Thursday, August 17, 2017

Almost But Not Quite: Up to Patterson Lake

Patterson Lake 

Date: July 3, 2017
Place: South Warner Wilderness, Alturas, California
Coordinates (of Pine Creek Basin): 41.362254, -120.243023
Length: 2.5 miles
Level: strenuous

We passed our first night at our quiet knack if the woods at the Pine Creek Basin. Yesterday's hike wasn't much of an exercise but today we were looking at a good 2000" elevation gain going up to Patterson Lake.
We woke up early but took our time getting ready. It was still before sunrise when I went to the creek to get water, getting my feet wet in the morning dew and enjoying the early wildflowers.
Houndstongue, Hackelia micrantha
But the sun was up quickly and soon it became hot. We broke camp, packed everything and set out on the trail uphill.
Nodding Microceris, Microseris nutans
We started our way on a mild up-slope trail through a thin conifer forest. The trees were grouped in small groves separated by small open areas with little undergrowth. Fallen logs and detached branches littered the forest floor and wherever the bark was stripped off I could see the elaborate carving patterns left behind by boring beetles.

About a third of a mile later we exited the conifer forest and started going up a bright green slope, interchanging open grass and shrub areas and bright aspen groves. We stopped at the first aspen grove to get our mosquito repellant out for we were being eaten alive.

It didn't take long before we also left the aspen groves behind and were walking through a low chaparral area that was so green and lush, looking very different than the chaparral I was familiar with from the Bay Area.

Out in the sunlight there was a spectacular display of wildflowers. While all the colors of the rainbow  were represented, the blues dominated the scene.

Thick clusters of lupine and larkspur in dazzling blue were splashed on the mountainside, rendering it a work of art far superior to any human creation. I slowly walked through the splendid display, intoxicated by the young spring air.
Meadow Larkspur, Delphinium nuttallianum 
Even the earth at my feet was blue - densely covered by the tiny blue-eyed Mary.
Few-flowered Blue-eyed Mary, Collinsia parviflora

All this blue was offset by clumps of flowers of other bright colors, the yellow being represented mainly by the woolly mule ears.
Mountain Mule Ears, Wyethia mollis

Despite the altitude and the slowly rising heat we didn't feel the need for rest stop and soon we fell into the usual pattern of our family hikes: the elder chika at the lead, quoting Disney movies to herself, followed closely by Pappa Quail, occasionally stopping to search the sky or the bushes for birds. At a good distance behind came the younger chika, poking her hiking poles in the vegetation and turning over sticks, rocks and dry leaves that happened to be n her way. I was bringing up the rear, closely inspecting the wildflowers and making frequent photo stops.
Going up Pine Creek Basin
There were flowers for which I actually dropped my pack and sat down on the ground to get a proper close up shot. after all, how often do I get to see a mountain fritillary?
Mountain Fritillary, Fritillaria atropurpurea

But even common wildflowers gave me a good opportunity to stop for a breather.
Horsemint, Agastache urticifolia
When we stopped and sat down to rest I took the time to look behind and gasped: for the first time in our trip I could see how far up we were above the Surprise Valley where the town of Alturas and its neighboring farmlands were.
And in the far horizon, high above everything, floated Mount Shasta, its snow-capped cone like an apparition in the hazy hot air.
Surprise Valley
We moved on. While the trail kept mainly in the open we would still go every now and then underneath small groves of pine trees. There in the partial shade  I saw some of the wildflowers I had encountered on our way up to Pine Creek Basin on the previous day.
Ballhead Waterleaf, Hydrophyllum capitatum 
It gave me another chance to get better photos of these wildflowers.
Sticky Geranium, Geranium viscosissimum

Photos or no photos, I was happy to see all the bloom. After being limited to the Bay Area for most of the spring I was thrilled to be in a place where spring was at its peak early in July.
Low Phacelia, Phacelia humilis
The trail grade remained mild but were gaining altitude constantly. By mid day we were walking right under the rim of the basin.

We were getting closer and closer to the patches of snow. The elder chika kept wishing of a snow patch closer to the trail where she could cool off. It would not be long now.

As we gained more altitude the vegetation also altered. The shrubs were smaller and the trees were smaller and more of them were alone rather than in groves.

And we saw different wildflowers too.
Spreading Phlox, Phlox diffusa 
We took another break, this time near a small snow patch where the chikas built a small snow man. It was harder to get them going after that because the day had heated up quite a bit and there was still more elevation to gain.

