SHR Day 2 — July 4
tarn below Stanton Pass to Lower Conness Lake
Creaky Knee Camp to Invincible Daylight Cowboy Camp
Passes: Sky Pilot Col
Day 2 was a doozy. We dragged ourselves across potentially the sketchiest pass of the whole trip, survived a frigid dip in an alpine lake, and basked in some serious beauty. From beginning to end we dodged all trails, which helps explain the low mileage total. We gave it all we had and made it through a demanding day that taxed us physically and mentally. The distance might not be huge, but the morning feels like a distant memory nonetheless.
I slept great after a hard first day. I was awake at 5:30am with light already glowing on the horizon. The long days of high summer are special, but I could put another hour of darkness to good use. After a night of on and off rain, I was pleased to see nothing but clear skies all around. Even before the sun crested the eastern ridge, it was warm. I’d needed to disrobe in the night to keep from turning into a raisin in my purple quilt. By the time we got hiking, it was already balmy and bright.
My legs felt good. It seemed like they had bounced back besides the lingering tenderness in my left quad. I strapped a knee band above my knee to help stabilize the squishy tendons. This seemed to help.
We started with a drop to Soldier Lake. It was big and beautiful, and worthy of its own trip. I dipped in my hand, just to say hello, and then turned left to follow the outflow to the bottom of Virginia Canyon. Spice and I carefully picked our way down a wide slope of granite slabs, large flakes separated by sharp fissures in the rock. Route finding was straight forward. Straight down.
We hit the trees as the landscape leveled out. Widely spaced pine kept navigation straight forward and we made good time, aiming straight across the canyon to the left of a big mountain. I must have crushed hundreds of purple flowers on the way. Sage filled the air with it’s unmistakable fragrance.
At the bottom of the canyon, we crossed a trail. I longed to take it. Noticing this, I realized that this SHR is different than any other hikes I’ve done. On previous trips, yesterday would have been the taxing outlier before a return to mindless cruising on trail. Not this time. Yesterday was just the beginning. This time, the trail was just a blip.
We gradually rose up the other side of the canyon, emerging from the trees in the Shepherd Creek drainage. Some bushwhacking got us to the spectacular shores of Shepherd Lake where we huddled in the shade of a small boulder for a rest. After soothing our aching legs in the frigid waters we feasted on a mixture of crunchy and chewy things. We asked a passing hiker what he’d thought of Sky Pilot Col, just ahead for us. He seemed chill and indifferent. The next couple to pass sounded a little more traumatized. About an hour later, we found out why.
The climax of the day began with an offensive amount of talus climbing into a narrowing arena of crumbly rock. Like yesterday, we found ourselves too high and too far right, but it worked out without much trouble. The last couple hundred feet to the col gave me nervous shivers. It looked steeeeeep, with no friendliest choice obvious from the bottom. To the right looked like amazingly loose small talus, similar to the stuff that so thoroughly freaked us out on Knapsack Col on the CDT. The left appeared to be super steep sand. Knowing how crappy Knapsack was for us, I pushed for sand.
I started up. Traction sucked. The sand was actually packed dirt that didn’t give. The soft foot and hand holds that I’d envisioned did not exist. I clawed up like a lizard partly sliding back, just trying to hang on. It was intense, but I made it to a small flat spot halfway up. Spice’s turn. She made it 50ft, then stalled when a foot slipped. Flattened against the slope to stop a slide, she took a few minutes to gather herself. I felt powerless from above. Going down to grab her pack seemed possible, but far from ideal. Instead we tried hauling her pack up, but that attempt failed miserably. Too much friction.
Out of alternatives, Spice rallied unknowable courage, carefully swinging her pack back on. At her request I directed from above allowing her to focus on simple movements and staying attached to the wall. Left! Great, now up! Yep, up! Good job! In a few minutes we stood level, draped in a soggy hug.
After a few minutes and a pep talk, I left the flat for the final 50ft to the top. Stubbornly I reached for the packed dirt. It was still barely helpful, but I held on and clawed my way to the top. With a dull thud, I looked back to see my water bottle sliding and tumbling away from me. It picked up speed fast, and was gone. Unfortunate, but a fair trade for safe passage.
Spice took her time to reach me, methodically choosing each hand and foot hold carefully. In a short amount of time that diminished the effort of will, we were once again hugging, this time on top. There were good views all around, but none more welcome than that of the relatively easy descent. I snapped some pictures, Spice lay down. Eventually it was time to move, so we moved, but not before, “Wait, 5 more minutes. I’ll never be up here again.”
The rest of the day was benign by comparison. A scree slide down from Sky Pilot, then an easy descent on grassy benches to a basin of granite rimmed lakes. The water was warm and inviting, but we moved on by. Numerous tents dotted the landscape. It was strange to find ourselves in such a busy spot after such a tough day.
The sheer east faces of North Peak and Mount Conness provided all the eye candy I needed for the last up and over to camp at Lower Conness Lake. A vertical-looking wall was next on the itinerary, but we decided to leave that for the morning. Although we set up to cowboy camp, the mosquitos forced us to pitch the tent. Beans for dinner, sunburned legs keeping me warm.