What difference is there from one high lake to another? The stones on the shore are mostly the same. The water is always hydrogen and oxygen. Sure, one thousand-foot pile of rocks might not look exactly like another thousand-foot pile of rocks, but what new lessons do rock piles have to teach me, anyway? What novelty do the mountains really offer?
The Glacier Lodge trailhead looks like most other Eastern Sierra trailheads. Desert sagebrush gradually gives way to pine trees, turquoise lakes, and snowfields. About a mile into the hike, the trail splits into the north and south forks. As I looked into the south fork drainage, I was tempted to make a side trip. The valley there hangs straight down from the slopes of Middle Palisade Glacier. I decided I’d save it for another trip, though. I turned up along the north fork, climbing past a few waterfalls toward the North Palisade Glacier.
At the old wilderness ranger’s cabin the snow started. It was patchy in the shade and thicker on northern aspects. From here the trail climbs gradually up to First Lake, which was still mostly frozen. We had quite a bit more snow here than in recent winters past. It got thicker as I climbed, and by the time I got to Third Lake, the snow was at one-hundred percent coverage.
Third Lake sits at the base of Temple Crag, a three-thousand foot vertical rock wall without a route that wouldn’t require a rope. Behind and around Temple Crag are the turreted peaks of the Palisades. Palisade Glacier is one of the southernmost glaciers in the United States, and even has a glacial mill, a giant hole in the middle of the glacier that drains water through the depths of the glacier. Even farther to the right is the Inconsolable Range, with such colorful geographical names as Cloudripper, Picture Puzzle, and Jigsaw Pass.
I’ve seen glaciers. I’ve camped at countless lakes. I’ve climbed countless peaks. But the scene here, such high peaks as these, along with the monster snow slopes and couloirs that finger up their slopes, was enough that I sat down and stared for a good half-hour. What’s so different about this scene? Why is Temple Crag any different than Mount Whitney? Why is Mount Alice any different than Mount Dana? What continues to draw me to these same mountains?
It was getting late, and I still had a long drive (and some more hiking) to do. So I pulled myself up and got back onto the trail. The hike back, as always, went much faster, since most of it was downhill. As I walked back I thought to myself that maybe this question of novelty is the wrong question. Maybe it isn’t at all about the novelty of views and places. Maybe it’s the recurrence of things–awe, scale, starkness–that draw a person back.