A light snow covered most of the hills and much of the desert floor around us. The White Mountains reflected clear in the waters of Mono Lake. It took us most of a day to drive down to here from the bay area, but in a setting as serene as the High Sierra in winter, who would rush?
At breakfast, the weather service called for a one-percent chance of snow. Why would they consider that a chance at all? Why not just round to zero? We laughed about it as we wolfed down toast and eggs. After months of drought and no indication from long-term weather forecasts, there was no way it would snow today. We finished our breakfast, got into the car, and drove out to the trailhead. We had in mind to climb Mount Tallac, one of the more prominent and recognizable peaks of the Tahoe area and Desolation Wilderness.
We’ve had three years of drought in California, and the snowpack is at record lows for late January, but Lance, George, and I were determined to have some mountain fun anyway. We packed our car, filled our mugs with coffee, and headed for the hills. The day’s agenda was fluid, but we had in mind to climb Round Top and the taller of The Sisters depending on snow conditions.
Today was the big day. Everything else we had done on this trip was only a warm-up to today. We rolled out of our sleeping bags, threw some food into our backpacks, and hiked out of the portal. Tons of people were already on the trail, headlamps bobbing up and down the trail in the dark. The nervous excitement was palpable.
We woke up late, thinking that Dunderberg Peak would be a quick morning hike. Not much higher than 12,000 feet, we figured it’d be a short scramble to the top and that we would get back in time to lounge around camp for a few hours before dinner. As is typical, though, this hike turned into a bear of a day.
Adventures start with planning, but great adventures start when our plans fall through. When we accomplish our goals, we understand strength, but when we see a world of possibilities beyond our goals, we understand freedom. Plans create the skeletons for our adventures, but detours create the flesh.
We had one last full day in Denali. We we’re going to climb a peak. We took a shuttle to the Savage River rest stop, since that was the farthest we could go without paying for a ticket. There are few trails in Denali National Park, but one of them follows the Savage River for a mile or two, crosses a bridge, then returns on the other side. This area was perhaps crowded by Alaska standards, but it was much quieter than any trail in the Sierra.
We woke up to large pieces of ice on our tent. It was cold, but the rain had stopped. We packed up camp and hiked back across the tundra to the road. It was too early and cold to wait for a bus, so we walked the three or four miles West to the Eielson Visitor Center. Here we sat for an hour, warming our bones and resting up for the remainder of our hike. For a few moments the clouds broke, and we could see Denali (Mount McKinley). Above the snowy peaks sat clouds, and above the clouds stood the highest peak in North America. It was a sight to behold.
After years of dreaming, Jon and I finally bought plane tickets to Alaska. Our original plan was to hike into the Chugach Mountains outside of Anchorage, but a week before our trip we threw that plan out. Instead, we’d hike through the larger, more wild, more remote Denali National Park. Of course, getting from California to the backcountry of the Alaskan interior is a complicated logistical affair. One does not simply walk into the Alaska Range.
Sometimes you’ll find adventure in the places you go, but sometimes you’ll find it in the people who join you. Sometimes you’ll find peace in the solitude of a lone peak, but sometimes you’ll find it in a few select friends camped with you by a lake. The High Sierra is the place to go to meet that aspect of yourself that hangs off the edges of cliffs and climbs up the face of a glacier. The Emigrant Wilderness is the place to go to meet that other primal self, that person who walks quietly through the woods, over ridges, and past still lakes, who tends a campfire by night and bathes in the sun by day. It was this bit of our humanity that we sought.