Published: May 29th 2010May 29th 2010
Big Pine Creek trailhead sign
Perhaps I should have studied this further.
Still in Bishop, I stop by the ranger station to get some advice on hikes that aren't snow covered. The girl at the station indicates there aren't many, but that the Big Pine Creek North Fork trail is relatively snow free up to First Lake. So my next stop is Big Pine Creek trailhead, via another spur road into the Eastern Sierras from Big Pine (no this is not Pine Creek Road). It's about 1:30 pm and I start my hike. The hike seems pretty easy until I come to the upper end of a valley, where there's a snow and ice covered ridge that seems to be the only way to proceed. There are no tracks in the snow to follow, and the snowy slope seems way too steep to ascend without snowshoes. I thought the ranger vouched for this hike as relatively snow-free? Anyway, I notice a rocky area where it seems possible to perhaps scramble up.
I start the ascent on the rocky slope. What was at first a scramble quickly gets much more vertical and starts to become something more akin to a free climb. Unwisely, I continue up and up, enjoying the free climb too
The "menacing pass"
The snow goes up to the rock wall, where I got stuck. I planned on going up to the right from there, over the crest. Beyond, would be First Lake.
much to stop and assess the risk. Eventually I reach a spot where it's not clear whether I'm on the right path that will take me over this ridge, and the options forward are becoming limited to impossibly steep (for shoes) ice slope or genuinely dangerous vertical climbs. At this point my better judgment tells me to give it up and head back. This will not be as easy as I thought, however. As usual, climbing down is at least twice as difficult and dangerous and climbing up (which is probably why rock climbers prefer to rappel). There are more than a few moments where I am in difficult spots and can't figure out how to get out of them. Specifically, I can't find any decent holds that I can be confident in. A few times I have no choice but to take a (big) risk and cling to the rockface the best I can and hope (pray) my fingers or feet don't slip. I can't stress enough the fear factor in some of these downclimbs. Continually admonishing myself ("Look what you've gotten yourself into, you idiot!), I pass a few big tests and eventually make it down the most
Scraped up hand
Ice is like sandpaper at high speeds.
difficult and vertical part. On the trail, I hike back, planning to try again tomorrow, but with the snowshoes up what at the time seems the safer snowy slope route. I will learn later that this was a big mistake.
I park in the trailhead parking lot for the night. The next morning, I meet some backpackers who are seemingly taking the same hike, and then set out to meet this challenge again, but armed with snowshoes and ski poles. Arriving at the menacing slope, I put on the snowshoes and ascend in the snow. I make good progress, but then the slope gets very steep, much more so than I expected. Occasionally I look back into the valley at the trail to see if I can spot the backpackers, but I never see them. The ascent is getting strenuous and seemingly ever steeper. I'm starting to sense some danger involved, but from my perspective, the pass over the ridge seems tantalizingly close. (I was not that close I later discover.) Conscious of the risk of sunburn with the snow glare, I'm always trying to head for shadows. The slope looks like it continues on to a solid vertical
Hiking out alive
Thinking about what I'll do for the rest of my life.
rock wall and then continues up towards the right to the crest of this ridge. I see that the rock wall creates a thin shadow and so I head towards it.
Arriving at the vertical rock wall, the danger becomes undeniable, and the fear starts to set in. From this perspective I realize two unfortunate facts. 1) I can't ascend up the slope that I mentioned ascends towards the crest, since the slope from here is steeply sideways, and with snowshoes it would be a sidestepping maneuver, which is possible but the slope itself is so steep now and the descent so long that one slip and I'd be toast. And 2) I can't go back down, since again, it's too steep, and I'm realizing that snowshoes can take you up but are at best useless and at worst a huge danger going down a steep slope. Also, critically, the snow here is really more like ice, so you can't make good indented stairlike "steps" in it as you could in soft snow. I wait here at the rockface with about 2 feet of stable ground before the sharp-angled 1000 foot icy descent and ponder my predicament with dread.
