Laurel Basin 2006

" ...every lake and stream-course was wreathed in a necklace of flowers."

In mid-July, I sent an inquiry to a few selected friends asking if anyone was interested in a several-day hike in the Sierra. My intent was not so much to secure a hiking buddy, but more to re-connect with old friends in one of the best environments for sharing friendship I know of. Regrets started flowing my way: one friend had just spent a week in the hospital, another was scheduled for leg surgery, a third had a foot problem which made walking painful. Hmmm. I decided to go by myself, revisiting a trail-less area of the southern Sierra, Laurel Basin, I'd first visited the previous year.

Fast-forward to just less than two weeks before I planned to leave, in the restroom on the fifth floor of Building 264 at JPL where I work. Turning around to flush the toilet, I see a LARGE amount of bright red blood in the bowl. Two immediate thoughts: does this mean I can't do my ACE shift the next night from 5 PM to 5 AM? And does this mean I too will have to forgo this summer's hike? A less-immediate thought: why does stuff like this always happen on a Friday night?

After more bloody desecration of the toilet bowl a few hours later, I phone the on-call doctor of my GP. Upon consultation, we decide I should go to the emergency room. There I'm interviewed, insurance info is taken, and I'm put in a bed where a flustered and sweating medical technician jabs me once in the arm, finds that the flow is insufficient, and jabs me a second time in order to put in an IV and... take some blood, most of which goes in a vial but some of which goes on the floor. I reflect on the irony: patient presents with bleeding, therefore we must make patient bleed some more to see what's going on. After a bit they pronounce me fit, or at least not anemic, and I go home. The next day (well, night, really, as my shift was from 6 PM to 6 AM) I did my MRO ACE duties (personal bleeding now minimal), monitoring the spacecraft through four aerobraking orbits, including one where an accelleration parameter goes over limits that causes a script I'm running on behalf of the Attitude and Control team to spit out a warning message in all caps to direct me to "...CALL MISSION MANAGER." Oh, great; I don't see any other unexpected alarms but I wake up the Mission Manager at 4 AM anyway, who listens to my explanation, sighs, tells me I did the right thing but that the script needs to be updated and that the warning limit is set a bit too low for this phase of the mission and to pass on the word to the upcoming ACE to please ignore the script message unless the value is noticeably higher on a future orbit. Yes, sir!

Monday morning and I'm calling my GP; she gets me a rush appointment with the gastroenterologist whose name I'd had on my desk for a couple of years (I had had an appointment two years earlier but they'd had to postpone it, then I had something come up where I cancelled...). Anyway, a colonoscopy is scheduled for that Thursday, one week before the planned start of the hike. In the preparation for the procedure, I'm given a brochure for the place it'll be performed. The brochure cheerily proclaims: "A Full-Service Gastrointestinal Facility." I chuckle, and the office staff person asks why; I read aloud the brochure title and proclaim, with irony: "Well! It just sounds so NICE!" Later, I relate this to a friend, who remarks: "That's a lot better than if it were a SELF-SERVICE gastrointestinal facility."

As Jane is driving me home after the colonoscopy, I'm looking at the several-page printout (adorned with many color photos) of what they found and removed. Two small polyps and one big stalked one, blobby and white. I suspect I know what that means. But in talking to the post-op folks, they say I'm good to go unless I notice any more bleeding. I have an appointment scheduled on Monday August the 28th, the day after my hike's planned return, as a followup where the surgeon will go over pathology reports and discuss what he discovered. Conclusion: the hike is on!

I toyed with the idea of doing a "low CO2" hike by riding my motorcycle up to Mineral King. But after loading and shouldering my pack, riding a few miles on the freeway, and concluding that "this could work (maybe)", I decide that burning a few extra gallons of gas is not criminal behavior, yet, so I'll take the Saturn rather than the Ninja (which would have gotten around 60 MPG.) The road to MK is 25 miles of one-lane, steep, rough surface, and several miles of dirt, not really suited to a street bike. In the end the Saturn got 32 MPG, so I put an extra 139 pounds of CO2 into the atmosphere, equivalent to a 100-mile trip in an SUV. Perhaps any future grandchildren will forgive me...

