This story starts on July 3rd, 2021 when we took 4 weeks off work to enjoy Summer. Because… why not?
With a whole 4 weeks of play time on our hands, we were in no rush to get into it. On Thursday, we said goodbye to Ramsie for two months, skated the streets of San Francisco, had ourselves a lovely lunch and beers at the Dutch Goose with Kyle and supervised his van work as we got thoroughly into some day drinking.
Friday we had a huge job – setting up an irrigation system to water Dan’s garden while we were gone. In the morning we dawdled, watching F1 practice sessions over breakfast, then again over lunch. By mid-afternoon, every plant had a trickle to service it for 15 minutes every day – it made us contemplate the forest we would return to after our trip. While I’d done some light-hearted packing, we weren’t enthusiastic about leaving the Bay Area on the Friday of July 4th weekend and so we stayed in and had ourselves a relaxing night.
By Saturday, we were both excited to hit the road, and so we left at noon. Our neighbours packed alongside us – they too were heading away for some camping. The contents of our cars couldn’t have been more different – where they were stacked to the roof with beer, bottled water and Doritos, we carried all of our adventure gear (and our beer was in a fridge staying cold). We drove east, sorting out a few errands along the way which gave us good excuses to get out and stretch our legs every hour or so. I ignored the advice received from Google Maps and took us out of the city along Niles Canyon Road and some beautiful country towns we hadn’t seen before.
The hill over to Tracy could not be avoided and it was as we crested the hill the temperature rose about 15 degrees. Without the Pacific Ocean to cool us, we had the windows up and the AC on.
Tired from our errands, we were ready to stop at a watering hole to cool off and watch Austrian GP qualifying before getting out of service. I got to work with Google satellite and found us a few options outside of Oakdale along the South Fork Stanislaus river.
Along Orange Blossom Road, first up was the Orange Blossom Recreation Area. While we managed to snag a shady park in the first parking lot, there was an entrance hut and the place was an absolute madhouse (did I mention it was a long weekend?). The nearby green picnic fields were a little appealing, but for Dan, it would not do. On to the next one.
Honolulu Bar Rec Area didn’t even warrant a stop. The small carpark was full and there wasn’t a shred of shade in sight.
At Horseshoe Road Rec Area, we found a curved dirt road that led us to a full carpark, but a fully shaded spot by the road with our name on it. It obviously wasn’t a popular spot because you had to walk an extra ten meters to the water. We were in our swimmers quick smart and avoided the crowded (and tiny) day use area to take a dunk at the boat ramp. Cleo was first in and by the time we’d dunked our heads under we were ready to get out it was that bloody cold (not complaining).
Sufficiently cooled, we left the chaos and noise of the popular rafting put in/put out spot behind us and I made us lunch as Dan got the chairs out and put F1 on the TV. For the next hour, we sat in the shade enjoying a slight breeze and cold beers as we watched the Red Bulls and McLaren defy Mercedes in a season that was getting better with every passing race. I’m sure if anyone heard our shouting they’d have been confused.
The racing excitement over, we wandered down for another dunk before driving further east onto Sonora Pass. This has become somewhat of a playground for us lately since we’d visited for two different trips in the last month or so. We were heading slowly to the east side of the Sierras to meet friends and there was plenty to explore along the way.
As we started climbing the pass, I stuck my nose into our climbing guidebook for the area and directed Dan towards Pinecrest Lake. Instead of taking our turn-off to go into the National Forest, I suggested we go and check out the Lake first. I think it’s the closest I’ve come to seeing Dan have a seizure. Having recently camped in a “campground” in Sequoia National Park and being disgusted by fellow camper’s define camping and how tightly packed everyone was, this was a whole new level. “Are we getting out of the car?” Dan asked. I enthusiastically cried that yes we were, there was a beautiful lake to see. Since it was late afternoon, there was movement everywhere. People unloading their cars full of shit, women walking around with their hands on their hips pondering their campsites and how to set up, cases upon cases of water and beer stacked on picnic tables and to Dan’s disgust/disbelief/amusement – only a couple of bathrooms that everyone would be sharing. We wandered towards the water, taking it all in and laughing at the chaos. When we reached a “no pets” sign, we called it. This was ridiculous. We were back in the car and on towards the forest within five minutes.
Now Dan was in his happy place. Shortly after driving through Dodge Ridge Ski Resort, we were romping up a dirt road. We saw one party camped with a caravan and boat and waved as we drove past – they had the same access as everyone else did to the nearby lake but they weren’t paying for it and they had a whole forest to themselves. We drove on for a few miles searching for a side road that marked the start of an approach to a climbing crag.
