Sierra '93: the Trip that Wasn't

Two friends and I had ambitious hiking plans for the summer of 1993. Scott and Wally were taking the John Muir Trail from Yosemite south, while my goal was to catch Scott as he zipped by the JMT / Piute Creek junction (Wally would veer west to Edison Lake a day or two earlier). I had not reserved a wilderness permit in advance, but we figured that a single hiker could probably squeeze in without too much trouble. Everything looked good on paper, but most Sierra hikes are performed on solid rock; somewhere in between, the trouble began.

My itinerary looked simple enough. Drive to Bishop over the weekend, camp at 9500 feet to get used to the thin air, hike over Piute Pass on Monday, reach the Muir Trail the next day, and walk slowly but steadily south until Scott catches me on Wednesday. I was concerned about my ability to keep up with Scott - he had shown on our 1989 trip that his pace was both quick and steady - but that issue could wait until we actually met. I packed a healthy load for this trip, including a few experimental items that included an 8mm camcorder that would either prove to be of fantastic or no value depending on the stamina of its battery. Everything was looking favorable as I hit the road on the last day of July. At Susanville I had a good steak dinner and a swim in the motel pool. I thought that I was prepared for nearly anything!

The first thing I wasn't prepared for was the heat. Driving due south in Nevada and eastern California, in early August, in a truck with no air-conditioning is a bad idea; I drank a lot of Dr. Pepper that day. When I pulled in to Bishop on Sunday afternoon the mall readout showed 110 degrees, just two short of my personal best. I ate a burrito but threw another out, having no appetite in weather that hot. I followed the locals' advice and picked up fresh mosquito repellent before heading up Bishop Creek, where numerous campgrounds awaited me. Once set up in camp I would be out of the hot valley and into the thin air, both of which my body needed.
The second thing I wasn't prepared for was full campgrounds! A water-supply problem had shut down the largest campground in the drainage, and the other sites could not keep up with the demand. I pulled up to Lake Sabrina and watched a thunderstorm bounce off the high peaks south of the lake; it was beautiful but disquieting, since I had no experience with bad weather from the gorgeous '89 trip. Scott had always warned me that the Sierra had their occasional afternoon storm, and this one was waiting to greet me on arrival. I contemplated camping in the back of the truck at North Lake, but I was losing my battle with the hot weather and decided my best approach was to head back to town and examine my options. The permit station for Piute Pass was halfway down the road, and I wasn't prepared for what I saw there either. People were already in line for Monday's permits, planning to sleep in cars at the station for the 6am opening. The sight of that caused me to reluctantly shift to 'Plan B': choosing rest over acclimitization, I would get a motel in Bishop, hit the ranger station in town at its 7am opening, and get a permit for Pine Creek Pass.

When I planned this trip, Piute Pass came across as the ideal gateway to the High Sierra: a relatively gentle 2000-foot climb, lots of lakes and greenery, great views at the crest . It would take eighteen miles to reach the Muir Trail, and I had two-plus days to get there. The only real alternative was Pine Creek Pass, and its credentials were less appealing: it starts 2200 feet lower, climbs rapidly in the first three miles, and sits by a tungsten mine. While it added only two miles to the commute to the JMT, it sounded like real work compared to Piute Pass. Its grade was not quite comparable to 1989's Taboose Pass; still, my hike had just became a lot harder.

I found a nice motel, turned the air-conditioner up and took a bath, relaxing in the cool room with the Weather Channel showing me how much longer the storms would hold up in the hills. What impressed me most was the fact that, despite the 100-degree heat, dewpoints were near or below freezing; fog would not be a problem in this region! I awoke cool and refreshed, ate a tasty breakfast, and walked a few blocks to the ranger station in Bishop. Two other people were already there: they had stood by at 6am and watched the Piute Pass reservations evaporate before them. Pine Creek looked like a wise (or at worst inevitable) decision! After picking up my permit, I drove north and then east into the Pine Creek canyon. That short drive was incredibly scenic, and I began to regain the enthusiasm that had waned on the previous day. At 9:00 I took a picture of myself at the trailhead, crossed through the pack station, and hit the trail. After twenty minutes, the trail hit back.

The Pine Creek trail switchbacks steeply up an exposed slope, revealing great views but few good rest stops. After an hour or so it crosses a creek just below a beautiful waterfall; I relaxed a while and re-loaded my water supply before re-entering the wasteland. I was soaking a bandana and tying it across my forehead; it felt good at the time but may have contributed to post-hike troubles [symptoms similar to the dreaded Giardia attacked me about ten days later]. The previous winter had been a good snow year here, and the waterfalls on Pine Creek were roaring; since this displays better on video instead of 35mm film, I took out the camcorder for a few shots. When I finally reached the treeline and the wilderness boundary, I felt much better about the trail. A pack train passed by as I reached Pine Creek, where I was again pumping water.

