An Early Getaway?
Training for Whitney starts NOW! Not really, we were just looking for an excuse to get away. I’d been a normal Monday-Friday working person for the past three months and so with my first set of shifts, we wanted to make the most of my four days off.
I left work Friday at 2pm so we could get an early start to get to the Sierras directly east of us, in particular Emigrant Wilderness. When I rolled into the workshop I saw chaos. Dan had been working all day at a 1-hour job to replace his steering gearbox. The loose steering of Air Force One had been bothering him for months and having tried everything else to sort it out, this was the last resort. It should have been a simple remove-and-replace but the pittman arm attached to his old gearbox was being stubborn and wouldn’t come off. He’d tried multiple pittman arm pullers, had broken many tools and wasn’t done yet. We heated the stupid thing up, tried the impact wrench on a puller, used a breaker bar with an extension for leverage, the bloody thing wasn’t moving.
Dan, almost at his wits end, needed some breathing space so me and Cleo went for a walk around the neighbourhood. In that time, I texted a friend to see if we could borrow her car should we not get everything back together and she generously agreed. No need for that though, because when we returned, the pittman arm was off and installed on the new gearbox! Never mind the broken socket and adapter, it was off.
Since we’d packed the day before, I was idling so I cleaned the house from top to bottom while Dan tied everything together. I even had time to weed the garden and blow the leaves out of the driveway. Finally, around 7:30pm, Dan was upstairs, exhausted but triumphant. He showered, we threw everything into the car and we drove away.
Once we’d crossed the bridge over the Bay we were looking for some much needed dinner when Dan thought he could smell coolant. We pulled off the highway at the first exit we saw and stopped at the closest gas station. Yes, coolant was dripping from the engine bay. No, it wasn’t the coolant leak he’d had last week from a loose hose clamp. Why was it coming from the passenger side corner of the engine bay? Heater core. The stupid thing sits inside the car, that’s why we could smell it. Dan pulled all the trim off and sure enough, drip, drip, drip from the mini-radiator. Fine, we could easily bypass it. I Googled the closest O-Reilly’s and then looked up from my phone to see one right across the street. It was 8:50pm, ten minutes before their closing time. Dan ran over there while I tried to appease Cleo’s fears of loud bangs. The poor girl had spent the last few nights scared out of her skin thanks to Cinco de Mayo celebratory fireworks and as we were under the bonnet, someone set one off right across the street and she set to widening her eyes and shivering uncontrollably. Sigh.
Dan returned with parts and we cut hoses and bypass the leaking core. Now we can get going?
Dan drove and all credit to him. After a Maccas dinner, I was too exhausted to keep my eyes open but he managed with the assistance of a couple Red Bulls. We found an illegal camp at a river recreation area and parked up for the night. At least we’d made it out of sight of the Bay.
The next morning, we got away around 7am and stopped at the Sonora Walmart for last minute hiking supplies (Snickers bars, fruit, lunch goodies). Then it was up Sonora pass (highway 108) and into the mountains. We enjoyed the scenery as we climbed to just under 7,000 feet. We parked at the trailhead, pleasantly surprised by the warm weather and blue skies. We took our time getting our packs sorted and changing into our hiking gear. We’d be in the mountains for four days and three nights.
Smart me, I printed out a map of our route and also downloaded it on the maps.me app. Armed with that, it took me a while to navigate us out of the car park. Around 11am, we started our half-mile stroll along the road towards Kennedy Meadows resort. This is a beautiful little encampment with cabins lined up amongst the pine trees, a restaurant, bar and general small mountain town vibe. A gorgeous getaway, we looked forward to seeing it again at the end of our hike.
Our packs felt heavy but we were happy to be on the trail, Cleo too. We took them off half a mile up the trail because we were already overheating in our long pants, opting for shorts instead. We followed the Stanislaus River upwards towards Relief Reservoir. It was steep, but we didn’t mind the work since our legs were fresh. We greeted the day hikers we came across but didn’t see any other parties with overnight packs on like us.
We passed over a couple bridges sitting high above the raging river. It was being fed by the snow-capped mountains in front of us and I assumed it was at its highest flow of the year. I didn’t think much of the snow-caps at this early stage. I’d checked the snow depth map before coming up and figured it must have been wrong to report up to 96 inches of snow in the mountains we were heading towards. It was just too warm for that sort of snow!
We came across some ancient machinery (circa 1899 to be exact) sitting abandoned on the trail and mused how they hell they’d get such huge chunks of steel up the mountain and what they’d been used for.
At Relief Reservoir, we found a lunch spot with a view and decided we wouldn’t be going very far today. Yesterday had been too big of a day to justify 8 miles of hard hiking.
