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.


  1. This seems to be a beautiful hike but very challenging and somewhat risky

    1. Yes, it was risky. More so because I relied on my friend's state of mind to judge if she was up for it. I was much relieved when we gt over the pass.

  2. amazing views! really wonderful!
    looks very hard, but what a place! and I love those lovely alpine flowers!

    1. I wish I could have stayed longer there to explore more. Perhaps next time :-)