As we climbed, we marveled at the tree clearing that was taking place and the numerous tree-dismantling machinery that was parked willy-nilly throughout the slopes of the forest. There must have been near $10 million worth of gear up there. It took us a few goes, but eventually we were confident we’d found it. We parked up in a flat spot amongst the trees and wandered out onto the ski run that had been cleared of trees.
We had a great view down into the valley, which looked dauntingly steep, and we pondered how our approach to the climbs would go the next day.
Neither of us especially hungry, we read our books until sunset when I got started making a meat pie (I had been very much looking forward to using the oven in Dan’s van). With the pastry done, we walked out to the ski run again to see a bright red, pink and orange sky. It was a beautiful sunset.
We had our jumpers on now, thankful for the relief from the day’s heat and after a stellar dinner, we all slept soundly in our comfy bed.
The Lonely Crag
I woke up remembering dreams of us having parked in our spot and waking up to find hundreds of people parked up around us to go climbing. The reality was nothing like the dream. The sun got us up early and so we’d breakfasted, packed for the day and locked the bikes inside the car before 9am.
Thanks to Dan’s spotting, after heading a little ways down the ski run, we hit a forest road that continued down the ski run. This is what we’d been hunting for that our guidebook described. It was steep, but easily walked. We tried imagining the place so obviously designed for winter activities as we kicked up dust underneath our feet and stopped to marvel at the late wildflower blooms.
At the base of the ski run, we were at a charlift, looking very abandoned as they all do in Summer. We had a bit of a poke around but found we couldn’t operate the thing.
From here, our guidebook took us through a dense Aspen forest, the leaves of each tree glittering in the wind as we trekked our way through a pathless floor canopy.
After crossing a fallen log, we were on granite and traversing to our right to find an easy way down to the river and crags below. After one failed attempt, we made our way down the rough granite.
When the South Fork Slabs came into view, I stopped to consult the guidebook and when I looked up, Dan was partaking in throwing large rocks down the incline to see how far they would travel. He had both hands in the air in triumph as one made it all the way down the slopey cliff into the water. By the time I got going down the hill again, Cleo and Dan were tiny figures at the base of the slope. I should mention, there wasn’t even the hint of another person in sight in this vast granite kingdom. Less than two miles downriver, thousands of people were jockeying for the same small piece of paradise.
Down at the water, we were soon naked and taking a swim. We couldn’t believe we had this whole place to ourselves. We spent a good half hour studying the guidebook and checking out the various crags.
While the slabs of the center wall were long and adventurous looking, there was no shade at the base and Ski Run Cliff had a hard access route that Cleo wouldn’t have been able to manage. The left side of the South Fork Slabs was where we ended up. Four routes close together and while the rock was in full sun, there were shaded hang-out spots at the base for Cleo and the belayer.
Without any further ado, I got my rack on for “No Glory” (5.6). An easy one for sure, but it was a perfect warm-up for my trad-mind. Sharing the anchor was “In a Different Light” (5.9) which Dan jumped on first and made the awkward lay-back crack look a breeze. I found it a little more awkward than he, but still enjoyed it.
With two climbs down, it was time for another swim and some lunch. While the river was a perfect temperature to cool us down, it didn’t quite chill the two beers I’d surprised Dan with. He didn’t seem to mind! We sunned our naked bodies as we ate, enjoying the cooling wind that was picking up and waiting for a group of people to descend into the valley but no one ever came.
After lunch, we moved left along the wall and found the best belayer’s station I’ve ever seen. We set up in the shade created by a gap between the cliff we were climbing and a massive rock that had broken off said cliff. It was perfect! Cleo was asleep in minutes as we climbed.
I got my arse kicked by a 5.9 called “The Source”. It really was a great climb, but I yelled out with every move I did during and after the crux when the bolts ran out. Some of my gear placements were shit, I didn’t trust my feet despite the grippy granite and I did not like the idea of a fall down a slab. Dan provided me with perfect encouragement as I made it up and through the route and in the end I was happy I hadn’t given it away, which I came close to doing after hanging on a nut I’d placed for a good five minutes.
I took up Dan’s comfy belay position while he made his way up the route and absolutely BREEZED through the whole thing. It was obviously all in my head. Since he’d done it so quickly, I was keen for another climb, so he came down on the anchor and put in a couple directional pieces so we could have a go on “The South Fork Subway” (5.10a). Beats me how you would protect it with gear, but it was a really fun top-rope with a funny crux at the base that required “butterfly hands” for me and a reachy side-pull for Dan. The top of the crack was wide and so it was interesting foot jamming but really was a walk in the park once you figured out a good system. Dan enjoyed it as much as me.
Not wanting to find another slab to set up on and happy with our day’s work, it was time for another swim before making our way back up granite slab and ski run hill. It was slow going fighting gravity at 5,000 ft but there was no hard scrambling. Our biggest challenge was pressing through the forest fast enough so that the mozzies couldn’t settle on us. Towards the top of the ski run, Cleo was taking rests whenever she could and we weren’t far behind, but we were in good spirits. We’d run out of water and so we were dreaming of the bottles I’d put in the fridge.
