Tuesday, February 18, 2020

An Afternoon of Extremes: Over McCabe Pass to Roosevelt Lake

Upper McCabe Lake, view north

Date: July 31, 2019
Place: Yosemite National Park, California
Coordinates: 37.998005, -119.326219
Length: 2 miles
Level: Very Strenuous

Splitting the accounts of the third day of me and my friend's backpacking trip in Yosemite into two blog posts seemed like a good idea not only because I have too many photos to show that would make one post to heavy but also because that day's hike was split into two very distinct parts.
The first part of the day we hiked off trail from Lower McCabe Lake to Upper McCabe Lake, and that hike had left us drained for a number of reasons, all of which I mentioned in the previous post. When we finally arrived at the shores of Upper Lake McCabe my friend toot a much needed rest. At that point I was resigned to stay there for the night. I was tired but felt too edgy to sit for long so I took my camera and went exploring a bit.
Sierra Penstemon, Penstemon heterodoxus 
It was like mid spring for the High Sierra and the bloom was still on the rise and going strong. I was amazed at Nature's splendor that grew from every crack in or under the rocks, painting the gray granite in brilliant strokes of vivid colors.
Spreading Phlox, Phlox diffusa 
There weren't big mats of bloom. The dry, gravely soil doesn't seem to hold enough water to support better vegetation coverage. That, and a very short growth season.
Goosefoot Violet, Viola purpurea
It was that most of the landscape was exposed granite that made the bloom stand out even more in its ethereal beauty.
Great Red Paintbrush, Castilleja miniata 
I didn't wander too far, I did not want to leave my sleeping friend for too long, but I did get to explore well enough the flora there. A part of me regrets that we did not end up staying there that night. Perhaps on another trip.
Alpine Mountain Sorrel, Oxyria digyna 
My friend woke u after nearly an hour of sleep and she was all good and ready to go. I was dubious, especially when she told me that she wasn't hungry and didn't want to eat anything. Remembering my own nausea on my solo trip to the Golden Trout Wilderness and the sickness feeling that ensued I stiffened and said I'd rather stay put.
Shrubby Cinquefoil, Diaspora fruticosa 
My friend made a face and then forced down some food to appease me. But what really had me going was when she reminded me that if we'd wait until tomorrow then the slope to the pass would be frozen and much harder to climb. It was either now or wait till the next afternoon when the snow softened once more.
Dwarf Alpine Paintbrush, Castilleja nana 
Once decided we got going quickly. It was already three o'clock in the afternoon and although it was summer, I was concerned that our daylight time left may not suffice.
Green-leaved Raillardella, Raillardella scaposa
Energized and resolute, my friend now led the way. No navigation was necessary - the pass was straight ahead across the lake. Getting there however, was not an easy walk at all. 

Walking along the north shore was simple enough. The rocky areas we traversed were easy to climb over.
Mountain Pride, Penstemon newberri
As we were rounding the western curve of the lake I remembered to restart my GPS logging of the hike.
Out path from Upper McCabe Lake to Roosevelt Lake as captured by my GPS
We came by the spillway of the lake. I had explored that corner earlier while my friend was asleep and came to the conclusion that it was probably for the best that we didn't climb that way earlier.
Upper Lake McCabe spillway
A small part of the lake near the spillway was separated from the rest by a strip of large rocks. The rocks looked so neatly placed that we wondered if they were laid there on purpose to allow crossing to the other side.

I thought that if it was done to make crossing easier they could have done a better job ... Either way, we did cross there to the other side, avoiding wading upstream of the spillway.