Having passed a potential campsite at the reservoir’s edge, we carried on to our first trail intersection, where we planned to turn left to start a loop, then return to the same point. With a campsite marked on my map to the right, we decided to head that way a few hundred meters to find a camp on the other side of the river. At the river, we were faced with a 20-meter wide fast-flowing body of water which looked sketchy to cross for a human, let-alone for a pitbull.
We de-packed and assessed the situation. It was good we’d come this way because if we couldn’t get across, we didn’t want to do the loop we’d planned. I took my shoes off and waded in for a look at the most direct route. No way, too deep and flowing too fast, definitely not manageable while holding Cleo. That’s without mentioning the frigid temperature of the water, it was painful to walk along the uneven rocks for more than a minute.
I tried further along the river at multiple spots but to no avail. My scouting soon turned into play time when I managed to move a big dead log that was perched on a boulder. I managed to push, lever and roll the log into the river below and watch it head towards the nearby waterfall. With Dan and Cleo watching on in encouragement, the log made its way down the river until it got wedged on another protruding boulder. Dan got FOMO so he started working on a log that was wedged behind a tree. Once in the water, we threw rocks at it to get it dislodged then watched it float down the river only to impact my log and get stuck in place! Our logs, they will be there forever!
Dan then ventured upstream a ways to scout better crossing options but he came back empty handed. We had one more good look then decided that yes, we’d be able to cross it when we came to the end of our hiking loop, we’d just have to cross with our shoes on and shuttle our packs across so that we could both help when getting Cleo over.
It was a nice way to spend our afternoon, but now it was camp time. Dan in his upstream adventures found us the perfect spot, nestled between two branches of the river complete with a fire ring, two trees hammock-width apart AND huge nails in the trees just for a hammock! Perfect.
We spent the next couple hours in the hammock/leaning against a tree reading our books and admiring the view of the towering cliff across the valley. This was the rest and relaxation we’d been seeking. As the sun disappeared behind the mountain behind us, we clambered up a nearby boulder to get a view of our surroundings. It was a pretty spot but with the shade came a drop in temperature.
Dan got to work on the fire while I set up the tent. Cleo knew what was up. As soon as the mat was on the floor she was claiming her territory.
We sat by the fire until it got properly dark, enjoying our first dehydrated meal. We used our phones to light the way as we stashed our bear can – the one thing I’d forgotten to pack was our head torches. Whoops. Good thing the days are so long.
We all slept better than expected, especially Cleo. She hardly moved in our double sleeping bag, apparently happy with the smell of our feet. “Morning fire?” Dan asked as we crept out of the tent. “Definitely, yes.” This was relaxation central, we weren’t going anywhere in a hurry.
We got away from camp around 10am and started climbing up towards Emigrant lake. It was steep but steady going, with stairs in places but the views to the river below kept us entertained. As we climbed past 8,000 ft, the snow we’d been seeing in the mountains started appearing around our feet. It was beautiful what some patches of white can do to the scenery.
Getting closer to 8,500 ft, the trail started disappearing in places below the snow. Beyond that elevation, we were lucky to see the trail more than a couple times over a mile. We were snow-trekking now!
This late in the season, it wasn’t soft stuff, so we were staying on top of it for the most part, dropping an ankle in every now and then. For reasons we kept contemplating, the snow was never flat. Instead it formed into pockets and waves which meant we were constantly looking at our feet making sure of our tread.
The many branches of the river cut through the snow, making for a beautiful landscape that looked about ready to transition into Summer. Having spent so long contemplating one river crossing yesterday, we soon discovered we’d be making multiple. I took my shoes off for the first but with snow steadily creeping into our shoes, it was pointless to fuss around. Every time we reached another water way, we’d scope it out, figure out the Cleo-crossing method and walk straight in. At one crossing, I performed my first pitbull toss – throwing Cleo over the water onto some compact snow and into Dan’s arms. We were working as a team and Cleo wasn’t making any fuss.
After stopping for lunch sitting above a meadow with the river cutting through it, we noticed black clouds forming behind us. Good thing then, we would carry on walking away from them! We were thankful to still be under the sun but as we peaked the next crest, it looked like weather was forming all around us. Nothing too dramatic, but we’d had nothing but blue skies up until then so it was something different. It definitely reminded us that we were in a very isolated place and needed to be cautious.
Nearing the highest point of the hike, we were looking forward to some easy flat stuff. Before the snow, we’d been strolling along at 2 miles an hour, which is pretty typical when we’re with Cleo, carrying packs and going uphill. Now that we were actively navigating to stay on the trail and trudging through the snow, we were closer to 1 mile an hour. I was hoping that with some flatter ground we might be able to get back on pace.
