Warning: This trail report is a bit light on photos. It was most definitely an adventure.
We had been planning for weeks to make our summer finale run in the eastern Sierra Nevada mountains with the folks from Project-JK. Several people had made the run to Coyote Flats and Funnel Lake last year, but they had to leave early because a wildfire broke out nearby (um, yeah, at 2am!). They loved the location so much that it was easily the winning choice to celebrate the end of summer this year. It's an easy trail so I don't have any hardcore offroad photos this time, but the scenery is incredible.
Most of the people headed up Friday and spent the day exploring the Manzanar Japanese Internment Camp and a mine that they could actually drive the jeeps into before heading up to camp at Funnel Lake. Bill and I left at 6am Saturday morning for the five and a half hour drive to Bishop where we would pick up the trail. Most of the drive is through the desert, and it was really calling my name as we drove through in the early morning light. Another few weeks, mid-October probably, and we'll switch back to desert runs.
We had never been that far north on 395 before so I was keeping track of all the things I wanted to return to photograph. There was a huge solar farm that was incredibly beautiful in the early morning sun and I was sure there were some good stock shots there, but I was anxious to get on the trail and decided not to stop. Past the desert, 395 becomes the Eastern Sierra Scenic Byway and soon we see those magnificent mountain peaks. The Sierra range has over 120 mountain peaks greater than 13,000 feet, and most of them are in the southern end of the range. We pass by Mt. Whitney and Whitney Portal Road, dreaming of another day. I see a field filled with elk and Bill asks if I want to stop. No, I say, I'm sure it must be an elk farm because they are so many. My mistake, I later found out from Trailbud that they are in fact wild and they come down to graze with the cows every day. Then there's the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest and the Methuselah tree in the White Mountains noted for another day.
We made it to Bishop right at 11:30am and stop by the Vons to grab some ice before heading up. Bishop is a great little town and Bill decided he could live there. We both have a fantasy of giving up the O.C. life and going for something more simple. It probably won't be a fantasy forever, we just need to agree on a place to live. One day it's the desert, the next day it's the mountains; one day it's Mexico, the next it's Costa Rica; one day it's on the ocean, the next day it's on a lake. Then it always comes back to living on a boat. I'm not sure we'd ever be happy settling down in one place, and that's not exactly simple. We both suffer from serious wanderlust.
Armed with some gps coordinates and some "Backcountry Adventures" trail guides for part of the route, we were sure we'd be able to find everyone. We started out with me driving and Bill navigating, but we quickly realize that I am a better navigator so we have to change places. Bill asks what elevation we're at and I tell him 4,000 feet. He says there's no way that camp is at 10,500 because he can't believe we're going to climb 6,500 feet on a short trail. We start climbing the switchbacks and he asks for another elevation check. 6,000 feet I tell him. More switchback climbing and we stop to admire the view at 8,000 feet. The clouds were incredible and I decided to do a pano. Ten vertical frames showing Owens Valley with the river gorge and the Volcanic Tablelands, with mountains on both sides.
The file is so large that I had to shrink it just to upload it to my web host, but if you click on the image and go to the gallery, then click on the image again, you can view it at a larger size. I just started playing around with Zoomify and I have this image zoomified, now I just need to figure out how to host it. The actual image size is 11 inches by 40 inches, and you just can't see the detail it contains on a computer monitor. Zoomify is really cool because you can smoothly zoom in, out and around to the different areas of the photo. It seems a bit softer than the original file because Zoomify turns the file into a Flash movie. I'm going to continue to investigate how to get the files hosted on Smugmug, which hosts my website.
The clouds were gorgeous and perfect for photos, but of course they portend a storm. While I'm out taking a few more shots the sky above me turns dark and I hear thunder close by. I figure the top of a mountain is not a good place to stand in a thunderstorm, so I ran back to the jeep just as the rain started. At first the rain felt good - refreshing on a warm day. Then the big drops came splatting down and we had to roll up the windows. Fortunately it was a quick little storm (back in camp they got hail) and the trail didn't get too muddy. Bill and I hadn't been out on the trail by ourselves in quite some time, so we had a great time just kicking around and stopping whenever we wanted to. When we reached Coyote Flats I had to do another pano with those gorgeous clouds.
