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Pine Cr backpack 7/29
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Pine Cr backpack 8/1

2016 Trip Chronicles:  Page 13

Pine Cr Backpack 1 of 2

After returning home Saturday from our 9 day Silver Divide backpack, on Sunday I immediately began preparing and packing gear for the Pine Creek trip as I would be leaving the following Thursday after a work day. Late April I had reserved a permit to go over Shepherd Pass into the upper Kern Basin on these dates. Shepherd Pass requires a 6400 foot climb from the trailhead, one of the most strenuous east side routes over the Sierra Crest in the range. Thus not an effort I wanted to attempt unless I had reasonable confidence in the resulting photography being worth it. However the combination of marginally dry conditions, a heat spell over the Owens that was forecast to continue, and a number of smoky fires in the state, had me canceling on that Sunday evening after checking the recreation dot gov site and noting there was an open slot for one person on Thursday July 28 for Italy Pass, a day I was actually to be at work at my hi tech workplace. I was able to use that entry date because I would indeed start hiking on that date by making the long 6 hour drive to the trailhead then starting up the trail in the evening and entering the wilderness boundary then making camp. I had visited Granite Park, Royce Lakes, and French Canyon areas in the past so already knew they contain some of the strongest landscape subjects in the range. Thus the decision to change my permit reservations was an easy one.

On Thursday morning I phoned up the Inyo NF wilderness office and requested a night box pick up at the Mammoth Lakes Visitor Center. On the phone they went over a number of policies. Leaving my work place early afternoon, I reached Mammoth Lakes a bit before sunset, picked up the permit, visited Vons for some last minute snack food to add, then drove south to the Pine Creek trailhead. When I crossed Tioga Pass a heavy thunderstorm had pounded my Forester and it appeared the whole Eastern Sierra down into the Owens Valley had seen strong storms in the afternoon as there were puddles all along US395. The storms were very welcome news as this summer has been unusually dry. The storms would likely give a boost to wildflower plants already in bloom during my week, especially Lobb's lupine that I expected to see in French Canyon areas.

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Due to last minute delays at the trailhead fiddling with gear, I did not actually start hiking till 9:10pm. When I drove into the parking area at dusk, a young couple was also starting up the trail by headlamp that rather surprised me as there are few of us that actually night hike. The trailhead is at 7440 feet below the Pine Creek Pack Station, a quite active horse pack outfitter and Pine Lake about 4 miles up the trail is at 9942 feet. With about 100 feet of up and down at the 9800 point, the total vertical is a strenuous 2600 feet. To legally fulfill the permit intent I had to at least climb to 9400 feet at the John Muir Wilderness boundary that is 2000 feet up. There are not even small flat spots beside the trail to tent until one climbs to 9600 feet other than right atop the trail as the trail and mining road were carved out of steep bedrock canyon walls.

The thunderstorms had significantly cooled air temperatures that would greatly help me endure my punishment of hauling a cruel weight up this trail. The trail also was well washed by the storms, that was fine with this person, as that washed away horse apples and dust. Beyond the 8000 foot level the horse trail moves onto a deteriorating no longer used mining road that is covered with fallen rock debris outside the horse track. As such there are no step up blocks that makes climbing the grade less tiring than average trails. However once past the Brownstone Mine at 9200 feet, that road ends and for the next half mile like a revenge, there are more such stone step up blocks than one will find on about any other Sierra trail. As during the Silver Divide trip a week before, my carrying weight was near 60 pounds of which 14 pounds was food and a bit less than 20 pounds camera gear. Although I had freeze dried meals for every day, much of my food weight was snack foods including 3 types of granola and a variety of candy.

Using my powerful Fenix HP11 during 4 hours of hiking would drain the batteries more than I wanted so also brought along another older Fenix headlamp just for this evening hike I would stash and pick back up on the hike out. Note I also had 2 each Fenix E01 pocket flashlights that have a regulated output from a single AAA battery. Well only intended to bring one but later noticed there was an extra one still in my camera bag haha. Not much to say about the hike up the trail except it was an unpleasantly strenuous ordeal during which I stopped a lot sitting on trailside boulders per my style. My mental state the last mile was similar to a semi delirious "runner's high" a triathlete might experience. With a small visual range from a headlamp in darkness and a wandering mind, I was ripe for hallucinations. At the 8400 level is a spring with the uncommon scarlet monkeyflower, mimulus cardinalis, above right, that I captured on the return leg. At 1am I reached 9700 feet or 2300 feet uphill and after tenting quickly went to sleep.

