Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Dusy Basin | 2011

As you may have noticed, we've got a small horde of kids that tend to follow us everywhere. They're quite fond of us--and us of them--so generally wherever we go they do too. Usually this is a pretty decent arrangement, but there are a few things that we just can't do with a mini swarm of children orbiting around us all the time like so many life-sucking mosquitoes [but we love them]. Of these impossible activities, backpacking is one. This is unfortunate because backpacking is also loads of fun. And unlike some of our friends, we don't have awesome family in the area to unload our gaggle onto whenever we feel like unburdening ourselves [we're talking to you, family]. So, 5.5 years after the initial invasion, we still haven't done a single thing without the kids. Well, one or two dinnerandmovies and a few concerts, but nothing during daylight hours and nothing out of town.

Enter the Tahlbows. They--with a veritable armada of their own offspring--decided that it would be "fun" to try their hand at watching both colonies at the same time. So for 100 hours, off we went--leaving the Tahlbows with a massive rabble of 7 kids. Now, yes, some people have a larger cast than that of their own spawn, but consider this: 9 people in 650 square feet, kids aged 0, 1, 3, 3, 5, 5, 7, and one conjoined super-monster of monumental destructive and internally-antagonistic tendencies called LuBallyKeyHoo. So we left the Tahlbows to their own little adventure and we ran off to the Sierras to find peace, solace, flowers and... frogs. We called this adventure our "second honeymoon" so it would feel more legitimate, though we think it may be rare for the second honeymoon to happen 6.6 years after the first.

Before we dive into the adventure, here's a brief moment of perspective. In 4 days, there's not much chance of doing anything particularly noteworthy--and we didn't. We didn't summit a 14K peak, finish a grand loop, pound out 20-mile days, or meet any bears. There are those who practically live in the Sierras, and there are those who occasionally feign a vague passing understanding of a minuscule part of the experiences these mountains have to offer. We clearly fit in the second camp. But it was a lovely time for us--and also we'd like to leave the Tahlbows with SOME evidence of worthiness for their grand sacrifice--so as is usual for us we will document it here in excessive detail.

Our goal was to find wilderness and explore it without itinerary and without haste. We chose Dusy Basin in the backcountry of Kings Canyon National Park as our first wilderness stop based largely on this article about mountain yellow-legged frogs. Tundra has called to us for a long time, and awesome frogs are awesome--enough said. We camped on Friday night fairly close to the trailhead, picked up our permit in the morning and got on our way.

[use this map to follow along with the pictures, click to see the full-sized image]

Day 1: South Lake to Bishop Pass
The trailhead at South Lake is at about 9800'. To get into the backcountry of Kings Canyon NP, we faced a 6-mile climb up to Bishop pass at nearly 12000' and down into Dusy Basin. Perhaps this is a bit short of an epic climb, but the altitude was quite formidable for us given that we are used to a whopping 52-60' [depending on which floor of our apartment we're on].

[1] Us above South Lake near the beginning of the trail, sans feet.

[2] The lower elevations were violently flowery. It felt like spring in a warm wet place instead of late summer in a high dry place. Daddy thinks Mommy is a genius for conceiving of this way to portray that:

[3] Mommy beginning the final ascent to Bishop Pass. The trail consists of pulverized granite rubble organized into sharply-switchbacking ledges. When we spotted a horse/mule team coming down the trail ahead of us, they were two switchbacks above us and maybe eight feet laterally [which was quite intimidating considering the size of the lead horse].

[4] Mommy was in lead for most of the first 6 miles, and she absolutely blasted through. We passed about a dozen hikers, including some pretty serious-looking backpackers. She was awesome. Unfortunately, she seemed to have forgotten about the time she got altitude sick for a day visiting family at ~7000'. So what did she feel like after practically sprinting up 2200' to 12000'?

By the way, yes that is a child-carrier backpack. Hey, it worked great, ok? Due to way too much camera equipment, Mommy carried over 30 pounds in her pack, and her little dinky day pack just didn't cut it.


[6] We immediately abandoned the trail and walked along the pass to a little chilly lake with a perfect little gravel beach, a boulder for shelter and even some giant mountain yellow-legged frog tadpoles. Mommy took a little nap--there's nothing better for overcoming altitude sickness than a nap at 12000', right? Uh, yeah.

