Sierra High Route - 1998
Over Italy Pass
Friday, September 4 (Map) It seems that in the mountains, the most memorable days are the toughest and most miserable. Today was one of those days. As we lay in the tent in the afternoon, we tried to think back over our hiking trips, and tried to come up with a day that was more miserable, but we couldn't. That says something.
We woke up to low clouds, and occasional mist. As we cooked near our tent, the mist became more than occasional. We ended up packing camp in the rain. Not a good sign. The High Route "offered" us a couple of choices: we could climb up to White Bear Lake, and then descend to Brown Bear (By the way, these lakes are NOT in bear country. Way too far above timberline for black bears.) And then on down to the mouth of Lake Italy. That had been our original plan. But the "reviews" of Lake Italy were less than favorable, and really the major thing to have done there would have been to take a day hike. This was not that kind of a day. The other thing driving us was that it seemed like a waste of energy to drop all the way down to the bowl of Lake Italy and climb way up to Italy Pass again. The other "choice" we had was to go thru a sandy saddle south of Jumble Lake, climb down to Jumble Lake, and pick up the trail to the pass there. Will had looked at the map, and declared that he did not even want to lose the elevation down to Jumble Lake. He declared this based on looking at the map, but I went to one of my many pages copied from my hiking guides, and learned that it was at least possible to traverse above Jumble Lake over to Italy Pass. We decided on the latter approach. So about 8:45 am, we pulled out of camp. We walked a nice level 30 meters or so, and then started climbing up a grassy cleft on the north end of the lake. (Note that this was not the outlet of Black Bear Lake.) It was steep, and a little slippery due to the rain. As we got to the level of the Lake, we started to feel the wind, driving the small rain drops into our faces. From that lake, we continued to wind our way through the granite slabs up to two small tarns NW of Black Bear lake. Climbing the next bench up to the long saddle (running NE/SW) was tougher than it should have been. I made a wrong guess, and had to retrace my steps. The long saddle was sandy, and had a small tarn in it. It seemed like we were explorers from another planet. The clouds were only a few hundred feet above our heads, the rain reduced visibility, and the terrain was like Mars. Most of the crew gathered at the NE end of the saddle. The wind driven rain made stopping for a rest not very pleasant, but I had to get my pack off. The scene from this point was impressive, in a daunting way. Instead of just a couple of permanent snow fields to negotiate, we could see all the way down to Jumble Lake, and the route ahead was mostly steep snow. It was about a mile or so to Italy Pass, the cloud deck had dropped to the point where the pass was nearly invisible. I figured that if we lost our view, we could still rely on a GPS for confirmation.
So after a brief rest and a chance to pee, we set off, gingerly crossing huge steep snowfield. Will, who, with Barbara, was behind us, now by about an hour, said later that he felt that the snow field was really dangerous, due to its steepness. I felt pretty comfortable - no that's wrong - nothing about this day was "comfortable." But I was not too worried as I crossed the snow. I guess in the back of my mind was the possibility that we - because we were without ice axes or crampons - might have a hard time stopping if we stared to slide, but the snow was pretty soft, and you could get a good purchase. Suncups on the snow helped ones stability. Maybe Will is getting more conservative as he gets older. He certainly is when he is with Barbara. So the traverse was a mix of snow and boulders. And no matter which direction we headed, the wind was always forcing us into the side of the hill. Although I did not time it, I would imagine we were 90 minutes in that one mile traverse. While the snow was not easy, and of course rain on top of snow was most unpleasant, it was probably faster than boulder hopping the entire route. Especially rain-slicked boulders.
I was the 7th through Italy Pass of the lead group of 10. Ray seemed to be frogging around, and Dolph and Barb A were not too far behind. As I crossed the pass, the wind hit me full force in the face. I had hoped that I would be out of it, after I dropped down a hundred feet or so, but no such luck. It was still windy, and the rain was driven by it. As usual, Susie was out in front of me by 5 - 10 minutes.