I carefully weighed and packed my gear (see gear list here), packed the car, and got on the road Wednesday afternoon. I remembered on the way up that it was the 29th anniversary of the Kremer Figure 8 Prize Flight in the Gossamer Condor.

Journal entry: 9:15 PM at Cold Spring campground, site 15. Left home about 2:45 PM, got gas in Exeter (33.7 MPG), and arrived in Mineral King about 7:45 PM. The MK road has more pavement now, but still a couple of dirt sections. Campsites by the river are all full, but several open sites in the upper tier. Camp bulletin board says that entrance station is closed, though it looked occupied on the way up. So much for needing to buy a yearly park pass...

Made a Trader Joe's pouch meal, spicy Indian something w/ garbanzos, and added a pack of tuna. Just boiled the pouches, poured into small pot. Also had a hot cider packet. Thoroughly satisfactory.

Campground fee is $12; would only be $6 were I older. Temperature is about 55 F. Lots of stars out, campground is very quiet. River is a silvery hiss in the background.

Second journal entry a short time later: 10:10 PM - Well, seems that I'm establishing some sort of a tradition with water containers opening up on my gear at the beginning of a trip. Of course last year I had my water bladder come loose from its hose and gusher into my pack, including into the non-weatherproof Garcia bear can which got cocoa packets and other things soggy. What I just recovered from is that while preparing to bed down I put my sleeping gear and rain shell inside the tent along with a bottle of water. The water bottle is not one I'll have on the trail but is one of those pull-top sports bottles. Anyway, I didn't check that the pull- top was closed, and it ended up tipping over while I was doing something else at the campsite bear locker and the contents drained onto my sleeping quilt, ground pad, and the inside of the tent! I discovered water on the tent floor and after a moment of confusion (who peed in my tent?) started yanking sodden items out. Turns out that the green microfiber cloth I have makes an excellent sponge; no surprise, really, as its original intent was as a car-washing item. Quickly sponged out the tent, wrung out the quilt (it only got wet around the head and shoulder area), and wiped the rest of the stuff off. Since my Reach jacket is waterproof, I'm just wearing it to go between me and the quilt. So all is well; just getting to bed a bit later than I planned. Temperature is 58.3 F. according to my watch.

The next morning was clear and windless. I had to change my trip plan a bit as access to the northern Golden Trout Wilderness was restricted due to a 1600-acre fire near Coyote Pass. So I had to head toward Franklin Pass rather than going over Farewell Gap as originally planned. (Click on any picture for the largest version.)

Farewell Gap as seen above in the distance is only about 10,600 feet whereas Franklin Pass is almost 12,000, but ah well, it was a beautiful day for a walk. LOTS of flowers:

and the occasional critter, too. This is one of my favorites, a tiny little butterfly called the Echo Blue:

Journal entry: It's 12:30 PM and I'm having lunch at the meadowlet where I've camped before above Lower Franklin Lake. Have only seen two other hikers, both coming down, both solo guys. But just now I heard a voice and looked up to see two guys on horseback with four other packstock in trail. The second hiker I met was an old-looking greybeard with a big bulky frame pack. He was slowly stumbling and crashing down the trail, and appeared to have a rolled-up rectangular sleeping bag on top. He said he'd been out nine days, to Little Five Lakes, "that plateau" ("Chagoopa?", I asked, and he nodded), and down Kern Canyon, returning back up Rattlesnake canyon. "Nine days", he answered, when I asked him how long he'd been out. Definitely not a fast packer as that's about five days of walking.

Got to the top of Franklin Pass with little difficulty, and the winds were light. Could see little wisps of smoke drifting easterly to the south of the peaks surrounding Laurel Basin, which was encouraging as I really didn't want to be hiking in smoke. As it turned out, I camped that evening in the meadow seen in the middle foreground of the photo below (the prominent peak is un-named Peak 12362, which is the one I'm seen posing atop in the photo on my home page.)