I was amazed at how clear the water was. Given more time I probably would have gone in for a swim. It sure was tempting, and the water not even cold to my touch.

most of the south west shore of the lake was a large scree field, what made our progress really, really slow. Occasionally we came upon a small patch of wetland irrigated by the melting snow and on it grew beautiful little alpine bog plants.
Dwarf Bilberry, Vaccinium cespitosum
On hind sight I wish I had paid closer attention to some of these plants because they grew only in those alpine altitude and it does take much effort to climb up to their level and see them in bloom.
Mountain Laurel, Kalmia polifolia 

We were racing time however, trying to get over the McCabe Pass before nightfall, so I couldn't linger by the wildflowers as long as I wished.
Frosted Buckwheat, Eriogonum incanum 

As we negotiated the large cracked rocks that comprised the scree shoreline I looked mostly down to watch my step and balance on the slanted rocks. Every now and then I would raise my eyes and gaze at the awesome view of the mountain ridge. All of a sudden I became aware of a dark figure that was making progress along the same shoreline, heading from the bottom of the pass northeast towards us. Another person in the wilderness, the first (and only) we've seen the entire day!
We met about half way to the pass and stopped for a short chat. He was doing the same loop hike we were, only in the opposite direction, similar to the route of that East Coast mountaineering class. He too supported the thought of going up to the pass today rather than wait for the morning, saying it would be much harder to climb the snow slope when iced by the night's chill. Especially when we didn't have any ice crossing equipment with us. But we shouldn't worry too much, he added. There are sun cups all the way up.
Sun cups were described to my by one of the mountaineering class instructors we had met the day before on the PCT. She said these were depressions made by the diurnal thaw-freeze cycle of old snow and that they formed easy to climb steps. I still didn't have a visual of this thing but that was soon to change.
Shepherd Crest East Ridge
We and the other backpacker bade each other farewell and then we continued on. Some further distance along I caught a glimpse of yet another movement - not a human one but that of a rodent. Not a squirrel, but a pika! Fortunately I have already seen pika earlier that summer on Sauk Mountain in Washington so I was familiar with their appearance, but this was the first time I've ever seen one in California and I was very excited. I even managed to photograph its face as it peeked cautiously behind a rock.
As we approached the bottom of the slope leading to the pass the scree changed into large rock masses that we had to climb. Wide patches of low growing pines covered some of these rock outcrops. I didn't get close enough to try and identify these pines because at that point we really did get tight on time.
Pine carpets
We arrived at the bottom of the snowy slope and then my friend took her backpack off and said she needed rest before going up. I checked the time and gritted my teeth - the slope was already getting shaded and we really didn't have any time to spare, but my friend looked very worn out so I took my backpack off as well and sat down beside her.
Shading the slope
Once again I suggested that we should stay for the night by Lake McCabe. The south shore wasn't as nice and comfortable as the north shore where we had our mid-day break but there were flat areas where we could pitch a tent and the water wasn't too far below.
Granite Draba, Draba lemmonii 
As soon as I suggested staying there however, my friend was up on her feet and said she was ready to go. We placed the shoe chains on our shoes, hoisted our packs and started up the steep snow slope.
Going up to McCabe Pass
The slope was already shaded but the snow was still soft. The sun cups did make it easier to not slip but the size of the snowy 'steps' was very variable, from small to very large. It took me a while to get over my inner shaking and by that time it got cold enough for me to start shaking from the cold rather than from fear.

A rocky 'island' about a third of the way up provided us with where to rest a bit. I watched wistfully as the sunlight line receded higher and higher, hoping there will be more light still when we've reached the top.
The small exposed area between the rocks was covered with a mat of the tiniest willow I've ever seen. I would never have recognized it as a willow if not for its distinct fluffy inflorescence. Less than two weeks after I would see more of it up by Winnemucca Lake.
Snow Willow, Salix nivalis 
After a pitifully brief break we continued on trudging up slope. I set a pace that was a bit too fast for my friend and had to stop every now and then to allow her to catch up with me. She claimed that following my footsteps made it easier for her to follow and I wanted to make it as easier for her as I could.
On one of these pauses I saw an animal running quickly across the snow. I thought fox and started fumbling for my camera. Thankfully the creature paused by the rocks before diving between them and I managed to snap a couple of shots. At home after enlarging the image I saw it wasn't a fox but a marmot. I didn't know they could move so fast, I've never seen one run before.
Yellow-bellied Marmot
I kept pressing on and my friend followed as fast as she could. Pulling toward the left side of the slope I tried to catch the receding line of sunlight but to no avail. The air got colder and the snow firmer and firmer. While struggling up slope I was warm and sweating but each time I pause to wait for my friend I grew cold fast. I couldn't wait for this ascend, as exciting as it was, to be over.