Pine Lake was a beautiful sight, and the granite peaks showed plenty of snow in their shadows that had not yet melted. The trail leveled off here at around 10,000 feet, and I wandered through a forest which harbored plenty of the mosquitoes that the locals said were staying healthy with the big snowpack. When I reached Upper Pine Lake, it was time for lunch, with or without bugs. I ate a decent meal, then ...

I had heard about altitude sickness, but we had never actually met. I knew how it felt to be short of breath, I understood mild headaches, and some disorientation is part of my personality. When I tried to pack up and move on after lunch, I found myself nearly unable, or unwilling, to move. Nothing seemed all that important, although my headache was coming pretty close. I rummaged through my medical bag and could not find any aspirin or ibuprofen. While packing I had cleverly put several vitamins and ibuprofen into one container, but that didn't register through the headache. I wandered up-lake a ways and begged a few aspirin off other friendly campers, then came back to my stuff. If I could just get a bit farther up the trail the bugs would be less, so I put on the pack and hiked unsteadily up to the inlet stream. The mid-afternoon flow was staggering: the path simply disappeared beneath the stream's strong current. I stared at it balnkly for several minutes, then accepted the fact that I couldn't safely cross until morning. I returned to my lunch-site, choked down a few salt-pills, and prepared for sleep.

My mind was clear on several things:

The main issue was how to lose elevation, since going two miles forward would work nearly as well as going back. I decided to re-evaluate myself in the morning, with ties resulting in retreat. I made a lean-to of my tarp and a large block of granite, hoping to cut down on the mosquitoes; it worked only marginally, since any that got in couldn't find a way out. At twilight I nearly snapped, stuffing the tarp into my pack and vowing to walk out in the moonlight just to get away from them. It was nearly too dark to see, and I decided that option was my worst idea yet. I rolled the sleeping bag out in the clear, crawled in and pulled out my secret weapon: a mosquito-net headcover. With no other skin exposed I was overheated but free of the bugs at last. As my body relaxed from the day's tension I found out just what a body deprived of oxygen does in its own defense; once or twice a minute, my regular breathing was interrupted by an involuntary deep breath as my lungs pulled in as much air as they could reach. It was alarming to have my breathing out of control like that, but I eventually fell asleep one way or the other. [A week later at sea level, I awoke several times with that same feeling. Since oxygen has no taste or feel, how do you really know when you are getting any?]

I awoke just after sunrise. I felt better but not great, and I was nervous about whether I was nearly acclimated or just waiting for some exertion to feel lousy again. If I waited here for most of the day I would probably miss Scott; if I could cross that stream, the pass was only about two miles away, and I could be at a somewhat lower elevation in a few hours. If I retreat I have no way to reach Scott, and with his pace I couldn't be sure any other trails would meet him. While pondering these options the headache began to reappear. Since for all I knew my aspirin was sitting at home, I was forced to admit defeat and retrace my steps. Wanting nothing more than to get away from this shameful spot, I skipped breakfast and fairly sped down the trail. Soon I had reached the trailhead again, and after picking up a pint of chocolate milk I began the long drive home. The thought of trying a trail farther south and surprising Scott did not come to mind again despite my partial acclimation and a pack full of supplies; I just had to get away.


Scott did not wait long at Evolution Valley before deciding I wasn't going to meet him; that was a good thing because his supplies were running quite low by the time he completed his trip. A helicopter carried an injured hiker out from the Evolution area the next day, and he wondered if that was me flying out! The 8mm tape I recorded (less than ten minutes, mostly of Pine Creek's falls) was accidentally erased shortly thereafter, rendering that extra weight valueless. My 24 hours in the wilderness brought me pain, a dose of humiliation and stomach troubles, none of which were worth the trip.

Thankfully, the Pine Creek area has been restored to favor - somewhat - with the 1996 trip; it followed the same path to Upper Pine Lake, crossed the stream early in the morning and cut over Italy Pass (a wearisome route for us!) and down to the Muir Trail farther north. We came back up Piute Canyon and over Pine Creek Pass to reach the car. It's a pretty hike, but the memories of '93 will not leave me soon. [Ironically, my camera failed on the '96 trip - I still have no photographic proof that I have been there.]

2002 footnote - the more thorough, modern test for Giardia was in fact negative.. so what was my problem?