Last weekend a surprise trip to San Jose presented itself and I found myself with the opportunity of spending an unplanned weekend in the Sierras in advance of a longer two week trip planned for the end of September. Coming from the East coast Mid Atlantic region this is quite a treat. Once my wife signed off on me spending the weekend away from our family I quickly started searching for options by looking at maps, guidebooks and trip reports both here and on HST. Initially my search was focused on the Mt. Conness and Twin Lakes regions. Both had some opportunity to summit easy peaks but also involved longer drives and complicated permitting.
Two trip reports on the Cathedral Range out of Tuolumne caught my attention and the suggestion that quota for the Elizabeth Lake trail head were rarely filled soon had me sold on a loop out of Elizabeth Lake. I secured a permit with YNP and was soon talking my local friend and long time backpacking partner NVK into joining me for the weekend.
Our route would take us up to Elizabeth Lake over a pass to the Nelson Lake/ Echo Creak drainage over the Coxcomb ridge to Matthes Lake, contouring around Matthes Crest to Echo Lake where we would camp low enough for a fire. The next day would find us looping north to the JMT over the hump SE of Cathedral to visit Bubb Lake and then down Bubb creek back to Tuolumne and our car. Approximately 14 miles, about half of which were off trail.
Since the trip would be an overnight with lots of easy off trail travel, moderate elevation gain and shorter distance not too far from the trail head I figured it would be an excellent opportunity to test some new approaches and really reduce pack weight. Weather was predicted by NOAA to be clear, sunny with no chance of precipitation. Overnight lows were predicted to be in the high 30's to low 40's. Seasonal August lows in the cell from PRISM looked to average approximately 47 degrees. With no moon light to contaminate the starry sky and the Perseids shower a few days away I was excited about sleeping out under the stars. Armed with this information I made the following gear decisions:
1. No stove or cook gear beyond a spoon would be brought and no cook meals would be planned.
2. I would bring a bivy bag and a down quilt rated to 40-45F ( JRB Shenandoah) but would leave the tarp behind
3. I would bring a light down sweater(Uniqlo) and vest (MLD) to supplement the quilt but not a heavy down jacket and no rain gear.
4. Pack weight would be low enough to use a very light frameless pack (Serratus Genie) using 1/8 foam pad for support and cushioning. Comfort and ground insulation for sleeping was supplemented with a short Neoair pad.
5. Food storage needs would be adequately provided with the lightest approved canister a bare boxer contender. An Ursack would also of been adequate but this was YNP so...
Friday night was spent at Crane Flat campground (~6,000') to help with acclimatization. The night was cold despite sleeping in a tent that night and wearing lots of clothes. I began to worry about what to expect Saturday night over 9,000 FT. At the permit office Saturday morning the low temperature predicted for 8,000' was 30F. My concerns grew.
After an entertaining lecture by the ranger on what size our firewood should be if our wilderness experience required a fire we were on the trail with permit in hand by 9AM. Lunch was had once over the pass and down valley at Nelson Lake. We fished with a new Tenkara rod and genuinely enjoyed the beautiful setting of the Cathedral Range. Crossing over the Coxcomb Crest to Matthes Lake proved to be the highlight of the trip for me. A nice lower angled class II corner system allowed us to sneak between steep slabs and cliff bands over the ridge to beautiful views of Matthes Lake. We were tempted to stop here knowing we would have this whole valley to ourselves but we were intent on Echo Lake where the promise of some fire rings was too alluring to resist.
By 4PM I was thigh deep in Echo Lake perfecting my casting technique and letting the cold water and lake bottom massage my sore feet. My couscous was rehydrating in a ziplock under the sun next to two pouches of Indian curry.
I refilled water bottles with my Sawyer squeeze which has replaced my 3in1 gravity setup this year. Worked as described though I found the tornado connection setup and screw on filter connections all a bit awkward when the water bags are full. I miss the tube and quick release connection of the 3 in 1 which were much easier to use.
Concerns about the cold night ahead led me to scavenge and stockpile a fair amount of dry wood. By sunset the temp had already dropped fairly low and we got a small fire going and I set my sleeping gear up next to it thinking if worse came to worse I'd keep it going all night.