Pine Creek online topographic map. Use the + and - window upper left to zoom.

I woke a bit before 6am Friday morning July 29 that I am habituated to for my work week days and was not able to return to the sleep I really needed given just 4 hours. So got up, packed up, then started up the trail to Pine Lake at 7am. I slowly made my way up the trail with lots of diversions. I spoke to a couple tented only about 30 feet from the lake edge by first asking if they had a wilderness permit. They responded eager to show me. I related tenting policies recommending they read the permit hand out and with some embarrassment immediately picked up their tent and moved back away to a legal distance.

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Not adequately recovered from the strenuous night effort, I didn't reach Upper Pine Lake, another mile and 200 feet higher until 10am and Honeymoon Lake a further mile at 10420 sluggishly until 11am. I was still 600 feet below my target destination, lower Granite Park, so decided to take an extended break making an early lunch. I thus cooked a Knorr chicken rice package from a pleasant viewpoint near the very popular lake's outlet. The young couple that had left just before me at the trailhead arrived and appeared to be looking for a campsite. I suspect they were the one's I'd passed tented on a flat spot where the mining road ends at the Brownstone Mine.

After lunch I continued my slow stop and go slog up the trail reaching the bright green turfy bedrock bench at 11030 feet that has a beautiful pond and multi-branched stream areas. This is the vigorous all year stream that drains Granite Park. Although there were several nice places one could tent with shade, it was obvious very few groups ever did so. The bench has a great view of peak 12563 with its spectacular avalanche chutes that are best photographed during early mornings. I made camp then spent the rest of a leisurely afternoon exploring the local area. Cloud shadows and hazy light of which some was smoke, left landscapes uninteresting. But I was able to image up in nicely blue sky, the above block of rust stained granite with lichen that had broken off from bedrock. In any case I was glad the strenuous 3700 foot climb to this elevation was now behind me with further efforts on my itinerary modest.

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After a long night of restful sleep, I rose at dawn on Saturday July 30 and immediately set up for some sunrise images. The result was a few early mediocre images with too many shadows. I saw what was occurring so instead climbed up maybe 100 feet up on the ridge just north of the bench and captured the image above at 6:45am. It is a 6 column by 2 row 12 frame stitch blend, one of the largest I've made this year. The beautiful peak with avalanche chutes at frame left is topo peak 12563. Just right is cross country Royce Pass that I went over two days later, with Royce Peak behind at 13280+. The pyramid shaped peak just right is peak 12470, then Feather Peak, and at frame right the rib east of peak 12918. I camped on the bedrock bench in the foreground below.

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After climbing down, I decided to work my way up the stream. The edge of the pond near camp had an edge of turf with Lemmon's paintbrush, castelleja lemmonii, that glowed nicely with backlighting of the sun still at a low altitude. An example of a totally impossible subject to bring into focus frame top to bottom with any fixed focal plane camera unless one is using the new technique of focus stacking.

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I continued south higher and visited pond 11150 where years before a gust of afternoon wind had blown over my Wisner Expedition view camera that went splat into shallow water and mud. I was able to fully disassemble both the camera and lens, clean off the mud and water, dry it out in the sun, then continued taking pictures by a couple hours later. Note the view camera is fully manual without any electronics, not even a battery. This time my A6000 was at this opposite end of the pond with near calm conditions.

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I climbed further along the south side of the Granite Park stream that requires some class 2 monkeying up steps beside cascades. I took a photo at pond 11350 just below where we camped on a couple earlier trips, but light about Granite Park by 9am with all its bright granite rock tends to become harsh. In nearby talus were Coville's columbine aka alpine columbine, aquilegia pubescens, and hybrids of crimson columbine, aquilegia formosa. I came across one of the finest photography subjects of these hybrid subjects I've yet seen then spent quite some time making sure the focus stacking result would be sharp front to back. Check the enlarged vertical slice view. It is a few intricate species like this amid myriad ho hum species that make one wonder if some higher beings have been doing a bit of special gardening on our planet?

