Eastern Sierra: Day 7 – Purple Mountains Majesty
As a kid, and as an adult, I had often wondered what the phrase, Purple Mountains Majesty meant. I had found pictures of purple mountains on the net, and remember thinking to myself, okay…purple mountains… I could never get the majesty part from looking at the pictures. But by the end of today, I would have an epiphany that would lead me to a new understanding.
I woke up and looked at the map again. I was looking for a place to cross over into the French Canyon area, heading north to eventually pick up the Pine Creek Pass trail. I could see Pilot Knob just above some hills in the distance, and on the map, it looked like I could either get over the saddle, or at least around it. Over, would save lots of time and miles.
I packed up, and minding the terrain, I kept Pilot Knob in the general direction I was heading. Into the hike, there were lots of small canyons that I had to cross. These weren’t like the hills that I encountered on my way to the base of Humphreys, these were abrupt cliffs in some cases. Some were only 20-30’ high, but finding a way down and then back up once across was tedious.
I passed Square Lake and Tomahawk Lake and looking back, I could see Mesa Lake and Humphreys in the distance. I was making progress, but I wouldn’t run into the canyons until after passing the lakes.
To amuse myself, when I would get to the top of one, I’d judge the distance down and across and then give myself a certain amount of time to be on the other side. I’d look at my watch, set a time and take off. I wouldn’t look at the watch again until I was on the other side. I was pretty generous with time in the beginning; most only took 10-20 minutes to cross. The going down part, a lot of times, included boulder hopping, and that is always fun.
My overall goal was to be at the base of Pilot Knob by 1pm.
I was conserving my camera battery and concentrating pretty much on the task at hand, when I topped a hill and came to another cliff. This was the last one before Pilot Knob, and it was huge.
Looking down, the trees looked like little splotches of grass in the distance, and I could see Knob Lake, and clouds.
Up to today, I hadn’t seen anything but clear skies, but now I could see clouds in front of me growing darker and there were some clouds behind me, in the distance.
From the top of the last cliff, I looked at my watch and it was 12:30. I was on time. The clouds were not menacing, and I wasn’t positive that it would even rain.
Looking across, I could see that Pilot Knob and the rim of the canyon I was on, connected. I searched for a route that would take me over the saddle that connected them, but it was too steep once I left the rim of the canyon, and the skree was just too unstable.
At this point, I was left with two choices: I could either fall into the basin tying to get over it, or climb down into it and find a way out on the other side….hmmm…
I decided to find a way down to Knob Lake and scout around there to see if I could find a path or some footprints that led out in the direction I needed to go.
Where earlier, it was taking 10-20 minutes to cross one of these; this one took a half hour to just get down! Once I got down to the trees…that looked like little splotches of grass from above, the ground was covered with grass and spongy mounds. The grass was green, but streaked with bright yellow and red all the way down the hill.
When I got to the lake, I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was beautiful!
Knob Lake is on a shelf at 11,200’ and the south end of the lake sits 1400’ above the Piute Trail and opens up to the Glacier Divide across the canyon. What a stunning sight! Because of its placement and difficulty to get to, and just because no one would have a reason to come here, I realized that this was a place that few people had ever, or will ever see in person. I was in awe.
I took the pack off and just sat in the spongy grass for a while, watching the clouds. They were turning darker grey, and I could tell it was going to rain….somewhere. I started to listen for thunder, and so far, I hadn’t heard any.
I had already decided that I was going to camp as soon as I got down here… and now, I was well on my way to trying to figure out how to live and work from here.
Auto-pilot-guy kicked in about that time and started to set up camp and get everything inside the tent. After that, I filled up the water bottles.
Since I was probably going to get wet anyway, and I hadn’t had a shower since leaving my house, seven days ago, I decided to strip down and rinse off in the lake. It didn’t seem cold outside, but the water was chilly. I was in the lake when I noticed it was raining…err wait… it was snowing…err hailing! This was a combination of rain-snow-hail. I could see snowflakes and little hail stones and rain drops when it first started. I stood for a second, trying to figure that one out, and then got inside the tent and dried off.
After a few minutes, I got bored and went outside and started taking pictures again…in the rain.
I found a burnt log that looked like it had been part of a campfire, but the fact that I had to almost dig it out of the ground (it hadn’t been buried; the sand had just built up around it), it had no ‘fire’ smell, and hardly any carbon residue came off when I touched it, told me it had been there for at least a few seasons, undisturbed. There were no footprints down here and there was no path… I was on my own.
It rained for about an hour and then the sun came out and the wind started to quiet down. My first look across the lake when I first got down here, even in grey skies, confirmed this was one of the most beautiful places I had ever seen…but now, with the sun shining, my earlier feelings of elation were dwarfed. All I could do was sit and look.
I wondered if John Muir or Ansel Adams had ever been here, and smiled.
I didn’t want to think about things like; route finding; orienteering; traversing… I just wanted to think about being here. But during dinner, I decided that afterward, I would walk around and try to find a way out of here…that didn’t include retracing my path, back up the hill.
As it turned out, from here, ‘over’ was out of the question. It was very steep and the skree higher up, looked like it would slide around as soon as you put your foot down on it. With a pack, and alone, I didn’t want to chance being done in by a broken leg at the end of the season…in a place pretty far off my itinerary, where no one might think to look for me. I kept thinking about a story I had read a couple years earlier on Ex Web: These two guys decided to try Latok II one August, one guy fell and broke his leg and the other guy was able to climb out to get help, but no one was able to get back up there. They had to call off the attempt after a while, and as it turns out…the guy ends up dying of a broken leg, stuck on the side of a mountain. That story always sticks in the back of my mind when I’m out on these trips, and when I think about doing something dumb, thankfully, it always surfaces.
I made my way over to the west side of the lake and got a quick dose of vertigo when I looked over. Sooo…that’s what 1400’ down looks like… I was done for the day… I would let tomorrow-guy decide what to do.
I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced the feeling that comes along with knowing you’re in trouble when dad gets home, but that’s exactly how I felt all the way back over to the tent.
When I got back to the tent, my camp chair was sitting right behind the tripod…calling me to get the camera. The sun was setting and the wind had almost died down. There was a reflection on the lake… I couldn’t believe this day!
I set the camera up, and elation took the place of everything churning inside me. There was a reflection on the lake, and one, west facing peak was turning a nice golden color. I sat snapping pictures at different exposures.
It was starting to get cold… not chilly…cold, I grabbed my down coat and gloves and when I got back to my chair, the west facing peak had turned purple. I didn’t even sit down, I stood, dumbfounded by this sight. It was only one peak, but that phrase was ringing in my ears, and it was then, through experience, not definition, that I knew exactly what Majesty was.
As long as a sunset takes, I hadn’t been taking pictures of this and almost missed shooting it! I sat down and was able to get one or two shots before the purple faded completely.
I turned the camera off and put the battery in a pocket in a layer close to my body to keep it warm.
I had a packet for two of chocolate mocha pudding that just needed some water. I mixed that and sat looking around while I ate it. I was so grateful for this day.
I sat for a couple more hours, undisturbed by the freezing cold and when I climbed into my sleeping bag, my last thought was that, tomorrow-guy wouldn’t have any problems…I hadn’t checked the south end of the lake yet…