Thursday, July 12, 2018

Big Pine Lakes Backpacking

Big Pine.  Lone Pine.  Bishop.  These were just the funny little names of the quirky towns that we could always count on for food and gas while driving up the Highway 395 to Mammoth during snowboarding season.  I never would have imagined that these seemingly random places would end up becoming actual destinations for us.  It's true that there isn't really anything much to see or do in the towns themselves, but these towns serve as the gateways into endless options for adventure in the Eastern Sierra that we were totally oblivious to until this year.  Our first trip to Big Pine itself was last September, and we day-hiked to Big Pine Lakes on a whim by driving to the trailhead and doing an out-and-back hike on the North Fork trail.  We saw backpackers setting up their tents on the rocks above the gorgeous lakes, and I remember that we both were thinking, that could be us.

Little did I know that it really would be us.  This place is really popular (for obvious reasons), so we made sure to jump on it as soon as the reservation window opened.  By January, we had already locked in a mid-June weekend and we had most things that we needed in order to spend the night already, thanks to Wes's diligent research.  It was a much-anticipated backpacking trip, and it was awesome.  Of course, parts of it were less awesome, like pooping into a hole in the ground and getting swarmed by HOARDS of these crazy mosquitoes...and the combination of the two...but we would do it all again.  I think that the only thing we'd change is to pre-treat all of our stuff with mosquito repellent and get some stronger stuff... or avoid the season in general.  Wes must have had a hundred bites (if not more) all over his body.  Those dreaded bugs were able to push their stingers through our socks and long-sleeved shirts and even underneath the brim of our hats.  They were not only "ferocious," as the park ranger had put it, but absolutely merciless.  And they were completely unavoidable, despite covering up and bug spraying any exposed skin.

We intended to do lots of side-hikes to see more of the area since we had a full day to spare, but we ended up just being really laidback and hanging out a lot at Lake #2, which is where we chose to set up our tent.  This is undeniably the most beautiful lake out of the seven.  With such a prime camp spot, it would have been silly to not have taken full advantage!  We brought two cameras, our Sony RX1 and also our new Go Pro 6 on this trip and totally went crazy with the photos... we had forgotten how fun it was to have a Go Pro.

Eating the lightweight mountain meals that we brought with us was also a fun and exciting experience.  I'm not sure if other backpackers get as much of a kick out of their food as we do, but discovering the intricacies of rehydrating Backpackers' Pantry pad thai and the oddly satisfying taste and texture of freeze-dried Mexican chocolate ice cream were two of our favorite moments from this trip overall.  We had a lot of fun picking out these packaged lightweight dried foods at REI when they were on sale a while ago, so now was our chance to break them out.

In general, just being far away from all of the conveniences of the modern world was a wonderful way to recharge and reset.  We both had a few weeks of unpredictable and jam-packed work schedules, with Wes traveling out of state for two weeks back-to-back and me starting at a new school with a completely new caseload and picking up extra assignments every day at my second job at the skilled nursing facility.  It was great to have no email or calendar notifications, no alarms to set, and no definitive plans whatsoever.  No decisions needed to be made over what to eat or what chores/errands we could squeeze in, and no communication with anybody who was not present could possibly be had, since there was no reception.  The only things we needed to focus on were our basic needs: obtaining water, cooking our food, tending to our bodily functions, and avoiding bears.  We went to sleep after watching the sun set (at 9 PM or something!) and watched the stars come out through the transparent material of our tent ceiling.  For two mornings in a row, we woke up to Temple Crag looming over us in all of its glory.  It was worth it, swollen mosquito bites, grimy fingernails, sweaty armpits, and all.

On Thursday evening, we left LA and drove to Bishop, where we had a hotel room booked.  We picked up our permit from the ranger station there and then grabbed some food at the Looney Bean, which is a coffeeshop that has a newly extensive but simple food menu.  Wes had a breakfast burrito (he says that it's one of the best ones he's had) and I had the paleo bowl.  I'm not paleo or anything, it just sounded good.

After a small delay of Wes graciously going half a mile back to the car for me to get my tampons that I had forgotten to move into my pack, we were off into the John Muir Wilderness!  Maybe it was partly that I was menstruating, but it took us much longer this time to get to Lake #2 than last time.  The heavy packs made us really sweaty and the altitude made my heart race.  Plus, the weather was hotter than usual.  We took more breaks than anticipated.

So for the first two miles, the view is expansive and wide, although not super interesting.  We locked our eyes on the trickle of water way off in the distance, which was Second Falls.  After a long, exposed climb with some switchbacks up a dry slope, we finally reached the waterfall.  From here on out, the trail gets much more interesting, and shadier.\

After about 5 miles, we were rewarded with this dramatic view of Lake #2.

It was already late afternoon by the time we arrived, so we went to find a place to set up our tent.

At first, we picked a spot that was in direct view of Temple Crag, but it turned out to be too mosquito-y and pretty slopey.  So we had to move to another place that was more in the trees.  It was tricky and fun to scout for a spot that was flat enough, far enough away from the trail, with rocks to crouch behind (nature's restroom), with a place to hang our bear bag, and water somewhat close by (but not too close).  We considered a bunch of spots before settling on this one.

Filtering water is one of the more annoying things that need to be done while backpacking.  Wes doesn't mind doing it, so he went down to the lake bank to scoop some water into his vecto water container. It was super sad though because I think that this was where he was ambushed by the mosquitoes.  Mosquitoes love the still water... we decided that the next day we would definitely visit a waterfall on the way up to Lake #3 for a refill.  No more lake!