After a few stream crossings we came to the intersection where we had to decide which lake to go to. The group had Funnel Lake as their first choice, but if for some reason the campsite wasn't available they were heading to Coyote Lake. We tried to see if we could get a response on the CB radio and we did pick them up, but the mountains kept getting in the way of the signal and conversation was impossible. We figured with our luck they'd be at Coyote Lake, so we decided to start heading that way. Made a quick stop at the Salty Peterson Mine but decided not to explore because I wanted to take it very easy my first day at this altitude. When we got Coyote Lake we saw that it was dry and other than three mule deer grazing nearby there wasn't a soul in sight. Coyote Lake is known to be dry more often than not, so it wasn't a surprise or a concern. Looks like it would be a pretty place to camp when the lake is full, but I doubt the fishing is any good.
We backtracked to the intersection and made the turn for Funnel Lake, and within minutes we discovered that Trailbud was a few feet ahead of us on the trail and the rest of the group was riding out to meet us. The toughest part of the trail is to Funnel Lake because you have to cross a huge boulder field. It's not difficult (for a modified jeep), but it does get tiring because it seems like it lasts forever. It definitely keeps most people out, so even though the main trail is easy the lake is secluded. Finally, the crystal clear water of Funnel Lake is before us and we see camp set up on the shore of the lake. Looks like home to me!
Bill set up the tent while I set up the kitchen and started cooking dinner, but the effort of unpacking was enough to do me in at that elevation. I knew I was going to have a problem with the altitude and was purposely trying to take it easy, but I wasn't successful in heading it off. In the midst of cooking dinner I decided I needed to go lay down for a while, and I spent the rest of the night in the tent. I missed sunset, the campfire, s'mores, night shooting and everything, and I was too miserable to even notice.
Some time in the evening the winds started. They were blowing at 60 mph with gusts to 80 mph. Everyone called it an early night and hunkered down in their tents. No one got any sleep - it was the kind of wind that made you hang on and pray that your tent isn't lifted into another state. Even if I were feeling well I wouldn't have been able to set up a tripod. I thought for sure that everything in camp had blown away and I wondered how well Bill did with securing things before he turned in for the night. Around 4am I stuck my head out the doggy door of our tent to marvel at the stars. Around 5am I stuck my head out the front flap to check on the alpenglow (Cindy had given me the heads up the evening before), which was just getting started. I finally convinced myself to move despite the altitude sickness to take a few shots of our tent and the alpenglow a little after six. A little earlier would've been ideal, but some things you can't fight.
Camp was in a much better condition than anyone expected it to be. Some minor tent damage and a few things blown around, but all in all we were in great shape. Rubimon toughed out the night in a hammock and said he was more comfortable than he would've been with a tent flattened in his face.
I was actually feeling worse than I had the night before and was afraid that I'd spend the rest of the day in my tent, but Trailbud came to the rescue. He does this pressure point massage that a female mountaineer taught him, and within minutes I was feeling a million times better. Probably no worse than anyone else who wasn't used to altitude. He literally saved the day for me. I don't think I will ever again go above 8,000 feet without Trailbud by my side. He was really good with the saline solution for every one who got grit in their eyes from the wind too, so I decided to start calling him Doctor Doug.
After breakfast we took a ride up the ridge trail and along the way stopped by the Schober Mine. Since I was finally feeling a little better I decided not to push my luck by climbing up to explore the mine, so I hung out in the jeep by myself. The jeeps were parked on a ridge and the wind was literally rocking them back and forth. Everyone was disconnected, so there was a lot of body sway in those jeeps! One of the little ones (who will not be named!) finally got hit with the altitude and tossed his cookies in Daddy's jeep because the wind was blowing so hard he couldn't open the door. Poor kid. We got the jeep cleaned and freshened up (I always carry wet wipes and Febreeze in the jeep - much better than paper towels) and we continued on to the top of the ridge. The wind was blowing even harder here; the weather service said it was blowing at 80 mph with gusts to 100 mph up on the ridges. It was brutal, although it was very cool, almost surreal, being up there. At 11,500 we were in the subalpine zone, so there wasn't much to break the wind. Subalpine starts at 10,500 feet in the eastern Sierra, and alpine (above the tree line) starts at 12,500. That is 3,000 feet higher than it starts on the western Sierra because the eastern side is in the rain shadow and gets less precipitation. Subalpine just has some grass and the very occasional stand of trees. It's an incredible change from our camp just 1,000 feet lower. The views of the monster peaks surrounding us were just amazing. The Sierras are monster awesome peaks.