Journal entry: 7:30 PM - Camped on south side of meadow @ 10,600 on Shotgun Pass trail north of Shotgun Pass. Fairly large lenticular off to the north, still in the glow of sunset though nearby peaks are not. Got up to the top of Franklin Pass around 2:30 PM. Was able to talk to Jane & Sachi on my cell phone from the EAST side of the pass on analog - the west side of the pass had a stronger signal but would thrash between a strong signal and NO signal.

Haven't seen any more people. Footprints on the east side of the Franklin Pass trail seemed to indicate a small group was ahead of me but I never caught up to them. Few signs of use on the Shotgun Pass trail or around the meadow here.

Dinner tonight was a Knorr Stroganoff packet with a packet of tuna, finished off by a hot cider.

A bit windy here; was stronger earlier but died down around sunset. Wind direction all day was such that the smoke from the fire was trailing off East, so never had to breathe any (smoke.)

I will go to the top of Shotgun Pass tomorrow AM and see if it's possible to hug the contour around to Laurel Basin. The topo indicates it could work; wait and see. Temperature in the tent at 8 PM is 56 F.

Day Two, August 25, 2006

Hiking is one of the few times that getting up early is actually appealing to me. Walking about the meadow in the early-morning light, I found little wisps of ice on some of the plants and around the verges of the watercourses, though it hadn't seemed that cold the night before and I had slept very warmly.

I set off to go up to Shotgun Pass and then cross-country into Laurel Basin. The trail up Shotgun is not maintained as far as I can tell and only lightly used. Here's a view of where the trail is at its most-prominent, looking back North towards 13,802-foot elevation Mount Kaweah (the treeless reddish one in the distance with a snow patch):

The pass is very rounded at the top with an elevation of about 11,450 feet. Once I got to the top, I could look south into the Little Kern drainage and Golden Trout Wilderness and see the fire that had closed the trails in that area. The early-morning air was still, and the smoke hung in the valleys below like a soft wispy fog.

It seemed to be confined to the left side of the second ridge, and was definitely a series of small spots rather than one large area. I could not see any flames, not that I expected to. My main interest was in the prevalence and dispersion-direction of the smoke; it looked like it was all to the south of where I'd be.

I started off cross-country from the top of the pass; my plan was to contour around the three miles or so to the ridgetop where I'd enter Laurel Basin. It seemed like a good idea, maintaining elevation and all, but the reality of trudging along cross-slope in decomposed granite where each step seemed to take several steps of effort soon convinced me that the reality of my plan was less appealing than the original concept. Here's a shot of me taking steps, sliding downward with each footfall:

Unlike the smoky air immediately to my south, the air out over the Central Valley was quite clear for that time of year and it was very easy to make out the Coast Range about 120 miles to the west and even further southwest:

I got to the ridge crest at about 11,800 feet a bit after noon, snacked a while, took photos, talked to Sachi for a couple of minutes on the cell phone (yay, analog!), and swapped out socks. My normal routine is to walk an hour, two at the most, and swap socks, putting the sweaty ones on the outside of my pack to dry, wiping down my feet with a small towel and putting on my other pairs of socks (an inner thin silver-impregnated liner sock and an outer thicker hiking sock.) Seems to keep my feet pretty happy. The basin below beckoned with glimmers of a couple of lakes.

I began the descent into the basin along the same easy route I'd used the year before. Walking DOWN a decomposed granite slope is really easy and fast; each step is cushioned, every little slip and slide carries you closer to your destination. In a short period of time I'd gotten to the first little lake, right at treeline but quite scenic nonetheless:

I descended further into the basin, past occasional remnant snowfields on north-facing slopes and into ever-more-abundant wild flower gardens. Many of the flowers were small, but still intricate in their beauty. And at 11,000 feet I came upon a quite lush area of bright green ferns, surprising to me in that I associate ferns with much warmer and wetter climates.

I was soon down into the lush meadowed heart of the basin, walking alongside little streams, seeing no signs of other human use. In one large meadowy lake-marsh I saw a number of trout. They were pretty active given the time of day, and may perhaps have been spawning.

