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My Adventure: Rescue and respite in the High Sierra

In September, we embarked on a mule-supported hiking trip in the Eastern Sierra Nevada from Virginia Lake to Twin Lakes through the Hoover Wilderness, the northern part of Yosemite National Park, and the Yosemite Wilderness. T

It was the only major trip we were able to salvage from the wreckage of 2020, and the journey brought out the best and the worst of what it means to go deep into a wilderness area.

We started from the Virginia Lakes Pack Outfit near Virginia Lakes. The night before the trip, we were hit with heavy smoke from the nearby Slink fire, but as we drove to the pack outfit the next morning, we were encouraged to find that the smoke had thinned. Up at the station, at around 9,000 feet, it almost seemed clear.

We had breakfast at the station, met the rest of our 11-hiker group, were trucked a mile up to the trailhead by our outfitter, Rock Creek Pack Station, given bag lunches, and set out on the trail.

The general routine was for us to hike on our own (no guide accompanied us) with just our daypacks and at our own pace and meet up with the pack stock at a designated campsite several miles ahead. Our pack stock would (ideally) depart camp after us, pass us on the trail, and be in camp ahead of us.

So off we went, under a smoky haze that imparted a pink hue to everything. The 1,300-foot climb from Virginia Lakes to the ridge above Summit Lake goes through some of the most picturesque scenery in the High Sierra, passing several lakes before leaving the tree line and entering wildly colored rocky terrain.

From the ridge, we had a long descent and then a short ascent to reach our lunch spot at Summit Lake. It was still Labor Day weekend so we had the chance to stop and chat briefly (at a distance) with several hikers.

At the west end of Summit Lake, we passed out of the Hoover Wilderness and into Yosemite National Park and the Yosemite Wilderness. Ahead of us was a descent into Virginia Canyon and then a descent of that canyon to Avalanche Camp (the packers’ name for it). By then smoke had moved in from the west. I kept trying to take off the sunglasses I wasn’t wearing.

We reached Avalanche Camp slightly ahead of the pack train. After it arrived, we set up our tents, had hamburgers for dinner, watched the sky change colors through a smoky miasma, and then turned in for the night. The packers turn out at 4 a.m. to gather and saddle the stock, so no one was up for partying into the night.

The air cleared somewhat in the night, and ater breakfast we hiked down Virginia Canyon to a junction with the Pacific Crest Trail, then followed it westward across Spiller Creek and up numerous switchbacks to a campsite on the southwest side of Miller Lake. The pack train arrived an hour or so later and we settled in to explore around the lake for the rest of the day.

That afternoon, the lead wrangler fell and broke her arm. The pack outfit doesn’t carry any kind of satellite phones, so there was no way for the two other wranglers to let anyone outside the wilderness know what was going on. I let them use my personal locator beacon, and I activated it around 4 p.m. At 3 a.m., two Yosemite search-and-rescue rangers reached our camp after hiking 14 miles from Virginia Lakes in the dark with headlamps.

The rescuers assessed her condition, concluded she didn’t have a head injury, and at first light the decision was made to stabilize her arm and walk her out some 15 miles to Tuolumne Meadows. She made it out that day and was waiting to say goodbye to the group when we reached Twin Lakes a few days later.

After the drama of the rescue, we declared a layover day, caught up on our sleep, and explored the area around Miller Lake. A stiff wind came in from the south and pushed the smoke somewhere else, so we had almost clear conditions for the first time in days. Later that afternoon a replacement lead wrangler and another wrangler arrived from Virginia Creek to allow our trip to continue.

The next morning dawned clear and bright, which allowed us to see the full grandeur of Matterhorn Canyon as we hiked to our next camp. From Miller Lake, the PCT plunges 1,400 feet down to a junction with the trail up Matterhorn Canyon. There we turned north up the canyon toward Burro Pass. With the smoke out of the way for the moment, the walk up the canyon was an absolute delight. The light granite of the canyon walls and of Sawtooth Ridge in the distance was radiant in the crisp, clear air. It was the kind of day that makes being in the high country a total joy.

About five miles from Miller Lake, we reached our large, spacious packer campsite. It was a short day, which was good considering we faced a 10-mile day over two passes on the morrow.

The next morning the wind had shifted yet again and wildfire smoke from wildfires to the west, north and south was driven right up the canyon. We awoke in a smoke bank as thick as anything we’d yet experienced. So not only did we have two passes to cross, we were going to do so without much scenery to enliven the journey. But you play the cards you’re dealt, so after a good breakfast we hiked over Burro Pass and Mule Pass to Crown Lake in the Hoover Wilderness. After a nine-mile day with 2,600 feet of gain, we enjoyed a steak dinner at Crown Lake and then turned in, hoping the morning would bring some relief from the smoke.

The morning dawned clear enough for some views of scenery on the way out. After breakfast, we headed down for seven miles to the pick-up point at the Robinson Creek Trailhead at Twin Lakes. All the other hikers, apparently being more spry, did a detour (uphill!) to Peeler Lake. While they tromped around in the woods, we got to sit in chairs, drink cold beer and play catch with the wrangler’s energetic little dog. Seemed like a fair trade at the end of an adventurous and dramatic trip.

Despite the smoke and the other travails, it was an enjoyable trip. Hiking with mules allowed us to visit remote areas for several days without having to carry camping gear and food. Trips like this help keep alive the traditions and skills associated with handling horses and pack mules in the backcountry. We’ll likely do a trip like this again.

Bruce Hope lives in Medford and recounts his adventures at bootsonthetrail.blog.

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Share Your Adventure

The Mail Tribune wants to share your adventure. We’re looking for accounts of hikes, climbs, river runs, fishing trips, bike rides, ocean outings, camping trips, wildlife encounters and anything else you’ve done outdoors. Email your story (shoot for about 500 words) and pictures to Mail Tribune features editor David Smigelski at dsmigelski@rosebudmedia.com.

Crown Lake sparkles in the High Sierra. Photo by Bruce Hope
Tristan, left, and Sam lead the mules up Matterhorn Canyon.Photo by Bruce Hope