When I finally reached the pass (too late to warm up in sunshine) I looked down in an almost disbelief at what I'd just done. The north-facing slope from Upper McCabe Lake to McCabe Pass stretched below me like a huge bumpy slide. Everyone else who've we met that did this route had done it going down this slope, some sliding on their backpacks (I've seen the marks) and some stomping on crampons (seen those marks too). I thought that maybe with a pair of skis I might have .... but all and all, I think doing it again I'd still rather go up it rather than down. I'd start way earlier though.
Lake McCabe viewed from McCabe Pass
The pass itself was clear of snow and the gravel between the granite rocks was like a beautiful alpine garden.
Alpine Ivesia, Ivesia gorodonii 
I passed the time until my friend reached the pass to photograph some of these wildflowers. Unfortunately the light was already too low and many of my photos simply didn't come out right.
Dwarf Alpine Paintbrush, Castilleja nana 
Seeing the alpine bloom is a major boon for me in each of my High Sierra backpacking trips. I knew I wasn't going to get any higher than this pass on this trip and I felt very frustrated to not have the time to enjoy this very special and hard to get to garden.
Davidson's Penstemon, Penstemon davidsonii
But I did get to see it. And while I had very little time to appreciate it, I felt blessed to have seen this fleeting alpine spring at its peak.
Pygmy Fleabane, Erigeron pygmaeus
My friend reached the pass. I expected her to request a break but she immediately started down the south slope, and soon got quite ahead of me.
Despite the pressing time I had to pause at the pass to savor the moment. To take in not only the precious alpine bloom but also the vastness of the High Sierra roof of the word sensation. Here's nothing quite like being up there like that.
Straight ahead below me I could see the elongated shape of Roosevelt Lake where we were headed. It was already shaded. Beyond the lake I saw the granite peaks poking at the sky fr as far as the horizon.  One of these peaks looked round and very familiar. Could that be ...
View south from McCabe Pass
I zoomed to maximum. Yes t was! From the height of McCabe ass I had a clear view if Half Dome, way down in Yosemite Valley! How awesome is that! At that moment all the cold and hardship of ascending to the pass fell off me. I was as elated as a child seeing home after being away for a long time.
Half Dome
Then I looked down the south slope again and I saw that my friend had already gone far down. She was heading to the right side of the valley where getting down to the lake look like it would necessitate climbing down some some rock ledges. From where I was standing it seemed that the left side seemed easier to go down on. I forgot the view and darted after my friend. I caught up with her as she was crossing another patch of snow, horizontal this time, and slushy still. The snow was very old and grown with red bacteria. Our steps exposed the red growth and marked our foot prints blood red.