After taking a good look at our former camp spot, I decided that this would be my base camp for the following two days. So returned to the 11030 camp spot via the Italy Pass Trail that is on the north side of the stream, packed up gear, hiked back to this spot by late morning, and made camp. Later in the afternoon breezes picked up and I explored areas below. Late in the day haze and smoke from the Owens Valley blew up canyon making landscapes mediocre.

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On day 3 of my trip, Sunday July 31, I needed to hike about one half mile up 200 feet in order to reach beautiful meadows at 11550 feet. The turfy meadow is a maze of gravel stream channels and small ponds with good numbers of wildflowers. From my camp site at dawn, I could see down canyon into the Owens Valley and White Mountains beyond that showed a dense brown hazy layer stagnant over the valley. After the trip, I found that was due to two lightning caused fires, one about Rock Creek and the other near Mono Craters. Those fires would make early light each day of my trip useless until the sun rose above the smoke. Granite Park is otherwise one of the best basins along the Sierra Crest to capture warm early light so that was disappointing. The smoke in the Owens would also blow up canyon each day with afternoon breezes making pm photography limited. Before the trip I had already conceded the probability there would be mediocre late sunset and dusk light for later in the trip when I was about French Canyon because of smoke from the huge Soberanes and Sand fires far to the west and southwest. Thus I didn't need to start hiking till after sunrise that was at 5:55am. I reached the meadows at 7am but the weak sunlight was still a bit down in the haze. A half hour later the sun had fully risen above that dirty air into clear air above. The air was absolutely dead still allowing me to capture the mirror reflection above. The flowers at frame bottom are little elephants heads.

Note when valley air east or west beside the Sierra is smoky, hazy, or smoggy, sun heating valley air during daytime expands those air masses that then push outward and up canyons creating familiar afternoon winds. Thus the dirty air below moves up into mountain areas affecting air clarity. At night, especially on clear nights without clouds, heat on the Earth surface radiates into space at infrared wavelengths. Additionally at highest elevations, cold air flows out of cool snowfields and shadowed under the surface talus. Thus night sumping flows result that tend to gravity flow down drainages. As cold air flows down it also draws cool clear air down from higher atmospheric elevations above headwater basin peaks that by morning results in relatively clear air replacing what had been dirty afternoon air about crest areas. Well that is as long as there isn't upper air flows causing turbulence. Accordingly despite generally dirty air across the state, there was a fair chance my early morning work at crest areas would have reasonable air clarity.

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I moved to another location on the same pond and captured the image above. Note the water reflection of little elephants head in pond at frame edge left in the enlarged vertical slice view.

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At another part of the meadow worked this image of gravel stream channels that shows the soggy nature of the meadow at this time of snow melt. The stream has some nice areas of undercut meadow banks that provide good cover for golden trout inhabiting the cool waters. A bit left of frame center to the left of the peak I call The Tower, is a tongue shaped snow field and class 2 col that leads to Black Bear Lake. The west side is class 1. A more direct alternative to Italy Pass plus Dancing Bear Pass that is passable after the sides of the snowfield have melted back from against the col walls.

Before descending to camp, a young Mariposa woman day hiking happened by that was on her way to Italy Pass. Her group of backpackers that was doing the North Lake to Pine Creek loop, was camped down at Honeymoon Lake and would be hiking out later that afternoon. I related the rest of the route to Italy Pass was a quite boring treeless glacial rockscape covered by loose rock. And instead suggested a much more interesting and shorter tour of hiking up to The Baseball Field bench below the impressive rock glacier below The Tower col and then drop down to what I call Horn Lake that is the large lake at 11430. By mid morning I was back down at camp and had a leisurely time the rest of the day while breezes had moved hazy smoky air up canyon from the Owens Valley.

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The next morning Monday Aug 1 I expected earliest sunrise light far to the east to be blocked again by smoky haze. But by about a half hour after sunrise, light would still be in the brighter light orange phase. There was a location above my camp with many erratics on a bedrock rib with a fine view of Feather Peak that receives unblocked sunrise light. So I got up at dawn, climbed up to 11550, and set up for the image above.

