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20 Lakes Basin Backpack 9/5
20 Lakes Basin Backpack 9/6
Humphreys Basin Backpack 9/7

2018 Trip Chronicles:  Page 9

20 Lakes Basin Backpack

After returning from our Humphreys Basin backpacking trip, smoky August skies from several terrible wildfires including the Ferguson and Donnell fires kept me from returning per plans to the Sierra Nevada. By month end those fires were winding down with skies clearing, so the Tuesday after the Labor Day holiday September 4, with weather forecasts showing probable minimal wind, drove up to Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite National Park and about 4pm obtained a 3 night permit for nearby 20 Lakes Basin in Hoover Wilderness of Inyo National Forest. On SR120 in the Yosemite Creek canyon, I had driven through an intense thunderstorm with pea sized hail that covered parts of the forest landscape white. Those storms dropped rain and hail across that whole region with skies remaining dim and cloudy well into the evening and temperatures down in the high 40F's. At the Saddlebag Lake reservoir trailhead late, I planned to hike in only about a mile and one half to tent. My unenthusiastic packing for the trip included not using a checklist while just tossing items in. Before leaving the Forester, noted I did not have either of 2 pack rain covers that could be an issue because more storms were forecast for at least another day.


After hiking about 6/10 mile along the reservoir, I stopped and hid my pack then returned to the car for my 7.5 minute USGS topographic map and a 13k ma-hr lithium power pack that I had failed to grab out of a box. By about 7pm I'd reached Greenstone Lake at 10120 feet and then stopped about 10 minutes talking to two older gals my age that had unknowingly set up a tent in the Harvey Monroe Nature Research Area. The research area is a no camping zone so I showed them on a map the area boundaries including where they needed to go the next morning to camp with some solitude within Hoover Wilderness. The basin is one of the most heavily visited in the range and is unusual in that it has no quotas. Inyo National Forest would be wise to place a map panel kiosk on the north side of the dam where the trail begins, clearly showing the research area boundary as I've seen others make the same mistake. By dusk had set up my tent at a lonely spot north of Greenstone Lake well off the mining road trail, retiring without bothering with dinner as I'd satisfied that mid afternoon from fast food in Manteca. During the night, my inflatable Thermarest Venture sleeping pad showed it had apparently suffered a pinhole leak as I had to blow it back up each time I awoke during the night.

Before sunrise on Wednesday morning September 5, 2018 I got my photo gear together then headed out towards Cascade Lake. My tent was rather wet from dew and frost so would let the sun dry things out while I was away. Since I'd visited these areas several times in the past over decades, I already had a fair idea where I would be working. Each year those landscapes are however different due to varying water levels in the many shallow no name ponds, most of which are not within visual sight of the mining road trail. Thus most day hikers on the very popular basin loop trail pass by these waters unawares since few actually bother to look at their maps even if they carry a topo. The morning sky was nicely clear with only a slight sumping breeze. I expected clouds would being forming by late morning and storms would show by early afternoon. Due to high ridges on either side east and west, the basin does not receive either sunrise or sunset light except on the peak tops so there wasn't much reason to get out too early. Geology of the tall Sierra crest peaks at the Yosemite National Park boundary is granite while areas east include colorful strata of metamorphic rock and all is heavily glacially shaped.


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This first subject above comprising 55 individual shots worked between 7:43 and 8:05am shows that banded landscape with 12590 foot Mount Conness and its glacier at frame mid left and closer more prominent 12242 foot North Peak at frame center. Numbers of erratic boulders left by glaciers lay atop the glacially smoothed Jurassic Period bedrock landscape. The sedimentary layers are considerably folded and mineralized with much green, cyan, gray, and rusty red hued rock plus outcrops of white marble. Scattered about where soil has accumulated are whitebark pine. Shadows on the opposite shore rock are from whitebarks beside my position. The shadowed boulders at frame bottom are due to an abrupt terrain rib behind my tripod that I crouched down in a low position in order to not cast my own shadow into the near lake waters.


