Friday, June 22, 2018

Backpacking at Cottonwood Lakes

We wondered if something was a little bit off when we were booking permits for Cottonwood Lakes online.  Why were there so many reservations available for a popular weekend like Memorial Day?  Was it not fully booked out because it isn't as scenic or spectacular as other parts of the Sierra?  Maybe it's still too cold this time of year to go backpacking?  It was sort of unsettling, but we wouldn't be alone... it appeared that eight other idiots booked on the same day for the same general area.  We'd been looking forward to going back up the 395 for months, after waiting out the awkward time in between when the snow is good for snowboarding and bad for backpacking.  This would be our first long-awaited backpacking trip into the Sierra of the season.

Well, the days were drawing nearer and I started doing some research about Cottonwood Lakes.  It seemed like not too hard of a hike to get to the first or second lake and there was a large campground at the trailhead that we could try to grab a spot at the night before.  So, we could set up camp at Lake #1 or Lake #2 and then keep exploring the rest of the five lakes from there.  Wes kept his eye on the weather (which we soon learned really doesn't matter because it fluctuates on an hourly basis in the mountains).  After work on Friday, we went to REI to buy some things that I never thought I'd ever want to have anything to do with: freeze-dried instant meals and bear spray.  Also, I considered a female urination tube in case the weather was bad enough that I'd have to pee inside of our tent, but decided that it would be unnecessary (and disgusting).  We packed our backpacks, but not before we procrastinated just a little bit and stuck our many random stickers on our ice chest.  By Saturday morning, we were sort of sleepy but ready to roll.

To get to Cottonwood Lakes, you'd start in Lone Pine, which is just a three-and-a-half hour drive.  This is just a gem of a small town at the base of Mt. Whitney, home to one of our favorite food stops along the way to Mammoth: the Alabama Hills Cafe.  I guess the food there would be what you'd call Californian diner fare.  We just love how generous the portion sizes are, and how quirky and no-frills this place is.  Wes always gets the classic club sandwich and I always get the Ironman Scramble, but today I felt like the California Club.

After we ate and before making the 45-minute drive up Whitney Portal Road to the trailhead, we stopped at the visitor center to get our permits.  It is recommended to spend the first night at Horseshoe Meadow Campground (elevation of 10,000 ft) to acclimate to the altitude.  We didn't know if there would be campsites available this late in the day (it was 3 PM), but the ranger told us that it never gets full.  He also said that it would be beautiful up there, with some snow that might block us from getting farther than the third Cottonwood Lake, but shoe spikes would not be needed.  I knew that it would be below freezing up at Horseshoe Meadow, but acclimating to the altitude took priority over a warm night down in the Alabama Hills.

The drive up is very beautiful, but if you're acrophobic, best to keep your eyes on the road!  There were also rocks in the middle of the road to dodge.  It was nice to know that we were driving up a good part of the way instead of hiking up, though.

There were plenty of campsites available at Horseshoe Meadows Campground.  Not all of the campsites have a picnic table or a fire pit, but we just shared with other people.  Everybody was really cool.

We didn't see any bears or mountain lions... but there were warning signs everywhere.

Now that we decided to stick all of our random stickers on the ice chest, we were excited to find some free stickers at the ranger station earlier.  We added those as soon as the tent was pitched!

So, Night #1 was definitely a five-star hotel compared to Night #2.  Bathrooms, bear boxes, flat ground, picnic table, fire pit, chairs, access to our car.  Its existence is solely for backpackers to acclimate to the thin air before going up even higher.  We also had a five-star cooked meal for dinner.  Wes had smoked some chicken leg quarters some time ago at home and froze them in vacuum bags.  We brought those up in our big ice chest and heated them up.  We also made campfire brussels sprouts and potatoes.  I bet the bears had their noses in the air--we must have eaten the best meal any living thing has seen up here.

Wes also took some night photos for fun.  Then, we put out the fire and went to bed.  It was super cold, but not as bad as I thought it would be because we actually had extra down blankets in addition to our sleeping bags this time.

We both woke up in the middle of the night to hear snow pattering down on the tent, but we plugged those ear plugs tighter and pulled the blankets up higher.  What else can you do?

When the sun came out, the snow melted away and we were able to pack up and head out.

The golden trout is the California state fish.  We had no idea that this would be significant later on during our trip.  

It was quickly getting colder by this point.  At a juncture in the trail, we took the opportunity to put on all of our rain covers - a very good choice in retrospect!

Aaaand then Wes had to put the camera away.  It began to snow so hard that the mountains were completely invisible, the sky became one color, and the ground was turning into squishy mud.  We were nice and dry underneath all of the rain protection though, so we trudged on.  There were two groups ahead of us that turned back.  We really considered it too - two or three times, we stood in the snow and deliberated.  I was thinking that if the weather was going to remain this bad, there would be really no point to setting up and sleeping out in these conditions.  We had passed by where Cottonwood Lake #1 and #2 were, but we couldn't really see them due to the storm.  The rest of the lakes would essentially be impossible to reach in these conditions.  Wes seemed to be leaning toward "shacking up" and waiting out the weather, as he said.  Who in their right mind would want to pitch a tent in this kind of wind and snow?  Well...this is usually how it goes.  We seem to consistently end up taking the path of more resistance, especially since we had already made it this far.  Plus, we weren't even wet on the inside.  So...we quickly found a spot behind a large boulder near an unnamed lake that seemed as good as it was gonna get.  In swirling torrents of snow, we threw together our ole shack.  I remember that my fingers were so cold that I couldn't clip the parts together.