As the guidebooks warn, the Italy Pass trail near the pass ain't much of a trail. Occasionally, you find a duck, or some scattered rocks, to suggest a route. But if you have any visibility at all, you can see where you should be heading, and you take the path of least resistance. We dropped about 400 feet or so, before the front seven felt like we could stop, using a bit of a boulder as a shelter from the wind. Because of the rain and the wind, we only stopped for about 15 minutes, cause everyone was getting cold. We trudged on thru the wind driven mist, dropping further down into Granite Park. Finally, at just a hair below 11,200 feet, at a spot where the trail goes around a horseshoe bend, there was enough grass and a bit of shelter for our group of tents. Even though we were still a mile or more from our destination, it was time to stop.
Susie and I set up our tent in record time, threw our gear in, and quickly followed. It felt luxurious to be out of the wet wind. We snuggled up in our bags, trying to warm up and pass the afternoon away. We had arrived at 1:30 pm, so it was not a long day of hiking, but it sure had been a miserable one. Some of us had experienced some sleet, or rain mixed with snow near the pass, so an estimated temperature of low 40's was not unreasonable. A couple of hours later, Will and Barbara walked into camp, and the first thing I heard thru the nylon canopy in which we were ensconced was "Where's Ray?" For some reason, I had just assumed that the other 3 (Ray, Dolph, and Barb A) had arrived in camp, and set up their tents. To be sure, given the wind, it would have been hard for me to hear them unless they deliberately talked to us. So clearly, none of the three were in camp, and the very fact that W&B had passed them without seeing them was some minor cause for concern. On the other hand, with hoods up, it would be possible to miss some one pretty easy if you were not looking for them. Especially if they were off the trail a bit. Given the temp (low 40's), and the wind (20 mph without protection) and the rain, if you were hurt, it could be a deadly place. We figured that the most likely scenario was that they had just gotten tired and sick of the rain, and decided to stop where they were, rather than go on. Maybe that was a cop out, but with three of them out there, if one had been injured, I figured one of the others would have come looking for us.
About 5:30 pm, we heard Ray calling to us from just outside the tent. He reported that he had gotten very sick - so sick he could not continue. He claimed it felt like he was getting stabbed in the stomach, and to me, with my experience, such sounded like an ulcer. I asked him a couple of diagnostic questions, and at least he had no evidence of bleeding. He seemed to deny that it could be an ulcer, because the pain is so bad. (And this is the guy that when he broke his back in an auto accident, and was in the hospital, would not ask for pain medication.) Anyway, the pain was so bad that he had to set up his tent, and crawl in. Unfortunately, his old Clip Flashlight had seen better days, and was leaking pretty badly. Dolph and Barb found him in his tent, and they elected to stay with him. When he felt a little better, he decided to pack up and move on, but D&B decided to stay put, given the weather. So they were going to stay up there for the night. If I were in their shoes, I would stay put too. Anyway, all the chicks were either in the nest, or accounted for, so it was time to cook dinner. In the rain. Always a treat, we keep one dinner in our food rations for just this occasion: pour the boiling water in the pouch, and eat. Mtn House Lasagna is my favorite for these occasions, and with the rain still being driven by the wind, it was great. We heated water outside the tent, and I did not manage to get too much wet in during my periodic checks to see if the damn Dragonfly was FINALLY boiling the water. It is at just these kinds of times that I want something to work fast. However, we had plenty of time on our hands so we should not have been in a hurry.
After dinner, it was like: well, now that's over with. What do we do now? My solution in these vexing situations is to lie down and think about things, which is a euphemism for sleeping. I think Susie and I just spread out both sleeping bags, tried to police the tent as good as we could, hoped our friends in the other tents were doing OK, and hit the sack. The wind driven rain continued throughout the night. Sometimes it would let up for a few seconds to minutes, but always it came back. Our itinerary was now grossly screwed up and I didn't care a bit. I was warm and dry, the tent was not leaking too badly, and for the next few hours, I did not have to do anything.
© Roger A. Jenkins, 1998