Back at the van, we all drank ourselves silly with cool water and chilled in the shade a while before heading off down the hill. We’d have been perfectly happy at our camp another night but Dan was in the mood for some off-road romping and so off we went to our next spot. It was near 6pm but with light until 9pm, why not?
Dan was enjoying his romp a little too much, hitting a water bar with some speed which sent the bike rack to shaking violently at the front of the van. We both knew something had bent or broken. We stopped on the hill and soon saw that the welds on both sides had started to fail. Thankfully they hadn’t completely failed – that would have surely meant running over $5,000 worth of mountain bike. Whoopsy! Neither of us were too bothered, just pissed off that we hadn’t thought for Dan to put his brand new welder to use to reinforce the welds we knew probably weren’t too great.
We stacked the bikes in the car and stowed the rack on the floor to be dealt with at camp before driving on. Now that he didn’t have the bikerack to worry about, Dan really got his romp on.
We were back on Sonora Pass for only a few miles before turning off again, this time on the left side of the road towards Donnell Reservoir. Once again I directed Dan down the dirt forest roads with the guidebook and after five or so miles, settled on a shaded spot right by the road, but we didn’t imagine we’d see anyone for the rest of the evening, which we didn’t.
I broke down the bike rack so that we could store it more easily in the pass-through cabinet while Dan took the bikes out of the van and locked them to the front bumper. It’s a shame the mishap happening on our second day of holiday, but I’m sure we’ll quickly get used to the new bike storage system.
5.8 Arse Kicking
We had a late start to our morning thanks to the sun being kept at bay by the deep valley we were in. Not wanting to deal with the mozzies from last night, we stashed Dan’s bike in the car and I rode mine down the road with Cleo while Dan followed in the van. We went maybe half a mile before we came a cairn on the side of the road indicating we were at Potter’s Rock.
Dan insisted on being in the kitchen and so I was treated to breakfast which I ate with a jumper on despite the heat we’d experienced yesterday. We were ready to head to the crag well after 10am. We were there and racking up by 10:10am. The dark grey and black granite walls nestled in behind a thick set of trees were very Yosemite-esque and thankfully were still shaded despite the late morning hour.
We didn’t have massive aspirations for the day, but hoped to get a few good routes in off one anchor. I found a nice cluster of routes in the one spot and so after Dan had made himself a suitable comfortable belay spot with our camping chair, I was off and up on “Wheelie” (5.8). It was a really nice route, but you could tell it wasn’t climbed very often and I had trust issues with some of the flakes of rock on the wall. Thanks to that and my poor mental game, I had a bit of a repeat of yesterday’s 5.9 with a lot of fear-yelling and poor trust in my gear placements. I was closer to coming off this time, but thanks to a tree towards the top of the route, I hung like a monkey and managed to get some gear around it to protect the last bit of ascent.
I set up anchor and belayed Dan from the top while getting eaten alive by ants. So far this wasn’t proving to be the best climbing spot. Dan enjoyed the route though he had troubled getting a hex out of the wall which was thankfully solid, but had sunken quite far down into a crack. Once he yanked that out of the wall he enjoyed the last few moves. I lowered him down to the ground quicksmart so he didn’t have to deal with the ants then I followed on rappel.
It was on the ground that we decided to take the bounty we’d found at the top of the route. It was just like the anchor set-up I’d left behind at Yosemite years ago – a couple slings and some screwgates, all of which looked brand new. It was to be Dan’s first climbing bounty!
I top-roped on a 5.10c called “Edgin’” then and enjoyed the tough climbing. This is what I wasn’t experiencing on my trad leads – a pure focus on the climbing moves. I had a couple rests on the mossy route and made it about halfway before bailing to finish on the 5.9, which I found a much nicer climb second time around. Dan did the same, flowing really nicely through the first section of the route before bailing at the same point I did after trying a few move variations.
Dan cleaned our gear and lowered down, managing to first tangle the rope in a tree when he threw it down, then get it caught around a rock flake. No matter, he was happy with his shiny new bounty and would not let me add it to my rack – it was his and it would stay on his harness!
With that, our climbing day was done. I did go suss out a 5.10a sport route to our left but it was properly in the sun and pure slab and so I wasn’t interested. I was thinking more about a watering hole now. Dan was happy to call it as well and so we packed up and were back at the car within 5 minutes.
We romped out of the National Forest and back onto Sonora Pass. We passed a few more climbing spots, but we didn’t stop at any. Maybe on the return trip? After passing Kennedy Meadows where we’d started a hike a few weeks ago, we stopped at a picnic area for a dip in the water (mostly to cool Cleo off) but decided to press on instead of making lunch.