As soon as we were within sight of Emigrant Lake, we were ready to camp. While walking, we’d talked about the possibility of camping on the snow but neither of us was keen. Neither of us had done it and I didn’t want to start, especially when none of the snow we’d been on was flat. Dan worked his magic a second night in a row and found us a stellar spot right by the semi-frozen lake.
Those clouds that had threatened us earlier in the day had dissipated to leave the bluest of skies overhead, promising a starry night.
I’d been incredibly wrong in my prediction that we’d see five other people that day. We’d seen no one, no tracks and not much sign of life. It was too early for the Spring animals and other hikers apparently!
Hammock was up first and this time it was Dan’s throne while I collected us some firewood. It was colder since we were now near 9,000 ft, but we were still able to walk around barefoot so that our shoes and socks could dry by the fire.
We stopped around 5pm and Cleo was straight into the tent for her pre-dinner nap. I made us an entree of a shared dehydrated meal as soon as we were set up, then we warmed ourselves by the fire and watched the sunset shadow creep up the mountain on the opposite side of the lake. As we ate dinner, the sun faded completely and we were in bed by 9pm.
We were getting away earlier every day now that we were settling into a rhythm but we still weren’t rushing it. Thanks to the snow, we weren’t as far along as I’d like so today we aimed to get below the snow level and find the trail again.
Our first mile of the day followed alongside Emigrant Lake and the trail that appeared in bursts nearly led us right into it!
The semi-frozen surface of the lake was a beautiful sight and we stopped more than once to throw rocks and test the ice’s integrity. The result? It was very inconsistent.
With the lake to our left, we had towering orange cliffs to our right. You could easily spend weeks out here climbing, we wondered if anyone did.
As we turned north away from the lake, we were finally heading back in the direction we’d come. Though the elevation wasn’t changing much, to me it seemed as though we’d started going downhill.
Not really though, since we weren’t changing in elevation, the snow remained and we soon lost the morning advantage when the snow was compact.
As we approached a pine forest, Dan took over the navigation so that I could take a break. It just so happens that this is when finding the trail became difficult. We were starting a decline down the mountain through the trees and so it was harder to get a trajectory. Unfortunately it meant keeping a phone out and checking it every minute or so to make sure we didn’t end up in the wrong valley.
The snow was softer in the forest and so we honed are foot-skiing skills, unable to contain our laughter for most of our trips and falling on our arses more than once. Even Cleo was struggling from time to time to keep her body above the snow. Not what we expected, but at least we were laughing about it.
Out of the forest, we were following a slow-moving branch of the river again and our feet were thoroughly wet from another crossing and stepping through the snow onto the river-like trail below.
After a lunch stop, we started through a boulder field, climbing up again. Boy this was a hard day. At least we didn’t have to carry much water because we were always within sight of it!
Within two hours of lunch, we were both feeling energy-drained so I suggested a pre-camp dinner stop so we could fuel up. It was a brilliant rest. We stopped for about an hour, right by a steady stream of water flowing down some rocks. Dan took his shoes off in an attempt to dry his socks a little while I got dinner going. It was still plenty warm enough so I also had a head wash in the creek which freshened me right up.
Cleo rested in the sun while we ate. Very teenager-like, she refused to sit with us, opting for her own space because we obviously aren’t cool enough to be around.
Around 5pm, we got going again, hoping to make a bit of downward progress before camp. It didn’t turn out to be the case but we got at least another mile under our belt. We crossed a gorgeous snow field on our way, the closest thing to flat snow we’d seen all trip. It was like an alien planet with the river cutting through the snow and white plains stretching out into the distance. The wonder gave me a small energy boost.
Faced with another river crossing, Dan devised a straight-shot off the trail to avoid it. We crossed once where Cleo had to get wet and we knew now we needed camp. While we still had plenty of light, we were all tired and sick of trudging through snow.
Unfortunately, we ended up cornered by yet another river crossing and none of us wanted to get our feet wet again this late in the day. But it would be worse crossing in the morning and so we had to figure it out. This was our hardest one yet. It was a wide and raging river and it was late – we really didn’t want anything to go wrong.
We sussed out our spot and Cleo made the decision for us by jumping over the boulder we needed to scale over to get to the river. I held her in place while Dan collected her from the other side. From our little rock shelf, I was able to jump over pretty easily. Dan then threw his pack across for me to catch along with his phone. Now we just had to figure Cleo out. Dan got into position to do a pitbull-toss but I stopped him so we could put her collar on first. I wanted to have something to grab just in case it didn’t go smoothly. Once we had that on her, Dan found a better way. It involve getting his feet wet, but he was able to step across the river while carrying her while I spotted them to make sure he kept his balance.
We were across safely. Cleo was cold, we were tired.
