Monday, September 10, 2012

Minaret Lake Loop - Eastern Sierras, California

Traditions are important.  Especially novel traditions that involve a travel that reunites friends in the great outdoors.

A small handful of my friends that I have known since high school embark on an rather novel annual tradition each summer: an escape into the back country.  This year our group of 6 ventured into the Eastern Sierras to venture on (what we coined) the Minaret Lake Loop.

Day 1 - Thursday 6 September 2012 - Agnew Meadows to Summit Lake (6.0 miles)
After driving up after work on Wednesday night (and sleeping in the parking lot of the trail head at Agnew Meadows (8300 ft).  The beginning of the hike was a mellow series of switchbacks.  The terrain was arid and open.  More shrubs than trees, muted colors, short yellow grasses, and sea-green shrubs.  Last November there was a 'wind incident' in the area.  While the trails were clear, there were many felled trees visible from the path that we spotted over the course of the 4-day trek.  The evidence of such vast root systems unearthed was impressive as it was, but imagining the degree of wind that wold be powerful enough to uproot such trees...that would be something to behold.

Storm clouds gathered over the peaks to our left as we hiked.  The soundtrack of the day was the sound of the wind gathering, swimming through the trees beyond, in a audio-foreshadowing: we heard it before we felt it.

Summit Lake

We reached Summit Lake (our first camp site, 9850ft) around 1400 with rain threatening.  We set up both tents in case of rain and then relaxed until dinner time: napped, read, skipped stone on the lake.  About 50 meters beyond our camp at the edge of Summit Lake was a look out with an impressive look-out over Clark Lake (below in elevation).  That night we had tortellini pesto pasta with pine nuts and then played a card game - the six of us crouched in a 3-man tent.
Clark Lake
Day 2 - Friday 7 September 2012 - Summit Lake to Lake Ediza (6.5 - 7.5 miles)
We got a late start, leaving camp around 1045.  The start of our day was a long descent followed immediately by a grunt back up to the elevation we just descended from.  The trail is a bit confusing, and we ended up side questing to Badger Lake (unintentionally) and then back tracking to our original path.

The grunt up to Garnet Lake is a challenge.  The grade of the switchbacks is more severe than what we had done the day before, especially the final push.  But the view is spectacular, and an excellent stopping point for lunch.

Garnet Lake

After Garnet Lake there is another smaller grunt (that gives a great aerial view of the lake) we descended again, into Shadow Creek Valley.  The trail winds through a peaceful and lush forest area, which follows the Shadow Creek.  It felt a bit like the enchanted forest with the clearness of the creek water and the sound of small waterfalls over smoothed boulders.  The shade was also most welcome.  We reached Lake Ediza (9300ft) around 1700 or so: the magic hour of light.  We at first went left to find a camp site, but after scouting around and checking our permit, realized that camping was only permitted to the right.  So we back tracked, and then bouldered to get to the flat camping area on the right side of the lake.
Lake Ediza

We had Rice-a-Roni for dinner and then went to bed almost as soon as it got dark.

Day 3 - Saturday 8 September 2012 - Ediza Lake to Minaret Creek Basin (4.5 miles)
Iceberg Lake
We had a 1000 departure.  We first back track bouldered to get back to the trail and then had a decent grunt to get to Iceberg Lake.  The water was so clear and blue it almost looked fake, like an amusement park body of water in its pristine quality. We encountered several other groups of hikers here but did not tarry long...seeing quite clearly the challenging climb that lay just ahead.

'Duck' Hunting on the ascent to Cecile Lake
To get to Cecile Lake (10300ft) you have to follow ducks (otherwise known as cairns) along a rocky/bouldery slope on the left side of the lake.  As you look at it, there is really no path in sight, and you'd almost think it unwise to attempt.  But, if you just take it slow, and space yourselves out by about 10ft, the ascent can be safely achieved.  It is actually quite fun...a bit like a puzzle: finding the path of least resistance, testing each stone with your foot to make sure it is stable before stepping to the next, and keeping an intense degree of focus as you go.  You must remind yourself to slow down if you start to get over confident, but the challenge was rewarding and quite enjoyable.

Cecile Lake
We got to Cecile Lake (unscathed) just before noon.  We took a long lunch there enjoying the wind and the series of sunshine and shade.  The journey from Cecile Lake to Minaret Lake (9800ft) was a long descent.  At one point, you feel that you have reached a dead-end in the trail.  We learned later that there are three ways to get down to Minaret Lake, but the one we were advised to take by a hiker nearby required bouldering and a bit of pseudo-rock climbing to get down.  Most of us took our packs off at one point to drop down on one section of our self-blazed path (no ducks to be found) before we found the trail once again.
Minaret Lake

We took a short break at Minaret Lake, but a rather endearing, and weathered hiker from England advised us that the camping areas just below Minaret Lake were less exposed and rather beautiful, so we hiked on.  We hiked another mile or mile-and-a-half down into the Minaret Creek Basin and found a secluded and peaceful campsite (complete with the sound of rippling water) a stone's throw away from the creek.

We had chili that night, a camp fire (low enough elevation for a fire here), and played a card camp (sans-tent this time).

Day 4 - Sunday 9 September 2012 - Minaret Creek Basin (5.5 miles)
We had a 0800 departure with the goal of reaching the end of the trail by 1100.  The entire day was a long, switchbacky descent.  We passed several impressive views of a water falls along the way and epic panoramics of the forest below as we went.

Our trail ended at Devil's Postpile, so we de-packed for a quick look while one of our group hitchhiked back to our car at Agnew Meadows.  It was a little funny to have a trail end in such a touristy area.  Devil's Postpile is an impressive sight, worth checking out, but after being in the back country it felt a little underwhelming.  Devil's Postpile is columnar basalt, hexagonal in shape, formed by the rapid cooling of lava flow.

We did a quick freshening up in the public restroom at the monument, changed into fresh clothes, and hit the road.  We took a lunch break at the Mt. Whitney Cafe in Lone Pine and got home just after sunset.

Reunion tradition continues.  These trips are not just a novel escape from the daily routine, they are also a great time for fellowship, for stripping down your life from distractions, to truly just enjoy the present moment without being in a hurry to fill your time with your "To-Do".  You do not have that frantic feeling of trying to use every moment of daylight (and then electric light) to get things done.  You are content with just communing with each other, communing with the Creator, and falling into a nature wake-sleep pattern that the sun and moon dictate.  It gives you time to think, gives you time to hear yourself and hear God, when your life is free of layers of distractions.  These trips are not only a tradition, but a cleansing, and a rejuvenating reminder to slow down life a least once a year.

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