Monday, May 27, 2013

60 Lake Basin

Frost blanketed the outside of our tent, and a thin layer of frozen condensation lined the inside. With no schedule or obligations for the day, we decided to stay cocooned in our warm sleeping bags until the first warming rays of the sun crested the eastern ridge and touched our tent. "Beautiful doesn't seem to capture it," remarked Sierra when we finally crawled out of the tent to enjoy the view of rugged granite peaks and the thumb-shaped Finn Dome bathed in soft, golden sunlight and reflected in the still, clear waters of Rae Lakes.

After a leisurely, hot breakfast, we decided to pack up to explore 60 Lake Basin, just over the next ridge. The trail to 60 Lake Basin traversed around the far side of Rae Lakes, then climbed past several seasonal streams and across a few large slushy snowfields before cresting the ridge. From there we descended to the first lake in the 60 Lake Basin.

Numerous lakes dot the rocky granite basin, with hardy grass encircling each one. Short, scrubby pines are scattered throughout. We crossed a rock bridge to a small island surrounded by clear waters that revealed the lakes tan, sandy shoreline quickly transitioning to deep greenish blue depths. The imposing pyramid of Mount Clarence King was reflected in the lake.

A bullfrog croaked a serenade as we ate our lunch. Then we retraced our steps back up the ridge and down to Rae Lakes. A lone coyote stretched by the lakeshore, loping away up the ridge as we approached.

After a relaxing lunch in 60 Lake Basin, we decided we wanted to climb Glen Pass to avoid climbing it early the next morning, when it would be icy.  We quickly scrambled up the soft snow, carefully following the tracks of those who had gone before to avoid postholing.  Once we reached the pass, the trail briefly followed the snow-free ridge before descending the other side. 

We hiked another mile before finding camp on a sandy, snow-free ledge overlooking Charlotte Lake and the surrounding basin.  After another frosty night, we woke Monday morning and headed for home.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Rae Lakes Revisited

With a long weekend stretching out before us, Sierra and I could not resist the temptation to spend another weekend on the PCT. This time we headed for the Onion Valley Trailhead west of Independence. We planned to hike over Kearsarge Pass, join the PCT, follow the PCT over Glen pass, then glissade and hike to Rae Lakes.

Although Memorial Day weekend is a popular time for people to camp, hike, and fish, few people brave the snowy, high mountain passes so early in the season. We expected to have the trails mostly to ourselves. We were wrong.

We met our first hikers in the little town of Independence. French Toast and two other PCT hikers stood next to Onion Valley Road waiting for a ride. I quickly pulled over, and we somehow managed to cram five packs and hikers into my little Rav 4. French Toast and friends estimated that there are about ten other PCT hikers ahead of them on the trail, and a similar number who were either already at or just arriving at Kennedy Meadows when they left. But the herd is far behind, and probably won't arrive at Kennedy Meadows in droves for two or three more weeks.

Cars almost filled the small parking lot next to the trailhead, and were already beginning to park in the larger lot when we arrived. A few hikers dotted the trail, and we saw several more as we began hiking. Most were day hikers, although we saw a few hardy backpackers exiting after a nine day trip.

The hike to Kearsarge Pass was virtually snow free. Approaching Glen Pass, we started seeing patchy snow covering the trail about a mile before we reached the top. Long, spear-like icicles dangled from rocky cliffs, a testament to the enduring cold at the higher elevations.

Significant snow clung to the north side of Glen Pass. Unfortunately, the snow field, while covering a large area, was very thin, with rocks and boulders protruding through at regular intervals. Although we brought ice axes and were excited to glissade, the snowfield did not look safe for high speed sliding. We resigned ourselves to hiking down the steep, slushy snow, trying to follow the path of footprints set by those who came before us. Snowmelt seeped into our shoes, and an icy breeze chilled our fingers. When the snow occasionally petered out, we were left to scramble down wet, slippery rocks.

About a mile before we reached Rae Lakes, the trail was finally snow free. A few brave flowers poke through the sodden ground next to the trail, but prime wildflower season is yet to come. In the bright side, this means that prime mosquito season has not yet arrived either.