It was well into the afternoon by the time we crested Sonora Pass and though we’d both driven through many times, the scenery’s beauty still struck us. Once we turned south on Highway 395, we were on a mission: to find a camp with cell service so that we could watch the Austrian GP. As we came into the town of Bridgeport, our phones started with an incessant dinging, signifying our return to civilization.
Dan stopped in town for some incredibly over-priced bug spray and we were off again, down towards Mammoth where there was a huge network of National Forest where I remember camping with Mum and Dad and watching F1. As we crested the hill just south of June Lake, we had three bars of service but I hesitated and so Dan didn’t take the turn off into the NF. No matter, take the next one I said, but that spot didn’t have service. We turned around and started back up the hill and into the NF by the Obsidian Dome.
It was a little sandy, but Dan was not to be deterred. He spotted a nice area amongst the pines a little ways off the road and went for it. He got maybe a couple car lengths before the van slowed to a stop in the soft sand. Ever the skilled driver, he got us out no problem and back onto the road. We’d just have to find another option.
After getting passed by a 4WD Subaru, we trundled up the road a little further and found a nice flat clearing amongst the pines. There was a 30 meter field of sand to get through but bushes were dotted throughout and so we were confident they would give us enough traction to get across. Nope. We made it probably halfway and after a few back-and-forth attempts, we were properly stuck. Cleo and I got out of the car then and I’ll admit, I was a little worried. We were in the middle of a sunny field and it seems like there was an ocean of sand between us and the shade of the pines nearby. But Dan saw no problem. He let some air out of the tyres incrementally until he found the sweet spot (around 20 psi) and was able to drive on through the sand and into the shaded pines. We were at camp.
First things first, we verified that we could stream the F1 and yes we could. Next we made ourselves comfortable – me having a shower, Dan setting out the mat and chairs and enjoying a relaxing stick. For the next few hours as the sun set, we watched the race in Austria unfold and oh, the drama! It was a perfect setting for some motorsport where no one could hear our screams at Checo’s demise down through the field.
We had a simple dinner after dark and there were no bugs to bother us tonight. Thanks to the elevation, I was in my down jacket but we were expecting heat for tomorrow.
Long Time Since Burning Man
It is soooo nice to wake up to see pine trees out your windows and nothing else. We took our time again this morning, my turn to cook breakfast and Dan’s time to relax with a coffee. We laughed at Cleo doing her morning hunt amongst the bushes as we enjoyed our camp. Since we were in service, I spent about 15 minutes on the phone with the California tax man to find out why our refund had been delayed three months. Though he couldn’t explain why a non-essential notice was sent to our old address, he got us sorted so that was a fruitful start to our day!
Just as we started packing up camp, I started exchanging messages with Kathi and found out that she and Shannon were down towards Bishop where we were heading and so we’d meet them somewhere near Rock Creek Lake where I planned on riding.
Confident of getting out through the sand, we packed up and strapped in. No back-and-forths needed this time, we were turned around and back on the forest road in no time. Before we got on the highway, we got out to see what the tires looked like and were happy to find they didn’t look like pancakes, so we drove into the town of Mammoth to fill up with air.
One thing that’s always pissed me off about America is that you can never be sure a servo will have water and air. In most cases, they have an air machine that costs a dollar in quarters (which I never have) which is bullshit because by California state law, they have to provide air free of charge. But that means you have to go inside and ask them to turn it on. If you wanted to pump up all four of your tires, you’d probably have to walk back in and get them to turn it back on after it timed out. What a joke.
Anyway, in Mammoth, we pulled in at a Shell and sure enough, there was the $1 air machine. I went inside to ask the question and the lady said we’d have to wait until another employee came because she couldn’t leave the front desk unattended to come turn it on. When I asked how long that would be she started explaining all the reasons she didn’t know so I was soon on my heels walking out.
We stopped in at the Grocery Outlet next door for a few supplies then went to the next gas station up the road who had free air, no questions asked. There were mountain bikers abounds all over this place and I remembered just how much of an outdoor vibe Mammoth has.
Onwards south now and before long we saw a big white Sprinter at Tom’s Place. We stopped and Shannon was soon walking across the road to us talking about the day’s plans. We followed them halfway up to Rock Creek Lake where he showed us a sneaky camping spot, then we lead the way towards the mountain bike trailhead, which also served as a day use area for Rock Creek Lake. With the long weekend over, we expected not much in the way of crowds, but we pretty much nabbed the last two parking spaces.
Having not seen K&S since Burning Man in 2019, we had much to catch up on which we started doing so while I prepped for my ride. I then had a meeting with Dan regarding pick-up time and location (he’s such a brilliant shuttle driver) and then I was off up the trail. The others talked of doing a short hike to a nearby climbing spot, but Dan later told me that Shannon poured himself a whiskey and the next few hours of their afternoon were spent chilling by the lake.