As it turned out going down the left side of the valley wasn't very easy either. There were n steep rocky ledges there but the entire slope was flowing with ice-cold water and covered by a thicket of bushy willows. It was hard to whack our way through this thicket and cross the streams without getting our feet soaked with cold water.
Willow and Heather 
For me it was also hard to pass all the beautiful bog bloom I saw. Moreover, it was already too dark to get any good photos of any of that so I have to rely on my own description and the images etched in my memory for years to come.
Atto Lousewort, Pedicularis attollens 
About a third of the way down my friend reached the end of her tether. She sat down and said she could go no further. Sadly, where we were was not a good place to stay for the night - it was a very wet and exposed slope with no place to pitch a tent or even hunker down protected from the cold. Seeing that we still had some treacherous thicket to go through and almost no daylight left I started coaxing her to go on just a little while longer. I pointed out to her the north shore of Roosevelt Lake as it was our promised land, but all to no avail. It was only when I pulled my emergency beacon and threatened that if she didn't get going I would push the button and call for an emergency evacuation for her that she finally got to her feet and continued to slump down the slope, me guiding her foot steps from one rock ledge to another.
Roosevelt Lake
It was nearly completely dark when we reached Roosevelt Lake. We stoped at the first suitable spot I've seen and took off our backpacks. My friend fell to the ground and started breathing hard and loud. I pulled her mattress from her backpack and spread it on the ground for her, then commenced pitching the tend and get everything else ready for the night. I kept myself busy to avoid getting hysterical but frankly, I don't think I've been this scared in a very long time.
When the tent was ready my friend wanted to go right in but I wouldn't let her until she had some dinner. I had to use the beacon threat again before she ate some. She looked much better after that and  breathed normally. She smiled to me as I washed the dishes and apologized for not being in shape to help out. I apologized for snapping at her and pushing her hard. Inside I was still freaked out - the risk of altitude sickness was still very real.
Last light above Roosevelt Lake
Some time after I finished clearing our camp area I sat shivering with cold on the large flat rock by our tent that had been both our seat and our table, and I looked up at the night sky. The Milky Way was bright and so wonderful, and there were so many stars dotting the night sky like I haven't seen in such a long time. I coaxed my friend to poke her head out of the tent to glimpse the sky too, arguing that she would not have another chance to see such skies for  long while.
Later I laid awake inside the tent, listening to the steady breathing of my friend. We've done it - going up to Upper Lake McCabe and across McCabe Pass, with no trail and across very challenging terrain. We did it, and it was almost too much. Now we were completely alone in the wilderness with one more day ahead before going back on the regularly used trails where other people were. As tired as I was, and although quite comfortable and warm inside the tent, it took me a long time to relax and drift off to sleep.

Monday, February 10, 2020

Upping the Stakes: Going Cross Country from Lower McCabe Lake to Upper McCabe Lake

Upper McCabe Lake and McCabe Pass

Date: July 31, 2019
Place: Yosemite National Park, California
Coordinates: 37.994137, -119.350864
Length: 3.1
Level: Strenuous

I am an experienced hiker and I sure know how to use a map and compass. A GPS navigator always makes things more easy and convenient too. That said, I am not mistake-proof. That have been occasions in the past when I was too distracted or too lazy to stop and verify my location. This happened once on my July 2016 backpacking trip to Mineral King when me and my friend (a different friend) took the wrong turn going up to Sawtooth Pass, ending up by Spring Lake rather than Columbine Lake where we had planned to go. One outcome of this mistake was that for nearly two days we had to walk cross country with no trail, scrambling through boulder fields and scree, wading through bogs, and climbing down steep cliffs. That was quite an educating experience and although we did it well and safe, and had a splendid time by Spring Lake, I made sure on all my following trips to not make such a mistake again.
Sunrise at Lower McCabe Lake

