Friday, May 09, 2008

Hiking in Great Basin National Park: 3 Word Wednesday Exercise

I’ve used this week’s 3-Word Wednesday writing exercise to tell about another solo backpack trip. This week’s words are: cautious, human, maybe. A few weeks ago I wrote about a trip where I did a foolish thing while hiking. In this post, I tell about deciding not to go through with my original plans. The digital photos were copied from prints.

Descending the switchbacks toward Johnson Lake, I think about how I wouldn’t have been so cautious when younger. But now, with kids to consider, the thought of an accident while alone in a wilderness area was too much. I had abandoned my attempt to cross over from Pyramid Peak to Mt. Washington. The knife-edged ridge was covered with a bed of broken chips of limestone. The rocks shifted under each step and to both sides dropped off preciously. It wouldn’t take much, maybe a fall or just sliding rocks, to dispatch me into a fatal fall of 100s if not a 1000 feet. I pondered it long and hard, sitting on the edge of the saddle for a good thirty minutes, considering options and looking for a way around. At nearly 12,000, I was well above tree line and a good 7000 feet above the desert floor surrounding the Snake Range. The views were incredible, but this was not a place for a mistake.

I had wanted to visit the two large groves of Bristlecone Pines that flank the northwest and south sides of Mount Washington. These ancient trees eke out a living in the most rugged terrain, at the edge of tree line, where there is little competition from other trees or plants. Just north of here, on the slope of Wheeler Peak, a Bristlecone was cut down in 1964. A controversy ensued at it was learned the tree was nearly 5,000 years old, perhaps the oldest living thing on earth.
Before arriving at Johnson Lake, I come upon an overhead tram, the remains of a mining operation. This would have been a harsh environment to have worked in. It’s a long ways from anything and the winters are bitterly cold. Ore was discovered in these parts in the late 1860s, but it wasn’t until the early 20th century that any serious mining occurred. In the teens, the town of Bonita existed here, deep in the Snake Range, with two saloons to serve a population of 25. The town was abandoned after the mine went bankrupt in 1919. I drop my pack and explore the relics around the lake. It’s hard to imagine those working here, for today I’m the only one around. There had only been one other vehicle at the parking lot and I assumed that belonged to a fisherman I’d seen the day before on Baker Creek. I hike a little further down a trail along Snake Creek, stopping for lunch of crackers and cheese and an apple. I fix lemonade and force myself to drink a quart. At t his elevation, you can get seriously dehydrated with knowing it. At a fork in the trail, I hike northeast, crossing over a bare ridge of sage, with great vies of the desert to the southeast. Then I take a rough trail that breaks off to the right and follows Timber Creek, back to my car at the Baker Creek trailhead.
The trailhead is at 7900 feet. I’d begun my hike here, 26 hours earlier. I’d taken the Baker Creek trail, which followed the creek for maybe a quarter mile, jumping it twice, before leaving the creek and making a series of steep switchbacks in an open field of sage. After gaining several hundred feet, the trail and creek reunited and for the next couple miles, the sound of running water could be heard if not seen just to my left. The climb continued to be steep and I thought I’d never get to Baker Lake. As the sun was dropping behind the Snake Range, I passed an old cabin, and then began another steep set of switchbacks. After gaining another couple hundred feet in elevation, I arrive at the top of a glacier moraine. I still had another good quarter mile to make it to the lake nestled into a basin, with steep cliffs all around. It was a six mile hike, with an elevation gain of approximately 2800 feet. It took me a little over four hours, an hour longer than I’d planned.
With night approaching, I dropped my pack on a small level area of sand, set up my bivy tent and got out my stove and a pot. I walked over to the lake to fill the pot and notice the trout rising. For a moment, I wish I had a fly rod with me for the lakes and rivers of the park contain Great Basin Cutthroats. Then I realize that light is fading fast and I fill my pot and walk back to camp, starting the stove to get water to boil. The meal this evening is easy, an MRE delicacy. I’ll boil the pouch in water and then use a bit of the boiling water for tea. The air has become chilly and as I wait for the water to boil, I pulled out a fleece jacket and pants. After eating and storing my gear, I realize that I’m the only human in miles, so I crawl in my bag and watch my old friends, the stars. The tail of Scorpius hangs just over the ridge to the south and in the sky, high above, are the two dippers. I fall asleep. When I awake, several hours later, Pegasus and Cygnus, the northern cross, are flying high overhead. I wonder if I’ll see Orion rise in the east at dawn, but when I wake again, the stars have faded away with the coming of the dawn.