The trail became steeper. Not much, but enough to slow us down. We could also see more exposed rocks, free of vegetation. It was in these places where the volcanic past of the region was most apparent.

Eventually we arrived at the ridge and the trail leveled. At that point I was at the lead, anxious to get to the intersection with the Summit Trail. I could already see glimpses of the view east of the ridge, enough to tell it was breathtaking. I also enjoyed the changing display of wildflowers high up on the ridge.

The trees up there were all Alpine dwarf pines that reminded me very much of the ancient bristlecone pines we've seen at the White Mountains. The similarity isn't coincidental nor completely convergent: the alpine pine is the closest relative of the bristlecone pine, and both species grow in high altitudes.

We arrived at the intersection and sat down beneath a small alpine pine that cast just enough shade for Pappa Quail and the chikas.
Alpine Pine, Pinus albicaulis 
Once at the ridge crest we had a clear view to the east. And it was spectacular. We could see all the way down to Eagleville and the dry lakes at the valley floor. We could also see that the eastern slopes of the mountain still had quite a bit of snow.

A large snow patch nearby attracted the chikas and soon they were on the snow.
Snow Woman
I also didn't sit long: there were new wildflowers to observe.
Eaton's Daisy, Erigeron eatonii 
Many of the wildflower species I saw there and later on were completely new to me. I tried my best to document as much as I could and to get enough details to allow for easier identification later. Still, that wasn't easy.
Broadstemmed Onion, Allium platycaule 
I wasn't the only one enjoying the bloom. Butterflies were numerous, and very active. I was lucky when occasionally one would stay put long enough to be photographed.  
Milbert's Tortoiseshell 
We had a good, long rest there at the trail intersection. We were in no hurry - after all we had only a little over half a mile to to walk to Patterson Lake. When we got up to move on the sun was already moving west. We turned north onto Summit Trail and continued uphill along the ridge, easily passing around the piles of snow that blocked the trail in places.

I didn't think it was possible but the Summit Trail turned to be even more beautiful than the Pine Creek Trail we hiked earlier that day. The stunning view both east and west gave us the feeling of being on top of the world.
Silvery Lupine, Lupinus argenteus 
And then, there were the wildflowers. In copious numbers. The top soil there between the large boulders and rocks was mainly small sharp gravel and much of it was exposed. This backdrop made the strong wildflowers display even more impressive than it was below, where the surrounding was green.  It reminded me of the desert superbloom we've seen earlier this year at Joshua Tree National Park.
Common Woolly Sunflower, Eriophyllum lanatum
The butterflies were busy up there too, complementing the wildflowers with their colorful wing patterns.
Once again I lingered behind to try and capture this beauty on camera.

Pappa Quail also was looking for flying things, but of the feathered kind.
House Wren (adult, western)
As I came around a corner I saw the rest of my family waiting by a large boulder near the trail. Pappa Quail turned to me and said that we had a problem.
The problem turned out to be a large snow field that covered the trail ahead of us, blocking our way up to Patterson Lake.
The snow patch covered maybe 50 meters of trail but the difficulty wasn't in the length but in its location on a very steep slope. Even if we had crampons and ice axes I'm not sure we would have risked crossing it, certainly not with children. But we had no snow equipment with us (they said the trails were clear when I called!) so crossing the snow field was not an option.

We probably should have turned around at that point. But being so close to our destination we decided to bypass the snow and chose to go above it. I'll make the long story short - we did it, but got very close to disaster. I still shudder when I think of it.

The elder chika had the least trouble - she went ahead like a mountain goat. The younger chika was petrified and as Pappa Quail clambered slowly on the steep rocky slope she refused to budge. I managed to encourage her to progress a bit, but then got cold feet myself and decided to take her higher. Pappa Quail went ahead while me and the younger chika tried to find a better route a bit higher up the slope. We made some progress when I heard a shout and saw Pappa Quail sliding fast down the snow patch. He had slipped on a mud spot and ended up going down on his butt down to and through the snow. Fortunately he was stopped by the trail which at that place was already clear of the snow. His backpack, which he held by hand, came loose and continued sliding all the way down to the bottom of the snow field, and a good distance further.