As the the fear mutates into genuine worry, I try to think this through. I very tentatively practice snowshoeing down in reverse (only momentarily at the very edge), but quickly realize that I'm not getting a confident grip with the snowshoes and ski poles. It might be more possible than I realize at the moment, but the fear combined with the fact that I can't see where I'm going (I'm facing the ice) makes it simply impossible to proceed, since in my mind I can only imagine the long drop behind me. I play around with ideas to collapse my ski poles to use them as makeshift ice axes and try to "hug" the icy slope in various ways, facing the ice, facing the sky, etc., but every initial attempt I can immediately tell proves certain to fail. I sit at the rockface, running out of ideas, and getting very worried.
If I were to glissade down, the first stop, assuming I aim correctly, is an "island"- an area of exposed ground with rocks and one or more trees- about 50 feet down the slope. The fear factor is running high though, I can't bring myself to let
The actual North Fork Big Pine Creek trail
This was the trail I should have taken in the first place.
myself slide towards it, seeing as I have no ice axe (essential for stopping or slowing glissades), I'm not sure if I'll aim correctly, and I'm not sure how fast I'll go and if I'll crash into the rocks on the island. There is no way out.
Eventually, when all safe options are eliminated, one has no other choice but to attempt the least non-safe option. That's what I'm going to try. I take off the snowshoes (a dangerous hindrance at this point) and strap them to my backpack. Then I collapse my ski poles to use as secondary stabilizers, even though in this regard I know that they won't work nearly as well as ice axes, since they only go so far into the ice. Then, finally, on my rear end I descend, kicking my shoes into the ice as hard as I can to make the best "steps" I can etch into the ice. I head towards the island, and if I slip, I will at least be in the correct position for a glissade. However, I still won't have any means to stop the glissade.
After about 3 or 4 steps into the ice, I
At long last!
make a fatal slip. I'm in a glissade, heading towards the island. The ski poles are having no effect to slow my descent, and one even falls out of my hand entirely. I'm just using my hands against the ice (involuntary reaction) to attempt to control the pace. Thanks to God, I crash into a large rock at the island feet first, and come to a stop. Also, thankfully, the lost ski pole has arrived with me, within reach. My hands are red and freezing, and upon further inspection, I see they are scraped up and bleeding. I guess the ice is like sandpaper at high speeds. I'm not nearly out of the woods yet. Only 50 feet of 1000.
At least my options have expanded. My strategy is now to go from island to island until I get to a broader exposed rock area where I can climb down. The next island is parallel to this one and slightly downhill. The slope in between these two havens however goes all the way down to certain death or serious injury. It's about 50 feet away, and at this point I feel the best and only way is to side-step
Me at a pond near First Lake
I actually prefer this pond to the lake.
to it with the snowshoes. I put the snowshoes back on and start out. This is perhaps the second scariest part of this (mis)adventure. I know that behind me is a huge fall, and one careless slip and it's over. As carefully as possible I go sideways across the slope, foot across foot and pole across pole, making sure to get the best grip I can. Do not rush, but do not linger. And do not look down. I tell myself I'm not going to die today. My knees are weak and wobbling, but I have no choice but to persevere if I want to make it through this. After many nervous steps I get close enough to the island that I virtually jump to the tree (of life) perched on it.
Each successive island hop gets progressively less dangerous and easier, and eventually the ice turns into softer snow on less vertical slope that can easily be traversed without snowshoes. And finally, nearly galloping down the now almost horizontal snow field, I make it down to valley level. I will never get myself into that kind of mess again, I promise you.
Back at the trailhead parking lot, I meet some hikers. They ask me which fork of the Big Pine Creek trail I took, the north or south. Hesitating, since I'm not sure, I say "North, or wait maybe South". She says it must have been the south one if I had to use snowshoes. Driving away, it occurs to me that I took the wrong trail. I check the internet. Indeed, I did take the wrong trail. That's why the trail I was on was impassable, and that's also why I never saw the backpackers I met. They took the correct trail. And all of that shit I had to go through on it. Now I'm pissed.
I drive back to the parking lot. I'm going to hike up the correct trail. 4.7 miles to First Lake, ascending 2500 feet. It's 3pm, but I'll hustle. (Not thinking rationally at this point). I head off. Running into the hikers again, I tell them what happened, and they're shocked. I zip up the trail, not stopping once, passing many backpackers, fueled by sheer determination until I reach the damn lake (First Lake). Total hiking time to the lake- 1 hour, 20 minutes. Not bad!
Back at the truck, I leave this place satisfied but humbled. I eat two ice cream sandwiches from a gas station. I figure I earned them.