The best laid plans can fall to ruin so fast! I was going to head into some light backcountry, still on at least marginally maintained trails, in my home-away-from-home eastern Sierra Nevada mountains. My well-thought-out and researched plan was to finally get to Rae Lakes and into Sixty Lake Basin but do it the hard way by going over Baxter Pass. Permits are easier to get and it’s a trail I had not done before. Sounded like a win to start in an area with far less people despite the over 6,000 feet of elevation gain in 7+/- miles to the top of the pass (yikes!).
The idea was 4 nights, 5 days, so my pack was a tad heavier than normal due to a larger bear can and more food (just under 29lbs with 1 liter of water to start – that’s winter-type weight for me, so… ouch). The morning drive from basically sea level to the high desert was thankfully uneventful then just lovely as mountains came into view heading north on highway 395. There were some interesting clouds and I pondered their meaning. I missed the Lone Pine Visitor’s Center so stopped at depressing Manzanar (horrible incarceration camp for innocent people with Japanese descent) for an emergency restroom break.
I could barely open the door for the wind. The few people about were similarly leaning sideways against the gale-force sustained winds that was roaring through the desert brush. It was actually nice to wear a mask because I could breathe with it on. When winds are very high, as were the conditions when I was hiking 5 days prior at San Gorgonio, it feels terribly like you can’t even breathe as air is rushed past your face too fast and can even feel like it’s being pulled out of you. I definitely had that wild-haired, wide-eyed shocked look that imagine quite comical – but none of us were laughing.
I made a few random signs in hopes that the wind wasn’t this bad where I was going. LOL, not as bad in the mountains? I was clearly in denial. But at the trailhead it was only breezy, hurray!! I finished gearing up, which includes covering head-to-toe for sun coverage (bonus: using a neck gaiter, eg. Buff, up to the cheeks helps prevent wind chapping) and headed out. The pack felt good, actually, and I thought I was moving okay… high desert plants were in flower, a mild creek crossing was lovely and lush, the missing trees from a fire years ago was okay because it wasn’t too hot. My GPS told a different story and it was slow. Oh, well, I had all day to get up and over the pass – and summer days are long.
I took a snack break at 2 hours and 10 minutes into the day, a very slow 2.14 miles with 1,768 foot gain. Maybe less sleep or the heavier pack was weighing on my mind, but, oof. I was generally going about 1.5 mph but was taking a LOT of breaks to catch my breath – er – I mean – admire and take photos of flowers. I had started at 10:50am after waking up by 5am to get out the door and make the 4 hour drive so finally eating lunch (eggs, bread, cheese – first day of backpacking is yummy perishables!) at 1pm was nice. I was sitting at a corner where the trail curved around a hillside and the view of North Fork Oak Creek was lovely: it was tumbling loudly fairly steeply, like a long, stepped waterfall. It was sunny and my mood was brightening. Then it started and everything sucked.
The winds did arrive and all at once. I was sitting on rock on the trail and warm one second and freezing the next. I scooted a bit thinking to get around the corner would offer protection so I could finish my last boiled egg. That only lasted minutes before the roar of an incoming gust could be heard. Ug! I got up and moved and not a moment too soon as I could hear rocks tumbling down the steep hill just 40 feet or so back. Like the dummy I am, I stopped to watch. It was a couple good sized rocks down and over the edge and a bit of fat branch that is now just part of the trail edge. Okay… I pushed on, holding my hat on my head, as the gusts became somewhat sustained and the new gusts got stronger. I took a small break behind a little boulder field as shelter and judged the next creek crossing.
It wasn’t too hard to cross, just the issue of the wind pushing me and my pack over when I had only one foot down. I hated it, but after some log and rock balancing I was across and the path was soft and sheltered by dense greenery, including giant patches of thorny wild roses in a lovely pink. I could still hear the wind, but felt a bit protected. Things were looking up, maybe!
Nope. I turned the corner and headed up the hill to sparse pines over dense, low-lying brush in a place that would otherwise be rather lovely, I think. But the dramatic peaks I was looking forward to in the start of a meadow were lost to me as the clouds descended and hid them. The temperature dropped and winds just got worse. Some flakes blew softly before the roaring wind started blowing the clouds like sleet. I added a warmth later and hid behind a tree debating what to do for a rather long time as everything got wet but only on one side, including myself. I had not planned on needing more than a tarp against wet weather and I have jettisoned several prior backpacking trips for less wind (I find it to be “the worst”).
I tried to push on. I realized I wasn’t having fun. I stood behind another tree for a while then decided to give it up. I was alone and was probably relying on a forecast for known unpredictable high-altitude mountains a bit too much in my gear plan. There were plenty of places to enjoy, this wasn’t one of them for me today. I turned around. ~2.94 miles (less than half way), ~2480 foot gain (more than a third) to 8,526 elevation, took a sad 3 hours and 36 minutes total but the moving time was 2:10 which shows the breaks for breathing and eating and debating.
The return trip didn’t save much time: 6:10 total elapsed on the day. My knees hate steep downhill, but I also had to stop and grunt just to keep my feet on the ground in the high winds. Several times, as the incredibly loud roar of wind approached, I had to lean over or squat and hang onto a rock with both hands for dear life. Once I was down in the canyon the wind was tolerable and it was once again quite warm for the last bit to the car. Looking back, of course, the fallen cloud cover was lifted – though the winds up there were no less. I was now driving north debating what to do instead…
I learned on later hikes that the temperature was very cold overnight and a bit of snow did fall in the high places and everyone on the trails suffered the wind. Some though-hikers (PCT) exited as they didn’t have cold gear or their tents were a ruin, others were luckily off trail and took another day until the wind cleared. Not every adventure is some tale of glory. In fact, the most talked about adventures are split in equal measure between the beautiful places that were perfect and them mishaps and failures we survived.