place. Her brown corduroy pants were dirty, I figured from several days on the road, living out of the truck. She was quiet but not shy. She looked me right in the eye. She had been on the road before.

These two were on an adventure. So were the Lady and me.

“What’s up?” the Lady asked as I climbed in to take over the driving duties.
“They’re on their way to Spencers and I gave them directions. When I said we were heading that way the gas station guy said they could follow us. Let’s see if they follow.” They did.

Our interest in the Great Basin is almost becoming an addiction. When we tell friends at home that we are headed, once again, for the middle of Nevada we can see a look of pity enter their eyes. I suspect the churchgoers among them actually pray for us.

We slowly drove around the Spencers area. It was fairly busy with one vehicle at our favorite soaking spot. Two young men were in the main pool. Too busy for us so we moved on down the road.

We spent our first night in Toquima Campground.

The sunset from this ridge top setting was nice.

After dinner we walked in the dark up to the pictograph site, Toquima Cave. The Milky Way was brilliant above in the freshly storm washed sky. We sat for awhile outside the cave entrance and listened for ancient spirits. It was a quiet, peaceful night, we felt at home.

This was just the start for another great adventure for us.

We traditionally do a backpack trip over the Fourth. This year was no different and our trip was into the Alta Toquima Wilderness accessed at the Pine Creek Campground Trailhead. We pulled into the campground at 9 am, did last minute jockeying of equipment, added the ice axes to the packs, secured the vehicle, and set out by 10 am. The trail follows the Pine Creek Canyon and moves back and forth to opposite sides of the canyon necessitating fording the creek several times. We figured with the high runoff this year, these crossings would be the crux of the trip. We were correct and there are a total of 15 fords on this route. We carry wading scandals and after several stops to change footwear decided to secure the boots to our packs and just go with the wading gear. The deepest crossing was up to the crotch with most about knee deep with the water fast and cold and commanding care and respect.

Now if you’re thinking traditional wasteland images of a parched, desiccated Nevada, shelve those thoughts. We’re talking wonderful high mountain terrain here with lush groves of aspen.

The thirteenth crossing. The wild onions here were fantastic.

Among the older carvings on the aspens were the additions of more current thoughts.

In the high basin were wonderful wet areas including shooting stars.

We set up a nice camp on the edge of the upper basin and explored in the evening. The next day was set aside for climbing and exploring the broad summit plateau of Mount Jefferson.

And yes, we were alone up here. We got an early start, wanting to spend all day above timberline.

The summer trail does a steep climbing traverse across a steep slope. There were still two steep snowfields covering it, that with the softening snow it would be hard to get purchase with an ice axe in case of the need to self arrest a fall. We elected to just climb straight up to the summit from the head of the basin.

Taking advantage of a less steep spot, I shot a photo back down the Pine Creek drainage with Monitor Valley beyond.

This was a day for outstanding vistas from the South Summit of Mount Jefferson, 11,941 feet. This is a view south along the spine of the Toquima Range. The far mountain is Shoshone Peak. The saddle between is known as Jefferson Summit with a primitive road crossing from Meadow Canyon on the east over to and out the canyon on the west leading to Round Mountain and Carvers.

With the Lady’s small binoculars (“see mores”, she calls them) we could see a pickup with camper parked far below on the ridge and a lone figure starting up to the summit from that direction. We both thought, “Now that would be a great place to camp with the truck.”

The Jefferson Summit plateau is a spectacular broad rolling expanse of alpine tundra. There are three summits, South, Middle (11,686), and North (11,814). During the last glacial period four small glaciers carved cirques into the eastern edge. This is also a special archeological area of ancient Native American significance where it was found that the area was not only used for seasonal hunting of sheep, but was used as a village site. We had all day to ramble, explore up high, and hit all three summits.

One of the points on the north ridge of the south summit. The view is across the Smokey Valley with the Toiyabe Range beyond to the west.

It is a good drop down from the South Summit.

Looking down into the South Fork Pine Creek cirque. We had explored up this cirque the evening before from our campsite.