We reached Rae Lakes already chilled to the bone. We set up camp quickly, happy to slip into our warm down sleeping bags as soon as the sun slipped behind the western ridge.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The Colorado Trail

We miss the trail.  A lot.  But as much as we'd like to hike another long trail, we can't really take the time to do it right now.  So, after much discussion, we've decided to hike the Colorado Trail this summer.

The Colorado Trail passes through the Colorado Rockies and several other Colorado mountain ranges as it travels from Denver to Durango.  The trail is approximately 480 miles long with an average elevation of over 10,000 feet.  Thru-hikers traveling from Denver to Durango (the "uphill" direction) will climb 89,354 feet along the way!  So while the trail is relatively "short" compared to our 2012 PCT thru-hike, it will still provide plenty of challenge.

We will start hiking the Colorado Trail in late June.  I am hoping the snow will melt from the high passes by then.  Sierra, who was disappointed by the lack of snow on our PCT thru-hike last summer, is hoping it won't.  If all goes as planned, we will complete the trail in late July.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Gear Review: ULA Catalyst and Kid's Circuit Packs

Here are our impressions of some of the packs used on our 2012 PCT hike.

Heather's Pack:  The ULA Catalyst

Before we hiked the PCT, I always used backpacks from traditional (heavy) gear manufacturers such as Osprey.  And I loved my Osprey Ariel pack.  It was roomy and comfortable, with space for anything and everything I might need or want out on the trail.  It also weighed 5 pounds.  Empty.

Knowing I would need to lower my baseweight if I was going to successfully carry food and shared gear for two people, I started researching lighter options.  Hikers have successfully completed the PCT carrying ultralight packs that weighed less than a pound, but I knew that a frameless pack with no structure or waistbelt would not adequately support the heavy resupplies we would need for some sections of the trail.  Enter the ULA Catalyst.

At 48 ounces (3 pounds), the ULA Catalyst is not the lightest of the ultralight packs, but it is a fully featured, comfortable pack with plenty of room for gear, food and, when necessary, a bear can.  With its internal frame and suspension, the manufacturer recommends the Catalyst for loads up to 40 pounds.  I can personally attest to the pack's comfort carrying 40 pounds and, at times, even more.  The Catalyst's padded waistbelt and shoulder straps, internal frame, load lifter straps, and other features kept the pack's weight comfortably on my hips and off my shoulders.

The Catalyst has plenty of room to carry what you need in the main compartment (unless what you need includes the kitchen sink).  It also has an outer mesh pocket to stash gear you might want to access more quickly during the day.  The large side pockets are perfect for carrying water bottles and other gear, and the waistbelt includes two roomy snack pockets.  I used one for snacks and the other for my journal, sunscreen, lip balm, and other items I wanted to be able to access on the trail.  The waistbelt pockets would easily accommodate a compact camera, with room for more.

A thru-hike is notoriously hard on gear, but the Catalyst held up well.  And when my waistbelt wore out in Northern California (probably due to my overloading the pack, carrying more than the recommended 40 pounds during long resupplies in the mountains), Chris at ULA Equipment sent a new one and had it waiting for me when I reached Ashland.  Great customer service!

Sierra's Pack:  The ULA Circuit, XS Kid's Version

Few gear manufacturer's made real backpacks for kids.  We tried the Osprey Jib model, but the waistbelt did not stay put on Sierra's slender form.  We considered lightweight adult daypacks from GoLite and other brands, but could not find one with both (1) enough capacity to hold Sierra's gear; and (2) a waistbelt that could cinch up tight enough.  Finally, we contacted Chris at ULA to find out if he could customize a pack to fit Sierra.  Turns out, Chris already made an XS Circuit, but (at that time), didn't have it listed on his site.

The ULA Circuit XS Kid's version has all the same features (and almost as much capacity) as the adult model, but uses an adjustable harness and extra small waistbelt to customize the fit to shorter torsos and tiny waists.  The Circuit had plenty of capacity for all of Sierra's gear, with room to spare.  The mesh back pocket was great for storing gear she wanted to access quickly, and the large side pockets were great for storing water bottles and drinks.  Sierra also loved the two waistbelt pockets, which were perfect for storing snacks, her iPod Nano (she loved audiobooks in the afternoon), and any treasures she picked up along the way.  The pack carried comfortably, held up well, and will definitely be accompanying us on future adventures!