[7] We decided to explore further off the trail to find a place to camp. Travel was much slower off the trail but we were suddenly more more in-tune with our surroundings and much more aware of all of the little natural wonders found in alpine tundra.



[10] We picked a small gravel patch with a wonderful view for our camp and waited for the sunset.



We stayed up late watching the stars--neither of us had ever seen as many stars as clearly as we could there. We had fun finding satellites--dozens of them--and tracking them until the faded from sight. It was a glorious night, but we went to bed before the moon woke, which was a disappointment.

Day 2: Wandering under Isosceles Peak

In the morning, Daddy slept while Mommy decided to get some flower pictures. Even at such an altitude, there were flowers everywhere.

[13] Sierra daisy.

[14] Spreading phlox.

[15] Daddy's in there. At about this moment he had a very vivid dream about killing a "robot elf" with a .410 inside the laundry room of his childhood home.

[16] Since no photographer traveled with us, we had to make do with setting up cheesy faux-candid shots of ourselves. You might notice from the map that by this point we're actually traveling downhill but we thought the view would look nicer this way.

We picked our way across the granite and tundra to the unnamed lake in the background of the previous pictures. Isosceles Peak, the aggressive peak above the lake, clearly frequently sheds bus-sized boulders from its steep face into the surrounding land, including this lake. The ground is nothing but haphazardly-strewn granite chunks.

[17] Daddy couldn't resist a quick skinny dip in the nearly glacial water. Mommy was content to document it.

[18] A small meadow bordered the lake and it was full of the kind of richness only found in high-altitude meadows. Alpine laurel:

[19] Alpine shooting star.

[20] Feeling refreshed [especially Daddy, always invigorated by cold], we scrambled to a nearby ridge--essentially a buttress root of Isosceles Peak--and discovered a small pond, perfect in size for these rare little high-altitude amphibians:

[21] Both of these pictures are of juveniles. We spent a very long time trying to track down these very shy and small guys. Cold-blooded amphibians living at 11000'? They're a rare [and disappearing] marvel that live 2-3 years as tadpoles because the warm season is so short here.

[22] We rashly decided to work our way around the next significant [and fish-filled [thus frog-free]] lake on the Isosceles side. This meant something like 1/2 mile of multi-ton granite boulders and icy snow.

[23] The bouldering was super slow-going but we both had a blast. In some strange way, bolder-hopping is massively satisfying [if dangerous and inefficient].


Throughout the remainder of the afternoon, we hiked straight down the heart of Dusy Basin, always looking toward the view from the next bench, finally coming to rest at the marshy lower basin. We both remember this time as some of the most rewarding of the trip, picking our route carefully to avoid damaging meadows, cresting all local ridges to get a good view of the surrounding terrain, walking slowly to enjoy it all, and just exploring. This was one of the few chances we've ever had to feel legitimately like we were discovering new things with every step. Even though we were never more than a couple miles from a fairly well-used trail, we saw nobody that day and hardly a footprint. We think only a couple people a season ever make it back there in some of the really remote nooks we explored [and Dusy Basin is one of the least remote areas in the backcountry of Kings Canyon]. We saw more frogs, a marmot, a peregrine falcon, a little pika and some really wonderful legitimate wilderness.

[25] Daddy was very proud of having climbed this boulder. It was harder than it looks, or so he insists. We camped right under the edge of this boulder for the night, surrounded by exuberant alpine wetlands and their attendant hordes of mosquitoes.

[26] Since there was still daylight left, we ditched our packs and climbed up a small stream that drains into the marshes/lakes right by our camp spot. We climbed right up the falls, over granite boulders and through thick willow.

[27] As the sun was setting, we rested with our feet in the perfect water.

[28] This perfect little ledge seemed to be formerly part of that massive boulder we camped under.

At night, Mommy read from "The Last Season" by Eric Blehm. It's the story of Randy Morgenson, a legendary backcountry ranger in Kings Canyon who disappeared in the vast unforgiving terrain we had one little toe in [thanks to these folks for recommending it]. It's a gripping story and was particularly awesome to read right in the mountains that he loved. One of the main characters in the story, another backcountry ranger, patrolled by us that night--the only human we'd seen since leaving the trail the previous afternoon. Mommy actually huffed this hardback book around everywhere with us in the miscellaneous way-larger-on-the-inside-than-you-can-account-for-on-the-outside compartment of her [child-carrier] backpack, dubbed the Room of Requirement.

