We leaned into our packs in the golden morning hour, the trail path winding through towering pink penstamon and rounded shrubs of sunny buckwheat. The air was blissfully cool as we made our way through the burn area, parting the deep scent of white lupine like a curtain. The undergrowth of sage, ferns, and other low plants were making a strong comeback beneath the skeletons of pines, the bark now spongy and disintegrating, leaving black streaks on hands and legs as we brushed past. The creek rushed and tumbled to the south, a low roar upon reaching the snow around 10K. Pushing on and up, we gazed across the valley to the couloir on Diamond Peak, the steep snow arcing up and behind the summit ridge. Together we decided to save it for another day and turned to clear the final 1000 ft of the pass. My jaw collapsed on reaching the ridge, looking into the Baxter basin and north, the heart of the High Sierra.
Scott had hiked this route many times with his best friend, fishing the high lakes and climbing the peaks in the area, and he had wanted to show me the area. When I wandered up the lower part of Baxter Pass a few weeks ago with my friend Paul to try Diamond, Scott had admonished me: "Don't you go and explore all that before I show it to you!" was the reply. We had kicked each other's asses running around Red Lake and the Basins below Mather Pass last summer, and now, a list of peaks and beta in my hand, we charged forth into the high backcountry, still coated with snow and ice.
After slipping and sliding down from the pass, we finally donned gaiters to keep from getting too wet in our (OK, my) postholes, then plunged and glissaded to the shores of Baxter Lake, finding a dry camp between the trees but not quite out of the chilling wind that was gusting all around us. After locking down the tent, we scrambled for sun and warmth, trying to dry boots and socks before the orb dove behind the high ridges of Acrodectes Peak. It was only mid-afternoon, and bursts of laughing conversation was interspersed with comfortable silence, as we both swung our eyes up and around the upper cirque in which we sat. The necklace of open water around the lake riffled in the breeze, snow drifts in the middle of the lake hollowing, and glowing pale turquoise in the afternoon light. Beyond the small trees, Scott found a space sheltered from the wind, and we were finally able to fire up the stove for me to make dinner. (Grilled chicken and veggies with pearled couscous over mashed potatoes, and, oh yeah, the bottle of red wine). We fought to sleep as the wind snapped and smacked the tent, sometime in the middle of the night awakening to the sagging nylon and dead calm.
Morning dawned cold and clear, but the wind calm and hot water an ease to boil for coffee and oatmeal. My stomach roiled at the prospect of the packaged meal, and I choked down the oats as if it was the last thing I would ever eat. The coffee went down more easily, but something told me it wouldn't be the last I would see of breakfast. We packed lighter loads and scrambled up the slabs and ledges north of camp, headed to the base of Acrodectes Peak. To our west, a long and tapered snow slope climbed the first chute, with even a mild angle reduction for a rest half way up. The snow steepened, but held the beginnings of nieves penitents, making perfect footholds for stepping and using ice axes for touch balance. Again and again I was overcome with rapid breathing and nausea: the oatmeal was reeking its vengeance upon my gut, which growled in anger. But we plowed ever higher, escaping the steepest sections of snow by escaping to the Class 3 ridgeline and scrambling our way to the summit.
An unbelievable scene to the north, where undulating snow still covered the ridges and passes, the lakes still frozen but at least showing their edges in the morning sun. To the southwest, Mt. Clarence King's spire rose immense and tall above all else, pulling my eye to it again and again. To the south, we could make out the familiar north wall of Whitney, sandwiched between Williamson's summit and those of Trojan and Barnard. I ate hungrily, fighting off the nausea from the nasty oatmeal, drinking deep, and then rising with renewed energy for the scramble down and back up the west ridge of Mt. Baxter.
In comparison, Baxter was a yawner. Blocky, loose talus crumbled under both of us as we walked up, and I tried to keep a pace of 50 steps before resting. From Acrodectes, the summit appeared to be across the plateau to the east, so we strode across to the edge, gazing down into the Sawmill Pass area and scouting for our descent route in a few days. Finding no register, we clambered back across to a tall bump to the west to find the canister tucked between the rocks. After photos, more snacks, and bundling up in the breeze, we started the tedious descent, stepping carefully through the talus. At last we reached the lower snow, donned crampons again, and ran the tongue all the way to camp. We quickly packed, fighting tooth and nail to stuff the tent into its sack, and meandered west across the suncups.
The creek ran to the south, and we knew the trail headed that direction, diving to the JMT far below at Dollar Lake. Avoiding the early wet crossing, we stayed on the north shore, cutting around trees and through damp hillsides teeming with wild onions, not yet ripe for harvest but smelling fresh near the thundering falls of Baxter Creek. Rocky ledges allowed for quick descents, our speed hindered only by bushwhacking through the young aspen, their leaves quivering but trunks and branches unmoving. The marshes of Baxter Creek led us to the crossing, where we decided to leave our boots and socks on, each taking a pole and fording the fast-moving water. On the far side, in full view of Woods Canyon, we rested and dried and warmed on the slabs, laughing at the prospect of such a well-defined trail to stroll along in the afternoon.
The trail drops along the slow descent of Baxter, pouring its waters into Woods Creek. I tickled my nose with plunging it deep into the shaggy bark of the incense cedars lining the lower trail, Scott and I deciding the merits of sleeping at the crossing that night versus pushing on to Twin Lakes. Upon seeing the bear box, we knew we had had enough excitement for the day, and we dropped packs to the west of the bridge, under a stand of aspen and near the River's violent edge. I unpacked the second night's dinner of sausage and veggies and rice pilaf and mashers, and we sipped our Gentleman Jack. Scott whipped out the first of a "tiered" birthday present: Moose Munch for dessert, and after crawling in the tent, we closed our eyes to the river's roar.
