Saturday, August 11, 2007

John Muir Wilderness

Unfortunately, my hiking holidays are already over. I came back on Tuesday night dirty, smelly, sun-burned, swollen, bruised, scratched, absolutely in love with Sierra Nevada mountains and with a strong resolution to go back there as soon as possible.

The part of the Sierras where I hiked is called John Muir Wilderness. As I learned, by law wilderness areas are even more protected from human influence than national parks are (e.g. even biking is not allowed within them).
I am mentioning this because my hiking expedition was part of a geological field trip. One of my friends' (Mike's) father is a geology professor at Stanford University interested in structural geology and geomechanics. Once a year he organizes a trip to High Sierras to find experimental evidence and collect samples that will support the theoretical models of rock movements and deformations that he and his students are creating in the lab. Several months before each of his trips to the Sierras he has to apply to US National Park Services for a special permission that will enable him bringing (and using) heavy-duty scientific equipment (like gas and electric drills) up the mountains.

That means that each such trip is a big deal for them and is always extremely carefully and well organized. As Mike said to me: "Imagine that you could do only one experiment a year. Wouldn't you like to prepare it very well and wouldn't you be extremely enthusiastic about it?" Of course I would and I was. I was also extremely grateful both to Mike and his father for giving me an opportunity of joining them during their field trip.

Being part of their geological team definitely added a lot to my experience in the Sierras. It was so great to see all of them (Dave - Mike's father, Ashley and Betsy - Dave's PhD students, and Georgio - a visiting Italian professor) looking at some cracks (proper geological name: fault or joint depending on the filling...) with such enthusiasm as you would expect from a 3-year-old child when she/he gets her/his first toy ever. They could spend hours starring at those faults and other geological features discussing in detail what they could mean for their model(s).

I think mountains will never be the same for me anymore. It's like a completely new dimension was added to my hiking experience. So far during hiking I was marveling at the beauty of landscape and mightiness of forces of nature, or I was looking for animals and I was trying to recognize different plants. From now on I will also look for faults, joints and pseudotachylytes (100 points for the person that knows what that is).

Now few photos and a short day-by-day description of our hiking activities.

Day 1:
A car trip from Stanford to John Muir Wilderness (around 7h including lunch break). Dinner at VVR restaurant. Setting up the camp at Edison Lake.

Day 2:
Visit at the packing station to arrange for mulls to bring some of our equipment to the camp high in the mountains. Breakfast at VVR. Hike from Edison Lake (located at 7600ft) up to Bear Ridge (9840ft). This section of the trail was pretty much constantly going steeply uphill until we reached a crossing with Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail/John Muir Trail. From there we hiked in direction of Selden Pass down to Bear Creek. This part of the trail had many switchbacks going steeply down to around 9000ft. Then we hiked along Bear Creek until we reached Hilgard Branch. We stopped few hundred meters after it at around 9400ft and there we finally set up the base camp. All in all it took us around 6h (with many breaks to eat and look at outcrops) to hike 10 miles, 2600ft up, 900ft down.

We started our hike at Lake Edison:

As soon as we were high up in the mountains (at Bear Ridge) we encountered first interesting geological features which were - of course - carefully examined by our geological team:

While they were all gazing at the rocks I made friends with this nice Alligator Lizard:

Our camp was located at the east side of Bear Creek:

Day 3:
First few hours of that day Mike and I spent following geologists at their quest to find pseudotachylytes. Here you can see them again gazing at some crack:

Then we decided to separate from them and take advantage of very low levels of Bear Creek to cross it and explore lakes located in the mountains on its west side. First we followed a nameless creek going up to Orchid Lake (10600ft). That part of the hike was very steep and all the time uphill, but it did not take us too much time.