I hiked-a-bike for a lot of sections up the 500 ft climb to get me started. It was sandy and rocky singletrack, which I liked, but my lungs were sucking air thanks to the 10,000ft+ elevation. I soon got used to it and pressed on up the trail. I knew I was going to be rewarded with 12 miles of downhill goodness so my spirits were high.
After a good twenty minutes of climbing, I was stoked to see the sign for the Sand Canyon MTB trail. Yes, here is where the real fun would begin! The flow of the trail was nice, with just enough rocks thrown in to keep it very interesting. I rode past a wide open meadow and through thick trees, over roots and small water crossings. Then a little climbing on some double track where I met some outstanding views of the mountains.
I was disappointed to find that that was the end of the singletrack. The rest of my 12 mile ride down was essentially a forest road that became less technical with the elevation drop. I stopped a few times to check my map and constantly scanned my surroundings, sure that I’d gone off the trail, but no, this was it. I tried to enjoy it nonetheless, taking in the different landscapes as I held onto my handlebars for dear life. At one point, the road became very sandy and steep, which gave me the wobblies a couple times and I didn’t want to go hurtling into the bushes.
My brake pads and I were relieved to reach the bottom of the trail and drop into a bit of desert suburbia where I navigated the streets until I made it to Lower Rock Creek Road. Here I started climbing up the tarmac. I was determined to find me to decent singletrack along the Lower Rock Creek Trail!
I could see the trail winding through the canyon below as I cranked up the hill. I’d dropped nearly 4,000 feet on the last trail and so it was warm, but I had plenty of water with me and I was sucking on it as I climbed.
When the trail crossed the road, I opted to climb up the trail I’d be taking down and thoroughly enjoyed the shade afforded to me by the trees growing along the rushing creek. I found some stellar spots that would be perfect for Summer hangouts, but didn’t stop to enjoy any of them.
The trail crossed the road again and so I pedaled up the tarmac. It was hard work, but I enjoyed it, it was nice to be riding again and with hardly any cars on the road, I pretty much had the road to myself. I reached the top of the climb and found that I was in service so I sent a text to Dan with an update on my progress then dropped in to the trail. Wow, was it wonderful.
It started off sandy and flowy, always within 10 feet of the river and I was pedaling to make the most of it. Before too long though, the trail steepened, took me through some dense Aspen forest, then spat me out onto bridges crossing the river and into rocky terrain.
The last half of the trail was mostly rocky and there was a couple narrow spot where my handlebars simply wouldn’t go! I was in heaven, enjoying the tight twists and turns on the pink-white rocks. The trail was well-maintained but not overly groomed, which was my absolute favourite.
There were a few close calls with a near-OTB, some pedal scrapes and a rocky uphill wall that I definitely carried my bike up, but otherwise, I pedaled and flowed.
I was keeping an eye on the time and thought I would be spot on to meet Dan at our scheduled pick-up time. Sure enough, I came to the end of the winding trail and rode through a small suburb, “Paradise” a few minutes after 3pm. I was on cloud nine, it had taken me just under an hour to ride the 8 miles of downhill goodness and though it was hot, I was happy.
Dan wasn’t in the parking lot when I arrived, so I flipped through a book I found at the little library located at the trailhead and sucked on my water and Gatorade in the partial shade of a picnic table. Ten minutes later, a big white van with a pitbull hanging its head out the window showed up and I was reunited with my family.
We chatted the whole way back up the hill about my ride and what Dan had gotten up to with K&S. After trying and failing to find a swimming spot around Lake Crowley, we stopped in at Tom’s Place for a refreshment then climbed back up the hill to Rock Creek Lake.
Before K&S had a chance to come over, I got into my bikini quick smart and we got over to the closest beach so I could have a dunk. The clouds were coming over, the wind was picking up and the water was freezing, so my window of opportunity was closing. Dan laughed at me as I ran in and mis-timed my jump, falling instead into the deep water as the sandy bottom dropped away under my feet. Didn’t matter, I was clean.
K&S came over to our van then and we continued catching up while I made myself and Dan a snack and they regaled their of Ron and how they got forced out of their house. It had me in fits, especially since I’d met Ron but Dan was laughing it up too.
Before long, the wind was picking up something fierce and we were all in jumpers and long pants. It carried on and since we couldn’t cook in those conditions, we left the lake to find camp. K&S led us to a spot that was a spread-out carpark used as a trailhead but it had a lovely spot with our name on it. I pulled us in, leveling up like a champ and both van parties started cooking up some dinner.
We sat between the vans chatting away, most of us upgrading to down-jackets before the end of the night, which was a welcome relief after the heat of the day.