Dan found the first piece of flat ground large enough to house us and a tent and that was camp. It was past 7pm. Cleo was shivering hard so Dan got her wrapped up in two jackets and started a fire right by the snow while I collected enough firewood to keep us going for a couple hours. Despite the snow, we were lucky to find enough dry wood to sustain a fire.
Cleo was in the tent quick smart while we warmed our feet and dried our shoes by the fire. We had another dinner and were ready for bed pretty quickly. Massive day.
We Can Walk If We Want To
No morning fire, we were too keen to get down the mountain. Cleo didn’t move an inch all night. She was moving pretty slowly around camp but she perked up once we got going. When Dan went to fill up with water, he noticed that the level of the nearby river had gone down by at least three inches. Makes sense since the snow stopped melting overnight, but we were amazed it changed the water level by that much!
Today we would be heading down. Today we would follow a trail. Today we would hike without navigating.
More snow fields, each one more beautiful than the last. We were grateful that at least our bodies weren’t sore. Our packs felt comfortable on our backs and our feet were supporting us.
Today the river crossings were easier. Unlike the past few days, each time we came across a branch of water, there was an easy crossing path, whether it was a tree or a shelf of snow.
We descended some pretty steep chutes of snow and dreamed up designs for lightweight skis and shoe designs that would allow us to get traction when we wanted and slide when we wanted. We made do with our shoes, being careful to stay somewhat on the trail lest we end up in the wrong valley. We were done hiking uphill.
Finally, FINALLY around 11am we were on the trail and we stayed on it, we could see it for hundreds of meters in front of us. We were elated! Our phone went away and we simply put one foot in front of the other. We stopped in the sun for a snack but didn’t linger – we were ready to get out of the forest.
We cut down the side of a cliff with the river raging on our right side, a reminder of the toughest river crossing we knew was coming up. It snuck up on us, the downhill terrain making easy work of the walking. Now to cross the wide, ice cold and rushing river. Just as we had a few days before from the opposite bank, we contemplated our options and settled on Dan crossing first, emptying his pack, then putting Cleo in it with me to spot the pair as they crossed together. Cleo had never been in a backpack before so we were nervous. Dropping her would mean saying goodbye. She’s not the greatest swimmer in calm water, let alone frigid flowy stuff. Not something we wanted to think about.
Dan crossed, getting wet above his knees and having to maintain three points of contact for the entire crossing. Safely on the other side, he emptied his pack then returned.
Needing to warm up his feet before another crossing, he jumped on the spot a while before we loaded Cleo. She had become pretty docile since she was tired and so she didn’t protest as we lowered her into Dan’s pack. She fit ok with her upper torso and front legs sticking out. Dan mounted the pitbull pack and I arranged her front legs around her shoulders. She seemed happy enough.
I kept a hand on her neck, cajoling her with lots of “good girl”’s but she didn’t need it. She obviously felt safe on Dan’s back. Halfway across the river, Dan had outrun me, deft in his choice of foot placement. I struggled along and made it over just as Cleo was coming out of the pack. We’d made it!
While Dan returned to our first night’s camp just across the way to search for a lost pair of socks (which he didn’t find), I repacked Dan’s bag while Cleo lay in the sun-soaked sand.
Now we really motored down the mountain. We’d started fantasizing about food and the country-style restaurant that we’d walked past in Kennedy Meadows. We both decided to push on without lunch, despite it getting to around that time. We saw a pair of hikers heading up the hill but otherwise saw no one until Kennedy Meadows was in sight.
I got finish-line syndrome real quick as soon as we reached the vast green meadow leading us into the small resort. My feet started to ache and my left shoulder all of a sudden couldn’t stand the weight of my pack. We chatted away as we neared the end and blissfully, found the restaurant empty but open for business.
Burgers for us both and a shaded spot under the table for Cleo. Since they were quiet, they broke their “no pets on the patio” rule for which we were grateful. We chatted to the waitress between drinks and found out about the cattle that are run up the mountain around this time of year – that explained the few cattle gates and multiple cow patties we’d seen. We generally found out that Kennedy Meadows sounds like a great place to spend a relaxing Summer.
Not wanting to don our packs again, I volunteered to walk the quarter mile further to our car and drive it back while Dan and Cleo hung out. It was a slow amble along the tarmac until I found Air Force One sitting alone in the carpark that had at least eight cars in it when we’d left.
We had a clean up in the van before driving slowly down the mountain. There’d been an F1 race on over the weekend and while we weren’t in any rush to get home, we were keen to get into service so we could post up and watch.
Just like old times, we ended up out the back of the Sonora Walmart where we bought us some dirty snacks and got through qualifying before passing out for the rest of the night.
We took our time driving home the next day, happy to have had our time away despite the ache in our bodies.
May 8-11th, 2021 (38.31091,-119.7454)