We lined the jeeps up for our traditional poser shot - left to right is WayOfLife, Trailbud, Rubimon, Sgt. Evil, me, Toad and jkjeep. We did another shot with all of us standing in front of our jeeps, but I didn't want to risk putting the camera on a tripod.
And here's me just barely holding it together while Bill is having the time of his life. Actually, I really am having a great time, I just look like I'm about to die. Thanks to Mrs. Evil for taking this photo for us. We have so few photos of the two of us together, so we really appreciate a new one - even if I do look like death warmed over ;)
After the ridge, Rubimon and jkjeep headed home while the rest of head back to camp where we found that the wind had done a bit of damage. WayOfLife's tent, which was in the open right on the shore of the lake near us, had three broken tent poles, and although we knew we could repair the damage enough to get the tent set back up we didn't think any fix would hold up to the continued winds. A few of the other tents were knocked around and the boys' tent was flattened. There were a few campers on the other side of the lake and we noticed that they had some major destruction too. Our cheapy Coleman tent (which we bought when we weren't sure if Bill was going to like camping enough to continue!) proved to be surprisingly sturdy. This was the second time it had been tested in extremely high winds, and it just doesn't budge. Guess I have to give a little credit to the man who staked it down.
We had planned to spend the rest of the afternoon in camp relaxing and fishing for some fresh trout, but there were whitecaps on the lake, we didn't think WoL's tent would make it through another night, the winds were too strong to safely build a campfire and it would be impossible to keep our stoves lit to cook dinner, and frankly we were all tired of being buffeted around and pelted with grit. Being hardcore is one thing, being stupid is another, so it was proposed that we pack up and find some cheap rooms in Bishop. After lunch and some debate everyone agreed and we had the fun of tearing down and packing up in the wind.
Racing through Coyote Flats we noticed how cool the grass looked in the wind - like waves. Would've been neat to use an ND and capture the movement if I had the time. After the flats we start down the switchbacks. You just don't realize how steep the trail is until you drive down. A 6,500 foot climb is pretty steep, but I think I was just awestruck with the scenery on the way up. We certainly paid more attention to the trail on the way down. No stopping to shoot because at this point we were just focused on getting into town and eating dinner. Aired up and reconnected we head into Bishop. The county fair was in town so rooms were hard to come by, but we got lucky on our second try and found a place that could fit all of us. Nothing fancy, but it was clean, had new carpeting, and the shower water was hot. After great Mexican dinner - was it Amigo's? - we took the beer (and American Honey) out by the pool at the motel for "campfire chat". None of us lasted very long, though, because no one had slept the night before.
Next morning was breakfast at Jack's (of course) before we hit the road for the long drive back home. Driley and his wife stopped by to say hello, and she gave me a tip to try Sudafed to prevent the altitude headache next time. At this point I'll try anything and everything.
We had planned to stop to see the elk on the way home, but they were nowhere in sight. Probably hunkered down out of the wind somewhere. We chattered on the CBs the whole way home, and surprisingly the traffic wasn't bad at all given that it was a holiday. Guess the high gas prices kept a lot of people home. Gas was over $4.00 gallon every place we went, even as high as $4.39 at one place. I think everyone raised the prices for the holiday weekend. One by one jeeps dropped out of line until it was just us and WayOfLife heading down to Orange County. I had damaged my CB antenna at the motel entrance so we couldn't even chat, but with traffic flowing smoothly even on the 91 we made it home in record time.
There are a few more photos (but not many) in the gallery on my website here.
Thanks again to everyone who made this such a fun trip. We can't wait until our next adventure!