Too Good to Climb
Dan and I were up relatively early but it took a while for K&S to open their side door. We hadn’t made any grand plans for the day and so there was no great motivation to get up and going. I cooked us breakfast with very orange-yolked eggs, then Dan took over the kitchen for dishes, fruit salad and a coffee making.
Pouring the water for his coffee ran our tank dry and so I wandered down to the nearby river to get us a sink full of water for dishes. Somewhere in that time, he went off and collected me a bunch of flowers, completely one-upping me on the bouquet I’d brought back for him yesterday afternoon – he is the better flower arranger!
K&S sat with us while I used the left over dishwater to wash the dust of Scottie. Since the bikes were being stored inside the van and on the bed, it was a good excuse to keep her looking at her best.
Since the nearby climbing spots didn’t go into the shade until about 2pm, we decided our morning would be best spent doing a hike starting at the top of the road. Since K&S weren’t quite ready, we head down back to the lake to fill up with water, the turned around and met them on the way up to the trailhead.
During breakfast, we’d seen quite a few cars driving up the hill and now we understood where they all were – packing out the trailhead. There was absolutely no way we were finding a place to park. Stupid idea anyway, the trail would be too crowded. And so, we were forced to simply relax back at Rock Creek Lake.
Nowhere near as busy as yesterday, we parked up and Dan nabbed us a beautiful beach spot in the shade. It wasn’t hot enough to justify a swim, but it was a great piece of water to just sit by. I was excited to do some laundry and so I got our sink and dunked, scrubbed and squeezed away as we chatted through the morning. Dan hung me a clothesline between a couple trees and we shamelessly embraced our homelessness.
When it came time to head to the crag, I made us a smorgasbord of bits and pieces for lunch, during which Dan and I decided we weren’t going climbing. Life was just too good by the lake and the approach hike to the crag (up a steep talus field) didn’t sound inviting for us or Cleo.
And so, we made ourselves comfortable by the lake while K&S went off to discover a new crag. We didn’t feel a shred of FOMO and while away the afternoon squirrel-spotting, people watching, day drinking and swapping stories.
Around 5pm, most of the beach had cleared out and we were feeling restless. I took down our clean and dry laundry and we went for an explore up river to discover the lake’s source. We discovered beautiful campsites spread out amongst Aspens and forks of the river, which at times we had trouble avoiding walking through!
We made it past those campsites and far enough up river to see some ancient man-made piping which we couldn’t figure out the intended use of. We had a beautiful view down to the lake as we made our way back and set ourselves up to chill in the van while we waited for K&S to return.
They rolled in around 6pm and while Shannon described the climbing as “sublime”, Kathy assured us that we had made the right decision staying by the lake – the approach had been unpleasant. I chose to believe her.
Shannon suggested pizzas for dinner and so he donated us some dough and we cooked up a storm, him in his electric toaster oven, and us with our gas version. It was much nicer than the night before with less wind, but that meant more mozzies, so we were heading down the hill right around sunset.
We camped about halfway down the hill in a spot Shannon had pegged and both parties retreated into their vans for the night. The stars were stunning and it was the first time we’d seen a satellite (or ISS?) disappear instantly after making an arc across the twinkling sky.
Hooray for O’Reilly’s
The sun was on us with no shelter to be offered by the hillside of rocks flanking us. We lay in bed chatting a while before the heat really crept up getting us out of bed. At the carpark yesterday, we’d discovered a power steering fluid leak coming from Dan’s newly installed steering gearbox (May 2021) and so today was going to be devoted to mechanicing. To do that, we needed service and so we let K&S know we were heading down the hill to make a plan.
At Tom’s Place, we parked up in the shade (it was already hot enough to get Cleo into the nearby river to cool off) and ordered some breakfast and a coffee from the café to have at the outdoor picnic table by the river. Within an hour, Dan had found an O’Reilly’s in Bishop (which is a small town in the middle of bum-fuck nowhere) WHICH HAD A STEERING GEARBOX IN STOCK. I told him to fuck right off, there’s no way that could be right. But he called them and they had one. Unbelievable. While he was killing it, I caught up on a couple emails and within an hour we had our plan sorted for the day.
K&S had driven down to meet us and so we updated them on the plan and borrowed a few tools that we might need for our job. They were heading into Bishop same as us, so we planned to meet up at some point. Down the hill in Bishop, we found the O’Reilly’s then scouted a nearby parking lot to conduct the work. We found shade under a large sign but we knew it wouldn’t last. Ten minutes later, Dan was walking over to the car with a new steering gearbox. We started work at 11:20am. We were done at 1pm – needing a couple more trips over to O’Reilly’s for some rental tools and a few Cleo water-dousings to keep her from panting in the heat.