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By time I completed working my first subject, a slight up canyon breeze had arrived so I rambled quickly across landscapes continuing towards Cascade Lake. Being in fit shape is important for a wilderness landscape photographer as periods of optimal light don't last long so one must move from subject to subject quickly, working efficiently. By time I reached those waters at 8:30am, the main lake was already hopelessly wavy from the breeze so chose to work a shallow turfy inlet lagoon that was quick to reasonably still during lulls. A few years before had unsuccessfully tried to work this same subject and been beaten by a like slight breeze. But this morning over 13 minutes was able to fire off the 63 shots of 6 frames comprising a 3 column by 2 row panorama per the above decent photo. Out in the main lake one can see fish rings from the abundant surface insect feeding pan sized eastern brook and a few golden trout that live in these waters at 10400 feet. This view of North Peak shows its several deep shadowed chutes on its northern face that are favorite routes of climbers. Beyond the near foreground grasses one can see coarse rusty hued granite sand at bottom in the shallow pool where blue sky barely reflects. Further out into the pool, the reflecting bright granite dominates the combined light towards my lens thus the darker pool bottom is not visible. Notice the pile of boulders above the shore of the main lake that apparently over millennia have rolled down the steep granite from heights above then accumulated where the slope flattened. Across the bedrock are dark bands of dried organic matter where water flows while a few orange bands show where water picks up rusty iron rich minerals.


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Given the breeze, there was not much more of interest at Cascade Lake so I hurredly returned back to the pond zone. And that was fortunate as a brief period of reasonable calm occurred at 9:22am. The above image again shows North Peak in the background rising above metasedimentary rock bands. At mid frame is a pond and in the foreground reddish purple hued dwarf bilberry, vaccinium caespitosum, a turf height species of the blueberry family. Along with arctic willow it provides aesthetic fall leaf color by the end of August into mid September at timberline elevations and a key reason for timing of this trip. The bilberry tends to grow atop well drained soils where its roots reach down to water atop bedrock. At frame right are short already dried grasses adding nice blond hues. The light green bushes across the pond frame right are yellow willow that also inhabit locations where their roots can reach down to water. In another couple weeks its leaves will turn yellow. The darker vegetation at the lower left corner is a patch of red mountain heather that bloomed just after snows melted in July with its magenta flowers long since gone and gone to seed.


The up canyon breeze re-appeared and it was soon obvious it would continue to strengthen as is usually the case. By 10am I was back at my camp then packing up gear. I'd explored about during morning looking for interesting out of the way places to camp as I often do and found an especially good spot. Thus before noon was setting up what would be my base camp for the next couple nights below a whitebark pine that would provide nice afternoon shade. Pond water was not too far and preferable cleaner stream water a ten minute walk. On any future trips this would with certainty be where I would camp as I expect few others would ever venture by despite there being so many visitors to the basin. By noon clouds were also forming above the peaks and by 2pm the sky was full of cumulus with rain showers in the distance. After cooking and eating a Knorr rice broccoli cheese dinner, I retired into my Big Agnes Copper Spur HV UL tent and the pitter patter of rain on the tent fly followed. By mid afternoon a large cell moved over the basin and delivered a powerful hail storm that covered the ground with an inch of whiteness. Every small depression in the near landscape was a puddle of floating whiteness. By 5pm the storm had moved out east leaving darkly clouded dim skies without showers. For the following 2 plus hours I explored my area for interesting close-up subjects. Piles of unmelted hail would last in shady turfy areas all through the following day though most atop rock and bare soils melted quickly. For the next two days I would be scooping up an easy water supply from bedrock pools.

Sometime during the day I'd also aggravated an old right knee loose cartilage problem that occasionally has been reoccurring for several years but usually lasts just a short day or three. During the night however its dull pain bothered me in most positions I tried. Any less annoying position I managed to find was soon unusable with the Thermarest leaking. By the wee hours that aching seemed to subside. I had a lot of restless time laying awake to make plans for the next morning and that ended up being getting up before sunrise then heading off using my headlamp to granite slabs in front of the north side of North Peak.