Day 3: Lower Dusy, frogs, and a return to the tundra

[29] Since we hadn't seen the last couple of rocky lakes at the extreme eastern end of the lower basin, we hiked off that way first thing. The way quickly became another boulder-hopping adventure. Eventually we turned back to avoid spending all day stuck in the boulders.

[30] We slowly worked our way along the wetlands, just luxuriating in the details. We even saw a juvenile Northern Goshawk, which was completely unexpected and awesome to these old raptor-watchers.

[31] Sierra daisy.

[32] Hypericum sp.

[33] Yellow pincushion.

[34] Small-flowered penstemon.

[35] Hypericum sp.

[36] Lemmon's paintbrush.

[37] Occasionally, Daddy just got an undeniable urge to climb the nearest and highest granite thing.

We rejoined the trail so we could quickly hike down to the point where Dusy Basin overlooks Le Conte Canyon. The view there confirmed to us that we could spend months in the backcountry there and still have a functionally infinite space remaining to get lost in.

After climbing back into the basin, we ditched the trail and struck off cross-country again, this time planning to hit as many potential frog ponds as we could on our long climb back to the lake at the pass, where we planned on sleeping that night.

[38] Pretty soon we found what was by far the most prolific frog pond we ran into in Dusy Basin.

[39] Don't get tired of these frog pictures. These are charming and special little amphibians that are in a world of hurt right now.

[40] A juvenile and 2nd [?] year tadpole side-by-side. The tadpole has legs and the frog has a residual tail. We saw frogs in every conceivable stage of development, but not a single adult. This one pond had several dozen juveniles.


[42] Mommy checks the water edge for transformed frogs.

[43] To delay having to leave this special lake, Daddy slowly pumped some water.

[44] Alpine shooting star.

[45] We found some other small lakes soon after the great one, but they were all either empty or fishy.

[46] It was not cold, but Daddy's new haircut had uncovered vast acreage of bare white scalp that by this time had become an oozing mass of fried skin. Thus the hat.

[47] We picked our path along a beautiful creek up towards our lake. Eventually we reached the alpine tundra again. We ran across a little group of three beautiful bucks. One of them [not pictured] had certainly the largest rack we've ever seen, he almost looked like a dainty bull elk.

[48] Slowly working our way up to the pass.

[49] We made it back to our charming little pass-top lake.

[50] It was chilly and windy, so we turned in early. The burbling water and inconsistent wind lent the night a strangely spooky feeling. But we accepted the creepiness instead of trying to shove it aside because it felt very appropriate for where we were. The Sierras are not "pretty" and they don't play nice, and spending the night mildly freaked out up there next to that wonderful wild lake felt like a good way to appreciate that. We read of Randy Morgenson well into the dark.


Day 4: Sprint to the finish
When we woke in the frigid morning, we threw back some Shaklee Performance [shoutout!] and headed down the pass. We needed to hike the 6.5 miles out and drive the >6 hours through Yosemite and the Central Valley back home before Little's school orientation at 4pm. So we started going at a pretty decent clip. By the time we got off the pass, Mommy was in front and she started just flying. Daddy struggled along behind, occasionally breaking into a jog to keep up. We left a plume of dust billowing into the air behind us like a panicked bevy of pika might. We lost 2200' by 9:15 AM and drove off into the beautiful morning light. When we got back home, almost all of the consort were still alive and the Tahlbows even seemed to have some shred of humanity and sanity remaining.

[52] Clarkia sp.

[53] Some of the lower-elevation riot on our march back to the car.

That's it! In the context of adventurers, summiters, climbers, rangers, trail runners, field biologists, etc., this trip was not particularly noteworthy [or tomeworthy as the case may be]. But to us this was a rejuvenating, enthralling and wonderful experience.

Here's to the Tahlbows--thanks for giving us the most amazing and generous gift ever. Yes, yes, I know we'll technically make it up to you piecemeal in the coming months, but what you did was heroic and we're deeply grateful.