It was a tough job but one that Dan had recently completed and so we knew most of the tricks, though we had to get creative when torquing down the Pittman arm. Needing to keep the steering box still while cranking on the Pittman arm nut, we used a crobar for leverage and rolled the car up on top of the box to keep it in place while we torqued on the nut. Not exactly bush mechanics, but maybe the dirtbag version?
Next on the agenda was a cool down. We only had to drive twenty meters to find that in a dirt lot by a taco stand that was situated by the river. Cleo needed no invitation to get in.
We managed to while away the rest of the afternoon chasing o-rings because we found the steering stiffer than normal and deduced that the o-rings we’d used were too big, constricting the flow of power steering fluid through the system and boy were we right. A strip to Napa Auto Parts gave us some bullshit pathetic plastic o-rings which didn’t do us any good, then we bought the shop at O’Reilly’s with a thorough assortment, trying everything until they fit snugly.
During our last bout of o-ring shenanigans, we’d parked up in the dirt lot by the river and the owner of the taco stand wandered over to see if we were doing ok. Oh yes, we told him, look at all the o-rings we’re armed with! He commiserated with us how a 5c part could often be the cause of a complete loss of fluid and drive, then went on to offer us a solution to our bike storage problem. He’d notied our mountain bikes stashed inside the van and offered us a hitch-mount rear bike rack that he had at home which he doesn’t use anymore. He said it was ours if we wanted to come and pick it up from him tomorrow. What a generous offer, how could we refuse! He was the highlight of our day.
K&S had come by the O’Reilly’s carpark earlier in the afternoon as we were tidying up from our initial work and so we’d returned his tools before they went on to Keough Hot Springs (for reasons completely unknown to us). That was the last time we saw them. When they were visiting with a local friend in town, they discovered that Pine Creek Canyon, where we’d planned to head next, was closed due to a fire that started yesterday and so they were going to head home to Vegas. That was ok with us and was timely information because we were just about ready to get out of town and find camp.
Needing to drive around a bit more to test our o-ring choices, we drove across town to the post office to deliver a wedding RSVP that we’d been carrying since we left home (constantly on the look out for a post box which we never found). With that delivered, it was camp time.
On the way down Rock Creek Road from last night’s camp, I’d spied a beautiful spot right by the river and amongst the shade of pines and aspens and so that’s what we aimed for. As we climbed the hill, leaving the heat behind us, I quietly hoped that the spot would be vacant. When it came into sight and I saw that it was, I jumped for joy as much as I could from my seat. Yaaaaaaayyyy!! This was our reward for a hard day’s wrenching and boy were we happy to be “home”.
We walked around our new backyard, Cleo chasing squirrels, us dipping our feet in the river, loving the temperature 9,000 feet of elevation offered. Dan got to some well-earned relaxing back at the van while I gave our house a thorough clean, washing away the troubles of the day. With the done, I cracked a beer, cut my hair in the reflection of the rear window, then had a quick shower in the river before it got too cold.
Cleo finally got some rest and we thoroughly enjoyed our new camp, watching the Aspen leaves waving incessantly in the wind and listening to the flow of the cold river descending from the lake above. Cleo only perked up once with a low growl to warn us of an intruder, but he was just a humble fisherman, who wandered down to the creek with his pole before walking back to his car empty handed.
For the first time on our trip, we set an alarm, keen to get started on a hike early. We returned to Mosquito trailhead as we had done two days before and this time found plenty of spare parking by the river where I put some coffee on and made breakfast and lunch. We were in jumpers in the beginning but by the time the sun hit us we were well and truly out of them.
We hit the trail around 8:30am, starting up the 4 mile incline towards Morgan Pass and Gem Lakes. It promised to be a stunner with more than 6 lakes over the 4 miles up. After five minutes on the trail, Dan let Cleo off leash and within seconds, he put her back on because he saw a brown bear across the river. It was Dan’s first time seeing a bear in the wild (as opposed to one dumpster diving around Lake Tahoe) and he thought it might be time to head back to the carpark, but the bear was calmly doing his own thing. He looked healthy, with a beautiful two-tone brown coat and was moping around the opposite bank, getting up on his hind legs a couple times to see what was up in the trees near him. He definitely wasn’t bothered by us. We watched a while as he sauntered off down the hill (and away from us) before heading on our way, alerting a couple of overnight hiking groups on their way down of the potential wildlife viewing they were in for.
The trail climbed alongside the river very steadily which was much to our liking and we were pretty much the only day hikers on the trail for a good couple of miles. We soon came upon our first lake and did the necessary ooh’s and aah’s, getting a laugh out of the fact that most of the lakes aren’t even labeled, just called “Rock Creek”.
It was gorgeous as we climbed past 10,500 feet with blue skies overhead and crumbling mountains everywhere we looked.
