SHR Day 10 – July 12
Laurel Creek to Gabbot Pass
Thunderstorm Camp to SpiceRack Special Camp
Miles: 9.14 + 8
Gain: 3976 ft + 2100
Loss: 2162 ft + 2100
Passes: Gabbot Pass
Today was like a sandwich. Really yummy bread (campsites) on the bottom and top, some smooth spread (trail) on that bread, and a whole lot of nasty crap and frustration in the middle. It was still a good, or maybe even a great day on the SHR, but it was testing in ways that can be difficult to find on the beaten path. Tough route, tough route finding, tough choices, big payoff.
The morning next to Laurel Creek was perhaps the best on this route so far. Although we needed to set up the tent for mosquitos yesterday evening, by morning they were gone. SpiceRack and I were able to enjoy the unfolding day at our leisure from the comfort of our butts. We watched the sun creep down the valley walls while sipping on hot chocolate, then hot tea. Spice convinced me to make a peanut butter sandwich with two Probars (370 calories each). The resulting calorie explosion was yummy and sat like a brick in my stomach for most of the morning.
Even with our luxurious start, we were cruising down Laurel Creek by 7:30am, Red and White Mountain and Bighorn Pass diminishing in our rearview. Eventually we found a light trail that we lost, then found again using GPS, that guided us for the steep descent to Mono Creek. As we dropped, the day warmed up and we found ourselves briefly surrounded by warmth- and sun-loving flora: sage, aspen, and manzanita. We hung a sharp right on the Mono Pass trail at the bottom, then turned left shortly after, headed up the Second Recess (read: valley. There are four parallel “recesses” in total extending north from the Mono Divide.)
Our first obstacle was Mono Creek. Spice marched right through, fearlessly dunking her shoes and socks in the roiling flow. My feet are exceptionally stinky (it’s one of my best traits), so I try harder to keep them dry. With careful searching, I found a rock hop 20 yards downstream. A dense bushwhack through willows put me back on the trail. Swatting mosquitos in the deep shade of large pine, I followed Spice out of the mire along the rushing Mills Creek.
A few easy miles later, we lost the trail in a mess of tree trunks and water-scarred earth. After a delicate log crossing of the creek, the map revealed that it was not just unnecessary, but actually counterproductive. So back across we went, trying to find our way through a dense thicket of aspen and spike bushes to open hillside. We made it through, but the frustrations were just beginning.
Sort of on track again, we followed occasional footprints up a ludicrously steep slope towards Mills Creek Lakes. The sun was brutal, and the 15 minutes of climbing along a creek that we expected turned into an hour of thirsty work, struggling to figure out how to go where we wanted to go. Trees and scrub pushed us further from the creek, deepening our dehydration and desperation. Buzzing flies eventually got to Spice, and my helplessness in guiding us to easier terrain finally had me clenching my jaw and keeping a white-knuckled grip on my trekking poles. It shouldn’t be this hard. Grrrr. What the hell is this damn cliff doing here? When we finally did reach the puddle at the top of the climb, the mood was sour.
A snack and a good drink of water can change a lot of things, however. Reaching easier terrain didn’t hurt either. Tired, but feeling better, we oozed our way up granite slabs to Lower Mills Creek Lake, a spot that came highly recommended by random people on the internet. I have to add my voice to theirs. This lake sure was nice – a deep granite pool surrounded by awe-inspiring mountains, with shore types to suit all kinds; grassy, flat granite, sand, trees for shade, no trees for sun. It was so pretty that I wasn’t even bothered when five minutes after sitting down to rest, the threatening clouds above started raining on us.
We pitched our tent on a nearby flat spot to wait it out and eat our lunch in comfort. With open doors, we were able to watch the clouds swirl overhead and raindrops prickle the lake’s surface. Gabbot Pass lay ahead for us, and at 12k feet, it was nowhere to hang out during a thunderstorm, so we settled in. After an hour of lounging, we got restless and decided it seemed appropriate to continue our approach. The clouds looked to be improving and we still had some hours to go before weather became a stop-or-go factor.
While we were packing up I realized that my pinwheel was missing. My stomach dropped. Longtime readers of HikeforDays might remember that SpiceRack bought me that pinwheel in Chamonix a few days after we first met while hiking the Tour du Mont Blanc in 2018. I’ve carried it while backpacking ever since, including the entirety of the CDT. Our sentimental attachment to that colorful object is at least equal to, if not more than that of a parent to their firstborn child. I know, crazy! A quick search through Spice’s photos revealed that it had been missing for most of the day, certainly since before that hellacious climb up Mills Creek. Bummer. It must have been yanked from my pack while I bushwhacked back to trail at Mono Creek, many hours, miles, and snacks ago. What could I do?
I let it go. Then I didn’t. Formulating a plan, Spice and I discussed our rescue options. We decided that I would leave my pack and run back for the pinwheel. She would hike a little further to Upper Mills Creek Lake in the meantime. It seemed stupid at the time, like a crazy risk that could derail the entire SHR, but I’ve done more for less, like running eight miles for a lost sock on the CDT. Remember that? Yeah, I did too, which made this whole thing feel even stupider. But away I jogged, with plans to see Spice again about three hours.
The good news is, I found what I was looking for. The proper trail down was easy to find in this direction, and the pinwheel was there, hanging six-feet off the ground in a bush next to Mono Creek. And fortunately, there isn’t really any bad news. I was dead tired by the time I made it back to my pack two and a half hours later, but it felt good sliding ye old pinwheel back into place on my pack, where it has bounced merrily for thousands of miles. Without a break beyond guzzling the two liters of water that Spice left me, and relishing my pack’s low weight (Spice took my bear canister), I grabbed my stuff and kept going. I had no idea how far back I’d gone, and didn’t feel anxious to find out. How can one quantify what something sentimental is worth? The pinwheel was worth it, but I still didn’t want to look at the total at the bottom of this metaphorical invoice.
I found Spice perched high above Upper Mills Creek Lake. It was such a relief to find her safe and healthy. After some hugs, we rearranged the stuff in our packs, and headed up to finish off the climb to Gabbot Pass, long overdue at this point. The afternoon sun had lost much of its power this late in the day, so the final jolt of elevation gain was pleasant. The stormy clouds had dispersed as well, so all we had to do was enjoy the boulder hopping to the top. It was a fun time, and I was reenergized upon reaching the saddle between jagged Mount Abbot and Mount Gabb by the spectacluar view ahead. The warm light from the low sun was enhanced by the haze of a fire somewhere (hopefully not too close), accentuating the jagged crumbles of Mount Abbot, Mount Dade, Bear Creek Spire, and Mount Julius Caesar, which formed a sky-ripping rim of the enormous basin at our feet.
Although we had originally planned, during the morning that felt so far away at this point, to make it a few more miles to Lake Italy, the conditions were perfect for cowboy camping just below the pass. Spice found a grassy bench with a nearby trickle of water and an epic view of the entire scene. I plopped down to eat all of the things, greedily grabbing in my bear canister. Spice generously cooked me the last of her mac n cheese dinners to replace my adequate, though meager ration of cold beans. When the dust settled, stars were already winking above the horizon, and zipping satellites reflected the last of the sun’s dusky rays. I didn’t even attempt to stay awake.