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Then climbed up on the rib behind the snow field in the previous image and set up again within an interesting set of erratics for the image above. By that time 15 minutes later, light had changed to a light golden phase. On days with clear air to the east, both the light orange and golden phases are brighter and more saturated. The former is preceded by a darker reddish-orange phase with the sky a darker blue.

After that climbed down to the outlet zone of Horn Lake, then traversed quickly back up to the 11550 meadows I had worked Sunday morning, reaching the area at a nicely early 7:30am. Looking for a different perspective than the one's I'd captured Sunday, climbed atop a boulder by the pond and captured the image at page top, Granite Park pond.

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Confident I had several excellent landscapes from the area over the two mornings, I then turned my attention to close-ups. There were fascinating shallow pools in the meadow with algae and bacteria. In some areas the disintegrating granite had high iron oxide mineral contents that colored the pools a rich rusty red. Floating atop the water in one pool was a still alive and squirming green hued mayfly. Thus with some awkward tripod effort set up my tripod with the extension tube on the 60mm lens and captured the image above. I focused stacked in order to result in a sharp image frame edge to edge. In the enlarged vertical slice view one can see small bubbles due to decomposing organic matter.

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Gravel sand areas had several interesting species including the very common butterballs, eriogonum ovalifolium, of the buckwheat family that have a range of yellow to pink to rose colors. Do you see the two ants?

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I rambled over to a view down into the Chalfant Lakes canyon and along the way spotted some small alpine belly flowers that I didn't recognize at the time though it had leaves and petals like a bitterroot? And indeed back home found it was a close relative in Laird Blackwell's highly recommended Eastern Sierra wildflower guide, dwarf lewisia, lewisia pygmaea.

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Back at camp, I could easily have lingered base camping in this exciting basin more days but the weather and especially the hazy smoky air clarity was not likely to change, and I was intent on working areas in French Canyon. So now late morning, packed up and was soon on a route down to the pond in image PT01314-01327-3x1e.jpg above that required some up and down traversing. From there it was down another 100 feet before starting the familiar 700 foot class 1 climb to Royce Pass that is the gap northeast of Royce Lake 11725. That effort was modest and along the way cooked a Knorr rice lunch as a way to break up the slog. I was now feeling the strongest yet this summer as I topped out and looked out across the largest of the Royce lakes.

Near the top of the east side of the pass is a large boulder with a very nice shaded place to camp. However it is right at the talus base of a towering face of peak 12563 with not a little fresh rockfall scattered about. Not a place I'd want to be during an earthquake. I had camped there a decade ago during a very windy period. After making a cozy camp right up against the huge boulder, went down to the shore and dunked myself in the water per my usual style. Only a few mosquitoes were about so I could air dry nekid. I noticed a few golden trout here and there taking bugs on the large surface area of this deep lake. I would not be fishing on this trip but in the past had caught a few that had especially deep red flesh. There was a single subject I hoped to capture in the area but that would need to wait till early morning. During clear air conditions there would be more subjects possible but I knew that was not going to occur. Otherwise I spent a couple hours working alpine plants and close-ups.

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Some of the granite talus had unusual corral hued mineral solution deposits that had accumulated in cracks and became exposed on surfaces of the boulders. The above image also had some dark lichen making for a fascinating close-up. In places where the mineral solution has cracked off, one can see the bare granite beneath.

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In gravel sand areas between bedrock and boulders I often found a common Sierra favorite of many wildflower enthusiasts, pussypaws, calyptridium umbellatum. Instead of using a diffuser as I more commonly choose, I let the now low angle sun at 5:40pm illuminate this subject because it would enhance the translucent rusty granite sand.

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Again the very common butterballs, eriogonum ovalifolium, sharing gravel sand areas with the above pussypaws. This plant had the more common fully yellow petals unlike the rose yellow mix of the image above earlier on this day. Later as I was making supper, the surprising sound of voices? Yes I could hear a woman talking. So let out a modest yo, then got up to see who was about. A couple of quite fit young climbers had hiked all the way up from the trailhead and were on their way to the next lake in the chain below in order to climb Merriam Peak the next day. A very strenuous 4600 feet of uphill vertical. As this long and productive day ended, the dusk sky over Feather Peak actually had modestly decent color.

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2016 Trip Chronicles:    Contents

   David Senesac
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