I was anxious to climb back up to the Sawmill Pass intersection, but my legs, and my mood woke cranky on Sunday morning. "You had better warn Bob Burd about this in a few weeks," Scott warned under a twinkling smile, since I had tolerated his being depleted and cranky the day before. After swaying across the suspension bridge, (one at a time, please!!), the trail rose ever so slowly along the north banks of Woods Creek, the morning sun twinkling in the new growth leaves of aspen. Rivulets tumbled everywhere, in every gulley, under each snowbank, crossings early on were wet or nothing. My last pair of new, fluffy socks were reduced to a compressed, squishy, wet mess within the first hour of hiking. With Scott firmly on my heels, we strode in lock step along the steep embankments of the river, heads down, not speaking much, just putting in time and hoping we didn't overshoot the turnoff. After the longest 4 miles ever, and as I finally cried out to Scott to ask if we had indeed, missed it, the sign appeared. "Unmaintained trail" shouted the sign.
Dunh... dunh... duhhhhhh...
I still think we made faster time off the trail than on it, because in what seemed no time flat we had reached the plateau of the Woods' Lakes, the trail fading in and out of snow berms and across bridges hiding raging creeklets. But the higher cirque revealed vast slopes beneath high faces, cornices dangling thousands of feet above, and then the sea of sun cups across which we stepped gingerly, slipped, postholed, grunted, stumbled, and balanced. Within sight of the final climb to the pass, I asked Scott if he had a plan for camp, even dropping a hint that I was ready to be done with the pack for the day. "Woods Lake," was the reply. "Which is over there," I countered, pointing back up and over my shoulder. Scott took a quick look around, and we both smiled, knowing we had overshot our intended target. But the next group of trees revealed both a site and a fire pit, running water across the way. We had found home for the night.
I was almost overcome by an attack of the lazies, the sun so warm and comfortable and the ground seemingly soft as we sat and ate lunch. One more peak beckoned, though, and we loaded up for the walk up the slabs once again towards the snowy slopes of Cedric Wright. A huge lake, melted out despite the lower frozen surfaces of the Woods Lakes, greeted us at the rise, and Scott asked if we were performing a simple scouting mission or if we were going to finish the job. The lazies still grabbed my ankles, and I dragged them along on the traverse to the rocky outcroppings at the base of the chute, postholing a few times for good measure. Scott told me later that if I had bailed, he already had a plan in place to shame me into climbing the thing. "OK, well I'll be right back after I climb this..." Dammit...
So I "let" Scott kick steps into the soft snow as we ascended the face. Not a bad job, this second in line thing. We never donned crampons on the ascent, relying on solid foot and axe placements as we broke our stairwell. I took my turn, my boots sliding a bit as we strove ever upwards. We reached the final scramble to the ridge, and the amphitheater to the west and north opened to our gazes in the clear skies. We dug out the register can, but had to use one of Scott's business cards to leave an entry (and a few treats). I scrambled to the western summit to stand proud, axe overhead, steep drops and the blue haze of the western range as my backdrop. We laughed again as Scott told me his plan to shame me into climbing the peak, laughed more at our crankiness, laughed for the sheer joy of being out, on high, and working hard with dear friends. We leapt down the slopes of soft snow to reach the banks above the lake, then walked down the scree to join the sea of sun cups near camp. As Scott walked about 100 ft south of me, I turned and narrowed my gaze. At the same moment, Scott lifted his head, smiled, and we were OFF!!
We dashed across the webbing of sun cups, the orange tent bouncing in my field of vision between the trees. Screeching with laughter, we jumped from edge to edge of the cups, sliding and running and flailing and falling towards camp. With only 20 yards to go, I suddenly (really? Suddenly?) postholed to my knee, my foot braced in the icy slop as I screeched to a halt and Scott danced into camp. Head down, I limped on sodden boots into the trees, only to see Scott doubled over. "I think I blew a lung." So was the outcome of the first annual "SunCup .1k".
After dinner, sitting in the last rays of day, Scott busted out the next phase of birthday gift, brownies and a candle, which only half-heartedly lit in the evening breeze. We each frowned at the prospect of eating freeze-dried dinners, especially after the culinary delights of the past two nights. The Gentleman Jack warmed us from the inside as we bid adieu to yet another amazing day.
Sometime around sunrise, we rose in camp, Scott stumbling first out of the tent to my cries of, "five more minutes..." I bundled into my down parka and rousted myself from my sleeping bag, only to find a "Happy Birthday" sign hanging from two nearby pines. A card and hat rested against my frozen boots. Scott was waiting with hot water for coffee, and a granola bar so that I didn't have to eat oatmeal. We waited, anxiously shivering and toes screaming at the attempts to thaw the boots, for the sun to mantle the crest before we packed and headed up to Sawmill Pass. We had 10 miles, and somewhere around 700,000 vertical feet to descend, so no time was wasted. The snow was perfect for walking down from the pass, and the trail revealed itself early. We strode in unison down the sandy path to the waiting TOF.
I wore the party hat all the way home.
A few of my favorite pics from the weekend:
Rest of the pics are here
, and here
Scott's pics are here
Scottie Mack, thank you so much for sharing this part of the Sierra with me, and for being such an incredible friend and mentor. All I wanted, after last year's adventure, was to come back stronger. Now, with your help and support, I feel ready for the grand adventure that awaits. This was indeed one of the best birthdays I've ever had.
From the luckiest girl in the world: Climb Hard, Be Safe.