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Indeed as dawn broke on Thursday morning September 6, 2018, I was up and out on a route to North Peak. Well before sun hit the 12242 foot peak I was set up with a delicate tripod balance behind a small pool of water to capture warm sunlight on the peak top. Initially on the hike my right knee felt reasonable as I tried to be more careful walking about. Sunlight began glowing on North Peak at 6:40am PDT but the subject I saw was weak so moved to a somewhat larger bedrock pool. At 6:52am began capturing the above modest image. Light had changed from a dim redder hue to a brighter orange. The still in shadow light granite landscape filling most of my lower frame was acceptable yet far from ideal. Early summer while much more snow was about the landscape and larger melt pools would be better. An even better location in the future would be to climb up on the rounded rib on the east side of the peak where the whole landscape would be in warm light and I would also be able to view light on Conness.

It took quite some time for light to reach down to the slabs. By 8am thin high clouds had quickly moved over the crest. I set up a subject of North Peak at the best location with a foreground of dwarf bilberry that is at page top. The color of bilberry leaves varies considerably depending on sunlight direction with front light weak red though is more saturated with the sun at a low angle as was the case here. However when backlit, the translucent leaves can be far more red and saturated due to transmissive light.


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With early light still optimal at 8:04am, moved to a nearby rusty and black water mark for the above subject with the white granite slab flats, erratic boulders before North Peak. I had to crop off most of the foreground due to my shadow in the frame.


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Over the next hour as a breezes increased, I looked for intimate rock and vegetation subjects. The above image shows dwarf bilberry , vaccinium caespitosum, growing in bedrock cracks of thinly layered Jurassic Period sedimentary strata. The bilberry is more common than the willlow below, growing on more types of landscape. Earlier in summer after snow melts, it has tiny pinkish white flowers that change into tiny whitish blue berry balls. After the above reddish purple phase the leaves dry to a orange brown and then fall off over winter before growing back up from its labyrinth of roots after snows melt. There is another related timberline blueberry species, bog bilberry aka bog blueberry, that forms small shrubs along streams, ponds, and in bogs. Its larger sweeter berries appear late summer and its leaves have similar color.


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This next image above is a common turf neighbor to the bilberry, arctic willow, salix petrophila. The leaves are of similar size with a somewhat different shape and at this same time of late summer turn yellow to orange, adding to the color mix. The species is widespread across northern North America and further south at alpine mountain elevations where its low height allows it to colonize windy locations too exposed for trees. Most of the time when looking down at leaves of this turf high plant, the woody branches are not visible as they tend to be down inside the turf matrix of moss, grass, and shallow soil. With this subject, its woody root has been well exposed, apparently where soil was laid bare from rain atop its granite foundation. A decade plus ago when I first researched this and the bilberry species, in error I had thought the two were the same species as they often grow intertwined. Interestingly, other landscape photographers have not yet bothered to target these species despite the fact they change leaf color well before tree species like aspen and along with yellow willow are the only shrub or tree species with color at timberline elevations.

Although clouds were again forming by mid morning, stronger higher elevation west winds above the peaks were moving clouds east too quickly to allow cumulus build ups. As forecast, I expected those winds would only increase during the day so storms would not develop. By 10:30am I was back at camp. My right knee soreness had begun acting up again. Lunch this day would be a freeze dried Mountain House chicken rice dinner. During spring I had mail ordered a pile of a variety of their meals directly from the factory website that was a buck or two cheaper each than at sporting goods stores. The chicken rice meal was one I would not be purchasing in the future. It was rather bland though filling but not as enjoyable as other selections. Usually I only bother with the pricy freeze dried meals on trips of at least 5 nights but decided I might as well use up one of the 4 packages I'd bought. With the wind by early afternoon unpleasant, I decided to nap a few hours giving my knee a chance to recover.


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Later in the afternoon was up again limping around carefully. I went out to a pleasant location with some wind protection for this dense patch of dwarf bilberry leaves backlit beside some cyan hued bedrock. Rather dramatic how much more saturated red these leaves appear versus front lit conditions. I tried capturing a few other similar subjects but upon processing deleted most images as the wind moved vegetation too much for each focus stack shot to bother with. In any case, in 2016 on a trip to Dusy Basin, I had several strong close-up images of these plants during breezeless conditions. As the sun went down, I was back into my tent and yet again much of the night struggled to sleep due to an aching knee while the Thermarest continually deflated. By the wee hours, wind's calmed indicating Friday might be the morning to nail some big pond reflections. It is common for calmest mornings at east side Sierra Crest elevations to occur on mornings following a wind event as low pressure systems in the northwest move out east across The Rockies while high pressure to the west has not yet moved east enough for usual breezes.