This is the first lake (not only it did not have a name but also it was not even marked on our not-so-great map) that we encountered during that hike:

On the meadow nearby it we saw many pretty blue butterflies:

Few hundred meters after the first lake we finally found Orchid Lake. We stopped there for lunch and marveled at the beauty of Seven Gables and Gemini (the peaks in the background on the right side of the picture):

Close up of Seven Gables (now in the center of the picture) and Gemini (to the right and slightly behind Seven Gables). Two days later we were just few hundred feet away from Gemini peak:

From Orchid Lake we continued to Apollo and Cirque Lakes. In principle they were located at the same height as Orchid Lake was, but as there was neither trail between them nor we had a decent map of this part of the mountains, we ended up going several times up and down for several hundred feet before we got where we wanted. Moreover, again as a result of not having a good map, we ended up choosing a pretty bad route back to the camp. It was both very long and tiring (with lots of bouldering). We were hurrying up as much as we could and still we only managed to reach our camp few minutes before it became completely dark. After that both Mike and I were pretty exhausted. I was even too tired to eat dinner. I went straight to my tent and I immediately felt asleep waking up only 10h later...

Day 4:
On that day Mike and I packed all our gear and set up for a 2-day hike in high mountains. Our goal was to reach Floating Rock Lake, a lake that Mike named when he was 15 and which he hadn't seen for at least 10 years. First we gradually hiked up along Bear Creek until we reached Rosemarie Meadow (10040ft). There we stopped to resupply water as that was our last water source before our final destination for that day.

From there the trail led us through the forest to beautiful Lou Beverly Lake (10160ft):

After we passed that lake we again started hiking steeply up until we reached Sandpiper Lake (10600ft). From there it was supposed to be relatively easy to get to Three Island Lake as both of these lakes are located at the same height. However, that was the most exhausting part of our hike as we all the time had to climb on the boulders. Moreover, carrying full gear on our backs and being already on pretty high altitude were not helping. Still, we made it to the top in less than 4h. We set up our tent, rested for around 1h and then decided to try to go around Three Island Lake. We were not sure if we would manage to do it as it again involved a lot of bouldering.

Three Island lake:

Surprisingly, we managed without any problems and we even managed to get to Flat Note Lake, which is usually not easily accessible because of snow (which this time was not there):

After we came back from that little trip we ate fast dinner and immediately hide in our tent as all of the sudden the temperature fell drastically and it was freezing cold even though it was only 7 in the evening.

Day 5:
That was pretty tough day for us. We were on tight schedule to get up to Mike's lake, come back down to our tent at Three Island Lake, pack it and get down to the base camp at Bear Creek before sun sets down. Of course there was no trail where we were going, so we again had to do a lot of cross-country and bouldering. But even though it was physically exhausting hike, we enjoyed it a lot as there were many beautiful lakes and creeks all along our route.

One of the creeks on our way to Gemini:

We were also pleased to see several couples of Western Tanagers that were pretty much oblivious to our presence:

The higher we got, the more unmelted snow patches we encountered:

Unfortunately, one of these snow patches prevented us from reaching Mike's lake. On the photo below you can see the highest point to which we got (12200ft) at the footsteps of Gemini Peak:

Still, it was great to get at least there, as it offered spectacular views of Seven Gables and Seven Gables Lakes:

On the way back to our tent we again passed many beautiful small lakes:

Another example:

Taking a break to drink and rest:

We (or actually Mike) also found a very interesting artifact. If you look closer you will realize that what Mike keeps in his hands is actually plane's engine cover...

Because we did not manage to get as far as we planned, we were way ahead of our time schedule. Thanks to that we did not have to hurry back and we could come back to the base camp at relaxed speed. Here, Mike is crossing Bear Creek just few hundred feet away from the camp:

Day 6:
Four of us (Mike, Dave, Betsy and I) packed our stuff and hiked back to our car parked at the south side of Edison Lake (backtracking what we did on day 2). Ashley and Georgio stayed at the camp for another week to continue their research.

On the way back I made friends with another (unidentified) lizard:

From Edison Lake we drove back to Stanford with a stop at Los Banos to eat dinner at the restaurant called "French Basque" (located somewhere on H Street). Los Banos is just 2h of car drive away from SF. I would dare to claim that it is worth to travel for this 2x2h just to eat dinner at this restaurant. It's experience (not only culinary) that you will not forget.

Eh, I want to go hiking again!