Yet, now on the third day of our Yosemite Backpacking Trip, I was about to go off trail and cross country again, this time intentionally. And I was taking with me a backpacking novice, who had no navigation experience and who trusted me blindly. Having talked with the mountaineering class instructors on the PCT the previous day I knew that this time would be no easier. That we would face large talus slopes (big broken boulders), wide flooded bogs, steep slopes, and most scary - the climb to McCabe Pass on a north-facing steep slope covered with icy snow. Ever since my talk with them I had debated in my mind if going cross country was a good idea. But then again, I also learned from them that yes, this route is definitely doable. Moreover, although guided, it was doable by an entire class of novices.
Morning reflection at Lower McCabe Lake
On the morning of our third day my friend woke up all perked and gang ho. For her, there was no discussion necessary. She wanted to do this. Encouraged by her complete recovery from yesterday's fatigue and caught up with her renewed energy I pushed away my doubts. Today we would go off trail.
Our hike from Lower McCabe Lake to Upper McCabe Lake as captured by my GPS
On the map it didn't look like a big deal and I hoped it wouldn't be. The maptwever, shows only the naked landscape and none of the surface features other than lakes and creeks and fields of year-round snow.
Morning reflection at Lower Lake McCabe
Even when showing creeks, the map doesn't indicate how wide or fast it would be and what would it take to cross it. Having seen the creek we had to cross on the previous night I already knew we'd have to wade across so I didn't even bother to put on my shoes when I got out of the tent on the morning of our third day, and I did all the morning routine in my sandals.
McCabe Creek where it drains the lake. 
After crossing the creek we found ourselves walking along a trail. It wasn't on the map but it was a real trail, used often enough to be clear and easy to follow.
Unofficial trail north of Lower Lake McCabe
It didn't take long though, before the trail diffused into the forest and we found ourselves walking over fallen branches and around boulders, making our way slowly up and around to the northeast.

Talus is the geological name for fallen boulders. The forest floor was littered with talus, ranging from table to house sizes, and each shaped differently. Between the boulders grew pine and fir trees, their low limbs brushing the ground. Low heather shrubs, some blooming, matted the forest floor, and many cobwebs decorated everything.

We made a slow progress along the contour of the granite spur that separated Lower McCabe Lake and the basin where we planned to climb to Upper McCabe Lake. We couldn't see the spur because of the trees but we knew it was there, if only because the talus boulders had to roll down from somewhere.
We hooted a bit when we saw our first snow mound of the day.

Having a GS navigator makes cross country hiking much easier. Instead of having to pull out my map and triangulate our location al I needed to do was to select the optimal altitude line and follow it in the direction I desired. Give or take a few us and downs to circumvent path difficulties, it worked very well.
Towny Horkelia, Horkelia fusca var. Parviflora 
Eventually after slow but steady progress through the woods, we made it through the trees to where the granite was bare and the late summer snow patches were melting, feeding small patches of bog full of flowers and mosquitoes.

The flowers that bloomed along the snow-melt line were so tiny that they were hardly visible from above. But there were many of them,
Nevada Bitterroot, Lewisia nevadensis 
A huge wall of granite ridge sharp as teeth, loomed ahead of us. We were now heading northeast, making allow progress around the spur, trying to stay along the tree line.  The basin that we had to climb the Upper McCabe Lake from laid between us and that Shepherd Crest ahead.
Shepherd Crest East
Water was seeping from beneath sweating snow patches but also from cracks in the giant granite outcrops. This is as springy as it gets.
Rock Springs
Fed by the spring and snowmelt water - rugs of greens and tiny wildflowers. Along the tree line, behind almost every boulder was such a spring wetland area, lush and colorful. 
Primrose Monkeyflower, Erythranthe primuloides 
We were slow crossing these patches, if only to minimize as much as we could damaging this sensitive, transient garden.
Ledge Stonecrop, Rhodiola integrifolia 
In places the seeping water would collect into little brooks which we crossed with a small hop. I filled my bottle from one of these but sitting down to filter the water proved to be more challenging - the moment we sat down we were driven away by swarms of mosquitoes.
Buttercup, Ranunculus sp. 
Eventually we did find a more quiet spot to sit down for water filtering and a small snack. From our seat on a great granite outcrop we had our first view of the large meadow below, where were headed.
Shepherd Crest West
Our descent into that green valley was again through the forest and between large talus boulders. We kept veering east toward the upper end of the valley, hidden on the right.
Meadow Everlasting, Antennaria corymbosa 
The display of wildflowers changed again - no longer were they the tiny ephemerals but bigger and more robust plants that had already experienced early spring and were now blooming into their summer.
Great Red Paintbrush, Castilleja miniata

Despite the temptation we tried not to get down too quickly, because we knew we would have to go up again to get to Upper McCabe Lake. The more we descended, the fewer were the trees, and smaller they were. Between them we finally could see the eastern end of the green valley we now walked into. It was to that valley corner that I was aiming for.