My plan was to set up camp at the small un-named lake situated on a glacial bench on the south side of the basin just above 10,600 feet. I had glimpsed it from above as I hiked down. In person, the lake was quite a beauty, fringed with water grasses, surrounded by picturesque trees and granite slopes, alive with an assortment of darting water-bugs:

After setting up my tent and having a bit more lunch, including a can of smoked oysters which I wolfed down, I set off to explore a lake basin shown on the map to the east. I came to a spot where I could get a good view of the middle and lower areas of the basin, including the glacially-rounded lower reaches, with Kern Canyon off in the distance (remember, click on a photo for its largest version):

The lake basin just around the corner from the above vista was really quite stunning in its beauty and pristine qualities. The topo map showed four lakes; I counted six, with the upper two having a milky light blue color. I'm convinced there is a still-active fragment of a glacier (mantled with rock, so termed a rock glacier) higher up which may be producing the characteristic ground-up rock known as glacial flour. More likely though, that rock glacier had recently spawned a small avalanche of rocks and dirt into the upper lake. Pictures cannot do the lake basin justice, but here are a few of the ones I took:

The were sizable expanses of glacially-polished granite in this lake basin, including some quite obvious examples of glacial polish, and of course a scattering of glacial erratics. I was quite happy to be amongst my fellow erratics:

I scrambled up a ridge and peeked into the next lake basin to the west. It had fewer but larger lakes, which from above seemed a bit less lush and more barren. It was late afternoon by then, so I didn't go down to those lakes to look at them up close; had to save something for the next trip.

For those who've perused my gear list for this trip, you might have noticed one item noted as weighing 2.1 ounces, a small box holding some of my Dad's ashes; he died at the end of last summer. I was also wearing on this trip a silver, jasper, and turquoise ring of his. I'd considered spreading his ashes on the peak which anchors the northwest corner of Laurel basin along the Great Western Divide, Peak 12362, but the more I thought about it I realized that he was more a Lake & Trees sort of guy. So when I got back to camp I spread his ashes at the four corners of the lake I was camped by.

I now think of that lake as "Marvin's Bench Lake", though I'm sure it will remain just one of the basins' many un-named lakes on the topo maps. I had a quiet little chat, and shed a few tears, reflecting on his life. I wrote later in my journal: Perhaps his nutrients will help the flowers, grass, and waterbugs grow.

Day Three, Aug. 26th

Well, it was just a beautiful day in a spectacular place. The night had been uneventful and the morning was clear and calm. I knew I had to start back for MK, so looked at the map to try to come up with a route to maximize my experience in the basin. I decided to make for the grassy lake to the north where I'd camped the previous year, then bend around to the west along the northern side of the basin. The previous year when heading east I'd gotten to a point where it was too steep for comfort and had had to detour around to the south, but looking at the map I convinced myself that there had to be a way through. So I set off to explore and observe, giving a final look around at Marvin's Bench Lake.

Didn't see any big critters, but was oftentimes near to various little birds, including this one:

As I walked north alongside one of the streams, I continued to marvel at the amount and variety of plants in bloom. I stopped and pulled out my Treo 90 to try and capture the feeling in words: Journal entry: All the lakes and streamcourses are wreathed in a necklace of flowers. Such profusion, such beauty! It was really quite something.

I came to a junction of two of the basin's main streams and continued north, coming across yet another lake not shown on the topo map. In all, I counted about two dozen lakes, though the topo map shows nine plus a couple of marshy areas. Some of the lakes are shallow and may partially or wholly dry up in years with little winter snowfall.

A bit further on and I came to one of the very few indications of human use I've seen in Laurel Basin. Decades ago, camping meant canned food, and every woodsman seemed to carry a supply of nails in his pocket. Apparently, someone with the last name of "Ball" was in Laurel Basin on August 17th, 1951, a year before I was born, and decided to commemorate his stay with a bit of what now looks rather like folk art (though I remember this flattened-can piercing was more a folkway than an artistic statement back then.) The top can reads "BALL'S CAMP", complete with apostrophe.