My heart was racing. I had to force myself to move on, for there was no way of going back where we were. I slowly directed the younger chika to move carefully from a rock to a bush to a rock, gripping tightly to anything she could hold. I did the same, but I also had to move both my backpack and hers with each move. We ware making progress at an inchworm pace.
Meanwhile Pappa Quail found a way down and retrieved his backpack. As he made it back to the trail and rested his pack near the elder chika I lost my grip on my pack and that wend a-sliding down, coming to a rest at a point even further than Pappa Quail's has.
The younger chika kept on moving slowly, and I followed her, dragging her backpack with me. As we made our way down Pappa Quail did a second trip down the slope to retrieve my backpack.
Productive Clover, Trifolium productum 
At last we were all on the other side of the snow field. We were all shaken and exhausted, but intact. We also have lost two water bottles and a pair of hiking poles that slid down to a place out of our reach. I feel bad for having left them out in the wilderness but not bad enough to risk going down to get them. I hope that later hikers going there after all the snow had melted got these items out of there. All and all, we were very fortunate indeed not to have lost any of our packs, or getting injured or worse.
Sticky Geranium, Geranium viscosissimum 
We had also lost nearly two hours crossing the snow field. The sun was way in the west and we need to get to the lake soon to make camp. So we got back on our feet and continued up the trail under the pretty rock formation that marked the knife edge of Warren Peak.
Pappa Quail was the first one up, and as I made my way across the ridge line again he turned back to me and his expression was of more bad news.
Patterson Lake is located in the most beautiful place, nestled inside the horseshoe ridge of Warren Peak with a steep slope to the east and a narrow strip of flat area where people camp when they go up there. We saw the lake below us, still mostly frozen. But the trail leading down to it could not be seen. It was buried under a large snow field, bigger and steeper than the one we had just crossed at a great risk.
Patterson Lake 
There was no going any further. And we were in no shape to go back. Our best option was to stay the night right there, on the small protrusion of Warren Peak that was clear of snow.
Pappa Quail was exhausted. He took some time to rest, then slowly pitched our tent and had it prepped for sleeping. Meanwhile I worked the chikas in collecting twigs from the downed and dry trees of which there were plenty, and started our Biolite stove. We had no source of water there, not in a liquid form, so we needed to melt snow, and that takes much time and energy. We had our work cut out for us.

Being busy with my work didn't prevent me from seeing that this place we were going to spend the night at was full of wildflowers. Small, low to the ground, hardy, and very beautiful.

Moving about the lace I even managed to snap a few shots between my chores.
Douglas' Phlox, Phlox douglasii 
Eventually though, I did get the time to do a more thorough exploration of the area and of its botanical display.
Royal Beardtongue, Penstemon speciosus
The view was spectacular in any direction I was looking at. The evening sun and the lengthening shadows enhanced the rough topography of the South Warner Mountains.
A view northeast from our campsite above Patterson Lake
The wind was strong and the air chilled very quickly. We all donned our sweatshirts and huddled by the stove eating our dinner quickly. It was a big temperature drop between the mid-day heat and the evening chill.
The local plants are well adapted to this weather.
Desert Yellow Fleabane, Erigeron linearis
Evolved to withstand strong winds the little shrubs re nearly flat, their foliage just covers the soil. Only their blossom protrudes higher, advertising to insects that here be nectar to drink and pollen to eat and pass some on to the next of that species.
Clumping Buckwheat, Eriogonum caespitosum 
Needless to say, I have never before seen most of these plants. Despite our uncomfortable situation I was pleased.
Balloonpod Milkvetch, Astragalus whitneyi 
The sun had still some way to go when we finished our dinner. It didn't take long before Pappa Quail and the chikas vanished inside the tent. They were cold and tired, and the desolation had gotten into them.

I remained outside to wash the dishes, melt some more snow into drinking water, and to wait for the sunset.
It was too cold to stay put so I walked around a bit, scouting for a possible way down to the lake or an alternative way back to where we came from. It was too late to find any clear paths to either direction, but I got some leads that looked promising and decided to explore them further on the morrow.
The last light on the snow
Eventually I sat down facing west and shivered until the sun disappeared behind Warren Peak.

Cold and tired yet strangely exhilarated I crept into the tent and cocooned myself inside my sleeping bag. And although I had no idea yet of how we were going to get out of there, I pushed my worries out of my mind and crushed into sleep.

Many thanks to members of the California Native Plants Society for their help in identifying plants!


  1. The views and flowers are magnificent, but the stor is very frightning...

    1. Well, we pulled through. Now we know better. And I would love to go back there sometime to complete this hike and get to the lake :-)