Towards the end of the hike, we chose to do a couple of off-shoots before heading back down, the first being Morgan Pass. It was only three switchbacks that took us to the peak of 11,200 feet where we could look down into the next valley and back down into the one we’d come from.
You could really get your wilderness on out here, which explained the multiple overnight hiking parties we came across.
Down Morgan Pass, we took our next side trail to Gem Lakes. Sure enough, there were lots of lakes dotted along the trail, each one larger than the next. The trail ended at the most picturesque of them all, with clear green-blue water that was inviting us in.
There were a few other people around so no skinny-dipping, but that didn’t matter. We dove in with our undies on, which was the only way into this lake. It was bloody freezing! A few minutes after our lake exit, the sun disappeared behind a grey cloud that was creeping over the mountain in front of us.
While we ate some lunch, the sun came and went, setting us to shivering or sweating. The clouds looked foreboding, but not quite threatening so we took our time by the lakeside, watching the fish swim by while Cleo stood watch.
We made a loop around Gem Lakes on our way back down and it was the raindrops on the lake that first told us it was raining. We’d warmed up from our swim now so it was a refreshing change to the heat we’d experienced the last few days.
The rain continued spattering on and off as we descended, coming across many hikers on our way down. The scenery behind and in front of us was constantly changing thanks to the developing sky.
At one point the rain came down a little too hard for Cleo’s liking and so she tried retreating under some rocks but we encouraged her onwards.
By the time we’d descended into bear territory, the sun was out full force again and Cleo was looking for a cool-down, which she treated herself to.
No bear sightings as we dawdled through the carpark, excited for a cold drink and the rest of our day. It was only 12:30pm so we had everything ahead of us.
Another dip in the nearby river for Cleo, which turned into a squirrel hunt across river. It was the first time she’d swum across a body of water away from us and of her own volition. We were very impressed. She even swam back without too much encouragement!
Just as we were packing up the van and getting ready to head out, the sky grumbled and big rain drops began falling. This was more insistent than before and the rain soon turned to hail! It was only small balls, but it sent Cleo and the both of us running for shelter into the van. It must have lasted only five minutes and sunny skies soon replaced the chaos. We were glad not to have been on the trail during the onslaught.
We made someone very happy to have a parking spot as we left and drove down Rock Creek Road one more time. We waved to the mass of people on our lazy beach as we and took a longing look at last night’s camp as we descended.
We filled up with water at the base and that’s when the thunder started. Poor Cleo had had enough now, she was shivering with fear and it was wasn’t even mid-afternoon! We drove through a couple more isolated rain storms as we approached in Bishop, then pulled in to the local Taco truck. Here we hoped to make good on the truck operator’s promise of a bike rack, but mostly were excited for some tacos.
When he saw us, he put his hand to his forehead – he’d forgotten the bike rack. But no matter! A young girl – obviously one of his family had just driven up and so he said we should follow her to his place where we could pick up the rack. Sure thing! She got in her Mazda and we followed through the suburbs of Bishop to a small property where two guys were working on a truck out front.
We walked into the yard as the boys walked out with the bike rack and expressed our thanks. It mounted to the rear hitch which wasn’t ideal for our kitchen setup, but it had promise.
We went straight back to the taco man and gave him a big thumbs up and ordered our fill of tacos and enchiladas. With cold bottles of Coke and a cold river running nearby, we were in absolute heaven.
Before leaving town, Dan needed to make an adjustment to his steering and we needed some bits to make the bike rack work so we went back to our yesterday’s carpark and Dan got under the car while I did a bit of forward planning for the next few days.
With everything set, we meandered across the carpark to a pet store where we finally found a life vest for Cleo that we were happy with (it had been a long search). Next, we filled up with propane at the nearby Chevron, picked up a Mammoth Area Climbing guidebook, then got the fuck out of town. Bishop is nice and had been very good to us, but the heat was oppressive, especially when you could see rain covering the nearby mountains.
We drove up Highway 395 past Mammoth and turned onto Owens River Road in search of a camp. The network of forest roads did not make it hard and these were easier going than the sandy ones of a few nights ago. As a bonus, we found a spot with cell service so I was able to call my parents and wish Mum a happy birthday. They were home after nearly 3 months on the road and so it was nice to talk to them again, but now we’d be playing their game for the next six weeks!
Dan tidied up camp as I chatted away and did a test set-up of the bike rack which was good enough for the Giant, but wouldn’t do for Scottie’s delicate carbon frame. One bike in the van was an improvement over two!
Once I got off the phone we moved camp by about 20 meters to escape the ants that meant Cleo couldn’t relax anywhere on the ground and then we were set for the night. It seemed we’d escaped the rain for the day and the cool slowly descended on us amongst the pine trees.