It’s chilly in the morning. There’s enough water in my pot, so I start the stove without getting out of my bag, waiting for the water to boil. When it was just about ready, I pulled on my fleece and retrieve my food bag suspended from a small tree. This wouldn’t have deterred a bear, but it kept the small critters out of it. From the bag, I pull a flow-through bag of coffee and drop it into an insulated cup. In a bowl, I add oatmeal, and then add boiling water to both. The coffee and oatmeal warms me, but so does the sun as its rays reach the bottom of the basin and fill it with light. After packing up, I head south, to where an old trail leads over a saddle and into Johnson Lake. I’m sore from having climbed so much the day before, but with no one to complain to, I keep going and after thirty minutes, I’m on the ridge, where I head off southwest, toward Mount Washington. There, all alone, I come to the knife-edged ridge, where is where I decided to turn back.


  1. I would love to see Orion while camping in the mountains. Oh, and what an idiot! Chopping down the oldest tree, I bet the guy never lived that tale down.

  2. I want to make it to Great Basin, but haven't yet.

    I took an astronomy class my freshman year of college, hoping to learn the constellations. Instead, I spent too much time trying to figure out enough physics to calculate the life of stars. I wasn't happy about that.

    I think you and I have a different idea of hiking: you go all out, sleep out and do what I would almost call "mountain climbing." I like trails, hikes ranging from an hour-six or seven at the longest. Where you carry one meal and a lot of water and that's it. Sigh. I really would love to be back in a park right now. Setting the incline on a treadmill just doesn't do the same thing for me.

    Once again your photos were fabulous.

  3. The vivid blue of the sky in the last couple of photos is truly amazing!

  4. I don't know which is better, the story or the photos. Now I seriously want to see Mt. Washington in the summertime. I hear it can get chilly up there in July, freezing cold. Is that true?

  5. I'm stuck at being the only human for miles--just you, your sleeping bag and the stars. Wow

  6. I can't believe you hike that far, alone and in the wilderness.

    Too bad about that tree.

  7. Maggie, there's been all kind of discussion about the tree and it's demise as you can see in the linked article

    TC, I too took astromony in college--it was a physics class and I think I knew the names of as many stars as the prof (but I struggled to get all the formulas right.

    Diane, being that high and no clouds can produce such a sky (and also burn you if you're not careful)

    Scarlet, are we thinking of the same Mt. Washington? This one is in Eastern Nevada. I've also been over the other Mt. Washington in NH--the Appalachian Trail runs along the top of it.

    Pia, I'm not sure where the next closest person would have been--probably Baker Creek campground--about 7 miles down the mountain. By the way the crow flies, it would be the Leyman Cave area, maybe 3-4 miles away, but I'm not a crow

    Kenju, this wasn't that long of a trip, maybe 14 miles total.

  8. Years ago, I took a solo road trip west for the express purpose of visiting Great Basin.

    What a fabulous place!

    I only spent two days there, but I need to get back for a longer stay. In fact, I need to spend more time in the wilderness areas of Nevada. It's truly a beautiful state.


  9. Sherman, I hope you got to hike to the top of Wheeler (I've also done it). From the peak, it seems as if the mountains are islands rising out of the desert. I highly recommend the Ruby Mts. in Nevada--one wilderness place there I've not gotten to is the Jarbridge Wilderness area in the NE part of the state.

  10. Funny thing how a family can change your risk profile. That is probably why you or I will never end up like Aaron Rolfe and have to cut our arms off with dull pocket knives.

  11. Your stories always make me want to travel more. I find it comforting that it's still possible to get miles away from the nearest human. Enticing, even.