SHR Day 5 — July 7
Shelf above Merced Lake to Twin Island Lake
Mosquito Sunset Camp to Corn Nut Crusher Camp
Passes: Blue Lake Pass
Even in Yosemite, a super busy National Park that sees more than its fair share of love, it is possible to find total solitude. Today, the SHR took SpiceRack and me to a corner of the Sierra that felt more secluded, more remote than anywhere I’ve visited before. We didn’t see another soul all day and at times it felt as if we were hiking in a different part of the world entirely. Accessing these places was hard work and wiped me out, but finding the unexpected is exactly what calls me out here. Big lakes, big valleys, big talus, big mountains, big awesome.
Refreshed and remarkably recovered, I awoke in time to watch the sunrise color the air itself as alpenglow poured from the upper atmosphere onto the peaks of the Clark Range. Gray to red, yellow, and orange. Also viewed through bug mesh walls were about 20 mosquitos, ready for breakfast. The night had been so warm that they never went to sleep. The audible buzzing was an ominous sign that the morning would be a scrum.
By 7am we were back on the trail. I was sweating it out in my wind jacket and pants, while Spice did the smart thing by switching to chemical repellent. We cruised on easy trail through forest for the first few miles before crossing Lyell Creek and climbing high once more into the land of breeze and distant horizons. Before this, I packed away my extra layers, choosing to swat, rather than sweat it out. With mosquitos in hot pursuit, we made it to the top in good time. I sucked on Skittles one at a time to keep my mouth closed and juices flowing.
We left trail for good at the top, turning left up a forested shoulder. The mosquitos couldn’t handle this course correction, but a horse fly kept Spice swatting and grumpy. Finally clambering above treeline, we caught a glorious breeze that kept the bugs at bay. We sat for a snack in the shade of a whitebark pine.
From there, two miles of easy cross country over grassy meadows swung us around a wide bench that spread beneath serrated ridges of granite. Rising to meet this blade at Blue Lake Pass (inspired name, I know), we clambered up a steep slope of solid boulders. Working our way around cliffs, Spice made sure my brain was working on overdrive with an endless stream of riddles. Finally at the top, we exchanged a high-five and planted out butts so that we could ogle the views. Banner Peak, Mount Ritter and the Minarets were the big mountains in town. Their dark spires struck a startling contrast to the more reasonably sloped summits of light granite that disappeared beyond the horizon to the South. No roads, no sign of humans for as far as the eye could see, except for a game camera strapped to a rock for research purposes. Number of hikers who flashed the peace sign today: 1.
The descent was surprisingly smooth considering the large cliffs that blocked the way. Somehow Spice managed to find the right way down the first time and soon we were dropping our packs on the meadow adjacent to the sandy shore of Blue Lake. With the day shaping up to be another hot one, it was virtually a requirement that we go for a swim. We did, and it was awesome.
After a second lunch, we kept the good vibes going with a sublime descent down Bench Canyon. It was seriously one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. The wide, well-formed glacial valley provided endless pockets of shimmering beauty, small and large. We followed the creek though the long grassy stripe at the bottom for a few easy miles.
That was the end of the easy going. After that, we made a hot and exposed climbing traverse out of the canyon. Heavy with sun-induced lethargy, we ground our way up through boulders and crunchy plants familiar to the high desert rather than the alpine. Oh well. We made it to the top, where began a terrible traverse of unstable talus. The going was slow and the mental effort intense. A slip wouldn’t have killed, but it easily could have ended the hike. By the time we found a seemingly invisible lake, I was gassed, physically and mentally.
I could have camped, but it was only 6pm and we had planned to make it to the next lake. Starting off, we badly miscalculated our trajectory and found ourselves looking down on our lake, hundreds of feet too low. Correcting our course was easy, but the remaining traversing descent, cutting across a steep and uneven hillside took the last remaining bit of juice we had left. By the time the southernmost Twin Island Lake came into view, at the right level this time, I was near collapse. Fortunately there was a perfect camping spot right there.
We sat on the grass, watching the shadows gradually move up the high peaks of dark rock. Spice started eating Corn Nuts, which looked good, so I pulled out my own bag. Each of us polished off the whole thing in minutes, our bodies obviously craving salt after the grueling day spent in the bright sun.
Again, we tried to cowboy camp, but the mosquitos came out with the dying breeze, so we clicked the tent poles together and set it up. After collecting water from the stunning lake, we clambered into the tent for dinner in bed. Beans for me, mac n cheese for spice. I ate a lot of other things too. Spice popped some blisters, and then we called it a day. And damn, it was a tough one, and where we are feels like more than a days march from where we started. The dark rock and maze-like, closed in nature of this place feels foreboding and unwelcome. It’s a different vibe from the Sierra I know, and is awesome in a ‘fills you with dread’ kind of way. Rugged and remote. Cruel and unforgiving. I feel like a visitor here, rather than a resident. It’s a magical place, but I will tread quietly and carefully, until I’m through it tomorrow.