Here’s the view from the North Summit back to the south. You can pick out three of the glacial cirques cut into the east side.

Coming back down from the North Summit, we passed the remains of a hunting blind.

As we hiked along this high, broad open tundra, the Lady asked, “What made you think of suggesting we come here and do a backpack trip up here?”
“Well years ago our friends Jim & Nancy pointed out Pine Creek Campground to us. They had mentioned the summit being protected as Wilderness. The most recent info on the area I read on the Wander the West website. I believe the fellow Dirty Dog had posted in a trip report about his stay at Pine Creek Campground and, I believe, he said he had climbed Mount Jefferson also.”
“Yup, and I think that was just in July of last year.”
The Lady responded, “Well, we should have looked in the summit register to see if he had signed in and taken a picture of it.”
“Damn, we should have thought of that when we were on the top!”

It had been a remarkable day with perfect weather to be high. Here the Lady is working toward our point to drop back into a cirque and our route back to camp.

We took a long break when we hit tree line, filtered water for drinking, had a snack, and lay back and enjoyed being in this incredible place. The only sounds were the wind, the birds, and the rushing creek, all refreshing tonics for our souls. This was a 12.5 mile ramble with a total elevation gain and loss of 4000 feet. This had been a good day, a good day indeed.

Our initial plan was to spend 3 nights in the Wilderness, backpacking. As we ate dinner I suggested that we pack up and hike out in the morning, load up the truck, drive around and find the Meadow Canyon Road, and see if we could reach the spot we had seen the truck and camper parked on the ridge.
“We’ll do that, I love it when we explore new places!” was the Lady’s answer.

The Meadow Canyon Road turnoff from the Monitor Valley Road is around 5 miles north of Belmont. That proximity may have played a role in the reminder we got that this was a holiday weekend. The road climbs the alluvium and then enters the narrows of the canyon. It is beautiful with a narrow meadow filling the canyon most of the way up. In long sections the road is single vehicle width with the encroachment of willows and wild rose on the meadow side with the canyon wall on the other. Not much view ahead and gave concern about meeting another vehicle. We did. An ATV came fast around a corner, shocked to see another vehicle on the road the driver reacted fast enough to apply the brakes, throwing the vehicle into a sideways slide down the road at us. He stopped in time, all without a helmet and without spilling a drop of the beer in his right hand.
“There are two more behind me” he called out, gesturing with his right hand.
“I’ve got ten behind me and they like to drink and drive!”   No, I did not say that; this suggested response came from a friend when I told him the story. I gave the guy a polite wave. There were three behind him.

After a few miles the road leaves the canyon and does a steep narrow climb to the ridge top. Here we turned up the ridge and found the spot we had seen from the Mount Jefferson summit.

It was a great spot with the on top of the world feeling we were expecting. We got the truck parked. It was two in the afternoon. The Lady gave a mischievous little smile. “Do you think we could run up to the top again early tomorrow morning?”
“What do we have to do the rest of the afternoon?” I countered.
“Let’s go! Grab the camera. We have to get a picture of this guy Dirty Dog’s signature!”
The rest of our day had been quickly planned in only a moment.

This turned out to be a nine mile round trip. We spent about an hour on top. The late afternoon light was worth it. Each of us went through the summit log book, the Lady twice. We did not find an entry by Dirty Dog. He must be a stealth peak bagger.

We were back at the truck at seven and heated up some water for a primitive shower for each of us. Dinner was made. We relaxed in our chairs. The International Space Station went over, an incredibly bright light with the reflection of the setting sun. We watched and listened to the world go dark, perched on our ridge top in the middle of Nevada. Those churchgoers’ prayers must have been kicking in.

A safety note - besides just the fun of mutual grooming when we pour water over each other for a shower, we are in the habit of checking each other for ticks, “Pesky hitch hikers,” the Lady calls them. We each had one. Each was successfully removed.

We woke early the next morning in anticipation of a wonderful dawn and sunrise. If you are in the area, this is the place you want to camp.

It started with a pre dawn glow to the east…………..