I turned west and began following the northern branch of Laurel Creek past the lake by Ball's Camp and then alongside the next marshy lake upstream. I came to a large expanse of wild onions and then followed the creek upwards, always wary that I might get "slabbed out" in a spot where the topo didn't show a small but steep granite face. But the way was fairly easy, and I soon found myself past the steepest spot and able to look back towards where I'd walked so far that morning. I could see that there was a bit more smoke to the south than the day before, and had even smelled an occasional whiff of toasted trees.

As the slope lessened, the major challenge continued to be figuring out where to step without crushing flowers underfoot. In one area there were quite a number of pollinating insects, mostly blackish bumblebees. And up ahead was yet another lake, this one marked on the topo with the stippling which indicates an area that often dries up later in the season. Looked pretty lakelike to me; normal year-to-year variability, or a harbinger of climate change? Quite photogenic in any case.

I continued to ascend up what is seen as the green-floored drainage on the right side of the photo above. At one spot the creek drained across some granite slabs which had many green mossy blobs, several with snapdragons growing out of them, adhering to the wet rock. This picture shows some (but not nearly all) of them:

The drainage narrowed and I decided to break off to the south and ascend. In doing so, I passed by a large patch of snow which was quite red (see this link for details about the organisms involved) and then around another corner was the final unmapped lake I saw on this trip, nestled in a granite alcove with a slab of remnant snow along its western edge.

I topped out on the Great Western Divide at about 11,800 feet, talked to Jane for a couple of minutes on my cell phone, checked out the sticky little yellow-flowered succulent plants (Alpine Hulsea) that seem only to occur at or above 11,500 feet in this region, and started down the other side. My plan was to go straight down this time to the 10,800 foot contour and then bend around to the north towards Shotgun Pass. It ended up that this brought me close enough to Silver Lake that I could not resist going down a little further to its shoreline, taking my shoes off, and going wading. Felt REALLY good on my feet.

After a bit more food, trudge trudge I went up the decomposed granite slope to Shotgun Pass. It was definitely easier going up the slope on the trail than it had been walking across the slope breaking my own trail. I topped out on the pass at about 2:30 PM, swapped socks, and started down the other side, rushing a bit as now I had to lose 1300 feet into Rattlesnake Canyon for the privilege of gaining another 1600 feet to top out on Franklin Pass. I could see the trace of the Franklin Pass trail about three airmiles to my north at my same altitude; flying seemed like a desirable capability about then.

Journal entry: Met one couple going into Rattlesnake once I was halfway up Franklin. Got to the top of Franklin Pass about 5:45 PM, called home and left a message, and trekked on, having topped my third pass over 11,400 feet for the day. Walked past Franklin Lakes, where I saw five tents and about eight people (probably some additional people in tents or otherwise unseen.) Continued on down to the first crossing of Franklin Creek, arriving there just as the last direct light went away. Did a quick look for a campsite, found one a bit close to the trail but otherwise OK. Am typing this with the sound of Franklin Creek in the background. It's now almost 10:30 PM and my watch in the tent side pocket says it's 55 degrees here inside the tent.

Day Four, August 27, 2006

Journal entry: Sitting here in the Exeter A&W having just wolfed down a Papa Burger Combo (double cheeseburger, fries, large mug of root beer.) The place is packed! Guess I normally eat here later. Had a good hikelet this AM, started at 8:20 and got to the trailhead by 10:30. Walked off and left my walking stick, perhaps partially because of the surprise of seeing four hikers coming up the trail as I was just swinging up my pack. Walked down the trail for five minutes or so, wondering what I was missing. Of course!

Oh, and that blobby white intestinal polyp at the beginning of the story? On the following days' visit to the doctor I learned it tested malignant, but the cancer cells had not migrated too far down the stalk so further surgery was not needed. Life is good!

All photos taken with a Canon A510 digital camera

And as a bonus, there are additional photos of the Laurel Basin, with captions, in my SmugMug galleries at Grand Summer Hike 2010.

Go to photo 87 in that gallery for the ascent into Laurel Basin, and continue through photo 203 where I exited the basin. Unfortunately the photo quality is only fair, as my camera had developed a mechanical problem which required it to be replaced after that trip.