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By dawn Friday morning September 7, 2018, my right knee had stopped aching and after being in the tent for so many hours, could not wait to exit. Bundled up, I made a couple packages of hot chocolate. Before leaving camp as sun finally reached the basin bottom, I spread my damp sleeping bag, wet tent, and ground sheet out on some boulders to dry as would be packing up to leave by mid morning. The above image shot at 7:45am looks down on a reflecting pond with Mt Conness and North Pk and is the second subject I worked. Climbing up above the water allowed better views of the fascinating geology beyond the pond. I worked 4 columns for stitching but used just 3 for this image as the frame at far left tended to detract from the rest of the subject. Whitebark pine, pinus albicaulus, at frame lower left often avoid deep winter snows that drift into terrain hollows by colonizing the tops of ribs and hills. In the distance the curving hill directly below the top of North Peak, is a location I'll visit for some sunrise in the future.


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For my third subject above at 8am, I set up in the shadowed shore rocks of a larger shallow pond that I'd shot years before with my film 4x5 view camera, to capture a full length panorama of the Sierra Crest including the two peaks. This was indeed the calmest of my 3 early mornings, providing excellent mirror reflection conditions. At frame right is the 12000+ knob at the end of Shepherd's Crest. A popular cross country route crosses the Sierra Crest ridge line to its left in order to reach the McCabe Lake's basin on the Yosemite side.


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At the shallow north end of the same pond, with almost no breeze, at 8:15am, it was time to switch on my very sharp Sigma 60mm F2.8 lens in order to create the largest image set of the trip. Using the 60mm requires over 4 times the frames and numbers of shots to cover the area of view as with the 30mm I shot most landscapes with above. With more frames it takes more time with the opportunity for failure greater as a single mistake on a single shot can ruin the whole set of shots if say the focus is wrong or the lens atop the tripod is shaking. The set of 183 shots required 20 minutes that I just managed to fit in before the expected up canyon breezes developed. Later back home, that effort proved successful as I loaded an over 2 gigabyte stitched together PSD file out of my Kolor Autopano Pro application into Photoshop CS6. The resulting 18000 by 13500 pixel image has considerably more detail than any older images from 4x5 view camera Provia 100F work and someday expect to view it as a large fine detailed 60 by 45 inch print. With such a large image, I prefer to have more interesting element details in foregrounds so here that is satisfied with the shallow pond water bottom and grass.


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On my return hike back to camp, I passed by the end of Wasco Lake where I found the breeze that had come up had again quieted. When such up canyon breezes develop, they sometimes initially locally come and go before becoming constant as volumes of air shift and swirl. Thus some wisdom in wait and see before giving up. The lush foreground grass was just turning color to a nice golden yellow providing fine foreground detail. In the background one sees an interesting transition from light hued granite at frame left to a darker metamorphic geology roof pendant to the right.


By 9:30am I was back at camp. The breeze had rolled my freestanding tent into a shallow small pool of water where it remained anchored by the wet. I laughed as I knew I should have attached a cord to it before leaving. Back up in the sun it dried out quickly before I shoved it into its stuff bag and then into my pack. By 10am I was down at Greenstone Lake where I set up this 10 second timer shot above in backlit light. I was surprised that by time I reached my vehicle, my right knee though tender had not yet caused me to go into limp mode. However as I drove off south to SR120, I didn't get far before it suddenly went into full pain mode that had me squirming in my car seat for about a half hour, probably as fluids in the knee flowed into areas the active hiking had suppressed. Now 5 days later after being a homebody mostly quietly sitting in front of my computers processing images, it seems to have healed nicely.

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2018 Trip Chronicles:    Contents

   David Senesac

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