The Lady with her coffee, our camp, and first light on the Toiyabe Range.

First light hit our ridge top…………

……..and the sun was up.

From Jefferson’s summit we had also seen that Meadow Canyon, after the narrows, opened into a broad mountain valley, set below Mount Jefferson. A spur road took us there.

The wild irises were in their glory in the meadow.

Set along the edge of the valley was the old USFS Meadow Canyon Guard Station. It is in a spectacular setting.

We spent the morning relaxing, walking, poking about, just being in this surprisingly beautiful place.

Again, this was turning out to be a great trip with exploration, adventure, and something new to see around almost every corner. And, most were far exceeding our expectations. Could this continue and even get better? Yes it could!

This was a day of magic. We headed out from Meadow Canyon, topped off with gas in Austin, and headed down the Reese River Valley. We didn’t pass by Spencers again so you will all have to make up your own ending for the young gals in the white Toyota story. The Lady saw lots of speed goats (pronghorn) out the truck window. Today’s objective was Columbine Campground.

It is small (only five sites) and is in a nice setting along Stewart Creek, flowing northwest out of the Toiyabe Range. It is a trailhead for the Arc Dome Wilderness which encompasses the high crest of the Toiyabes.

We pulled in early afternoon on Sunday and found two sites empty and available. We made ourselves at home, popped the top and set up.

Although it is easily accessible from the campground, we walked up the Stewart Creek Trail about a third of a mile and checked out  Stewart Creek………..

……where there was an abundance of columbines.

As we were setting up camp the Lady keep saying, “There’s a bird calling in that tree but I do not see it anywhere in the branches.”
Yes, there was a repeated single call. When we returned from Stewart Creek we noticed the calls were continuing. In the aspen right at the front of the truck was a nest cavity with hungry young ones inside, Flicker chicks.

They looked only a day or two from taking flight and both the mom and dad were running themselves ragged foraging for these two.

What a relaxing afternoon! We made dinner and ate as a small thunderstorm skirted us just to the south. We got just enough drops to don the raingear. We took a short walk as the sun set and were treated to some of the most varied and magical evening light.

We will be returning to this small campground. As Stew says, we’ve got to get on top the Arc Dome and there is access to reasonable day hikes into the Wilderness here. All these evening photos were taken within a quarter mile of our campsite. You could easily spend a couple or a few days here and be happy.

Looking back at what I’ve written thus far, we had crammed a lot into only a few days, but there was still more. In the morning, the Fourth of July was the start of a very special day we were so excited about and looking forward to. We were meeting Ted!

We had exchanged emails and phone numbers and the plan was to camp Monday evening at a dispersed site on the south side of Mono Lake. Coming into Lee Vining from opposite directions we decided to take the high ground to see if we could make contact.

The phone rang almost immediately. It was Ted.
“Look down at 395; you will see us right about…..NOW!”
And there they were - the FWC Hawk enshrouded glorious new Tundra shining in the afternoon light with Mono Lake and a distant thunderstorm behind. We are convinced nobody can make an entrance like Ted.

We made introductions and from the experiences they had had with heat on their journey, Ted suggested the cool of higher elevation was in order. We decided to find a dispersed camping site in the Green Creek area.

With a campsite quickly found and camper set up chores completed, we busied ourselves with getting acquainted. It was a delight to share a camp with the Ted Unit. To honor this special occasion, Ted presented us with some great coffee as he had promised. After taking a whiff of the aroma from the bag, we could not wait and a couple of cups were soon brewed. Thank you Ted!

How could we not be happy in this wonderful Eastern Sierra Setting? There could hardly be a better place to celebrate Independence Day our way. We took an evening walk and watched the light change. Well, at least until we had taken about as much blood loss from mosquitoes as we could stand.

Back at camp, we found our area mysteriously mosquito free. We all stayed up well past our bedtimes sitting and talking. We swapped stories about adventures. This was a great ending to our trip.

The Lady and I, as is our habit, woke early the next morning and walked and enjoyed the coming of a new day……

…….of course each of us with a steaming mug of “Ted Coffee.”

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