While we were struggling to set up the tent, a person magically appeared and asked if we wanted some hot chocolate or coffee.  We were caught by surprise.  A few CA Department of Fish and Wildlife workers were staying in a little shack not more than 100 feet away.  I immediately accepted the offer!  This was no time to graciously decline a gift from the heavens.

This lone shack by our unnamed lake was no bigger than a college dorm, held together by four walls of corrugated sheet metal.  It's a very bare-bones kind of place - there is no bathroom and it took 30 minutes for water to come to a boil on their range.  Two of the workers were staying here in the bunk beds, and the other one had a tent right next door.  They dubbed the lake, Frog Lake--we found out why that night (ribbit, ribbit, ribbit).  We chatted with them for about forty-five minutes, just learning about what they do as members of the golden trout spawning crew and about the story behind our California state fish.  It never crossed our minds that people need to come out here to propagate the fish to ensure their continued survival. 

These workers would be staying in this humble abode for a few weeks, and it's around this time each year that they return to do the same job - trapping, extracting, storing, releasing, and repeat.  Tools, equipment, and supplies have to be transported by pack animals from Lone Pine. The spawning crew needs to be there to catch the first of the fish ascending the streams to spawn.  The remoteness of this site from railroads, highways, or human habitation, the high altitude, and severe weather conditions make the trip during the spring months a hazardous undertaking. Nevertheless, the work has been continued and crews have gone into the lakes many seasons to obtain golden trout eggs. Then, the eggs are safely transported back down to the Mt. Whitney Hatchery (also by the pack mules), where they are eventually hatched. Once fully grown, the golden trout are transported by helicopter to be distributed throughout lakes all over the high Sierra.

Even to this day, I think of this cup of hot chocolate as the best cup of hot chocolate I've ever had in my life (and I've had some fancy ass hot chocolate).  Wes and I still wonder how we keep meeting the most selfless and gracious souls when we go backpacking - like that time we were invited to eat Thanksgiving leftovers with a group of volunteers who were staying in the cabins at Sturtevant Camp in the Big Santa Anita Canyon.  Mountain hospitality is a real thing.  And we have developed so much respect for people who are willing to do extraordinary things for the environment.  These people don't have much to get by while on the job, and their hard labor often goes unnoticed.

It's a tradition for visitors to sign the metal walls, so Wes and I added our mark, right alongside the worker's grandfather, mother, and friends.  How awesome that this little place has been here for so long, inhabited by people who are here for the same purpose for generation after generation!

As I was just finishing up my cup of hot chocolate, it suddenly stopped snowing.  We all noticed that the wind was no longer blowing and we opened the door to have a look.  The clouds were starting to part, and the mountains were visible once again, and so majestic and close-up now that we were up here.  There was a dusting of snow on everything!

We felt incredibly thankful that we had stayed.  I guess the weather changes so fast in the mountains that it worked in our favor to take the gamble - it also helped that we were able to sit inside of the shack and drink hot chocolate with good company.  It's super weird how things just work out most of the time.  By the time the sun completely came out, it was 6:00 PM.  Not too late to forge ahead to see the rest of the Cottonwood Lakes!

It was just a quick ten-minute walk to get to Cottonwood Lake #3 from "Frog Lake."  The new snow was melting away quickly.

To get to Cottonwood Lake #4 and 5, it was a short but steep incline through a bit of snow.  We were above #3 by the time we reached the top.  It was like a whole new world up there - so much rock and snow.  We were the only ones, too.  It felt insane!  The moon was out by now, too.

In the photo above, you can see the trap that the spawning crew set up.  They have to get all the way in there to access it.  Pretty cool...literally.

By around 7:45, we made it back to our tent for dinner.  I was reeling--seriously felt like I was on such a high seeing those lakes, like somehow we had cheated the system and came out winning.  The system being the unpredictable-as-hell weather system.

Haha, and it was our first time eating these "mountain meals."  You know, they weren't half bad.  My curry reminded me of cup o' noodles with the little freeze-dried peas and carrots in it, but it was so good to just be able to boil some water and eat within 15 minutes, right in our tent.

When we woke up the next morning, it was as if the crazy snowstorm from yesterday never happened.  Wes made some coffee (his new favorite instant brand is Alpine Start), and it was really the tops, drinking straight out of the jetboil cup while admiring this view.

As we were getting ready to leave, we spotted a marmot poking out from one of the rocks.  It let us get super close to it!! We spent a good 20 minutes right here with this guy, haha!  Wes had his butt (and pack) in the air trying to get these shots.

Backcountry camping here was truly a magical experience, full of  unexpected surprises and well-deserved rewards.  If it weren't for the storm, maybe we would have camped higher by one of the "official" Cottonwood Lakes, but then we would have walked right by the metal house and never would have known what it represented.  We definitely would not have gained so much insight into the golden trout and what it takes to keep them alive and jumping in their natural homes.  We also wouldn't have appreciated the last three lakes as much if it had all been that easy.  I have a sneaky feeling that nature throws us off for a reason.  There's always something to gain from being pushed out of your comfort zone, as long as you stay optimistic!

And every good trip must end with dessert!


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