There was lots of water everywhere. I chose a small brook and started following it up the valley. Soon however, we had to cross it and follow another one. As it turned out, the valley floor was netted with countless brooks and rivulets.

In between these brooks the soil was completely soaked, rendering this valley effectively a bog.

A very lively bog it was. So green it hurt my desert-grown eyes. So wet that I had to carefully calculate each step as to not sink through the mud.
The king of the swamp there wasn't the daffodil but the swamp onion, which was only beginning its bloom as we waded our way through its territory.
Swamp Onion, Allium validum
Patches of lousewort colored the swamp's green with lively pink. I risked a dozen mosquito bites to stop and photograph them.
Attol Lousewort, Pedicularis attollens 
Indeed, as soon as we cleared the trees we were surrounded by clouds of mosquitoes. All morning we had to deal with the mosquitoes but all of a sudden they became intolerable. No amount of feet would help. Running was not an option in this terrain, but we did hurry up as much as we could, slumping our feet in the mud and jumping over the brooks an a wild effort to clear the wetland as fast as we could.

I looked wistfully at the end of the valley where I wanted us to climb. Both my friend and I were winded from our haste through the swamp and needed rest, and it looked very far still. `then my friend pointed out to the slope right of that valley end and suggested we should climb up there. It was closer to get there and it seemed totally doable so I agreed, and we started heading over to our right.
American Brooklime, Veronica americana 
Although we did take the shorter way out of the swamp it was still taking very long, as progress isn't quick in this sort of terrain. And trying to be careful not to step on any frogs either.
California Tree Frog
Short cuts often end up taking longer than the laid out path. In this case we had no path and I do not know if climbing where I originally planned of doing so would have been any easier. We did end up, however, on a very steep slope, approximately 50 degrees steep, with very little foot holds. We remained upright basically by leaning into the slope like mountain goats.

Unlike mountain goats, we carried heavy backpacks. Also we were weary from running through the bog. There were very few spots along our ascend where we could pause for a breather, and we used each and every one of them. It was about noon when we started our ascend but we climbed so slowly that I started wondering if we'd managed to get over the pass that day. I was also concerned with my friend who needed to pause after a few steps each time. She had water but when she refused any offer of snack claiming she was feeling nauseous, I begun to worry that she might be getting altitude sickness.
A mosquito photobomb on our way up to Upper McCabe Lake
Coming by a group of larger rocks and a bit of shade I told my friend to sit and wait while I go up and see how much further we need to go. Wearily, she agreed.
The concern fueled me with renewed energy. I moved up as quickly as I could all the way to the ridge, which wasn't all that far. I placed my backpack against a rock making sure that it won't roll down and started downhill again. I paused only briefly to look at the green valley that we left so far below.

I found my friend on her feet, pushing her back pack uphill. I admit I got so upset that I snapped at her for taking the risk. I was afraid that at her level pf fatigue she might lose her balance and fall, what might get her rolling down the slope at high risk of injury. She didn't argue, just yielded her backpack to me, and we made it slowly up the rest of the slope to the ridge, where I had left my own backpack.
Shepherd Crest East
We sat on the ridge for a few moments, then each of us hoisted her own backpack, and we started our descent down to Upper Lake McCabe, to the promised site where we had planned to have our lunch and big break of the day. I looked across the lake and had no trouble spotting the slope leading to McCabe Pass: it was all snow, from bottom to top.

There was no trail there too, and we made a slow descent toward the lake. It was around 2pm when we arrived at the north (near) shore of the lake and found a good place to stop. I set about filtering water and fixing lunch while my friend laid herself flat n the ground, covered her face with her hat and drifted off to sleep.
At that point I was convinced that we would go no further that day. The day however, turned out otherwise, and about that in the next blogpost.