We always had dinner in the same spot, which was on this particular rock with a front-and-center view of Temple Crag, overlooking Lake #2.  It was also a prime spot because it was more windy there, which meant no mosquitoes.  Or, I guess less mosquitoes.  Our sunset dinners were really fun, we always had a new paper bag of dehydrated food to try out.  We also carried around a flat can of sardines that we never ate, which is a good thing, because that would have meant that the dehydrated foods were not satisfying enough.

We were skeptical but excited about everything.  But immediately after we opened the packet and saw that there was a lime packet, a sriracha packet, chopped roasted peanuts, and peanut butter, we were intrigued and pleasantly surprised at all of the various components.  Looked promising.  30 minutes after we poured everything in and mixed it with boiling water, we reopened the bag and saw a more-or-less recognizable version of pad thai!  Then, the first bite was everything.  It was so good!!  I think that we were both extremely shocked that something that looked like bird feed could be so satisfying and even uh, authentic.

Then, there was the freeze-dried ice cream.  As if that wasn't outlandish enough, Wes had chosen the most exotic of the available flavors: Mexican chocolate.  We ripped open the wrapper after tentatively reading the ingredients on the back of the paper box, and out of the wrapper we retrieved two extremely lightweight, light brown, square blocks.  The first bite was a revelation.  It separates easily, almost too easily, but then it melted in our mouths with such elegance and grace, much like...real ice cream!  It was milky, chocolatey, with just a hint of spice!

We put on our jackets even though it wasn't super cold just to fend off the mosquitoes.  I actually had my hood on.  It did drop to below 40 degrees late at night though, even though it had been in the 80's in the day.

Day 2!

I woke up at 5 AM and realized that it was really too early, so I went back to sleep (the eye shade is a pack essential!) and woke up again at 7:30, after another full sleep cycle.  I felt pretty good on our comfy sleeping pads and bundled up in the sleeping bag liner, but by 7:30 it was pretty warm and I was ready to peel out.  Also, nature was calling--and by that phrase, I mean that it was the perfect opportunity for me to take a dump into a hole that I had to dig for myself behind a rock.  It was an interesting and inconvenient event... Then, Wes woke up and made coffee while we sat on rocks and admired the view that we had woken up to.

Nature was really calling by the time we were done fooling around the campsite, so we started hiking at around 11:30, this time with empty packs.  Our plan was first to get some new, ice cold water from the waterfall we knew would be on the way to Lake #3, and then to go to the seventh lake.

Here's Lake #3!

And Lake #4!

There was a fork in the trail here, so we took a break and ate some of these Costco lentils.  We reheated them with some water in the Jet Boil and they were really yummy.  It was tricky finding a spot to enjoy them where there were no mosquitoes, though.  We ended up sitting next to another group of hikers, one of which was eating spicy Chinese appetizers with chopsticks out of a plastic bag, of all things.

After a quick lunch spent chatting with the others and swatting at mosquitoes, we went to Lake #5.

Oddly, it was very hard to tell where the trail went after we got to Lake #5, so we couldn't continue on.  Next time we'll have a map on us.  Wes usually uses a downloaded map from the All Trails app on his phone, but it had crashed!  Lesson an oldschool paper map for next time.  We backtracked to where the fork had been and went on the Black Lake loop, which winds gently uphill, past Black Lake, and bursts out of the trees and revealing a nice, higher view of Lake #1 and #2 before going back down to those lakes and to our campsite.  It turned out to be a fun detour, even though I was disappointed that we couldn't get to the last two lakes.

So we went on to Black Lake, probably named because it's not as blue as the other ones, but it's not what I'd call black either.

Back to the tent!

We were ready to eat an early dinner.  Today, we were having Louisiana red beans and rice, beef stew, and of course the obligatory sardines.

We really enjoyed both of these mountain meals too!  It's so odd that they actually taste good.  Our standards may just have been lowered for backpacking, but even so, this stuff was hearty and delicious.  We joked that maybe if we were ever too lazy to cook or bring lunch to work, we could just eat one of these.

The sunset was so beautiful again on this day.

Day 3 - time to pack out and leave.  It went by so fast, and this view just never got old.  The mosquitoes were getting REALLY old though.

Walked by Lake #1 on the way out and admired Temple Crag one last time.

Saw a pack train coming through on our way down.

After another hot and exposed 5-mile walk down, we reached the bottom.  The whole time we were exiting, I was wondering how we had is not a forgiving trail in terms of incline, even though it was never quite a butt-kicker.  I was sweating just going downhill today!

We were so ready for cold sandwiches after we were done!  Naturally, we hit up the Alabama Hills Cafe for Wes's classic club sandwich and my turkey Florentine stack.  After spending quite some time in their restroom scrubbing our hands clean at the first sink we'd seen in three days, we polished both of the sandwiches off easily, even though the waitress said that people always take half home or share.  We even got an extra plate of well-deserved fries.  This place always hits the spot, and it was all that was on our minds for the last two miles of hiking.

This was so fun and definitely won't be our last trip into the Sierra this year.  I hope there'll be less mosquitoes and cooler daytime temperatures in a few months from now.  We are currently packing our backpacks for the Tour du Mont Blanc, which is going to be a 10-day trek in the Alps.  It's going to be epic, if we can finish it!

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