The promised Perseids light show appeared on schedule along with a fantastic display of prowess by several bats which were seen chasing each other as well as bugs and making wild swoops into Echo Lake presumably to drink.
The night proved very cold. Dew point was hit by 9:30 PM bringing heavy moisture onto my bivy bag. Clear sky and no wind provided high radiative cooling conditions. Combined with the very low insulation value of my sleeping bag and the cold temperature I found myself experiencing very high levels of condensation both on the inside and the outside of the bivy which quickly turned to ice and heavy frost on the side not being warmed by the fire. Every hour to hour and a half I got up shake off the ice and to put wood on the fire which provided me with some comfort, warmth and enough exercise to warm up. At 6 AM the thermometer on my Suunto watch read 0C. Water in our bottle did not have any ice or crystals in it.
By the time the sky had lightened and we were eating breakfast our last piece of wood was burning down to ashes. Boy scout like we ferried dozen of bags of water to cool the ashes down completely before packing up, eager to get moving. As we reached the meadows at the head of echo Creek near the junction with the JMT we spotted two coyotes bouncing and running across our path a couple hundred yards ahead seemingly unaware of our presence. In likewise fashion we made our way towards up the pass to the base of Cathedral Peak, where we watched the sun drawing campers out of their tents at the lakes down below and a team of climbers gearing up. Another highlight. We continued over the pass, contoured to Bubbs Lake and from there down and out by 10:30AM. I was heading home on the red eye, very pleased with my planning later that night
Navigation was easy, elevation gain and overall elevation reasonable, mostly all below 10K , user trail were found without much searching, overall a very pleasant destination for a quick weekend if you don't mind the drive.
Some important lessons:
1. I'm a cold sleeper and the Sierras are cold at night. I need to have enough insulation to be comfortable to 30F even at the height of summer. This likely means a quilt actually rated to 30F or warmer + additional insulation. I'm revising my sleep gear for September.
2. Even if no stove or cook gear is brought an aluminum or ti mug could of permitted me to heat water on the fire and drink some hot liquid and fill a bottle with warm water which could of help drive moisture out of my sleep system. My original BPL trapper mug would of been ideal in this situation with almost no weight penalty.
3. A very light frameless pack provides almost no ground insulation to the legs and feet. A longer thinpad would of been good to have. For me the GG 1/8 thin pad is too short and too narrow. I would like about 18-24" longer and 2" wider when taking such a light pack. Who provides custom durable 1/8 foam pad. I'm not pleased with the GG stuff's durability. The thickness is also inconsistent, the piece I have is only truly 1/8 at one end and thins considerably at the other end. I may have a piece from the end of a roll??
4. Couscous rehydrates fantastically with cold water. It will now be a staple and I will plan for a cold meal on every trip helping reduce fuel consumption.
5. Cocomama quinoa cereal discussed here on BPL last week was consumed for breakfast. The texture and flavor of the highest calorie version ( Orange, cranberry) was not that appealing. Will probably not repeat, YMMV. Packit Gourmet berry shakes OTOH are very delicious. Sold on these.
6. I was fighting a cold during this trip and using a strong decongestant + dealing with acclimatization and as a a result had very little appetite. Low calorie consumption + illness may have contributed to feeling much colder than it really was.
7. There has been much debate about raingear in the Sierras in the past few weeks, some of which I have weighed in on. I think that when trip length is within the reliability confidence window of the NOAA/NWS forecast and the forecast is for dry weather one can probably safely forego rain gear in the Sierras during summer. As one moves into the shoulder season where confidence in the forecaster's models drops and variable conditions are more prevalent it is probably safer to carry additional means to shelter from rain/snow. This is probably stating the obvious but it was something that was on my mind while walking under the relentless sun with the knowledge that on the tiny chance that the forecast was wrong I had no shelter or rain gear beyond a Houdini wind shell and a momentum top bivy bag.
8. Despite being up all night to throw wood on the fire and walk around a bit I was quite well rested in the morning. I suspect our long ago ancestors evolved in condition much worse requiring this very thing and our bodies can easily adapt to such a routine. Also with a toddler in the house I have not had a solid night of sleep in over two years so maybe my body and mind are already accustomed to this kind of constant interruption.
9. The Sierras are a spectacular place.